The old house stands on the edge of a mudflat along the Cheyenne River. Most of the white paint that once made its wood glisten in the sun has peeled off and been blown into the mudflat or been carried off by the slow moving currents of the river. The exposed wood is weather-worn and gray and buckled in places because of the extremes of winter blizzards and summer droughts. Only a few windows still have glass in them; the rest broken by passersby who had nothing better to do than throw a rock at an abandoned house. Long ago prairie grass overtook the once well manicured lawn and rose garden. The only thing that nature hasn’t yet begun to reclaim is the sign that hangs at the top of steps leading to the porch. It has a few bullet holes in it from errant target shooters and the red paint of the lettering has faded almost to the point of making it illegible, but if you look close enough it can be read. Sarah’s Bed and Breakfast.
Clay Denton who is quite elderly but still runs the small grocery store in Wasta knew Sarah and if you ask him about her, he’ll tell you, “Sarah Maymore was a fine woman in many ways but heaven knows why she ever thought having a bed and breakfast near the mudflat was a good idea. I suspect after her husband disappeared she got bored and lonesome living in that big house near the middle of nowhere all by herself and she figured renting out rooms to tourists on a short term basis was a good way to pass the time and have a little company to boot. I was never in it after she converted it into the bed and breakfast, but I imagine the bedrooms were comfortable and done up nicely, but anyone who ever ate any of Sarah’s cooking can tell you that one of her biscuits first thing in the morning would put you off food for the rest of the day.”
Sarah was born in Rapid City of well-to-do parents and met Lark Maymore when she was eighteen and considered one of the prettiest girls in the city. He was a pilot stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, but originally from Cincinnati, Ohio. They met at a dance in the ballroom of the Alex Johnston Hotel in downtown Rapid City.
“It was actually quite scandalous,” Louise Deltona, a friend of Sarah’s at the time and now in a nursing home in Rapid City, will tell you if she is inclined to. “The dance had been sponsored by the Lady’s Garden Club and all the girls of proper age and from the wealthier families in town were expected to attend. Aside from the eligible bachelors in town being invited, the unmarried officers out at Ellsworth were invited also. The dance was well under way and everyone was having a good time when Lieutenant Lark Maymore walked in, bigger than life and twice as handsome. Being the two most beautiful people in the room, Sarah and Lark were instantly drawn to each other. After their first dance together they didn’t dance with anyone else the rest of the evening. When she left with him before the dance was over everyone was shocked. That sort of thing wasn’t done by a girl of Sarah’s social standing. Sarah and Lark were married two weeks later without her parents’ approval.”
Across the road from the house the mudflat is about the size of a football field. The mud is gray and there year round, kept soft by the river overflowing its bank at all times of the year. Dead, black tree trunks stick out of it in a few spots like broken fingers grasping for a lifeline. In summer the mud has the odor of rancid meat and stepping in it is like walking into quicksand.
“I was in the store the day Clay Denton told the story about an entire car that got swallowed up by it,” Travis Murdoch, a rancher from near Wall, will tell you. “The car ran off the road with an entire family in it and was pulled to the bottom before any of them could get out. It happened right in front of Lark and Sarah’s place, but that was back before she had turned it into a bed and breakfast.”
“I never told that story,” Clay said when he was asked about it. “Travis Murdoch likes to stir up trouble by saying things that are flat out lies. Not that the mud couldn’t swallow a car, but I never told a story about it actually doing it.”
It wasn’t until Lark resigned his commission while he was still stationed at Ellsworth that he and Sarah built and moved into the house. No one in the town of Wasta understood why anyone would build a house out on that road that few people traveled on and so near the mudflat.
“Her parents had never forgiven Sarah for marrying Lark and considered him an unsuitable husband,” Bessie Hayburn, Sarah’s best friend in Wasta, said. She was the only one other than Louisa Delton who would know. “From the beginning there were rumors that he was going out with other women in Rapid City. Sarah only said it was jealous gossip, but she never denied it. Women used to drive by the house that Sarah and Lark had built out here in Wasta just to get a glimpse of him out in the yard or up on the roof with his shirt off while working.” She giggled. “He was a sight to behold.”
According to Sarah, in the evenings during the summer she and Lark would sit out on the porch and drink ice cold lemonade and swat at the gnats and mosquitoes. “It was a much simpler time back then,” she said. “A husband and wife could spend hours just being with each other doing nothing at all. That was the way it was with Lark and I.”
“Hogwash,” Bessie said when she was told what Sarah had said. “Sarah spent lots of time sitting on that porch, but for many years Lark was seldom there. I know, because she would call me and ask me to go out and keep her company. I was her best friend and I know how lonely she got sometimes.”
In a strange bit of irony it was Sarah’s parents who gave Lark and Sarah the money to build the house. Her parents had come to Rapid City from Virginia with little money or possessions of their own and through hard work, intelligence and luck built up a small fortune in the lumber business. Sarah’s mother also brought with her southern gentility and good breeding and until Lark came along, that was what she thought she had passed on to her only daughter. Giving the money wasn’t as much a gift to build a house in Wasta as it was a way to get their daughter out of Rapid City and away from wagging tongues.
While reluctant to dredge up things that she felt were better left in the past, while sitting in her wheelchair, Louisa Delton said, “Sarah and Lark rented a small house down by Rapid Creek right after they came back from their honeymoon in Mexico. This was before the flash flood that washed it all away killing a couple hundred people, but the whole neighborhood along the creek were working class folks, most of them dirt poor. Sarah’s parents wouldn’t have gone down there if their lives depended on it. Lark was still a pilot in the military but he didn’t earn much and Sarah’s tastes still ran to the expensive side of things. Sarah and Lark wore themselves ragged trying to keep each other happy.”
“That part about Sarah and Lark trying to keep each other happy is a bunch of baloney,” Bessie said when she heard that. “Sarah told me herself that once the honeymoon was over the rest of the marriage, for all those years, was a constant battle. She thought bringing him to Wasta would curb his wildness, but it didn’t work. His good looks along with his charming ways drew women to him like a magnet and he didn’t see his marriage as a reason to refuse other women.”
On the other side of the mudflat a shallow, narrow band of the Cheyenne River wound its way between the mud and a raised bank on the other side. Cattle grazed on the opposite bank during the warm months and the aromas of their sun heated cow pies mixed with the odors of the mud and sometimes wafted over Lark and Sarah’s house.
“At the height of summer it smells like a toilet out there,” Clay said.
Without any training beforehand by her mother, Sarah attempted to learn to be a good homemaker, except she was a terrible cook. The few people who visited her house raved about the décor and how clean and polished everything was. The expensive antiques and oil paintings were gifts from her parents. Luke worked as a ranch hand on a ranch near Pierre which didn’t bring in much money, but it gave him something to do while Sarah kept house and grew a rose garden.
“My goodness, her rose garden was beautiful,” Bessie said. “But like the house itself, the garden seemed out of place. There was nothing on the road leading to her house that prepared you for the sudden appearance of all the red roses in her yard and on the trellises. She had a true green thumb. The only problem was that while you would have your nose in one of the roses, you could also smell the mudflat.”
In many ways Sarah and Luke were strangers to most of the people of Wasta. The couple had no real money, but their house and the way they behaved gave the impression they were wealthy. Lark was very gregarious but there was no place in Wasta to show it. To do that he went to saloons in Wall or went all the way to Rapid City.
“I’d see Lark at the saloon in Wall sometimes and he was one of those guys who treated complete strangers like they were his best friends. But to me it all seemed like an act. I knew he was from Cincinnati and had been a pilot, but there was something secretive about him. I drove out and saw their house and thought it was kind of crazy. Who builds such a beautiful house next to a stinky mudflat?” Travis said.
“Sarah came to see me a few times after she moved out to Wasta,” Louisa said, “but she never invited me to visit her, but she told me about the house and the garden. It sounded idyllic. She was madly in love with her husband, of course.” She took a drink of her juice, then said, “She never mentioned the mudflat. I didn’t hear about that until recently. Isn’t that strange?”
Sarah and Lark lived together in that house for nearly forty years. As they grew older they became even more reclusive. Because of poor eyesight, Lark stopped driving as much. He would drive into Wasta and pick up groceries and beer at the store then return home.
“He seemed like a man always straining at the leash,” Clay said. “Sarah never lost her good looks but as Lark got older he looked like a broken down old fart.” He chuckled, then said, “Just like I am now.”
The summer of Lark’s disappearance, the Cheyenne River overflowed more than usual, and the water reached up to the road, making it impassable for a short time.
“I got a call from Sarah and she was furious with Lark,” Bessie said. “The best I could make of it was that the two of them were shut up in that house and going at it with each other about who ruined who’s life.”
When the water receded the mudflat was thicker and littered with all sorts of debris. It was during that time that Sarah called the county sheriff and told him her husband had disappeared.
“She didn’t seem particularly upset about him being gone,” Sheriff Thewson said. “When I went out to see her she sat on a fancy looking couch, cool as a cucumber, and said something really strange. She said she thought he had walked into the mudflat. I asked her if her husband had been suicidal.” The sheriff polished the star pinned on his shirt pocket using his shirt sleeve. She said, “’Heavens no, he’d sink in it so that his body would always be there just to spite me’”
The bed and breakfast idea never took hold of course. Within a year after starting it, Sarah shut it down and moved to Sioux Falls to live in a retirement center there.
“I’m an old woman,” Sarah said. “Do I regret marrying Lark? You decide.”
Steve Carr began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over sixty short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. His plays have been produced in several states. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He has traveled extensively but now lives in Richmond, Virginia and writes full time.