[Fiction] Harmony Saylor by Art Hanlon

Harmony Saylor

by Art Hanlon


I first heard of Harmony Saylor one night while drinking with friends in The Skull of the Oreodont, a bar restaurant just outside of the town of Guthrie, Oregon. The county judge was there, sleeves rolled up, the butt of a pool cue resting on his foot. The county extension agent, elbow on the bar, was talking to George Tolle, the trapper from Paulina. Tolle, wearing his custom fox fur hat with the fox’s head and its shiny black eyes in prominent display over his brow, was in Guthrie for the day to pay his late taxes in person, grumbling nonstop about government—not the government, but government. I knew the taller, quiet old-timer at the bar by sight but had forgotten his name; he dredged for gold up on the Burnt River Canyon. The judge overheard Tolle and winked at Rod Draper, the editor of The Guthrie County Weekly, and me, Jackson Houlihan, sitting at a table nearby. I wrote general news, covering county council meetings and such for Guthrie County’s only newspaper of record. My specialty was writing features both lighthearted and serious, but it was understood that everything said at The Skull was off the record.


The saloon had two rooms. One room, the barroom itself, had been set up with tables, chairs, and a pool table. The second room was a bare dance floor under a single disco ball chandelier hanging from the center of the ceiling, its reflecting panels adding shimmer and shine to the slick, maple wood floor, bouncing light back from the darkened windows. Until tonight, nobody had ever danced in that room, and yet Hugh Dunker, the owner and sole bartender of The Skull, persisted in maintaining that space, waxing the floors and polishing the disco ball every week in expectation for the disco craze to hit Guthrie. But it was 1979 already, and disco, as if having second thoughts, was retroactively giving way to something harder. ZZ Top, for example, was on the box the moment a group of young women excitedly talking among themselves burst through the front door. Five of them in single file held the door open for each other and let the cold air twist the cigarette smoke in the cone of light over the pool table. The women ducked their heads in studied indifference to the men in the barroom and headed straight for the dance floor where they loudly admired the thousand or so tiny mirrors of the disco ball. One of the women went to the bar to order drinks while the rest began dancing with each other, not making any effort to keep their voices down, not waiting for any of the men to ask them to dance. Somehow, we knew we weren’t supposed to ask. Headlight beams from the parking lot obliquely crossed the floor, the wall, the ceiling, having the effect of momentarily shattering the sparkle of the disco ball in the center of the room.


I watched the women with definite appreciation until Rod Draper earnestly interrupted, shouting over the music into my ear about the state of our little weekly newspaper and how our brief fifteen minutes of glory appeared to be over. The town’s biggest trial, a rape and murder case, had ended in a conviction months ago, and we were back to the routine of high school sports, the minutiae of the police blotter, the mundane business in a small high desert town. The arrival of the women had cooled Rod’s conversation considerably, and I suspected that in some way he felt his roaming range had been rudely overrun. He didn’t take kindly to feeling hemmed in. Rod considered The Skull on the west side of town to be our bar, where the “intellectuals” hung out, as opposed to say the Pioneer Bar on the east side of town where the “cowboys” all hung out. To prove it, he pointed out that The Skull had been named after oreodonts, the type of fossils to be found in the area. The Pioneer Bar, on the other hand, was named, he said, after a vague, western daydream. Hugh Dunker, the owner and bartender of The Skull, without a single academic credential to his name, was the local expert on middle Eocene fossils. When the paleontologists came to town, Hugh showed them where to find the fossils. He stood behind the bar with both hands on the mahogany waiting for George Tolle the complainer to pay up and leave. The prospector, glancing sideways, tried to keep a straight face as Tolle, with long, gray hair falling from under his fox fur hat and tucked behind his ears, quoted from Thomas Jefferson something about blood and the tree of liberty. A year before, I had featured George Tolle in a profile—full-page story, along with several photos. The piece was a straight-on profile about the atavistic life of a trapper in Eastern Oregon and was actually fun to research and write. Politics never came up in the interviews. Yet, I was not surprised to hear him talk this way. Tolle protected his trapline the same way the prospector protected his claim: the Mossberg 12-gauge method; the ideology of a Smith & Wesson.


The judge straightened after putting the eight ball in the pocket with a hard shot and called out to ask Rod how the paper was going to get through the winter. More high school football? “Or are you just going to drag me through the mud as usual?”


“Well, it’s small-town politics. We rake deep,” Rod said. The judge laughed. Tolle turned away in exasperation, and Rod threw his arm in my direction. “Jack here is doing cops and courts. Maybe he’ll go easy on you.”


“Should be a quiet winter,” the judge said. “At least until spring, when the Crooked River floods again.” He waved to Hugh behind the bar. “You know, it just occurred to me that The Skull is the one bar in town that Al Zane hasn’t wrecked yet.”


Guthrie was the county seat, where the main newspaper articles were all about the high school football team or the business decisions of the local lumber interests, Guthrie’s main employer. Otherwise, the police blotter was the most popular item in the paper. Daily mayhem was under my purview, but I was getting tired of seeing the same names associated with general destruction every week. The local bullies and toughs, usually led by Albert Zane, were always, even habitually, wrecking the Pioneer Bar, terrorizing the customers at the Denny’s on Route 26, or stealing and wrecking cars, sneaking up on parked cars and siphoning gasoline, sometimes with the driver still sitting in the car, or breaking into a friend’s house to borrow a shotgun or a prized fly rod, beating the crap out of each other at every opportunity. This was not really news; it was daily life in a small Central Oregon town, or at least it would be if so much general anger had not been unusually prominent lately.


Nobody cared why Albert Zane was so angry all the time. He had a quarter or so of Native American blood, and that was enough of an explanation for most of the white folks in Guthrie. Zane himself didn’t know, or care, how much Native American blood he had running through his own veins. He had never had to live on a reservation. George Tolle guessed Burns Paiute, but that seemed unlikely. Zane’s mom had moved Albert and his twin brother, Loren, to Guthrie from Fort Benton in Montana. There were no men in the Zane household, and more than half the time it was Zane’s mom who called the cops on her son. His wildness growing up was inscribed in the succession of police reports in our newspaper—his dubious and very public résumé. Most of the transgressions on the blotter were minor, but Albert Zane had turned thirty-four years old this year, still living at home, and his recent exploits were another matter; most of his serious misdemeanors were now borderline felonies. In his confrontations with the police, he always pulled back before he crossed a major line, never pulling the Sig Sauer he always carried, for example, for which he had a permit, or being the first one to throw a punch during a traffic stop. Zane’s twin brother, Loren, was a Crook County Deputy Sheriff, and that might have been why the deputies always went easy on Albert. I personally never gave Albert Zane much thought. The only thing interesting about Albert was the fact of his twin brother and how the two of them presented a bizarre contrast easily exploited by local papers. Rod had long wanted a feature about the two brothers, but I resisted covering such obvious small-town make news.


“Zane is afraid of Hugh,” Tolle said. “Hugh had him pinned to the wall by the throat a few weeks ago when Zane tried to high kick that disco ball. Hugh just hung him up on the wall because he made the mistake of calling Hugh a ‘fucking white motherfucker’ in front of customers. That might be one reason Zane stays away from The Skull.”


Unfortunately, for the last several weeks, the police beat had been dry. Except for Albert Zane, people just weren’t getting into trouble. Even so, Rod Draper expected, at a minimum, a detailed transcription of Guthrie’s police blotter, Guthrie’s primary gossip farm, the only source Rod thought we needed to sell a weekly newspaper.


I detached myself from Rod, walked to the service bar, signaled Hugh, and while waiting for my refill, someone touched my arm, and I turned to see a young woman with a red headband. She had been one of the dancers in the next room, which had quieted down for now. She was holding her crossover leather purse in her hand, opening the flap decorated with turquoise beadwork and rummaging inside. She wore a leotard under a denim skirt with a black turtleneck and leaned against me slightly as she searched. She had been dancing, and I caught the slight smell of perspiration mixed with her fragrance. Her face was clear and bright, with green eyes and a high forehead, her hair parted in the middle and held back from her face by the headband but otherwise allowed to fall to her shoulders. “Men don’t dance anymore,” she said. “I’ll bet you don’t, do you?” Her smile was barely there, but there was a trace of the truly inquisitive and hopeful in her expression, and when she broadened her smile, which she evidently did readily, her face became radiant. She seemed to be one of those people who enjoy putting strangers on the spot. She pulled out cash from her bag and handed it to Hugh, who had just arrived with my drink. “See you at the courthouse,” she said brightly, and I watched her return to her friends on the dance floor, wondering if I had ever before seen her at the courthouse. I was sure I hadn’t. After a while, the dancing girls all noisily departed to go somewhere else—possibly to the Pioneer, and The Skull immediately quieted down to the click of pool balls and the low hum of conversation.


It was then, watching the women depart, that the extension agent, nodding vigorously at George Tolle, turned the conversation to Harmony Saylor, a young woman who trained dogs for dogsled competitions at her camp up in Mitchell, a village in the Ochoco Mountains. The county extension agent, obviously a fan of hers, mentioned that Harmony was currently training for next year’s Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska. She did quite well, racing her own dogsled team all over winter America and now wanted to meet the challenge of becoming the first woman musher to win the famous Alaskan race. From the way Tolle and the agent talked, Harmony Saylor apparently was a word-of-mouth folkloric figure, a mythic snow goddess surrounded and protected by her team of blue-eyed Siberian huskies. “You learn of her mostly from the gold prospectors and trappers,” the agent said. “Among the people who work out in the woods and don’t get into town much. She’s a damn legend.”


Tolle, elbows on the bar, claimed he knew all about Harmony. “I met her one time when I was working my winter trapline,” he said, nodding so that the bobbing fox skull on the top of his hat looked as if it were agreeing with everything the trapper said. Tolle told us how amazed he was witnessing her insanely fast flights across the snow. The old trapper’s eyes shone as he described her blonde goddess hair streaming in the slipstream behind, using his hands like a fighter pilot to shape the gliding downhill run of her last race.


The next day at the office when I told Draper I wanted to write a feature about Harmony Saylor the snow goddess, he put me off. “Why?” he asked, giving me that little shrug he used when pretending not to understand what I was talking about.


“I need to get away from the cops beat for just one week,” I said. Rod started shaking his head, but I kept going. “Besides, someone like Harmony Saylor might just put Guthrie on the map.”


Rod continued to shake his head, ignoring everything I said. “Time to face facts,” he said. “Our paper is boring.”


“Last spring we had action on the front page.”


“The rape and murder trial?”


“Yes. The rape and murder trial. I felt like a real journalist then. We all did. We were reporting the trial practically in the courthouse as it was happening. Even the Bend Bulletin depended on us.” The Bulletin owned The Guthrie County Weekly, and every week we took the layout galleys to them so they could print our paper on their printing press. We wrote the stories and did the layout, but they wrote the headlines and cutlines to the photos. We were the little brother publication “out in the ginseng,” and sometimes their editors were a little careless with our work. Rod thought it was on purpose.


“They spelled the name of the son-of-a-bitch rapist wrong in our headline,” Rod said. “And I think it was just to make us look bad.”


“Well, yeah. There’s that.”


We had a strained relationship with the Bulletin, and we had to take a lot of undeserved shit, but even so, Rod was not as upset as he should have been for such a journalistic mortal sin. For a town like Guthrie, that trial was a once-in-a-lifetime story, and our coverage was key. On the other hand, I couldn’t blame Rod for wanting to keep his job. Draper, disconsolate, sat at his desk, chin in hand, quizzing me while staring at me across the small newsroom. “Wasn’t the Pioneer Bar destroyed at the hands of rampaging ranch hands the other night?” Rod wanted to know.


“No,” I said.


“No bodies washed up on the banks of the reservoir?”


“Nope, not this week.”


“How about car wrecks? Chimney fires? Barn burnings? It’s hunting season. No shootings? Accidental or on purpose? Is the Crooked River flooding?”


“Nope, no, no, no, and it’s almost officially winter, so no way.”


Rod thought about it, ruminating at his desk as if trying to call up a halfway entertaining hallucination. Finally, he agreed to the feature on the dogsled woman only if I first, that very evening, managed to get enough material out of the sparse police blotter to write a small feature of some sort, even if it was about the boredom of local police work. “Just make it interesting,” he said paradoxically. “We’re on deadline. Write about the Zanes.”


I don’t know why I thought that was a good idea, but in two hours, I had it all written down—Albert’s infamous drunken rage, his bar fights, his fascination with firearms, his chainsaw attacks on trespassers, his numerous speeding tickets. I wrote his deputy sheriff brother into the article as a virtuous and protective presence who saved lives, snowmobiled to remote, snowbound double-wides to deliver babies, etc., doing his best, of course, to clean up the messes that his twin had created all over Guthrie County. I had gotten carried away and managed, after all, to get something of social import out of that police blotter—a human interest story with archetypal Cain and Abel overtones, a miniature Steinbeck-like East of Eden epic for Guthrie County. “Well done,” Rod said when I filed the story, “now go forth and write your feature about the obscure snow woman, or whomever.”


On Tuesday, the paper hit the streets, which meant, that because we were a weekly, I was free to take a couple days to do a righteous job on the Harmony Saylor profile before being pressed up against next week’s deadline. I began right away and spent the morning gathering information. George Tolle gave me the name and address of Harmony’s parents and even did me the favor of calling them to pave the way for my phone call. When I called, her parents were pleased that I was doing the story, but they told me she hadn’t been home for weeks. They gave me some background information and then gave me the directions to their cabin in the Ochocos, not that far from the town of Mitchell, where Harmony customarily trained her dogs. I gassed up my pickup, borrowed a pair of snowshoes from my friend Chris, the town librarian, and got ready for a day trip to the Ochocos first thing in the morning.


I had one more work duty to attend before leaving town, so that evening I went to the courthouse to recheck the blotter, relieved that the incidents journal was blank. I was only gone an hour, but when I returned to the office, I found Rod sitting on a bench in the hallway and holding his head. The front of his shirt was blood spotted, and he had a bloody nose (not broken), a black eye, and a lump coming up fast on his forehead. Albert Zane, having seen his name in print one too many times, had stormed in and wrecked the newsroom. Rod tried to get Albert to leave, but Albert just stared him down and asked in a very calm voice, “Are you that Jackson Houlihan guy?”


“Certainly not.”


Zane upended every piece of furniture he could reach, desks, filing cabinets, Rod couldn’t stop him. Rod was punched several times, kicked while he was down, pushed into a closet and the door slammed so Albert could continue his remodeling work on the office. By the time the cops arrived, Albert was gone. Left town. Not even his brother knew where he was. The cops all had a smug attitude about the whole incident, as if the media were only getting what it deserved. I felt bad for not being in the office at the time, but Zane had disappeared, and nobody was seriously hurt. Well, “life moves on,” as the wise Hugh Dunker always said, so I quickly put the incident out of my mind and focused on writing the feature I had worked so hard to get to write.


The next morning, I took the Ochoco Highway, Route 26, which more or less parallels the Crooked River at least part of the way and inclines at a steady rate as it approaches the town of Mitchell. The Ochoco Mountains rose dead east out of town, gradually rising from the grasslands to the craggy peaks. Crossing the vast bowl of the high desert, I could see for miles in all directions as the highway gained altitude. There was no snow at all in Guthrie, but overnight a storm had passed over the county, dropping huge amounts of snow at the higher altitudes. By the time I got near Mitchell, both sides of the highway were covered by several feet of fresh snow. Luckily, the highway had been plowed, and it was easy driving under a crisp blue sky, the wind across miles of desert carrying auroral sheets of snow riddled with bright, silvery sunlight to flash obliquely across my windshield as my truck rocked to the wind—a shower of miniature rainbows at five degrees over zero. Outside it hurt to breathe, but I was happy to be away from the office with time alone to think about something other than the small-town trivia I was expected to track. It seemed to me I was in the right profession but in the wrong job.


Harmony’s practice trail was just a mile beyond Mitchell on a Forest Service access road deep in the Ochocos. I drove as far as I could on the access road before I parked in a cleared rest area, put on my snowshoes, and began breaking trail uphill, keeping to the fire road for about a quarter of a mile. The snow came off the ground in swirls of crystalline flakes before the breeze, stinging my face, the flakes catching in my eyelashes. The dry wind started miniature blizzards around my ankles as I pushed through the snow, and soon my ankles were soaked through with the icy snowmelt.


I heard Harmony Saylor before I saw her. As I gained elevation, the trail switchbacked in zigzags on the slope above me. I was breathing hard when, through the silence of snowed-in landscape, I began to hear faint barks and yips mixed with the strange tinkling of bells pulsing in the distance. The dogs and bells got louder as I pushed on through the snow. Above me on the trail, Harmony had turned into the switchback amid a furious globe of swirling snow, two blonde braids dangling from under her ski mask and outside the collar of her tattered, blue down jacket. She raced downhill right at me, and I was about to be enveloped by the whole traveling vision at once, the spray of snow stinging my face, the dogs with their high-pitched yipping, the lead dog running crazily, happily, the creaking of the sled, the jingling of the bells fastened to the handlebars, and Harmony’s voice murmuring more than shouting, “Yip, get on, c’mon, Bolta, run, S’ka!” She let the dogs run past me, and when the sled pulled even, she dropped the braking board and pulled in the dogs, the sled yawing sideways on an ice slick before coming to a stop. She pulled her ski mask down from her face, and I was shocked to recognize Harmony Saylor as the girl with green eyes who had talked to me in The Skull the other night.


“You’re the reporter guy. Jack something, right? A goofy last name? I’ve seen you around.” Her jacket was heedlessly open at the collar, and I wondered out loud if she felt the cold at all.


“No, I guess I’m used to it.”


For the first time in a long time, I wondered what I looked like. I was dressed for weather thirty degrees warmer than the temperature on this mountain. Barn coat, flannel shirt, blue jeans, low-cut athletic shoes, my socks soaking wet. I imagined myself to definitely be the rube in Harmony’s eyes. She gave me the up and down and laughed.


“I read your stuff in the paper all the time,” she said. “Has your personality all over it. Not like the usual crap in the Bulletin. It makes me think I know you.”


“Except for my last name, right?”


I must have looked cold. Harmony reached up with both hands and pulled my jacket lapels closer together. “Do you mind?” She smiled. “…Houlihan?”


“No. Help yourself.”


I got the interview underway, taking my gloves off to write in my notebook. Harmony explained her mission to win the Iditarod and refused to brag about any of the state trophies she’d won locally. She kept her answers pretty much focused on her dogs and how she trained them. I wrote as fast as my gloveless hands would let me. She was friendly and pleased that I would actually write a story about her in the papers. I asked her how the dogsled was put together. She showed me the two long hardwood runners curving up in front to form a sort of prow, “like one of those Egyptian dhows that ply the Nile,” she said. The sled had a sit-down compartment for either a passenger or supplies. She introduced me to her dogs—blue-eyed Siberian huskies—Bolta the playful one, Sk’a the serious lead dog, and the three other huskies on the towline, and then, reading my mind, she invited me to go for a ride. I stowed my snowshoes on the sled and waited for her to tell me what to do.


“Stand right on the runners behind me,” she said. I had to stretch my arms around her to grasp the handlebar with both hands, my head just over her left shoulder, my hips and legs touching hers. “Stand closer,” she said. She pulled my wrists around her and placed my hands lower down on the handlebar. “When we go into a turn, I’ll lean into you,” she said, “like this,” and demonstrated. “Just follow my lead. C’mon, scooch up closer.”


Oh boy.


The dogs yipped excitedly at first but fell silent as we flew down the trail. I was astonished at the silence of the forest at that altitude. We were moving fast, and I guess I expected to hear an engine of some sort, the sound of the highway maybe, so conditioned was I to moving in traffic, but all I could hear when Harmony was not urging her dogs on was the shushing of the runners, the wind in the trees, the gentle ringing of the bells, and the happy barking of Sk’a, the lead dog so eager to please, far out in front on the towline. For a few timeless moments, I was transported to a different dimension as the branches of the trees weighted down by snow and ice formed an arch over the trail. As we zipped through a crystalline tunnel, rainbow prisms flashed everywhere, even on my eyelashes, where wind-driven tears froze before they could fall. I was very aware that our bodies were touching, finding comfort in the warmth where our bodies pressed together. We leaned together into the turns; we leaned together out of the turns, and every time the sled went into a turn and our bodies spooned together, she smiled and yelled, “you devil, you,” over her shoulder. It was a thrilling ride, and too soon we came to the trailhead where I had parked my truck. I noticed that there were now two vehicles in the parking lot—mine and another pickup truck—a Dodge Power Wagon. A man leaned on the fender of the Power Wagon with his arms folded, his legs crossed at the ankles, seriously watching us as we approached.


“Uh-oh,” Harmony said.


“Uh-oh?”


“My boyfriend.”


Harmony stepped on the braking board and let it drag until the sled stopped directly in front of the man leaning against the fender of his truck who looked at me standing on the runners of the sled with my arms around his girlfriend.


“Albert Zane’s your boyfriend?”


“Let me do the talking,” she said.


Zane pushed himself off the truck with his hands stretched out as if to see how they fit around my neck. “Jackson Houlihan,” he said. “At last.”


I had maybe fifteen seconds to prepare myself. I knew a lot about Albert Zane. He knew nothing about me. I knew about him as a person and I knew him as a type. I saw that he was right-handed. Good to know if you think your adversary is carrying a weapon. Most bullies are cowards, but I knew he was not. I didn’t want to appear craven by trying to explain how I was not interested in making Harmony my girlfriend, especially in this, the preparatory dance before a fight. When Zane took a step forward, I held my ground. He flinched and froze when I steadily met his glare. I was letting him know he was in for a fight this time, and not just another Zane beatdown. He saw that I noticed his flinch, and as his expression reset, I registered in his eyes a flicker of embarrassment and confusion. I never have liked fighting. But I fought when I had to, especially in the Marines and for a few wild years after. It had been many years since I’d been in a real fistfight, but I remembered that if I generated enough anger, I could always meet the occasion, and Zane’s arrogance made my anger rise like nothing else, that and whatever his assumptions were that made him act as if this was going to be easy for him. Anger is always described as heat, associated with fire—described as hot or feverish when it is in play. But anger can also be cold. And cold anger is your friend. Anger puts you right in the moment when you need to be there and nowhere else. I would go for his knees first. A kick to his right knee. If he had a concealed firearm, he would go for it when his knee collapsed. That would be my moment to race him to his own weapon. I would take whatever handgun he had concealed, probably the Sig Sauer Draper talked about, and throw it into the woods as far as I could. I would deprive him of the weapon as much as to remove it from my own impulse to use it against him. The anger was pulsing now. It had gotten to the stage where it was easily mistaken for abandon. I remembered those days in the slop chutes, the wharf bars, the antiwar demonstrations when they turned ugly; it was go for broke every time. Could I win a fight with Albert Zane? Maybe not; I was out of practice. But the truth was I had gotten to where I didn’t care anymore. Let’s get this over with.


“Whoa,” Harmony said, stepping off the sled. She took off her ski mask and threw it to the ground and, arms swinging, walked quickly around her sled to where Zane and I stood glaring at each other. Her dogs, still in harness, stopped fidgeting and yipping and stood expectantly quiet, legs trembling, noses in the air. “Whoa!” she said again, raising her voice, stepping between us. Sk’a, her lead huskie, immediately fell belly to the snow and with a slight whine, nervously dropped muzzle to paws. Albert Zane stepped away, ceding ground not to me, but to Harmony, who quickly closed the gap.


“Goddammit, for once in your life, will you just stop!”


End.


Art Hanlon was born in Brooklyn, New York. After serving in the Marine Corps, he attended the University of California at Berkeley, taking a bachelor’s degree in American history and English, and a master’s degree in journalism. He worked as a newspaper reporter, a country blues musician, a theater set carpenter, a technical writer, and a book editor before returning to the University of California Riverside Palm Desert for an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. He is currently an associate poetry editor for Narrative Magazine. His song, Spokane, won first prize in the 2005 Tumbleweed Music Festival in Richland, Washington. His essays and fiction have appeared in Surfing Illustrated, Art Access, Narrative Magazine, Coachella Review, Please See Me, and Kelp Journal. His essay The Brilliant Present was included in the Special Mention section of the 2019 Pushcart Prize Anthology.