Welcome to Shametown
Okay. Here's where things stand right now:
If you look to your right, you can see an old wooden fence on that hill. In just a moment, the road takes us up that way. And our destination awaits just beyond the hill and forty miles down a single-lane dirt road.
Ralph Elmore's crew won't allow us to get all the way down the road - they blocked it off about a half-mile from the gate. But it's not what lays beyond the gate I brought you here to show you. I want you to see what that old fuck Elmore has been up to.
Now, you want to concentrate on this next stretch of "road" - it rained last night, and nobody around here drives a Camry, so they have no incentive to make this mud pit drivable. The name of the game here is Don't Get Stuck. Your best bet is to follow in the tire tracks of their pickups and ATVs at a steady 15 MPH.
Based on the freshness of some of these tracks, you can tell some supplies or new recruits - probably both - arrived sometime in the last eight or nine hours.
This isn't going to be an amicable interaction, by the way. The guys at the roadblock are there because they are huge assholes. Intimidation is better than violence. Broken noses and bullet wounds tend to draw the police's attention. Nobody wants that. Ralph, least of all. He is five months past due on child support.
The standoff at the gate is already in its second week. But nobody outside this side of Montana has noticed.
That's because most people don't even realize what is going on.
I don't know if Ralph intended for this to get so big. Honestly, I don't know if he even knew what would happen.
But it all started when he and his former brothers-in-law - Ray, Rayray, Dickie, and Bart - decided to shut down the influx of out-of-towners.
"They're gonna take over. We'll be just like Illinois," Rayray fumed over a High Life one night down at Don's bar - which Don had named Don's. Don's was open whenever anyone wanted it to be - Don lived above the bar, so all you had to do was ring his doorbell, and he'd let you in. Good ol' Don.
"They're building their own fucking Chicago. Gonna start controlling the vote," Rayray continued.
Rayray was by far - by far - the most politically well-read of the group. Growing up, he was always sort of on his own. He took to reading books - he always kept paperbacks in the back pocket of his work jeans and would try to do all his chores as fast as possible so he could lay in one of the stables and catch up with Sherlock and Watson. He rarely spoke about the books or mysteries he was trying to solve because it would only result in being called a faggot.
Rayray's mother, JulieAnne, was his father's second wife. His father, Dick, lost his first wife in childbirth with Rayray's older brother Ray. Both of Dick's wives had wanted to name their firstborn sons after their fathers - both of whom shared the name Ray. But, of course, Dick already had a son named Ray. So when the birth certificate was being filled out, they named him Ray Mulford II. The original plan was to call the older son Ray and the newborn "Ray 2" or "Ray Too" - but his grandmother instead set the precedent of calling him Rayray because "he's twice the Ray," she used to sing to him.
Following Ray and Rayray, the Mulfords decided to name their third child after Dick, resulting in the given-name Dickie.
I don't know where the name Bart came from. Neither do JulieAnne or Dick. It was just something they picked out of thin air when they begrudgingly had to name an unexpected fifth child.
Their fourth child was a daughter - which was the only reason they had a fourth child. Dick was pretty satisfied with three boys, but JulieAnne had always wanted a daughter. So following the birth of JuliEtta, JulieAnne and Dick had their respective organs sewn and snipped to avoid any more than the planned four.
JuliEtta was Ralph's first and only wife. Ralph had never liked city folk, but his distaste only grew after her cancer diagnosis. He took her to all of the best hospitals in the most expensive cities - all of which were his first and only visits to the urban metropolises of America. The doctors talked and moved too quickly - compared to their doctor at home - and always seemed to be rushing them out of their hair. The breakneck pace of these city hospitals confused and irritated Ralph. He felt like they just didn't give a shit. Why would some prominent Memphis oncologist care about a poor woman from Montana?
After Julietta's death, her brother's bond with Ralph only grew stronger. She had been the light of all their lives - and the loss should be shouldered by all five.
But old Ralph never forgave the "city dwellers" for how they treated them. And as he and Rayray - who was his age - started to spend more time together, he became obsessed with the unfairness of the growing urban dictatorship of the country. The fucking liberals and their bastions of excess and corruption were absconding government control. (He learned "absconding" from Rayray, whose vocabulary was well above average.) As Rayray said time and again, "all you have to do is look at Illinois!" Doesn't matter what the people want - the assholes in Chicago make every decision that impacts the southern farmers in the state.
So when word floated to Bart about the two Chicagoans that had just bought themselves a ranch nearby, he immediately brought it to Ralph and his brothers' attention. At first, no one cared too much.
Things didn't really begin to heat up until Bart filled up at the local gas station several weeks later. He got most of his gossip from Gerry, the hotdog bun of a man who owns the place and has worked the register every hour since opening - when he witnessed another pair of strangers moving to the old ranch. At least they hoped to move there, they said. The duo was an older Black woman - about 70, maybe - and her 12-year-old grandson. She held herself stately and tall, with a shock of gray running through her short curls. The boy had not yet begun his growth spurt, but you could already imagine him six inches taller than his grandmother within the year. He was darker than she was, thanks to his Nigerian father. He used to keep his head buzzed, but he started letting his hair grow naturally after his grandmother had to homeschool him.
Gerry had been trying to silently signal Bart to look up in the security mirror above his head so he, too, would see the strangers pulling bottles of water out of the cooler in the back of the shop. But before Bart could correctly interpret Gerry's gestures - the pair walked past him and up to the register.
Bart stood and listened as Gerry made small talk and tried to pry information out of them.
"Here for a visit?" he asked.
"Got family nearby?"
"We are each other's family," she said, nodding to the boy.
"You hear about that ranch down the road?" he dug further, "A couple folks from Chicago bought it and moved in a few weeks ago."
"That's where we're headed," she answered matter-of-factly.
While she dug in her wallet for her bank card, Gerry gave Bart an eyebrows-raised look. After the strangers drove off, Bart proceeded to take that same look over to Don's, where he knew for sure Ralph would be smoking cigarettes and alternately sipping coffee and High Life.
That all happened about a year ago. Not quite a year, but close enough.
Now, if you pull over just before we get to the top of that hill just ahead of us, we can get out and see what the scene looks like without them noticing us. So I want you to take it all in while they're acting naturally.
As you can see, we're only about two miles from the gate - but from up here, you can start to make out some of the town in the distance. Unfortunately, however, the houses are all single-level, so you can't see many of those - and the main farmhouse, old barns, and silos stand out clearly against the sunrise.
But it isn’t the farmhouse, barns, or silos riling everyone up. It’s the new houses. Rumor has it there are at least fifty on the property at this point. That doesn’t bode well in the eyes of Ralph Elmore and crew.
The locals weren't concerned when it was just Rami and Brooke living in the farmhouse because "they want to hole themselves up in the middle of nowhere, I don't see how it matters shit to me," as Ray put it. They weren't even worried when others started moving into the farmhouse. "'Less they start up a brothel in there, I don't care what they're doing long as they don't bother me with it," Don chimed in one night from behind lenses so thick they distorted his eyes when you looked at him, all five feet of him. (Everyone knows - but no one says it: Don put in a raised platform behind the bar so he can look his customers in the eye.) Of course, Dickie - as he's wont to do - thought he'd get a big laugh when he patted Don on the shoulder and shouted, "Better hope it's not a brothel - or you'll lose all your business!" Nobody really laughed, though. Not because it wasn't funny - but because of the stranger who had just walked into the bar.
He was a clean-shaven older gentleman with salt and pepper hair, dressed neatly in white slacks, a matching blazer, and a blue bow tie with pink polka dots. His crisp, white dress shirt stood out brightly against the muted earth tones of the other patrons. He was the whitest thing in the room.
"'scuse me, gentlemen. I'm trying to find…" He pulls out his cell phone and walks over to Derrick Hoover - who just happens to be sitting closest to the entrance. He holds his phone for Derrick to see and points, adding, "…this road here. I'm trying to get to Mr. Mahmoud's farmhouse - but couldn't find any signs with street names, and my GPS isn't getting a signal - "
"You're a friend of his?" Bart interrupted. This made the stranger freeze for a moment before recovering and answering, "I'm a doctor," which didn't get much of a response from Bart, who didn’t really know what he meant, so he added, "Doctor-Patient confidentiality. You know." Bart still didn’t know. But nodded anyhow.
Derrick broke the awkwardness by taking the man's phone away and swiping the screen. "We're here," he pointed and then handed the phone back.
The man felt the first sense of relief since he walked through the front door. When he entered and the room went silent, he was sure they all recognized him. But there were no knowing looks between the men at the bar and no mention of the video. He thought it best not to press his luck - the longer they were looking at him, the more likely his face would seem familiar to one of them - so he thanked them for their help and made a beeline out to the gravel parking lot.
After the door closed behind the stranger, no one said a word. Just silent, suspicious looks between the Montanans. At least, not until Ralph spoke up: "We should keep an eye on them."
That was all he needed to say. It was enough. And everyone nodded in agreement.
We should head back to the car. Better to make ourselves known first than for them to "catch us spying." If they think we're just gawkers, they won't harass us too severely. They'll make it clear you can't step past the barricade - but they won't touch you unless you do otherwise.
Go slowly. The locals know we're not from around here based on our car alone. If we approach too fast, they'll get anxious; assume we're making a move to drive through the fencing. Once one of them sees us - someone will wave you to a spot of their choosing, probably over on the grass. Just do what he says. Don't let his gun make you panic. He's not going to shoot you. You're not of concern to him. He just doesn't want you to interfere in their matters. Make no mistake - they do not trust you, and there's nothing you can do to make them.
Okay. Now that they've seen us - slow down a little more. That way, they know we're not trying to make any trouble. I'm not sure who that is - the guy flagging us over. He might be one of the recruits.
He's going to tap on your window with his gun. Don't let it startle you - it's just a power move. He'll assume we're trying to get into the town based on the car we're in. Keep eye contact and tell him that we heard about their cause on the news and wanted to see how it had grown. Appeal to their ego. That's all many of them have left out here. The Crash of 2008 stole their pride, and the years since only made things worse for these folks.
We don't have too long. They'll continue to go about their business and not pay attention to us as long as they think we're just passing through.
And don't take any pictures.
We can get a little closer to the barricade now. I want you to see Ralph and his posse.
The guy in the sheepskin jacket who looks like a lumberjack - sitting in the driver's seat of that red pickup - that’s Ray. And next to him - looks like Dickie is sitting shotgun. You can’t see him that well - but he’s what you imagine when someone is described as built like a brick house. And he never goes anywhere without that mangy trucker hat. The guy in the blue ball cap heading towards the truck is Rayray. When he turns around, you’ll see why all the women Charlene grew up with always tell her she caught herself “a real looker.” He looks like one of those superheroes in the movies who is in hiding and lets his hair and beard grow out. See? What’d I tell you? I assume that piece of paper he just handed them is a supplies list of some sort. They're probably just about to head out.
You can see Bart and Ralph over near the tents. Ralph is the shaggy beanpole with the long beard. He doesn’t usually wear cowboy hats. In fact, he never even owned a cowboy hat before the press started arriving. He went out and bought it one day to look “more authentic.” That’s a phrase he learned from Rayray. Bart is the adorable teddy bear in a ball cap like Rayray’s, wearing a sheepskin jacket like Ray’s. The ball cap he bought himself, the jacket is actually a hand-me-down from Ray. Ray kept growing after he hit Bart’s size. Bart would be one of those dogs who always looks like a puppy.
Wally Combs is the one in the suit - with the TV anchor smile pasted over his depressed look - walking over to them. Wally's a reporter for the Billings Gazette. Looks like they're about to make the news again.
Those porta potties are close enough that if we make like we're going over there to use them, we'll be able to eavesdrop on their conversation.
I really just have this one last thing I want you to hear before we leave:
"Mr. Elmore, I really think everyone in Montana should know about your efforts here -"
"I just want to ask a few questions -"
"What can I tell our readers about this cause you started."
"The barricades? Not letting anyone in or out?"
"Not sure I'd call it a cause."
"And what would you call it?"
"A fucking shame. That's what they're bringing here into our home."
"And what do you hope to accomplish?"
"Gonna drive 'em out."
"All of them?"
"Every last one of them. We want them out of Montana. The whole godamn shametown of theirs."