Mike and Danny: Dog Days
Note that these stories, including this one, are not an endorsement of unsafe sex. They take place many years before the appearance of AIDS and before it was standard practice to use condoms to reduce the risk of infection from sexually transmitted diseases. Remember always: that was then, this is now. Sex is precious, and so are life and health.
OK, tired as I was, I slept through that night, and there was next to nothing going to wake me. And it didn't.
Oscar, the cowboy, had awakened at dawnor whatever it was he was used to. He'd been up and around and found a café where he'd been drinking coffee and talking up the locals. He came back to the room all wired and raring to go.
"Rise and shine, pardner," he said, shaking my foot. "Day's a-wastin'."
"What time is it?"
"Sun's up," he said. "Here, I brought you somethin'." And he handed me a cardboard cup with coffee from the café. "It ain't near strong enough to put hair on ya, but it beats hell out of that dishwater they make at the home."
He smiled down on me like some sweet old grandpa. I was a little suspicious. It was more like him to be cranky.
I checked myself. I seemed to be all buttoned and zipped up. If he'd taken any liberties during the night, there was no sign of it. And I'd begun to get the idea that Oscar wasn't above something like that. I knew nothing about what hell-raising cowboys might get themselves up to, and there seemed to be some of that in all the ones I'd known, young or old.
The coffee was still hot and only a little bitter. It hadn't had a chance yet, sitting on a hotplate for hours, to turn into battery acid.
"What say we get some chuck into you and then head out to shoot some more film?" he said. He'd begun to pick up the lingo, though it sounded funny coming from him.
"Tell me something, Oscar," I said. "Who is it exactly we're looking for?"
He gave me his blank expression, like I'd just said something in Swahili.
"I know what's going on," I said. The idea had come to me now as clear as if it had been waiting there all night for me to discover it. "There's an old buddy of yours out here somewhereor a guy who owes you moneyor somebody you want to settle an old score with. It's one of those. And you're hoping to find him. Am I right?"
He sat down on the other bed, which I noticed now was completely undisturbed. The man had spent the whole night in mine, his thin body in the clothes that barely hung on him lying there beside me. Maybe sleeping, maybe not.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he lied.
"Bullshit, Oscar. I'm not spending another day with you driving all over hell on a wild goose chase. I got better things to do."
I figured I had him over a barrel. I was the one with the car, and he'd have to come clean or I wasn't going to play ball with him.
"Out with it," I said. "Who are we looking for?" I took another drink of the coffee and decided it was worse than I'd first thought. I set it on the night stand.
"His name's Baxter," he finally said. "We was mates."
They'd met years ago, he explained, and stayed together whenever they could, taking jobs for outfits where there was work for the two of them, which wasn't always easy. And as Oscar got older, it had got harder. Seems Baxter was a good deal younger.
He pulled a wallet out of his back pocket and opened it to a snapshot of the two of them standing side by side, his arm around the other man's shoulders. And in the shadow of the hats they were wearing, you could see they both had big grins ear to ear.
"My sister took that," he said, pointing at the cracked and dog-eared picture. "It was the Fourth of July rodeo in Burwell, 1959."
That was over a dozen years ago, I thought. Oscar didn't look much younger back then, but the man with him was no more than forty. Anybody seeing them together that day could have taken them for father and son.
"So what happened to him?" I said, jumping ahead. The detail I'd let slip by me was that one about his sister. He'd never mentioned having any family before. And if you know anything about cowboys, you know they like you to think they ran away from home when they were boys and lived on their own ever since.
"Nothin' happened," he said. "I just got myself in one too many wrecks and had to retire. Ain't much use for old stove-up cowboys."
"Horse throwed me," he said, like I should know that. "Got myself busted up real good." He said all this smiling and shaking his head, like it was something amazing.
"And Baxter?" I asked.
"Man's gotta make a living. He left that job and took another one, and damned if we didn't lose track of each other."
This didn't sound quite right. In this day and age of telephones and reliable postal service, you don't just lose track of someone you've been buddies with for years. Not the kind of buddies I suspected they'd been.
But then I got to thinking about the difference in their ages. I tried imagining Mike as thirty years older than me, and I couldn't make it work. Maybe they hadn't been real mates after allnot the way Oscar may have wanted or remembered.
I looked again at the picture, and the younger man had this Gene Autrey grin, big teeth and all friendly, like he was always like thishappy go lucky and maybe ready to burst into song, no matter who he was with.
"We was on his trail there yesterday," Oscar said. "That ranch where we stopped."
And I remembered how he had quizzed the bartender when we got to town. If I'd been listening, I would have heard him ask about this Baxter.
But now I was thinking about my documentary. I needed to get some more film shot, and then get back to Lincoln. I was behind schedule as it was, and Oscar was slowing me down.
"Tell you what," I finally said. "You hang around town today and keep talking to people until you find out where he is, and I'll take the camera and do what I came here to do." I figured this is how I'd get him out of my way for the day so I could get something done.
"What if I need you to drive me some place?" he said.
"I'll meet you this afternoon. If you've found out where he is and it's around here, I'll take you there."
He thought about this for a while and finally agreed. I packed up my gear, went out to the car, and left him there at the motel.
Another blistering hot day, the sweat was dripping off me as I got back to town. I'd shot up all my film stock, and I was feeling good about what I got. Though it didn't do much for the heat, the beginning of some cloud cover would soften some of the high contrast under that bright sun, and add some interest to an otherwise empty sky.
The instructor of the course had got me thinking this way. It would take a while before I'd stop seeing the world from the inside of a camera.
I met Oscar at the café. He'd had no luck all day and was looking disappointed. Finally, he left me there starting into a piece of lemon meringue pie while he went to the feed store across the street, where now and then a truck would pull up with another customer he could go talk to.
He was gone a long time, and I sat there with another cup of that undrinkable coffee, looking up every once in a while from a newspaper section I'd been reading.
I'd begun to finish a crossword puzzle with not-hard clues that had stumped the person who had started it. For the clue "Bill of ____," they'd put "lading" instead of "rights" and that had thrown them off.
When I heard a rapping on the window beside me, I looked up, expecting to see Oscar. But it was someone I didn't recognize right away. He was in work clothes and a beat-up straw hat, sweat-soaked and stained, a ragged mustache and a growth of whiskers on his face.
As he walked to the door to come in, I realized it was Kirk.
"Danny, you sonofagun," he said when he got to me. "What are you doing here?"
And then I remembered the last time I'd seen him and how he'd stopped cowboying for Don and partnered up with a guy on another ranch. Which turned out to be down the road south of town about twenty miles. We'd driven by the turn-off on the way here.
I told him about the movie I was making. Having seen something of the world, I guess, he didn't seem to feel this needed any explanation. I began to give him credit for intelligence I didn't know he had.
"I came into town for some horse feed," he said, pointing to his truck outside. "We got too goddam many horses. Well, the old man's got 'em. He's still livin' back there in the good ole days, before they invented the wheel."
I looked out where he'd parked his truck. It was glossy white with a few mud streaks and a hand-lettered sign on the door that said Dismal River Quarterhorse and Cattle Company.
"Sounds like a real business," I said.
"Oh, we don't do anything half way." He'd tipped back his hat and sat down across from me, when he noticed Oscar's dishes and coffee mug still on the table.
"You with somebody?" he said.
And I explained to him about Oscar and his search for his old friend. I didn't bother much with the details.
"What's the name of the guy he's looking for?" Kirk asked.
Kirk looked at me for a moment. "Guy about fifty maybe?"
"Yeah, you know him?"
"There's a Baxter works for us. Well, he works for the old man. Hell of a horseman."
I had to laugh. Of all the places in the vast stretch of Sandhills, the man we were looking for might be at one place I knew of but never thought to consider.
"How long's he been with you?" I asked, still thinking it was too good to be true and just a coincidence.
"Hell if I know," he said.
"He have a big grin, kinda like Gene Autrey?"
"Oh, yeah," Kirk said, grinning now himself. "Real friendly like."
"Gotta be him."
The waitress, who seemed to know Kirk, stopped at the table, and he ordered a meatloaf sandwich, calling her "sweetheart" as she poured him a cup of coffee.
"And make that a double order of fries," he said, pushing Oscar's dishes toward her as she cleared them away.
"I'm so fucking hungry," he said after she left. "We never seem to keep enough groceries in the house. And I'm the one always gets stuck coming into town for 'em."
I knew only a little of his living arrangements. The last time Mike and I had seen him, he hadn't told us more than that he was taking a new job and had a place to staywith the ranch owner's son.
"That's Owen I'm talking about," he said, shaking his head and grinning again. "Fucker."
By the way he said it, I could tell that Owen was somebody he likedand maybe liked a lot.
"He's been down in Ogallala all weekend. Monthly visit to see his kids. He'll be back tonight. You can meet him." He took a sip of his coffee. "You are coming by, aren't you?"
"Of course," I said. I'd be taking Oscar to the ranch anyway, so he could meet up with his old friend Baxter.
"I'll take some steaks outta the freezer soon's I get back," he said. "Tonight we'll fire up the grill."
I'd had no idea that Kirk could cook.
He grinned like he could read my mind. "How about that," he said. "Life's full of surprises." And he grabbed the bottle of catsup on the table as the waitress set a plate with his meatloaf sandwich in front of him.
"This Baxter," I said, curious now. "What do you know about him?"
"Regular guy, hard worker, keeps to himself."
"Play for our team?" I said, like I was really talking baseball. The man at the next table was sitting close enough to hear every word we were saying.
"Huh?" Kirk said, looking up at me from his plate. "Oh, that." He glanced around the café and shrugged. "Not that I know of. Why?"
"I think Oscar does."
"You're saying you can't tell?" he said, grinning. "Hell, there are ways to find out."
"I'm not that anxious to know. Just curious about him and your Baxter."
"You want me to ask him?"
"No." I was sorry now I'd brought this up, and I changed the subject.
"Never guess who showed up at Mike's a week ago."
Kirk returned to his meatloaf. "Who?"
This got his attention again, and I told him what little I knew.
"Mike says he's still kind of shaken up from being over in Vietnam."
"Rich. I haven't thought about him in a coon's age," Kirk said.
"I thought you two werepretty good friends once."
He waved his fork over his plate before shoveling in another mouthful of food. "Yeah, well, you know how that goes. Sometimes you have to part ways."
I knew he was covering for himself now. I never heard the story, but I figured Kirk for being the one to screw things up. Rich was too good a guy for that. Even a little tender hearted. It was hard to imagine him in the military.
"So he showed up at Mike's," Kirk said. "Huh." Like he was interested in knowing more, but he didn't let on.
About this time Oscar came back across the street from the feed store, looking kind of forlorn and favoring one leg, like his boots hurt his feet. When he got inside, I introduced him to Kirk and we gave him the news about finding Baxter.
His face lighted up like a Christmas tree.
That night we gathered at Kirk's place, a double-wide in an open field with straw bales lined up around the foundation. There was a deck out back with a big old charcoal grill and a view of the sunset.
Kirk had brought Baxter from the ranch, which was somewhere on down the road, telling him only that there was a going to be a surprise for him, and when Oscar got out of my car, Baxter just stood there for a moment blinking his eyes, his mouth falling open.
"Oscar," he finally said, coming over to him and giving him a bear hug, slapping him fiercely on the back. "Where they been keepin' ya?"
Baxter had put on some years since the photograph, but he was strongly built and Oscar looked almost frail in his big arms.
"They tried to lock me up in a old folks home," Oscar said. "But I busted out."
I should have given more weight to that remark, but I just chalked it up to Oscar's reluctance to stick to facts. Little did I guess that he meant exactly what he said.
Kirk herded them through the house and out onto the deck. He put cold beers in their hands and let them keep talking while he lighted the charcoal. I watched from the open slider, a burst of flame and smoke roaring up from the grill and Kirk jumping back like he'd just performed an amazing trick in some carnival sideshow. He'd always been like that, wanting to show off for an audience.
I kept an eye on Oscar and Baxter for a while, but after that big hug, they were never more than cordial with each other. Oscar eased himself into one of Kirk's plastic deck chairs, which he'd had to retrieve from a fence line that ran behind the house, where they'd been blown by the last wind storm.
And Baxter stood beside him, leaning back against the deck railing, drinking his beer and then resting the bottle in the crease across the bulge under his fly. He was dressed in his work clothes, dusty jeans, spurs on his weathered boots, his sleeves rolled up over hairy forearms and more hair showing in his open shirt collar.
The smile on his face made him a handsome man, and he laughed in the easy-going way that big men often do. I could see what was appealing about him.
I finally decided to leave them alone and followed Kirk inside, where he was thawing out the steaks, still wrapped in butcher paper, under a faucet in the kitchen sink. He'd been boiling potatoes and was now making a big batch of potato salad.
"Where'd you learn to do that?" I said.
"Owen's wife had some cookbooks," he said, pointing to a stack of them on the refrigerator. "They'd never been opened. I think that's one reason she left him. Hated to cook."
Mike has always said that a queer guy's got to learn how to do things around the house other guys get married for. But I didn't think any of this had rubbed off on Kirk.
"Fuck, man, if you can read, you can follow a goddam recipe," he said, starting to cut up the potatoes. He pulled another knife from a drawer and handed it to me. "Here, you think you could help?"
I set down my beer and stood next to him at the counter, reaching for a potato. They were still warm from the stove.
"She even says now he's better off with me," he went on.
"The two of you talk?"
"We're not exactly friendly," he said. "But if it had to be somebody else, she's glad it was me and not another woman."
"And his kids?"
"What can I say? Pain in the ass, the little fuckers, but they like me."
I think he meant to say he liked them, too, but he wasn't about to admit it.
Owen arrived about this time. His truck pulled up outside and I could hear his boots thumping on the wooden steps up to the door. When he got to the kitchen, he set a case of beer down on the floor and, taking two bottles in each hand, started putting them in the refrigerator.
"So you're Danny," he said when he was done. He shook my hand in that fierce way men will, like he wanted to break all my fingers just to show how glad he was to meet me. Then he grabbed Kirk in the butt and buried his face in the back of his neck, growling.
"I'm so horny," he said. "What's for supper?"
"You got eyes in your head," Kirk said. "See for yourself."
"I got me a real smartass here," Owen said to me. "But the man cooks."
"And this man washes the dishes," Kirk said, jerking a thumb at Owen.
"What do you mean? It takes balls to wash dishes."
And it went on like this. They were a perfect pair. Made for each other.
When I'd cut up the last potato, I noticed a telephone on the wall and asked if I could make a call to Mike. Realizing I was a fifth wheel at this shindig, I was already starting to miss him.
"Hey, Mike," I said when he picked up.
"Where are you?" he wanted to know right away.
"I'm at Kirk's." And I started to tell him the whole story.
He stopped me. "Is that old guy Oscar with you?"
"They've been looking all over for him."
"The people at the home. He disappeared yesterday."
"What do you mean disappeared?"
"He packed up his stuff and walked out without telling anybody," Mike said. "He's not supposed to do that."
Thenlike I'd truly had my head up my ass this whole timethe pieces began to fall into place. There was that heavy valise he'd brought with him. Of course, the damn thing had everything he owned in it.
And that remark to Baxter about busting out. He'd never made a secret about how much he disliked living there in that home, and he'd used me to make an escape.
"Danny," Mike said. "You could be in deep shit."
Continued . . .
© 2006 Rock Lane Cooper