Two Men in a Pickup
by Rock Lane Cooper

This is a work of gay erotic fiction. If you are offended by such material or if you are not allowed access to it under the laws where you live, please exit now. This work is copyrighted by the author and may not be copied or distributed in any form without the written permission of the author. I may be contacted at:

Chapter 11


OK, I have no idea what time it is. It's dark; that's all I know. My butt is tired from sitting on the hard seat in Don's truck. The night drags on. I'm trying to get some shut-eye, but every time I drift off, Don is moving around, opening another beer, smoking another cigarette. He gives me a while to myself when he goes to the men's room, but he's back again, waking me from a dream of something more than half pleasant -- I've got the beginnings of a hard-on in my levi's.

Hat pulled over my eyes, I hear the sound of a car pulling off the highway, gravel under the tires, and slowly rolling to a stop. A door opens, then another.

"Cops," Don says, and I open my eyes to look. They have parked over by the diner and are walking in different directions. One toward the gas station, one toward us.

"What does he want?" I say under my breath.

Don says nothing. I'm watching from under the brim of my hat, a blanket pulled up to my chin, as the cop walks to the front of the truck, waving a flashlight at the license plate and in our faces. Then he comes around to my window, and as I'm rolling it down, he's holding up the light and pointing it along our shirt fronts and over our laps.

"Yes, officer?" I say, trying to sound cooperative. He seems like an older man, but with the light in my eyes it's hard to tell.

"What's under the blanket?" he wants to know, and I lift it so he can see I'm not packing a gun, although he keeps the flashlight beam on my crotch for a second or two longer than I expect.

"You boys have a reason to be here?" he says.

And I explain that we've been on the road and are just waiting for the diner to open for some breakfast.

"Is that a fact?" he says. "You aware there's a law in this state about drinking and driving?" He's seen the six-pack on the seat between Don and me.

"We are, officer," Don says, his voice booming deep in the cab. "But we're just parked here."

The cop walks behind the truck, flashing his light around, probably checking the back plate and what we're hauling, which is nothing, except a tool box, a tire, and a bale of hay.

Pretty soon he's standing at Don's window, and I'm looking past him, where I can see the other cop disappearing into the men's room.

"I could ticket you for trespassing," the cop says. "This ain't no place for overnight parking." Coming out of the men's room now, there's a well-built man with no shirt, wearing a baseball cap. He strides around the corner of the station and is gone.

"We're just trying to mind our own business, sir," Don says, and from what I can tell, he's trying real hard to sound agreeable.

"Is that all you're doing?" the cop says sharply. He's flashing the light around the inside of the cab again. "Let's see your license."

Don eases forward and pulls the wallet from his back pocket. He opens it and holds it toward the beam of light.

"Take it out," the cop says, like Don should know better. Don fumbles with his wallet, shoulders hunched forward, his fingers pinched around the edge of his license until it snaps free from the plastic sleeve and two photos spill out along with it into his lap and between his legs.

The cop takes the license and goes back to the patrol car. The dome light pops on inside, and we can see him reach for the two-way radio.

"Sure know how to make a guy feel like a common criminal, don't they?" I say.

Don just nods, putting the photos back into his wallet.

Over at the gas station, the other cop emerges from the rest room and stands staring across to the trucks parked at the edge of the lot.

"Looking for cocksuckers," I say, making a joke. "You got out of there just in time." It's a crack Mike would have made, and for a second I feel how much I miss him, and wish I was with him and sound asleep in his bed.

Don says nothing, like I know something. Which I don't. I can't always figure him out.

"You weren't thinking of telling him why we're really here, were you?" I say.

"No, I wasn't," Don says, getting testy, like he does, for no reason.

"Well, I wasn't either, if that's what you're thinking," I say. And we just sit there waiting for the cop to get off his radio and come back with Don's license.

Eventually, the other cop joins him and stands outside the car, his back to us, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. In the dim light, I can see he's a young guy, slim hipped, his long arms hanging clear of his gun belt. His butt gives a nice firm shape to the back of his pants. He hasn't taken on that doughy look cops get after several years on the force.

He lifts his hat and runs one hand over his crewcut before setting the hat snug onto his head again. Then he looks over at us and with a smooth turn on one foot, starts to walk in our direction. When he gets to Don's window, he says "howdy" in a friendly way. Good cop, bad cop, I'm thinking. Now what?

"You guys waitin' for the diner to open?" he says in a high, tight voice.

"Yes, we are," Don says.

"Shouldn't be long," the cop says, and he checks his watch. "Maybe a half hour. Just passing through?"

"Yes, we are," Don says again.

"Won't be any problem then," he says, nodding toward his partner in the car. "He's an old-timer, just wants to make sure. Everything by the book, you know."

"Nothing wrong with that," Don says.

The young cop turns slightly away, and in the light that falls across his face, I can see he's not much older than me. He's chewing gum with a nervous grin. When he rubs across his nose with the fingers of one hand, I don't see a wedding ring.

I'm getting the idea that the two of them really are looking for cocksuckers, and I have a hunch this guy is one himself. I wonder what it must be like for him, hiding out in a police uniform, pretending to be what he's not.

Then I'm thinking, aw shit, Danny, he's sort of cute and you're just wishful-thinking again. I've done this for years, and I've been wrong more times than I care to remember.

— § —

There are apparently no arrest warrants out for Don or old traffic violations. He gets his license handed back to him without a word. The cop car finally makes a circle of the lot and rolls back onto the highway, heading toward town. Two semis have already headed out, going west.

Gray dawn is beginning to lighten the eastern sky as someone pulls up to the diner in a two-tone Ranchero, and in a minute or two, lights flicker on inside.

We are waiting at the front door when it opens and take seats at the counter, where a guy with a white apron wrapped tight around him is shoveling out chopped potatoes along the back edge of a grill. A waitress with broad hips in a white uniform is bustling around tables, setting out ketchup bottles.

Don is maneuvering his butt onto a swivel stool and his long legs under the edge of the counter.

The grill man glances over his shoulder with a broad smile, "Morning, gents." He's wearing a white tee-shirt and levi's, a Copenhagen can in his back pocket. His blond hair is short and brushed down but still showing signs of a long night's ordeal with a pillow. I picture him in his underwear, asleep in his soft bed, while Don and I spend the night in the clothes we're wearing, cramped in the cab of his truck.

"Would you happen to be Lyle?" I ask.

"I am," he says cheerfully. "Who wants to know?"

I tell him our names, and he turns to shake our hands. The guy is one of those morning people who greets the day and everyone in it with a big smile. Or maybe he's like this all the time. From the fog behind my eyes, it's hard to fully appreciate.

"We're looking for a man named Frank," I say. "Drives a camper. Big guy. Loud."

"Frank?" he says, laughing, and bends over to pull several loaves of bread from a bin. "Yeah, I know him. Ain't he a corker?"

"You know where we can find him?" I ask.

He turns and looks at both of us, still grinning. "He's not in trouble again, is he?" he says.

"We don't think so," Don says. "We just need to ask him something."

I'm trying to read the guy's response, as the waitress breezes up to us with two full coffee mugs. "Morning, boys," she says, pulling plastic-covered menus from under the counter, and drops them in front of us. Don flips his menu open and I can tell by the turn of his hat in the corner of my eye that he's watching her walk away.

"You know Frank pretty well?" I ask.

"Drinkin' buddy, that's all," he says.

"The last time you saw him," I say, "was he with anyone? A kid, about eighteen, in a Fairlane?"

The guy shakes his head, his back to us. "Not that I know of." He shakes his head again. "No, no kid."

Behind us more customers are coming in. One of them leans past me over the counter and says, "Hey, Lyle. How'd you make out last night?" And there's this whole discussion about a flatbed truck with no tail lights. Meanwhile, Lyle is busy whipping up pancake batter. He's in perpetual motion. Could easily have one of those cooking shows on TV.

The smell of the hot grill and frying potatoes is making me hungry as hell and I take a look at the menu. When the waitress comes back, Don calls her Doris, reading the red name tag on her uniform, and we both order the 2x2x2 special -- 2 eggs, 2 slices of bacon, 2 pancakes.

Water is on the boil, and Lyle is mixing up oatmeal, and the guy next to me is still talking. Now he's sat down on a stool, his knee pushed against mine, and he's including me in the conversation like I'm someone from around town he's known for years. He's talking about buying a new fork lift, but his wife, he says, wants wall-to-wall carpet.

"How's your arm, Lyle?" he asks. And now they're talking about tendon surgery, and he's holding out his elbow across the counter. "The doc sewed me back together," he says. "You can feel the stitches in there." He's a chunky guy with a worn camou Army cap on the back of his bald head and a green tee-shirt pulled tight over thick shoulders and chest. Lyle is too busy to take the man's elbow, so the guy angles it over to me. "Go ahead, feel that."

Not sure how I got into this, I take his elbow and press with my thumb where he's pointing. There under the muscle, I can feel a row of knobs like rivets along the bone. "What happened to you?" I ask.

"Fly fishing," he says. And he flicks his arm several times to give me the idea. Then he points toward Lyle, who is flipping fried potatoes with a pancake turner -- flip, flip, flip. "That's what's gonna get him," he says.

"Hey, Killer," someone shouts from across the room. "Doris wants your order."

He hops off the stool, short legs spread wide. He shakes my hand and then Don's. "Nice talkin' to you fellas," he says, and he's gone.

"Killer?" I say to Don after he leaves.

Don laughs. "You heard the man."

"Sorry about that," Lyle says, taking a flat of eggs from the refrigerator and putting them two by two into a shiny bowl. "You were askin' about Frank?"

"Yeah, where can we find him?" I say.

"Today?" he says. "Today I'd look for him out at the Bar-B-Bar ranch."

"Where's that?"

"South of Merriman," he says over his shoulder. "Head down to the river. First place after you cross the bridge."

"Where's Merriman?" Don asks over his coffee mug.

Lyle gestures with his pancake turner. "Keep headin' west. You can't miss it."

— § —

The sun is rolling up over the horizon as we walk back to the pickup. Don shoves what's left of the six-pack under the seat, and I hear them clank down there against the aluminum baseball bat he showed me back in Broken Bow. Then he stops at the filling station to toss the empties into a trash bin.

"I never liked the name Lyle," I say as he pulls onto the highway. "Sounds too much like 'liar'."

"You didn't believe him either?"

"Not the part about Kirk," I say. "He wasn't telling us everything."

"Think we're gonna find our man at the Bar-B-Bar?"

"If we don't, we're running out of places to look," I say.

"We can always come back and beat the shit out of Lyle," Don says and laughs.

We're passing through rolling ranchland and little one-horse towns -- Crookston, Kilgore, Cody. It's 60 miles to Merriman, pop. 151, and at the center of town we turn south down a two-lane hard-top, criss-crossed with tar snakes. Every few miles we meet another pickup, and the driver lifts a finger from the steering wheel as we pass.

More ranches. After another ten miles, the road finally swings over a rise and we're looking across a valley. The Niobrara glides in lazy curves below us, clusters of trees and brush along the banks and on overgrown sandbars where the water divides into channels.

As we cross, I look down and see an old car, paint peeling and half submerged. "Looks like someone missed the bridge," Don says.

Driving up onto the opposite ridge, we see the Bar-B-Bar. We stop at the gate, and on either side, along the barb wire fence, someone with a sense of humor has shoved old cowboy boots, bottoms up, on several of the posts. Some distance down the road into the ranch there's a big white cattle hauler parked by some pens, and beyond is a herd of black angus driven by a half dozen men on horses.

"Reckon one of them's our man?" Don says. He drives over the cattle grid and down the road a ways, then pulls over to the side and stops. When he cuts the engine, there's the rising sound of the herd, a loud chorus of bawling cows and calves.

We wait a minute, taking in the scene, and then get out of the pickup, walking the twenty or so steps over to the truck. We watch as the cattle file into the pens, the cowboys in front heading off the few that duck their heads and want to walk around.

The sky above is blue with shreds of dirty-white clouds. A light breeze is picking up from behind us, and under my boots, the ground is light and sandy, little purple prairie flowers blooming in the grass. I pull out my shirt tail and wipe my glasses to get a better look at the riders coming alongside the cattle.

There toward the back is a bulk of a man on a sorrel horse. "See him?" I say to Don. "Can you tell if he has a moustache?"

Don peers into the distance. "Appears to. Square jaw? Bushy eyebrows?"


"Could be him," Don says. He pulls a toothpick from behind his ear and pokes at his molars, then chews on the end of it, not taking his eyes from the movement of cattle toward the pen.

When the cowboys are crowding the last of the herd in, hooting and hollering and waving their arms, the man on the sorrel is close enough for me to see. It is Frank. And I see that he recognizes me. He comes riding over to us. When I can get a look at his face under his hat, I see he's kind of scratched up, with a big scab on his nose.

"Well, look who's here," he says, with a wide, toothy grin, like he's pleased to see me. "Ain't you kinda far from home?"

And I explain to him that we've been looking for Kirk. "Do you know anything about what happened to him?" I ask.

The grin fades a bit, but he's still grinning, and he's not getting down from the horse. "That boy is a rip snorter," he says, glancing over at Don until I introduce them.

"Don's OK," I say, looking straight into Frank's eyes. "He knows." I'm not saying just what he knows, wanting only to put Frank enough at ease to show his cards, spill the beans, or fess up to whatever he might be inclined to keep from us.

He's not going for the bait, however. "Haven't seen him," he says.

Don spits out the toothpick. "Bull shit." He's standing tall beside me, head up, fists on his hips. "We know otherwise."

This surprises me a little. Until now Kirk hasn't seemed more than an excuse for Don to go AWOL from home. Now he's getting himself worked up, and all at once I feel like I'm in a western with John Wayne.

"Haven't seen him," Frank repeats.

"Well, some guys down in Thedford say you have," I say.

"Can't believe everything you hear," he says and chuckles.

I know he's not telling the truth, but don't know how else to get anything out of him.

"Maybe you'd like us to call over some of your friends and see what they know," Don says, gesturing toward the other riders.

"And maybe you're angling for a punch in the jaw, pal," Frank says, shifting in the saddle. His horse is starting to sidestep, rearing its head.

"Then you're gonna have to get down off that horse," Don says.

Frank just glares at him, working the reins to steady the animal. "You can go to hell," he says, his grin gone. And I'm thinking, I'm glad they don't have guns. They'd have shot each other full of holes by now.

"Your fat ass is too big for that horse anyway," Don says. And that of course is the last straw. Frank is down on the ground, taking a swing at Don, who ducks back, and Frank's hand smashes into the side of the truck. As he spins around from his own recoil, Don lands his fist hard in his gut, knocking the wind out of him. I'm stumbling back and out of the way.

Frank is gasping for air. And while he's bent forward, Don reaches across his back and pulls his denim shirt over his head, so he can't move his arms. "Aw, shit," Frank cries out, grabbing at his shoulder. The one he dislocated when he fell off the horse at Mike's. And adding insult to injury, Don punches him again.

Frank is too tough to keel over, but I can tell he's in pain. Most of the fight's gone out of him, about as quick as the sorrel has taken off, head high and tail flying.

"Now I'm going to ask you again nicely, and you're going to tell us what you know about that boy," Don says, and bends down to hand Frank his hat, which has fallen under the truck.

"He took off," Frank says, wheezing and struggling to pull down his shirt.

"Where'd he go?" Don says.

"He picked up a hitchhiker. The guy said he needed a ride to Crawford."

Frank sets his butt down on the ground now, reaching into his shirt to rub his shoulder. "Shit, I think my arm is fucked up again." His face is losing color.

The sorrel has joined a couple of riders who are letting their horses drink at a pond beyond the cattle pens. One of them reaches to grab the reins and looks over at us.

"I don't give a shit about your arm," Don says. "You could have thought of that before you threw a punch at me."

"Do you know the man's name?" I say, trying to keep them from getting sidetracked.

Frank shakes his head no, still holding his hat. The few wispy strands of hair on the top of his head have been lifted in different directions.

"Do you know anything? What he looked like?" I ask him.

Frank groans and starts rocking, holding his shoulder. One of the riders brings over his horse. "Frank, you all right?" he wants to know, fixing a hard look at Don and me.

"He'll live," Don says. "If he don't kill himself first."

"Do you know anything about an 18-year-old kid, name of Kirk?" I ask the rider. He's a man older than all of us, gray whiskers, leather vest, and a sweat-stained cowboy hat. "No, I don't, son," he says in a kindly voice. "But I can see it's important to ya. If Frank has some reason for not telling everything he knows, I recommend he get over that right away."

"How about it?" Don says, like he's ready to use his fists again. Or give him a swift kick. Frank's hand goes down to cover his balls.

"I didn't really get his name," Frank finally says. "Wayne? Duane? Something or other. Said he had to get to the rodeo over in Crawford. That's all I know."

"A rodeo cowboy?" Don says.

"Claimed he was a bull rider. I never heard of him." Frank gets to his feet and takes the reins of the sorrel, who's still looking nervous but stays put. The older man tips his hat to us with a gloved hand, reins his horse around and heads back to the pens.

"What did he look like?" I ask.

Frank lifts his foot into the stirrup and hefts his bulk back into the saddle. "Scrawny guy," Frank says flatly. "Them bull riders all look alike."

The older man, his back turned to us, is now out of earshot. "I'm curious about something, Frank," I say, remembering his stories about being a steer wrestler. "How come you didn't go along?"

Frank's face goes cold. "I didn't like him." And he reins the horse around to go.

"Wait a minute," Don says. "Was the boy OK the last time you saw him?"

"He was just the way I found him," Frank says, and a little grin creeps back onto his face. "Sucked dry, that's all."

We watch him ride off, sitting a little stiff in the saddle.

"Where's Crawford?" I say to Don.

"Must be a hundred miles west of here," he says.

"Is that still in Nebraska?" I ask.

Don gives me a look. "What do you think?" he says and heads for the pickup. "Damn, you're ignorant for a college boy."

— § —

West of Merriman, you are heading into the Panhandle. And it begins to actually feel like a western movie. There are outcroppings of broken rock along the ridges and scattered growths of pine, dark against the bleached-out green of the grassland.

"Indian Territory," Don says, as if he's reading my mind. "Over there, across the state line is the Pine Ridge Reservation."

"Have you ever been on a reservation?" I ask.

Don nods. "Once or twice." He's quiet for a while. "Damn shame what the white man did to those people."

Don is full of surprises, and this is another one. I wouldn't expect him to have an opinion at all about Indians, let alone this one.

"I did a book report in high school," he says, pulling a flat tin of Copenhagen out of his shirt pocket. He works the top off with his thumb and holds the can over to me. "Help yourself," he says. "A little snuff in your cheek is good for what ails you."

I take a pinch and taste it. It's like lawn clippings soaked in brine.

Don sets the can on the seat and lifts out a wad. With a free finger, he pulls down his lower lip and tucks the snuff in below his front teeth. A few shreds fall down his shirt front and into his lap. He brushes them away with the back of one hand and then fits the lid back onto the tin.

I drop mine out the window, the strong, acrid taste and some bits of the stuff still spreading around my mouth.

"It was the only book I ever read in high school," he goes on, talking a little stiffly, his lower lip now curled over the lump of Copenhagen. "All about Crazy Horse. He was one Indian brave. Helped wipe out that asshole Custer at the Little Bighorn." And he tells me how the Sioux were rounded up off the range and Crazy Horse was killed at Ft. Robinson a year later in 1877. He wants to go there when we get to Crawford and pay his respects.

"You should go, too," he says."Learn something useful for a change."

I agree with him, that I probably haven't learned a useful thing in my whole life. Though it won't likely stop me from reading Hemingway and Henry Miller.

"You know what the Indians did to the soldiers they captured?" Don says.

"I don't know. Scalped them?"

"Worse'n that," he grins. "They shoved arrows up their dicks."

"Ouch." The thought of it makes me squirm in my jeans.

"Tell you one thing for sure. They don't put that in the history books," Don says.

The day is warming up, and I'm feeling drowsy. If I think of Kirk at all, it's to be pissed off at him for putting me through all this aggravation just to get my car back. I'm never going to let him borrow it again. And once he gets home again, I only hope Mike beats his backside till he can't sit down for a week. I

I look over at Don, and he's wide awake, maybe juiced up on the nicotine soaking straight into his blood stream. I set my gaze on the unfolding road ahead and let myself drift off to slumberland. I pinch the end of my dick and try to put the idea of arrows out of my mind.

— § —

Crawford is jumping when we get there. A banner hangs across the main street. It's the first day of rodeo. Flags are flying, and there's red, white and blue bunting on the fire station and city hall. In the streets, there are piles of horse shit from a parade in the morning.

The bars are already doing a brisk business, and people are obviously in town from everywhere else under the sun. There are kids of all ages, and young cowpokes in tight wranglers and big hats, looking in store windows for some place to spend their money.

"Where's the rodeo at?" Don yells out the window at some guy with a big old black dog in the back of his pickup.

"Out that way," the guy says pointing. "Just follow the crowd." Which we do.

At the edge of town, we pull in behind a long dusty line of slow-moving trucks and cars. We pay as we enter a gate, where more men in hats wave us into a dirt and gravel parking lot. A kid in sunglasses and a red-and-white striped shirt directs us into a spot at the end of a row on the far side of the stands. He's wearing a big oval belt buckle so big it covers half his fly. I wonder how he gets his zipper down in a hurry. As he turns to signal the next driver, I get a look at his butt, which is squeezed so tight into his wranglers, his cheeks hang over both sides of the seam running under his crotch.

Don brakes, his front bumper nosed up to an old Chevy station wagon in front of us, and he kills the engine. A cloud of dust drifts past the windows. With the sunlight pouring through the windshield, the heat inside the cab is now intense.

"We're here," Don announces. "Ever been to a rodeo before?"

"Not that I recall," I say.

"You're in for a treat."

We get out of the truck and walk toward the stands. Passing along the rows of cars, I keep looking for the wide double tail lights of a Fairlane, but the only one I see has Wyoming plates, and it's the wrong color.

There are booths and tents selling tack and saddles, hats stacked up in piles, beef jerky, hot dogs, ice cream, pop corn and beer. Don leads the way to a blue canopy, where the ladies of some local club are serving up foot-long wieners in buns with buckets of mustard, catsup, and relish. We each buy two and then head for the beer tent.

We've eaten most of the hotdogs before we can push through the crowd to the bar. Men stand together in threes and fours, almost toe to toe, drinking beer out of plastic cups held against their chest, talking and laughing. The sound of male voices fills the tent.

Don pays for my beer, and we elbow our way to the edge of the crowd, where we find an empty corner. In the heated air trapped under the canvas roof, we gulp down the cold beers. I feel my body temperature start to stabilize.

"That is uncommonly good," says Don, licking the foam from his upper lip. And then we just stand there, looking around at the sea of faces, a roomful of hats nodding, turning, moving this way and that. I wonder, as I do when I watch other men, where they spent last night, whether they slept alone or with someone else, what makes them feel proud, what makes them smile, what makes them mad, what if anything touches their hearts. I wonder whether they jerked off with their best friend when they were boys, how often they feel horny and think of sex, who got laid last night, who's had a blowjob.

"Whatcha thinking about?" Don says.

"Nothing. Why?"

"I notice you get the stares," he says. "Just like Mike used to."

We finish the beers and head back outside, working our way through the crowd of men, brushing past backs, arms, butts. There's the smell of sweat and aftershave, with a mix of what I take to be testosterone. I meet a man coming the other way, holding up two full beers. "Can I squeeze past you, pardner?" he says, smiling straight into my eyes, and as I turn to let him by, I feel his body glide against mine, the lump of his dick and balls sliding across the front of my levi's. "Any time, pardner," I say.

The rodeo announcer is warming up on the PA system, and getting bursts of applause from the spectators who have started to fill the stands. Don works his way through the crowd to the chutes.

Here are the riders with number cards on the backs of their shirts, milling around, sitting and hanging on the railings, doing stretches, talking nervously to each other or standing alone, staring down at the toes of their boots, deep in concentration. Some are bent over, strapping on chaps.

"There must be a roster up somewhere with all the events," Don is saying. "All I know for sure is the bullriders go last. That won't be for a couple hours."

There's a cinder block hut under the bleachers where the rodeo cowboys seem thickest, and Don pushes through to it. A hand-lettered sign on a piece of paper is tacked over the door: "Registration and Entry Fees."

Across the way I see a young cowboy with glasses taped together like mine, and he gives me a little wave with one finger. I walk over to him. He's standing beside a pen full of calves.

"What are these for?" I ask him.

He tells me they're for a boys' calf scramble later on during the program. Something the crowd really gets a kick out of. "They let 'em all loose, and if you can grab one and hang onto it, it's yours to keep," he laughs. "I got me a calf one year. Raised it and showed it at the county fair. Nice little Hereford."

He can't be much older than me, but his face is already weather-worn. His hands are rough, scratches and scabs on his knuckles. "I'm all outta smokes," he says, eyeing the cigarettes in my shirt pocket. "Reckon you could spare me one?"

"You bet," I say and offer him the pack. He pops one into his mouth, thumbs the matches from under the cellophane and cups his hands around the flame, the blue smoke rising around his hat brim. I glance down to his jeans, which have streaks of manure, and his boots are cracked and the color of dust.

"You happen to know any of the bullriders?" I ask him.

He nods, breathing deep and then exhaling. "Some."

"My friend and I are looking for a guy named Wayne or Duane."

"Gotta last name?" he says, pushing his glasses onto his nose. I can see he's got a strap around them in back, which falls with his red curly hair over his shirt collar.

"No. I just know he hitchhiked here from around Valentine."

The cowboy shrugs. "The only Duane I know of doesn't go by that name. Everybody calls him 'Winky'."

"Know where I could look for him?" I ask.

"Might be checking out his bull," he says. And he tells me where to find the bull pens.

When Don comes out, he's got a sheet of paper. He's written down the names of the bullriders. "I don't see any Wayne or Duane," he says.

I take the list from him. At the end is a rider named Winky. Beside his number is the name of his bull, Trepidation. "This could be our man," I say. And I take Don around to the bull pens.

There we find a cowboy leaning into the fence, his elbows up on the railing and a dusty canvas tack bag by his boots. His number is pinned to his shirt and Don is checking his list.

"You Winky?" Don calls out.

The guy turns with a grin and touches his hat. "You found me," he says.

"This your bull?" Don asks him.

"You better believe it," the cowboy says. "I'm gonna make me some money on this sonofabuck. He's a good 'un." The big bull gives the cowboy a sidelong look, stepping backward against the fence railings, his balls swinging heavy between his back legs.

"Lemme ask you a question," Don says.

"Shoot," says the cowboy.

"You hitch a ride with someone coming into town?" Don asks him.

"Might of," says the guy. I'm thinking of Frank's description. This guy is built like a long distance runner, narrow waist, shirt dropping straight into his stove pipe jeans. Probably not an ounce of fat on him. Someone Frank would think of as scrawny. His big hat comes low over his eyes and makes him seem even smaller than he is.

"Was his name Kirk?" I ask.

"I believe it was."

"We're lookin' for him," Don says. "Any idea where we could find him?"

The cowboy glances to the side and runs a finger down one of his sideburns. There's a shadow of whiskers over his lip and along his jaw. Then he says, "He's long gone by now, I reckon."

"Where'd he go?" I ask.

"Said he was heading back home to Utah. I gave him some gas money."

"When was that?" Don says.

"Last night." The cowboy stands looking at us, one thumb hooked in a front pocket of his jeans.

"You're sure about that?" Don says.

"I'm sure."

"That better be true, cowboy," Don says, doing his John Wayne again. "Cause we got your name, and we're keeping an eye on you."

The cowboy says nothing, and just watches as we turn and go.

"Winky," Don mutters under his breath. "What the fuck kind of name is that?"


© 2003 Rock Lane Cooper