Two Men in a Pickup
There's a smudge of clouds along the horizon where the sky is getting light. Kirk is standing at a broken window of the schoolhouse, looking out. After Red took off in the Fairlane and left him swallowed up in darkness, he'd stood in his stocking feet on the grass and sandy earth, until his eyes got used to the starlit night. Then he'd been able to make out the shape of the schoolhouse and, walking to it, sat down on the splintery wooden front step, watching and waiting.
After what seemed like hours, he gave up hoping to see a pair of headlights coming along the road, although he'd known all along it was useless. In all the time it had taken to drive the miles of dirt track that brought them out here, there had been not a single sign of life, except for the one light a long ways back that shone for a little while in the distance and then disappeared. For that matter, he couldn't remember seeing more than one or two cars on the highway before they turned off .
Not that he felt alone exactly. He had never once forgotten Red's warning about rattlesnakes. And once there had been the sound of some animal moving around in the dark, snuffling, picking up his scent on the night air. He sat not moving a muscle, until after a time, his eyes growing heavy, he dozed off for a while. Then, with a start, he came to again, as a chorus of coyotes warbled from not far away.
Eventually, sitting so still, he began to get cold, his shoulders shivering in the thin white tee shirt he was wearing. His feet got cold, too. The snakeskin boots lay somewhere out in the darkness where he had dropped them. Finally, sleep nearly overcoming him, he'd got up the courage to try the door behind him, and it fell open, its latch broken. He peered into the pitch darkness and then gingerly stepped inside, not venturing far. He sat down on the dusty floor and leaned back against the wall, putting his arms across his knees and letting his head fall forward.
When he woke hours later, there was gray light in the windows, and he could finally see the bare room, the floorboards rotting through in one corner, and the remains of a blackboard attached to the far wall. A length of battered stove pipe hung down from a hole in the ceiling, but the stove itself was gone. Some broken desks were pushed to one side, their tops littered with feathers and dried grasses. Overhead, he could hear birds in the rafters.
Standing at the window now, he can see low hills between himself and the morning sky. A barb wire fence follows the curve of one hillside, disappearing into the distance. On the other side of the fence, just visible in the dim light, stands a windmill, unmoving in the still air, and beside it a stock tank. Settled along the side of the hill are dark spots that he realizes are cattle. He doesn't know much about cows, but for the first time since Red left him out here, he doesn't feel completely alone anymore. Besides, where there are cows, there have to be cowboys.
His stomach is growling. He hasn't eaten since sometime yesterday. But he's not too worried. The light brightening the eastern sky is lifting his spirits. In a while he'll be warm again, and there'll be someone along to help him get back to town. Once he gets there, maybe he'll call Mike. He's thinking it's getting time to be heading back home anyway. He doesn't have a car anymore, and he's down to his last couple of bucks.
A patch of white gold on the horizon slowly turns yellow, and the first rays of the sun leap over the edge of the earth. He walks to the door and looks out. The snakeskin boots lie on the ground near two streaks of tire tracks, where Red gunned the engine and let the wheels spin as he drove away. One boot is still upright, toe pointed toward the rising sun, casting a long, skinny shadow behind it.
Stepping off the wooden plank where he sat the night before, he discovers the brown grass is heavy with dew. It soaks through his socks, wet and cold. And as he walks, they get wetter, picking up a layer of sandy soil.
The sky overhead is a vast empty blue. Far, far above, two hawks fly in wide slow-motion circles. If he could get up there, he thinks, he could see which way it is back to the highway, and from there back to town.
Later, he strikes out along the grass-lined track, following the trace of tire treads wherever they show in the dirt. The track joins and then follows a fence line that goes up toward the windmill he has seen. The sun has lifted well into the sky, and Kirk can already feel the day's heat beginning to build.
By taking off his socks and drying his feet with his tee shirt, he has been able to squeeze into the boots. They pinch his toes and press in too hard around the sides, but they're better than nothing, and after hobbling for a while, he thinks they may be stretching out a little.
The sight of the windmill reminds him that his mouth feels dry. He could use a drink. A breeze is starting up, and the windmill blades are slowly turning, working the pump. From across the fence, he can see sunlight glistening on a thin stream of water falling from a pipe and into the stock tank.
Beyond, the cattle are on their feet, switching their tails and watching him, ears turned forward. He pushes down on a strand of the wire and bending over lifts a leg to step through, keeping his butt high and back low to keep from catching any part of himself on the barbs.
Standing inside the fence, he waits for one of the cows to make a move toward him, but if they care whether he's in or out of their pasture, they don't let on. He thinks about bulls, and that they are the real ones to look out for, but he can't tell from the distance if there are any.
He takes a step forward and then another one. Still no reaction from the cattle. One cow pulls her head to the side and rubs it against her shoulder, then swings back around to watch him. He takes a few more steps, and finally decides these cattle aren't going to do anything but stare. He begins to walk toward the windmill, his steps lengthening to strides, as if he does this every day.
As he gets closer, the grass under his feet gives way to hard earth. Years and seasons of cows gathering here have flattened the dirt into something like concrete. Closer to the tank, where water has overflowed, there's a rough, boggy patch and the cattle have left deep hoof prints in the mud.
He steps carefully around the cow pies and walks to the water pipe. Overhead, he can hear the creaking of the windmill blades. The tank is brim-full, and under the surface a thick growth of bright green algae covers the sides and bottom. Long strands of it reaching upward drift and move gently.
He bends over the edge, the toes of his boots knocking against the tank, and cups water with his hands from the flow that falls in an arc from the pipe. It is nearly ice cold, and when he brings it to his mouth, his teeth and throat feel a sudden aching flush like eating snow.
Between drinks, he splashes water over his face and through his hair. And when he's had enough and wiped the drops from his eyes, he straightens and looks upward. What he sees gives him an idea. Just above his reach, there are the bottom rungs of a metal ladder leading up to the platform under the windmill blades.
If he could climb up there, he thinks, he could see a lot farther than he can here on the ground. There might be a ranch, a highway, or some sign of life. And he would know which way to walk.
He steps onto the edge of the tank and gets one hand onto the ladder. With a pull and a jump, he tries to get a grip with his other hand. He'll lift himself up hand over hand like a jungle gym, but his boot slips, and he has to let go as he drops down to the ground.
Rubbing his hands together, he steps up again, rocking a little as his boot heels catch along the wet, rolled lip of the edge. This time he reaches up to hang with both hands from the bottom rung of the ladder. And he gathers himself to swing up one leg and hook it over a brace that runs between two supports.
This doesn't work either. He loses his balance at the last moment, and this time he falls straight into the tank, the cold water surging over him, sharp as a jolt from an electric fence. When he tries to get to his feet, his boots slide on the slippery algae at the bottom, and he goes down again, over his head.
Gripping the side, he tries standing again, and once he's finally upright, he jumps over the edge, the water splatting onto the ground around his feet, his jeans and boots now heavy and water-logged. His tee shirt clings to him, cold and clammy, like something pasted to his skin. In the tank, waves are still splashing together, and beneath them the algae is swirling.
Kirk wipes his face and shakes the water out of his ears. He steps once more onto the edge of the tank, dripping, feet making a squidging sound in the tight boots. He doesn't pause this time to think what he's doing. He grabs for the rung and lifts himself, kicking his legs until he's managed to get well clear of the tank and is still moving upward. In three or four grunts, pulling with straining arms, he's able to get a foothold, and he's moving up the ladder.
When he makes it to the top, he stops to catch his breath, then reaches through the square hole in the platform, lifts himself up through it and crawls around out of the way of the turning blades to where he can sit and see what he can see.
Before him, the brown pastureland stretches in every direction. He can see a clump of willows in a wash, but besides a few rocks along the edge of a ridge to the south, there is nothing to break the sea of bare, rolling hills. Even most of the cattle seem to have disappeared. And when he looks down, he sees where they've gone. About twenty of them have gathered around the windmill, some drinking from the tank and several looking up at him.
He waits at the top of the windmill, his clothes drying in the warm wind that picks up now and sends the turning blades whirling. In the hot sun, his face and arms quickly warm and he shields his eyes with one hand to look around again and again where a pickup or someone on horseback or even a cloud of dust might appear out of nowhere.
Below, the cows lose interest and drift away one by one. When the last one is gone, he works his way back to the square hole in the platform and crawls down the ladder, stopping for a while when he gets to the bottom to negotiate the distance to the ground.
He jumps the last part of the way, clearing the tank and dropping onto the hard dirt and rolling onto his shoulder. He lies there for a minute, the breath nearly knocked out of him, and then he gets to his feet, water still trapped in the boots around his toes.
When the sun is overhead, he feels he has walked for miles. He's kept following the track, and at each fork in the road he's managed to find the tire treads of the Fairlane veering one way or another.
The heat has become fierce. And the top of his head is starting to burn; he wishes he had a hat. His feet, in the wet boots, are killing him. He's tried to pull them off, but they are wedged on and won't budge. His wranglers have rubbed the skin raw in his crotch, right where the underwear Frank ripped off him would have come in handy.
The track finally widens until it's all dirt. The surface has been swept clean by the wind and the traces of tire tread disappear. Then it brings him to a fence, where there's a wide opening with an old cattle grid. On the other side, the track joins a road, and he cannot tell whether the Fairlane turned left or right.
He looks in both directions. Going one way, the road slowly bends and then drops out of sight. The other way, it stays straight and before angling up toward a ridge line it passes not far from a wind-busted cottonwood tree. He heads for the tree.
The road is so bleached of color it is nearly white, and he squints his eyes in the brightness. Up ahead, it begins to dissolve in watery heat waves. When his scalp starts to feel like it's on fire, he pulls off his tee shirt and wads it together to put on the top of his head. Now the sun beats down on his shoulders and his back. His shadow is just a little pool of darkness around his feet.
In his thoughts, he tries to focus on nothing but the tree, which seems to be taking forever to get to him. He hopes there'll be some water flowing under it, water good enough to drink and then wade out into.
For a while, he's not sure even what he's been thinking. What's been going through his mind is more of a dream, like he's asleep on his feet.
He can hear his boot heels scraping along under him. Once, he stumbles and the tee shirt drops to the ground. He has to pick it up again, wiping the sweat from his face first before setting it back on his head, letting the edges drop over his ears.
Each time he looks up at the tree, he cannot tell if he has moved any closer. He counts for a while, each step forward a number, to prove to himself he's really moving and not standing still. After a while, he loses count and has to start over again.
Finally his mind goes into a kind of permanent blank, and there is just the sound of his footsteps and his breathing, the wind stirring the grasses between the road and the fence-line, and the distant song of birds.