Two Men in a Pickup
OK, we've spent the day on a fruitless search around this small town, looking for rooming houses and anyone who might have noticed a Fairlane with Hall County plates. Of course, the property owners who'd notice something out of the ordinary any other time of the year aren't paying much attention when the streets, sidewalks, bars, and any other place to move or park your vehicle or your butt are crawling with rodeo people. What's on their minds is keeping the mayhem away from their front doors, themselves, and their daughters, if they have any. Sons, too, I suppose.
A lady at a rooming house not far from the Frontier Bar sets us on a wild goose chase across the South Dakota state line. She remembers a man and a boy from a ranch she thinks is near a town that, when we get there, turns out to be no more than a boarded up gas station. A couple young guys in a telephone company truck, who seem to be doing not much more than screwing around, point us down a dusty, rutted road that looks like it goes nowhere.
At the end of it is a barn, a double-wide on cinder blocks, and several mean dogs. We're greeted from a side porch by both man and boy, who is obviously not Kirk. He outweighs him by fifty pounds easy, and seems a good deal more mindful of his elders. With only a gesture from the man, he ducks inside the door and comes back with a shotgun. We waste no time getting the hell out of there.
"That was a pair of ugly fuckers," Don says, laughing.
"No shit," I say and light up my last cigarette.
Coming back to town, through the Ogalala grasslands, with nothing but treeless hills rolling every way you look, the dark sky opens, and for a while the rain comes down heavy, beating on the windshield, and we can't see a thing. Don pulls to the side of the highway and finds a turnout into an open gate with a little sign on a post next to it that says "Pasture 27." The rain pounds on the roof so loud we have to shout to hear each other. The windshield wipers keep thrashing away at the deluge, but most of the time we're looking through a sheet of falling water.
There are several strobes of lightning and one clap of thunder that shakes the truck. Then the worst of it is quickly over, and we wait to see if it lasts, the windows starting to get steamy at the edges as we breathe and the warm air in the cab starts to condense on the cold glass.
"Look," says Don, peering through the windshield.
I follow his gaze, and along a fence line in the distance an antelope, with its bright white butt, is wriggling under the bottom wire. It hops to its feet on the other side, takes a long look at us, and then moves steadily away until it disappears over a rise.
"Ain't that a beautiful critter," Don says.
And I have to agree.
Back on the road, we get to discussing the options. Of which there are next to zero. In a day of trying, we've turned up little for our effort.
"Do you have any ideas?" I ask Don.
"Fresh out of `em," he says.
So when we get to town, and I figure Mike must be home from work by now, I tell Don we should stop somewhere and give him another call. Along the highway, we see a phone booth by an ice cream stand. "I'll call from there," I say.
Don pulls up next to the building and kills the engine. I get a dime from him, and stepping out of the truck I notice that the dirt lot under my feet is dusty and dry. "Look, it didn't rain a drop here," I say to Don. Under the edge of cloud to the west, there's a bright band of golden sky.
The phone rings about ten times before Mike picks up. He's out in the barn, or the pool, or standing at the edge of the field admiring his corn. Cripe, I'm thinking, if it hasn't rained there, someone needs to get busy again with the irrigating. I'm calling collect and when the operator wants to give up, I tell her to give it a few more rings.
Then there is his voice, sounding short and all business. When he tells the operator he'll take the call from me, his voice starts to soften, and when I hear her disconnect, he says my name, drawing it out like he does when the lights are off and we're reaching arms and legs around each other.
I think of several responses I could make, but they all sound lame on a pay phone in cowboy country and broad daylight, and Don within ear shot. Instead, I think about telling Mike that what I really want right now is a change of underwear.
"I got some news for you," he says matter-of-factly, sounding about as excited as Mike ever gets. "Kirk called. About an hour ago. He's in Crawford, waiting for you, at an ice cream stand."
For a second I think he must be kidding me.
"He told me it's along a highway. A Frosty Freeze," he says.
"Mike," I say. "That's where we are." But with a quick look around, I don't see Kirk anywhere.
"Wait a minute," I say and put down the phone. I step outside the booth. Don is standing beside the truck, stretching his legs and stuffing a wad of Copenhagen under his lip. I walk past him and take a look on the other side of the ice cream stand. Kirk is not there either.
"What's going on?" Don asks when I get back to him. And I tell him.
"What the fuck," he says.
When I get back to the phone and tell Mike there's no sign of Kirk, he says, "Damn that kid," and starts a string of his usual expletives that keep him going for a while.
"There's a guy inside," I say. "I'll ask if he's seen anything." And I put down the phone again while Mike is still talking.
The guy in the ice cream stand is opening his little window and asking for my order before I can get any words out, but catching the look on my face, he kind of freezes in mid-sentence.
Yes, he has seen a kid hanging around like he's waiting for a ride. And he tells me that he saw two men talking to him -- maybe trying to pick on him -- and Kirk had taken off running. They'd jumped in their car and gone after him.
What the fuck, I'm saying to myself, and realize I'm starting to talk like Don. I've been spending too much time with him.
"OK, we're looking for two men in an old blue Studebaker," I'm telling Don when I get back to the truck. "The guy doesn't know where they were headed, but he thinks if we ask around at the rodeo grounds, somebody will know where to look."
"I'm not the kind of person to pass judgments on people," the guy had said, and I'm looking at him and thinking, this guy's a school teacher, "but these two are not your typical law-abiding citizens. I wouldn't trust them to walk my dog around the block." He gives me their names. "But everybody knows them as Little John and Sparkplug," he says.
"This has turned into some merry chase," Don says, slurring the words over the clump of snuff in his mouth. "Are you aware of that?"
"No shit," I say.
And we are moving now on the highway again, fast as the eighteen-wheeler in front of us will let us, its swaying mud flaps decorated with the profile of a kneeling woman whose breasts stand away from her chest like dixie cup points.
"That your type?" I ask Don.
Don studies the mud flaps and smiles. "Yeah, but those knockers look dangerous."
At the rodeo grounds, we wait in a line of cars and trucks to get through the main gate. The lights have come on over the arena. Through the open windows, we can hear the announcer, calling out in a deep, drawling voice the names of the officials, and then a tenor is at a microphone singing the national anthem, stabbing at some of the high notes and, when he gets to "home of the brave," stirring up applause, shouts, and whistles from the crowd in the grandstand.
"What exactly are we gonna do here?" I'm wondering aloud.
"Lookin' for a Studebaker, right?" Don says. "Guess we cruise around till we find one."
I look over at the parking lot, and there are already hundreds of vehicles.
"Do you happen to remember if he said it was a car or a pickup?" Don says. He looks over at me when I don't answer right away. "You didn't ask?"
"I didn't think of it," I say.
He takes a wallet from his back pocket and pulls out a bill, handing it to a man who walks up to the window when we get to the gate. "You boys OK?" the guy says. He's wearing a gray, spotless ten-gallon hat. Looks like a furniture store owner on the Chamber of Commerce.
"See two-three guys come in driving a Studebaker?" Don says.
"Can't say that I have," the man says, making change out of an apron he's got around his waist. "Just drive straight ahead and the attendants will show you where to park. You boys enjoy yourself, OK?" He turns and walks to the car behind us.
Don shoves his wallet back into his pocket. "OK, we'll do just that," he mutters.
We drive up and down the aisles of trucks and cars, ignoring the high school boys in ball caps and orange reflector vests pulled over their shirts, trying to wave us out to where they're parking cars in a field. Finally, one of them plants himself in front of us and won't step to the side. He wants us to turn. He's got a thick neck, big arms, big chest, big legs, and he's trying to act tough.
"Move your ass," Don says, leaning out the window.
The kid doesn't budge.
"Start to make the turn," I say to Don, "and then stop."
"You gonna get out and punch him one?"
"Yeah, hold my glasses," I say.
As the truck swings around, I tell the kid we're looking for a couple guys named Little John and Sparkplug.
He takes a step toward us, a smirk crossing his face. "Those two punks," he says. "Take a walk over past the barns," and he points off over the roofs of several rows of parked cars and trucks. "Bunch of 'em like to hang out over there. Course if you're lookin' for a fight, just about any of 'em will be happy to oblige ya."
"Thanks," I say and turn to Don. "You heard the man."
"Gonna tell him his fly is open?" Don says.
"It isn't." I don't have to look. This is something I would have noticed.
"Tell him anyway."
I turn to the boy and say, "Oh, and your fly's open."
As he glances down, Don hits the gas and swerves around him. I catch the look on the boy's face just as we pass by, and he's giving us the finger.
"Upstanding future citizen there," says Don. "Probably son of the banker. Bet he's got ten bucks and a couple rubbers in his pocket and thinks he's hot shit."
I'd tell Don he's sounding a little hostile, but they are basically my own sentiments, too.
Over at the barns, we drive until we find a likely bunch leaning on fenders and sitting on tailgates, holding beers, spitting in the grass, and watching us suspiciously. No spiffy spotless hats and cowboy duds here. These guys are scruffy and lean, in wrinkled shirts, worn jeans and boots well seasoned in mud and cow shit. They've got straw hats with the brim rolled up real tight on both sides, so it sags down in front and back.
The look all around is that we are intruders and would do well to keep on moving. From the number of empties lying on the ground, I'm guessing they've been drinking for hours.
Staying inside the truck, I let my eye fall on one who seems more alert than the rest. He's my age, if that, but his face is already hardened into the look of a man ten years older, who's seen and done just about everything a man is called upon to see and do. And I'm guessing that of the whole bunch, he could be the smartest.
"Wonder if you could help us," I say, trying to sound friendly, and I tell him who we're looking for.
The cowboy doesn't reveal a flicker of recognition or interest. But I see some heads turn behind him, and it's pretty clear they all know who I'm talking about.
"Who the hell wants to know," the cowboy says.
I'm wishing Don was doing the talking, stepping out of the truck, tall and stern, doing his John Wayne impression.
I tell the guy who we are and explain that we're really looking for a boy who might be with them. A voice pipes up from somewhere, sharp and reedy, and I realize that one of them is not a guy at all, though for a second, I can't tell which one.
"Tell 'em," she says. And a face with bright eyes and chapped lips appears from under a black hat in the open door of a pickup. "Tell 'em," she says again.
The guy doesn't take his eyes off us and doesn't move from where he's standing. He's holding a few coils of rope, slowly stroking it with a blackened thumbnail. The others, about eight of them, look tense, unsmiling, and shifty-eyed.
"OK," the guy finally says. "They were here."
"How long ago?" I ask.
"Bout a half hour maybe."
The girl in the pickup says nothing, her mouth shut tight.
"Do you know where they went?" I ask.
There's another long pause, and finally the guy just shakes his head no. I see a few glances go around between the others, and then the girl steps from the cab.
She's dressed like the rest of them, maybe a little better. A navy blue cowboy shirt, unbuttoned over what looks like a flat chest, new wranglers, and -- I'm willing to bet -- a sock stuffed in her underwear. She's a better looking guy than any of the rest of them.
"You're all yella," she says and strides toward us. "You wanna find 'em, try goin' out that road over there." She raises one arm sharply and points beyond the field filling up with cars and trucks. "Go back out the front gate and turn up that way. It don't go nowhere. Just out to the dump."
I don't like the way she says this.
"If I was you," she says. "I wouldn't waste any time gettin' there either."
The guy just stands looking stony-faced, fiddling with his rope. The girl slaps him on the shoulder. "Chickenshit," she says and walks back to the truck cab.
As Don turns the pickup around, I'm thinking the guys we're after must be some bad medicine if this tough-looking bunch wants nothing to do with them. They watch us go, their hats moving together like fish heading into a shifting current.
We've now started back toward the gate, weaving past oncoming traffic.
"You sure didn't have much to say," I point out to Don.
"You were doin' fine," he says. "Besides, people warm up to you. If we'd stuck around, someone would've asked how you busted your glasses."
The road out to the dump is graded and graveled, and we are driving into the sun hanging low over the western hills. Don is pushing it, kicking up stones and dust. An auto junkyard passes by on the right. Across a high fence, there is row upon row of crumpled fenders and cracked windshields, tires flat and twisted off rims. Bright sunlight flashes off the side mirror of a gutted delivery van slumped in the weeds.
Along the edge of the road, signs for the landfill keep pointing us onward, and we finally come to a gate, chained shut, with a hand-painted board wired to it with the word "CLOSed," the letters tapering off as the painter ran out of space.
We stop and a cloud of dust comes whirling up from behind us. The engine slows to an idle, and then Don turns off the ignition. In the sudden silence, we can hear the sound of the rodeo announcer from the echoing distance. There's no Studebaker, nobody, nothing to tell us we're not the only ones out here.
"I see something," Don says. His head is craned around, and he's looking out the back window of the cab, the brim of his hat against the glass.
I turn and look, too, but can't see through the dust cloud we've kicked up.
Don starts the truck, throws it into reverse, and floors it. We are now hurtling backward. Don has one hand on the wheel, one arm along the edge of the seat back, the truck fishtailing in the gravel.
"Was there anything that looked like another road back there?" he's asking me.
I'm thinking. "Yeah, when we passed the junkyard."
"Why didn't you say something?"
I look at him and say, "OK, I'm a knucklehead."
He raps me behind the ears. "Don't talk shit."
"But that's what you're thinking."
"Now you're being a knucklehead."
Then he puts his boot down hard on the brake. The truck slides to a stop.
"See anything now?"
"No." Dust is flying everywhere, stinging bits of it hitting the side of my face.
"On the ground."
I look out the window, and where a sandy track veers off to the side, I see fresh tire tracks in the loose earth, making two pairs of arcs where the rear wheels spun out.
"We found 'em," I say.
Don shifts into forward gear and turns off the road. In a moment we emerge from the cloud of dust, and we can see a narrow track ahead of us, winding back and forth between dried-up waterholes and the junkyard fence, a long stretch of faded red vertical slats woven together with wire and sagging between metal posts.
"What did you see back there?" I ask Don. I'm hanging onto the door frame with both hands as the truck careens over deep ruts.
"Not sure," he says, jolting up and down. Dust is drifting up now from the floor, and tools and beer cans are rattling and clanking under the seat.
Then I see it. The old car pulled against a clump of willows, almost hidden, and beyond it the figures of two men, without shirts, standing over something like a pile of clothes on the ground.
One of them turns and sees us coming, stands frozen for a moment, while the other hauls back with one foot and kicks at what's lying in front of them.
"What the fuck," Don is saying between his teeth.
Then I realize that it's Kirk on the ground, and I'm jumping out of the truck before it comes to a sliding stop.
The man who's been watching us suddenly takes off running. The other, a crewcut guy in heavy boots, is still kicking at Kirk, who is twisted into a ball, hands and arms over his head.
I hear Don a few steps behind me. "Jump him," he's telling me. Which has been my unthinking intention all along. The guy is just starting to turn his head when I hit him with everything I've got, trying to knock him off his feet.
As I land on his shoulders, he lets out a loud yowl of pain, and the two of us are flying forward until we come down hard, and I'm trying to get my arm around his throat. But he's already rolling out from under me, my glasses sailing off into the weeds. I'm thinking, oh shit, he's going to be swinging at me and I can't even see him.
Instead, he keeps rolling, yelling and holding his knee with both hands. I'm on him again, but it's no good. I can't make him stay down. He flops onto his back, sweaty skin covered in dust and dirt, cursing and hugging his leg, tears streaking now from his eyes and onto his cheeks. I can't make out what's going on. I think he must have twisted his knee when I jumped him.
When I look up, I can't see Don. I'm guessing he's gone after the other man. But they've both disappeared into the unfocused distance.
I go back to Kirk and kneel beside him. I pull his arm away from his head and in the instant before he pulls it back again, I see his face, bloody, eyes tight shut.
"Kirk, it's me," I say and keep repeating my name. But he doesn't seem to hear me.
I glance at the crewcut guy, and he's up on his feet, takes a couple limping steps and falls down again, wailing in pain.
Now I hear Don's voice, and I can see him walking toward me.
"Is that him?" I can hear Don asking.
"Is he all right?"
"I don't think so," I say, tugging again on Kirk's arm.
Don steps up beside me, and I realize that in one hand he's carrying a baseball bat.
"Told you this would come in handy," he says, giving the bat a good swing. "That sucker's gonna piss blood for a week."
The crewcut guy is struggling to his feet again.
"Down in the dirt," Don barks at him. "Or you'll get another one." He lifts the bat in his fist.
"Another one?" I ask.
"Clipped him in the back of the knee when you jumped him."
He stops not far from me and takes a look at Kirk. "Hell, he's still just a boy."
Kirk is coming around, one eye blinking in the blood sheeting down from a long cut on his forehead, the other already puffing shut. His mouth opens to say something, but there's a deep gash in his lip and his tongue pushes awkwardly against bloody teeth.
"Jesus," Don says when he sees this and steps over to the guy on the ground. "You sonofabitch," I hear him say. And there's the sound of the bat falling with a ringing thud, the aluminum thwanging. The guy yells again, like he's been shot.
I keep telling Kirk my name, and as I put my hand over his, I feel his body begin to uncoil.
Don bends down and picks up something from the grass. He works it with his hands for a while and then passes it to me. It's my glasses, wobbly where they are taped together. When I put them on, they hang lopsided on my face, and the lenses are covered with flecks of sand.
"I know those two guys," Don says, kneeling down with me. "They were at the cafe this morning. Lookin' for trouble." He pats along Kirk's arms and legs for broken bones. "What you got that hurts, buddy?" he's saying, his voice all at once low and tender.
I hear the truck idling, and around us the sunlight glows golden in the dusty air.
At the hospital, we carry Kirk between us into the ER. He can put one foot in front of the other, and we let him think he's doing the walking. There is blood everywhere, soaking the front of his tee shirt, smears of it on my jeans where I held his head in my lap in the back of the truck.
A young doctor hurries in after ten minutes, pulling on a white hospital coat, stethoscope flopping around his neck like a long garden snake. He's shining a light in Kirk's eyes, looking in his hair for more cuts, and asking us if he got thrown from a horse, thinking we've just come from the rodeo.
Don gives him a rough idea of what happened while the doctor tries to see into Kirk's mouth with a tongue depressor, and I'm realizing that Kirk is holding one of my hands so tight, it's going numb.
We watch as a nurse cleans up the blood, and the doctor sews up Kirk's face and his lip, and then puts four stitches in his tongue, all the time talking, talking, talking to him like they're at a ball game or killing time till the fish start biting, stopping every now and then to rest a hand on his leg and asking him if he's OK, Kirk nodding, never taking his eyes from him.
I sense, though I can't tell for sure, that Kirk is actually lapping it up, loving the man's attention and the touch of his warm, confident hands. If he's feeling any pain, he's sure putting on a brave show, letting us all see what a real man he can be. And when I forget about how he took off with my car without asking and made us chase all over hell looking for him, I have to admire his nerve. I'd have passed out at the first sight of a surgical needle coming at me.
Anyway, it makes an impression on Don. "That's one tough kid," he's saying to me as we follow the doctor out to the corridor.
The doctor is wearing a blue checked shirt and jeans, and I'm practically grinning at him because he has a neatly trimmed mustache, just like Mike's. He's pleased with himself, and his eyes are bright and smiling. Before he walks away smartly with his clipboard, he explains to us that he wants Kirk to stay in the hospital overnight. "Standard procedure," he's saying, "when there's risk of concussion or internal injuries."
Don takes this all in, with a furrowed brow. He's like a concerned parent, ready to spend the night at the boy's bedside. I can tell the thought of Calgary is the farthest thing from his mind right now. And going back home, of course, is even farther.
I find a phone in the entryway and call Mike.
"We found him," I say
"He's still there?" Mike says. "He hasn't run off again?"
"No, he's not in much shape for that," I say and break it to him that we're at the hospital. And why.
When I'm done and about to hang up, Don reaches for the phone. I hand it to him and step away as I hear him say, "Mike, it's Don."
They talk for a while, and I walk back toward the ER. I pass by a pair of glass doors, and outside I can see the parking lot and the last of the twilight sky over the trees.
I glance back at Don, and his back is turned to me. He's kind of bent over the phone, hat tipped down, and leaning with one shoulder against the wall, one long leg crossed over the other. I'm struck as I was the first night I saw him in Mike's kitchen, that he's a handsomely built man. If he were a stranger standing there, I'd want to walk by him for a look at the other side -- maybe catch his eye.
Then I remember what he's really like and just wonder at the way my mind works.