The Trail, scene eight
After they finished the coffee and broke camp, Tom scaled the bank and started walking toward the highway. Cat called after him, “Hey man, where you heading?” Tom shrugged, “I was thinking about getting to the highway, this shit is gonna be impossible to walk in.” He scuffed his shoe over the surface of the muddy earth to emphasize his point. Cat grinned and smoothed his hair back with his hand, then grabbed his ponytail and slicked it. “You realize there are laws about walking on foot down the highway…don’t you? First cop that comes along is gonna hassle us, and he’s gonna see that we’re traveling, and…it’s gonna be a big mess. You want to go that way, I’m okay with it, but I think I’ll go a different route.” He said it not in a threatening way, and not to sway Tom’s opinion, but just as a flat statement. Tom pulled on an earlobe and squinted against the sun to see Cat. “They really come at you for that huh?” Cat nodded, “Yeah, yeah they do. If you ain’t got a place with walls, these local cops are going to make sure you don’t hang around for long. They hurry you right down the road, and sometimes they aren’t real friendly about it.” Tom nodded slightly and walked back toward Cat and said, “Can I tell you something?” “Sure.” said Cat. Tom smiled and rubbed his eyes hard with the butts of his hands. “I’ve only been doing this a couple of days, I’m green to this way of life. I don’t even really know how the hell I got here. I didn’t think much through, thought I did...but I sure as hell didn’t.” Cat smiled, his white teeth contrasting his dark skin. “I’d have never guessed…” Something unspoken had them both turn north and begin to follow the stream. “Was it that obvious to you?” Tom asked. The answer was one word, “Yes.”
Slowly they felt their way over the greasy red earth, loosely following the stream, and trying to walk on clumps of grass whenever possible. The stream meandered back and forth in little oxbows until finally taking a turn to the east and crossing under a railroad trestle made of creosote soaked black timbers. When they reached the bridge Cat climbed down the gray broken stone that had been used as rip-rap, and unlaced his boots and slid them off. He searched around and found a small rock. Then he stuck his hand inside the shoe and used the rock to scrape mud off. He touched the sole to the surface of the water and then scrubbed mud away with his fingers. Tom mimicked him. “This is one of the things I do to steer clear of trouble and not draw too much attention.” Tom scraped the arch of one of his boots on the edge of a ridge of rock. “You always keep your shoes clean?” Cat laughed quickly. “Well, not just my shoes, but my clothes, my hair, everything. It’s one of the things I do that’s a little different than most of the guys on the road. I clean, I shave, I wear deodorant and brush my teeth. I try to be as presentable as possible. A lot of guys will bitch and complain and act like it’s impossible, but it’s not, it just takes a little effort.” Tom looked sheepish, and Cat noticed. “Did I say something that bothered you?” Tom shook his head, “No, but remember how I told you I wasn’t really prepared? Well, I forgot to bring a toothbrush. I’ve been a few days now just picking my teeth, but no toothbrush.” Cat was lacing his boots back up, “No one is prepared for this. You think anyone got out here in the beginning by choice? Something always happens to get people out here, and no one is ever really ready for it. You’re lucky that’s all you forgot.” They sat quietly in the drafty shade for a minute and watched little purple winged swallows swerving around just above the surface of the water feasting on some invisible prey. Tom thought about what Cat had said. I guess he’s right in a round about way.
They walked along the tracks with the midday sun hot above them, and gleaming off the rails. The heavy wind of the day and evening before had dissipated into nothing. Cat watched the ground carefully, like he was looking for something lost. Every now and then he leaned over and picked up a rock and held it up between thumb and forefinger, and turned it this way and that. About every third stone he tucked into a small, tan, soft leather pouch that opened and closed with a drawstring. After he’d repeated the stone ritual a dozen times or more Tom’s curiosity got the better of him, “Are you a rock hound?” Cat smiled, “Naw, I’m just trying to find slingshot ammunition.” Tom scratched his stubbly cheek and it made a raspy sound. “I haven’t shot a slingshot in years.” Cat bent and picked up a stone, looked at it for a moment, and then dropped it into the pouch. He sat on the rail and took out the plastic bag with his cigarettes. “I got good with a slingshot years ago. I ran with a guy from Durango Colorado for a while, and he always had one. He could knock the eye out of a gnat at 25 yards with that damn thing. He told me that if you ever get busted they’ll confiscate anything that could be used as a weapon, but they’ll never take a slingshot because they see it as a toy. One time we were camped under a bridge in Yakima and he plugged a pigeon off the girders. Took the head clean off. The other pigeons flew off when he shot their buddy, but after just a couple minutes they landed again, and he shot another one. He ended up with 5 of them over a 30 minute span. We ate like kings that night.” As he spoke he pulled out a thin pack of cigarettes from the zip lock bag and took the last cigarette out of it. It was bent down, limp looking, but unbroken. Carefully Cat straightened it a bit and gently pinched up and down the length of it to loosen the tobacco. He crumpled the empty pack and dropped it back into the bag. “Last one huh? Said Tom. Cat cupped one hand around the end of the cigarette as he struck the lighter with his other, protecting the flame from any wind. He took a deep drag and exhaled two streams of smoke through his nostrils. He lifted the bag and showed it to Tom. “This is my last full fresh smoke, but I have these.” In the bag were fifty or more cigarettes that were in various stages of being smoked, and a pack of cigarette papers. “Where’d you get those from?” Cat stowed the bag back in his pack, he held the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and had the eye on that side squinted tight against the smoke. “When I’m kicking around I keep my eyes open for them. I save them up, and when I have a dry spell, I have a little tobacco.” Tom watched him smoke the cigarette, watched the pleasure on his face with each drag and each exhale, he could hear the tobacco make little fuzzy snapping sounds as it burned when Cat drew oxygen through it. “Why are you heading north?” said Cat as he tapped gray ash from the cigarette with his ring finger. Tom was surprised by the question and it took a moment for him to respond. “I don’t have any one reason…never been there…it’s far from home, it’ll be cooler in summer, I don’t know, lots of reasons.” The whole time Tom was talking, Cat nodded, like he was agreeing with everything he heard. When Tom finished talking they sat quietly for a few seconds as Cat finished the cigarette and ground it out on the shiny surface of the rail. “Where’s home?” he asked Tom. Tom picked up a little handful of rocks and started tossing them one by one at a large pink rock on the bottom edge of the slope. “A long way off…a long way.” Cat looked sideways without turning his head. He watched the corner of Tom’s eye, his mouth, the muscles and cords of his neck tight and tense, and he thought, A long way off in more ways than one.