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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail, scene fourteen

As the sun rose, their shadows stretched way out to the west and undulated on trees, fence posts, and everything else that they walked past. A few vehicles traveled down the road, the occupants staring unabashedly at them, making them feel how much they stood out in that tight knit country community. Huge rectangular hay stacks, protected by heavy pig wire panels kept deer and cows out. Each large field had a stack or two, with orange or green tarpaulins stretched across the top to protect from rain. Black and white magpies flew back and forth from fence posts to telephone wires, their grating machine gun-like calls warning everything for miles that there was a threat on the road. On the far edge of the pasture to the west, and standing against a background of thick brush were three white tail deer standing in belly deep grass. They alerted and stretched their thin necks way up. They stared at Cat and Tom as they plodded down the road. The brick tone of their coats stood out sharply against all the green. When Cat and Tom finally passed by, the deer relaxed slightly and slipped into the brush.

The first place they asked for work, a kid about 9 years old answered the door wearing Spiderman underwear and a blonde, buzzed head. No matter what they asked him, he answered, “Dad ain’t here.” The second place they stopped at, a wary woman about 35 years old carrying a diaper wearing toddler on her hip, answered the door. She told them they had no work for them, and she said it nervously through a screen door. The curly headed baby stared at them and worked a yellow pacifier relentlessly in its mouth. For the next two hours they were turned down over and over. As the sun hit its midday zenith they could feel the backs of their necks and arms starting to tingle with sunburn, and their throats stung from road dust kicked up by passing vehicles. Tom pointed across a deep green field of grass to a patch of grayish water that was visible through a screen of cottonwood trees, whose leaves flagged in the mild breeze. “Think we dare to get over to that water, or do you think some hawk nosed son of a bitch will come run us off before we make it?” Asked Tom. Cat used his hand like a visor to shade his eyes from the sun. “Shit, I think that’s a river. We’ve been walking along here this whole way and I didn’t even know it was there.” He turned and looked to the north. A quarter mile ahead was a little drainage ditch lined with brush and tall, yellow, straw like grass. It snaked across an open field and ran into the cottonwoods and water just beyond. Cat pointed at it, “If we can walk up there and use that brush so we aren’t just walking bald right across the field, I think we’re gonna be fine. Hadn’t been for that dipshit this morning putting a scare in me, I’d cross right here.”

They crossed the field quickly, bent low at the hip, and in a half run. A wave of gray grasshoppers with bright yellow wings formed a wake in front of them. The second they crossed under the canopy of the cottonwoods they could smell the cool water, faintly coppery and mild. They picked their way over and through a jumble of wind blown cottonwoods, some of which were four feet thick, until finally they were at the water, which was in fact a river, wide, and quiet, and very slick. A big pool broke off from the main channel and curled lazily back toward the bank before working its way back along the shore and against the current of the river, then flowed back into the current, like a big, round water wheel, around and around it went. On the line where the current met the still water of the pool were little collections of yellow foam, cotton from the trees, tiny sticks, and bits of white styrofoam, all slowly working in circles on that border. There wasn’t a sign of mankind in any direction except for the bits of styrofoam. Cat stripped down to nothing and dove into the water without even testing its temperature with so much as a toe. When he came up his hair was fanned out, slick and smooth over his chest and back. Tom called to him, “How is it?” Cat smiled a big white smile, “Crisp, very crisp.” Tom got out his soap, razor, and a little hand towel, and put them on a flat rock by the shore, then shed his clothes and against everything in him, jumped into the water, also without testing it. His head did several disorienting spins inside his skull from the cold. He poked his head out and wanted to curse Cat, but the cold water kept the words from escaping. He struggled back to shore and grabbed the soap and razor. He washed one body part at a time and then rinsed it so he wouldn’t have to fully submerge, then he shaved his neck and upper cheeks and washed his face. He grabbed the hand towel and dried his hair and armpits, then he pulled himself out and sat on a smooth big gray downed cottonwood, and used the hand towel as a loincloth. The sun was hot, and it left stabbing little pin pricks of heat on his back as he warmed himself. Cat swam in the water as if it were a heated pool. He repeatedly dove down and disappeared, sometimes for thirty seconds. Finally he made his way back to shore and crawled up on the log and laid on his belly, still completely naked, and rested his chin on his hands, which were one atop the other, and said, “Man, what I wouldn’t give for a hot meal. It feels like a month and a half since we’ve eaten a cooked meal.” Tom nodded in agreement, he wasn’t comfortable sitting around completely naked on a public river, or ever for that matter, so he had a hard time concentrating until he was dressed. He stood up and rummaged through his bag and got out his cleanest clothes and put them on, cinching the belt of his jeans one notch tighter in the process. He took out a can of tuna fish and used his multi tool to open it. “You got anything to go with this that we don’t have to cook?” Cat rolled off the log and pulled on his pants. In a pocket of his pack he took out a little can of peanuts. “I got this at the truck stop with the last of my $17.00, let’s treasure these bastards.” They both laughed.

They sat in the sun and ate tuna from the can and popped peanuts until the containers were empty. Cat walked back up through the woods and was gone for a few minutes then came back and slid a cigarette out of the pack and thumped it filter side down on the log a few times to pack the tobacco before lighting it. “I walked up there to make sure there wasn’t a cowboy lurking around waiting to smell cigarette smoke,” The incident was turning into a little joke, and they both laughed. Cat grabbed the walking stick from his bag and began whittling where he’d left off. He held the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and turned his head to the side so as the smoke rose it missed his squinted eye. Tom watched him work, but kept glancing at the wide, dense, shiny black tattoo that wrapped around his waist. He’d never seen a solid tattoo even close to its size, nor of its flinty density. As Cat moved while he whittled, the sun shone off the tattoo brightly, almost as if it was reflecting off black obsidian. Tom’s curiosity finally got the better of him. “That’s an incredible tattoo, what does it mean?” The slightest pause in motion as Cat carved and whittled was the only response, and if he hadn't been keenly aware, Tom would never even have noticed that pause. Cat took the cigarette from his mouth and held it between his index and middle fingers. He lowered his mouth and blew yellow wood shavings away, and Tom could see remnant cigarette smoke illuminate in the yellow sunlight as Cat exhaled.. “That’s personal,” said Cat, and he allowed no taint of emotion in his voice as he said it. His voice was flat, like a robot. There was silence after that, the only noise was the satisfying and clean sound of wood being cut away by the knife, a long, long silence.

They sat in the green shade of the big cottonwoods watching the river slip by quietly. Two male mergansers swam nervously in the current on the far side of the river, their bodies pure snowy white and shining black, their heads iridescent, shimmering green. They worked upstream against the current, their heads bobbing back and forth horizontally, their shiny black eyes trained on the interlopers. When they reached the head of the current, they stopped paddling and drifted back to the tail of the hole. Over and over they repeated the same route. Occasionally, in the brush behind him, Tom could hear something small and lightning quick dart through the dead leaves in short bursts before freezing for a moment. Cat laid back shirtless on his pack with his eyes closed and his fingers laced behind his head. Tom half watched him, but kept an eye on the brush for any sign that they’d been discovered. This must be one of those moments I’m supposed to live in…he thought, but his mind raced. He kept thinking of his fishing gear, and the yellow winged grasshoppers, and just how many fish he could be piling up by using the grasshoppers as bait. He thought about later, when they had to creep back across the private field to the dusty road, and he hoped they wouldn’t get caught in the process. He wondered about getting work, and laying in a bit more money, and he kicked himself for being idealistic and impulsive, and just plain stupid in his preparation for…for, running away, or whatever it was he was doing. He thought about his parents for a few seconds, and he saw a mental picture of the bank of payphones back at the truck stop…a thousand years ago, and then he squeezed his brain internally and looked down at the river. He focused on a school of skinny, inch long minnows that all swam in unison very close to the shore, their dark little forms like tiny shadow spirits. He focused on them and forced himself to think of nothing else, and he stayed in concentration for a few minutes. He pictured the minnows growing larger and larger, drifting apart, most of them would be eaten by cold, yellow eyed, hook jawed brown trout, or white and tan mottled osprey, slashing into the water from above, never detected as a threat until it was too late. A scene played out in his mind of two grizzled, scar covered old trout, one of them missing a chunk of fin, the other with a useless white eye like an opaque marble. They swim deep down into a gravel bottomed pool, and under the protection of a massive, cottonwood, sunk in the river long ago. They give one another a little all knowing fish nod, we are the last, we made it. They are placid in knowing the end is near, unperturbed, because they know they have already lived far more than their share. Tom pictured this, and the mottled green light that danced on them, and the gravel bottom, and the sunken cottonwood, and he laid back and closed his eyes and thought of only that moment, nothing else, he laid there and he swam with them.

After the sun had moved across the sky, and was well past its time to incinerate skin, they shouldered their packs and walked back to the edge of the field. They stood behind a clump of brush and listened for the banging of truck beds driving down the washboard road, and they tilted their heads this way and that, trying to pick up the high pitched whine of motorcycle motors, but it was quiet, save for the ever present magpies. They hurried across the field, half crouched, using the ditch as some sort of cover. When they were finally standing on the road they felt a triumphant sense of relief. “Who’d have thought we’d get all the way to Montana before some asshole started in on us?” asked Cat rhetorically. Tom just shook his head.

They walked for about twenty minutes, their shadows now beginning to stretch out towards the east. The evening was just beginning to throw that deep, richly orange light, and a little breeze had picked up out of the north that caused their t-shirts to billow and flap against their lean midsections. They stopped at the entryway of a driveway. It was narrow,overgrown with hanging dead yellow grass, and had been filled with tan gravel years before. An oversized gray galvanized mailbox mounted on a rusty iron pipe marked the right side of the driveway, and they could see where at one time, little metallic stick on letters had spelled a name, but most of the tiles had fallen off, and only an “ON” was left. They stared down the long driveway for a moment before Cat sighed deeply and said, “Well, we ain’t got a damn thing to lose, and we won’t know if we don’t ask…” he paused for a second, and then said, “besides, if this guy doesn’t have anything, maybe we can find a spot to sneak a night’s sleep in away from this main road.”

The driveway ran to the west, and as the sun set, it looked like it was sinking right into it. Each step they took descended slightly, and hid the sun more, until with a single step, it was below the horizon. Immediately the temperature dropped, and the atmosphere calmed and felt light, almost feathery. Crickets began calling, almost as if they all had their eyes trained on the sun, just waiting for the second it disappeared to start their song. A tiny tan garter snake darted out of the tall grass, and realizing the error of his ways, tried to turn back. Cat was too fast. He gently pinned the snake to the ground with the fingers of his right hand, and then picked him up by the neck with his left. The little snake wiggled like a possessed shoelace for a second, and then, as if he realized the futility of his effort, hung limp. Cat looked very closely at his off white lips, partitioned in shiny little scale segments, then at the shiny black eye, the size of a poppy seed. He held him up to Tom, and Tom nodded. Cat bent and let him go. For a half second the snake froze, then swerving side to side in an s pattern, he disappeared into the grass, “He’ll have a hell of a story to tell” said Tom. Cat smiled, “Shit, his friends will all call bullshit.”

The driveway dropped slowly into a little ravine, and crossed over a pair of culverts. A stagnant mud hole stretched a couple hundred feet on either side, and the water smelled like rotten manure. They hustled across the culverts, swatting at a thick cloud of mosquitoes as they went. At the top of the hill on the south side where the road dead ended, was a white two story, clapboard house, missing great quantities of paint. The house wasn’t of any persuasion architecturally, it was just a big tall square with a wrap-around porch that was painted, or had been painted at one time, green. On the north side of the road was a long loafing shed that was constructed of raw lumber, almost black from the weather. There were at least a dozen vehicles from old pickups to newer passenger cars parked haphazardly around the shed, almost as if they quit running in the spot that they were left in. They were all missing a door, or headlights, or a bumper, or something. To the north of the vehicles were two old tractors that had been red at one time, but were now an oxidized whitish pink. There were rusty hay rakes, balers, and discs parked helter skelter in the field, and straw grass grew up through them so that they almost looked like they were a natural part of the landscape. Beyond the mess of the house and loafing sheds, and sitting by itself, was a big, shiny, red metal barn. It was massive and had roller doors on the near end. Cat and Tom took it all in and then started slowly walking across the big oily dirt patch that served as a parking lot, turn around, and yard, all in one. They walked toward the house, and for the first time noticed a big brown, black, and white beagle lying lazily on his side, legs flat out in front of it. He cocked one floppy ear slightly, and his tail beat the ground slowly as they approached, his big eyes stared at them emotionless, the bottom lid drooping, and exposing a wet red crescent. Tom bent to greet the dog, and in that instant the dog turned and was on his feet with a snarling growl and vicious bark. He charged full speed, and Tom and Cat scrambled away. A silver Dodge pickup was parked just outside the front door of the house, and they leapt to its bumper and then into the back of the truck in long, animated, cartoonish steps. The dog roared at them, and they backed all the way to the cab, ready to jump atop it if the beagle somehow got into the bed of the truck. A screen door screeched open and then banged shut behind them, and they heard a voice, “What in the hell are you guys doing in my truck?”

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