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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail, scene ten

Updated: Apr 12

Cat was up long before the sun rose. His bed and belongings were stowed away and he was nowhere in sight. Tom laid inside his bag, the chill of the morning air cold on his nose and cheeks. By the time he finally crawled out of bed it was fully light, but the sun still hadn’t crested the horizon. He pulled on his shoes and sweatshirt and got out his fishing gear. The gnawing in his stomach was no longer just hunger pangs, but actual pain. I gotta have something to eat. He’d been a fisherman all his life, but always for pleasure, not to actually feed himself. He walked through the screen of willows and then out onto the flat prairie land. Scattered here and there were dried gray discs of cow manure. He pried them up and over one by one until after a dozen tries he found what he’d been looking for, a shiny red worm. He snatched it up and hurried back to his gear. He threaded it onto the hook and tossed it out in the swirling water behind a piling, then squatted on his heels and waited. The water had receded back to normal levels after the storm, and the water was much clearer. The cool morning air was just enough to be uncomfortable, and he was ready for the sun to rise. Come on you sons of bitches, I’m starving… He wondered if Cat would still be ready to embrace the moment with another 10 hours of hunger behind him. He’d never met another person like Cat, of course, he’d never spent appreciable time with anyone outside his close circle of friends either, so his specter of exposure was limited. But he knew that Cat wasn’t like anyone he’d ever met.

Across the stream from where he was fishing was a little patch of cattails that were falling apart and dropping soft clumps of yellow cotton seeds into the water.. Standing perfectly still amongst the reeds, in water to its spindly knees, was a Blue Heron, its great yellow beak suddenly standing out sharply against the cattails. The minute they made eye contact the tall gunmetal gray bird dipped slightly and pushed off, its massive wings beating slowly until the great bird was straight up from where it had been standing, then it slowly turned and was gone. How the hell did I not see him? Tom wondered. He was still staring at the spot where the heron had disappeared when he felt a sharp tap-tap-tap on the line. He set the hook and then hand over hand pulled in a little silvery chub about 6 inches long. He dispatched it and threw it up on the bank and then immediately threw his line to the same spot. Within seconds he had another chub identical to the first on the bank. He was so hungry his instinct was to stop and cook the fish, but he resisted the urge and kept fishing. Two more chubs were landed before he couldn’t wait any longer. He broke sticks and kindled the fire, and since he had no oil, he put water on to boil and then scaled the fish. He was nearly done cooking when the brush cracked behind him, and out from the willows came Cat. He had his shirt pulled up from the waist to form a makeshift basket. “Damn, you got a couple this morning huh?” he said to Tom, eyeing the steaming fish. “I made my brag to you about being good with this slingshot…and now I can’t hit a damn thing with it, but I did find these.” One by one he took a half dozen large white mushrooms from his shirt. “Puffballs, they don’t hold off the hunger for long, but better than nothing.”

They peeled and sliced the mushrooms and cooked them in the same water the fish were boiled in, then they ate quickly, as if wolves were lurking to steal their meal. They were far from satiated, but it was enough to brighten their spirits and take the pain from their bellies. Cat broke two or three half cigarettes open and carefully placed the tobacco on a cigarette paper and then rolled and licked it into place before lighting it. He slipped the walking stick he’d peeled from its place in his pack and found a comfortable spot to lean against the bridge abutment. He took out his knife and started whittling on one end of the stick. “You said last night you didn’t really want to ride a train again. Didn’t like it or what?” Tom, who was using a little piece of wood to clean his teeth, paused and watched Cat work. “Well…it’s not so much that I minded riding the train, it’s that I got locked in and thought I was going to die.” He went on to explain the boxcar ordeal as he watched Cat whittle and smok. When he’d finished talking he went back to picking at his teeth. “Can’t believe I forgot a goddamn toothbrush…” Cat finished whittling and then rubbed his hand over the place he’d been carving over and over, twisting it until the wood squeaked. “You’re lucky you weren’t in a container car, they have metal bottoms and I doubt you’d have escaped that. If a train ever comes down these tracks again and stops, and we have the opportunity to ride, I’ll show you a trick so that doesn’t happen again.” He watched Tom work the little piece of wood in between his teeth and over them, and he wondered again what had led him to be sitting under the bridge, but he wasn’t ready to outright ask.

They packed and climbed up onto the tracks and started walking to the north again. The sky was blue as far as the eye could see, but in the far, far northwest Tom could make out the white tips of snow capped peaks. “Hey, look there.” He raised a finger and pointed to them. “We’re making some headway, didn’t see them yesterday. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see them up close before we starve to death.” Cat chuckled, “When I was wandering around this morning trying to get something, I started thinking about that store. I’ve been on so many roads over the years that they all blend together. Coulda been a stretch in Nevada I was thinking about, or Arizona…or Oklahoma, they all start looking the same, so I might have just confused ‘em. Can’t be too far off from a store though…”

They walked for over an hour when Cat noticed a tall red sign shining in the sun up the road and to their left. “Well I’ll be goddamned, there she is…” said Cat, pointing. The discovery instantly elevated their spirits. “Just when I was beginning to wonder if we were in one of those Twilight Zone episodes where we are the last people on earth. If it wasn’t for the roar of that highway I’d almost have believed it.” Said Tom. They began a long angle away from the tracks and on a direct path with the sign. The morning sun pushed their shadows way out across the drab olive sage and yellowed bunch grass. They walked steadily for 45 minutes and still the sign seemed way off. Cat stopped and got his water bottle out and swallowed the last inch of it that was in the bottle. His neck was shiny with sweat and as he swallowed Tom could see his sharp Adam’s apple work under the brown skin. When he finished he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then used the sleeve of his t-shirt to mop his forehead. “I’m actually seeing that sign, right? Seems like we’ve been walking toward it forever. Optical illusion I guess.” said Cat. Tom drank a few swallows from his water bottle, leaving a swallow for later. “Yeah, that sign has to be really elevated and we saw it over the curvature of the fucking earth I guess.” Tom felt suddenly agitated and just wanted to be back to civilization. “I haven’t ever felt this disconnected from everything before. I’m not used to being so…alone, I guess.” Cat smiled and looked at him sideways. “Yeah, it takes a little getting used to....” As he spoke he fished a half cigarette out of the bag and struck a match and lit it. “...but sometimes alone and disconnected are exactly what a person needs. Besides, you got me.” He smiled and nodded his head at Tom as he said it.

When they got within sight of the store they could see that it was a massive truck stop. It was cut from the prairie, and the soil that was scraped away formed a berm around the whole complex. Two hundred yards from the store Cat walked at an angle to a big clump of sage. He took the pack off and stashed it inside the sage. “Why are you hiding your pack?” asked Tom. Cat stood and smoothed his hair back into the ponytail and tightened it, then straightened his shirt and brushed seeds and bits of grass from the bottom of his pants. “We go walking in there with backpacks on, and we'll draw immediate attention. If you do this for very long you’re gonna find out that people like you and I are not only frowned on, but disliked. See, when they look at people like you and I they’re immediately going to think we’re lazy, drug addicted, sons of bitches. Let me ask you something, do you feel lazy? Are you addicted to drugs?” Tom shook his head no. “Either am I, but a lot of drifters and travelers are. So every chance I get to not appear like a bum, I take it, and that’s why I’d rather walk back here for the pack later on.” Tom shucked his pack and worked it back into a clump of sage like Cat had. He dusted himself off, and the two of them started walking toward the store. “You want to know why I really think they hate us?” Tom didn’t answer, but turned to hear what Cat was going to say. “The reason they really hate us is because we know exactly what we are going to do every single day, our priorities are clear, food, shelter, drinking water, and moving on. There is no road behind us, just the road in front, it’s a simple life, and the happiest people are almost always simple and know exactly what their priorities are...that’s why they really hate us.”

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