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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail, scene thirteen

The sun was up hard and high before Tom stirred the next morning. During the night he’d turned his back to the fire, but he could hear Cat moving around, and trying to be quiet as he did so. The fire was going, and he could smell something cooking. He’d enjoyed the first night of good, full, deep sleep he could remember. He wondered if saying all that he needed to say, and freeing himself of those secret bonds were the reason he’d slept so soundly. He stuck his arms out from the bag and stretched and yawned until the small of his back began to cramp. “I was starting to wonder if you were in a coma. Holy shit, it’s gotta be damn near 9:00 sleepy head.” Cat gave a little laugh as he said it. Tom unzipped the bag and swung his legs out, and began putting on his shoes. “I can’t remember the last time I’ve slept this late, probably seven or eight years ago in high school, no shit.” Cat had two green willows impaled into the sand and propped on rocks at just the right angle to hang cut up animal parts over the fire. They were a deep brown, and sizzling as juice escaped the meat and ran down and dripped into the fire. Tom couldn’t identify what he was looking at. “What you got there?” Cat pointed to a little pile of light brown fur and entrails. “That slingshot finally came through, got a couple little cottontails this morning. Figured we could supplement our store bought.”

They ate the tough, stringy little rabbits, with a side of oatmeal and coffee. When they had finished eating they cleaned up and buried their refuse and then sat at the dying fire and sipped a half cup of coffee each. “You still up for heading north?” said Cat. Tom nodded, “Yeah, I’ve never been to the northwest. The furthest I’ve ever even been west before now was one time a couple of us drove to Valley City North Dakota to watch a high school friend play a college football game. Drove all the way out there and watched him sit on the bench.” Cat laughed as he stood, “Let’s get this fire good and out and head back over to that truck stop. Maybe we can con a ride out of someone. I’m starting to think these are ghost railroad tracks. There hasn’t been a train in days, and even if there was, how are we supposed to hop a ride on a train moving 65 miles an hour?” Cat suddenly realized he’d sounded bossy. He stopped halfway to the stream, his largest pan swinging in his hand, and turned back. “Hey listen, I realize I just made a whole big plan, and I ain’t the boss of this outfit. What do you think? Think we should try to hustle a ride or do you have a better idea?” Tom smiled, “I think that’s a better plan than trying to follow this stream two miles a day for the next five years. I say we go for it.” Cat dipped the pan full of water and brought it back dripping, and poured it onto the fire, causing it to hiss, and belch white steam and ash. He returned to the stream several more times and repeatedly doused the fire until it was out. “If we hope to sucker someone into a ride, maybe we should clean up, shave, put on our freshest clothes? Might help us out if we don’t smell like rabbit meat and wood smoke.”

They washed in the cold stream and used bar soap to lather their faces, both of them cursing at not having the forethought to heat a pan of water to shave with. Tom brushed his teeth for the fifth time in twelve hours since finally acquiring a toothbrush. He passed his tongue over his slick, clean teeth as they walked back toward the truck stop. “Sometimes this can be a tricky proposition. A lot of these trucking companies have, no rider, clauses in their insurance. Might take us a while to find someone to let us hitch. We have to keep it as quiet as possible too, because if anyone reports us to the management they’re gonna run us down the road.” Tom listened to what Cat told him and realized there were thousands of things he’d never considered about traveling the way he was. He was glad to have Cat.

They stowed their bags just behind the berm of dirt that surrounded the place and slipped over into the lot. Cat had been a prophet. Trucker after trucker shook their heads no. Some of them were apologetic, and some weren’t. After almost two hours of the word no, they went into the truck stop and Tom bought two cups of coffee. They sat at a concrete picnic table and sipped it in the sun and quietly contemplated where they were going wrong. “Almost every truck driver has that same insurance rider story. Maybe we should try just a regular guy. You know, just a dude heading north…” said Tom, emphasizing his point by raising his cup toward the part of the truck stop where non-truckers were fueling, he continued, “Maybe we treat it like we’re hitch hiking…but we’ll try not to look like we’re going to murder them or anything.” They both laughed.

They targeted trucks and vans, and didn’t even bother with families or women, fully cognizant of the threat they represented. Another hour of rejection had passed when a filthy and battered white pickup pulling a horse trailer pulled into the last bay. A very dark Mexican man got out stiffly and put his cowboy booted feet down softly on the ground, as if his feet were bruised. He wore a white pearl snap western cut shirt, tucked into faded jeans that were held up by a woven leather belt and a large, round, shiny brass belt buckle. Silver hair showed from under his yellow straw cowboy hat. Cat approached the man. “Excuse me sir, I know this is kind of a big favor to ask..” The man raised a hand and stopped Cat. He smiled a big white grin, his dark eyes wet and sparkling, “No habla ingles.” Cat shook his head and raised a finger, indicating that he was thinking, “Hablo un poco de espanol” Cat held his thumb and index finger an eighth of an inch apart indicating he knew a little bit of Spanish, and smiled at the man. The Mexican man’s eyes sparked. He waited for something else from Cat. Cat searched and struggled and the man could see the effort. Finally a light passed over Cat’s face, “Necesito paseo?” The man looked carefully at Cat, then Tom. He took the gas nozzle out and started fueling his truck. “Adonde vas?” He searched Cat for recognition of the Spanish phrase and could see he didn’t recognize it, then in very broken English, “Where you go?” Cat shrugged, “Norte” The man jerked his head to the horse trailer, “Puedes montar alli, me dirijo a…Billings Montana.” He pointed to the trailer again, “Alla…there.” Cat turned to Tom, I think he’s saying we can ride in the horse trailer.” They walked back with the man and he swung open the door with a screech. They climbed in and he shut the door. The trailer had a stack of loose 2 by 4’s on the floor and several boxes of nails. They arranged the boards and boxes so they had a flat surface to lay on and the boxes, along with their packs, made a spot to lean against. Within a few minutes they were on the freeway heading north. Wind whipped through the holes at the side of the trailer and lashed Cat’s hair around. He tightened his ponytail and tucked it into his shirt. “Man, I didn’t think we were ever gonna get out of that place. I’ve never had a harder time wrangling a ride in my life.” Tom watched him dig a pack of smokes out and then try a half dozen times to light a cigarette with the swirling wind extinguishing the flame every time. Finally Tom lent his hands as a wind buffer too, and he was able to get it lit. “Thanks..” They settled in and were quiet. The constant rejection of the day had worn them out. Tom looked out a hole in the side of the trailer. To the west he could see white thunder heads piling up like an armada of massive sky ships poised to invade. Another storm…

The ride was rough, every divot or crease in the pavement that they passed over banged the entire trailer hard, causing the lumber to jump momentarily, and then slam back down. As happy as they were to have a ride, they were equally tired of being jarred from any potential rest every quarter mile. After one particularly hard jolt as they crossed over a bridge joint, Cat said, “Son of a bitch, I’m gonna be three inches shorter by the time this ride is over.” The sky darkened earlier than normal as evening approached because of the storm rolling in from the west. Tom watched sheet lightning in the clouds shudder and flash, without actually seeing any bolt. “This must be a big front moving in. We’ve been moving for three hours and there’s been storms on the horizon this whole time.” Tom pointed at a fresh mountain of thunder heads, the top still in bright sunlight, the bottom dark and mysterious. They ate cold pork and beans, and granola bars in the half light, and sipped water to wash it down. The temperature dropped significantly by the minute, and after they’d eaten they put more layers on and pulled their bed roll and bag out to put over their laps.

“There was a kid in our neighborhood whose dad would always drive us to baseball games,” said Tom, “He had a shell on the back of his pickup and there’d be 15 of us jammed in there with sunflower seeds, soda, and bags of candy. Those trips always started out fun as hell, everyone joking, and bullshitting each other and having a blast. Then about an hour in that soda would start working its way through and we’d have to piss. That old bastard would just keep driving, he’d ignore us beating on the window. It was like he was getting some sort of bonus for getting us there faster. After a while someone would take a soda bottle and stand on their knees and piss into the bottle, and everyone would be yelling at the poor sucker not to spill.” Tom stared out the window at the approaching storm, but he was still in the back of the baseball truck years before. “You know…that was miserable, but we all went again the next weekend, and the next, and the next. It’s weird how I don’t really remember the games, but I remember those miserable cramped rides, and now they’re good memories.” Cat smiled and said, “Life is funny like that. What did your old man do for a living?” Tom scratched his head with both hands. “He was a butcher when I was a young kid, but when I was about ten he bought a business that installs and maintains rain gutters. He hates it, but it’s good money.” Tom thought for a few seconds and then continued, “I mean, he’s never come out and said he hated it, but he’s been miserable acting ever since he got into it…I guess money isn’t everything.” Cat laughed, “I’d like to have enough money to find that out for myself someday.” Lightning bolts, stark and sharp against the black sky, slashed to earth, and rain began to hit the roof of the horse trailer and explode into fine mist, some of which blew through the trailer. They both put their beds away immediately, better to be cold temporarily than sleep in wet bedding. They moved their bags into the nose of the trailer, which was solid and afforded protection from the rain, and then sat shoulder to shoulder in the little shelter.

“How about your old man Cat, what did he do?” Cat pulled a cigarette from the pack and lit it, again with Tom’s hands helping to create a wind free spot for the lighter. “I never knew him. When I was a little shit my mom told me he worked on the railroad, she said he was a gandy dancer. He maintained the tracks I guess. She told me he was working and out of town, and he was…forever.” Tom was frowning in the now dark trailer. He watched the cherry of Cat’s cigarette glow when he took a drag, and die off when he wasn’t actively smoking. “So you never met him?” Cat took another drag, “Nope…” Tom could hear something in his voice that wasn’t quite anger, and it wasn’t quite sadness, but it was something worse. They sat and looked at the storm and listened to the wheels as they made a constant shushing sound on the rain soaked highway. After a minute Tom started again. “Did your mom remarry?” Cat took a big final drag of the cigarette and pushed the butt out a hole in the side of the trailer. “I don’t know, I couldn’t tell you.” Tom wanted to ask, wanted to dig, but he felt like he was pushing a piece of tinfoil onto the open root of a tooth, so he said nothing.

The night drug on and on, and they were freezing. Finally, after the rain subsided, Tom stood and dug his bag back out and wrapped it around his shoulders. He leaned way back into the little alcove in the nose of the trailer in order to keep it from any rain that was on the floor of the trailer. Cat followed suit. They stood huddled together for nearly an hour, unable to move for fear of their bedding getting wet. “This son of a bitch must have the bladder of a blue whale, we’ve been driving for 4 hours straight, you’d think at some point he’d have to take a fucking piss, right?” Cat hadn’t exhibited much emotion before and it made Tom giggle to hear him speak with such irritation. Soon they were both giggling the way school kids that are overtired do late at night. They’d stop for a minute and gather themselves, then it would start all over again. “Well, we still have our humor I guess,” said Tom.

After the big front had moved past, they watched the lightning move slowly to the southeast until it became nothing more than white flashes on the horizon. Finally they heard the whining tone of the tires change to a deeper and slower pitch and then stop altogether. They looked out and could see that they were at a gas station on the outskirts of a town. The blue tone of fluorescent light flooded into the trailer and they heard the man get out of the cab. They heard the hollow sound of his boot heels striking the ground as he walked to the back of the trailer and opened the trailer with a screech. He said nothing, but smiled at them. They piled their bedding on top of their packs and then got out. The constant motion had given them sea legs and the earth felt like it was in motion under their feet. They used the bathroom, and then Tom went in and bought two large cups of scalded coffee, and a couple of day old bear claw doughnuts. Cat thanked Tom, “I’ll get you back for this, I appreciate it.” Tom asked the man who rang him up, “What town are we in?” The man looked up from a magazine, “You fellas are in the big town of Sheridan Wyoming, count yourself fortunate to only be visiting.” Tom laughed a little, “Sheridan Wyoming huh? How far from here to Billings?” The man drug his tired, bagged eyes up from the magazine for a half second before looking back down, “Maybe two hours…depends on what part.” Tom shook his head, “Thank you.” The man nodded his appreciation, but didn’t look up from the magazine. They stood at the back of the trailer and waited for what seemed like twenty minutes for the Mexican man to come back. “If that guy had told us it was only an hour to Billings I think I’d take my chances on foot,” said Cat. They heard a door squeak, and the driver walked across the lot from a bathroom on the side of the building, he said, “”Nosotros iremos ahora…” then he smiled big and said very, very slowly, “We go.”

They sat on their packs and covered their laps with their bedding, then leaned back against the trailer. They used the burned coffee to moisten the bear claw and make it easier to swallow. After they finished eating, exhaustion set in, and even though their position was awkward, and the ride was rough, they both drifted in and out of consciousness. It was the kind of sleep that produced little half dreams that were hard to distinguish from reality, fitful sleep filled with confusing dreams.

They both felt the sudden shift down in their sleep, followed by the uneven banging of a dirt road. The truck drove for twenty minutes on the dirt road before it came to a stop, and when it did, the dust it had kicked up came into the trailer, smelling like hot clay. They stood and quickly stowed their bedding in the dark. The Trailer door screeched open and they stepped out onto the ground. “El viaje termina aqui.” They didn’t understand exactly what he said, but they knew the ride was over. They thanked him, and watched as the taillights disappeared in a haze of dust. They were in the country, and could smell fresh cut hay wafting in from somewhere. A cow bawled slowly and very low off in the distance. “Well, I can’t be certain, but this sure as hell doesn’t look like Billings to me,” said Cat. He took a big deep cleansing breath. “I guess we walk until we get somewhere capable of bedding us down huh?” Tom agreed and pointed to an area of the low sky on the horizon that glowed a peach colored light. “I bet that’s Billings, or at least a decent sized town. Maybe we should head that way?” They started down the road, which was dirt, and bordered by big fields on either side. “I really wish I hadn’t been sleeping. If I’d thought that bastard was going to drop us in bum fucked Egypt, the least I could have done is pay attention to what direction we’re heading,” said Tom. Cat didn’t say anything back for a few steps. Their breaths sounded loud in the still, dark night. “Does it really matter? Billings is just a spot on a map. We aren’t there…we’re here, a different spot on the map. It’s not like we have to be there or we die. Maybe this’ll turn out good.” Tom listened to what Cat said, and again was amazed at the way he said things without an ounce of correction or chastisement, and yet, he looked at things so differently than Tom, that what he said could easily have turned into an argument.

They walked down the little dirt road for a half hour. They were both exhausted to the point where they didn’t talk. It was dead calm, and little sounds that even the mildest breeze would have obscured were plainly audible. The slow and rhythmic chirp of a sprinkler head chopping into water, the whine of an irrigation pump running somewhere, crickets calling to one another, the gentle roar of a jet at 30,000 feet, headed for parts unknown. The road began to drop, and at the bottom of the grade was a slick and silent ditch that passed under the road through a big galvanized culvert. To the right of the road and a quarter mile across a field, Cat pointed at an acre-sized knot of big cottonwood trees, like black giants standing stalk still in the night. “Might be a decent spot to crash.” Tom didn’t say a word, he just started walking towards them. They had to cross two barbed wire fences to get there, each man taking turns stepping on the bottom wire, and pulling up on the top with a metallic squeak, so the other had a bigger space to pass through. When they reached the trees they each took a few minutes to clear away sticks and rocks and anything projecting from the earth that could stab them in the back before laying their beds down on the smoothed spots. They kicked off their shoes, and climbed in. Tom was asleep before he had zipped the bag all the way up. It was almost like a black pool had opened up and he fell in, everything sensory was gone, and so was he.

Something woke Tom before he was ready to get up. The sun hadn’t risen yet and everything looked gray like an old photo. Cat was still sleeping with his back turned. Something moved behind Tom and he slowly turned to see what it was. Ten feet away stood a big black cow with a white face. Her head bobbed up and down slightly, and she stretched her neck way out towards Tom in curiosity, her big black, wet eyes staring without any animation. She retracted her neck and gave a snort, before turning and ambling back out to the pasture. Well good morning to you too, thought Tom. His stomach was screaming for food, and he had to pee terribly, but his nose and cheeks were numb with cold, so he didn’t want to leave the comfort of his bag and step into the chill. He could hear the cows out in the pasture, their plodding steps, an occasional low moo, the tearing sound of grass being bitten and pulled and eaten. He looked up at the uneven patches of cool, blue gray sky that peeked through the cottonwood branches, and he thought about home, the comfort that was a call away, life could be so easy. Then he thought about how long ago that life seemed, and how much had changed in such a short time. Already he was a different person, already he saw the world in a way he could never have imagined only a few weeks before. He no longer asked himself, what am I doing, but, why am I doing this? There was no answer to that question yet, but one thing he did know was that the day to day fight to eat, and find shelter, and move, was enough to occupy most of his thoughts. There wasn’t much time for doing long, deep, self analysis. There wasn’t room to feel sorry for himself when the real concern was an approaching storm, or a rumbling stomach. Life condensed down quickly when there were limited resources like food and shelter. After a few minutes he couldn’t take the insistent nagging of his bladder any longer. Quickly he unzipped the bag and pulled his shoes on, then rummaged inside his pack and pulled out his sweatshirt. It went on easily, and for the first time he realized that he was dropping weight. Maybe that’s good, maybe I needed to lean up, but the revelation was a little unsettling. He walked a couple hundred feet away from where he’d slept and peed at the upturned rootwad of a cottonwood the wind had blown over, and when he did he felt his hip bones, and ran his cold hand up under his shirt and felt his ribs. He was in no danger of starving, but the weight loss was alarming for the short amount of time he’d been drifting.

Cat was awake, and smoking a cigarette when he got back. He looked up at Tom, “That’s the first time you’ve beaten me out of bed. I was kind of surprised to wake up and see you were gone.” Tom knelt and started rolling his bag up. “I probably wouldn’t have, but I had to piss like a Russian race horse.” A sound caught their attention and they both turned to look. A fat tired motorcycle was bumbling unevenly over the pasture on a dead line for them. “Fuck,” said Cat. He took two quick drags from the cigarette and then shoved it into the soil and pulled on his shoes. Tom could see where the tracks of the motorcycle had knocked the gray dew off the grass exposing green in a long line. The motorcycle pulled up and a tall lanky man got off before it was barely stopped. He wore a filthy gray baseball hat that said Cenex, a faded Levi jacket, and a pair of newer, tight jeans, that made him look even taller and lankier than he was. He jerked an irrigation shovel out of a long canvas scabbard and strode into the brush toward them. “Just what in the living hell do you boys think you’re doing, this is private fucking ground right here.” He stabbed the shovel into the ground like a spear. “You do realize it’s fire season in Montana don’t you? Up here smoking a fucking cigarette on private property during fire season. I’m out irrigating and smell that Goddamn cigarette burning. Who the fuck are you guys? Someone give you the okay? Cause I own this fucking land, and I know it wasn’t me.” Tom was flat footed, he didn’t have a response, and Cat was still waking up. They stood there and took the onslaught like hornets were attacking them, but they were unable to run. Their quiet and calm disarmed the man, he’d been expecting a fight, and when he didn’t get one he was taken aback for a second. He hoisted the shovel up and held it propped backwards over his shoulder like a lever. “Anyway, I ought to call the Sheriff, I really ought to.” Then he stepped back a bit and quartered away. “I’m gonna go finish up moving the water, when I come back by here in 15 minutes you better be down the fucking road, or the Sheriff will be called.”

They took the threat seriously, and within ten minutes they were back on the road and walking toward where they believed Billings to be. They hurried as fast as they could for a mile or so, then walked down a side road and stopped. “Didn’t think we were gonna have trouble there, I shouldn’t have lit that cigarette, I guess hindsight is always 20/20.” said Cat. They dug granola bars out of the packs and ate two each. Then they put water in with the oatmeal and stirred it around, and drank it down uncooked. “If it’s really fire season here,and they catch us with an open fire, we’ll rot under the jail,” said Cat. “I don’t want to take that chance.” They ate the oatmeal and started back down the main road toward Billings. Cat laughed and shook his head a little, “Had to find the one piece of ground where the owner has a nose like a fucking bloodhound.” They both laughed. The road was beaten to a fine gray powder and every step kicked up a low cloud of dust that hung for a few moments after they’d passed by. The watery call of meadowlarks followed them along as they crested a green, irrigated hill. They could see for a long way. They stood and caught their breath for a moment and then Cat said, “I’m flat broke. One of these places is gonna need help doing something, right? Maybe we can pick up a little day labor. I don’t want you buying me my coffee and donuts any more than you have to.” Tom pulled the sweater up and over his head, he was sweating now, “I could use a little pocket change too. Let’s see what we can scare up.”

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