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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail, scene thirty five

By the time they’d made their way to the river and filled the receptacles with water, and then walked back, the man had used a dish rag to remove the radiator fill cap, and only a remnant of steam exhaled slowly from the opening. “Let’s let her cool for a couple more minutes before we dump the water in,” the man said. He squatted down and laid the dish rag on the ground, then put one knee on it and looked up under the bottom of the vehicle. He reached up awkwardly and felt for something, then drew his hand out and smelled his finger tips. “Yeah…got a busted hose up in there somewhere.” He stood again with much effort, his head shining with sweat. “Don’t know what the hell I can do about it out here.” He brought a hand up and used it to shield the sun, then looked up and down the road in hopes that a service station would appear. Cat dropped to his knees, then rolled under the motor. He reached up and felt around, grunting from exertion, then stood and looked down from the top. “I can see the leak, there’s a little split right in the center of your radiator hose…you got any tools?” The man stood smiling in thought, his teeth dark in the cracks and his gums receding. “I have a little set, and I have some oil and antifreeze too, but I don’t have an extra hose..” Cat shrugged, “Well, you won’t make it a mile with this hose in that shape. If we get it off, maybe we can get into town and get you another one?” The man sensed his limited options, and understood the predicament he was in, he had no choice but to trust the strangers. “If you could get it off, maybe someone would take pity on a stranded old man and give me a ride to the nearest garage. I could pay you a little…” Cat waved him off, “I’m here already, don’t worry about paying me.” The man stuck his hand out again, “I’m Larry Brock, I sure appreciate the help.” Cat wiped his hand on his hip, then shook the man’s hand, followed by Tom.

Cat snaked around the motor for 45 minutes, his arm wound back into the tight confines of the motor. He asked Tom for tools, and then handed them back, the job he was performing hidden from sight. Tom used the dish rag to polish away grease from the tools and replaced them into their assigned slots. Finally Cat emerged, holding a thick length of black hose. They walked into the shadow cast by the motor home, and looked at the hose. Cat felt the inch-long rupture in the hose with his thumb . “Funny how such a small thing can stop a guy in his tracks.” Larry said. Cat nodded, and Tom could tell that he was thinking about something. He turned the hose in his hands, this way and that. “Maybe we could repair it…” Cat said. “You might have stuff we could use to cobble it shut, and if you baby it, you might get into the next town?” Larry shook his head with a little doubt, “I don’t know…maybe.”

Larry and Vivian searched through the mobile home and came out with a roll of duct tape after ten minutes. “This is all we could come up with.” Cat took it and looked at it, biting the side of a bottom lip, and feeling the top of his head. “You got a needle and thread?” He asked Vivian. She got a bright look on her face, “Yes, yes I do.” She sounded pleased with herself.

Cat took the largest needle and the heaviest red thread in the kit, and used a pair of pliers to poke it through the rubber, then around, over and over until he had an inch long piece of dense embroidery that looked like a red scar. He tied it off tightly, then used the remaining thread to go around and around the entire section of pipe until a three inch section was wound tightly and no hose could be seen. He tied it off, and then wound a twelve inch section over and over with the duct tape until it was a quarter inch thick. It was almost dark by the time he crawled back into the motor and worked the hose into place, Larry held a flashlight at Cat’s direction until the job was done. After the hose was on, the three men stood and looked at the motor in the dark with a sense of accomplishment and anxiety, would it hold? From inside the lighted motorhome, pots and pans clanged occasionally, and the smell of fried onions wafted from it. Viv opened the door with a screech, “You fellas done?” Larry answered her, “Yeah…got her on.” She came around the front, her clothes catching light that came through the windshield. “Come on in and get a bite then.” Tom and Cat followed Larry in and took places around a tan, formica table top that imitated granite. Viv looked at Larry, and said one word, “Larry?” He knew what she meant. She laced her fingers and held them across her belly, and bowed her head. Larry leaned forward, hands clasped, and elbows on the table, and he too bowed his head. Cat and Tom followed their lead. “Dear Heavenly father, thank you for this meal we are about to take part in, and thank you for sending help today in our time of need. Let us enjoy this meal together, and bless the hands that prepared it, in the blessed name of Jesus, amen.” Larry looked up,

“Okay fellas, let’s dig in.”

The meal was delicious, chicken fried steak, fork tender, fried potatoes and onions, all smothered in brown gravy, and a side of sweet corn. They ate until they were uncomfortable, and then Viv put a pan of hot brownies on the table. Larry laughed, “Now you see why I’m so porky,” as he patted his belly.

Larry talked about his life, and Viv mostly listened, correcting little points of confusion. They met as teenagers at a dance in Baker Montana, it was love at first sight, Larry said, Viv shrugged and rolled her eyes a little. He gave a deep little laugh, “Well, it was love at first sight for one of us anyway, and then did a lot of convincing.” He chuckled again. They raised a family near Miles City Montana, raised them on a little ranch, and Larry worked as a school bus driver to supplement their income. When the kids were grown they had no desire to run the ranch, and Larry wasn’t capable. “Coming home from driving one day and a milk truck ran a four way and caught me broadside,” he popped his palms together to imitate the wreck. “Dislocated my left hip and broke a bone in there…that’s why I limp.” He paused and rocked a coffee cup around on its bottom edge with his thick fingers, thinking. Viv spoke up, “He makes it sound like nothing, but it changed everything. We sold our cattle, leased the place for two years…then sold it and decided to travel. We have a daughter in Oregon, and that’s where we were going when, well, when we met you boys.” The room fell awkwardly quiet for a moment, then Viv spoke again. “How did you boys come to be all the way out here with no car or anything else?” Tom and Cat alternately told their stories. Told them they weren’t married, and were just seeing the country before they decided to do something else. Cat was quiet when it came to explaining the future. Again the room fell quiet, and Tom realized that it was time to go. They stood and thanked them for the meal, and were in turn thanked for helping with the repair. They stepped out into the black night, and were shocked at how far the temperature had fallen. “Shoulda gotten our beds ready when it was still light, that was stupid,” said Cat. They grabbed their packs and walked back under the timber. They spread their beds out under the wide bows of a huge spruce tree, both of their heads right near the trunk. They could see the yellow squares of light that were formed from the windows of the motorhome. Cat lit a cigarette and leaned against the tree. Tom was inside his bag, chilled. “That was one hell of a meal,” said Cat, “you wanted a hot meal, and just like that, you got one.” Tom laughed, “While we were eating I was thinking about that. Nice people, very nice.” Cat took a drag, and the tobacco crackled as it burned. “You wonder how people know that they met the person they want to spend the next sixty years with, while they’re at a high school dance. Shit, I can’t even decide what direction I want to travel.” Cat laughed at himself. Tom stared at the yellow windows. “I thought I’d met that person, but looking back on it now, I think I was lying to myself all along. Hindsight is always 20/20 I guess.” He turned from his side to his back and watched as the lights in the motorhome went dark. The moon appeared in white chunks like puzzle pieces through the branches of trees to the east. He thought about the day, they’d only covered a few miles, but it felt like a long journey. He recalled his irritation and raised temperature at Cat right before the motorhome pulled in. He recalled the words that were spoken, and replayed them almost as if he was rewinding a tape recorder and listening again and again. He laid very still and watched the moon rise incrementally up the branch of a tree he used to mark its ascent. “Cat?” He said in a low whisper. After a couple seconds of quiet, “Yeah?” Tom cleared his throat quietly, “You were right, I’m never content with the place I am. I always want the next spot…always.” Cat didn’t respond for a few seconds, then very quietly, “Yeah…I know.”

The rattling roar of a jake brake roaring down the canyon woke Tom early the next morning. He adjusted his position and watched a loaded logging truck crawl by, smoke pouring from the chrome stacks. He listened as the brake went off periodically, getting quieter and further away each time. Cat rolled toward Tom, and stuck a hand out from under the covers, and used a finger to wipe sleep from the corners of his eyes, “Well that’s a hell of a way to wake up.” They laid in the warmth of their beds, dreading the chill that would come after they got out. Tom looked over at the motorhome, its windows dark, and covered with condensation that couldn’t be too far from frost. “You think that patch will hold?” He asked. Cat raised his eyebrows and held them in that position. “I don’t know, I did the best I could. Hopefully they can get into town.” He reached above him into a side pocket of the pack his head rested on, and retrieved a pack of cigarettes and a match, then pulled everything but his hands back under the covers. He lit a cigarette and left it in his mouth, then rolled to look at the motorhome. “I don’t hear a damn thing, they must be deep sleepers.” Tom nodded his agreement, and then they lay side by side quietly. Cat started talking, the cigarette bobbing as he spoke, “This whole time we’ve been traveling together I’ve been wondering something. Last night I was laying here trying to zonk out and I thought about it again. Now promise you won’t get upset if I ask, and you sure as hell don’t have to answer if you don’t want to…” Tom was curious, what could be so compelling that Cat needed to know about? “Go ahead, ask, if I don’t want to answer I won’t. Cat slipped a hand out and took the cigarette out of his mouth, then turned towards Tom. “I know you wanted a fresh start, but why did you burn your place down? That just seems, like…an overreaction.” Tom sat up and scooted back so the big spruce tree was supporting his back, his sleeping bag still all the way up around his face. Two gray camp robber birds stood at the edge of the big mud puddle, their feathers fluffed out for warmth, he watched them, and in turn they watched him. “Well it seems ridiculous now, like what the fuck was I thinking, but that’s not how it seemed at the time. At the time I just wanted it all gone, everything. But now I realize that nothing changed because of it. She’s still with someone else, the memories are still in my head, the pain is still in my heart. Destroying everything physically didn’t change a damn thing. At the time it seemed like a cleansing thing, like I was scrubbing everything away.” A car swooshed by on the highway, and the Camp Robbers flew up and away at its passing, landing on a branch of the big spruce, making it teeter totter up and down. Cat took another drag of the cigarette and exhaled the smoke away from Tom. “Eventually I need to go back there and deal with everything. I don’t even like thinking about it. Seeing her with…well, I don’t want to deal with it, let’s just leave it at that.” The Camp Robbers flew back down to the edge of the puddle and took a couple of quick pecking drinks, then flew across the highway and up into the dark timbered hillside out of sight. Cat sat up, threw his blankets back. and said, with the cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth as he pulled his shoes on, “Who says you have to go back?” The sentence felt like a physical slap. Tom absently watched Cat put his shoes on, “So you’re saying just don’t go back?” Cat tied his right shoe loosely, “I’m not saying anything Tom, I was just asking a question. Who says you have to go back? I mean, there’s no law that says you have to, right? You’re a legal adult, you ain’t collecting insurance fraud money on the place you burned,” he finished tying his shoe on and sat with his knees pulled up and his arms crossed flat over them, the cigarette held between the first two fingers of his right hand, “So why do you have to go back? You’re the one that’s driving the car, drive it where you want to go.” He stood and grabbed his bag of toiletries from his pack and disappeared back toward the river. Cat was stunned, he’d never even entertained the idea of not going back. He’s right, I don’t have to…

They washed in the frigid water of the river, shaved, ate, and brushed their teeth before it was fully light. They stood at the front of the motorhome, and there was no motion or light coming from within. Cat pressed his thumb on the orange turn signal light and held it there for a second, leaving a wet thumbprint, “Well, hopefully that cobbled together bullshit hose gets ‘em to the next town huh?” Tom nodded, “Yeah, good luck.”

The road wound to the west, cutting a sharp tunnel through the dark coniferous forest, like someone had taken a razor sharp chisel and shaved a path. They walked up over a rise and could see a long straightaway in front of them, about a quarter mile up the road three cow elk crossed, and a second later a massive dark necked bull, his white tipped horns laid back along his flanks. They both saw the animals at the same time and elbowed each other, then smiled at the sight. “Man, they are massive,” said Tom. Cat smiled, “Every time I see one it’s shocking to me how much they stick out like a sore thumb.” From their left, echoing out of the timber behind them came a high, long, whistling bugle, followed by three or four grunts. They stopped in their tracks and listened. A few seconds later, and coming from the direction they’d seen the big bull cross the road, an answer bugle, deeper, longer, and followed by a series of much more desperate bellering grunts. Cat elbowed Tom, “That big boy is about to stomp the dog shit outta the one behind us.” He hooked a thumb toward where the younger sounding bugle had come from. They began walking again, listening to the drama play out back and forth between the dominant bull and his challenger until they’d gone far enough that they no longer heard them. A big grassy meadow formed a yellow patch on a mountainside to the northwest, and the sun lit it up brightly, a golden focal point in the otherwise dark mountains. Behind the meadow the sky was deep blue gray, and long white streaks of rain fell. “Fuck…” said Cat. Tom nodded, “Shit…” Even though the storm was probably an hour or more away, Tom dug out the plastic squares they’d used for rain protection. He handed one to Cat.

They moved down the road, sticking their thumb out to every west bound vehicle that passed, but got no response. Cool air pushed in from the rain front, and that familiar earthy water smell flooded in with it. Then it started, first with big, dime sized drops that felt like liquid ice on the head, then smaller drops, fast and steady. They pulled the plastic sheets over themselves, and the rain was loud as it smacked down, then formed rivers that traced down the plastic and ran off in steady streams at the bottom corners. They walked in silence, both wondering how long it would go on, an hour? Two hours…two days? Along the road, red, yellow, and blue wildflowers bobbed and bent sadly under the weight of the downpour, and Tom felt the same way, like he was bowing under the weight of the rain. Then it happened, what some call Karma. The big motorhome ground by, straining uphill like an ox pulling a plow. It drove a quarter mile to a wide spot and eased over, its flashers beacons in the dark day. They walked toward it, had the patch given? When they walked up alongside, the door opened a crack and Viv was there, waving them in. “We can’t let you two walk in the rain, that just wouldn’t be right after what you’ve done for us.”

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