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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail, scene twenty four

Updated: Jun 21

The empty plains passed by unremarkably, low, gradually inclined hills dotted with dusty gray green clumps of sage, giving way to vast expanses of flat, tan, sun baked earth with sparsely scattered, straw yellow grass. The wind whipped through the open door of the car, but rather than cooling them, it felt like a fan pushing heat from a wood stove. They sat side by side on their packs and watched the vast plains flee to the south. Without saying a word, Cat seemed different. Tom couldn’t put his finger on what the difference was, but it was unmistakable. He was back living in the moment, the vague sense of tension and anxiety that had surrounded him the entire time they were in Billings was gone. There wasn’t anything physical that told Tom it was gone, it just was. Cat sat on his pack, whittling on the walking stick, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. He would work for a minute, then blow the wood shavings away and examine his progress. He seemed fluid, relaxed, almost as if he’d taken a sedative. He turned to Tom and took the cigarette from his mouth with his index and middle fingers, and showed it to him. “You ever smoke cigarettes?” Tom shook his head, “No, I mean when I was about a freshman in high school there was a kid who’d sneak a pack of his dad’s Camels out to this little alley across from the high school and I gave it a shot, but I couldn’t inhale it. Made me about half queasy just puffing it.” Cat laughed, “You gave up too easily. Smoking is an acquired habit, you gotta get past the shitty taste and pukey feeling until you learn to enjoy it,” he laughed as he spoke. “When I was about sixth grade, my foster mom caught me in a park bathroom smoking a cigarette. It was one of those rancid, shit smelling outhouses. I think it was about the second or third time I ever smoked, and I didn’t even like it. I can’t tell you why I was even doing it, to be honest.” He took a big drag of the cigarette before he continued, then flicked the butt out the open door, the wind caught it and it was gone. “She didn’t say too much, but she told me to get in the car. She drove to a liquor store and made me wait in the car. She went in and came back out with a little brown bag. She didn’t say a word as we drove home. When we got there she took me out into the backyard. They had one of those cheap little tin lawn mower sheds. She opened the door and handed me the bag. There were three packs of unfiltered Lucky Strikes and a couple books of matches in it, She told me that I was gonna sit in that little shed and smoke those cigarettes end to end until they were gone.She said she was gonna be sneaking and checking on me, so I better damn well smoke them.” Cat paused to hold the walking stick up to the light and look at the contour he’d shaved into the wood. “So I sat there and smoked. After about four cigarettes I opened the door and about turned myself inside out, I was so goddamn sick. I thought I was gonna see the soles of my feet in that puddle of puke I dry heaved so bad, If a person could ever feel like a color, I felt it that day, and it was green. She was sitting on the porch in the shade drinking an iced tea. She walked over, and I could see that she felt kind of bad by the look in her eyes. She told me I could be done…maybe she should have made me keep going, might’ve killed the habit.” Cat stared out at the plains moving by, unseeing, his mind 15 years in the past. “It just might’ve…”

They rolled north and west for hours. The flat gray and yellow prairie gradually gave way to bigger hills, and gullies between the hills that showed crumbling rose toned granite where rain water had washed the top soil away. The gullies were lined with large, bushy junipers, and the hillsides had smaller junipers scattered here and there, starkly green puff balls against the gold grass that covered the slopes. Tom looked at the far northern horizon and could see massive thunderheads towering over the landscape, pure white like powdered sugar against the perfect sea blue of the sky. He elbowed Cat and pointed at them, “Been a while since we’ve seen any weather but hot and dry.” Cat nodded, and repositioned his pack so he could lay at a better angle to see the building clouds, “It has been awhile, and it might still be. Sometimes those thunderheads stack up like that, and then they just sit there, like they’re only there to check out the view.” He punched the contents of his pack this way and that a few times, trying it as a pillow after every couple of slugs, until he got it just right, then he settled back on it. He reached over and gently tapped the side of Tom’s leg with the back of his knuckles, as if he were trying to knock on a window as quietly as possible to wake someone so they could sneak out with him. “I really fucked that up the other night. I’m sorry, honest to God I am. She seemed like a nice girl. You shoulda just walked the hell out of there and let me figure it out.” Tom nodded a little, “It is what it is, but she was a hell of a nice girl…it’s weird, I have never just connected with someone like that before. It was like I was meant to meet her,” Tom reached down and felt across the grain of the wooden floor with his thumb to get a little hint of texture, “probably just wishful thinking that we had that deep connection so fast. That or she was gonna be a rebound girl…and, you know, I couldn’t just walk out and leave you hanging there. That’s just not who I am. ” Cat brought his hands from his chest, to up behind his head, like he was going to do a sit up. “Or maybe she wasn’t going to be your rebound at all, maybe that connection was real...and maybe this stupid asshole,” he stabbed himself in the chest with a dark thumb, “screwed up the start of something beautiful.” They stared out the door at a bald hill that had a single large cottonwood right at the top. Two black cows stood silhouetted against the white tower of thunderheads in the distance, heads lowered to the grass at their feet. They watched until the cows were out of sight behind them. Tom turned to Cat, “I guess I didn’t help you out anyway.” He reached up and gently tapped his swollen ear. “Where the hell did you learn to fight like that anyway?” Cat sat up and raised his knees to his chest and hugged them, “Picked it up along the way I guess. I got the shit kicked out of me one time in a group home when I was about 12 years old. Got in a fight over a missing Reese’s peanut butter cup. A big redheaded, freckle faced kid called me out into the yard, he was about 14 and outweighed me by a good forty pounds. I looked like…well, I looked like you do when it was all over. I tried to stand toe to toe with him, you know, be honorable and shit like that. An older kid caught me a day or two later and told me I was a dumb ass for trying to stand with him like that. Told me next time to equalize the odds, told me to bust him in the mouth with a rock or something. I remember he said to me, “Forget all that Marquis of Queensbury bullshit, street fighting has no rules, you fight to win, no matter what you have to do. If they call you a dirty fighter, or a cheap shot artist, you look em’ right in the eye and say, you goddamn right, and don’t you forget it. And I haven’t forgotten it, and I also haven’t lost a fight.”

The sun sank in the west so that bars of warm, honey toned light cut through little holes and punctures in the wall of the boxcar, casting beams that shot through and illuminated spots on the opposing side of the car. Tiny dust motes raced through the concentrated sun beams, momentarily catching light before being pulled out the side door and whirling silently into the surrounding atmosphere before settling in the crushed granite and bushes alongside the railroad bed. Tom laid on his back and looked up into one of the beams of sunlight. He watched the dance of the dust, his eyes drooping, and his right hand across his chest and touching the most tender spots on his damaged ribs. He traced invisible lines around the worst spots, like a policeman might do with chalk and a dead body. That one is the shape of a heel. He Imagined a shiny snakeskin boot, it’s heel polished and hard, smashing down on his ribs, and then he recreated in his mind’s eye, Gina diving in to save him, and he wished he was in her house, on the couch, with her there to attend to him, instead of lying on his back, headed God knows where. He imagined her house, cool, the radio on to some hip new music he didn’t yet know about, the room dim, but perfectly lit with glowing amber light…the smell of onions, garlic, fresh baked bread filling the house, the gentle sound of boiling water and something slowly frying…and then he was asleep for real, the vision melting away like an ice cube on a hot sidewalk, the train’s clanking, and rocking, lulling him to sleep.

The shriek of metal rubbing metal, piercing, like a dragon screech woke him, confused for a moment, and surprisingly cold. He sat up fast, and as a result felt his ribs echo with sharp pains, he pictured them breaking like sticks of thin glass. It was night time, and the smell of fresh turned earth and rain filled the air. He looked out the door and it was dark, the kind of dark that was so dense it was disorienting. The train was gradually slowing, and he could feel his balance leaning forward, if he was standing he’d have to brace against the inertia. How is it possible to be so dark? He searched in vain for Cat, finally calling, “You out there Cat?” Nothing. He waited a moment, for the steel on steel scream to quiet. Then he said louder, “Hey Cat, you out there?” Vaguely he heard motion, but couldn’t determine where it was coming from. Then from behind him, and to his left Cat answered. “Yeah, shit, must’ve passed out too. Where are we?” Tom shook his head even though there was no way Cat could have seen him do it. “I have no clue, but holy shit is it dark. I mean, there isn’t so much as a pin prick of light anywhere.”

For the next five minutes the train continued to slow, and the piercing steel on steel scream lessened until finally it stopped altogether. Tom dug into his pack and felt for the flashlight, but he hadn’t used it in so long it had lost its priority in the pecking order and was lost deep down in the bottom somewhere. By feel he located his hooded sweatshirt and pulled it on, groaning with pain as he worked his left arm into the sleeve. Far up at the front of the train he could hear the engines idling, and that same rhythmic dinging of a little metallic bell. Cat crawled across the floor of the box car. Tom could hear the scuff of the pack each time Cat pulled it across the wooden grain of the floor. He sat next to Tom and sparked his lighter, there was no flame the first time, but the light from the flint left a picture in Tom’s eyes after it was gone, Cat’s ghastly shadowed face, like an old time movie poster of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein. The second attempt, the lighter caught flame and Tom could see its light burning in the spaces between Cat’s fingers where he’d cupped them to light a cigarette. “We better get off,” he told Tom, “ it’s not like they can do shit now that we already caught the ride, but I hate getting bossed around. How you feeling?” Tom twisted a little in the dark, “My ribs still hurt, but they feel better than yesterday.” Cat stood, and Tom watched the orange glow of his cigarette as he bent and grabbed his pack, then stood again and slung it on. He did the same with his own pack. He turned and followed the glowing cherry of the cigarette to the door and watched as it lowered in the dark, then dropped to the ground, he could hear Cat’s feet crunch on the crushed gravel of the railroad bed. “Hand me your pack.” Said Cat in a loud whisper. Tom un-shouldered it and lowered it toward the cherry of the cigarette, he felt Cat grab it, then he turned and got down on his belly and eased his legs off the edge, his ribs hurting, but not unbearably so, as they had in previous days, and reached down with tip toes until he contacted the ground and let himself become free of the car. Far up to the north they could see the glow of the engine, but it was like seeing a flashlight beam pointed away from them at the far end of a black cave. “I have never been in darkness like this before, ” said Tom. “at least not while I was outside.”

They felt their way down the slope of the railroad grade until they hit flat ground, and a wall of brush. Cat reached forward with his foot, feeling with his pointed toe like he was trying to find a slipper in the dark. His toe bumped a clumped bush, and a shower of water droplets fell from where they’d been resting on leaves. He felt the cold water soak through the shin of his jeans. “Shit, it rained just enough to coat this brush. If we walk through there we’ll be soaked to the bone and freezing our asses off.” Far up the tracks they heard the sudden hiss of an air line being disconnected. They stood and listened, trying to unravel what was happening in their minds. The engine roared, and they could hear the familiar metal on metal squeal, but with far less volume. Tom watched the cherry of the cigarette move from waist height, up to Cat’s mouth. It glowed brightly, dimmed, and then he watched it drop to the ground and disappear with a grinding sound. “I don’t think anyone is coming down and checking this train, they just dropped it here,” said Cat, “maybe we should go back up and wait in the car until light comes? We try walking through this shit and everything we have is going to be soaked.” Tom agreed. They made their way back to the car, and climbed back in. Tom was able to get in without Cat’s help. His ribs screamed at him, but he did it.

After the engine moved far enough away that it could no longer be heard, they sat listening to the silence for a while. It was cold enough that even the crickets sat still under their rocks and bits of wood. “I wonder what time it is?” Asked Tom, then a second later, “I guess it doesn’t matter, we aren’t on a schedule.” He heard Cat rearrange the blanket he’d gotten from his pack, over his lap. “No, it doesn’t matter. The sun will come up when it comes up, and trying to hurry it won’t make it rise a second earlier.” After he stopped talking it was silent again. There was no residual humming of an electric light, no buzz of a far off plane or car, not even the rustling of a mouse looking for seeds in the field. They laid under their blankets and heard nothing but the high pitched ringing, non-sound, only true silence can produce in a person’s ears. Tom stared up at where he knew the ceiling of the box car was, even though he couldn’t see it. He wondered how he got where he was at that moment, and more intensely, he wondered why. He didn’t have a definitive goal, and even though he didn’t really buy into the philosophy of finding oneself, maybe that’s exactly what he was doing, finding himself out in the black, empty, silent prairie, shivering under a blanket with smashed ribs, and a purple face…maybe he was exactly where he needed to be to find himself. A new thought startled him. He hadn’t thought about her for days. Only weeks before he would never have believed it possible to be free of her shadow. Maybe this really is where I needed to be.

At some point the shivering against the damp cool of the air subsided and they slept. It was a raven, coal black against the gray haze of the morning, that woke Tom, it’s call like a short cackling laugh that came in bursts. It stood on a fence post with one shiny, black jellybean eye turned toward the open boxcar door, almost like he was yelling at them to get out. Tom looked over at the spot where Cat had been sleeping, and both he and his bag were gone. He got up, teeth chattering against the clinging cold, and dressed quickly. His ribs were still tender, but improving almost by the hour. He shouldered his pack and looked out the door. Cat was 100 yards back up the track. He was feeding pieces of wood into a ring fire he’d built on a little flat in the bottom of the grade. Tom climbed down and walked down the track. To the east, the sky was solid, thick, heavy clouds, like soggy spring snow. To the west, on the horizon, was a slice of bright blue, the back edge of the front that had moved through. As far as the eye could see was prairie, without so much as a rise that came above knee height. The grass and earth were a gray yellow tone, flat and without life, like all the vibrant colors had been boiled from them. Cat had a fire roaring from pieces of railroad tie, and broken brush. He had oil in a pan, smoking hot, and laying on a few fresh cut green willows to one side were 4 dark red bird breasts. When he saw Tom approaching, Cat smiled. “The slingshot was on fire today. Chased a little covey of quail up and down that fence line for 40 minutes just after light. Finally figured out that if I could get em’ to hole up, I could get a shot. Took 9 shots to get these ones.” He spoke with pride, excited at his contribution. “I bummed a little of your oil, didn’t wanna char them too much with this railroad tie creosote.” Tom walked up and squatted next to him and extended his hands to the fire, warming his palms. “Holy shit, I don’t think I could get that many quail with a shotgun, way to go.” Cat exuded happiness, he picked up each breast and laid it into the hot oil with a furious sizzle, then scattered salt and pepper over them. “Yeah, I just have a knack with that slingshot. Never could hit jack shit with a shotgun for some reason. Of course, I use the slingshot all the time, I never owned a shotgun of my own, so I never got too familiar.” Tom dug his water and a small pan out and poured enough water in for two cups of coffee, then nestled the pan up next to the white powder of the coals. Cat flipped the pieces of meat several times, pressing them with a fork until they sprang back stiffly, done. They skewered the breasts with their forks, and ate them like that, no plates. When they finished, they ate a handful each of peanut m&ms and washed them down with hot coffee. Cat lit a cigarette and sat half crouched on his pack. He carved at his walking stick, sipped coffee, and smoked as he worked. Tom looked west to the growing band of blue on the horizon, clear weather was approaching, and with it a little breeze rose, just enough to bob the wheaty, seeded heads of grass that grew along the fence line. “This is where I belong.” Said Cat, making a sharp curve with his knife in the wood of the walking stick as he talked. Tom looked back at him from the blue horizon. “Some people are meant to be fishermen, some are ranchers, some guys work in an office, and some don’t know where they belong at all. I think I’m lucky that I know where I belong, and that’s right here.” He blew shavings from the stick. “You ever drive through a city somewhere and it’s nothing but buildings and traffic and restaurants, and ballgames and…and just all kinds of stuff going on everywhere you look, and then you turn a corner and you see a little sliver of trees that slices through all that mess? It’s dark and dense, and surrounded by the madness, but it’s just a little margin, maybe a little corner of quiet and calm, those little corners, those little forgotten borders and margins, that’s where I belong. I could just never sit somewhere doing a job, and just, that was it, you know? That’s all there was, do the job, hike back and forth to that job, fill that retirement out and just…just fucking exist in that one small little universe.” He raised the stick and then smacked his knee with it a few times before looking for where he’d left off carving. “Nope, I’m a margin man. I don’t do well in that other world…well, you found that out. I belong in the spaces in between, kind of a nowhere man I guess…a nowhere man."

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