Chapter 7

            We reached the last block of Main before it turned into FM1477 and Buster slowed to cruising speed.  That way, we could take in the whole Dixie Dog scene carefully, sizing up the action and the players, much like we’d done on the junior varsity football field for years.

Buster nodded toward a black pick-up creeping along in the opposite lane.  “Cody’s here.”

Another teammate, which was good news for me.  If the night were to end in a brawl, I always liked to figure the odds early on.  I twisted in my seat as we motored slowly past.  “Can you see who’s riding shotgun?”  I asked as we turned off of Main Street.

Buster snorted.  “Who else?  The twins are like Frick and Frack.”

Seldom would you find Cody without twin brother Jody.  Buster said until they found a set of twins or a woman who’d take them both, neither of them would ever get laid.

We pulled into a stall on the far end of the long line of speaker-equipped parking spots under the sprawling, neon-drenched Dixie Dog awning.  I squinted out the side window at the plate glass of the kitchen but I couldn’t make out faces from that distance.  Then Cody’s truck slid into the parking space next to us and blocked any hope I’d had of spotting Kay Dee among the paper-hatted figures scurrying around inside.

“Cody, you’re blocking my view,” I said when he killed the motor and looked my way.

He grinned and tipped his hat.  “Nice to see you, too, Travis.”

Jody leaned forward and flashed an identical grin.  “She’s in there at the register.”

“We seen her already tonight,” Cody finished his brother’s thought.  “Junior was talkin’ to her at the time.”

Of course!  The worst case, as promised by Buster’s shooting star.  I closed my eyes and flopped my head back against the window, dinging it on the empty rifle rack.  That hurt.

“Welcome to the Dixie Dog,” the scratchy but familiar voice rasped from the speaker near the plastic menu board outside Buster’s window.  My heart skipped a beat.  “Can I take your order?”

Buster waggled his eyebrows and leered at me.  “Watch this, Buddy.”  He leaned out his window and hollered.  “Yeah. Gimme a medium Dr. Pepper and a large ba-low-me sandwich.”  Cody watched, grinning like a hyena as Buster yelled into the microphone.

I flapped a hand over my face.  “Buster . . .”

After a static-filled pause, the speaker went silent for a moment, then the girlish voice returned.  “A medium D-P and . . . and a what?”

“Okay, make it a medium Doctor and an order of beef stroke-me-off,” Buster shouted.  Cody slapped the side of his truck with a long, lanky arm as Jody bounced with laughter.

“Dammit, Buster!”  I threw the door open and left it hanging as I squeezed past the hyena twins’ truck and stepped toward the order window.

Pick-ups and cars filled most of the stalls, many with trays hanging off the drivers’ windows.  I strode down the narrow concrete ribbon that ran between the nose-to-nose file of vehicles, leading toward the kitchen.  A few horns honked and I heard my name shouted once above the piped-in music, but I ignored them all, my gaze fixed on the figure behind the register with the brown pony tail and orderly bangs peeking from under her paper hat.  Her powder blue uniform shirt, knotted at the waist, set off her blue eyes.  She wore lipstick.  My heart thundered and my mouth went dry.

As I drew closer, Kay Dee Hogg’s eyes grew large and she whipped her head away, studying her right shoulder pointedly.  I stepped up to the window.

She avoided my eyes and scribbled away on a note pad.  “Get away from me, devil-boy.”

Devil boy?  That was a new one.  I tried to sort out my jumble of thoughts.  “Kay, look.  I’m not going to touch you.  I just—“

She covered the microphone before her.  “You’re ding-dang right you’re not touching me.”  She slipped her hand off the mike and barked, “Cheesy Western, all the way, fries.”  Finally, she looked me in the eye, cupping a hand over the mike again.  “Satan, get thee behind me!”

Ding-dang?  Satan?  I scratched my head and screwed my face into the most wounded, unbelieving expression I could conjure.  “Oh, come on Kay Dee.  Don’t you remember anything?”

Kay studied me for a moment, started to speak but then hitched her lip at the last second.  She dropped her eyes again.  “What happened to your face?”

“Nuthin.’  Now let me at least—“

“Travis, you’d best get outta here while you can.” She leaned toward the mike.  “Two Dixie Dogs, walkin.’”

“Kay, I think maybe this church thing’s going overboard just a hair or two, because—“

“Travis, Junior’s back from Tech and he’s gonna to witness with me this Sunday.  And he’s gonna play varsity Red Raider football next year.”

I rolled my eyes.  “He told you he’s gonna play varsity?”

She nodded, batting those big baby-blues for emphasis.  “He most certainly did.  He’s got a scholarship and a future, just like his Daddy.  And when he graduates, his Daddy’s going to get him an indoor, sit-down job with the phone company in Lubbock.”

What could I say?  My Pop would lend me his truck, Tramp and tequila someday, if I was good?

Kay jotted another order down on her pad.  “Junior’s a born-again, soul-saved family man, Travis, and I’m his girl again.  So you’d best not let him see you giving me the business.”

“Okay, how ‘bout a slammed ham on rye with a large fur pie, to go?” Buster’s voice squeaked from the small speaker in the console near Kay’s elbow.

I reached in the window and yanked the swivel-mounted microphone from Kay Dee.  “Cut the bullshit over there, Buster, before you get your sorry ass kicked.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a large man spring out of a jacked-up Malibu and stomp towards the window, but I ignored him.  “Look, I handled Buster, okay?  So can we just talk?”

She folded her arms and smiled.  “Well, Mister Filthy Mouth, first you’ll have to explain yourself to him.”  She nodded toward the roughneck who’d jumped out of the Malibu.  He glared at me, walking my way.

Kay flipped a switch and spoke into the mike.  “Buster, you’d better get over here to scrape up what’s left of your sinful pal.”  She folded her arms again and smiled sweetly as a large hand spun me around.

The oil worker, bigger and dirtier than a sandstone drill head, had arms the size of my thighs hanging from his torn T-shirt.  With a sneer that made the ends of his handlebar mustache poke out, he looked me up and down, then flashed a nasty smile that lacked a few teeth.  “Now, who you calling buster, Buster, and who’s gonna kick what ass?”

“Just one second.”  I held up a finger and turned my head slowly.  “Kay, what can I do to make up with you?”

She sniffed and turned away.  “You can start by paying for the bras you ripped.”

The huge hand grabbed my jaw and dragged me away from the window.  “First thang, you’re gonna ‘pologize to my little lady for saying ‘bullshit’ and ‘asshole’ over the speaker.”

It was an awkward walk, down half the row of cars, me trotting with him squeezing my face the whole time.  As we made our way, a chorus of honking erupted and headlights flashed.  He pulled me toward the Malibu’s passenger window.

His little lady must have weighed three hundred pounds.  Half a Cheesy Western hung out of her face and a smear of ketchup trailed from her mouth to her ear.

She glanced up at me and stopped chewing, but only for a second.  “Curtis, what are you doing to that poor boy?” she managed, her mouth stuffed.

He poked my shoulder with two fingers.  “Do your duty, boy, or I’ll hafta do mine.”

“Uh, Ma’am, I thought the switch on the mike was flipped to a different car, so—“

“Weren’t nuthin’ no-how,” she said, her eyes reflecting the same fear I’d seen in my mother’s a few hours ago.  “Curtis, just leave him be.”

Buster’s truck, followed by the twins,’ motored silently around behind the Malibu and paused.  I glanced up at Curtis, whose scarred fists opened and closed in an all to familiar fashion.  He growled deep in his throat.  “Well now, that ain’t the way I see it.  Let’s you and me step into the parking lot.”

I gauged the distance to the truck as Curtis took off his watch and a ring.  I nodded.  “Fine by me.”

The giant grunted and smiled his gap-toothed grin as he leaned into the Malibu to stash his watch.  In that split second, I took three quick steps and vaulted into Buster’s truck bed.

“Hit it, Buster!” I hollered.  We lurched forward but slowed near the speed bump.  I stood and faced the Malibu.  “Hey Curtis!  Your gal’s a heifer and you’re a horse’s ass!”

The hyena twins convulsed with laughter, but not for long.  Cody’s head snapped toward the side mirror.  He leaned out his window and screamed, “Roll, Travis!”

My heart stopped.  From behind the twins’ truck, I saw the enraged oil hand, arms and legs pumping, mouth roaring, sprinting after us.  The twins swerved past us, slammed over the speed bump, then skidded onto Main Street and roared off.

Buster squinted at the rear view mirror but still kept the truck creeping forward, barely faster than walking speed.  As Curtis trundled after us onto Main, Buster sped up, just above puffing Curtis’s running speed.  I straddled the tailgate.

“Don’t you wish now you’d finished high school, Curtis?”  I hollered.  “Then you wouldn’t have to be a filthy grease monkey with no teeth.”

Curtis lunged at the truck just as Buster punched the gas.  The truck leapt forward and nearly threw me off the tailgate as Curtis landed on his face in the middle of Main Street.  He picked himself up, shaking his fist and bellowing wild talk about killing and such as I made my way up the truck bed to the right-hand sideboard.

“C’mon aboard, Doc,” Buster hollered out the window.  He slowed a little as I opened the passenger door and stepped onto the running board, then into the cab.

“Nice driving pal.  And thanks for grossing out Kay Dee at just the wrong moment.”

Buster laughed.  “Don’t mention it.  But you know, Kay Dee used to think that kinda stuff was funny.  What the hell happened to that girl?”

“Jesus Saves,” I sighed, my heart still thumping.

“And Jerry West scores on the rebound,” Buster added.

“Tell you what, Buster.  You don’t want to miss church this Sunday.”

“As if I had a choice.”

“Kay says Junior’s gonna get saved this Sunday.”

“Christ, Travis, if that would get you into Miss Hogg’s pants, maybe you ought to get saved too,” Buster said.

“I don’t know where she all of a sudden got this religion,”  I said, shaking my head.

Buster shrugged.  “Maybe you got a little too close to the short hairs and scared her off.  Girls get ornery when you get close down there.  Besides, who can ever figure what a girl’s gonna do anyway?”

“Believe me, I’ve tried, Buster.  I live with three of them, but I still haven’t figured them out.”

He dangled his arm out the window.  “Well, something tells me we’re gonna spend the rest of our lives trying, buddy.  But why waste your time on Miss High-and-Mighty Hogg?  Hope would have you in a heartbeat.”

Hope Lindsey.  On and off since fourth grade.  I sighed.  “Yeah but she’s, she’s…just Hope.”

Quiet as a church mouse, unruly brown hair, big eyes behind thick glasses.  In Junior High, she’d let me feel her up some.  Then around ninth grade, whatever I’d do to her, she’d do back, only worse.  Squeeze her breast, she’d crush mine.  I didn’t dare mess around between her legs.

“Well,” Buster said, “She’s still a girl.  Cleans up pretty good, don’t she?”

Most of last year, in the classes we shared, she’d just sit there staring at me with a weird look.  Gave me the creeps.

“You gotta hook up with someone at the Fair, Travis, and it’s a cinch it ain’t gonna be Kay Dee.”

I shrugged.  “Who you got in mind?

Buster patted the dash in time to the radio.  “Juicy Lucy, I reckon.  Donna Jean, if not.”

Loose Legs Lawson.  Juicy Lucy.  I bet she didn’t squeeze back.  “Well, we’ll see, Buster.  We’ll just see.”

He laughed.  “So, should we head for the AC?”

I shook my head.  “No.  I say we go back to The Dog and have a nice chat with Curtis and his sow.”

“Right.”  Buster stomped on the gas.  “Alamo, here we come.  Tune up KOMA again, pardner.”

The few miles whizzed by and in just minutes, we passed into the shuttered heart of Conroy.  A faraway voice from KOMA News spoke of the even farther away adventures of Apollo 10, which they said had actually skimmed within five miles of the lunar surface.  I leaned forward and spotted the bald moon through the dusty windshield.

“You see ‘em up there?” Buster asked.

“Naw.”  I sat back.  “But you gotta believe they’re up there.”

“Carl don’t,” Buster said.  “He says it’s a big hoax and the TV shots come from a hanger in Houston.”

“He just says that to tease Janey, ‘cause she’s got a thang for Walter Cronkite.”

And I had to believe they really were up there.  Because their going all the way to the moon was still not as farfetched as my going all the way with Kay Dee Hogg, or even my sending Lester all the way to Hell for him sending Ray off to Kingdom Come.  I’d seen the pictures of astronauts Cernan, Stafford and Young: short, goofy-looking guys in shiny space suits, riding flimsy, aluminum spider-ships clean out of this world.

I had to believe they’d gone all the way.  Because if they really were just faking it in a dark hanger in Houston, if there weren’t no bold new world beyond, I might just as well have rolled over and died right there in the great red dirt kingdom of Conroy.

As we reached the end of Slide Road, I spotted the gaudy running lights of the huge Peterbuilt Heart ‘O Darkness, barreling out of town on the by-pass road.

“Good-bye, Tramp,” I whispered under my breath, watching the dust-wake swallow the northbound semi-truck.

Buster turned to me.  “Say what?”

“Nuthin.’”  I turned to stare at the pale moon again.  They had to be up there.  They just had to be.

Buster slowed, then swung the truck into a parking space next to the yellow Mustang parked in front of The Alamo I.

Silhouetted by The Alamo’s neon sign, hulking Junior McCracken looked like a Coke machine with a head, leaning against the convertible.  He cracked a sly grin.  “Well now, what have we here?”

Buster stepped out of the truck.  “Where’s Bo?”

Junior spat on the ground.  “You need driving lessons, boy.”

“Fuck you, Junior,” Buster said.  “Where’s Bo?”

“Inside,” Junior growled, glaring at me.  “And he wants to talk to you, Buster.”

“Be right back, Travis,” Buster said.

The only way to back Junior down, I’d found, was to act like his size didn’t scare you, even if it did.  I stepped out of the truck and sat on the fender, playing chicken with him for the second time in one night.

He swaggered over and rested one yellow, pointy-toed boot on the bumper.  “I got some advice for you, freshman.”

“I’m a junior, Junior,” I said, allowing myself a slight smirk.  “Lots of things have changed since you left high school.”

He pushed his hat back on his head and put his face in mine.  “Yeah, like you sniffing around my girl’s muff when I’m off at college.  You give me one reason why I shouldn’t pound your ass right here and now.”

“Well,” I said carefully, “I could have put a beer bottle through your skull back there on the road.  But I didn’t.”

His face began to flush.  “Real funny, freshman.  You’re real funny when you got Bo to hide behind.”

He grabbed a fistful of my T-shirt and twisted it, pulling me closer.  “Now let me tell you a joke.  If I catch you anywhere near Kay Dee, I’m gonna jerk your head off and shit in your neck-hole.  You got that?”

Maybe it was my earlier run-ins with Pop, The Tramp, Curtis and even Otis, but I’d passed the point of fear and in fact, I almost wished Junior would get it over with.  Looking him in the eye, I clamped my hand around his wrist.  His eyes bulged and the veins popped out in his neck.

His lips peeled back but before he could speak, I said,  “And I’ll tell her you flunked out of college and your football scholarship’s in the toilet.”

Junior’s face sagged and his hand fell limp at his side.  “Who told you that?”

I put both feet on the bumper.  “Your Momma.  Said you flunked everything.  Including P.E.”

“God dammit!”  He whirled toward the Mustang and pounded the hood.

“Watch the paint job, Junior.  Daddy might spank your fat ass if—“

He lunged at me but hauled himself up short, fists clenched.  “You just stay outta my way, Travis Carlisle,” he sputtered.

The I’s door yawned wide.  Buster and Bo, followed by Shirl, stepped out.  Bo clapped a meaty hand on my shoulder and shook it.  “You don’t mind if Shirl and I take off in the truck, do ya?”

I didn’t have to even glance at Shirl.  As she’d stepped out the door she’d flashed me The Lost Smile, spread wider than Palo Duro Canyon across her pretty face.  It looked good on her.  “Of course not.”

Bo opened the truck’s door for Shirl.  “Good.  Mr. McCracken will carry y’all back to the ranch.”

Junior swore under his breath, but I don’t think Bo heard it as he gunned the engine.  Shirl winked at me as they pulled away.

Buster looked at Junior and laughed, hopping into the back seat.  “Home, James.”

I climbed into the front seat and Junior swore again, watching the truck disappear down Slide as the motorcycle approached from the west end.  “Don’t call me James!  And both of you better—“

“Even P.E., Junior?” I asked casually.  “How’d you manage that?”

Junior kicked the convertible’s front tire, then sighed. “Just get in.  And not one goddam word out of you.”

Otis swung the roaring Harley into the spot Bo had vacated.  He leaned it on the kickstand and dismounted in a chorus of groaning leather.  Legs akimbo, he faced me.  “How’s the chili tonight, Travis?”

“Rooster allowed how it was pretty good,” I answered, not sure why dangerous Otis would even speak to me.

“I told you to shut up,” Junior snapped.

Otis took a step toward Junior.  “Butt out, pretty boy, or I’ll bust you one you won’t never forget.”

Junior stepped out of the car and slammed the door.  “This ain’t none of your business.”

Otis nodded my way.  “You mess with my nephew and it is.”  He spit a glob of phlegm that splatted on the chipped pavement between Junior’s shiny boots and I had the sinking, desperate conviction that being Otis’ adopted nephew was not a tie I’d have asked for.  But I guess my dead uncle had decided that for me.

Junior thrust out his jaw and stuck his face in Otis’.   “You’re messing with more trouble than you can handle.”

Otis smiled a brown-toothed grin.  “Just say when and where, pretty boy.  I’ll beat you to a pulp, then roll you over and fuck you up the ass.”

They faced off like wary dogs for a long moment until Buster honked the horn.  Junior jumped.

“Home, James,” Buster said and Otis barked a raw laugh, then clomped up the steps to The Alamo.

Junior jumped in and slammed the door, then revved the engine.  “I’m warning you two.  Things are gonna be different around here, starting Thursday.”

“Yeah, we’ll see, Junior,” Buster said and I wished he hadn’t but what the heck.  At least now we knew where the lines were drawn.

But unfortunately, on my side, only a convicted felon and sometimes a mangy coyote stood between me and the rest of the world.  My best girl had gone god-squad, Junior needed to pound me and Pop still lurked in the background, waiting for just the wrong moment to reappear and stomp my life to bits again.

My spirits sagged.  Maybe it was just the usual letdown after a typical, raw-edged Friday night, which regularly ended in harsh words and flying fists.  Maybe it was the thought of the old Miss Hogg or the new Uncle Otis or even flunked-out Mr. McCracken soon to be running without a leash.  Whatever it was, I felt the gathering load, heavy as concrete, smashing the hope out of an otherwise bright summer.

We roared off down Slide Road toward Ketterly’s Ranch and I twisted around to catch one last glimpse of the dark windows above The Alamo.  At least Bean was safe and Moses had his orders.  But what I wouldn’t have given for just one night of her untroubled sleep.


Chapter 8

            The shelter of the front porch was all I required for a decent night’s sleep and the Ketterly’s had come to expect me there when the weather warmed up.  They had room for me inside, even with Bo home again.  I could have slept on the sofa in the front room, just as I did in the trailer in Rattlesnake Gulch.

But for me, the crack of dawn on a summer day held an innocent security and priceless serenity that stood unmatched and unspoiled before the workings of the world took over.  So I curled up under one of Mrs. Ketterly’s afghans and watched the day arrive because alone, not only did I share daybreak with the blanched Texas land, I owned it.

Ushered by a chorus of crickets and the metronome of my own shallow breathing, the day began to unfold.  Creeping out of the unlit sky, a fragile tint of blue-gray washed the sky, lifting darkness with a hint of light.  Depthless contours of spindly cypress, Buck Ketterly’s hopeless stab at a windbreak, stepped out of the murk against a graying sky.  A knee-deep breath of mist whispered around crumbled dirt and stubborn, tufted prairie grass spotting the yard that stretched to the barbed wire fence line.

With timeless patience, the rising sun splashed the eastern horizon with a sprawling rinse of deep-hearted crimson, driving out the blackness and filling the vacuum of night.  A scarlet arch vaulted to the west and breathed the soul of day into an endless sky striated with wispy ribs of cirrus a thousand miles away.  Slatted clouds caught the pink cast and striped the dawn, a tiger sky, promising another arid, dusty, perfect day.

Glorious summer was my strongest time of year because snug on that porch swing, I felt reborn with each rustic sunrise.  Fresh as scratchy blue jeans right off the clothesline, the simple pleasure of a virgin day armed me with the courage to bare my fangs with the big dogs in the scrappy panhandle junkyard.

The bang of the back door echoed around to the front porch.  That would be Buck, setting about the chores.  I shrugged off the warm afghan and sat up to stretch and work the kinks from my back and legs.  Then I pulled on my ropers and headed for the shed near the hen house.

Still a bit stiff, I unzipped my jeans with fumbling fingers and splattered a torrent against the rock pile near the shed.  I breathed deep the vanishing mist and savored the touch of coolness in the air that soon would give way to the dry west wind riding ahead of another sun-roasted day.

The door banged again as Buster shuffled toward the barn, metal bucket in hand.  I glanced at the drawn shade over his bedroom window, unlit for a change, because war-bound Bo had been granted a reprieve from the community effort that morning chores had become on weekends.

I zipped my jeans then pulled aside the concrete block propping the shed’s door shut.  Gingerly, I ducked under the dangling wasp’s nest already crawling with shiny, red-orange critters waiting for the climbing sun to warm them enough for flight.  In the cramped shed, corners laced with spider webs and the musty air thick with a dry wood smell, I filled a large tin pan with chicken feed then circled the shed toward the ramshackle coop.

Hens followed me around the yard, twitchy little heads pointing and pecking as I flung their breakfast in the dirt.  With jerky strut steps, they cocked their pointy heads and eyed me with first one eye, then the other, following the scattered feed trail as I made my escape toward the hayrack in the barn to help Buster with the lonely old milk cow.

The sun burned off the mist by the time we finished our share of the chores.  In a clean work shirt, sleeves rolled up to thick forearms, Buck joined us and we followed the scent of frying sausages to the back doorstep of the ranch house.

Buck took off his hat and wiped his brow as he held the screen door for Buster and me.  We scuffed our boots properly on the doormat, then headed off to the tiny bathroom in silence to wash faces and hands before presenting ourselves at Velma Ketterly’s breakfast table.

She stood at the stove, her back to us, as we took seats.

“Morning boys,” she said, without turning around, lining up a row of tiny sausage links on a paper towel blotter.

Buck took his seat at the head of the porcelain-topped table and arranged his knife and fork neatly on his napkin.  “You boys manage to keep out of mischief last night?”

“Yessir,” Buster piped up and I said nothing, my mind replaying the image of Curtis’ mustachioed sneer and Junior’s threats about my neck-hole.

Of course, Buck already knew what Friday night in Conroy would be like.  But his question gave us the okay to begin table conversation.  We never spoke until he did, and he never spoke until after morning chores.

Bo appeared and plopped down next to me, wearing jeans and a clean white T-shirt.  Near the crewneck collar, a blue-red half oval peeked out, a muffler burn most likely associated with The Lost Smile.  I made a mental note to razz Shirl about it later.

Mrs. Ketterly cracked three eggs into sausage drippings still sizzling in the frying pan.  She cooked the eggs hard as rock, just the way Bo liked them, then slid them onto his plate.

Buster picked two thick biscuits from the steaming basket on the table and pulled them apart, laying the round halves side by side.  Mrs. Ketterly ladled thick, ashen colored sausage gravy over his, then mine.

“These links are from the real young piglets.  They’re as tender as can be,” she said for Bo’s benefit, because Buster and I had helped Buck butcher the piglets.

Bo nodded, his mouth full, arranging split biscuit halves around his eggs.  “They smell great, Mom,” he said between mouthfuls.

Mrs. Ketterly filled his plate, then Buck’s, then her own, but she didn’t sit down.  She stayed at the stove, turning the frying links with a fork, smoothing her apron and sneaking a bite or two as she beamed at Bo.  “So wonderful to have all my men around the table once again.”

Bo reached for the plate of sausage.  “Sure beats the old mess hall.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it had been so long since I’d watched Bo eat that I sat in amazement, my own plate finished, and watched as the two Ketterly brothers packed away enough food to feed a family of four.

Between bites, Buck filled Bo in on a peculiar, T.B.-like virus showing up here and there among panhandle cattle.  That mystery had Conroy ranchers scratching their heads and fretting, but I wrote it off as one more example of the regular poison gripping Colter County that allowed the false Kang to run wild and thrive while the cattle, the trees and even the stubborn perennials Mrs. Ketterly insisted on planting each year simply withered and died a strangled death.

Buck eased back from the table, unfolding a sun-yellowed copy of Cattleman’s Digest.  He studied the stock section.  “And you know, even the feed grass is thinner this year, I don’t know why.”

My mind pictured Pop’s gleaming black Heart ‘O Darkness roaring out of the west, twin stacks belching angry black smoke.  I decided I knew why, but kept my mouth shut just the same.

“We ain’t got grass like up in Amarillo, but we got more’n Lubbock.  Seems like this land don’t know what it wants to do,” Buck continued with a heavy sigh.  He flipped the paper down and glanced over the top of a page.  “So Bo and I are heading over to Carrol Welch’s Ranch in Tulia to talk about feed lots, if you boys’d care to tag along.”

“We gotta run over to Rooster’s to get the brakes fixed on my truck,” Buster said.

Bo’s head came up from his plate.  “Your truck?”

“Well . . .” Buster stammered.

Bo gave him a hard look for a long moment, then his face let loose a broad smile.  He punched Buster in the arm.  “Good for you little brother.  The torch is passed.”

Buster beamed.  I studied my plate, trying not to butt in on the tender moment between two brothers, passing along a beloved pick-up.

“I’ll be at the Conroy DYD meeting, planning the Fourth of July celebration, if you boys care to sit in,” Mrs. Ketterly said, then sipped her coffee.  “We’ve been working on this project since New Year’s.”

Do Your Duty, or DYD as the ladies group called themselves, met the first Saturday of each month to plot all manner of civic do-good type undertakings, mainly designed to keep the older women from going stir crazy.

“Maybe after we get done at the junkyard, Mom,” Buster offered.

“Says here it’s stock from south of the border,” Buck said quietly, as if to himself.  “Some fool ranchers allowed a few cheap head in to bolster their count.  Brought the virus along.  This keeps up, Texas beef’ll be ruint.’  That and the day the old Prairie Dog Fork dries up and we’ll all be done with it.”

Bo shook his head but shoveled away with his fork just the same.  When he did speak, what he said seemed distant or somehow fractured, as if he weren’t all there.  I chalked that up to what must have been a powerful roll in the hay, maybe even his last one before the combat zone.

“Now Buck,” Mrs. Ketterly said with a wave of her hand, sitting down at last.  “It’s not so bad.  In fact, Bo, I did get one little daffodil and a half a crocus to come up this Spring.  Of course, they do prefer dry feet, and we did have a wet winter.  But next year will be better and even that old crepe myrtle’s gonna see the Spring again, you’ll see.”

Bo put his fork down and stared at the wall.  He started to speak, his eyes at once a million miles away, but then he stopped.

“Bo?” Mrs. Ketterly asked cautiously, touching his arm.

He shrugged off his trance and picked up his fork.  “Right, Mom.  Next year.”

Buster furrowed his brow and glanced at me, but I looked away.  Buster only saw what was there, seldom looked beyond the present and never felt chased by the past.  Perhaps up until that moment, it had been the same for Bo.  But I had the feeling he’d just taken a long look into a shadowy future racing straight at him that contained things more somber than flowers. Maybe he needed to listen to Gram. Or maybe she needed to listen to him.

The front door knocker banged twice and Mr. Ketterly folded his paper and rose to answer it.  I polished off the small glass of still warm milk and listened closely to the deep voices in the front room.  My heart sank.

“Travis,” Buck called out.

I excused myself, Buster did the same, following me into the front room.

I faced Buck, ignoring jowly Sheriff Ruley.  “Yessir?”

“This man has some words for you,” Buck said, not unkindly.

Lester hitched up his gunbelt with one hand, the other fumbled with his cowboy hat.  His star-shaped tin badge looked smudged and his tan uniform shirt gaped slightly, right above his belt buckle.  He wore no T-shirt and a few coppery hairs curled out the hole between buttons.  “Now Travis, I come to carry you back to Rattlesnake Gulch.  Your Momma prefers to see you now.”

I glanced at Buck, then back at slack-jawed Rusthead, trying to picture a dime-sized hole right between his eyes.  “I’d as soon walk.”  I let a slight edge crawl into my voice.

He snickered and fussed with his hat with both pudgy hands.  “Well now, Travis, I ain’t exactly asking.  I intend to discuss what you and your Uncle Ray might have been talkin’ about down in Lubbock.“

I turned my face to stone and said nothing.

“Reckon he might have been delirious, mighta been talkin’ some kinda nonsense with all them drugs and painkillers, wouldn’t you say?”

The Sheriff did your Pop a big favor . . . your uncle’s going to hell . . .

“What’s the boy done, Lester?” Buck interrupted in a firm voice.

Lester let his mouth hang open like a dumb farm animal.  He glanced back and forth between Buck and me with those big, wet eyes that looked like he’d just been crying, or was about to.  “Uh, Buck, he ain’t actually done nuthin’ to speak of, ‘cept for stay out all night.”

I laughed.  Like I was going to stay in that trailer, listening to him riding my Momma all night after the Kang blew out of town.

Buck folded his arms.  “Well, Lester, if he ain’t done nuthin’ for you to speak of, I reckon you’re done talkin.’”

Lester’s jaw still sagged and his tongue worked inside it for a moment before he spoke.  “Well, I reckon I’ll, uh, I’ll head on now.”

He mashed his hat onto his head, crimson washing over his already ruddy face, and turned to leave.  “You best check in with your Momma, boy,” he tossed over his shoulder as the screen door slammed.  Buck studied the smooth-polished floor boards for a moment, then wordlessly stepped back into the kitchen.

Buster smiled.  “Red on the noodle like the dick on a poodle.  The Doc would fire his sorry ass, wouldn’t he?”

I’d liked to have seen The Doc rip him into tiny, red-haired scraps, but unfortunately, Doc’s personal credo forbade the taking of a life.  Slowly but surely, I could see myself outgrowing The Doc.  And maybe even Buster.

“Maybe so, Buster,” I said, heading for the kitchen.  “Thank-you for breakfast, Mrs. Ketterly.”

“Plenty more, Travis,” she answered.  “I’ve taken it as a personal challenge to put some meat on those bones.”

“I think he has,” Bo said, pushing back from the table.

“You reckon so, Bo?” I asked.

He nodded.  “You and Buster both.  You’re filling out nicely, and you both seem to have grown an inch taller since last summer.”

I made a note to weigh myself on the tiny diet scale back in the trailer, remembering of course to add back the seven pounds that Shirl had cranked off with the machine’s fine-tune knob.

“I’ll come by and pick you up later,” Buster said, “so we can go by Rooster’s.”

“Deal,” I answered, stepping out the back door.  “See you then.”

I set off up the road to Rattlesnake Gulch, the sun at my back, nudging me into the western breeze.  Silently, I savored all the elements of that radiant summer morning, storing them and marshaling their strength to carry me through the darkness I knew waited in the cramped aluminum box up ahead.

 

Chapter 9

            Scamper followed me up the gravel road, darting close enough to sniff the hem of my jeans once before trotting off towards Masons.’  The trailer’s front door stood open and curtains flapped out the yawning kitchen window, twirled by a warm breeze that carried the promise of a parched afternoon.  Shirl stepped onto the wooden door stoop with a dust rag in one hand, Windex in the other.

She squinted at me over the wooden rail.  “Travis?”

“No Shirl.”  I hopped all four steps in one bound.  “It’s Elvis.”

“You know I can’t see that far without my glasses,” she scolded, streaking the windows with a sopping dust rag.  “Anyway, you’d best check on your Momma.”

I paused in the doorway.  “You mind explaining one thing to me?”

Shirl huffed a sigh, stopped scrubbing and faced me, looking doughy white in the full brightness of the morning sun.  “What?”

“What the hell are you doing?”

She turned to the window again, fighting back The Lost Smile that crept out just the same.  “Well, what exactly does it look like, Travis Carlisle?  I’m ‘Sprang’ cleaning.”

Bean appeared out of nowhere, Doll in hand, and scrubbed Shirl’s smear marks with a wadded-up Kleenex.

“Morning, String Bean,” I said.  She smiled and scrunched her nose, then turned back to the smudged pane.  “And since when, Shirl?” I added, trying to recall if I’d ever seen her Spring cleaning before.  Because it wasn’t as if you could ever strip off the years of accreted pink dust and even if you did, it would be back within a week.

In fact, you could crank your windows tight shut and even seal them with duct tape, but the gritty dust didn’t care.  Within days, it would worm its way back in, forming itself in the finest pile of pink sand on your window sill, in your truck or car, even between your teeth, though you’d have sworn you breathed only through your nose no matter what.  Red dirt was the boss.

“Since I feel like it,” Shirl said, scrubbing so hard flabby back of her arms shook like jelly.  “It’s a purdy day and I want this trailer to breathe fresh for a change.”

Thinking of Bo’s muffler burn, then Shirl’s sunny disposition, I made a note to talk all this over with Buster, who didn’t understand girls any better than I did.  Bean stuck Doll in my face and slowly nodded the toy’s head.  I shrugged.  “Suit yourself, Shirl.”

She hadn’t gotten to the inside with her Spring cleaning, I noticed, as I stepped over a laundry basket and an empty tequila bottle.  I made my way back to the larger of the two bedrooms where strains of Elvis’ tremolo oozed like syrup from the doorway.

“Momma?”  I fumbled for the light switch.  It clicked but the room stayed dark.  I followed the red glow from her cigarette and sat next to her on the bed until my eyes adjusted.  Dry smoke scratched my throat.

“He smashed the overhead light,” Momma rasped, flicking on a bedside lamp.  She put the cigarette to her lips with the hand that wasn’t in a sling.

I jumped up.  “Momma!  He busted your arm!”

She blew a sooty gray stream at the torn lampshade.  “No.”  She shook with a deep, rumbly cough.  “Lester says it’s just sprained real bad.  He knows First Aid, you know.”

I closed my eyes.  Almost as bad as what they’d both done, I hated arriving in the wake of the two men I despised the most on this brown Earth.  And slowly, the nagging anger that she’d allowed this to happen yet again began to grow on me like a weed.  Then I detested myself for the disloyal notion, because after all, who was the victim?

She leaned toward me and though it seemed way too early, even for her, I smelled the sweet tequila scent on her breath.  “You know there ain’t nuthin’ I can do, don’t you baby?”

Don’t call me baby, I wanted to say.  And get out of that bed and clean yourself up.  Throw away the bottle, breathe some outside air, see the light of day, read a book to Bean—

“Baby, are you listening to me?”

“Yes, Momma.”

The Hi-Fi speaker scratched and ticked, then the slender needle lifted as the bony cue arm clacked and groped for another record on the empty spindle.  Then the needle arm floated up again, glided over and settled gentle as a snowflake into the same tired groove, starting the familiar cycle of moaning all over again.

“I’ll need your help, Travis.  I can’t handle things by myself.”

She was barely twice my age, but seemed older than Gram.  I jammed my hands into my pockets.  “Did he leave the rent money?”

She dug a wad of twenties out of her pillowcase.  “I didn’t count it.”

I took the bills from her, stacked then folded them in half.  “I’ll take care of the rent, Momma.”  And Bean and Shirl and you and even the full moon, too, because nothing above or below or beside me in this world worked without help.  Except me, I decided, and maybe The Doc.

She laid back down.  “That’s a good boy, Travis.”

“Did Bean get breakfast?” I asked, standing.

The light snapped off.  Momma sighed.  “Well I don’t know.”

Of course she didn’t.  She couldn’t be expected to, hard on the heels of the dark tornado that had smashed her light and wrenched her arm.  My asking was another stab of cruelty that I couldn’t suppress but one I knew I’d feel guilty about later.

“Okay, Momma.”  I backed out of the room.  “I’ll take care of it.  Don’t worry about a thing.”

In the cluttered living room, Shirl worked on the jalousied front windows.  I passed the Frigidaire I knew would be mostly empty and flopped down on the tattered sofa which served as my bed when I stayed there.  “Shirl, did Bean get breakfast?”

“Yes, but she refused the sliced pears you bought her.”

Bean sauntered over and climbed into my lap.  She bit her lip, but a naughty smile peeked through.

“Now Bean,” I started in my best stern voice.  “You gotta eat fruits ‘n stuff ‘cause they’re good for you.”

She stuck Doll in my face, whipping the faded toy’s head back and forth.

“Doll, you know I’m right.  Can’t you tell Bea Anne that it’s good for her?”

Bean put the Doll to her ear for a moment, then nodded her red, straw-topped head and slipped out of my lap.

“You’ll make a good Daddy some day, Travis,” Shirl promised as Bean stuffed a whole pear slice into her mouth, syrup spilling out one corner as she chewed.

“You reckon so?”  I laughed.  That struck me as a queer notion.  Wouldn’t that require a woman to think of me as something other than “Devil Boy” and let me touch her without the death penalty hanging over my head and maybe even—

Bean hopped into my lap again, brows knitted and her expression dark.  She held out one fist.

“What is it, Jelly Bean?”  I extended my hand.

She held my eyes with hers and slowly unfurled her bitty fingers.  What looked like a tiny chip of bone china dropped into my palm.

“Shirl!” I shouted.

She jumped back from the window, nearly tripped over the laundry basket, then stomped over to the sink, recovering her balance.  “Lord Almighty, Travis, what in the world is wrong with you?”

“Look!”  I held out the weightless white fragment.  “Bean lost a tooth.”

“Land sakes alive!”  Shirl swooped down on Bean and squeezed her cheeks, staring at the gap-toothed smile.  “You sure did, you precious little baby!”  Shirl turned to me.  “I didn’t even know it was loose.”

It wasn’t like Bean would have told us.  But my heart still ached for my baby sister whose own family knew nothing about such a momentous thing as a first loose tooth.  I tried to remember back ten or eleven years.  Had anybody noticed mine?

Shirl found a Kleenex and helped Bean blot the tiny red pearl welling up from the empty spot in her gum line.  “C’mon, Bean.  We gotta call Aunt Janey.”

“Don’t you think we should tell Momma?” I asked Shirl.

She froze in her tracks, halfway to the phone, then dropped her eyes.  “Well, maybe when she’s feeling better.”

I flicked my gaze toward the empty hall and darkened doorway.  Momma certainly should have heard the racket, the words and the news from any corner of the trailer.  Bean studied the bedroom doorway, leaning out of Shirl’s arms.

“You’re right, Shirl,” I said the words I didn’t believe, then fought back feelings of guilt for doubting poor Momma yet again.  “When she’s feeling better, we’ll tell her.  Let’s call Janey and Carl.”

I scrounged an empty medicine bottle and dropped the tooth into it then handed it to Bean as Shirl dialed the phone.  “That’ll be a shiny new dime for you, Bean, when the tooth fairy finds this.”

She nodded her head once, then put Doll up to her ear.  At once I both wished I could hear the words passing between the two, but then again I wasn’t sure I could stand to listen in.  Because I should have known the tooth was loose.

I stepped out the open front door and onto the plyboard stoop.  Across the way, Mason sat on his steps, whittling away.  He waved and I crossed the dirt parking area between our trailers.

“Morning, Mr. Mason.”

He kicked aside some wood shavings and motioned me to sit.  “Morning yourself.  You doing okay?”

After last night, I’m sure he meant, but I was just as glad he didn’t say.  I sat beside him on the weather-beaten boards.  “Yessir, I’m fine.”

He narrowed his eyes, surveying my shiner, probably, but said nothing.

Shirl’s high-pitched laugh drifted across the dead air between the trailers.

Mason hacked away at a block of birch.  “So, what’s the major hub-bub over there this morning?”

If he’d heard it, how could Momma not have?  “Well, it appears the Bean’s lost her first tooth.  So of course Shirl jumps on the phone to Janey straight away.”

Mason brushed wood shavings from his faded overalls.  “Well now, ain’t that renchn.’  Lost her first tooth, did she?  So, how much you wanna bet Aunt Janey’ll be flying out the door to her house as we speak?”

“Carl too,” I allowed.  “If he’s at home when the call comes in.”

“You don’t remember, but they did the same thing when your teeth started falling out, Travis.”  Mason folded the jackknife’s blade and turned to me.  “And hey, you remember we talked last week about fishing the Old Prairie Dog Fork?”

I flicked a curled wood shaving off the step.  “You reckon anything’s in there?  Besides floating cow chips?”

“Only one way to find out.  We gotta go drop a hook in it.”

Mason scratched his head, watching the dust trail boiling after a pick-up racing our way down Slide.  He laughed a low syllable from somewhere deep in his barrel chest and pointed his jackknife at the road.  “Look at that.  Don’t you wish the fire department worked that fast?”

Something about the Conroy Volunteer Fire Department and their laughably sluggish response time picked at the back of my mind.  With only one road to Rattlesnake Gulch, if it were ever blocked, and there was some kind of a blaze up here . . .  The image of fiery-eyed Otis popped into my head, nodding and laughing.

I shook off a sudden chill.  “Well, you know Janey.  No kids of her own, so Bea Anne’s special to her.”

How fast would a trailer burn?  Was Mason’s far enough away to be safe?  A car or truck wouldn’t block the road, but a semi sure would.  My heart thumped out of time, not only at the festering scheme but the realization that I’d have to talk it over with Otis.

Scamper crawled from under the steps, shook himself from his raggedy ears to his stump tail, then trotted off to inspect Janey’s pickup as it rolled to a stop before us.  The door flew open.

“Where is that little baby doll?” Janey squeaked, sliding from the truck in her floppy old house dress. She landed on both feet at once with a dusty thud. “Where’s my baby?”

I stood and brushed off the seat of my jeans.  “See what I mean?”

Janey clomped up the steps to Momma’s trailer and disappeared inside.

Mason laughed again and jerked a thumb back at his screen door.  “Most women act the same way ‘bout their young’uns.  Mrs. Mason done her grandchildren the same way.”

I leaned against the railing and decided that Momma simply was not “most women” and though I hated to admit it, Bean certainly wasn’t like most kids either.  The connection between those two glaring realizations always led back to that quicksand of doubt and accusation that was too painful to explore further.

So I displaced the thoughts with something even more frightening.  “I’ll see you later, Mr. Mason.”  I headed for the oil field.

His eyes narrowed.  “Where you going, Travis?”

I paused.  “I gotta visit, uh, somebody,” I said carefully.

Mason’s jaw dropped.  He stood.  “Otis.  You’re going to the pump shack to see Otis.  What do you want with him?”

“Just talk,” I answered, walking backwards.

He closed his eyes and shook his head.  “Travis, stay away from that man.  He’s ornery as a hungry diamond back; you know what he done before.”

Maybe that’s why I had to see him, I thought but didn’t say.  Mason’s eyes telegraphed the same fear I’d seen in them during Pop’s rampage and I had to look away. And I saw Gram’s eyes, heard her words—and blotted them out.

Because what choice did I have?  The world had become dangerous, from the war in the jungle to the fire on the plains, the flames from which I felt compelled by some cryptic urge to fan till they burned the entire rotting mess to the ground.

“Just gonna talk, Mr. Mason,” I lied quietly.  “Just talk.”

I walked off toward the pump shack, fighting off the shiver of certainty that somehow nothing would ever be the same.

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Chapter 4

            Springs creaking, the old truck launched us airborne with every pothole we bounced over, then caught us again nicely with the rounded bench seat.  Buster threw the wheel this way and that, dodging the worst of the pits in the long driveway.

We made it almost to the cattle guard when the black-and-white police cruiser, red light twirling, rushed by, headed up Slide Road toward Rattlesnake Gulch.

“It’s Friday night, so there goes Lester,” I said.

“It’s Friday night, your Pop’s in town, so there goes Lester,” Buster corrected as we clattered over the cattle guard and turned onto Slide, away from the whirling light and godforsaken Rattlesnake Gulch.  “What does Lester do when he gets there, Travis?”

“He just parks, a safe distance away.  And does nothing.”  Until Pop leaves, I didn’t say, then he slinks in the back door himself.  Hat in hand, that flaming hair and stupid grin—

Buster stomped the accelerator and the truck lurched forward.  “Well, with him up there, we won’t have to worry about the law in town, will we?”

“Guess not,” I said, my throat closing.  We never worried about the law when Pop was in town.  We only worried about when he’d leave and what he’d do until then.

Ray had been my last line of defense.  Strangely, when he was around, Pop acted like I was invisible, never even looking at me, much less raising a hand against me.  Of course, Ray had been out of Huntsville less than a year before Lester put him in the ground.  Pop was losing no time in getting back to the old way, if that night was any clue.

My spirits sagged.  Because now that Ray was gone, there would be no one, including Deputy Rusthead, who’d stand up to Pop.  So the damn law had nothing to do with anything and I prayed Pop would hit the road for a long trip, at least to either coast and back.  Then we’d have maybe a month of relative peace.

“So we go to Chuke’s for a quart of Pearl,” Buster continued.  “Then head out to the Dog.”

“And the AC,” I added, sticking my hand out the window.  I enjoyed the massage of the dry slipstream, flying my hand in the wind, fingers cupped like a hawk wing in a dive.

“The Alamo I?”

“That’s what I said.  The AC.”

Buster scratched his fingers through his summer brush cut.  Shirl had done us both up for the summer soon as school let out.  “What’re we going there for?”

“Something to eat.”  My stomach growled at the thought.  “Gram had wanted us to go back to her and Art’s for sandwiches, but Pop had other plans.  So I haven’t eaten in awhile.”

But Carl would let me cook my own AC Burger, then deduct the cost from what he owed me for working anyway.  Plus, I wanted to be sure Bean was okay, asleep in the upstairs apartment.  The truck slammed over a chug hole.  “Buster, maybe you oughta slow to sixty so you don’t rip the bottom outta your Daddy’s truck.”

Buster eased off the gas and the truck slowed.  “My truck.”

I pulled my hand in and turned toward him.  “Yours?  Since when?”

Buster grinned.  “Since as soon as Bo leaves.  Dad said so.  So now we got wheels, buddy.  Rising juniors, you and me, with wheels.  It’s going to be a great summer.”

Summer.  Long, hot, sun-baked, dust-driven and carefree, darn near.  Within hours, Pop would be gone and summer could begin.  With wheels, this year.  We rode in silence, hiding smiles in the darkness, as Hoyt Axton croaked from the tiny radio, groaning about his lost love and dead dog.  In the distance, against the backdrop of flashing clouds clustered against the caprock way off toward Levelland, the lights of Chukes Feed and Grocery beckoned like a beacon of hope.

Two other trucks sat angled in the parking lot, awaiting their drivers who shopped inside.  On the concrete slab before the door, a chopped Harley-Davidson slouched against its kickstand, nearly blocking the door.  That meant we were in luck.  Otis would be working tonight.

Inside, the hum of bare florescent bulbs sang above the mournful Tex Ritter ballad leaking from tinny speakers tuned to the same station we’d been listening to in Buster’s truck.  Two roughnecks, dusted pink and covered with grime, scuffed their boots like restless ponies and waited for Otis to count their change.

Unconcerned and certainly unhurried, curly-haired Otis tallied pennies one by one with thick, oil-stained fingers.  As his hands worked, his biceps flexed, setting into motion a crude prison tattoo of thorny green barbed wire that circled his right arm just below his shoulder.

Born with a lightning fuse and standing nearly as tall as Bo, Otis demanded respect—and enforced it at the slightest provocation.  Although I hadn’t seen these particular field workers around before, they’d obviously sized up scowling Otis in his chain belt and biker boots and decided that even two against one with him would be mighty dangerous.  So they held their tongues and scuffed the bare wood floor idly, waiting to carry off their load of long necks.

“There.  That’s seventy-two cents change.”  Otis flicked his eyes back and forth between the pair, flexing his tattooed biceps, daring them to gripe about the heap of pennies, I suppose.  “Like a whole mess of rattlesnakes,” Ray’d said Otis was, when you got him riled.  And if anybody should know, it’d be Ray.

Buster quietly placed a quart bottle of Pearl beer on the counter as the blue-jeaned workers hefted their cases and shuffled to the door.

Otis stroked his chin, staring at the bottle, then flicked hooded eyes at Buster.  “Two dollars,” he grunted at last.

Buster looked hurt.  “Two dollars?  For one quart?  Otis…”

I dug in my pockets, then slid three quarters across the counter to Buster.  Otis folded his arms across his barrel chest and spat on the floor.

Buster slid a dollar and a quarter plus my change across the counter in silence.  Otis scraped it up, stuffed it into the pocket of his black jeans then whacked open a small brown paper sack and slipped the bottle into it.  “Reckon you’ll need the church key?”

Buster rolled his eyes as I dug a dollar bill out of my back pocket and put it down in front of Otis.  Same routine, every weekend.  Normally, we’d forgo the bottle opener rental fee and simply gouge the bottle top off against the spigot out front.  But that night, with Junior on the loose and Kay Dee at work, I was in a hurry.

Otis slapped the opener onto the counter and shoved my dollar bill back.  “Nope.  No charge.  That’s for Ray.”

Buster popped the top off the fat bottle as Otis picked at the wooden counter, avoiding my eyes.  He cleared his throat.  “Travis, you knowed Ray-Bob and I was tight.  In the workhouse and all.”

“Yeah, Otis.  He told me.”  Roommates, so to speak.  Two against the world, Ray had said.

“And when we got out, he got me the welding job and that there free roof in the Albright field pump shack.”

He scuffed a boot, still staring at his blackened fingernails.  He pulled his lips together in a tight bunch, his face grew red and Buster eased away nervously.  “Well, him and me talked when he was in the hospital last week.”  Otis paused for a long moment.  “So let’s just say now Ray-Bob’s business is kind of my business, when it comes to paybacks.”

Otis flicked his eyes up to mine and I flinched at what burned in them.  “Know what I mean, Travis?”

And I did.  My sworn revenge, so simply satisfying only hours ago, now tied my guts in a trembling knot.  Every bone in my body screamed for me to run away and never come back, never again look into those dark pin-hole eyes of his.  Because I knew what they’d seen and where they’d been and why.  Otis had killed before.  I nodded in silence, afraid my voice would betray me. Maybe this was what Gram was trying to tell me.

Finally, Otis looked away.  “Good, Travis.  You come out to the pump shack.  We’ll talk.”

I nodded again, then followed Buster out to the lot.

Two pick-ups pulled in as we crunched toward the truck.  Buster glanced back at Chuke’s, then at me.

“Travis, what was Otis—“

“Later, Buster,” I said, stepping around to the passenger door.

Buster opened his door then paused, standing on the running board, pointing skyward.  “You see that, Travis?  A shooting star.  That’s a sure sign of something.”

I fingered the string tie in my back pocket and stared at the clearing sky, trying to decide just what the star was a sign of.  Maybe it was a sign from Ray—that he was all right.  And that I might be too.

But more likely, on the tail end of day shredded by a good beating and punctuated by my murdered kin’s descent to the dead, it had to be a warning, or even a testimony to the violence, death and doom planted firmly in Conroy for me to trip over and bend under till I found deliverance in my own pine box six feet below Dix. It only begets more sorrow . . .

Since a star wish could be almighty powerful, I’d usually address it only to the most urgent of needs, which for the past two years had been, without fail, a desperate appeal for me to get into Kay Dee’s pants—someone’s pants, anyone’s besides my own—before my eighteenth birthday.

That night, though, I fingered my swollen cheek and aimed my wish in a different direction, sex taking a back seat to self-preservation for the moment, even though I knew it would be a wasted wish.  Because star or no, my world was cast in stone and bound with bands of steel that held me fast in the center of a furious whirlwind of drunken brutality which, in some way I hadn’t quite figured out, had to be my own fault.

But despite my guilt, and ignoring the sign’s flaming proclamation of it, I recited the pagan chant silently, a sinner’s prayer flung in the face the righteous God who’d already found me unworthy to grow up in a home or family or to get laid in anything other than my dreams.

Star bright, star light, first star I see tonight—

A blast from the truck’s horn, yanked me back to earth, but only for a second.

“C’mon, Travis.  Shootin’ star’s not coming back.  Let’s ride,” Buster hollered, but I ignored him.

I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish to night…

All I asked for, and it wasn’t much, was a small bolt of lightning to drop from the sky and find the sorry trailer perched in Rattlesnake Gulch, steal inside, then split the false Kang’s head into a smoldering pile of Brylcreamed black hair.

Buster cranked the motor as I hopped in and slammed the door.  He flashed a sly grin.  “I aimed my star wish at a certain fair-haired pussy.”

For an instant, I almost resented him for being able to aim his wish at a warm crotch while I had to aim mine at a greased pompadour, just to save my own life.  But that wasn’t Buster’s fault.  I stared out the window.  “Me too, Buster.”

He handed me the brown bag and stomped on the gas, yanking the wheel hard left.  We spun out of the lot in a spray of gravel and fishtailed back onto Slide.

“Hoo-wee, three hundred ninety-six cubes, Travis,” Buster crowed.  “Dixie Dog, here we come.”

I toasted him with the bottle then took a fair sized swig of beer, swishing it around in my mouth carefully before swallowing.  You had to hold it in your mouth as long as possible to imbed the beer scent.  Then you could claim you’d drunk any outrageous amount in front of the others and they’d have to believe you.

“Dab some on your shirt, Travis.”

“You sure?”

Buster grabbed the bottle.  “Sure I’m sure.  Don’t worry;  my folks’ll be in bed by the time we get home.”  He gulped and swished the beer in his mouth, then slapped a palmful on his face and neck like Old Spice.  “Try that.”

I shrugged, slapping some cool, foamy liquid on my neck, rather than my tender face, then I wiped my hands on my jeans.  “Damn, Buster.  Now we smell like a brewery.”

He nodded, reaching for the bottle as we bounced west on Slide.  “That’s the idea.  Now we just gotta get there while we’re buzzed.”

“The Alamo first, Buster,” I reminded him.  “I’ll get you a burger, too.”

He belched and handed me the bottle.  “For an AC Burger, okay.  Now, what were you telling Bo about Junior and Texas Tech?”

I touched the cold bottle to my bruised cheek, letting the chill sink its soothing numbness into the welt.  “Shirl had Mrs. McCracken over to set her hair last week,” I said between swigs, swishes and swallows.  “I overheard it.”

I let that thought float in the air and take a minute to settle in.  It said a lot about Shirl, being a hairdresser.  Folks trusted their hairdresser right up there with a county judge, a teacher or maybe even a preacher, if you could find a real one.

“Why do people come over to that tiny trailer rather than see Shirl at the beauty shop?”

“Shirl charges less at home, because she doesn’t have to pay half to Georgette.  Plus, in the trailer, Shirl gets them drunk at no extra charge.  Can’t do that in Dix.”  I passed him the bottle.

“Guess not,” Buster mumbled.

“Anyway, Shirl’s giving Junior’s Momma the shampoo, set and tequila treatment,” I continued.  “Then Shirl pops the dryer hood over Mrs. McCracken’s head.  Mrs. M’s half deaf anyway, so with the dryer on, she’s yelling and blubbering how Junior flunked everything, including P.E.”

Buster’s eyes bulged.  “Naw!”  He handed over the quart.

I took a second to rinse and burp.  “Yep.  You know, they hardly played him on offense as a freshman.  Now that he’s flunked everything, she said they won’t renew his scholarship.  So there goes his draft deferment.”

Buster whistled softly.  “Holy cow.  Bo told Junior he should of enlisted with him.  Now Bo’s gonna kill all the Cong before Junior even gets out of Basic.”

“Buster, that’s not why Mrs. McCracken was bawling her brains out.  She was screaming she doesn’t want her baby Junior in any war.” Death is no place to go rushing off to, Gram’s voice croaked in my head before I could shut it off.

Buster turned to me with a twisted frown.  “Why the hell not?  We gotta stop the commies somewhere.  Would she rather wait till they land at Galveston or what?”

I shrugged.  “Don’t know.  But her old man didn’t serve his country in Korea like yours did.  She hasn’t got a clue about fighting for democracy and stuff.”

“Fightin’ and killin’s mans’ work,” Buster allowed.  “What business is it of hers anyway?”

Fighting, none, I decided.  But the killing, especially if it was her own fatheaded son being killed, seemed to me to be a decent reason for her to blubber. I deliberately squelched Gram’s voice waiting to pop up in my head.

Because unlike Buster, I knew nothing was safe anymore. Death was real and lying under a fresh pile of dirt in Dix, killing a dark flash in Otis’ eyes and a sworn part of my future, murder a recent legacy and every bit of this a lot more permanent than a piece of ass in the back of a truck.

Besides the wind chill on my beer-dampened throat, I thought about the shooting star, Kay’s crotch, Pop’s split skull, dead newbies and live Cong, draftable Junior and war-bound Bo, Lester dead and above all, the unshakable image of headless Doll that just would not go away.  Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys whined from Buster’s radio and I sat in tormented silence as we turned onto Conroy Main.  We rolled toward the Alamo I.


Chapter 5

            Buster pulled slowly toward the curb, but the coyote just hunched smack in the middle of the parking space on a large oil stain near the concrete wheel stop, wagging its tail, eyes blinking green in the truck’s headlights.

“Move, stupid!” Buster growled, horn blasts matching his karate-chopping of the button in the center of the steering wheel.

I glanced up at the dark windows of the apartment above the Alamo I.  “Hold your horses, Buster.”  I slipped out of the truck.  “No sense waking Bean with all that racket because of dumb old Moses.”

I stepped in front of the headlights, casting a sprawling shadow on the door to The Alamo I.  “Move along, Moses,” I said in a firm voice.  “It ain’t your turn yet.”  The raggedy, green-eyed fur pile, slobbering tongue wagging, eyed me calmly.  His ashen fur almost appeared white in the bald glare of headlights.  He always seemed to look at me sidelong, as if teasing or more likely, one eye was bad.  Finally, Moses swept the grease spot once with his tail then slunk off into the night.

Buster pulled in, killed the engine then clanked his door shut.  “What the hell is it with you and that coyote, Travis?”

I shook my head.  “It ain’t me.”  I glanced again at the darkened windows above the stucco I of The Alamo I.  “It’s Bean.  He only comes around when she’s here, or so Janey says.”

Buster paused, resting his boot on the truck bumper.  “Travis, since The Tramp knows what you look like now, you sure you wanna go inside?  Whatcha gonna do if she’s here?”

I shrugged, crossing the sidewalk to the glass paned doors with the arch of faded white letters proclaiming “AMO I” because the first “A” and “L” had been scraped off a few years back.  “I don’t know.”

What could I say to her?  Your man Evis is up in Rattlesnake Gulch fucking my mother who’s pretending he really is the Kang, all the while praying for you both to leave Colter County permanently and maybe get killed halfway between here and Hell.  I held the door.  “Maybe she’s not here tonight, Buster.”

“You already know she is, Travis.”

“Be right back.”  I headed for the stairs as Buster walked toward the counter, shaking his head.

Near the register, Carl wiped his hands on his apron and nodded my way.  Janey and Shirl conferred at the far end, their backs to The Tramp who blew lazy smoke rings at her reflection in the mirror behind the counter.

Rushing by behind The Tramp, I hopped the steps quietly, two at a time.  Top of the landing, three practiced paces, even in the dark, then a turn to the right.

A small night light glowed near the foot of the massive bed.  Nearly lost in the sea of linens, Bean’s carrot top, pigtails down, poked out.  Pinned under one arm, Doll kept watch as I stepped close enough to mark the measured huff of Bean’s breathing.  Eyes closed, her face had relaxed, looking so peaceful that I would have sold my soul to keep her little head so.

Standing completely still, I matched my breathing to hers, sharing her confident peace for a moment.  She’d understand if I told her about the shooting star and the lightning bolt I’d prayed for, but I’d never wake her from her tranquil island of sleep for that.  I gazed down at the face of an angel, soft and flawless in the pale light spilling from the open door.

In her dreams, did she ever speak?  Did Doll’s head ever come off?  Did she know who her father was and more importantly, did he have the guts to admit it?

Better yet, would Pop motor down from Rattlesnake Gulch, reclaim his Tramp, then cruise off and leave us alone, once and for all?  I sighed.

Of course, there were no answers, at least none that sleeping Bean or wide-eyed Doll or mangy Moses could share with me.  But she would be okay for the night, and that would do for the moment.  I pulled the door closed behind me as I tiptoed out.

Back downstairs, I slipped past The Tramp again and took a seat at the counter next to Buster.  Carl smiled and nodded.  “How ‘boutcha, Travis?”

“I’m doing okay.  How about you?”

Carl struck a thoughtful pose.  “Fair to Midland, cloudy in Odessa.”  Grinning his cock-eyed grin, he whipped a hand out from under his apron, pointing a bony finger at me and we both laughed, pretending he hadn’t used that line on me a thousand times before.

Janey drifted up from the far end of the counter.  “So, young man.  You working or playing tonight?”

“Can we get a beer?” I asked the same question I’d asked nearly every Friday night for two years.

“No you may not,” Janey answered with the same reply she’d given me for just as long.  “And don’t think I don’t know you two already had one on the way from Chukes.  Now, are you working or no?”

I twisted back and forth on the stool.  “You need help tonight?”

Over my shoulder, a loud clack announced a pool break as a sea of colored billiards fled the slowly rolling cue ball.  A lanky cowboy with a cue stick stalked the felt topped table, studying the angles, while Rooster Ruley sat patiently on a wooden stool, pool cue resting across the crook of his folded arms like a loaded shotgun.  He nodded my way, unsmiling, his red hair stuffed under a grease-streaked ball cap.  I nodded back, scanning the room.  A fairly typical Friday night; still quiet and not too crowded.

Janey put her hands on her hips and blew a lock of graying auburn hair off her forehead.  “Well, Shirl’s working, but she said if you show up before Bo does, she’ll take the night off and let you work.  If he don’t come by, she’ll go on up and sack out with Bea Anne.”

I thought of uniformed Bo, flopped on the bed.  Oh, Shirl.  “She needs to work, Janey.”

Carl laughed his loud, dry laugh, then coughed a fit.  It was a solid west Texas cough: purely from dust.  None of that fungus crud you got down in Houston or Galveston.  “Gonna have to take up smoking again.”  He winked at me.  “Go burn you a burger.”

“Two?”  I stood, heading for the kitchen.  “And you take them off my paycheck?”

Carl nodded.  “Yessir, I will.”

“Yessir, he won’t,” Jane added, shooting Carl a narrow, sidelong glance.  “But I sure will.”  They both laughed and Buster joined in.

“How’s your Daddy, Buster?” Carl asked, turning to my best friend.  I didn’t wait to hear his answer as I stood and brushed past Janey, heading to the kitchen to cook our pair of AC Burgers.

Walking the length of the counter, I locked my eyes on the swinging door to the kitchen so I wouldn’t have to look at The Tramp on my way.  Because as Buster had warned me, I could no longer melt into the woodwork like one of the nameless wranglers or roughnecks she’d see in The Alamo as she hung out and waited for The Kang to finish his midnight comings and goings.  I tried to slip past her as she stared into the mirror behind the counter.  I almost made it.

“He ain’t so bad, you know.”

I froze in my tracks, head bowed.

“He ain’t so bad,” The Tramp repeated, “when he’s not drinking.  He’s just his own man, in his own way.”

Turning toward her, I kept my face blank.  “You know where he is right now?”

She wore a floral blouse, tied at her bare midriff and clingy black renc slacks.  She crossed her legs in a long, tight “X” that ended at a pair of high heeled pumps.  Hacked off brown hair curled like a pair of scythes around a moon-shaped face.  Momma’s age, or perhaps a little younger, I decided, although not quite so worn looking around the eyes and painted up mouth.  She held her smoldering cigarette between two fingers propped an inch away from pointy black glasses with sparkles embedded in the corners of the frames.

She blew a geyser of gray smoke straight up from the corner of her mouth and shrugged.  “Like I said, he’s his own man.”  She puckered painted lips and turned toward the pool game.  “And he talks about you, brags on you a lot, when we’re on the road.  You should know that.”

Blood rose and my throat closed again and I wished for The Doc to bound down the stairs behind her, fresh from Bean’s safe dreams, and melt a hole in The Tramp with his flake-gold eyes.  You’d best leave, Tramp, and never show your face in the great state of Texas again.

I wondered if she’d met the slap hand yet.  I wondered if she could picture Momma’s tear-stained face or Bean’s lifetime silence or my star wish.  My fists clenched and my chest drew tight.  “You go straight to hell, woman.  And take him with you.”

“Easy, Travis,” Shirl’s voice sighed from behind me.  A hand touched my shoulder.  “Come on, give me a hand in the kitchen.”

The rangy cowboy with the pool cue walked over to The Tramp and stood near her shoulder, head cocked, glaring at me across the counter.  Rooster slid off his stool, hands clasped around his pool cue like a Billy club, and watched the cowboy carefully.  Patsy Cline moaned from the jukebox, the only sound in the whole room.

The Tramp stubbed out her cigarette then glanced over her shoulder at the gawky young cowboy, his jaw set.  Then she turned back to me.  “Well now,” she purred softly.  “Young Travis got his Daddy’s temper, didn’t he?”

My heart skipped a beat, the little hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I hated not only her knowing my name, but also her saying it out loud.

“Naw he didn’t neither,” Shirl snapped.

The Tramp grunted, sizing up Shirl through narrowed eyes.  Then she flicked her eyes to Rooster, who watched the cowboy’s every move, and Carl reaching under the counter for the Billy club he stashed there.

She fixed me with her amused stare again.  “He’s just his own man, Travis.”  She giggled as she stood.  “And I’m my own woman, too.  C’mon, Slim.”

He put down the pool cue carefully and glanced around the room, unsure of what to do next and for an instant, I felt a pang of embarrassment for him.  After an awkward moment, he swallowed hard, tipped his straw hat ever so slightly, then strode bowlegged after the woman.  The screen door creaked, then banged shut.

“Don’t let the door knob hit ‘cha where the good lord split ‘cha,” Carl muttered, then turned back to Buster as the low murmur of scattered conversation resumed.

Shirl followed me to the kitchen.

“Lord, what did he do to your face, boy?”

“Ain’t rench, Shirl,” I lied, and shot her a look that said there wasn’t anything left to talk about on that subject.

After a moment she asked, “Well, did you see Bo?”

I grabbed two rock-hard beef patties from the freezer and tossed them on the grill with a clatter.  “Yeah I did, Shirl.  And I told him.”

“You need to wash your hands, Travis,” Shirl sighed, sinking into a torn chair near the fryer.  The ice patties began to melt and sizzle.  “So, what’s he doing tonight?”

“He said something about Junior coming by to pick him up later on.”  I stepped to the sink and ran hot water over my hands as the burgers began to sizzle.  I scrubbed with rough powdered soap.

Shirl sniffed and I avoided her eyes.  “You go on back out there with Buster, Travis,” she fairly whispered, her voice weepy.  “I’ll bring these on out.”

Then and there I realized I should have used my one star wish to make the world right for Shirl.  But who even in heaven above could end her private hell?  And who on earth would ever show up to rescue her from west Texas and take her to a better place?

Who’d even come around more than a time or two, then thereafter only late at night as a last act of desperation?  Her deliverance might not be possible, even for a dead-on star wish.  Still, I couldn’t avoid adding that obligation to my list of things to make right.  Shirl needed someone to care about her, and as with Bean, I did the best I could.

“Okay, Shirl.”  I paused at the kitchen door and picked at a splinter in my palm.  “Hey, he’ll be by to see you before he ships out.  Don’t you worry.”

Near the register, Buster sat on his turn-around stool and leaned on the counter, slurping iced tea through a straw, listening to Carl.

“So, that bull was a sidewinder, though everyone in Stratford had told your Pop he was a straight up buck,” Carl spun for Buster another yarn we’d heard a hundred times but still enjoyed.  “Your Pop flew off sideways but caught his glove in the rope.  The bull’s twirling him, your Pop is hop-stepping along beside him trying not to get stomped and the bull spots me.  All of a sudden, we got us a tornado of flying hoofs and horns and I musta run him three laps around the arena, buying time for your Pop.”

Janey passed behind Carl and rolled her eyes.  “Them laps is getting more and more each year, Carl.”

Carl seemed not to notice her, hitching up his jeans as he propped one foot up on the shelf below the counter, his eyes alive in his narrow, leathery face.  “Well Buster, your Pop finally dances off, the bull storms away and I hop behind a barrel, darn near spent.  Later, behind the bull pens, I asked your Pop, I said, Buck, you get your wrist caught or what?  He says no, just my glove.  But they was new ones your Momma bought him and he didn’t want to let them go!”

Buster threw his head back and roared, I did too, more because I liked Carl than I did rodeo stories.

“Everybody laughs at the rodeo clowns,” Buster said.  “But the riders sure don’t.  Dad says a good bullfighter is worth his weight in gold.”

Carl stroked his chin and stared out the plate glass window.  “Well, I always took it kind of hard when a cowboy got hurt, you know?”

Janey sidled up to her husband.  “You was a clown even before the rodeo, Carl.”

Carl faced me.  “Now she’s jest waiting for me to say she was a barrel racer before the rodeo, too.”  He winked.  “But I’m way too smart for that.”

Looking down on Carl with kind eyes, Janey threw her arm over his shoulder.  “Yessir, you’re just the smartest dang clown I ever met.  You married me didn’t you?”

“Two AC Burgers,” Shirl huffed and waddled the length of the counter from the kitchen, carrying two steaming platters.  She set them before Buster and me.  “You eat the pickles and lettuce too, Travis.  Them’s your vegetables.”

I scrunched up my nose.  “Thanks, Shirl.”

“And the slaw,” Janey ordered.  “I made it fresh.”

“Yes’m.”

Buster leaned toward me as he gathered the bulging mound of beef and bun with both hands.  “You’re getting off easy, Travis.  You ever have rhubarb pie?”

My stomach growled as I nodded, hungry enough even to eat rhubarb pie.  I bit off the largest hunk of AC Burger I could fit into my mouth without having Janey or Shirl call me on it.

Shirl stepped in front of me and extended her hand.  Still chewing, I dug deep into my pocket, fished out a quarter and dropped it into her palm.  She marched off toward the jukebox.  With my mouth full and Janey hovering nearby, logging my burger tab in a small notebook, I couldn’t beg Shirl not to wear out the rut in goddam E-12.  But since she’d play it no matter what I said anyway, I saved my breath.

Shirl leaned over the hulking, neon-topped machine as my quarter clattered through its guts.  Then the old Wurlitzer clicked and whirred and Buster whispered, “Goddam E-12.”

The speaker crackled for a moment before Elvis mumbled into “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”  The same song, every Friday night; the dirge, the sum of everything, good and bad, swirling around that town.  Welcome to Conroy: good Elvis, bad Kang; lonely Shirl watching me and Buster wolfing burgers, Janey and Carl picking and teasing, Rooster clacking the cue ball and Bean dreaming upstairs while her favorite coyote stood watch outside. And all the while, the winds of war swirling just outside.

But not even halfway through my AC Burger, my strength swelled as the food hit my stomach.  Buster and I ate quickly, without speaking, each lost in thought, me about Kay, Buster probably thinking about Donna Jean or Sue Ellen or whichever purty girl hovering around the Dixie Dog might want the next best thing to Bo that evening.

Feeling stronger, I allowed myself a speck of hope.  Bean would be safe for the night.  Shirl would survive.  Maybe I’d get to Kay before Junior did.

And perhaps the hulking Heart ‘O Darkness would thunder across the state line before dawn and even the withering Dutch Elms gagging to death in Colter County might spring back to life.  Maybe, for just that one night, I could be a human being and forget the darkness of the past day.  Of course, deep in my heart, I knew better.


Chapter 6

            Buster devoured every scrap on his plate.  Watching him eat, I understood how Bo had grown so huge and why Buck had to raise cattle.  I saved two bites of beef, hiding them under the crumpled paper napkin I tossed onto my plate.

As Buster slurped the last of his iced tea, Shirl bustled out of the kitchen with another platter.  “Rooster!  CB with heavy ‘O’ and fries.”

Rooster put down his pool cue and took a seat at the counter next to Buster with a polite nod.  Carl drew a draft from the pony head tap and slid it before Rooster.  “Reckon you’re gonna need this to wash down the heavy onions, pardner, never mind the Chili Bowl.”

Buster scratched his head.  “How long you reckon that chili’s been cookin,’ Carl?”

“Not so long,” Carl answered.  “Maybe since ‘62.”  He winked at me and Buster.  “So the beer’s on me, Rooster.”

“Obliged, Carl,” Rooster said.  “And I do love them green onions, Shirl.”

The steaming chili was so thick the spoon stood up on its own in the middle.  Shirl tucked the tab under the napkin.  “Did you ever think maybe that’s why you’re still single, Rooster?”

He raised one eyebrow as he shook a load of salt onto the heaped fries.  “Tell you what, Shirl.  I’d rather want what I don’t have than have what I don’t want.  Bring me some more onions.”

Carl howled and slapped his leg while Janey shook her head in silence.  Shirl flounced off to the jukebox again.

Rooster stirred a generous dollop of Tobasco into his chili then shoveled away with his spoon.  After a moment, he wiped his mouth, took a deep draw from his beer then turned to Buster.  “Your parts come in from Lubbock, Buster.”

“Good news,” Buster said.  “How much they run?”

Rooster bit off a green onion and arched that eyebrow again as he chewed.  “I get three dollars a brake, installed, and I think that’s fair.”

Buster whistled softly.

“Well, y’all come ‘round and lend a hand in the yard like we talked about and I’ll do it all for five bucks,” Rooster offered.

“Just as long as Rebel is locked up tight,” Buster agreed.  “Don’t need no junkyard dog tearing my pants off again.”

Rooster swallowed a gulp of beer then cracked the slightest smile.  “Rebel’s a smart dog.  He knows who belongs there and who don’t.  And he taught you to use the front gate, didn’t he?”

I laughed, remembering Buster’s torn britches and the black and blue starbursts on his butt from Rebel’s snapping jaws.  I collected our plates.  “Be right back, Buster.”  I glanced at the wall clock with the Lone Star logo on its cracked face.  “We gotta head on.”

“Well then, hustle up, buddy,” Buster said.

Carrying our plates and glasses toward the kitchen, I prayed that Bo would drag Junior to the AC first and not to the Dixie Dog.  I rushed through the swinging door to the kitchen before Shirl could punch up goddam E-12 on the Wurlitzer again and glanced around as I put the dishes in the steel washtub.

Satisfied that I was alone, I scraped all the beef scraps from the piled plates into an empty lard can and carried them out the back door.

A warm, dry breeze wafted the sweet scent of alfalfa from up the plains and I took a moment to breathe deep and admire the scattered diamonds flung against the black canopy above.  With my back to the porch light, I searched the horizon beyond the barbed wire strung at the property line.  I spotted the pair of emerald dots, glowing like twin fireflies, not fifty yards away.

“It ain’t much, Moses, but I don’t reckon you’ll starve.”  I shook the meat scraps onto the dirt near the fence post then stood back as the green eyes drew closer, riding the shadowy coyote outline loping toward the fence.

Holy Moses! Carl had shouted when he’d first discovered Bean hand-feeding the grey coyote in broad daylight on that very spot.  I’d dropped my mop and come running, but I wasn’t surprised, especially considering what she’d done at Rooster’s junkyard.

Eventually, the “Holy” part of the name had worn off but the rest stuck and so we just called him Moses.  Though Momma would have a stroke she knew and though Shirl disapproved and Janey had even told Carl to shoot him, I figured what the heck.  Moses was the closest Bean would ever get to having her own dog and that aside, they had things in common.  Besides the fact that neither had ever spoken that I knew of, they both appeared to fear nothing and in a weird way, seemed to look out for one another.  Since neither had much going for them in this life, I tried to help them both as best I could.

“You watch out for Bean tonight, you hear?” I said quietly.

Casting a slanted moon shadow, Moses stared at me for a moment, then dropped his head and wolfed down the scraps.  I filled my lungs with scratchy night air then stepped back through the screen door into the kitchen.

“You feeding him again?” Shirl whined, next to the sink, hands on her hips.

I set the can down and paused at the swinging door to the diner.  “Better me than Bean, don’t you reckon?  Besides, it’s that much less garbage to haul off.”

Shirl rolled her eyes and turned on the hot water as I pushed through the door.

The old Wurlitzer pumped out a fine beat and Rooster tapped his spoon against his nearly empty chili bowl in time to the music as I swept past him.

“’Night Janey and Carl.  See you sometime tomorrow, Rooster,” I said.  “Let’s saddle up, Buster.”

“Janey, Carl.”  Buster nodded, following me out the front door.  On the sidewalk, he stopped.  “Ta-da!”

From the front of his jeans, he pulled a single long neck bottle, another part of our Friday night routine Carl always managed to smuggle our way.  How much trouble can a fella get into on half a beer each, he’d say, slipping the bottle to one or the other of us while Janey handled some chore in the kitchen.  I hopped into the truck and pulled the creaky door shut.

“Good old Carl.”  I took the bottle as Buster cranked the motor.

He craned his neck to see between the slats of the rifle rack as he backed the truck out of the parking space.  “Well, I guess he remembers what it’s like to be young and turned loose on a Friday night.  A cold beer, your own truck and a full tank of gas.  What more could a fella ask for?”

He waited a heartbeat, then put the truck into gear and punched the gas.  “Pussy!” he hollered at once then broke into laughter which stopped almost as abruptly as it began.  He stared at me squinty-eyed.  “Travis, you in there?”

“Yeah, Buster.  Sorry.  I’m a little slow tonight, you know?”  And half buried under the avalanche of rotten luck that seemed to be piling up that day.  I stifled a sigh and resisted the urge to twist the rear view mirror my way and inspect my budding shiner, which, in the blessed cover of night, wouldn’t show anyway.  We sped toward the Dixie Dog.

Buster studied the asphalt ribbon racing under the front bumper, whitewashed by the twin headlight beams.  “You’re missing Ray, ain’t ya?”

“Not just that, Buster.”  I fought off the vision of Ray tied to a gurney in Lubbock.  “It’s how he died.”

Buster glued his eyes to the road.  “Accidental gunshot,” he said carefully, more a statement than a question.

“Maybe.”  I pictured Ray’s twisted face and his choked words.  “Maybe not.”

Buster swallowed hard.  “God, Travis.”

Bit by bit, I decided, the story would come out.  But not until I’d done what I needed to do to even the score.  I fought off Gram’s warning and the image of fire-eyed Otis flashed before me. I bit my lip, wanting to flee the whole business but knowing in my heart that I couldn’t.

“What did Ray tell you in the hospital?” Buster asked cautiously.

I fidgeted in my seat, not sure if saying the words out loud would make the horrible truth better—or worse. Which is why I hadn’t repeated them aloud. I shook my head.  “It didn’t make sense. He said something like ‘your uncle’s going to hell,’ and ‘Lester did your Uncle a big favor.’” And to ‘stay away from your Uncle,’ I decided not to add.

Buster glanced over at me and it seemed he was sizing me up, deciding whether to discuss the awful words—or just skate off to happier topics.  “Musta been all the painkillers, Travis. Put it out of your head. You knew your uncle. You know death weren’t know favor.” He paused. “Now how ‘bout you tune us in something on the radio?”

Of course I knew my Uncle. And though I’d try to put those last words of my beloved kin out of my mind—I couldn’t.

While Buster watched the road, I fiddled with the radio tuner, chasing an Oklahoma City station near the far end of the band that would only come in at night.  Finally, the KOMA call letters squawked from the speaker and I felt grateful for that boundless black dome overhead which held the mystical power to fling even feeble radio waves to the ends of the earth, making all manner of unreachable things seem possible.

Because the blanket of blackness could even strip the sprawling red plains of their hopeless, shapeless, endless flatness, since in the dark world, magic ruled.  Nighttime knew no limits, effortlessly carrying far-off radio signals or floating visions of peace in town and glorious war in the jungle, or even sprinkling my dreams with the memory of those breathless, hot, wet sessions with Kay Dee in the back of Buster’s truck.  Mercifully, the world appeared and behaved differently with the lights off.

I looked up in time to see Buster ease us smoothly across the speeding white dashes in the center of the road, aiming us nose-to-nose with the oncoming headlights in the other lane.  A ragtop Mustang rushed at us, holding its course but flashing high beams.

Buster gripped the wheel with both hands and grinned at me.  “Watch him.  He won’t risk his Daddy’s car.”

Screw him anyway, I decided.  I ought to launch the nearly empty long neck right through his damn windshield and wipe the twisted smile off his round face for good.  Closer now, I heard the yellow Mustang’s horn above the roar of the truck’s engine and the ragged scowl of the slipstream through the open windows.

Buster held firm in the wrong lane.  I bit my lip and pressed against the floorboard with my right foot, the one that would have mashed the brake if I were in Buster’s seat.

Finally, barely fifty yards away, the Mustang veered into the other lane and fishtailed past, horn wailing.  Buster glanced at the rear view mirror and laughed, edging us back into the right lane.  “Told ya.  Junior’s Pop would kill him if he so much as scratched that spankin’ new, piss yellow Moo-stang.”

I exhaled the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding and handed Buster the bottle.  “Yeah, but Junior will beat your ass like a gong if he gets ahold of you tonight, Buster.”

He smiled, swallowing a mouthful of beer.  “Not tonight he won’t.  Not with Bo.  Hey, did you see Bo’s face?”

I nodded.  Bo had been grinning and watching Junior, enjoying his nervousness, no doubt.  To me, Junior would have looked better with most of our smashed beer bottle imbedded in his fat face, but when he slumped dead over the wheel, Bo might get hurt in the wreck and explosion that always followed, at least on TV.  I chugged the remainder of the beer.

Buster nodded at the empty bottle and frowned.  “Hey, you pig.”

“Last gulp’s mostly spit anyway,” I shouted, wriggling my head and shoulders out the window.  “Get on over.”

The wind tore at my T-shirt and force-filled my lungs as I opened my mouth.  Gravel crackled and clanked against the chassis as Buster sped up and dropped the right wheels onto shoulder.  I took aim but held fire until we were just yards from the buckshot-pocked sign proclaiming, “Dix, Pop. 2705.”

I lofted the longneck gently, merely aiming rather than throwing it, and the truck’s speed carried the tumbling bottle forward.  It sailed true and exploded against the dented sign in a shower of brown glass that joined a huge, glittering pile of shards sprinkled near the metal post.  I ducked back inside and sat down with a satisfied nod.

Buster swerved back onto the pavement and slammed his fist on the horn button.  “Hoo-wee!  We’re deadly, Travis.  Look out Dixie Dog.”

Deadly we’d be, I decided, since Bo would keep Junior off my back, at least this one last time.  When Bo had left Conroy for Basic Training late last summer, Junior had left for Tech, so there’d been no problems for me.  But with Junior back and Bo enroute to Vietnam, the fragile balance of power in town would soon shift.  “Buster, what are we gonna do about Junior when Bo ships out?”

He shrugged and turned up the radio.  “He only outweighs you by a hundred pounds, Travis.”  He laughed, then added, “Don’t worry.  He don’t outweigh the both of us together.”  He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.  “Besides, Junior knows Bo will be back eventually and then he’ll have to answer to a decorated combat hero for anything he might do to us.  Meanwhile, they’re headed east and we’re headed west.”

For now, anyway.  I tried to forget Junior’s warning to me before he went back to LaButtocks at New Year’s.  But since I felt reasonably sure Kay wouldn’t be in a hurry to tell Junior about our few steamy sessions during the Spring, before The Big Save, maybe he’d overlook me.  I hoped.

Because, with Lester on top of my kill list and Pop earning an honorable mention, my fight card was full-up.  If Kay was merely hanging out at The Dog, it might work.  But if she was working the register, or if she knew Junior was back in town, I was dead meat.

If, if, if.  I only wished my life could be as uncomplicated and safe as Buster’s.  But I had no big brother’s shadow to hide under, no father’s reputation to stand on and not even a favorite coyote to look after me when all else failed.

“Drive on, Buster,” I said, knowing better but flirting with disaster just the same.  “Tonight just might be the night.”

Copyright C.L. Manno 2011 all rights reserved.

Chapter 3

            Moonlight outlined the one-story house.  The old truck wasn’t out front, but a back bedroom light burned yellow against the blue-black night.  Murmuring voices drifted down from the porch like a rough thread, punctuated by snaps and buzzes from the glowing bug light.  The voices quieted as I drew closer.

“Evening, Travis.”  That was Buck.

“Evening, Mr. Ketterly.”  I mounted the steps and stood before the porch swing.

Mrs. Ketterly jumped up and smoothed her apron, squinting at my face in the bug light’s blue sheen. Her eyes grew wide.  “You’re going to need some ice on that, Travis.”

I shrugged.  “It don’t hurt.”

“Buster!” Mr. Ketterly shouted.  A bustle erupted from beyond the screen door, then thumping footsteps worked their way closer.

“How long’s he gonna be in town, Travis?” Mr. Ketterly asked quietly.

I shrugged again, fighting the urge to run a finger along my cheekbone to see what caused Mrs. Ketterly to gape so.  A fist won’t normally break the skin over a cheekbone the way a bottle will, but still, I couldn’t feel anything leaking there.  “He said something to Art about a load in Tulsa tomorrow.  I reckon he just came back for Ray’s funeral.  He’ll be moving on in the morning.”

Buster threw open the screen door.  “C’mon in, Travis.”

The porch swing creaked then swung free as Mr. Ketterly stood.  He towered over me, hitching up his jeans, thumbs in the loops that carried the thick leather belt, clasped by a large metal oval decorated with a rearing stallion.  Big as a house, even bigger than Bo, he had a slightly bowlegged walk, left over from when he’d been rodeo.  He nodded.  “Saw the rig in town.  Figured as much.”  He held the door open.  “Sorry about your Uncle Ray, Travis.”

I knew he wasn’t, but I was grateful he said it, if only for me.  Most people in Conroy probably breathed a sigh of relief last week when they heard the news.  Though Ray hadn’t been bad in the same way as his brother, how could they know?

Mrs. Ketterly waved her hands, shooing me through the door.  “The bugs, boys, the bugs.”

“Yes’m.”  I edged past her and followed Buster down the hall.

“There’s rhubarb pie, Travis,” Mrs. Ketterly called after us.

I paused, facing the wall covered with carefully framed awards and pictures.  Surrounded by the entire Westland football team, Bo grinned out of a black and white photo, holding the 1968 Region Two Championship trophy.  My stomach growled.  “Thank you, Ma’am.  Maybe in a bit.”

Buster waved me into his room and closed the door.  He looked me up and down.

I blinked back.  “Is it that bad?”  I walked over to the mirror above the dresser.

“It’ll be a shiner,” Buster promised.  I fingered the half-moon shaped welt, studying it in the mirror.  My heart skipped as I saw the bottle fly, bottom first, then the starburst and the pain.  My shoulders tensed and started to tremble.  I chewed my lip.

“Don’t let him get to you now, Travis.  It’s okay here,” Buster’s voice drifted from a million miles behind me.  I ran my hand gingerly over the growing knot on the back of my head from the doorjamb.  Those jagged brown teeth, the tequila spray and the hard eyes.  I’d sooner burn in hell…

A worn paperback fluttered over my shoulder and bounced off the mirror.  “What would the Doc do, Travis?  Think; what would he do?”

Fighting to cap the gusher of rage rumbling and swelling, ready to blow, I focused on the smooth book cover.  The bronze man, shirt ripped and muscles bulging, grinned back.  In charge of the world, topping all evil, punishing the guilty: The Doc.

We’d handled it this way before, putting things right, although Buster never cared much for his part.  I turned to him, setting my feet apart like The Doc always did, at least on book covers.  A husky voice snarled, “That’s it, Kang.  You done throwed your last tequila bottle.”

Headlights pierced the half open blinds and fanned Buster with falling slats of white.  He eyed me warily but said nothing.  A motor died and a door slammed.

“Say it, Buster!” I shouted, louder than I meant to.

“Travis, I—“

Say it!

Buster turned his head to the wall and mumbled, “The Kang’s gonna fuck the bottom outta your Momma.”

Pipes burst, rage flashed and something deep inside exploded as my legs sprung.  I flew across the small room and Buster let go a dull “Oof” as I buried my head in his stomach.  We tumbled across one twin bed, flailing, grappling, Buster grunting, “I ain’t him, Travis!” as I pinned him.

With my eyes pressed shut, I dragged the head atop the “X” marked neck clean off of the bed, grinding it into the throw rug on the floor.  Breathing hard, pulse racing, I pictured the tobacco stained sausage lips curling back from the brown teeth, grimacing, strangling, sorry as hell and ready to beg and—

Two strong hands clamped under my arms and lifted me, still struggling, off of Buster then pinned me down.  Buster scooted away, rubbing his neck.  I stopped fighting and the hands let go.  I sat up, panting, and studied the shiny combat boots and the starched uniform.  A beret perched at a jaunty angle above the familiar face and winning smile.  “Damnation, Travis.  You’re like a wild tiger.”

“Not a tiger, Bo,” I said, standing up, heart thumping as it tried to shrink back into my chest.  Facing Bo, my rage evaporated like a spent thunderhead.  “Anything but a wild tiger.” I tried to collect my breath.  “When did you get back?”

He sat on the bed and flipped the beret onto the dresser.  “This morning.  Why the hell you wearing a string tie with a T-shirt?”

My breath still came in gasps.  “It was Ray’s.”  I slipped the tie off and stuffed it in my back pocket.

“I’m sorry about your Uncle, Travis.”

“How long you gonna be staying?” I asked, needing to change the subject, studying the silver and blue marksman’s badge over his breast pocket.

“Couple days.  I ship out on Thursday, so I gotta be at Fort Ord by Wednesday.”

Buster threw the paperback into the bulging pile of like books heaped under the life-sized poster of The Doc on his closet door.  “Tell him ‘bout the bivouac, Bo.”

Bo leaned back on his elbows and grinned the smile that had loosened cheerleaders’ britches in three counties.  “Naw, he don’t wanna hear ‘bout no bivouac.”

I tucked my T-shirt back in and sat on the other twin bed with Buster.  “Yeah, I do, Bo.”

Bo stood and walked to the window, his eyes serious.  A calf bawled in the distance.

“We’d been in the field for three days.  Field packs, full combat gear, the works.”

“C-rations and all?” Buster asked, eyes wide.

“Yessir, we ate C-rats.  And that day, my squad had the point, see, because we were honor squad and all.”  He stared out the window, letting that sink in.  Heat-lightning danced at the edge of the plains and the wind teased the white linen curtains.

Bo put an oversized forefinger on his chiseled chin cleft.  “We knew there was Cong out there everywhere, and we were supposed to find them.”

I scrunched my nose and narrowed one eye, the wrong eye, and it hurt doing it.  “Cong?  There’s Viet Cong in Killeen?”  After I’d said it, I’d wished I hadn’t, but too late.  Buster laughed.

Bo turned around and sat.  The bedsprings groaned.  “Not real Cong.  Newbies.  They made the basic training guys—the newbies—play the Cong role for the exercise.  Most of ‘em, in the group we were hunting, were fresh from cities up north.”

The image of towering Bo in full field gear, rifle in hand, hunting newbies or even worse, Cong, sent a chill up my spine.  “Go on.”

“Well, since I knew none of ‘em had ever hunted in their lives, I figured what the hell.  We treat ‘em just like quail,” Bo said, flashing that smile again.  “We wait for them near where they roost, flush ‘em out, then pop ‘em when they fly.”

Buster leaned forward, elbows planted on his knees, chin resting on his hands.  “Like quail,” he echoed.  “The Doc would have done just that.”

“So we dug in behind a stand of mesquite on a small rise,” Bo continued.  “The only shade for miles.  Sure enough, within an hour, those straggly Cong come up to rest.”

Bo stood and aimed an imaginary rifle out the window.  “Boom!  Boom!  Picked ‘em off, neat as you please.  We won.”  He glared at the empty sky with the same fiery look that had terrorized defenses from Muleshoe to El Paso and back.

Buster shook his head, smiling, his eyes wide, looking straight ahead but seeing elsewhere.  “Man, Bo.  You’re gonna kick some butt when you go over.  I bet the real Viet Cong don’t know nothing about quail hunting neither.”

Thrusting out his cinderblock jaw, Bo struck a somber, faraway look.  “Nope, I don’t reckon they do.  And we’re not firing birdshot, either.  We’re talking 7.62 millimeter, semi-automatic M-14.  You can cut a fence post in half with it.”

Buster turned to me.  “In another year, Travis and I’ll will be right there with you.”

I thought about Gram’s words about fighting and killing and sorrow.  “New President says he’s gonna end the war.  With honor,” I said quietly, feeling the tender bump on my cheekbone.

“Nixon don’t know from shit,” Buster scoffed.  “We’d be better off putting another Texan in the White House to run the show.  Nixon won’t end nuthin’.”

Bo studied the gleaming tips of his boots.  “Maybe he will and maybe he won’t.  But I’m going over to bag me a few Cong before he does.  Those with combat experience will be the NCO’s of the new Army.”

Fighting just begets more sorrow. What could an old woman know about that anyway? What did she ever really fight and if she had, maybe then she’d know about fighting and glory, which is where Bo was headed. I shoved her words out of my head.

“You gotta write us, Bo, and tell us how it is,” Buster said.  “That way, we’ll have a leg up when we get there.”

“We’ll see.  Don’t know if I’ll be able to, when we’re on maneuvers and all.”  Buster’s face dropped until Bo added, “But I’ll try.”

Bo unbuttoned his uniform jacket and slipped it off.  He shook it into shape, straightening the sleeves, then put a wooden hanger in the broad shoulders and hung it from a dresser drawer pull.  With a couple badges, the brass buttons and his unit insignia, the blouse hung on display like a perfect new flag with a background of green, still having plenty of space for the rows of ribbons we all knew would come from a combat tour, maybe two, if he liked the first one.  A stiff breeze, tinged with the scent of horses, rustled the window shade.  After a moment of silence, I turned to Bo.  “Cheryl Ann wants to know when you’re coming for her.”

“Who?”

“His Aunt,” Buster offered.  “The one that lives with them and cuts hair part time in Dix.”

“Oh, Shirl.”  Bo picked at the faded bedspread.

“Right.  She says she wrote you five times a week when you were in training,” I said.  “And she wouldn’t leave me alone till I told you.  So you tell her I did.”

He ran his fingers through his blonde brushcut.  “Well, she sure did.  And I will.  But probably not tonight.”  He flopped back on the bed.  “I’m beat.”

“You staying in on a Friday night, your last one home?” I asked.

Bo loosened his tie and undid his top button.  “Junior McCracken’s supposed to come by.  So if I do go out, it’ll be with him later on.”

At the mention of Junior McCracken, my hopes sagged.  Buster hopped up.  “I thought Junior was still in LaButtocks.”

“Tech got out this week.  He’s done till football camp this summer late,” Bo answered.

“He may be done at Tech for good,” I said quietly, picturing Mrs. McCracken blubbering away as Shirl blew-dry her hair in the cramped trailer.

Bo sat up.  “What are you talking about?”

The two of them had been a thundering herd, stampeding out of the backfield, Junior blocking and Bo running like the wind.  It wouldn’t do for me to tell him the truth about Junior.  “Just nothing.”  I patted my boot toe on the throw rug.

Buster grabbed his wallet and keys off the dresser.  “Then you won’t be needing the truck tonight, eh Bo?”

“No, I reckon I won’t,” Bo answered, leaning back, eyes closed again.

“Let’s go get us a quart, Travis.  Then we can cruise the Dixie Dog.  Maybe Kay will be there.”

I’d thought of that.  But my swollen cheek still felt hot to the touch.  It would be best if it was dark next time I saw her.  Maybe the next two times.  And I’d damn well better get there before Junior did.  “Okay, Buster.  Let’s go.”

“Y’all two be careful,” Bo ordered, still flat on his back.  Without answering, I followed Buster out of the room, quietly pulling the door closed.

Art switched off the ignition but the engine fired on, twice, three times; coughing, shaking the old car and then finally wheezing itself into silence.  In the gathering dusk, doors flew open, all except Art’s.  Mom grunted herself out, followed by Pop who sprang to the crushed gravel, nimble as a tiger, eyes wild.  Parked before the house trailer, his huge Peterbuilt cab sat quietly, splattered with dirt and mud, looking forlorn with no load hitched to it.  Jet-black with a lacquered finish, Pop had paid Rooster twenty dollars to airbrush the nickname Heart ‘O Darkness across both doors in bold, red letters.  It sat there quiet now, waiting for Pop to ride it into the night like a witch’s broom.

Shirl swung her legs out then heaved herself upright.  Bean slipped off my lap and skittered away in Shirl’s shadow.  I, too, tried to hide behind Shirl, hoping the big cat wouldn’t notice me and instead, prowl his way to the liquor cabinet and crawl inside for the night.  Not so fast.

“We got business, boy.”  Pop glared at me with the squint-eyed look that usually only comes out of a thick bottle and not until.  Lightning slashed the horizon behind him as his right hand, the club hand, opened and closed idly.  The left, his chop and slap hand, straightened itself and rose to his waistline.  I set my jaw, trying not to show the shiver that rose in me sure as sap in springtime.  Slivers of wind-driven rain stung my cheeks as I crunched around the back of the car to Gram’s door.  I bought time, figuring Pop probably wouldn’t smack me while I helped his own mother out.  Shirl grabbed Bean by the hand and trotted her off behind Momma with a worried look over her shoulder.  Momma flinched every time Pop snarled but kept walking, just the same.  She knew she was next.

Art rolled down his window and fumbled with the outside door handle while he popped the hood open on the tired old heap.  A curl of steam hissed from under the cracked, paintless metal as Art swung his door open between Pop and me.  Grateful for the fleeting instant of safety, I planted my feet, ready for the cat’s charge when a mangy furball, yapping like crazy, dashed between my legs and flung itself at the poised tiger.

Pop spun around on one leg, the other swung the growling mutt clamped onto his pant leg through the air in a tight arc.  He hop-stepped toward the front end of the car, his eyes wilder than the snarling animal’s, and slammed the dog against the fender.  The dog yelped, scrambling to its feet, and Pop whirled once then aimed a deft kick that grazed Scamper’s hind quarters.

Mason’s screen door banged open and he stomped onto the plywood door stoop clutching a newspaper.  Barefoot in bib overalls that bulged over an enormous gut, he glared silently at Pop over the top of his bifocals.

Still yowling, the dog scrambled up the wooden steps and into the trailer.  Droopy-eyed Mason scowled, smart enough not to say anything that might provoke the tiger further.

Art waddled to the steaming hood.  “Last week it’s your drunk brother shooting at the dog.  Now it’s you launching him against my car.  Dog ain’t gonna live too long next door to you folks.”  Art swatted at the hissing vapor cloud with a handkerchief.  He coughed at the dank smell, then pulled a crumpled pouch of chew from his coat pocket and offered it to Pop.  “Now come here and help me with this dang motor, son.”  He pried the warped metal open with Pop’s help.

“Good thing Ray was drunk, Art, or that dog would have a big hole in him right now,” I said carefully.

Mason winced and Pop whipped him with an ugly, jagged-tooth smile, probably savoring the memory of wild-eyed Ray on one of his gin-soaked shooting sprees, target shooting the dog with a 44-Magnum.

Then as quickly as it had appeared, Pop’s smile vanished.  “Damn right, Mason.  Now get your fat ass back inside.”

Mason flicked his gaze to me and though I could read the pain, the scare in them, I didn’t say one word.  He turned away, hurt, but I’d make it up to him sometime when the big cat wasn’t breathing down my throat.

Pop leaned over the popping, crackling engine block.  “Artimus, we gotta patch this damn radiator once and for all.”

Pop paused to spit a brown stream onto the dirt, then loosened the radiator cap.  The sizzling cloud swallowed him and Art in a sour smelling whitewash of vapor and I eased toward the trailer, forgotten in the steaming white haze.  I hoped.

Gram’s raspy low voice called me back; her bony hand closing around my wrist.

“Travis Carlisle,” she said in her emphasemic whisper, “you listen to me. You’re a good boy, you listen to me now.”

What choice did I have? I avoided her eyes, keeping mine on the whispy steam curling from under the raised hood, and the hulky figure bent over the engine, working on something.

“This fighting, killing,” Gram rasped, “it has to stop with you. Just look at my boys: good one’s in a bad place; bad one’s in a good place, but death is no place to go rushing off to like that. Are you listening to me, Travis?”

Good one, bad one; what could I care on the verge of a good beating from whichever of her ‘boys’ was cursing the motor? Pop spat a brown stream, then ducked back under the hood. If I had a tire iron, I could have walloped him. But that would only make him madder.

She grabbed both of my forearms and with a strength I wouldn’t have believed she had, she jerked me around to face her. “You’re the last hope, Travis, the one and only hope for this crazy feuding family. Fighting just begets more sorrow. You can’t fix anything by declaring war and fighting blindly on. There’s nothing but death down that road, more death and sorrow for everyone left behind.”

I could see that in her eyes—a painful sorrow, loss; the sunken look of a life lived but gone wrong, marked with yet another trip to the grave. But talk of peace is easier if you weren’t at war already, if there wasn’t an evil army marching your way, as soon as the radiator cooled and he could round up the peacekeepers and shoo them out of sight. That would end the flimsy “peace” in favor of the endless war. What choice did I have?

“I gotta check on Bean and Momma.” I wanted to say more, to really listen more, but that wasn’t the time or place for anything but survival, never mind oddball notions of peace.

Gram studied me for a moment, then let go of my arms. “You think about what I said, Travis Carlisle. You’re a smart boy. Think. Think hard!” She turned towards the front steps as I slunk toward the back.  “I’ll just wait inside while you two—“

“Naw, you won’t neither,” Pop barked.  “I’ll have you and your husband outta here in just a minute.”  He uncoiled the garden hose as I slipped around the corner of the trailer.

I trotted up the back steps and pulled the door shut.  In the small bedroom, Momma leaned over her vanity, shoulders bunched, squinting through hard eyes at the small spot in the cloudy mirror that wasn’t plastered with magazine cutouts and clippings of The King.  She’d powder her face then a trickle of tears would roll a wet trail down her cheek.

I yanked off the string tie and stuffed it in my jeans pocket as I unbuttoned the cardboard shirt.  “Momma, don’t.  Just don’t.”

“Now don’t you start on me, Travis Carlisle, because I don’t have the time.”  She rolled up a red tip from a tube of lipstick, then threw it down and fumbled in her make-up pile.  Outside, Art’s car rumbled, choked, then died.  “You don’t have time either, boy.  So you best high tail it.  Shirl!  Where’s my ‘drank’?”

Her sister brushed past me and handed her a glass of amber liquid.  “You do this for The Kang, hon.  Remember, you just think of Evis all the while.  You can do it.”

Evis.  In west Texas, you didn’t say the ‘L.’  And Evis was The Kang.  Momma slurped the drink as Shirl patted her back.

I studied the water-stained ceiling.  “He ain’t no Evis, Momma.  Why do you have to—“

“It’s the easiest way.”  She gulped her drink and lit a cigarette.

“It’s the only way,” Shirl promised.  “You got to make your mind elsewhere.”

The starter cranked and whined, then stopped.

Momma sighed and fingered a clipping with a photo and a schedule on it.  “Shirl, tell me again how we’re gonna go to Vegas . . .”

Bean slipped into the cramped bedroom, headless Doll in one hand, and hopped up on the cluttered vanity.  She picked a picture of The Kang out of the mirror frame and studied it quietly.  Her lips drew into a straight line and she shook her head slowly.

“We’re going, honey bun, we just are.”  Shirl helped steady her big sister’s hand.  “You think about him all night tonight.  Just him.”

Momma’s eyes mirrored her sister’s shock and fear, with an added edge of pain in Momma’s that at once made her seem old beyond her thirty-five years.

Shirl turned to me as I dug in the hamper for a T-shirt.  “We’d best clear out for the night, Travis.  Where you going?”

I shrugged.  “Janey and Carl’s.  I reckon.”

“Go over to Buster’s.  Find out when Bo’s coming around for me.”

I sniffed a T-shirt, then quickly pulled it on.  “I can’t take Bean to Buster Ketterly’s house, Shirl.”

Art’s car cranked again, caught, then revved to a roar.  Car doors slammed.  Shirl huffed a sigh.  “I’ll take Bea Anne with me.  You go on over to Buster’s.  Tell Bo I’m waiting on him.  Better hurry.”

Gravel crunched as the car pulled away.  No time, just no time left.  I moved towards the back door, behind Shirl and Bean, rolling my sleeves up to my shoulders as I went.  “You take care of Bean, Shirl.  And you’d better haul ass.”

Shirl thumped down the back steps, Bean leading her, following headless Doll.  “Come on, Travis.  I got the truck.”  She waggled a key ring with one hand, the other struggling to hang onto Bean’s hand.  “We’ll carry you on over to Buster’s.”

I stood on the back stoop, just as the front door slammed.  “Shirl, you just take Bean and git.  Go on.”

“Don’t be a fool, Travis,” Shirl threw over her shoulder as Bean dragged her toward the truck.  “Go now, tell Bo.  Travis, you tell him I’m waiting.”

I turned and pulled the back door open and waved a hand, but didn’t look back.

Inside, Momma still sat at the mirror, drink in one hand, a smoke snake drifting lazily out of her nose as she hummed “Love Me Tender,” tears streaming down her cheek.  She seemed not to notice as I rushed past her and stepped quietly down the narrow hallway, toward the rustling sounds coming from the kitchen.

Pop had his back turned, pouring a jelly glass full of tequila.  He held it up to the window, turning it back and forth with his fingers, looking through it to the street lamp cutting the darkness outside Mason’s.

He growled deep in his throat.  “Get ready, Baby-Doll.  Put on your pretty face.  The Kang’s coming after you.”

Slowly, he put the glass to his lips.  I breathed through my mouth, carefully, praying to God that Pop couldn’t hear the thudding of my heart that sent the blood roaring through my ears.

With noisy gulping swallows, Pop drained the glass, gasped and spat in the sink, then wiped his mouth with the back of the slap hand.  The fingers on the club hand trembled ever so slightly, then groped for the bottle again as Pop stared out the window.

He flinched, his shoulders hunched slightly and the hand froze.  I knew the black eyes had locked onto something, either outside or reflected from inside, in the filthy glass pane.

The hand moved toward the bottle again, steadily, and found it.  Thick, grease-stained fingers closed around the bottle, lifted it, and poured the last few ounces of clear liquid into the drinking glass.  He froze, eyes still locked on the window, bottle tipped toward the glass, thick shoulders tensed, a motionless freeze-frame save the tiny, colorless drops that plinked one by one into the clear pool in the glass.

My heart thundered.  I fought a shiver that drew every nerve in my body tight.

The dark statue before the window gripped the bottle, frozen save the measured drip that slowed, and slowed, and finally came to one clear drop that stretched, but hung on just the same.

Faint strains of my mother’s ragged humming mixed with my own shallow breathing as I watched the cords on the back of the chop hand bulge and the finger pads whiten against the empty bottle.

I blinked.  In that fraction of a second, the tiger leapt and spun and I heard the air whistle over the mouth of the empty bottle just before the starburst of light and the dagger of pain exploded from my left cheekbone.

I flexed my knees and braced myself forward to resist the charge as Pop leapt over a laundry basket and grabbed my throat.  He slammed me against the wall by the stove.

“Boy, you ain’t got the common sense to git while you could of.”  His eyes bulged and he panted short breaths sweetened with the afterscent of tequila and lingering traces of Red Man.  “You jest got no sense at all.”

A thumb dug under my jawbone probing, then found it’s mark.  My cheek throbbed, my ears hummed and the room began to swim.  A reedy voice fluttered up from somewhere deep and my heaving chest.  “You . . . ain’t no father . . . to Bean.  And you . . . ain’t no husband to—“

My feet left the floor and I sailed across the room, weightless, catching a glimpse of my pale momma, jaw slack and eyes wide, frozen in the hallway.  I dropped against the front door frame.  Pop vaulted over the cluttered table and landed on his haunches square in front of me, his face in mine.

“You’re goddam right I ain’t,” he hissed, dotting my throbbing cheek with tiny flecks of tequila spit.  “Ray-Bob talked, didn’t he?”

My mind flashed the image of those same hard eyes, only in his brother’s wounded head, on his deathbed, whispering to me.

The slap hand whipped out of nowhere.  Impact sparked another burst of light that made my ear ring and my nose burn somewhere down deep.  A warm trickle flowed down my chin but I ignored it, boring a hole in his eyes with my own.

His lips pulled back against brown teeth.  “So you know what Lester don’t want nobody to know.  Did Ray-Bob tell you the rest?”

Starbursts again, on the other side.  My skin burned and that ear rang.  Still, I lanced him with my eyes but clenched my jaws tight.

“Who do you think I am a Pa to?”

Course hands lifted me and pinned me roughly against the door.  Again, I said nothing.

Pop drew ragged breaths.  “You best listen to me, boy.”  He banged my head off the door.  “Pa or no, I’d sooner burn in hell than rot here in East Jesus with the likes of you.”

He grabbed a handful of my T-shirt with one hand, the other twisted the door knob.  He kicked it open.  “You’re damn near eighteen, boy.  Get the hell outta this house.”

Weightless again, I sailed through still air never touching a step, and landed flat on my back in the dirt where I writhed like a headless snake, my wind gone.

Pop pointed a thick finger at me.  “If I ever come back and find you here, I’ll kick your ass all the way to Fort Worth.”

The door banged shut and the deadbolt clicked.  Voices rose, one of them my mother’s.  After a loud crashing, the hollering receded, as I lay on my back, forcing shallow gasps, watching scud clouds riding the wind between me and the stars.

Mason’s door creaked open and footsteps shuffled across gravel.  Then a thick hand pulled on my jeans and belt buckle, holding them up.

“Lie still, Travis.  Let it come back on its own.”

Flat on my back, I watched the stars wheel between cloud gaps behind Mason’s head, fighting panic until my breath returned.  Finally, I sat up.

“Sorry,” I gasped.  “Sorry about Scamper.”

Mason helped me up.  “You got someplace to go for the night?”

I slipped past him, my chest heaving.  “Ketterly’s.”  I took a shaky step, then another.

Mason brushed the dirt from my back but said nothing.  I walked with careful steps to the gravel drive, spit a coppery tasting dark glob on Pop’s silent, hulking Heart ‘O Darkness and moved on without looking back, concentrating on my dimming shadow.

Trudging down the gravel road from Rattlesnake Gulch, I cleared my throbbing head and wrapped myself in the darkness.  Ahead and to the north, the prairie storm flared the horizon with sparks and flashes that backlit a ghostly outline of a towering thunderhead jumble.  The wind carried the dank smell of earth touched by some rain, but not by enough.  Moments later, muffled booms rumbled across the flatlands as the storm rolled on, punishing Oklahoma just for being itself, I reckoned.

To the south, angry orange flames dotted the night sky, flickering in the heat waves that still shimmered across the miles between me and the uncapped gas wells in the Harlow fields.  I forced a determined stride, matching the cadence of my bootheels in the gravel to the measured rasp of my own breathing.  Staring straight ahead in the black night, you couldn’t tell where the sky ended or the ground began and my legs disappeared.  So I floated, a weightless feather riding the wind, down the hill from Rattlesnake Gulch toward the lights of Ketterly’s ranch.

That thick lump rose in my throat again but I fought it off with careful, strong breaths.  I’d sooner burn in hell than rot here in East Jesus with the likes of you.  I rubbed my eyes, wiping them clear and though some drops still fell, it would be okay because the black sky and sailing wind still spit a fat drop or two that also would dot my shirt.

Crossing Slide Road I spun on my heels and stopped, fists clenched, and faced back toward Dix.  Was this how it was for Ray now?  No arms, no legs, floating in the solid black, heart trying to cry a hole right through his very soul?  A shotgun blast and then Lester’s lopsided grin played in my mind, over and over, that and Ray’s strangled words from his death bed.  I dug in my pocket for the string tie, looped it over my head, then pressed my eyes shut.

Damn the night, damn that hole in the ground and the one in my heart too.  And damn the raging tiger, the false Kang, still strutting, stomping and making life hell in the red dirt shithole, Conroy.  I ordered my invisible legs into motion again and floated towards Ketterly’s.

Prologue

            Like scattered jewels suspended in a gossamer web, the glittering lights five miles below cut the midnight sky cleanly.

Jim fidgeted in the copilot’s seat.  “Well, there goes Lubbock.”

We  both logged fuel readings and the crossing time for the West Texas waypoint, just one of many on our flight plan—but to me, so much more than just a notation of latitude and longitude. With the twist of a knob, I changed our heading a few degrees to the north.

Jim check the cabin temperature readout. A good idea to keep the passengers comfortable—which would keep the flight attendants happy as well. “So, only three more hours to Seattle, Captain.”

I nodded, staring out the windscreen to the north at the hardscrabble plains bathed in pale moonlight.  Though I couldn’t see the shaggy gray fur or loping shadow, I knew he was down there, guarding Conroy, Dix, Gulch Park and the wide-open dustbowl we called East Jesus.  He’d have grown older, maybe, but his emerald eyes would not have dimmed.

“You spent much time in Lubbock?” Jim asked.  He wasn’t my regular copilot.

“Eighteen years worth.”  I followed the spindly white headlight trail tracing Highway 27 north from the city.  A small clump of lights glowed dimly, but in just the right spot.

“Oh, that’s right.  You and Hope are from there, aren’t you?”

I shifted in my seat.  “About an hour north, to be precise.”

“Right.  You played football at Tech.  And she was a cheerleader, wasn’t she?”

“Yes.  Our senior year.”

Silence, but only for a moment.  “You two are the storybook couple.  And you have a first grader, did you say?”

“Seven years old on Thursday.”

“Wow!  What a fairy tale.”

Chapter 1

            “The bastard’s dead,” Momma swore.  “And dead is dead, so just leave him lay.”

Crammed in the front seat between deaf old Art, who hunkered over the wheel, and my mother, who stared out the side window, Pop cocked his head and worked his jaws.  “Dead and buried, but damn well still my brother,” he muttered, mostly to himself.  He’d hardly find sympathy for Uncle Ray in that old wreck.

From the rear seat, I studied the back of my father’s neck, the way the thick, sun-cured skin formed a wrinkled “X” crease above his burly shoulders.  Try as I might, and God knows I did, in all my seventeen years, I couldn’t conjure up an “X,” or a “V,” or even a halfway “dash” on the back of my neck, no matter how I scrunched and strained.  In fact, it seemed I hadn’t inherited any of his brawniness or even a touch of his sullen features, although our eyes were the same color.  I never could figure that out.

“He’s still dead,” my mother had to repeat, had to get those words in.  Pop’s thick silence clotted the stuffy air in the overloaded Chevy, windows rolled up tight against the persistent needle points of rain and sealed closed in deference to Aunt Shirl’s hairdo.  I could hardly breathe.

We headed east slowly, away from the sinking sun that slunk back toward Dix, away from the weather ahead which raced off to rake the plains with strokes of lightning and a bow wave of red dust.  That confounded weather was killing me too, inch by inch.  I felt wind-whipped and faded, just like the last Fall’s tattered Humphrey-Muskie posters flapping against the row of telephone poles.

And because of the thick, tumbling blue thunder clouds rolling across the plains, ready at any second to blow the sky apart with jagged lightning, the windows would stay shut.  They held me prisoner—suffocating—squashed between Shirl and Gram, noosed by one of late Uncle Ray’s cast-off string ties.  Taking shallow breaths, I picked at my hand-me-down sport coat and worked a finger between the raspy-collared white shirt and my chafed neck.

I sighed.  Could have done better; could have inherited his snakeskin boots, or his hat or his vest, maybe looking more like him than I already did, which is what folks who saw us together always said.  But then there’d have been nothing much else to bury him in.

While Art dragged us home at a snail’s pace, I tried not to fidget.  I tried to disappear, actually, to melt into the ripped upholstery, not ready to take a side in the standing feud, a strangling hostage to the lightning and the hail to come.  And to Shirl’s hair.

Tighter than the windows, I slammed my mouth shut, knowing for the life of me better than to get caught on either side of the battle lines being drawn.  Bean sat on my lap in silence, wise enough at age five to do the same.

We’d made it all the way to—and now mostly back—from Dix without a word, much less a cross word, from either Momma or Pop.  A careful stalemate, a dangerous stand-off ready to explode, just like the seething sky, and I knew the strained peace was only temporary.

Graveside an hour ago, wind-whipped grit and trash from the Dix Drive-in across the road had swirled and tumbled around our grim cluster, all hunched over Uncle Ray’s pine box.  A west Texas rain pestered us, splatting one-inch raindrops in dust craters two inches apart, but only now and then, holding the big stuff over your head for all at once, just when you didn’t need it.

While Reverend Ruley mumbled flimsy words that fled against a howling west wind, I’d prayed to God for the sky to rip itself apart and dump those lightning shredded clouds full of hail right there on that pink dirt spot.  Because I hate those black moments, the heartbeat before the storm when you know what’s coming, know it’s going to hurt but there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.  Like the deep breath before a flood of tears, or the shallow gasp before your gut clenches and heaves itself out onto the floor, all you can do is wait until it’s darn good and ready.  And then hang on for the ride.

But the swollen freight train of inky clouds just teased and rode the gusty wind across the flat red horizon from here to the end of the world, threatening with ragged flashes of blue-green, hollering thunder but moving on just the same while Uncle Ray, the lucky one, lay dead in a box back in Dix.

Pop stared straight ahead, melting the tint clean off of Art’s windshield with his dark glare.  “He knew how to clean a shotgun,” Pop said.  “He damn well knew.”

True enough.  Uncle Ray had shown me how, last year, just after he’d finished his time at Huntsville.  “Come here, son,” he’d said, unshaven face split by that gap-toothed grin.  “You’re sixteen.  Time you learned how to take care of a shotgun.”  We’d broke it down to a pile of oily rods and barrel and stock.  Ray loved guns, especially handguns.  He’d used a bunch.

My mother glared out the side window, jaw set, that little muscle near her ear beginning to flinch.  “Lester said it was an accident.  Lester’s the law.”

My father snorted.  “Lester’s a horse’s ass.”

Maybe so.  But a horse’s ass with a badge, a gun, and unlike Uncle Ray, the okay to use it on people.  But more than just the law, Lester Ruley was the judge, the preacher and the junk man too.  Because if you were a Ruley in Conroy, somebody with your last name owned just about everything.  Rusty-haired Lester wore the badge, his right Reverend Daddy wore the collar and doubled as the Justice of the Peace, and his brother Rooster ran the gas station and scrap yard.  Besides the farms, there wasn’t much else of Conroy worth mentioning.

“Rusthead,” Ray used to call Lester back in high school and after.  They’d fight some, back then, but Ray’d always whipped Lester’s ass good.  So it was natural that Lester, especially being in law enforcement, would get a good laugh about Ray “getting a full scholarship to Huntsville.”  In fact, he’d laughed real big, until Ray got back in town about ten years earlier than anyone’d figured on.  Everyone except me.

Off in her own world, Bean shook her head, letting her pigtails whip my nose.  Thunder clouds never scared her.  Nor did storms.  Bean was an angel, an island of calm, insulated from the furious weather by some power from above.

Art motored on, also unconcerned about the storm gathering in or outside of his hail-damaged sedan.  Right behind him, next to me, Gram sat with her lips pursed in pregnant silence, ready to speak but as always, holding back until she finally burst.

Ahead, the sun-bleached standpipe rose into view at the exact moment the smell sliced the air.  No one looked, no one remarked on the first turkey farm and the dusty, waddling feather balls strutting uselessly around the hardscrabble yard, heads thrown back, beaks agape, blinking dumbly at the boiling clouds, daring them to open up and drown them outright.  And the acrid stink, a rising wave of cutting, shit-smell that floated against the wind, defiant, permanently stationed on that damn spot in the tired blacktop road marking that one scorched patch of packed red dust.  Good-bye, Dix.  Hello, Conroy.

“Bygones is bygones,” Shirl huffed in her tired singsong, mournful even on a good day, much less the day of Uncle Ray’s send-off to the hereafter.  She’d done her mud-colored hair up in a towering B-52, but Pop had ordered it down out of respect for the dead.  Wise direction, because Shirl was a tall girl, much taller than her older sister, and the beehive would have rubbed the droopy head liner in Art’s old car.

Shirl and Momma shared the same tired eyes, puffy cheeks and loose under-chin threatening to go double any day.  More than ten years younger, Shirl’s hips and waist had held back, barely, where Momma’s had given up and let go when she’d come into her thirties.  Shirl sat on my mother’s side of the car.  She had to be careful to stay on Momma’s side, her good side, because Shirl needed a roof, our roof, Momma’s roof over her head.

“He’s in a better place now,” Gram promised with uncommon tact.  “And you all best pray to sweet baby Jesus nobody in this life finds out how he got there.”

Bean brushed my nose again, back and forth, with her red straw pigtails.  Like me, she hadn’t inherited Pop’s “X,” nor his pointy nose, drawn face, dark complexion or any other nametag he could have put on her.  I never could figure that out either, but Momma’s hair might have been a kind of red under the base coat or bleach of the season.

Bean’s hair was cut straight, shoulder length, when it wasn’t gathered into pigtails, with bangs draped down over her eyebrows like a dark red stage curtain.  “Doll” lay on the floor hump, her hair done exactly like Bean’s, cut that way by Shirl a couple years back.  Bean lived with that toy, never letting it too far from her sight.  We’d hoped Bean would name it something; anything, but since she didn’t, it became just Doll, which seemed fine with Bean.  She’d take no replacement either; I tried two Christmases in a row.  Doll’s rubber limbs had lost their pink and faded to a pasty grey, and her head fell off all the time, but that never flustered Bea Anne.

In fact now, when things got hectic or dangerous, Bean popped Doll’s head from her colorless shoulders before it could fall off, stashing it in the wash-faded pocket of her jumper for safekeeping.  For me, that was an omen of doom.  Through some sixth sense or guardian angel, Bean saw trouble way ahead of time and set herself and Doll to survive it.  So when the head popped off, I took warning.

Still, doom or no, Bean was unflappable.  No matter what, she just went quietly about her way, a wall-flower since before she could walk, easygoing as a wagon horse.  She didn’t even mind sharing her tiny room with Shirl, though Gram said our trailer was “’bout like to explode,” even before Shirl came back to Conroy to stay “temporarily” with her big sister.  That was three years ago, yet Bean never complained.  But then, Bean never spoke.

“Hold still, Bean,” I whispered.

Pop’s “X” pulled tight and squashed flat as the big head whipped around, showing me the widow’s peak.  Pop wore his jet black hair in a pompadour and grew his sideburns long.  In his meaner, drunker moments, he fancied himself as someone else, so he had to look the part.

His lips pulled back against jagged front teeth.  “Not one goddam word outta you, boy.  I ain’t through with you yet, so don’t you go giving me more cause than I got.”

I met his black pinpoint eyes with my own matching set.  Come hell, come a beating, come whatever, I didn’t care anymore.  I’d decided what to do.  I’d signed and sealed it on the rain pocked red dirt near a six foot hole in the ground in Dix, adding a few drops of my own to those of the teasing rain.  Pop could kill me if he wanted, in fact he’d have to, just to stop me.

Tired of the neck strain, the head turned back toward the windshield, slowly.

“All this fighting, where does it lead? My two sons, one boy dead, other one snapping like a snarling cur,” Gram’s lip finally busted loose in a whisper.

Pop snorted again.  “Your ‘good son’ did hard time in prison.  Bad son does hard time out and might as well be dead.  And that boy next to you will be, soon as I whale his ass for running off.”

“Leave Travis be, Jesse.  He just run off to see his dying uncle.  Nothing you ain’t done ten times worse.  You just leave him be.”

“What are you gonna do, old woman?  Call that red haired, fatass preacher’s boy?”  Ignoring Gram, he studied my mother’s face as he spat the words but she’d turned to stone, staring out the window.

Not that Pop cared about me running off.  Hitchhiking the fifty miles to Lubbock was no big deal.  I’d done that before plenty.  My unforgivable sin was bumping into him in the Medical Center parking lot, tumbling out of the cab of his rig with The Tramp.  The woman none of us ever spoke of.  The one who only appeared in Conroy, holed up at the Alamo I, when Pop was in town.  When he disappeared, on the road dragging his tractor trailer full of god knows what to who knows where, she vanished too.  She was one of the dark things, the many dark things you best leave laying in the closet.  Everybody knows they’re there, but you just don’t talk about them, much less bust right in on them.  But I had.

And the whole way east, sitting next to the zoned-out diesel truck long-hauler who’d picked me up mostly to keep himself awake, I’d thought of Pop and the woman, knew they’d be there eventually, but I didn’t care.  Staring at the sunrise burning through the bug splattered windshield, I’d practiced my question.  “Who, Ray?  Just tell me who did this to you.”

Bandaged, tied down, tubes coming and going but still, and he had that gas blue sheen in his clear eyes, looking beyond me to the great beyond or maybe just to somewhere deep inside where his big old heart still beat strong. Through a wall of pain and painkillers, he tried to talk, I think, to me: “son,” he’d said, “listen . . . you gotta listen . . .’

To what, Ray? Tell me. Don’t you leave me, godammit, the one man I know and can trust in this storm-tossed family, in this treacherous, packed dirt wasteland . . .

A wiry old nurse with a beakish impatience collared me, sizing me up warily. “And who is he to you, young man?”

“I’m Travis Carlisle,” I’d said, “and this man here is my uncle.”

She whipped out a note pad. “Here: he said to tell Travis his Uncle was bound for hell and to stay away,” she read as if reciting a short order to a fry cook, “and that Lester was saving his and your uncle’s sorry hide by firing that shotgun blast. And then something else I couldn’t understand, but he’s pumped so full of morphine he doesn’t know who he or anyone else really is. Now, you git, boy—you ain’t allowed in the ICU.”

But of all people, Ray didn’t belong in hell—and besides, only Pop and Lester’s hides were saved and neither deserved any favors. It made no sense—but I had to believe Ray knew who I was, and the warning had to be so important he’d fought through the fog of drugs and pain to give it to me.

Art put on his turn signal and began to slow, at least a half mile shy of the only stop light in town.  It could have gone through three cycles by the time he got us there, if it worked.  Instead, a temporary stop sign, anchored by sandbags, leaned into the wind and managed the intersection until the county could get by to work on the dead light.  And we crept along.

Left again, onto Slide Road bordered by rows of scraggly, rotting Dutch Elms, spindly sentinels dying slowly from no other cause I could figure besides the basic poison of life in Conroy.  North another mile, past dry pasture land drawn into hopeless plots by rusty barbed wire strung on rough hewn posts.

Wide-sky country, Uncle Ray would say, because to anyone with open eyes, there was more sky than anything else in the Panhandle.  He said if a man fell on his back and looked around, the earth would disappear completely, because there wasn’t a hill or valley this side of Palo Duro to get in the way.  Lester had no business taking that sky away from Ray.

A mile from the center of Conroy, we trundled by Center Park and its sagging aluminum picnic awning, the hard-packed ball field and the fifteen foot sweet gum, “The Tree,” the only one in the park to survive a lifetime of lightning, tornadoes and hail.

A crop of oil wells, bobbing and ducking, squatted like blackened steel grasshoppers, siphoning murky liquid gold from the Llano Estacado into some faraway stranger’s pocket.  In the center of the well field, a plyboard pump shack with a make-shift TV antenna on the corrugated tin roof sat quietly behind Otis’ chopped Harley squatting out front.  The trailer park, an aluminum oasis without a shade tree in sight, drew us closer like the tide.

Art slowed again but the worn tires still shot gravel missiles that clunked against the floorboard as we rocked up the potted road to Rattlesnake Gulch.  Scamper, the Masons’ scroungy mutt, yapped up the drive with us, dodging the flying gravel, legs scrambling.  Shirl sighed, hope expiring as much as breath, and Bean started squirming again but it didn’t matter.  Pop could whale my ass, Momma could scream, the trailer could rock and swell and echo like I knew it would but it wouldn’t matter.  Because as soon as everyone else had their say, I’d go about my own business.  Like the sunset, the moonrise and the wheeling canopy of pinpoints that dotted the night sky, no matter how ugly the day, everyone had to do what they had to.  And I had to make Lester Ruley pay for what he’d done to Ray.

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