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.

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