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.