I learned about fear, and the limits of my courage, and the extent of other men’s courage, in a small town on the high, windy Wyoming plains. Not that I could tell you the name of the town. I’ve blocked it. Even when consulting a Road Atlas, my eye tends to slide over the place, consigning it to oblivion, keeping it shoved down far in the depths of my subconscious mind. At least, that’s what Jack Hill tells me I’m doing, and I have no reason not to take his word for it.
The road trip to the Cowboy State came up unexpectedly. In the office one day, Judi handed me the phone. The caller identified himself as Jason Townsend, a Wyoming businessman who’d studied Rodeo Iron’s success and hoped to interest me in opening a new franchise in his state. His office was centrally located, within easy striking distance of both Rock Springs and Rawlins, and he’d already talked to a number of his contacts. He was convinced he could do the job for us.
None of us could come up with any good reason to refuse to meet with the man. Jack and I packed our bags, fired up my armored 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix, and headed out.
The trip to Blockerville (I’ve started calling it that because of blocking the real name from my memory) was uneventful. However, Jason had promised we’d not be bored once we got there. “The town has a big to-do every fourth weekend in August,” he said. “a combination cowpie chucking contest, mountain oyster feed, and bluegrass music festival. The town itself is only about 2,000 population, but during the event–they simply call it the Wyoming Weekend–there are usually four to five thousand folks in attendance. Farmers, ranchers, oil people from all over. Even a few city types from the bigger towns.”
Most importantly, several of his potential Rodeo Iron Wyoming customers would be there, three or four major oil players and at least one man who owned a chain of ranch supply stores.
Jason sounded awesome; he had a voice built for selling over the phone or perhaps hosting a radio talk show and he sounded like he knew what he was talking about. Neither Jack nor I got any warning vibes at all. We stopped for the night in Casper, rolled out early, grabbed a bite of breakfast, and rolled on to Blockerville, arriving mid-morning. Jason was supposed to meet us in the dirt surfaced but sizeable parking lot behind the Cow Chip Café at eleven. He knew the proprietor, had a booth reserved for an early lunch despite the crowd–which was considerable–and promised we’d find a quieter place to talk business after lunch. The eatery had outstanding chiliburgers, decent blueberry pie, and a “cow chip cookie” that combined peanut, chocolate chips, and food coloring to look a lot like its name, but we’d not be able to hear ourselves think for the noise of more than a hundred diners crammed into a place that legitimately seated perhaps forty.
Neither Jack nor I liked crowds all that much, but the festival atmosphere took a lot of the sting out of it. We could hear bluegrass music, thankfully a good distance away, floating on the breeze from the rodeo arena. I eased the Grand Prix into one of the back rows in the lot, left the engine running so we could operate the air conditioning, and we settled in to wait for Jason.
A few people gave us curious looks on the way past our car. Guess maybe a big black young dude behind the wheel of a classic white automobile in their town was still not a common sight.
At 11:15, when Townsend hadn’t shown, I fished out my cell phone and speed dialed. “Sorry, Treemin,” he apologized. “Big wreck on the highway. The road is blocked, nothing but fire truck and cop car lights as far as you can see. It looks like I’m going to be a while. Why don’t you head on into the café. Ask for Marla. Tell her you’re there to meet me and I said to use my booth. You might as well eat without me; no use both of us going hungry.”
Not until we were out of the car did it hit me. Both of us, he’d said. I’d never told him Jack was with me. Not that it made any difference.
Inside, the place was jam packed, literally standing room only, no vacant booth that I could see. A harried fiftyish waitress went hustling by, carrying a tray piled high with cheeseburgers, Cokes, and two chocolate milkshakes. No trademark chiliburger, blueberry pie, or cow chip cookies. When I snagged her attention on the return trip, she was none too pleased about it.
“I need to speak to Marla!” I was shouting or close to it, trying to cut through the din.
“Who?!” The waitress shouted right back.
“Don’t know any Marla!” With that she was gone, weaving her way through the packed bodies on her way back to the kitchen.
Jack and I worked our way back outside, relieved to reach the relative quiet of the open air. Once back in the car, it was time for war council. “Doesn’t make sense, Jack,” I said. “No Jason Townsend, no booth, no Marla. Something’s not right.”
“No,” Hill agreed quietly, “something’s not.”
We kicked it around for a while. Was our invitation here–well, my invitation here–a hoax of some sort? If so, what was the point? And why me? Jason Townsend was a real business man in Wyoming; Sissy had run a quick background check, and he did exist. The alarm bells were ringing, though.
Jack couldn’t figure it out, either. After kicking the possibilities around for a while, we decided not to call Townsend’s cell phone back, at least not just yet. If he was legitimate, he’d be upset that the booth he’d reserved had not been reserved and that his Marla contact had disappeared. If he was a weird scammer of some sort, or a hoax player, he’d be expecting me to call back, in which case throwing him off his game seemed the right thing to do.
Not that we had a clue what his game might be, but still.
We decided to relax, enjoy the day. I’ve never been a big fan of bluegrass, but some of the musicians participating in the festivities were pretty amazing, including a trio who did a three-way takeoff of Dueling Banjos that had Jack Hill and me applauding right along with everyone else when they were done. Turned out there was some pure hillbilly stuff, too, including a jug band that could have given America’s Got Talent a run for its money. The cow chip flipping contest didn’t amount to much, just a bunch if idiots flinging B.S., and I’d seen more than enough of that in my day. The winning cookies in the Cowchip Cookie contest were outstanding, though, and where there’s a quality cookie, the day can’t be all bad.
Time slid by.
At 3:17 p.m., we finally broke down and tried Townsend’s cell phone again. Still nothing. We looked at each other, shrugged, and went back to watching people play. I hadn’t had a day off–not a real day off, like this one, with nothing constructive to do–in a coon’s age. Time kept on sliding by.
And then the sun went down. Before I knew it, dusk was falling like Obama’s approval rating, full dark well on its way.
“Time to call it a day?” Unless Jack had a better idea, stick a fork in me; I was done.
“Might as well.” He shrugged. I don’t think the man who’d fought in the Civil War–on both sides–had allowed himself a day to play in quite some time, either. Frankly, bottom line, both of us were workaholics. Not extreme, hopefully, but both of us felt better when we had something productive on our plates. The walk back from the concession stands to where we’d parked the Grand Prix was a mile or so. There wasn’t much light left when we got to the parking lot.
There was enough, though, to make one thing perfectly clear. All four tires on my car had been slashed to the bone, right through the sidewalls. From a distance, the ’89 Pontiac looked like a youngster’s hotrod, lowered to scrape the street for the sake of fashion.
It hit me hard. This was my baby. My first thought was, “Damn, brother; I’m sorry I let them get to you!”
None of the other vehicles in the lot had been touched; somebody didn’t like us. Or, more likely, somebody didn’t like me. Jack was, as far as any Wyomingite could see, just one more old white cowboy among many. I, on the other hand, was both black and commercially successful. Who had done this? I’d surely been targeted; the only questions were by whom, and why? Simple racism? Or something more complex, someone who knew who I was, knew that I was the sole owner of Rodeo Iron, Inc.? If the former, hey, it is what it is. Prejudice is everywhere. Wyoming was still trying to shake the grisly murder from years ago, two idiots crucifying a young gay man they’d picked up in a bar, took his life by hanging him up on a barbed wire fence and then driving off, leaving him dying in the middle of a fierce high plains winter night.
If this had to do with Rodeo Iron, though…. Jason Townsend standing us up and lying about having a booth reserved at the café, that came instantly to mind. He could be working for a competitor, this tire slashing being just one episode in a harassment campaign designed to take me out through psychological warfare.
Jack interrupted my paranoid pondering. “You want to stay with the car, Tree? There’s no tire shop in this town, and except for the café and the two bars, everything’s buttoned up tight anyway. But I noticed a couple of guys wearing Big O advertising jackets when we were at the bluegrass venue. They might still be there. Could be one of them has a contact who could deliver some rubber that would fit without having to hire somebody clear out of Casper.”
“Makes sense,” I nodded. “Sure. Go ahead.”
Moments later, as the old Protector disappeared into the mob still crowding the sidewalk, I began to have second thoughts. For the first time since…since nearly a decade earlier when I was just a scared kid being shipped back east on a bus, alone in the world and none too sure any real sort of future even existed for me, I felt alone. It wasn’t a physical thing; I’d been physically alone when I went into the Montana mountains to trap and eventually help another young black man last winter. No, this was…psychically alone. I’d never have asked Jack Hill to stay with me or to take me with him, but his absence was a felt thing.
I felt exposed.
It was dark now, no moon yet, nothing but a bit of starlight and a couple of streetlights that weren’t anywhere near bright enough to reveal enemies who might be creeping closer under cover of night. I reached behind my back under my long leather vest, undid the safety strap on the holster, and drew the Walther P22, popped the magazine to make sure it had a full load, double checked to make sure a round was in the spout.
For a moment, then, I felt a little silly and reholstered the pistol. For a time, pacing around the disabled vehicle, I got myself more or less under control…but it didn’t last.
Time passed. I was afraid to look at my watch, afraid it would tell me mere minutes had gone by when it felt like hours. I wouldn’t be that chickenshit. Not me.
I heard it then, boots scraping over gravel, trying for silence but not quite succeeding. Several of them, it sounded like. They might be simple country folks heading for their own wheels for all I knew…but I knew better. The tire slashing had been a diabolical move, designed to separate Jack and me. If I stayed here, I couldn’t win; they would either throw a noose around my neck and drag me to death behind a pickup truck or I would shoot them, in which case the State of Wyoming would cheerfully hand out the death penalty to the uppity nigger. If I held position, it was a lose-lose proposition.
Time to move. I bolted. Not running, because a running black man is a guilty black man, but striding strongly. I had to get out of this darkened parking lot, seek safety in the crowds on the street, under the streetlights.
My heart was pounding hard enough to hurt my ears. The crowds were gone, only a few people left. Not enough for real cover if my pursuers persisted, and they would persist. They were on a coon hunt. They had the scent. My car’s tires were slashed. There was nowhere to go. They would persist.
There had to be a way out, a place to hide. Something.
The alley drew me in. Or maybe not what you’d call an alley, really, just an opening eight feet wide between two aged brick buildings. It ran back the length of the shorter building, some eighty feet or so, before terminating in a sheer wall not even Spider Man could climb. No lights; it was really dark back there–and paradoxically, that gave me hope, gave me a sense of security, or at least a hint of such. There were trash cans, doubtless belonging to the brick building with a nearby side door. The building was locked up for the night; no one would be popping out to dump the trash. Black man me could disappear down there, crouch down behind the cans, and remember to keep my mouth shut and my cowboy hat pulled down low. Can’t see no nigger in the dark except his teeth or the whites of his eyes.
How long I squatted there, I do not know. My heart rate began to settle back toward normal, though–until there was the sound of boots on the sidewalk. I held my breath. The man went right on by, briefly silhouetted by the streetlight. Was he going to get help, going to advise the rest of them that he knew where I’d gone to ground? Oh God, what if they’ve got dogs! Can’t hide from no bloodhound!
And then the man with the rope came. He was a little bastard, the worst kind, twirling that hanging noose like there was no tomorrow. Tossing it like it was a lariat, pulling it back in, twirling it. Twirl, twirl, twirl. He stood right under the light, right in front of the opening to the sidewalk, just right there on that sidewalk, twirling and talking to somebody the whole time. I couldn’t hear the words, except once it sounded like, “Come here! He’s here!”
Then another man, a much bigger man, tall, tall as the treetops joined him. And another, a woman this time.
I hadn’t known much about women being part of any lynch mob, but there it was. They had the opening blocked now. They were taking their time, calling for the rest of their kind to join them before they dug the nigger out of his hidey-hole.
No way; this black man was not going gently into that good night. My pistol was in my hand, in both hands, no longer a 21st century Walther semiauto but a stout horse pistol, a 19th century Colt Walker, four pounds of death dealing revolver. The powder was dry. I’d kept the powder dry. Two hands it took to steady the big Walker, hammer back. The trigger pull was light on this one, light for such a big gun; I must remember that. Take out the bastard with the rope. Tiny man or not, he would be the ringleader; the ringleader always has the rope. The explosion of the weapon in between these walls would probably deafen me, but the rope man would be dead, a hole blown through him the size of my fist, and deaf was better than neck-stretched any old day.
I couldn’t quite steady the Colt completely, not perfectly, but it would have to do. Letting out half a breath and holding it, I began the final trigger squeeze, the squeeze that would make sure at least one of the bastards went with me–
“Treemin Jackson, Rodeo Iron, Ovando, Montana.”
The voice was coming from the taller man, the one who’d been the first called over by the midget rope handler. The speaker was moving into the space between the buildings, closing the distance between us. Something was off, something–and then he was between me and the rope guy, the ringleader. The Walker is a powerful shooter; I might be able to get a twofer…if I shot for Talking Man’s belt buckle. Any higher would zing plum over Little Rope Man’s head after slamming through the other’s body.
“Come on back to me, Tree. I know you can do it.”
–and the spell snapped. The world spun dizzily, righted itself, and I knew. There was no lynch mob. There was a pistol, and yes, the hammer was back and ready to drop, but by the grace of God it had not done so. I’d had a…what? Past life flashback? Realizing just how close I’d come to doing murder for no good reason except temporary insanity, I carefully pointed the muzzle of the Walther down and to the side, carefully lowered the hammer and returned the pistol to its small-of-the-back holster.
And then I vomited, copiously and noisily, splashing the brick wall and my flashy cowboy boots in equal measure. Sick sweat poured from every pore in my body.
Jack kept his body between me and the street the entire time, until I’d emptied myself out, cleaned my boots with my handkerchief, and dropped the fouled fabric into one of the trash cans. The stuff on the ground would have to stay there; the local who found it later would presume someone had simply had one beer too many in celebration of the day’s festivities.
Hill never said another word, just waited until I straightened up and then led the way back to the sidewalk. I was shaky, trembling, and quite frankly horrified. The Pontiac was ready to roll, though; Jack had found the Big O guys and they’d done their magic. The rubber wasn’t new, but it would get us back to Casper. We’d have to take the time in the morning to get a decent set of tires, but we were no longer stranded.
“You drive,” I told my partner, my voice a bare croak. He didn’t answer, just climbed in behind the wheel while I took shotgun. Within seconds after that, we got the Hell out of Dodge.
After a bit, I got myself together enough to ask Jack, “Who was the little guy with the rope?”
It wasn’t much, but he knew what I meant. “A boy,” he said. “Eight years old, maybe. His Dad had bought him a catch rope. He was practicing with it, trying to figure out how to do cowboy stuff. City kid from the look of him.”
I took a deep breath, let it out. “So I came with a cat’s whisker of gunning down an eight year old kid.”
“Close only counts in horseshoes, Tree. Fact is, you didn’t.”
“And you’re not asking what put me in that state.”
“Not asking. You can spit it out if you need to but no, not asking.”
“I think,” I took another breath, “I think the day built up, when the Townsend appointment went south and then the tire slashing, and then nighttime in a strange town…I think it threw me back, maybe. To around the time you kept me from being hung back in the day, or maybe a life between then and now. I’m…I’m having trouble dealing with the knowledge that I nearly shot that kid, you know. He didn’t even know I was there, did he?”
“Don’t believe so.” Jack slowed the Pontiac down to near the speed limit and sure enough, right over the next hill, there was a Highway Patrolman, his car parked at a pullout. How the old man did that–and he did it every time–I had no clue. “But,” he went on, “give yourself credit, Tree. Like they say, no harm, no foul.”
“Yeah. I guess. Hey!”
“Hey is right.” We had obviously arrived at the wreck Jason Townsend had told us about earlier in the day. Not that wreck did the incident justice. There were still dozens of emergency vehicles working on the north side of the two lane highway, wreckers hooking up to tow cars and pickup trucks that had been reduced to tangled masses of sheet metal. Two eighteen wheelers had rolled, one still on its side and the other just now being righted by a wrecker that looked like it could handle a military tank. Worst of all was a huge burned area; something big had exploded here, a fuel tanker or some such.
Neither of us spoke again until we were done threading through the only open lane behind a pilot car. In the end, I broke the silence. “CB on?”
“Shit. Forgot.” Hill turned the knob and Channel 19 came alive. There weren’t a lot of us out there, but those who were, were talking.
And we heard not only about a horrible nine vehicle pile-up but about a mystery hero, a man whose name no one seemed to know but a man who’d saved an unknown number of crash victims before being himself caught in the blast when a liquid nitrogen tanker bound for the oil patch had exploded. He was now one of the dead, they said. No, replied others, he was in Casper, in a hospital, burned alive. No, they’d flown him to the Salt Lake City burn center. No, he was still in Casper, hanging on by a coma. No, he’d died in transit.
My personal woes were forgotten. I stared through the windshield, watching the white lines come whipping past in a way I’d never dare while driving. “Dollar to a donut hole?”
“Sucker bet,” Jack replied.
We both knew, felt it in our bones beyond the shadow of a doubt. Why there’d been no Marla at the café and no booth reserved for us, we had no idea. Who had slashed the Pontiac’s tires, or why, we likewise had no idea. But the unidentified hero, the man who’d ignored his own safety to pull others from crumpled vehicles–he must have somehow slipped through the growing number of official first responders to do it–that man was Jason Townsend. Certainly, it would explain why he’d not picked up his cell phone after that first call. He’d not been lying to us; he’d become suddenly busy and then suddenly incapacitated.
The only thing we did not know was whether he was dead or alive.
I thought about the day’s lessons, for lack of a better word, during the rest of the journey back to Casper. I’d faced men in mortal combat without flinching yet had shattered like glass in terror produced by a few slashed tires and an illusion cast forth by my own mind. Old Jack Hill had unhesitatingly placed himself in harm’s way, interposing his body between my trembling gun barrel and an innocent child, willing to take a bullet–or many bullets–if necessary while trying to talk me back from my vision of horror. Jason Townsend was familiar with the oil patch; he must have known what a wrecked liquid nitrogen tanker was capable of doing, yet he hadn’t hesitated, either, saving lives and paying the price for it. No good deed goes unpunished. And if they hadn’t identified him yet, he’d better hope they never did. Hero or no hero, the authorities would sling him in jail if he lived and they knew who he was. Never mind the lives saved; he’d defied direct orders from guys with uniforms and badges, and they never ever forgive that sort of thing. Pokes a hole in their ego, being ignored. Some of them, if they think they can get away with it, will kill you for it.
What did all this mean, that I’d become a temporary coward–at least I hoped it was temporary–while two older men, one of them my best friend, strode forth without fear? I did not know. I truly did not know the answer to that one. But one thing I did know. If Jack and I were right, if Townsend did indeed turn out to be the mystery superman blasted by a load of liquid kryptonite, and if the man lived to do business once again, the decision was made.
If he still wanted to open a Rodeo Iron Wyoming franchise, it was his.