Tania and I were…I think the word is ebullient on the way to breakfast. We hadn’t slept a whole lot, but neither of us was the least bit tired. Rockin’ and rollin’ all…night…long.
As hot and intense as our, um, “together time” had been from the get-go, last night had set records. We were living on lo-ove! Part of me, being an educated sort of fellow, understood intellectually that this nuclear fusion between us could not last and would probably destroy the both of us even if it could. But I was still also young enough to hope!
Both of understood what had triggered such a night of wild abandon. I’d successfully—and, I must admit, gleefully–punched out a bully and intimidated his followers. Not only that, I’d done it in full view of my woman, showing off in fact if not by design. Obviously, I couldn’t do that every time we needed to spice up the relationship…but for now?
“Jack Hill looks as upbeat as we’re feeling, honey.” My girl squeezed my hand as she spoke. We were crossing the dining room to join our benefactor. He was seated at a corner table which, I suddenly realized, put his back to a wall.
My eidetic memory kicked in. Studied the images for a second or two.
Yes. The man always sat with his back covered. Unless the place was too full for that to be possible. Didn’t know about that, but so far, even in a crowded truck stop, he’d been seated that way every time we’d seen him.
He closed his cell phone just as we sat down. “You two are looking right chipper this a.m.,” he noted with a smile. “Whirlpool tub did the trick?”
“Or something.” Tania answered before I could, actually batting her eyelashes at the man.
His smile widened.
“Important phone call?” I asked.
“Good news for sure. You remember the Jose Guerena case?”
“Huh. Well, no reason you should, really. Jose Guerena was an ex-Marine, did two tours in Iraq, lived with his wife and two young sons in Tucson, Arizona. On May 5, 2011, a S.W.A.T. team busted in his front door, supposedly to serve a search warrant, and gunned him down in his own home.”
I raised an eyebrow. Tania stiffened beside me. Neither of us is overly fond of the po-lice on principle.
“It was a bad shoot. Gestapo stuff at worst, gross incompetence at best. Friend of mine, writes online as Ghost32, lives in Arizona. He’s kept me posted. Worst of all was the coverup by the Sheriff’s office. Sheriff is an old ultra-liberal guy by the name of Clarence Dupnik. And it hasn’t gotten better; the harassment of the extended Guerena family–accused of being criminals, but no convictions–continues to this day.”
I scratched my head. “You’re getting to the good news part, right?”
“Absolutely. That was Ghost on the phone just now. He was in Tucson yesterday. Word on the street is that Sheriff Dupnik will not seek reelection this year. He’s as good as outa there.”
We stopped with the chitchat for a bit, since the overweight waittress had ambled over to take our orders. Both of us ordered the biggest breakfast on the menu, with the most available red meat.
No oysters, but at 23, who needs oysters?
The waittress left. She had a dandy moustache it wouldn’t have hurt her to remove once in a while, but she seemed competent enough. Besides, she left a whole airpot of coffee, and the brew was actually hot.
“So,” Tania cocked an eyebrow at Jack, “this Dupnik Dude is getting out because of the heat over the Jose Guerena case?”
Hill shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. Ghost’s contacts are telling him the seeds were sown four months earlier, in January of 2011, when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot along with 18 other people, six of whom died.”
I nodded. “Now that one I did hear about, even clear up in Connecticut. This Dupnik, is he the Sheriff that was blaming everybody on the right from Sarah Palin to the late Ronald Reagan, saying right wing nut jobs inspired the shooter even after that was proven to be untrue?”
“That’s the one. Ghost isn’t certain that was what outed him–the Sheriff’s no spring chicken, late seventies I think, and there’s been plenty of heat over his handling, or mishandling, of the Guerena case as well. It could be a cumulative thing.”
“Main thing is, he’s out. How, really doesn’t matter.”
When our meals hit the table, we wolfed them down and got going. After some discussion, we’d agreed the day’s run would take us as far as Sheridan, Wyoming.
“There’s a really well stocked Corral West store in Sheridan,” Hill had explained, “and I’ve known the manager of the Super 8 motel there for years. He’ll give us a bargain rate. The store will be closed by the time we roll in, but we could hit it first thing in the morning.”
He shrugged. “Might as well. I have to have my boots custom made, but sometimes they have a few things I can use.”
And that was that, except that Jack handed Tania a CD in a jewel case on the way to our cars.
She looked her puzzlement at him.
“For after we cross the Missouri River at Chamberlain,” he grinned. “Wait till then to play it, and I’ll bet you a dollar to a donut hole, Tree can explain it to you in a heartbeat.”
“Okay-y-y-y,” she replied doubtfully. But she took the CD.
Rolling west through South Dakota on I-90, Tania began to notice something different…but she couldn’t put her finger on it. I let her try to figure it out on her own until we did what our fearless leader said and crossed the Missouri. Jack was out there some 20 miles ahead of us at this point, which didn’t much matter as long as we had our cell phones.
“CD,” I reminded her.
“Oh. Yeah.” She popped the disk into the player. First up: Waylon Jennings, belting out the powerful lyrics to Will the Wolf Survive.
My blood sang. I was there. I was the wolf.
Maybe I should have mentioned, the sound system in my ’89 Pontiac Grand Prix most definitely did not come with the car. We’re talking Bose here, complete with equalizer and enough bump to blow the doors off, should you get wild with the buttons. Which I don’t do much, but the power is there.
Tania turned to me, started to say something. I held up one finger, WAIT! I not only wanted to listen to Waylon; I had to listen.
Through the chill of winter
Running across a frozen lake
Hunters hard right on his trail
All odds are against him
With a family to provide for
But one thing he must keep alive
Will the wolf survive?
Will the wolf survive?
She reached over, turned down the volume, ignored my “wait a minute” signal. What, she thought something was wrong? Just because tears were streaming down my face so hard I had to blink like crazy to see the road?
I gave her the “wait a minute” finger again. She silently handed me a wad of tissues–to this day, I’ve never seen a woman travel without tissues within arm’s reach. Waited while I composed myself.
“Ready to share?”
I heaved a sigh from somewhere down around my toes. “Six years ago. I was seventeen years old, well on my way to a life behind bars or dying hard like your typical ‘hood banger. You haven’t heard all this yet, but I’d been stealing stuff–lots of stuff–for years before that. Not for drug money, not even really for money at all, though I did fence what I could. Which was usually how I got caught, the few times I did get caught. Mostly, I was just doing it to see what I could get away with. Crazy, I know, but–”
“Lots of young men go that route.” She said softly, laying a hand on my thigh.
“They do,” I agreed, “And the results are mostly negative.”
“Anyway, there I was, just been told I was being booted out of a boys ranch–I pointed the sign out when we passed it, McCrossan Boys Ranch.”
“You were there?”
“I was, until I messed up beyond what they could handle, and then I wasn’t. They called my Mom, and she finally threw up her hands. Faced the fact she couldn’t fix me. So she did the only thing she could think to do. Put me on a bus back to Hartford, Connecticut, to my uncle B.J.”
We were both quiet for a bit, me laser-focusing on the blacktop ahead, Tania….I don’t know what Tania was doing. But she spoke first. “That must have been scary.”
“Honey, you have no idea. I almost literally crapped my pants. A hundred times, I almost jumped off that bus at one of its many stops. I wanted to run, anywhere, away from what I saw as my failure, my mother’s betrayal, and the obvious fact the entire world was against me.”
“So…why didn’t you?”
My hands were going to sleep from my death grip on the steering wheel. With an effort of will, I forced them to relax. “Honest Injun?”
She chuckled. “Must be a cowboy saying. Sure. Honest Injun.”
“Well, from what I understand of the old West, there were more honest Indians out here than there were honest white men invading their territory. But anyway, here’s the truth of it: There were two reasons I didn’t bail. First, for the longest time, it’s ’cause I was chicken-sh*t.”
“You?” Her tone was laced with skepticism.
“Yes.” My tone brooked no argument. “I had no place to go, only enough money to eat along the way to Hartford, and a sudden serious lack of self confidence. So I dithered.
“And then, finally at the end of a very frayed rope that was looking to snap in two at any moment, I was fishing around in my backpack, looking for who knows what, when I came across this little CD player Mom had bought for my trip. It wasn’t an iPod, some kind of crappy little cheap thing made in Bangladesh, but I knew if Mom had given it to me, it must work at least a little.
“It had earphones, and she’d sent along half a dozen little mini-CD disks. I loaded the first one, didn’t even look at the label, hit Play. Zero expectations, you understand, just grasping at straws, hoping something would keep me from killing myself or going crazy. The sound coming through the earphones was surprisingly good…and the song was Will the Wolf Survive, by Waylon Jennings.”
I stopped talking, and–perhaps recognizing I was actually up to something–Tania let me be as I fiddled with the sound system, cueing up the part I wanted without taking my eyes from the road.
When I was ready, I explained. “I knew Waylon’s voice, of course. You can’t grow up on a ranch without knowing that. And I liked his sound. Always had. But I’d never heard that particular song. I was hooked immediately…but this was the verse that really got to me.”
The Bose fired up. My tears threatened to flow again, but this time I held them back. I needed my sweetheart to understand.
Standing in the pouring rain
All alone in a world that’s changed
Running scared now forced to hide
In a land where he once stood with pride
But he’ll find his way by the morning light
It took a little more explaining. After all, you kind of had to been there. But that day, the bus was plowing through a heavy downpour. I was, I felt to the core of my being, all alone in a world that had indeed changed. Running scared? And then some. Forced to hide? Would if I could, brother. Would if I could!
And then: In a land where he once stood with pride…yep.
But: He’ll find his way…by the morning light.
YES! That line, that exact line, had produced my epiphany, my paradigm shift. Those words rocketed through me, AWOKE me, and I knew I was going to make it.
Thanks to my mother, of course, despite the fact that she was the one who’d shipped me out in the first place. But I was going to find my way. The corner had been turned.
Only much later would I learn that Waylon Jennings had passed from this vale of tears in 2002. I was on that bus in the spring of 2006.
I had been saved by a dead man.
But…fast forward to today…how had Jack Hill known?
Our next meal stop was at the Windmill Truck Stop in Rapid City. Hill knew a couple of the waittresses there.
Where didn’t this guy know somebody?
We’d barely placed our orders when I burst out with it. “Jack, about the Waylon Jennings CD. Will the Wolf Survive.”
“Yeah?” He twinkled at me, like he knew something I didn’t. Which was a given. Duh.
“How’d you know?”
“How’d I know what?” The old man cocked an eyebrow at me. What, I was surrounded by eyebrow cockers? First uncle B.J., then Tania, then this old cowboy fart who was generous beyond common sense and a whole lot more than he seemed?
“How’d you know that song had personal meaning for me?”
He appeared to think about that for a moment, stalling while he sipped his coffee. Cream, no sugar.
“I didn’t, Tree.”
“I did not know Will the Wolf Survive meant something to you. All I knew was it felt right to hand you that one, and I figured you could use it to explain to Tania how, as you travel westward through South Dakota, you move from farming country to ranching country. Which doesn’t seem all that logical, now that I think back on it.
“The song does have personal meaning for me, too, by the way. Brother, does it ever.”
I stared at him in shock. Could it really work like that? This mysterious man, this Protector as B.J. termed him, made what looked like mysteriously magical moves, moves that were just right, on the money, without knowing what the heck he was doing–just that it felt right at the moment?
Un. Be. Lieveable. How attuned, how in balance, how whatever would you have to be to function like that and consistently hit your target?
Still, not a bad system if it worked. It would certainly keep the mind clutter down to a low roar.
Tania’s turn. “You promised me more answers to my questions.”
“Yep. That I did. And since we’ll be booking on down the road once we’ve been fed, I reckon you’re thinking I’d better spit something out before the food leaves the kitchen, right?”
She just looked at him.
“Okay.” He held up a warning finger, like my wait a minute finger, but different. “But beware. You’re not likely to believe what I have to say. At least not right away.”
“Why not? One of your questions had to do with age; you wanted to know how old I am.”
She delivered that one with a perfectly western accent. I was so proud.
“We’ll start out easy. I served in the Civil War.”
Tania’s stare could be felt. “You–”
“Hold on. Let me get this straight. You’re saying you’re what, more than 160 years old?”
“Give the girl A grades in both math and American history.”
Now, see, what comes next has to do with a facet of my beloved’s personality I was just starting to figure out. She would have decided Jack Hill was a great tale telling liar on the face of it, but he’d challenged her by telling her that’s what she’d do. Which triggered her “prove him wrong” gene; she can’t stand being ordered around (except–well, TMI, never mind).
Sure, Jack was predicting, not commanding, but sometimes Tania has trouble distinguishing between the two.
“All right,” she challenged him back. “Let’s say I believe you. You’re what, immortal and invincible?”
He laughed aloud. “Hardly. I could walk out the door, get run over by a truck, and be dead just as quick as anybody else.”
“Hm. So then, how does this work, exactly?”
He shrugged. “Mostly, I work my butt off just staying alive from day to day. I was in my seventies when I realized a few key things. One, I was looking younger than my age. Two, I could do anything I could have done in my twenties, only better, on less sleep, and I was healthier. Three, as Soul I’d apparently made some kind of compact with God or the Universe or the Spiritual Hierarchy, whatever fits your understanding of the way things work. That agreement was that I’d hang aroung longer than most people think possible, but not just for kicks and giggles. I’d agreed to a particular mission.”
“Which is,” she hazarded a guess, “rescuing needy folks from the Hartford ‘hood?”
“I’m still trying to figure that out. This time, it looks that way, Hartford rescue. Often enough, though, I don’t know myself till after the fact.”
“It’s an old Bill and Ted’s–never mind.”
Just then, the food arrived. We fell to with a will. Jack finished first, having ordered a whole lot smaller meal. Tania, noticing this, paused between bites of ribeye steak long enough to say, “So. You obviously haven’t aged much since then. You have to what, switch identities every so often? That must be a b*tch.”
“Succinctly put,” he agreed. “As remote as we live, nobody usually pays much attention until I’ve been in one place quite some time, but there’s the paperwork. The I.R.S. might not even notice if a man kept filing taxes every year after his 200th birthday, but then again it might. And the DMV would definitely pay attention if you tried to renew your driver’s license at that age.”
“Yeah duh. So? How do you handle it?”
“A variety of ways.” He grinned, shoving his chair back from the table. “But that’s another question, and Nature is calling. We’ll have to, um, table this discussion for another time.” He rose, spun on his heel, and headed for the restrooms.
My darling turned to me. “You get the feeling I just opened up a whole new can of worms?”
“Not really. I’m just taking it as it comes.”
Which was, of course, a complete lie. Jack Hill’s statement about his longevity had my adrenaline going. It fit precisely with uncle B.J.’s theory that he, Hill, was a long-lived sort of fellow and that life wasn’t necessarily any easier for the man just because of that. Heck yes, this topic could be–or could lead to–a whole new can of worms.
But I didn’t figure I needed to admit it. If there was one thing I could count on, it was that Tania’s dogged curiosity would keep the information coming right along without me lifting a finger.