An easy drive tomorrow. Hah! It was snowing and blowing, not hard enough, quite, for the Highway Patrol to start shutting freeway gates, but the northern route across the Bighorn Mountains was closed at Burgess Junction, so forget that.
Which meant motoring down to Buffalo and grabbing Highway 16 westbound. Powder River Pass at 9,666 feet of elevation like to did us in, snowpack underfoot, snow swirling in your face, no more than ten feet ahead of your vehicle’s bumper for visibility, if that.
Of course we were all chained up, all around. Mom’s Jeep Rubicon had by far the best traction, being designed for off road travel from the ground up, so she took the lead, breaking trail, with Jack Hill riding shotgun. All that steel armor added to my Pontiac made it heavier than even B.J.’s ’46 Hudson despite several hundred pounds of rocks being piled into the Hudson’s trunk for ballast, so the big man rode in the rocking chair, trying to stay close enough to his sister’s Jeep to see the taillights.
That left me bringing up the rear, thinking unworthy thoughts, like I should have been in the middle. They didn’t make taillights in 1946 as visible as they are today, not to mention the lack of a Dole light up high in the center. Half the time, I was losing sight of my uncle’s car altogether; the other half, I was trying to catch up and hoping I didn’t smack into his rear bumper before I saw him.
We had our CB radios on, but only Jack Hill was using one. The rest of us had our steering wheels clenched in death grips, praying to the snow gods to take mercy on the idiots in their midst.
“Blessing Devonia,” I heard myself mutter once, “I hope to Hell you’re worth it.”
Then I realized what I’d said and felt almost enough shame to forget the fear for a second or two.
If you’ve never fought the roads in high country winter conditions, you don’t know what you’re missing. You, Hawaii. I’m talking to you.
It was enough to make a man think about taking up surfing, should we all get through this one alive.
I’d been in a blizzard in southern Idaho once, out on the freeway, middle of the night. So bad that for a time, we convoyed with another family. For one stretch, the man driving the station wagon had turned the wheel over to his wife and started jogging down the pavement, because it was the only way he could be sure of staying on the asphalt.
Mom and I’d picked up a young man from Browning, Montana, that night, a few miles back. Tommy had passed us at one point, then promptly run his Oldsmobile into the ditch and buried it in snow up to the radiator cap a mile later. Had to crawl out through the window.
We never knew how much snow he had to scoop out of the car’s interior when the road reopened, leaving the window open like that, but the alternative was to stay there and freeze to death.
Once, an eighteen wheeler had bombed right on by like the storm was nothing. We thought maybe he could see better, his truck seat being up so much higher than us, so we cranked up and followed him at close to 50 mph…until we realized he’d run the big rig into the ditch, too, just like Tommy had with his Olds.
We didn’t stop for the trucker. Figured he was a dumbass, and it was his problem.
Was this one as bad as that? Who knows? One thing I do know, whatever snowstorm you’re in the middle of, it always seems like the worst you’ve ever seen.
At least it does to me, and my eidetic memory doesn’t help one bit on that score.
But we did make it through the pass. The downslope side was actually scarier at first, when we still couldn’t see squat. Down is always spookier than up when you’re sliding blind in tall country with a likely mile of drop if you blow it.
By the time we were half way down, though, visibility was pretty good. Mom had the Jeep cranked back up to around 40 mph, and old Jack Hill was cracking abominable snowman jokes and Donner party jokes over the CB.
I did have to laugh a little, some from the relief, but mostly at the one about the Donner party running out of each other to cannibalize and carving up a Yeti for supper. Wish I could remember the dang punch line. When it comes to stupid jokes, my fabled memory seems to fail me every now and then.
When we hit Worland, around midafternoon, I had to piss like a race horse, and the others seemed to be ready for a break, too. Never did a truck stop look so good.
At such times, I crave red meat. Fortunately, they served New York strip. Cooked it right, too. We’d killed an hour there, but I just couldn’t get worked up about getting back out on the road. No way would we get to Frannie before dark now, anyway. Might as well grab a couple of motel rooms–Mom and B.J. were used to sharing one, two beds of course, so we’d only need two.
I hadn’t been paying attention to Jack; he was wandering around the place, exploring like he does sometimes. But I could surely see the excitement in the man when he suddenly slid back into his seat and slid a business card out in the middle of the table for us all to peruse and admire.
“Look at that,” he urged, though we didn’t need much urging.
We’d missed a Wyoming coin dealer. Hill had swiped the card off the truck stop’s bulletin board, push pin and all.
WWW, it read, big letters across the top. Under that, the explanation of the acronym, Worland Wyoming Wealth, followed by Gold and Silver, Coins and Bullion, Bought and Sold.
The waitress came by with the coffee pot. We waved off any refills but grilled her: Did she know the address on the card?
“Sure,” the girl nodded. “That’s less than a mile from here, old Alvin Izzard’s store. It’s just a little converted house, but he does good business.”
With that, we paid the check and beats feet out the door, off to see the wizard. Uh, Izzard. Follow the yellow brick road and all that.
The converted house was indeed on the small side, and so was Alvin Izzard. He couldn’t have stood more than five three, though without the hunchback, he’d have done better. He knew the coin business, though, and apparently had a local rep as a serious coin dealer.
Or at least, so he assured us, and we found no reason the challenge his claim.
Unfortunately, he didn’t recognize Shawn Hicks from the photo.
Fortunately, B.J. started shaking his massive head, cussing out that worthless frog bodied, bulgy eyed son of a she goat that couldn’t bother to make himself findable when old friends needed his help–and Izzard did recognize the description.
“Frog bodied?” He looked up from the coin tray he’d been rearranging. “Bulgy eyed? ‘Scuse me, folks, but when you’re built like I am, you tend to notice when somebody mentions human forms that don’t quite meet the Hollywood standard.”
“Uh, yeah,” B.J. grinned at the little coin man. “Ol’ Shawn is built like a big green frog, ‘cept he’s not green, and his eyes surely do bug out. You seen a fellow like that?”
“Mm-hm.” Alvin rubbed his receding chin thoughtfully, or maybe he was just trying find it. He didn’t have a whole lot of chin to find. Made you wonder if the fellow had jaw enough to chew his food. Maybe he just swallowed stuff whole. “Seen him, let me think…twice, I believe. Let me check.”
He opened a desk drawer and removed a huge ledger bound in red leather so fine it almost looked like velvet. I’d never seen anything like it.
His finger traced down a page or two before he announced, “Here it is. Toad man–I thought him more like a toad than a frog, till you said frog–toad man, 5 American eagles, one tenth ounce, spot minus ten. That was on September first. Then on October 10, 5 eagles again, spot minus eight.” He close the book and looked up, explaining, “He was a repeat customer, so I brought it up two points.”
We must have looked a mite confused. He clarified for us gold rookies. “All precious metal sales work around the spot price, the price the metal is going for in the larger markets on the day of the transaction. Your frog man–Shawn?–his coins were untouched, still encased, so I was willing to get pretty close to the spot price. He seemed okay with what I could pay; I do remember that.”
I could see wheels turning in other people’s heads. Mine, too. Bet Hicks never had a clue the hunchback was waiting till he’d left, then recording the transactions.
“Well,” B.J. said, “that does sound like Shawn. He was always big on the number five. So we were right; he’s somewhere, enjoying himself in his favorite state of Wyoming. Now, if we only knew, is he driving the 5 year old Honda or the 15 year old Camry? Or one of the others?”
He’d said it as if addressing us, but of course he was fishing, hoping Alvin had noticed the car Hicks was driving. Long shot, but sometimes long shots pay off, and this one did.
Izzard was shaking his head. “What he was driving was an older Subaru Forester, like maybe a 2000 model, license number 22 something.”
I realized I was holding my breath, almost shaking with the need to keep this man talking without interruption. Not a new lead, nary a one in more than six weeks, and now we’d hit the mother lode.
Made that horrific trek through Powder River Pass almost worth it.
B.J. wasn’t holding his breath. “Sounds like he’s got some welding jobs going on the side. Shawn’s superstitious, always likes to have that Forester with him when he’s welding. Sounds crazy, but hey, not as crazy as the clothing he wears sometimes. The man’s got a pair of green cowboy boots, for kri-yi. Seen him wear ’em once to a rodeo.”
Now, you’d think it might have made the coin man suspicious, B.J. going on like that, but if you’d been there…see, Big Jude can tune into the other fellow when there’s a conversation going on. It was his delivery that made things work.
Alvin did scratch his head a bit, but he didn’t stop spilling the beans. “Don’t rightly remember what he was wearing that first time in September, but the second go, that was less than two weeks past. He had on hiking boots, I remember that, regular blue jeans, checkered flannel shirt, well worn sheepskin jacket, cap with flaps. No gloves. I figured he was maybe here for hunting season; a lot of fellows are.”
“He might be at that,” B.J. agreed. “Depending on what he’s hunting.”
After getting a couple of adjoining rooms at the Comfort Inn, we left the cars, piled into Mom’s Jeep, and adjourned back to the truck stop. They had the best coffee, and we had some planning to do.
“22,” I started things off, “where’s that?”
“Fremont County,” Mom replied. She had a pretty good grasp of where things were in Wyoming. “A couple counties over from here. He wouldn’t have to be basing in the same county as the plate on his vehicle, though.”
Jack Hill had been quiet for a while, studying things out, but he spoke up now. “No, that’s true, Lou–but it can’t hurt to scope it out, can it?”
She shrugged. “Of course not. And we don’t even have to buck any more snow hell passes to get there tomorrow. Plus it’s one county we haven’t covered much, except to hit the lone coin dealer we could find on the Rez. See, a lot of Fremont County is covered by the Wind River Reservation. I don’t see Hicks as likely to be huddled up with the Shoshone Indians.”
“Hm.” My turn. “There are no white man towns in Fremont?”
“Oh, sure there are. Riverton’s the biggest, but it’s out in the exposed, windblown, Godforsaken oil country. We floated around there for a couple of days last month, but it just doesn’t feel right. Lander, I forget if that’s in Fremont County or the next one over, it’s closer to some forest country, so maybe. Fugitives do seem to favor places with trees. And then up north a ways, there’s Dubois.”
“Dubois…” I thought for a minute. “I believe we studied Dubois in school when I was in the fifth grade or somewhere around there. Isn’t that the town that used to be called Never Sweat, till the Postal Service made them change it?”
Mom laughed. “That’s the one. Trust the feds to stick their noses in, tell the citizens they can’t even name their own town.”
“Yeah…and didn’t Butch Cassidy have a ranch around there somewhere?”
“My, honey, I had no idea you were paying so much attention in school, back then.”
“Uh…” I felt my cheeks grow warm. In elementary school, I’d been a gifted student. Five years later, I’d been a serious juvenile delinquent.
It was good to know Mom could tease me a bit like that, though. It must mean she was okay with how I’d turned out in the end, despite all the gray hairs I’d given her.
That’s just a figure of speech. Louella Jackson still doesn’t have a gray hair on her head. Sim Bowles was, in my opinion, a lucky man.
Not that I’m biased or anything.
“So,” Jack hill put in, “Riverton has been covered, at least once. Lander is on the far side, or maybe outside the county. What say we meander up to Dubois tomorrow? It sounds like as good a bet as any, and besides, I haven’t tucked into the chow at the Cowboy Café in ages.”
We all agreed pretty quickly, but Hill had made me think. He knew Dubois, knew the name of the town’s café. What the hey. The man had served in the Civil War; he might even remember Butch Cassidy personally.
I’d thought to ask him about that when we got back to the motel, but my bed was calling to me, making an offer I could not refuse. I did manage to strip down to my skivvies before crawling under the covers, but I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
Later, in the darkness, I could hear someone snoring like thunder and figured it was the old man. Took a while to realize it was me.