It might look strange, Harker paying bus fare clear down to Laramie for two guys to take possession of the same model pickup he could’ve bought from Jim Sturgess’s dealership, right there at home. What happened was Harker found out he could shave a considerable slice off the price if he dealt with a certain agency in the city. A friend he trusted had spotted the bargain and he was the one who did the buying. But why send two of us? Damned if I know. I’d like to think he saw an excuse to give us both a day off, but I wouldn’t lay more than half a dollar on that.
We showed our IDs, took possession of the pickup, had breakfast at McDonalds, and then rolled that brand-new pickup onto I-80 and headed west, Lester driving. At Walcott, Lester slowed down, said, “Let’s try that hot spring.” He was onto State 130 before I had a chance to give an opinion. That’s his way. I’m used to it.
At Saratoga they have this natural hot spring fixed up for swimming. It’s fenced off, but free, no charge. They say it’s best in the dead of winter. There was nobody there when we arrived. We stripped down to our Fruit-of-the-Looms and stood under the hot showers, washing off the bus ride. I went out and jumped in and rolled over. Lester was testing the water with one foot, humming to himself, taking plenty of time. That’s Lester — stretch out the pleasure.
A woman and a girl came out of the women’s side, the girl in a zebra-striped suit, the woman in bright blue, the kind of outfit that shimmers as it shapes up across hills and valleys. They went in at the shallow end. I drifted along, watching. Lester was side-stroking and watching. I closed my eyes, had myself about a minute of perfect peace, being glad Lester’d had this idea. Then I heard voices from the men’s side. I opened my eyes. Two young guys in skimpy trunks and dark-all-over tans. They looked to be in really good shape.
Lester floated by, said, “I’m gettin out. Too hot.” He heaved up out of the water and I followed and one of the sun-tanned guys did a double-take, making a big deal out of our wet see-through swimwear. He poked the other guy, said, “Lookit, Ballard. Latest New Age fashion. How about that?” Ballard said, “Home on the range, Dingbat. Takes all kinds. Lay back, man, enjoy the sights.” He looked across the pool, winked at the woman.
I was ready to let it all ride, except for Dingbat and Ballard keeping their grins on and sizing us up. It was clear enough that they came from the top of the world and no doubt owned a favorable piece of it. Lester and I growled some stuff at them. Wasn’t very elegant. Not smart, either, the four of us practically naked standing on wet concrete, steel posts and woven-wire fencing all around, and it did look like Ballard and Dingbat had it in mind to take a wild west story back home with them, back to California. How did I know they were from the coast? I didn’t, but Californians they were, I’d have sworn.
The woman yelled, “Hey, you four bozos,” and she came wading into the deep water and all of a sudden she was singing.
“I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy.
These words he did say as I boldly walked by,
Sit down beside me and hear my sad story,
I’m shot in the breast and dyin’ today.”
She sang the words slowly, but wasn’t dragging them out too much, the way some do. Lester was making little chuckling noises. It took me longer to see the woman wasn’t really making serious fun of Lester and me. She’d cut herself into the scene, that’s all, to get our attention, using whatever was handy and fit the case, which happened to be that cowboy’s lament. And now she was waggling a finger at us. “Whoever spoils the high point of my daughter’s day will be very, very sorry.” She smiled, one of those smiles easy to read: “Just you try me, Buster.”
“At your service, lady.” That was Dingbat. He stepped to the edge of the pool and dove in, slick as an otter. Lester and I went on back to the showers.
Lester said, “Everybody figured us to be cowboys.”
“Why not?” I said. “We’ve kicked plenty of cow shit.”
“Harker’s Holsteins,” he said.
I said, “We work for a living, we live in Wyoming.”
“That shows, man.” I’d noticed: from the neck down, Lester and I were pale as salamander bellies. I told Lester to lay back and enjoy. “Takes all kinds,” I said.
A bunch of teenagers came in. We wrung out our underwear and got dressed and left. In the parking lot, next to Harker’s pickup, sat one of those slope-nosed vans, green and sparkly as a drake’s head.
Lester said, “I bet it’s got all the options.”
“California plates,” I said.
My turn to drive. It was late afternoon when we pulled into a Sinclair station in Rock Springs. We paid for the gas from the two twenties Harker had given us for expenses. I bought a 7-Up with my own money. Lester was dawdling, checking out corn chips and key rings and postcards and sunglasses. He came to a rack of fake Stetsons, all colors. He tried on a black one. “Fits perfect,” he said. I tried pink. “Too big.” Lester said, “Here, Sandy, blue’s your color. New Age blue.” I tried it. “Fits perfect,” I said. We bought the hats.
Lester’s turn to drive. He turned onto U.S. 191 in fairly heavy traffic. We were at the north edge of Rock Springs. Lester yelled, “California.”
I looked back. Sure enough, there was Dingbat, at the wheel, and Ballard, both of them with big grins and coming up fast. Ballard gave us the finger as Dingbat put the van into lift-off, pipes blasting. He swung left to pass, but there was big trouble, an 18-wheeler in the left lane. It might have been that Dingbat hadn’t noticed yet U.S. 191 isn’t a four-lane Interstate. Lester braked hard and Dingbat tucked in ahead of us, but Harker’s pickup took a hit on the left front. Lester hammered on the horn. Dingbat swung left again, somehow found a hole in traffic, and kept on weaving till the van went out of sight on that long winding grade out of the valley that Rock Springs sits in. We did some cussing.
I rolled down my window to catch a breeze, tried to stay away from speculating on what would be Harker’s state of mind when we made delivery.
A few miles went by. I spotted a speck of green with a dust tail, northeast of the highway. I yelled, “Boar’s Tusk road.”
Lester looked, slowed for the turn-off, and took it. The road past the Boar’s Tusk is graveled and graded by the county once in a while, but in between times it’s cut by washouts and rutted by heavy equipment that works the oil patch. Lester took it at a fast clip, but slowed to a ground hug in the really bad places. We were in country that goes on forever in all directions, wide open but not simple. Most of the time the van was out of sight behind folds of land. We passed a ragged piece of plywood tied to a sage bush. It said, WARNING, DRIFTING SAND.
At the next rise, fresh car tracks led from the road onto rising ground full of sage and evening shadows. Lester looked over at me as if he wanted my opinion. That wasn’t like him. I said, “What are we waiting for?”
At first, the pickup grabbed hold in quick little bites, but Lester kept up the pressure, built momentum, let the wheels catch enough to shove, not enough to dig. That truck changed personality, started taking in country like a long-legged Longhorn doing some serious traveling. Big, graceful jumps. We were riding the wind, out of our minds. It worked longer than you’d think. The last was the best, crossing a thick tongue of white sand drift where the van had dug in and barely made it through. Harker’s truck skimmed it, all four wheels floating. I swear that’s the truth.
Then the right front tire hit a rock and the hood reared up, the whole shebang turned, whining and growling, slipping sidewise, but Lester took her out of gear, got her down on all fours, steered on the contour, eased her back to high ground, and then everything fell away in front of us. Lester stopped in time and switched off. We got out.
The green van sat just below the drop-off, its left rear wheel down to the hub in sand. Ballard and Dingbat gawked up at us. They were dressed in tee shirts and shorts. Ahead of them was a steep dune of pure sand decorated with shadowed ripple marks, and so big it hid all the country behind it.
I asked Lester, “Where’s the controls for the winch?” He said, “Maybe we’ll find out.” He was wearing his new black Stetson. He gave the front of the brim a good tug. I went back to the cab, found my blue hat, put it on. I said, “They have to ask.”
We went down the slope. Lester said, “What’s the problem?”
Dingbat took a quick peek over his shoulder to see if Ballard was backing him. Ballard was. Dingbat said, “Sand, that’s the goddamn trouble.”
Lester chuckled. He hooked his thumbs in his belt, walked around the van, looked it over like he was thinking of buying it. He walked past Ballard, who had a good grip on a tire iron. Lester paid him no mind.
I said, “Lester, we’re way behind schedule.” He said, “Yeah, right.” We headed back up the slope, got halfway to the pickup before Dingbat and Ballard gave up, yelled for help. Ballard went so far as to offer forty dollars, and Dingbat swore he was up to his ass in collision insurance.
We got to work. The four of us dug and heaved and yelled all kinds of smart advice. By the time the pickup’s winch took hold, we were just four guys doing a job. It was embarrassing when Ballard brought out his billfold and held out two twenties. Lester and I waved them away, got down to the real problem, which was Harker’s truck. We took our time, checking out the damage — left front fender dented, paint messed up, headlight chrome bent.
We wrote it all down and had Dingbat and Ballard sign it. We copied all the numbers from Dingbat’s insurance card. After that, the four of us stood around watching night come on. Seemed like there wasn’t much to talk about.
Ballard said, “You live out here?”
I was about to tell him I’d had some acquaintance with the area on account of a couple of antelope hunts, but Lester butted in, said, “Yup, all this country. Ridin’, ropin’, punchin’ cows.”
“Bull doggin’,” I said, “bustin’ broncs.” I couldn’t keep it up, had to pull my hat way down and lift up and take a long look out past the sand dune. I noticed Lester having the same trouble. I didn’t dare look at Dingbat or Ballard, to see if they saw through us. I imagine they did.
Lester said, “We better get on down the road.”
Now it was Ballard looking out over the dune, into full dark with stars coming out. He said, “We were thinking of hanging out here in the desert for a day or two.”
Dingbat shifted around — he didn’t appear too happy. “Ballard,” he said, “let’s get the hell out.”
Ballard gave that about three seconds of consideration. “Okay. Hell, we’ve done this damned place.”
“It’s done you,” I said. Ballard let it pass.
Getting back to the highway was tricky business, but Lester took it slow and sure and the van followed, copying every move. Watching headlights in dusty ruts and brush made me sleepy. At 191, Lester pulled off onto the shoulder. The van whizzed past, headed north. It blinked its tail lights.
Lester said, “We should’ve taken their money.”
“Maybe so,” I said.
My turn to drive. Lester leaned back in the corner and fell asleep. The truck hummed along. Hardly any traffic. Wasn’t long before the truck started taking off in long leaps like a jack rabbit in slow motion, touching asphalt lightly, then going off again in a nice easy rhythm, almost like a waltz. It might have been a sudden change in tire sound that woke me up, just in time, a change made by tall cottonwoods along both sides of the road. Eden Valley. I was still only half awake, but my foot went to the brake pedal and the truck put all wheels on solid blacktop. I rolled down the window and breathed cool night air. Something was still wrong, my forehead felt strange. I reached up, my new blue hat fell off. I groped around, found it, dropped it behind the seat, and drove on.
At Farson I stopped and we traded. I jammed myself into the corner and fell asleep. Tomorrow, bright and early, we’d be out in the hot hayfields again, bucking Harker’s bales.
Martin Murie grew up in Jackson, Wyoming; served in the U.S. Army (infantry); studied at Reed College (BA, Literarture and Philosophy) and University of California (PhD, Zoology); taught life sciences at University of Califronia, Berkeley and Santa Barbara, and Antioch College. He retired early, to write. His novels Losing Solitude (1996) and Windswept (2001) were published by Homestead Press and Red Tree Mouse Chronicles (2000) by Packrat Books. “Riding the Range” first appeared in Raven Chronicles 7.2.