JAKE LEAPED DOWN from the motorhome and shivered against the cool breeze blowing over the mountains. He thought it smelled like snow. Probably just rain. It rained nearly every afternoon up here, and the sky had that dark, brooding look, like it would rain again soon.
Jake patted his wallet as he crossed the parking lot to the lounge, which sat to the right of the main store. An old man was fishing a bag of ice out of the ice machine. A ragged-looking blue heeler with a red bandanna sat on the sidewalk near the old man, scratching its neck with its left rear paw and grunting and rattling its tags with the effort.
A red Ford pickup sat nearby, in front of the lounge. It had to be an early 70’s model, and it appeared held together by rust and what was left of its paint; the original red had turned a smoggy orange. It wasn’t sitting square on its chassis; its frame was twisted. One rear tire looked half flat. The top of the tailgate had a large, rusty, V-shaped dent in it, as though someone had tried to split it with an axe.
The gate wasn’t latched on one side and looked like it could tumble fall off at the least provocation. It probably hadn’t been latched properly in a decade. Through the back window, which was decorated with a faded NRA sticker and a wolf decal, Jake could see a couple of rifles in a gun rack.
Jake paused to stare at the old man, who was just then turning around, narrowing his eyes against the smoke curling up from a long cigarette drooping from between his lips.
He held up the bag and said, “They’re getting smaller every fucking year, and they keep jacking up the price on ‘em. Can you believe they want two dollars and fifty scents for ice? I mean it’s frozen water!”
Jake’s felt his lower jaw hang, shocked. The man looked so much like the character actor Harry Dean Stanton—tall, lean, and crow-like, wearing ragged denims, plaid green shirt, dirty white sneakers, and a tan Carhartt jacket--that he wanted to ask the old-timer if that’s who he was. But he doubted Harry Dean would be out here in the middle of nowhere, with a flea-bit mongrel, complaining about the price of ice.
“Whoa,” the old man said, looking startled now himself by Jake’s scrutiny. He held up a gloved hand, palm out. “If you’re thinkin’ I’m you’re long-last daddy, boy—well, think again.” He snorted. “I’m gonna have to go in and pay another two-fuckin’-fifty for more ice. This won’t chill three tallboys!”
He coughed, blowing smoke, and ambled into the store, the bell jangling over the door. The heeler followed him, stopped outside the door, and stared through the glass, whining softly.
Jake went into the lounge, which was dark and rife with the smell of cigarette smoke. He didn’t think smoking was allowed indoors anymore. Maybe out here was still Outlaw Territory. Refreshing. He brought a bottle of Wild Turkey and a plastic flask with a metal cap to the front counter.
“That all?” asked the chubby Mexican clerk with an Elvis pompadour. In a small, cubbyhole-like room behind him, a couple of men in cowboy hats were playing one-armed jacks that flashed and chimed electrically, like robots in old sci-fi movies.
Jake studied the cigarette racks flanking the clerk. His heart quickened. What the hell? He was on vacation, and what Brenda didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
“Two packs of Camels.”
“Lights or regulars?”
“Go for it,” said the clerk, smiling.
Jake paid the man and went outside. Again, the cool breeze whipped against him. He looked toward Storm Peak, near which was the falls. Clouds were catching on the jagged, stone crags, and a curtain of rain curled down like a giant tongue, obscuring the top of the mountain.
Jake shivered. He was glad he’d packed his longjohns and wool socks.
Jake slowed as he approached the motorhome. David and Kristen were standing around the pump. They appeared to be arguing about something.
Ah, shit, Jake thought. Nothing made a fellow feel like a third wheel than the other two wheels at odds with each other. He slowed his pace. His chagrin must have shone on his face.
Kristen glanced toward him and said, “It’s all right. As long as the cameras didn’t catch him and the cops don’t show.”
“Cops?” David said, ripping open a candy bar with his perfect teeth. “Out here in the hinterland?”
“Why would the cops show?” Jake asked.
Kristen crossed her arms on her chest. “He stole a candy bar.”
“One fucking candy bar,” Jake said with a laugh, biting into the Snickers.
“Why’d you do that?” Jake asked David.
David looked at the paper sack Jake was holding against his chest. “Hey, what you got there?”
“Because he thinks he can do what he wants,” Kristen said in response to Jake’s question. “We get out here, he becomes the Ugly American. In Boulder, he’d never do something like that. In Boulder, he’s all about political correctness, and--”
“I was just having fun,” David said, throwing his arms out in appeasement. “We’re on vacation, and I felt like doing something—I don’t know...fun! I was showin’ off for you, babe, like we’re just college brats again!”
“We’re not in college anymore, David.”
“Hey, you there!”
Jake recognized the gravelly voice. He turned to see Harry Dean Stanton moving toward him, sort of hunched over, the cigarette still dangling between his lips. The oldster’s wool-lined Carhartt jacket flapped open to show an old-style revolver sitting in a butterscotch shoulder holster.
The dog was following loyally from about six feet behind him.
“You there!” Harry Dean called, pointing at David.
David looked around, incredulous, and tapped his chest. “Me?”
“Yeah, you.” Harry Dean shouldered past Jake, planted one worn worn, unlaced sneaker on the edge of the concrete pump island, and glowered at David from beneath the bill of his soiled green feed cap. “What the hell you think you’re doin’, amigo?”
Kristen furled her brows at the man in shock and disbelief.
“What do you mean?” David asked him.
“You think you’re pretty tricky, don’t you, Fancy Dan? Comin’ in here in you’re big tricked-out camper, slappin’ around here in your little sandals and your fancy-schmancy sunglasses. You figure you’re gonna pull the wool over the dumb country folks’ eyes—that it? Gonna make fun of us.”
“Ah, shit,” David said, flushing as he held up the Snickers bar. “It’s a fucking candy bar, for chrissakes!”
“I seen you stick it in your pocket. Me—I got eyes in back of my head and in both ears. I was talkin’ to Marge at the register, but out the corner of my left eye”—he tapped his brow with a finger missing its tip—“I seen you slide that little Snickers bar into your pocket. Wasn’t sure that’s what you did, but then I turned around and seen you snicker at you’re little honey here. Snicker about your Snickers bar!”
He laughed without humor.
Harry Dean turned to Kristen, looked her brashly up and down. “Holy shit—look at you, darlin’. Miss, does this piece of shit belong to you?”
Kristen hesitated. She glanced in terror at Jake and then at David and then she looked down before cautiously sliding her gaze over the ground and up at the glowering visage of Harry Dean, who could have leaped right off the screen of a straight-to-dvd horror flick.
“Well, we’re married,” she said, shaking her hair back from her face and crossing her arms over the generous twin swells in her knit tube top. Her lightly tanned skin was all chicken flesh from the cold. “So, yeah, I guess you could say the dumb piece of shit belongs to me.”
“So what now?” David asked the man, flushed with embarrassment. He gave Kristen a flat, admonishing glance before shuttling his stricken gaze back to the old-timer.
Jake couldn’t help but enjoy his old pal’s unease. David looked just like he had when a cop had caught him and Jake smoking pot in Dave’s Trans Am in the woods behind their high school baseball field. Like a balloon that had suddenly lost its air.
“Well,” Harry Dean said, sliding his Carthartt jacket back to reveal the old-style revolver hanging under his arm. Jake thought it was a Colt. It look like Matt Dillon’s gun. “I reckon I’m gonna have to make me a citizen’s arrest. Kindly turn and place your hands against the camper there, amigo, and spread your feet wide apart. I’m gonna frisk you for firearms.”
David stared in shock at Harry Dean, who continued to scowl beneath the brim of his soiled green hat. Kristin stared at the old-timer, as well, mouth open, eyes wide. Jake was beginning to dislike the situation more than he had a few seconds ago. Was this old man really going to haul David’s ass into the county sheriff for stealing a candy bar?
Since he had a gun—had a whole pickup full, in fact—he could pretty much do whatever in hell he wanted...
David said, “Why don’t I just go in and pay for the fucking candy bar?”
He pushed away from the motorhome and started clapping across the parking lot toward the store.
Harry Dean choked out a laugh. He bent at the waist, his face crumpling as he pointed at David, saying, “Boy, I really had you going, didn’t I?”
Squeezing his eyes shut, he mewled out several deep guffaws, unable to contain himself. He slapped his thigh. “Ah, shit—keep your fuckin’ candy bar, hoss,” he said when his laughter started to dwindle. He sniffed, brushed a fist across his nose, made a crotch adjustment, and shook his head. He glanced quickly at Kristen. “Oh, pardon my French, sweetheart.”
He laughed again, squeezing his eyes closed and shaking his head.
Kristin looked at him skeptically.
David looked relieved. Still flushed with embarrassment, he glanced from Jake to Harry Dean to Kristen and back to Harry Dean again. “You were joking...?”
“Had you goin’, didn’t I?” Harry Dean said. “Tell you what I’ll do—I’ll keep my mouth shut about the criminal activity I witnessed here today if you’ll give me and old Otis here a lift in your camper.”
“You want a ride?” Kristen said, nonplussed.
“Generator’s blown on my truck. Battery’s deader’n the Kennedys. I’m headin’ west apiece, same direction you was headin’ before you pulled in here.” Harry Dean’s eyes were still watery, and his hawk-like nose was still bright red, from nearly laughing up both lungs. He looked at David. “What do you say? Better than bein’ thrown in the hoosegow, now, ain’t it, amigo? My brother-in-law’s the sheriff out here, and he’s one mean an’ nasty son of a bitch!”
He lifted his knee and slapped his thigh, loosing another volley of laughter.
“He wants a ride,” Kristen said to David.
David chuckled and bit off another bite of the candy bar. He looked at Kristen as he chewed, grinning. “Well, I guess it’d be worth not having to live on bread and water till the judge got here and a gallows was built—wouldn’t you say, little darlin’?”
Kristin didn’t say anything. She looked Harry Dean up and down, her gaze faltering on the gun under his jacket.
David looked at Jake. Unease was a long, wet caterpillar crawling up and down Jake’s spine, but he didn’t see how they could say no to one of the locals and not look like city-dwelling assholes in spite of the asshole stunt Harry Dean had pulled.
“How far you goin’?” David asked Harry Dean around a mouthful of Snickers.
“I’ll go as far as you’ll take me,” Harry Dean said, leaning down to pet the head of the heeler who’d been sitting directly behind him, sniffing the wind, his red bandanna blowing in the breeze. “But me an’ Otis are headin’ for the end of old number five blacktop there. Headin’ for the Sweet Nelly campground, at the bottom of the Paradox Falls trail. Twenty-six miles straight west.”
“Really?” David said. “That’s where we’re goin’.”
“Well, hell!” Harry Dean intoned. “Otis, I reckon we got us a ride all the way to Sweet Nelly!”
“Do you have to wear the gun?” Jake asked him.
Maybe he’d written to many shoot-‘em-ups, but that gun looked like trouble to Jake.
Harry Dean scowled at him, offended. “Not to worry—I got a permit for it. What’s more,” he added with a menacing grin, “I know how to use it!”
He winked and laughed.
“Why don’t you strappin’ young men fetch my gear from my truck? Ice cooler in back and a duffel up front. I got a whole cooler full of beer and whatnot, and if I try to carry it myself, I’ll bust a gut again!” Harry Dean turned to leer at Kristin. “Me and this sweet little thing is gonna go on into the camper and play us a game of slap’n’tickle. You boys take your time!”
Kristin laughed in spite of her obvious apprehension, looking away and blushing.