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Reckonings


by Daniel Harris


The angry man drove into the setting sun.  He was tired and fought to keep his ‘69 Volkswagen Squareback from skidding off the unplowed snow-covered road. He slapped the steering wheel mouthing a vulgarity when he lost control of the car.  Why did he agree to drive his estranged wife from Chicago to her sister's home in Los Angeles? Their marriage was over. Why this last chivalry? 

According to his wife, there was a small county park where they could car-camp for the night off this side road. That wife was sick with the flu, sleeping in the back of the car. They had spent the first night in a similar park in Oklahoma. Now he was on a narrow back road looking for the park twenty miles off I-40, west of Albuquerque. He had been driving for twelve hours and had to piss.

To make extra money for her move to Los Angles, his wife took a job substitute teaching in a Chicago junior high school between Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations. She caught the flu from her charges.  Even though, as she claimed, she was being “extra careful” because she knew she was coming down with something, she lost her wallet with her driver's license. She couldn't help with the driving. But nothing could protect her from the approaching full moon in Ares. She was in for a spate of turbulent times. No amount of precaution could stop the power of the cosmos. What bull shit. She was an idiot. Astrology crap drove him crazy. It excused all sorts of nonsensical behavior. Now he could feel the flu coming on: scratchy throat, fever, headache, stomach cramps. He slammed the steering wheel with his palm and cursed his wife.

A small roadside sign pointed to Lost Creek Park: Camping and Rest Rooms. He turned onto the side road. At least the sun was not in his eyes. He followed the gravel track to the camp site.

The park straddled an arroyo which supplied enough water to support a stand of willow and cottonwood trees. There was a cinder block service building on one side of the unpaved parking lot. Half-dozen stone fireplaces were equally spaced around the perimeter of the park. An old Chevy pickup truck with a camper on the back and a horse trailer hitched behind was the only vehicle in the park. The truck stood by the fireplace closest to the service building. Since the Volks' tire tracks were the only ones in the parking lot snow, the man figured that the truck had been there before the snow fell.

An Indian woman with a single long braid of black hair down her back, dressed in men's winter clothing and wearing a fedora, was stirring a pot on the fireplace. Two young boys sat on a log next to the Indian woman spooning food from steaming cups. Two Indian men stared passively under the raised hood of the Chevy truck. One of the men, a slim fellow, was dressed in full Western cowboy regalia; the other, a giant of a man, was dressed in worn winter clothes.

The man parked the Volks well away from the pick-up truck. He exited the car and gulped the high, clean air. He immediately felt better escaping the fetid sickroom confines of the car. He walked to the building. A sign announced that park services were not available.  The door to the building was unlocked. Inside, the vending machines were empty The man used the men's toilet. He checked the woman's bathroom: clean and well stocked with paper towels and toilet paper. There was no hot water, but the water in the drinking fountain was sweet.

He returned to the car and put a thick Filson wool vest over his Pendleton shirt. He left the down parka in the car. It was chilly, but not particularly cold, maybe low thirties. The cool air felt good on his feverish skin. His wife was still asleep, or feigning sleep, in the back of the Squareback.

The two Indians approached the man. They both had the bow legged gait of longtime horsemen. The slim cowboy wore tight faded blue jeans, a Sherpa-lined denim jacket, polished Tony Lama cowboy boots, and a white Stetson. The big man wore baggy wool pants, a Mackinaw jacket, worn harness boots and an old fedora with a scraggly eagle feather in the hatband. Both had the leathery, weathered faces of men who spent most of their time outdoors.

—Howdy, said the cowboy.

—Hi guys. What's up?

—Reckon you could sell us some gas, said the cowboy. Truck's bone dry.

The big Indian didn't say anything.

The man didn't know what to make of the request. The Volks' gas gage indicated half a tank, five gallons, but he had no idea how far away or where the nearest gas station was. His last fill-up was outside of Albuquerque.

—I've got maybe a quarter of a tank, he replied.

—How ‘bout you give us two gallons? We're stuck. Our house on the reservation is twelve miles from here.

The man quickly grasped the change in verbs from “sell them gas” to “give them gas.”  He wondered if the request for gas wasn't a pretext for further demands. If they were armed, he would be at their mercy.

—Yeah, I'll give you two gallons of gas. It's the neighborly thing to do. Do you have a tank?

The cowboy loudly hocked his sinuses and spat out a big wad of phlegm. He crushed it like a bug under the heel of his boot.

—Yeah, we got a hose and a gas can, said the cowboy.

The man looked at the big Indian, who stared at the horizon. The man sure as hell didn't want any trouble from someone who looked like he could throw a full-grown bull to the ground. The man looked up at the big Indian's impassive face and wondered what he was thinking.

The cowboy walked to the truck and returned with a red dented gas can and a length of green garden hose. Without asking, the cowboy unscrewed the gas cap and inserted the hose into the Volks' gas tank. He sucked on the hose but didn't remove the hose fast enough.

—Damn! 

The cowboy spat out a spoonful of gasoline, while quickly inserting the hose in the gas can.

—There's more than half a tank in there, otherwise, I wouldn't have gotten gasoline in my mouth.

The big Indian stared at the horizon.

—Fuck, said the cowboy to no one in particular. He wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his coat.

—Why you waste gasoline, said the big Indian.

—What's your name mister? asked the cowboy, ignoring the big Indian.

—Doesn't matter what my name is.

The man was being used and he was pissed.

—Well, Mister Sociable, people call me Cowboy and my cousin here is FBI.

—FBI?

—Fucking Big Indian.

No argument from me thought the man. FBI was one big man. 

Cowboy expertly pulled the hose from the Volks as the last drops in the hose filled the five-gallon can.

—Hey, goddamit, you took all my gas!

—No way, said FBI, this car will drive twenty miles on a gallon of gas. There's a gas station four miles west on the highway.

—You lied to me, said Cowboy. You've got plenty of gas. We don't take well to city folks lying to us.

The man was worried that he would not have enough gas to reach the nearest gas station. Now Cowboy was threatening. Is this how it would play out: steal the gas, rob us, then murder us?

—You took more than two gallons, Mr. Cowboy. I might run out of gas. You could offer some money for all the gas you took.

—We owe you nothing, interrupted FBI. You city people think you can come onto our land and do what you want.

The man saw where this was headed.

FBI pulled a large Bowie knife from a sheath on his belt. Even in the fading light, it looked big enough to disembowel a man.

—Is that your woman? asked Cowboy.

—Hey, I'm being friendly. I will give you the gas. Leave my wife out of this.

The man checked the back of his car. Most of his wife's nude body was out of the sleeping bag. No wonder Cowboy was adjusting his package in his jeans. Seeing her like this, he felt a stirring in his loins. She did have a sexy body.

—I fuck your wife, I give you half the gas, said FBI, who flipped the knife in the air and caught it by the handle.

—What kind of deal is that? asked the man, keeping his eye on the blade. You took the gas.

—You lie. Cowboy took gas. Best deal. I fuck wife and keep gas. Cowboy fuck wife, too.

—You'll have to ask her, but give me the gas.

—White wife no good. My wife make fire, cook food. White wife only good for fucking.

—If she lets you fuck her, give me half the gas.

—You crazy man. I take gas and fuck wife. You lose gas and wife.

—I'll sell you my wife for the can of gas.

—Your wife not worth a can of gas.

The man thought FBI had been drinking to talk to a white man like this, but he had to agree with him. Just how much was sex worth? He could imagine the big Indian slitting him from groin to gullet in one swipe of his knife. A film of his bones weathering in the arroyo, picked clean by turkey vultures and cracked by coyotes, played in his feverish imagination.

The man's wife stirred, pulled on her clothes, pushed the front seat forward and exited the Volks.  She wrapped herself in a big down parka.

—Who are these men?

—Some stranded travelers, Cowboy and FBI. I just gave them some gasoline.

—Hi, I'm Marge. Glad my husband could help you.

She tried to continue talking but began coughing.

—I've got that same cough, sweetheart, said Cowboy, snorting up another large gob, which he again spat and ground into the snow with the heel of his boot.

—Well, I have to go potty. Excuse me, gents.

Marge shuffled to the service building. Her Wellies left perfect parallel tracks in the snow. She looked like she was cross-country skiing.

The three men could hear Marge coughing in the toilet. When Marge left the service building, the two Indians were eating with the woman and the children by the fire. The man sat in the car shivering. The flu had him.

—Lady, you like hot food? asked the Indian woman.

—I would love some, said Marge, pulling the parka tighter around her body.

The man sat at the steering wheel watching his wife eating with the Indian family. They were all laughing. Marge was a flirt with a quick wit. Every man she talked to wanted to bed her. She let most of them try. Were they laughing at him? Cowboy rose from the fire and walked to the Volkswagen. He rapped on the driver's side window. The man rolled the window down a crack.

—Well, pard', I hate to tell you this, but me and FBI are going to fuck your wife tonight. When FBI finishes with her, she going to think she was served by a stallion. Adios, amigo

The man could smell the whiskey on Cowboy's breath.

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When the man woke in the morning, Marge was not in the car. The pick-up truck and horse trailer were gone. He checked the bathroom for Marge. He called her name and looked for her in the arroyo. He could not find her. Only a few of Marge's footprints were still visible in the melting snow.  Her backpack was not in the car.

He started the car and headed back to I-40 and Chicago.

“Goin' to Chicago, sorry but I can't take you” he croaked to the empty car, tapping a backbeat on the steering wheel.

The man was so weak now it was all he could do to drive. Shifting was a chore. Every time he coughed he doubled over.

The Volks' engine started to knock and sputter.

—Shit. God damnit to hell! 

The engine quit a few miles from I-40. The man bundled in his down jacket and huddled in his sleeping bag in the back of the car waiting for rescue. He lay there alternately sweating and freezing. He wondered if Marge had sex with Cowboy and FBI. FBI might be more than she could handle. He didn't care. All he wanted was to get back to Chicago.

The next morning, the man thought he could hear the trucks on I-40. He decided to walk down the road. He was tempted to cut straight south, but there was a better chance of someone finding him if he kept on the road. He never looked over his shoulder. Head down he plodded southeast. The gale came on him with a violence so sudden and powerful that it's 100 mile-per-hour initial gust drove him to his knees. There was no way he could walk against the storm back to the car.

The day after the storm passed, two park rangers in a Jeep discovered the abandoned Volkswagen. The warm chinook wind caused torrents of snowmelt to fill the ditches on the side of the road. Turkey buzzards showed the rangers where the man's corpse lay. Down feathers from his ripped parka covered the melting snow. The vultures and the coyotes had made short work of the man's soft flesh.

—Reckon he musta been a city fella, said the older ranger. City folk got no respect for big country.

The younger ranger put a tarp over the eviscerated remains of the man.

—I'll radio for an ambulance, said the older ranger.  His wife's probably wondering where he is.

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Cowboy sat in the natural hot spring watching Marge, astride FBI, slowly slide onto the big man's erection. The seventy-degree chinook wind: perfect for naked romps at the hot springs. 

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