Issue 98, Winter 1985
For more than three hours the mountains had loomed ahead yet they did not seem particularly closer to Louise. They grew somewhat larger through the wind shield of her truck as it crested small rises in the otherwise flat-as-your-hand prairie, and the lowering yellow sun cast different shadows as it moved westward. The demarcations of color—ranging from the intense greened-up grasses of the hollows through the russet and gold of bench grass and into jagged snow at the timberline far in the distance—still shone lividly under the canopy of sky.
Ross was saying: “It’s about twenty miles up this road to the camp where my boy is staying.” It was the third time he mentioned his purpose in taking this longer route; Billy, his wife and their two little girls were living in a trailer park near Ruff, a town Louise remembered vaguely from a trip she and her husband made years ago: a post office, Cafe´, grocery store and gas station centered between saloons like bookends on a shelf in the dusty plains. “It’s changed,” Ross said. “Billy told me there’s more than five thousand living there now, working the pit or waiting for somebody to die or quit so they can.”
The sun dropped to the rim of the mountains, creating an iridescent glaze over the summit before melting slowly into it. The sky was the brightest thing now. She listened to the rebuilt engine she’d had put in the old Dodge truck. The odometer indicated it had just over five hundred miles on it now. The reason she volunteered her truck for the trip—which was to take Ross to the doctor—was that his car’s lights weren’t working.
“How’s the knee?”
Ross grunted. “Hell, it’s okay. Them pills cut out the throbbing.”
“Let me know when you want me to drive.”
He laughed: “I guess I will be in bad shape when I can’t drive.”
He pressed on the accelerator a little as if in emphasis. The engine revved louder, the truck picked up speed and tires whined on the narrow road. Ross drove mostly in the middle, but there was hardly any traffic.
The next little rise revealed a town in the distance. They both noticed the smudge of smoke in the sky, a Gray purple umbrella over a pool of tiny glittery lights, Ross pointing. “We’ll just stop by, see how they’re doing, then catch us some supper. We’ll be in Casper by nine o’clock, Lou.” She settled back in her seat. It was accidental, this trip. Ross had been working on a neighbor’s caterpillar tractor and the gear slipped, lowering the blade onto his knee. Nothing broken, but after a few days the bruise turned into a puffy swollen redness which began to throb. Ross could go to a V.A. hospital for treatment; the neighbor was uninsured. Ross had done some work for her, too, not long after her husband died, and one day he brought her a dozen dark red roses. Some nights he stayed over in the bunkhouse instead of driving his old gas-guzzler to his sister’s, in return for helping her with some of the heavier chores. He wasn’t at all like her husband, a transplant who sunk his Eastern dollars into a quarter section and too many cows to make it through the droughts. Ross had grown up hereabouts, owned and lost more land than she and her husband had ever dreamed of owning; he had the cowboy courtesy and also the same rough edge—about those bureaucrat bastards, lying politicians and fatcats and anybody who didn’t work as hard as he did. She and her husband had worked hard — harder than they ever considered, in light of the fact they’d viewed the ranch as a form of early retirement — and the work killed her husband at fifty-two. So she was a widow not yet fifty, with grown children in other states. This year after the yearling sale she had a little over forty-five hundred dollars to live on until the next sale.
She knew she was luckier than some. When Ross showed up with the bad knee, she said she’d go with him to the hospital.
Across the tracks next to the rail road trestle sat the trailer park. The part of Ruff which Louise remembered had turned into a dilapidated spur off the main road leading northward where a distantly visible boundary of cyclone fencing enclosed clumps of machinery. Only the giant cranes loomed, their brontosaurus necks poised against the slag mountains they were creating as they excavated the overburdened soil in search of the coal seam.
The road to the trailer camp was unsurfaced and rutted from fall rain. Burdocks, amaranth and thistles in frost-blackened bouquets stood between train tracks and the road. Where the trestle spanned the wide dry river-bed there were cottonwoods and willows. Several small fires flickered in the brushy bottom. Louise thought of bonfires and picnics, but no one would be doing that here. Wind blowing off the mountains promised a freeze by dark.
In the trailer park, vehicles sat racked like offerings in a used car lot. Some were lit already, dim yellow gleams through small windows. Many of the trailers overlooked the wide flat lands toward the pit; floodlights switched on there as she watched, and the shift changed. The road was deeply rutted. The truck rattled over the bumps. Ross turned on their headlamps. “My boy’s place is in that second row over there. I stopped by and saw ’em a month ago. Brought the grand kids some little toys.”
Louise felt slightly guilty because she had not thought to get anything for Ross’s grandchildren; but then why should she? She had barely enough money for herself. Her own children were still in school, married or had a job; there were no grandchildren yet. She wasn’t sure she wanted any, although her neighbor Nelly just laughed at that, and said she’d like it fine when they came.
She realized she didn’t want to visit Billy, his wife and their babies. She would stay in the truck. She shivered inside her wool town jacket. Ross turned into the second set of ruts in the hardpan, a narrow drive between small travel trailers, campers, and now and then, tents. A group of ragged-looking children chasing each other with sticks scattered from the truck headlights. A bent skinny woman glanced briefly from the propane cook stove she was working over; their truck was none she recognized. A man sat on the steps of his camper, drinking something in a brown bag. “There it is,” Ross said. “Looks like somebody’s home.” They parked by a tiny travel trailer. Louise could see two heads through the parted curtains in the window.
“You go in,” she said. The man sitting on the camper steps lifted a hand in a slow wave like he recognized her, or Ross, who now carefully, as if his leg was fashioned of blown glass, lifted it over the jamb of the truck door. “Can you make it?”
He gave her a look. “Oh yeah. Take another pill in a minute.” He hobbled to the trailer door. The sight stabbed her. She hated to feel so sorry for him, and wished she hadn’t agreed to take him to the hospital. Then he would have made his— pilgrimage—with somebody else sitting in the front seat and she would be at home with the heater turned up, doing ranch accounts. The trailer door opened; a short stocky fellow who didn’t at all resemble Ross smiled politely, let him inside. The door closed.
She folded her arms across her breasts to stay warm. She had been living in the West long enough to know that sometimes a man would drive four hundred miles to tell someone he’d be back in a month and stay a week, then get back in the car and drive away, the rendezvous set up. Conversely, one might arrive or have others arrive and simply settle in for a day or two as if one’s host had nothing else to do. What was the lack of formality—or seeihing lack—which had so astounded her when she first moved here and even nowstruck her as random, impatient, sometimes streaked with sadistic delight at some particularly embarrassing encounter. “Hell with you if you ain’t got a sense of humor,” she heard Ross say to his sister once on the phone. “Piss on him and the horse he rode in on.”
She saw the trailer door open, and Ross moved toward her side of the pick up keeping his leg stiff. She unrolled the window. He bent his face to look at her. “Been some trouble, honey, you better come on in.”
There were two young men inside the tiny trailer. Billy was hardly out of his teens, his chin fuzzed with unshaved whiskers the same gingery blond color as his father’s. The other was the stocky fellow who had opened the trailer door. He was introduced to her as Ben, the brother of Billy’s wife. Ross talked. “I wondered what was going on when I didn’t see the car. She took the kids and the car and went back to momma, eh?” Billy nodded, choking a little. His eyes were red and swollen. Ben offered Louise a beer and she accepted, sitting on the bench by the foldup table. The trailer couldn’t be more than fourteen feet long and seven wide, with miniature kitchen and wide bunk visible beyond. The beer made her shiver again. Four people — two of them small children — in this space. Winter coming on. Ben sat opposite. “She took them to mom’s,” he said. “Mom left a message at the camp office. They’re all right.” The trailer was very clean and neat, except for a litter of beer cans and ashtrays filled with crushed cigarettes and here and there, withered ends that looked like marijuana roaches. There was a small spider plant hanging near the sink, and a wandering Jew twined around the window curtainrod behind Ben.
Ross and Billy stood in the passage between the sink and the clothes closet. Billy began to cry and his father took him in his arms. “Oh, Daddy,” he sobbed. “Oh, Daddy, she’s gone.” Ross stroked Billy’s cheek. They seemed unaware of the presence of Louise and Ben. Ben looked at her briefly, then lowered his eyes. She wished again that she had let Ross go off on his own; but then realized she was simply embarrassed even though the others seemed not to be.
Ross and his son stood in embrace—Ross soothing with strokes, Billy continuing to sob, his shoulders working convulsively. Ben sighed, sipped his beer, and offered to light Louise’s cigarette. “Toria’s always been kind of high strung,” he said to her. “She gets nervous real easy.” Ross cleared his throat. “She’ll be back, Billy.”
Billy sobbed harder. “She won’t. She said she never wanted to see me again.”
Ross pulled away from their embrace. He seemed to realize suddenly that others were there with the two of them. He spoke in a soft voice. “Son, did you hit Torie?”
Billy was silent. Ross continued. “She’s your wife, boy, not your punching bag.” He cleared his throat again, and coughed slightly.
Billy shook his head. “I didn’t hit her. Daddy.”
“What did you do. Bill? Did you hit one of the kids?” Ross held his son at arm’s length. Billy shook his head violently “I called her a bitch.”
Father and son made a sound so similar it took Louise a moment to decide what it was—a little more than a chuckle and less than a laugh. Ben smiled, but for the first time looked uncomfortable. He seemed a correct young man; Louise thought he probably agreed but thought it bad form to join with any sound indicating it. She took a swallow of beer and realized how hungry she was. The admission seemed to have set something free in Billy; he was describing the fight. “She’s always talking about how hard it is for her, taking care of the children out here, me working short shifts or not at all, the dust so she can’t keep the place clean, everything. I asked her, ’Do you think it’s easy for me?’ I said, ’That’s the way it is.’ ”
When they were back in the pickup on the way out of the trailer park, Ross let his anger loose in long hard fragments of memory. They passed the campfires under the willows, with silhouettes moving in the flame’s dance.
“That’s your problem,” Ross began. “Right down there in the dry wash. They come in here willing to work for dirt, and ten of ’em ain’t a pimple on a good man’s ass. But the union don’t know the difference, signs ’em all up and pretty soon you see what you get.”
Louise huddled into her jacket. The truck heated slowly and she was miserable with hunger after the beer she had drunk while Billy and Ross arranged their next rendezvous. They would not be able to get to Casper by nine, as Ross had promised. Since the death of her husband she had developed the habit of going to bed early, reading, falling into sleep and rising at dawn. So she was out of her routine, irritable with the interruption. She listened to Ross as he began to chronicle his difficulties getting the Veteran’s Administration to do something about the concussion injury he got serving in Korea which had led to one problem After another: like this leg, hit by the tractor blade during one of his dizzy spells. Whereas the Vietnam vets complained about a sore finger and got disability payments. She sullenly refused to answer. Ross had taken pills before he left Billy’s —how many she did not know—so he was running also on the edge of the drug. She felt trapped in her own vehicle, kidnapped by an angry man.
“That Toria—she’s a double-dyed bitch, excuse my French. I know you don’t like that word, but that’s what she is. Last time I came by, I had a couple little things for the grand kids and she wouldn’t let them have them —claimed I was spoiling them. My own grandchildren, eh? She’s got a lot of growing up to do.”
Louise huddled in her corner. It was getting warmer, and she felt the beginnings of a headache. She felt sorry for the wife, Toria.
She wanted to ask, “What kind of little things did you get your grandchildren?” She understood that he was provoking her, and that if she questioned him too closely his temper would flare. This is terrible, she thought. I start out liking him and suddenly I hate him. She was giddy for a moment.
They were coming up on Interstate 25. “Ross, let’s stop for supper.”
He looked sideways at her. “Sure, sweetheart. You hungry?” “Yes. Aren’t you? It’s after seven.”
“These pills—they make me kind of lose my appetite. But without ’em my leg throbs so bad I can’t hardly stand it.”
“I’ll drive any time.” She was in fact eager to drive. She felt as if she could regain composure that way
“That’s okay These pills are working real good right now. Sure, I’ll pull over up ahead when we get to a town.”
She was finishing her second cigarette when they crested a rise and the town blossomed before them. Ross knew his way around here, too, pulling off the arterial to a side street Basque restaurant. The lot was crowded with pickups a great deal like hers; some were even older. She relaxed. Things would look brighter after they had eaten.
Long trestle tables covered with oilcloth stretched across the center of the dining room, warm and noisy as a combine party. There appeared to be several families of at least a dozen, and one or two of almost 20 members. The men were big, with hands into which beer glasses disappeared. Older women, soft in cotton dresses, and younger ones in tight denim pants, sat together, doing their separate business while the men talked acres per animal and weather. They sat her and Ross at the end of one of these groups, across from each other. Their neighbors were just finishing. “Better have some of the ribeye,” the man sitting at Ross’s side said. He leaned back, smiled, and put a toothpick in one corner of his mouth. His belly was beginning to fall over the top of his pants. He had gold fillings and a wedding ring. On Louise’s side a woman—his wife—smiled at Louise and sipped her coffee. She wore rose colored polyester pants and a white blouse under a pink orlon cardigan. Her hair was beauty shop done in tight grey curls. She must be older than me, Louise thought. While Ross answered the husband, the wife asked her “Where you folks hail from?”
As she replied, Louise caught echoes of the other side of the dialogue: Where are you going? Are you making do? Are you holding on, do you believe in God? Why are we here?
The waitress came; the couple and their party left.
She had been adult, mother with child, when she arrived in this territory called the West twenty-five years before. The size of the country; the blank, utterly blue sky, the whole landscape so flat and air so clear natives had a joke with pilgrims: “How far do you think it is to the mountains over yonder?”; and then the savaged land, gullying where the grasses had been scalped, with tiny lifeblood settlements. Gas station. Cafe Saloon, general store, motel.
One of her first friends when she settled in the ranchhouse was a man who worked with animals, who came recommended to brand and castrate their bull calves. He and his wife put up in the bunkhouse. He worked the corral, the chutes, and when time came to get the last of the critters in, he dogied with what he called his “yellow mutt.” His wife did handicrafts-by-mail kits, one a month. When they were there she cut, sanded, glued and decorated a plant holder. She came over in the afternoons to help with supper. The man—Joe —came by and they drank whiskey one evening. Not understanding how, she found herself in a discussion of what love was. Her husband went to bed at midnight. She was drunk, but not as drunk as he was, or Joe, who held himself on his elbows as if her sideboard were a bar and all he had was the rest of his life to figure out the definition of love. She looked at his skull for the first time: it was big and round, broad at the brow. She realized how intelligent he was. His dark hair—scant at the top over straight and definite eyebrows and a hawk nose—was baby fine. She realized she loved him. He said: “You realize my wife and me, we’re Indians? Crow language has so many words for love I don’t even know all. What do you mean by love?”
She believed then in talk and tried to speak across their twenty years difference in age. It took a while and she felt humbled into another culture in a small way she could ponder. When he left he told her that he loved her and that he would never touch her.
Louise became aware again that she was sitting in the restaurant opposite Ross. He was eating slowly and carefully chewing, as if his teeth hurt. She looked through the robe of flesh at his bones. His head was long, jaw wide. His nose appeared to have been broken. Years in the weather had furrowed and wrinkled his skin to the shape of the skeleton beneath. His tall frame bent to the business of eating as if he was a young child and not in his mid-fifties. He had held her a couple of times; she knew how strong he was. She sipped wine, thinking about the night ahead. They would have to get a motel room. It was years since she had stayed at a motel. She hadn’t imagined she would be doing so with anyone but her husband. They had gone camping a lot with the children; bird hunting in the fall, temperatures in the seventies during the day and down to zero at night, eating pheasant cooked over a camp fire. In the winter, skiing; in the spring, trout-angling in snow melt streams. In the summer, county fairs, rodeos. When their father died, the children seemed to decide the family was done. If they did visit it was briefly and with ill grace; her youngest said “I hate this place” of the ranch. The fact of his death seemed to have blighted all memories, and though Louise often would have liked to speak a bit about him, even the most innocent reference pulled so much pain forth she was afraid to try Her husband had been a normal man — driving himself and all of them to the edge and sometimes over in the struggle to ranch successfully They had a normal marriage: they quarrelled, he struck her, hit their oldest, mellowed as he aged, died younger than they expected in the midst of calving season.
As they ate, the dining room emptied. There were only a few like them still eating and it became quiet except for the clash and bang of dishes from the kitchen as waitresses bussed the remains of the meal and set the room up for breakfast. Louise felt tired and lonely. “Don’t take it to heart,” Nelly had told her. “It will work out.” She noticed Ross was smiling at her: “You done, sweetheart? We better get back on the road ’fore it gets too dark to find it.”
The moon set as they pulled onto the Interstate. She offered to drive and Ross refused again to let her. She did not protest: the food and lateness of the evening made it hard for her to keep her eyes open. She calculated they would be in Casper around eleven P.M. There was very little traffic. An occasional long-haul trucker appeared in their headlights, looming as Ross overtook and passed. She worried about the rebuilt engine when he went over seventy; after a while he stopped passing and she dozed. When she woke Ross was speaking; they were in a city.
“. . . down to one-quarter. We can put a nickel’s worth in the tank and make Cheyenne in a couple of hours.”
She came suddenly awake. The lights dazzled and she had to blink. “What? Where are we?”
“Casper, honey. Have you been napping? We need to get gas. Five dollars worth will see us in Cheyenne in a couple hours.” Her temples pounded. “But I thought you had an appointment to see the doctor tomorrow at eleven here in Casper.” He turned his head and smiled. He looked tired with the lights and shadows on his face, grey-jawed. “Well that’s right sweetheart, but I suspect all he’ll do is look at it and send me to Cheyenne. I know a Doc there, connected with the Base. He’s seen me before, knows what my problem is with the dizziness. He’ll fix me up.”
She sat straight. He pulled into a gas station. Every bit of her longed to get between covers and sleep. She felt very angry and wondered why she had agreed to drive with him to the hospital. This maniac insistence on travelling over half the map of the state with a badly swollen leg, on a drug he was taking at four times the prescribed dosage, frightened and frustrated her. She did not believe the doctor in Casper would necessarily send him on; the hospital here was a good one; he had come in for treatment while he could still get around. It was common sense to find a motel, sleep and go to the arranged appointment rested and ready for treatment.
She went to the ladies’ room and washed her face. Well, what could she do about it? Should she remonstrate or submit to this new plan? Was it possible to argue with a man about whether he visited his boy, or drove an extra hundred and eighty miles because he knew the doctor? She realized he was sicker than she had thought.
Outside, the cold bit through her wool town jacket. If she had expected this kind of traveling she would have worn a heavier jacket. It was noon when they started, sunny and warm, and the trip from the ranch to Casper, while not a frequent one. never took more than three or four hours each way. Now it was almost midnight and the temperature was in the twenties, judging from the way her face felt. Coming around the corner of the building she saw Ross, limping back to the truck. She was terribly afraid. She felt she must drive now, possess the keys and pull into a motel for the rest of the night. Everything would be clearer in the morning. “Ross!” she called.
He stopped and turned, waiting for her. She came up to him. “Now it really is my turn to drive.”
He grinned. “Lou, I’m not going to wreck us. I’ll drive.” Her scalp heated. “Of course not, Ross. But you look very tired.”
He continued to grin. “Aw—I’ll do all right for a while yet. Thing is, I’m about to run out of them pills.”
“Ross, I think we should stop here for the night and go in for your appointment.”
He still grinned. “Git in the truck, woman. I’m going to drive a little longer, but I’ll find us a motel. Look for that bottle of pills, will you? I think I stuck it in the glove box.”
There was more traffic between Casper and Cheyenne, which in itself comforted Louise a little. After she found the vial of pills, counted four left and gave him only two in spite of argument, she slowly became aware that he knew this town better than she did, and was driving them past the outskirts of Casper even as she said with each motel —“there’s a nice looking place —” “Oh, I know a better one—just down the road a little bit.” He drove. The town stopped and they were in darkness again. Another town, motel lights turned off for the night. More dark and another town. She was past caring. At one point they seemed to be having an argument: she was telling him again she would drive, and he replied that he didn’t believe in letting a lady do all the hard work. She challenged him: How much hard work had she done that day, anyhow? And he replied she had been up and got him breakfast and gone with him to see the boy—that was her work. Yes, she said, but where did he get the idea she couldn’t help with the rest? To which he said his daddy gave him that idea.
In the town of Wheat lands he pulled over at a motel with the sign off. “George lives not far from here. I know these folks.”
It was almost two in the morning. The false light which reflects off high mountains even in greatest darkness turned the facade of the buildings grey as stone. The office light came on, a pool of yellow. A short bald man transacted the key. Ross returned stiff-legged: “This is a nice place. We’re overlooking the pool.” He drove around back and moved her case and his before she had a chance to notice. He opened the door; the room was enormous: a foyer with a telephone stand and beyond, a kingsize bed, curtained windows, tall lamps on fancy bedside tables. He switched on the lights and TV. and opened the curtains. The pool was empty this time of year. “Make yourself at home.
“He moved restlessly, pulling down bed covers, checking the bathroom and carrying his case in, pulling his razor and beginning to shave as she opened her case. She had brought a gown and bathrobe and change of blouse and underwear. She felt too tired to shower. As he did, she undressed. The shabbiness of her nightgown surprised her. She tried to remember when she had gotten it—perhaps ten or twelve years before. It had a satin yoke and fell straight from her breasts in heavy plum colored folds. She sat down on the enormous bed and looked at the image on the T.V. set—an old movie. Joel Mac Crea, Randolph Scott, Mariette Hartley, Colorado high country, aspens in fall gold, yes she could remember even the name of the movie: Ride the High Country.
Ross returned. “Say, that’s a nice shower, honey. Lots of hot water.” He sat to use the phone.
She showered. He was in bed when she returned, watching the movie. He said, “I never saw this one before.”
As she crawled into bed beside him, warm from the shower, she thought how comfortable it felt. This was the first time between them yet it had a familiar feeling. He was nude, muscular under fair, almost reddish skin traced with veins. He had a tattoo on his left breast, a heart with garlands. The place for the name had been entirely inked in. When she settled he put his hands on either side of her waist as if he was afraid she would get away, then ran one upwards towards her breasts. He moved his palm over her nipples. He laughed as he probed.
Towards dawn he cried out, waking her. She did not remember where she was; the shadowed room seemed completely strange. Ross groaned, moved, and yelled again. “Oh God,” he said. “Oh Jesus. Where are the fucking pills?” He seized her upper arm and held it painfully tight. She tried to think if she was the one who had put them somewhere. “The bathroom. I’ll get them.”
But he was on his feet, limping grotesquely towards the door, banging the bed, dresser, knocking one of the fancy lamps over to crash on the floor and grunting with each step. She heard him thud against the door jamb and finally the sound of the bottle being uncapped. The water ran. He was quiet for a moment; then he resumed the deep grunts she realized were the sounds of pain.
She had been rubbing her arm where he bruised it. The sounds he was making frightened her. She kept hoping they would stop, that he would calm down, lie down, let the drug work. He did not; he came limping back into the bedroom. “I can’t stand this. I got to get to Cheyenne.”
She sat up and switched on the bed lamp. The windows were black rectangles of moonless night. The room was cave like, mon functional, a place to sleep. She was very tired. “The pills will start to work in a few minutes,” she said.
He turned a maskiike face towards her, lips pulled tight, knit browed, eyes furious with energy: “I had fourteen goddamned pills when we took off yesterday. I just took the last two of them.” He limped to the telephone, dragging it roughly from the table so the receiver fell. He groaned as he bent to retrieve it, held the set in one hand and dialed with the other. “Get me a cigarette, will you, babe?” He sank onto the foot of the bed. She heard the ringing faintly as she leaned for his pack and lit one. He took it and puffed as the line answered.
“George? Ross. Buddy, I’m hurtin’. Dropped a blade on my leg a couple of days ago. Made it to Wheat lands before I had to stop, and I can’t drive, the way this damn thing is pounding.”
There was a pause. “I’m out of the goof balls, too.” George replied; she couldn’t hear the words. Then Ross. “Bullshit, I’m here at the motel in town.” He gave the name. “Get your lazy ass out of bed and get it over here.” George said more. Ross puffed cigarette smoke. “Listen, Buddy, if you ain’t over here in fifteen minutes I’m going to cut this thing off with my pocket-knife. ’You got that?” He repeated the name of the motel and jammed the receiver back on the phone. It fell to the floor with a jangle of bells. He lowered himself more carefully onto his back, threw his arm over his eyes and groaned again. “That dirty bastard, giving me a hard time after all I done for him.”
She set her feet on the floor. “I’ll drive you to Cheyenne.” The leg was so swollen it stuck out stiffly. With his trousers off she could see how bad it was. The entire area was red, but over the knee the flesh was yellow; it looked puffy, the wrinkles stretched to white lines. He moved his arm restlessly. “Naw,” he said. “You don’t want to drive to Cheyenne. I knew when we left you wasn’t going to make it all the way.” He pulled up onto one elbow. “George’U be here. He knows better.” He sat, stood and began to hobble towards the bathroom. It was clear he would be able to dress faster than she could. She heard the rustling of fabric and the thump of his beltbuckle, the clatter of change dropping. He cursed, grunted.
She continued to sit on the edge of the bed. The waxed floor had a greasy feeling and her feet were getting cold. Her head rang with self-reproaches—could she have been more generous, fallen in with the night drive toward his Cheyenne doctor friend at the Air Force Base? But why hadn’t he told her that was where he wanted to go in the first place, instead of leading a chase over half the state, visiting his son? Why had she become involved at all? He had a sister and brother-in-law within fifty miles of her place.
There were washing sounds from the bathroom, and she heard Ross cough and spit over the noise of running water. She stood and put on her robe. She had not remembered to bring slippers. Fourteen pills he had taken in as many hours. She felt annoyed by her bare feet. What was she expected to do? Pack as if she was taking off for an unexplained destination for the rest of her life every time she climbed into a vehicle with him? No questions, let the driver know when she got hungry, fall asleep in the corner of the cab when she got tired?
What stifled the reproaches and the flash of anger was understanding that she had a place of her own. This knowledge, like the resonance of a musical instrument, warmed her. She could drive home to the ranch.
There was the drone of an automotive engine; soon headlights brightened the curtains over the window front. Ross came from the bathroom carrying his case. He looked better. He had one boot on and was carrying the other. He stopped when he saw her standing there. “Oh. Ain’t you gone back to bed? Say, look, you can drive yourself home, can’t you? It’s only a couple, three hours.” He had his hat on. He looked very tall; a man proportioned to this strange cavern of a room. With his trousers on it was impossible to tell about his leg unless he moved, as he did then, setting his case on the rack by the door and catching his balance with his fingertips. “Yes, I can drive myself home,” she answered.
He looked intently at her. “Say, her ain’t mad, is her? I can’t help this damn leg.” She smiled to show she was not. Was she? No. She was relieved. There was a banging on the door.
“That must be George. Wonder how in hell he found this place so fast.” She smiled again. “Probably the only lighted window in the motel, Ross.” He grinned. ”’ You’re too smart. You must be one of those girls who knows when to come in out of a snowstorm. Why don’t you climb back in bed and shut that light off?”
He moved toward her, steadying himself by taking and holding her tightly. The brim of his hat hit as he bent to kiss her.