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.