Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Chapter 6


“Let’s stop in for a quick drink. I’ll buy,” she suggested, as they passed the hotel.

      “No, Gypsy.”

      “Why not?” she said, still drunk enough that her tongue was thick in her mouth.

      Jacob pushed his straw hat back with his free hand and pinched his brow. “I’m not gonna bother answering that.”

      “One drink won’t hurt.”

      “You’ve got a concussion and luckily you threw-up three times on the way to the hospital, or they might have had to pump your stomach, too, but you’d like to go for a drink?” He swallowed. “I lost a friend of mine that way, you know. He was a helluva bull rider. Took a mean knock to the head. Thought nothing of it. We kicked back a few drinks that night, and when the morning come, he didn’t wake-up. I never knew someone like you with so much to live for and such a death wish.”

      His last words made her feel uneasy in a way she couldn’t take. Made her want a drink even more. “I’ll order orange juice or something. Drink pop.”

      “I don’t believe that for a second. You’re not hoping Cody will be there, are you?”

      Her cheeks felt hot and her insides instantly incinerated to ash. She pulled the black hat over the front of her eyes. The pressure of it hurt her head, and she had to lift it off the side of her face. “Who?”

      “Cody. You knew he was back in town, right?”

      Her guts turned. “I didn’t know, but I am so over that little jerk.”

      “That’s good. You know, it beats the hell out of me how you ever ended up with a guy like him.”

      She turned her head and stared out the window. “Can I just run in quick to talk to Paula?”

      “About what?”

      “I have to let her know that I can’t work tomorrow.”

      “I thought you hated waitressing.”

      “I do.”

      “You need money for something?”

      “No. It’s not that.”

      He pulled the truck to a stop, as the light turned red. “You weren’t going to waitress were you?”

      “No.”

      “So, you’re going back to taking your kit off? Guess you didn’t plan on helping me fence tomorrow, huh?” He cleared his throat. “I’ve told you before; I’d sure appreciate it if you stuck around for the winter to give me a hand. You’ve got lots of choices kid.” He rubbed his jaw. “When were you planning to tell me?”

      “I don’t know.” Her hand felt for the door. She thought about opening it to jump out, but the light turned green and Jacob pressed his foot down on the gas, driving through the intersection.

      “So, you thinking about going back for good?”

      She nodded her head. Not as an indication that she had made up her mind, but more as a challenge to him to ask her one more time to stay. She needed to hear it again to believe it as truth.

      “When are you leaving town?”

      “I’ve got a rodeo this weekend. I thought maybe I’d get back to work a few weeks after that, if that’s alright with you. I can always stay somewhere else if you want.”

     “Why would you have to stay somewhere else?” He clapped a hand down on her thigh. “You don’t have to you know? I mean you don’t have to go back to dancing.”

      Her back straightened. “Is this the ‘you’re better than that’ speech coming? If I had a nickel for every time... I’d like to know exactly what kind of girl you guys think is the type. I love how you all try to give me that moral bullshit while you spend money on us that you should be spending on your wives and girlfriends.”

      “Whoa. Easy killer. I wasn’t going to say anything about that. And what’s this ‘you guys’ shit? You got your own way to make. I was just going to tell you, if you’ve had enough of the road, I’ve always got a hook you can rest your hat on.”

      There. He said it that one more time she needed. But she was wrong. It wasn’t enough. “Until you and Stella get all serious. Or worse, you move Cherry in,” she said.

      Jacob shook his head. “There is no way in hell I’ll be moving Cherry in. Nice girl, but definitely not marriage material. Then again, neither am I.” He turned South onto the Alaska Highway. “As for Stella, take my word for it, that’ll never be serious.”

      “You say that like you’re sure. There’s obviously something there.”

      “We’ve got a history. That’s all.”

      Gypsy slouched back into the seat. The focus was no longer on her. She could relax. “Speaking of history, what’s up with the three of you? I mean with Mr. Plait and all?”

      Jacob’s knuckles went white on the steering wheel. He pushed his foot down on the pedal and accelerated. “Mister? That man don’t deserve the distinction. Let’s just say we’ve all got a history, and leave it at that. He’s a nasty piece of work and a third rate con.”

      “Stella doesn’t seem to think so.”

      “Oh, yes she does. He’s just the only sort of family she’s ever had, so she accepts it. But she knows. You best know it, too. That man is as bad as they come. You be careful. I mean it. He ain’t some pitiful old man.” Jacob reached for his Carhartt jacket and laid it across Gypsy with his free hand. “Don’t worry about calling into the hotel. I’ll do it for you when we get home.”

      “It’s easy for you, isn’t it… to place people in categories of good and bad? Like how you think for some reason that I’m so pure. I’m not, you know? That naive little girl you see? She doesn’t exist.”

      “Sure she does,” he said, shifting gears.

      No. She doesn’t. She closed her eyes and pretended to sleep. The jacket carried the warm smell of horses and a man’s musk. It reminded her of the way her father smelled. She tucked her face into it and drank in the aroma. The cool of the window soothed her pounding head, and opening her eyes to narrow slits, she watched the lights of Fort St John recede in the rear view mirror. She couldn’t wait to see those lights fade through the window of a Greyhound bus for good.

*

At eighteen, Jake should have been filling out, if anything, and yet here he was pushing his buckle through another notch in his belt. He’d moved down three since he’d started with the Double Diamond Wild West Show. At this rate, Jake figured he’d be thinner than his bull rope by the end of the month.

      “I’m cuttin’ outta here after this town,” said a gangly kid with a large gap between his teeth. “I got folks in Upstate N.Y., and I can’t take this no more.”

      “Yeah, I reckon’ I’ll be leaving just as soon as we git a little further southwest,” said a pimply Texan who was just old enough to think he was a man, but still too young to know he wasn’t.

      A gurgling sound vibrated through the air. The cowboys laughed at the protesting stomach and the kid it belonged to, while the gap-toothed kid tried to look inconspicuous. It was pointless, and he relented, joining the other boys in a chuckle. “Heck, I shoulda left to rodeo proper with the Kaye brothers last month. I can cover a bronc just as good as any of them. If I ever get my pay, I’m going to get my own saddle, and I’ll be long gone. How ‘bout you, Jake?”

      The Texan slapped Jake on the back. “We all know why you aint gonna leave. It’s on account a Stella. If Plait ever finds out, he’ll nail your nuts to a stump and kick you over backwards. Guaranteed.”

      Jake puffed his chest. “That son-of-a-bitch aint gonna do nothin’. Stella and me are gonna be hitting the road together, just as soon as we all get paid. I’ve been on fifteen head this month, already. That’s seventy-five bucks that Beauregard owes me, so far... not countin’ the fifteen he still owes me from last month. And when I get it, we’re gettin’ hitched and I’m goin’ full bore on the rodeo circuit. No sense in ridin’ these miserable animals for five bucks a head, when I could be winnin’ a month’s pay in a go around. ”

      The Texan pushed his foot into his boot. Holes were wearing through the leather. “You ain’t likely to see much of that money,” he said. “Five bucks sounds a might steep for a ride, until you get to figurin, it don’t matter, might as well be a hundred bucks when you ain’t gonna get paid either way.”

      “There’s five of us, and only one of him. We’re all cuttin’ out anyways. All we need to do is catch him while it’s still in his hand and getting counted.” said Jake

      The gap-toothed kid tied a rope around his bedroll. “Yeah, ’cept I don’t think he bothers to count it. Hell, he’s usually drunk and waist deep in a card game before the stock even gets put up.”

      “We kin make him pay,” Jake said with confidence, patting his hip pocket where he kept his mother’s ring. “No way he’s gonna cheat me out of what’s mine. I’ve got big plans for me and Stella.”

      The Texan poked him in his boney ribs. “You figure you’re gonna cheat him out of what’s his instead?”

      A half Lakota kid who couldn’t have been older than fourteen and wasn’t much of a talker finally spoke. “We all say we’re going to leave, but who ever does? The Kaye brothers, that’s it in a year-and-a-half. At least here, we have all the stock we can ride, and we got us. I’ve seen leaner days.” He paused for a moment in thought. “But yeah,” he said, “if he don’t pay up soon, or at least feed us as good as he does the stock, I’ll be carving steaks off those bulls.”

      A baby blue Cadillac roared up on the fairground lawn, scattering the boys like seeds blown from a dandelion. The car came to a sliding stop of where they’d all camped the night before. Out of it stepped a curvy young woman in a green calico dress that fit so tight around the bodice, the seams puckered with a desperate need to let go. The wind swept her dark hair against her high cheek bones and her green eyes that almost perfectly matched her dress, embraced Jake’s briefly, before she pulled them away. “Hello, boys,” she said with the rehearsed inflections of a movie star, and the gap toothed kid turned pink. “So, who’s gonna unload the car for me? I’ve got all the fixins for biscuits and gravy, and you boys’re strartin’ to look like a bunch of starved out mules. I best be feedin’ you.”

      Her voice was thick and sweet like syrup. Jake fell over himself to open the trunk and grab as many bags as he could manage in his arms. “Oh, and I have a little somethin’ else for you boys.” She reached deep into the bosom of her dress and pulled out a thick wad of bills. “I’m to pay you all up. Beauregard beat the pants off of some Colonel who’s posted at the military college a town over. He must be loaded, ’cause he just kept goin’ all night, while Beauregard picked him clean.”

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