LAST SEEN HEADING NORTH
Joseph S. Walker
The man on the bed was in his thirties, fit, Hispanic, dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans. His worn athletic shoes were on the floor. The ugly purple knot on his forehead pushed his right eye tightly closed, like a child feigning sleep, but he was not faking. His sleep was deep and still, undisturbed by snoring or restless tossing.
Oakley sat in a wooden chair in the corner, his legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankle. His hands were folded across his stomach. On the table at his elbow was a gun, a slick black thing that seemed more plastic than metal. He missed the revolvers he had carried for the first fifty years of his life. His sons had convinced him to make the switch to something lighter, easier to handle.
Every twenty or thirty minutes one of his sons came to the door and looked through the crack and each time Oakley shook his head. The Hispanic man was still asleep.
This was Oakley’s bedroom but he probably didn’t spend more than twenty waking minutes a day here. Sitting in the chair he never used, he let his eyes drift across the space, seeing it fresh. On the far wall, between the bathroom and closet doors, was a painting of a single pine tree on an otherwise barren and snowy mountainside. Oakley couldn’t remember where it had come from or how long it had hung in that spot. It was possible it had been hanging there when this room had belonged to his parents.
The man on the bed groaned.
There was another groan and then the man reached up and explored his face, probing gently at the right side of his forehead. He rolled onto his side and opened his eyes and saw Oakley.
Oakley nodded at the night table. “Water and aspirin there.”
The Hispanic man’s jaw worked slowly. He stared at Oakley and then around the room, the paneling, the ancient light fixture. His gaze came last to the table and he shifted his weight to pick up the white pills and swallow them and guzzle down half the glass of water, ending with a shuddering cough. He blinked and looked at Oakley and rubbed the back of a hand across his mouth. “Bathroom?” he asked.
“Behind you,” Oakley said. “Door on the left.”
The man started to swing his feet to the floor and Oakley held up a hand to stop him, letting his other hand come to rest on top of the gun and making sure the man saw it. “Be obliged if you’d get out the far side,” he said.
The Hispanic man rolled back the other way. He pushed himself to his feet, stumbled just a little, and moved slowly to the bathroom door. It closed behind him. Oakley looked at William hovering in the hallway.
“Get the food going,” Oakley said.
The Hispanic man was in the bathroom for fifteen or twenty minutes. When he came out his hair had been wet and slicked back from his forehead and his eyes were more focused, though the right one was still swollen half shut. He leaned against the doorframe and rubbed his face, seeming to gauge the stubble. Oakley watched him.
“Where am I?” the man asked.
“My ranch,” Oakley said. “Southwest Wyoming.”
“Christ,” the man said. He had no accent Oakley could discern. “Last thing I remember was a road sign for Salt Lake City.”
“Coming from where?” Oakley asked.
The man hesitated a beat. “L.A.”
“If you were headed for Salt Lake you missed. It’s a couple hundred miles back.”
“Wasn’t trying to go there. It’s just the last thing I remember.” He pushed himself off the doorframe. “Maybe I better sit some more.”
He went to the bed and sat. Leaning across the taut bedspread he picked up the glass and finished the water and rubbed his face again. The hand with the glass fell against his thigh and he leaned back against the headboard. “So what happened?” he asked.
“Suppose you tell me.”
The man shook his head. “Last thing I remember was being on the road. I was getting tired. I suppose I should have pulled over.”
“I’d say so,” Oakley said. “One of my boys found you off the side of a little dirt road that runs through the ranch. Looked like you’d blown a tire and run off the side and clipped a tree, which accounts for that bump on your head. He towed you in.”
The man closed his eyes. “So my car’s here.”
“It is,” Oakley said. “Complete with California plates, no registration, and a whole mess of empty soda cans and fast food bags. And then there’s the automatic in the glove compartment with the fifty thousand in banded hundreds.”
The man had gotten very still. “Call the cops?”
“Well, sir.” Oakley moved for the first time, pulling himself into a more upright position and getting his feet flat on the floor. “We’re not exactly on speaking terms with the local law these days. Got ourselves a bit of a land dispute.”
“Government trying to charge me to use land my family was grazing before this was a state,” Oakley said. “They been fixing to arrest me for a few months now.”
“Never known a cop to wait that long.”
“We got guns here,” Oakley said. “Chickenshits don’t want headlines.”
The man barked a short laugh. He rolled his head to look at Oakley. “So no cops. No doctor either?” He gestured at his forehead.
Oakley shrugged. “We get used to taking care of our own out here. I’ve been hurt worse than that getting out of bed too quick. You’ll be fine.” He stood up. “Getting dinner ready in the other room. Good meal will have you on your feet.” He picked up the gun and put it in the little nylon holster on his belt. “And ready to go.”
The man sighed. With an effort he pushed himself to his feet. “I thought we’d get to that.”
The two men looked at each other across the room.
“Can’t have you here,” Oakley said. “Couple of the boys have convinced themselves you’re some kind of undercover FBI agent or some damn thing. Either way I won’t keep a man I don’t know under my roof right now.”
“I understand,” the man said. “I’m grateful for what you have done, Mr.—“
“Mr. Oakley.” The man came slowly around the end of the bed. “Call me Roberto.”
They sat at a long table in a big room where the windows were all covered with blackout curtains. There was an ancient gun rack at one end of the room that had obviously been designed for hunting rifles. Now it held ugly black assault weapons that Roberto could tell were loaded. Mounted antelope and bison heads looked down on them.
Oakley sat at the head of the table, with Roberto at his left hand and two of his sons, introduced as William and Todd, at his right. There was room at the table for a dozen more but it was just the four of them. Two women, both sturdy, both silent, brought in plates of food and pitchers of water. Once everything was on the table the women turned and left. They’d never said a word. A door closed behind them.
Roberto looked at the sons. “Your wives? They won’t be joining us?”
“They’ve already eaten,” said the younger one, Todd. Looking at the three men together was like looking at one man in three different years of his life. You could see that Todd would look like William in ten years, like Oakley in thirty.
“Shame,” Roberto said. The men, he saw, were waiting for him. There was a steak on his plate, with mashed potatoes and some greens he didn’t recognize. He picked up his knife and fork and began to cut.
A door behind the sons cracked open and a head poked through. A boy, nine or ten years old, his eyes wide. Todd half turned and said “Boy—“ and the head darted back as the door slammed shut.
“Children are curious,” Roberto said.
“They don’t see new folks often,” William said. “We’ve had to take them out of school.”
“Don’t ask how many there are,” Todd said. He was pushing his food around on his plate.
“Todd,” Oakley said, quiet. The younger man looked at the table and shook his head. Oakley had poured himself a glass of water but took no food.
“Take no offense,” William said. “We don’t know anything about you and we’re in no position to trust.”
“I’m in no position to expect trust,” Roberto said.
“No ID on you,” Todd said. “No registration in the car.”
“Looks bad,” Roberto agreed. He took a second cut of meat. He felt like this was the first real food he’d had in days. Weeks.
“Then there’s the gun and money,” William said. He leaned forward. “I’ll be honest with you, Mr. Roberto.”
Roberto waved his fork. “Just Roberto, please,” he said.
“What does it matter? Not your real name anyway.”
“Call yourself what you will. Like I said, I’ll be honest. There’s lots of people in this part of the country who would have just taken your money and run you and your car into a ravine where nobody would find you this century.”
“You got lucky,” Todd said. “We try to be decent people.”
“I’m grateful,” Roberto said.
Oakley sipped from his glass and watched. The massive chair he sat in had been made by his grandfather more than six decades ago. Almost everything of substance he could see in every direction had been made by someone whose blood was in him.
“You haven’t asked about the money,” William said.
Roberto put his hands flat on the table. “There’s nothing to ask,” he said. “There are at least three of you and only one of me. You will do what you want with the money.”
“We’re not thieves,” Todd said.
“Are you a thief, Roberto?” William asked.
Roberto leaned back in his chair. He looked at Oakley. The older man looked back at him.
“I’m a lucky man,” Roberto said. “As you have pointed out.” He shrugged. “And maybe you are lucky too.”
“How so?” Oakley asked.
“Lucky you didn’t call the law,” Roberto said. “Because there are men looking for me, you understand? Men who would hear if that car was reported found. And they would come here, many of them, and they would bring guns, long guns, many guns. And they would not be afraid of headlines, or of cowboys, or of shooting women and children.”
There was a long silence. Oakley and Roberto stared at each other. In distant parts of the house doors opened and closed, floors creaked. Roberto couldn’t begin to guess how many people were here.
“Sounds kind of like a threat,” Todd said.
“It’s not a threat,” Oakley said. “Where are you trying to get to, Roberto?”
“Away,” Roberto said. “I’ve just been tracking north and east. Changing to smaller roads when I see a chance.”
“Might want to stick to pavement,” William said. “Road I found you on ain’t much more than a footpath. Without four wheel drive you weren’t gonna make it much further anyway.”
“Canada?” Oakley asked.
“Maybe,” Roberto said. “Border worries me.”
“”Head for Montana,” Oakley said. “Plenty of crossing places nobody ever pays any attention to.”
“I’ll do that.” Roberto pushed his empty plate away and wiped his face. “Good food. Kind of you.”
Oakley looked down at his hands. “I won’t send a man away hungry,” he said. “Not even now.”
“That’s more than most men can say.”
“Todd,” Oakley said without looking up. “Go tell Freddie to bring the car around. William, give Roberto his money.”
Oakley’s sons stood. Todd left the room while William went to the gun rack and pulled a fat manila envelope from the ammunition drawer. He brought it back and held it out to Roberto, who stood and folded it in half and stuck it in a hip pocket.
“Not gonna count it?” William asked.
Roberto shook his head. “If you were going to rob me, you would have killed me.”
Oakley unfolded himself from the chair. “Let’s get you moving.”
The three men walked out the front door of the ranch house into the darkest night Roberto had ever seen. It was just past ten and there were no lights on the outside of the house. With the blackout curtains up you could almost walk right past the place and never know it was there. The air was cold and clean, carrying with it the hundreds of miles of emptiness on every side. Roberto wished it wasn’t overcast. He would have liked to have seen how many stars filled Oakley’s sky.
There was a sudden spilling of light from off to the left as a big garage door swung open on an outbuilding. Roberto’s car, a long red Cadillac thirty years past being new, came out of the door, followed closely by a massive black pickup truck. The two vehicles came across the grounds and pulled to a stop in front of the porch, making islands of light in front of the invisible house.
A young man got out of the Caddy. In ten years he would be Todd’s double. He walked around the front of the car and stood in front of Roberto and Oakley. “Patched the tire,” he said. “Should hold up fine until you can get a new set. There’s a dent on the front fender but no real damage. This thing is a tank.”
“Thank you, Freddie. Get on back to your chores,” Oakley said. The young man turned and walked off without another word.
“Thanks, Freddie,” Roberto called after him. The young man lifted a hand without looking back.
Oakley walked down the porch steps and ran his hand along the side of the Caddy. “Hell of a car to try to go unnoticed in,” he said.
“I know I should get rid of it,” Roberto said. He came down the steps, his hands in his pockets. “When I was a boy, Mr. Oakley, I idolized a professional wrestler, a fighter who called himself the California Terror.” He said the name the way Oakley had heard some preachers speak of the Lord. “Every Saturday morning I would watch him on TV.” Roberto pulled his hands from his pockets and dropped into a credible grappling stance. “You’d better believe I’m coming to that ring, Santos!” His voice had become half a bellow, half a growl. “The California Terror fears no man! The California Terror makes the ground quake and grown men shake! And when I ride down Rodeo Drive in my giant red Cadillac full of women and money, ain’t a man alive don’t wish he was the California Terror!”
William, still up on the porch, snorted. Oakley had the faintest twitch of a smile as Roberto laughed and straightened back up. “So you decided someday you were gonna have yourself a giant red Cadillac.”
“I surely did,” Roberto said. He patted the hood of the car. “Years later I saw that the Terror was going to be signing autographs at a card shop. Couldn’t resist going. So I was walking down the street a couple blocks away from the place and I walked past a big old red Caddy parked at the curb.” He was talking so quietly now that William probably couldn’t hear him. “Rusted out piece of junk. The Terror was asleep in the back seat on top of a mess of yellow old newspapers.” He shrugged. “I just walked away, man. Couldn’t take it.”
“Time,” Oakley said. It seemed like the start of something longer but he just stopped.
“Well,” Roberto said. He pulled the envelope from his pocket. “I’d like to give you something, Mr. Oakley. For the tire, the food. Your family’s hospitality.”
Oakley shook his head. “Wouldn’t be hospitality if you paid me,” he said.
Roberto nodded. “I thought as much.”
Oakley pointed into the darkness with his chin. “Driveway’s about half a mile long,” he said. “Get to the road you’ll want to turn right to be headed north. It’s a better road then the one you crashed on.” He gestured at the truck. “Todd’ll follow you until you get to the boundary of the ranch. About twenty miles on. Your gun is in your glove compartment but the ammo is under the spare tire in your trunk.”
“All right,” Roberto said. “I’ll retrieve it after Todd leaves me.”
“Appreciate that,” Oakley said. He put out his hand. “Safe travels, Roberto.”
Roberto shook his hand. “Safe travels, Mr. Oakley,” he said. He turned and opened the door of the car and climbed in. He wasn’t surprised to see that all the trash that had been in the car was gone. He rolled down the window.
“Mr. Oakley,” he said. “I pray God neither of us is in the news anytime soon.” Without waiting for a reply he put the car in gear and pulled away. The truck followed.
In a few minutes the two pairs of taillights had faded from view and the night closed in, once again absolute.
“That’s that, then,” said William’s voice in the dark.
“That’s that,” Oakley said.