November 27, 1986: Lick and Al in Camp
Lick looked around. There wasn't nobody there. Of course there wasn't nobody there. Just him and the old man on a winter camp somewhere north of the Nevada line in the wilds of Owyhee County.
The camp was a twenty-year-old, sixty-five-foot single-wide New Moon house trailer that the company had pulled out here in the middle of a piece of high desert called Pandora's Thumb. Good enough for two cowboys to bach and take care of four hundred cows on winter range.
The old man had a car. An old four-door Ford sedan that hadn't had a current emissions sticker in ten years and seldom ran without tinkering. The ranch manager brought them groceries every Wednesday from Bruneau, Idaho, a good two-hour drive. No phone, no fax, no electricity. No Kwik Chek, Wal-Mart, Denny's, Backyard Burger, Pizza Hut, roping arena, therapist, or tanning salon. No contact with the outside world except that weekly visit.
"What's the matter with you, Al? Ain't nobody here."
"Git my gun, kid. I think they're fixin' to overrun the bunker! Them Huns kin sure fight. I know. I've played cards with 'em. Drunk their whiskey, danced their women, and done their polka. And kid"—Al lifted his head conspiratorily—"I never did like beer. Took too long to git drunk. Like enterin' the Dixie 500 in a Ford Pinto. Ya spend all yer time just gettin' there.
"Did I ever tellya 'bout the time I shot down one of our own planes?" Al paused. A curtain pulled over his eyes. The old man's head crashed back onto the bunk and within five breaths he was snoring like a diesel.
Lincoln Delgado Davis, or Lick, as he was known, was a long way from his college degree, his failed marriage, and his fizzled attempt at rodeo. Thirty-four, single, and beholden to no one, he was ambivalent about his future. The word "career" wasn't part of his vocabulary. He'd signed on with this outfit because he wanted to do some ranch cowboyin'. He'd spent time in feedlots and figgered this would be different. It was.
Bein' stuck with the old man wasn't so bad. In the two months they'd been together, first at the headquarters and now here, the old man had been through several hallucinatory spells like tonight. Wuddn't no big deal. Lick didn't know exactly how old the old man was. He was cagey about tellin'. Maybe he didn't know himself, but Lick assumed he was long past retirement age.
One thing for sure, he did look old. Al's gray hair was thin and about gone on top. His bare head had probably seen less sun than a Carlsbad Caverns bat. In the facial latitudes south of his hat brim his skin was as soft and supple as a welding glove. Years of toasting his ups and downs had left a road map of broken veins across his rosy cheeks and nose.
His eyes were faded blue and his fighting weight, which he claimed to have maintained since coming of age, was 146. We can assume that was fully dressed. He stood five foot eight when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943. Out of kindness, one might characterize him as wiry, maybe spry. In the cowboy vernacular, he was just a pore doer.
Lick drew the covers up around the old man, turned down the propane lamp, and clanked into the kitchen. The wind whistled through the window edges where the duct tape had come loose. He put on his hat, coat, and gloves and headed out the back door to do the nightly check on the dogs and the horses. October had been mild. Fifty degrees during the day, twenties at night. But yesterday November had kicked Indian summer in the butt with a cold front that brought out the long johns. Low bruised clouds, sleet scraped off God's windshield, and wind that penetrated like taco grease on a cheap paper plate.
Lick looked up at the ugly night sky. The dogs were curled underneath the trailer on the leeward side where the skirt was broken. Gonna be nasty tomorrow, he thought to himself, but so what, I ain't goin' nowhere. He checked the two saddle horses standin' hipshot and dozin' up against the windbreak. They had three more horses in a fifty-acre trap down by the creek. Brownie and Bill, the old man's dogs, came sniffin' outta their hole beneath the trailer to help Lick make his rounds. He chopped a little ice in the horse tank with a short post and stood with his back to the wind, lookin' east. I been worse, thought Lick. I been worse.
A shot rang out! And it could dang sure ring out where the nearest neighbor was twenty-two miles away. The initial blast was followed by four more rounds. Lick raced back to the trailer.
"I think I got one of 'em!" the old man said as he stood in the doorway, obviously revived from his alcohol-induced blackout. He held a smoking .30-30 in his hands. "Rustlers, I reckon, or car thieves," he said.
Lick looked at the old faded turquoise Ford with renewed interest. It still sat like a tilted tombstone on the flat front tire. He thought he noticed a new bullet hole in the front fender.
"How 'bout some coffee, Al," suggested Lick.
The old man levered out a spent shell and pulled the trigger. The hammer fell on the empty chamber. "Might as well," he said. "I'm outta bullets."
"Don't forget the Milnot," reminded the old man when they were back in the kitchen.
Lick dug a can of evaporated milk out of the fridge door. "Got it right here." The fact that it was Pet milk and not Milnot never caused a problem. They sat at the Formica table with its sixties-modern aluminum tubular legs.
"Ya know, kid, I been thinkin'. Maybe I oughta go see some of my old friends. My old rodeo buddies, some of them fellers I cowboyed with. I used to ride bulls. It's a fact. I never won Pendleton or Calgary, nuthin' like that, but I had some good rides.
"Anyway, I ain't married to this oufit, although they've always treated me good. But I've got a sister somewhere. Washington, maybe, or Wisconsin, one of them 'W' states, I can't remember. But maybe I should just pop in and surprise her. I ain't seen her for twenty or thirty years. And I reckon I oughta do it 'fore I git too dang old to travel. Hell, you could go with me. I could be your guide. I got a little money, ya know. Lewis has been puttin' half my paycheck in a bank for me ever' month for however long I been here. Fifteen years, I think. Or twenty, or maybe it's fourteen. Anyway, it's a bunch."
Lick leaned back and let the old man talk. He himself was makin' eight hundred and fifty bucks a month plus board, food and horses furnished. He figured the old man to be making more. Maybe over a thousand. Lewis Ola, the ranch manager, always officially treated the old man like he was in charge. Lick did what he could to help and didn't worry about it.
He pried off his boots and propped his feet up on the extra kitchen chair. The winter wind and extended exposure had given his olive skin a sculptured look. He needed a haircut again. His thick black hair and his coloring were a gift from his Spanish grandfather on his mother's side. The heavy black moustache showed no gray but was looking ratty. He was an inch taller than the old man and twenty pounds heavier. He relaxed and tuned out the old man's ramblings.
Last payday they'd taken the old Ford and driven to Elko, Nevada, three hours to the south. The old man told him he'd gone to Elko every payday, once a month, since long before Lick had come on board. "Like 'clarkwork,'" he'd said, "if the car's runnin'."
Lick had spent his last ten years on the rodeo circuit, so he'd had plenty of harrowing experiences on the road. He was better prepared than most, but he did get his eyebrows raised more than once riding in that old car with the old man driving. He found himself with his hands pressed against the dashboard more times than he could count. The track out to the highway was nothing but ruts and boulders for the first four miles. It had taken an hour. The next three or four miles wound through several hairpin curves and drop-offs before it leveled out and continued fifteen miles onto the blacktop.
Lewis always paid the old man the unbanked half of his check in cash. When they arrived in Elko, Lick cashed his check at the bank. The old man went directly to the Stockmen's Casino bar. Lick did a little shopping and a lot of looking at Capriola Saddlery. An hour later, he wandered into the Stockmen's looking for the old man. He wasn't hard to find. He was leaned against the bar in conversation with another cowboy and a woman.
"Hey, kid," barked the old man. "You need a drink!" It wasn't a question. He turned to the barkeep. "A whiskey and water for the kid and another for me and my friends."
Lick glanced at his watch. It read 1:00 p.m. Which meant it was noon, Nevada time. For the next three days they only left the bar to play blackjack, eat the occasional scrambled egg, and venture across the railroad tracks. The old man would drink till he got tired. There was a corner booth with a padded bench where they'd lay him down sometimes. On at least two occasions Lick and Al slept in the car.
On the fourth morning, the old man reached over from the backseat and shook Lick awake. "Kid," he said, "I reckon we'd better head back, I'm outta money. I hope you got enough to get gas."
The old man pushed his chair back from the table. The scraping of chair legs on the floor brought Lick back to the present.
"Time for a little shut-eye, kid. I done checked the horses."
From the Hardcover edition.