Wrong Man, Wrong Road, Wrong Country
January 21, 2013
The old man fled the depression of the northland and headed west, hoping to find his utopia just beyond the gritty apron of the next sandstorm. He wasn’t looking for much, just a chance, and it had been an awful long time since he had one of those. Anything, he decided, would be better than the miseries he had left behind in the soup lines of Detroit.
West Texas stretched out before him like a bad case of indigestion. The old man wasn’t used to the wide open spaces, and they made him feel as lonesome as he was hungry. He was being swallowed up by an empty land, the road rolled endlessly before him, and the old man drove for miles and miles and saw nothing but miles and miles.
It was late in July when the old man eased through the badlands and pulled up onto the Caprock. It was high ground. It was still flat. And he stopped at the small café that hugged the highway as it cut through Dickins.
The old man walked inside, sweat dripping from his armpits and his shirt looking very much as though it had been slept in, which it had.
A rancher, sitting alone on the counter stool, smiled and nodded as the old man sat down. He was familiar with people just passing through. Almost everyone was. Nobody ever came to stay very long in Dickins, Texas. That’s why the rancher was surprised when the old man asked, “What kind of chance does a man have getting work out here?”
“Depends on what you want to do.”
“I’ll do anything.”
He wasn’t proud. A man’s never proud when his stomach is growling, and he’s too old to learn another trade and sorry because he didn’t learn one back when he had the opportunity but not the gumption.
Besides, he had seen something in Dickins that made him want to stay a while. Primarily what he saw was the needle on his gas gauge flirting with empty.
“Ever worked on a ranch?”
“Ever been around cows much?” asked the rancher.
“I’ve never been around a steak,” the old man said.
The rancher reached over and picked up the old man’s hands. They were scarred and creased with dirt that time and hard work had ground deep into his skin. The calluses were hard and yellow.
“I can use you,” the rancher said.
“You don’t even know my name.”
“Your hands tell me a lot more about you than your name ever could,” the rancher said as he slipped off the stool and tossed a dollar bill onto the counter to pay for both cups of coffee.
The old man tried his best.
He really did.
But the long hours and August heat were taking their toll, and the country bothered him a great deal, and, more often than not, he felt like a foreigner in a strange land that nobody understood.
He stood at sundown and watched as a young cowboy grabbed a pickaxe and began digging into the parched earth, pulling up an armload of mesquite root for firewood.
Another hand quietly unharnessed his horses and left them grazing around the foot of a metal stock tank. The evening listened silently to the rusty voice of the windmill, creaking with despair as the soft summer breeze slapped gently against its blades.
“We used to have two windmills,” said the rancher as he smiled. “But we had to shut one of them down.”
“There just ain’t enough wind out here to keep both of ‘em running,” he said.
The cowhand picked up a pail and climbed quickly up the stock tank’s ladder to the top of the windmill tower. And he turned the great wheel with his bare hands until the fresh, clear water began pouring into his bucket.
The old man nodded toward the dry arroyo and asked, “Does it ever have any water in it?”
“Only when it rains.”
“Ever rain much?”
“I saw it rain once when I was a kid.”
“Awful dry out here.”
“It’s dry enough that we’ve got catfish wearing flea collars.”
The old man sighed and tried to grin. “What do you call it anyway?”
“Why that’s Jose Creek.” The rancher grinned. “But in this part of the world, we pronounce it Hosay.”
The old man sadly shook his head and walked away.
“Where you goin’?” the rancher asked.
“Back to Detroit.”
“I’m sorry,” mumbled the old man, “but I just can’t live in a country where you have to climb for water, dig for wood, and spell hell with a J.”
He had enough money to keep the gas gauge off empty, and he was gone.
Caleb Pirtle III is author of Wicked Little Lies. Click the book cover to read more about the novel on Amazon.