the true stories
I woke up early that morning at Eagle Lake, Alberta. It had been a trying day prior and though I had slept and dined well, I was soaked with dew and began to walk fast to warm up and dry out. Not long after warming up, I started thumbing a ride. There was no traffic yet coming out of Calgary on the Trans-Canada. The Rockies lay behind me and the prairies lay in front. You could feel something different with every step.
I saw a car at last. As it approached at drag-strip speed I made it out to be a Dodge Charger. It was sun-faded gold and so worn was the paint as to be like primer. It skittered to an ugly stop a good hundred yards ahead. I stood wondering if I should waste the energy to run the distance before they changed their mind or just keep walking. Then the car started to back up. It accelerated to a crazy speed and waffled all over the shoulder until the distance was exactly halved.
A guy got out and leaned against the driver's side door. As I approached he looked me up and down. I thought that this was a good sign. After the experience of day before, I vowed to scrutinize the drivers and walk away if I didn't like their look. Here was a driver doing the same before taking a passenger. Ladies, of course, were exempt from this directive. I got close enough to see him.
We wore the same jeans, the same jean shirts, the same style hiking boots, the same style western belt and we each had the same size K-BAR camping knives in the same kind of oak-leaf decorated leather sheaths strapped to our belts on the same side of our bodies. The only difference was our hats. We were approximately the same height and weight. We both had long hair, his black and mine brown.
After we were a few feet apart, he slapped his leg and said his name was Larry. He shook my hand and said that he wouldn't hurt me if I wouldn't hurt him. I concurred and climbed in. He gunned the 4 barrel Holly Carb and spewed gravel in a crescent until the tires grabbed tarmac and pressed us both deep into the leather seats. He handed me a beer after chucking his last empty into the pile in the back seat.
He was intelligent, lively, funny, friendly and hopelessly pissed to the gills. He said he was on the way to Kenora to go fishing on his brother's very own island in the lake. After a few beers, he offered to take me along as a token Cherokee to hang with his Cree people. I need only pay for half the gas. I was heading to Africa, so I decided that this would be a good idea with so much summer still ahead. It was a done deal!
Larry drank and drove and asked a lot from the car, as racy as it was. I was happy to get so far so fast in such good company. The road was empty of cops and other cars and endless miles of pancake-flat prairie gave the illusion that 120 miles per hour was standing still. The tape-deck cranked out song after song and it turned out we shared the same musical taste. It was a good day and we both knew it.
After some time, Larry finally fell asleep and the car simply veered smoothly off the road, across the shoulder and into a recently cropped field. The stubble slowed us down after a few hundred yards and we came to a gentle stop. Larry's foot had fortunately come off the chrome pedal but he maintained a tight grip on the wheel until he woke up.
He giggled, asked me to drive and decided to sleep awhile. He explained that he had come all the way from Vancouver Island. He had only stopped to gas up, eat and to pick up me. As I took the pilot's seat, he warned me to watch the oil pressure gauge closely. He expected some engine trouble at some point and didn't want to ruin the engine. I promised to keep a weather eye. He then told me to step on it as he needed to get home ASAP.
I did as directed. We were getting down the road in style when it happened. On the instrument panel came the red light for the oil pressure. The gauge needle showed a precipitous drop in pressure. I backed off the gas and slowed to a stop to wake Larry. In front I could see the town of Medicine Hat maybe ten minutes away.
“Ye little snakes,” he said as he took the wheel. After determining it would be OK to limp in to town he drove up to a cafe. We got out to eat. We talked of fathers. His had been murdered in Missouri by a new young wife. She had taken the trouble to have the man change his will in her favor before hiring a hit man. Larry and his brother had gone down south to claim the body.
I told how my father had been found shot in the head in the forest south of Pemberton. It was written up as suicide but had many details about it that pointed to another explanation. I went over to the juke box. I have had a game all my life I call “jukomancy.” Whenever I am in the presence of a juke, I play the track L-17. I don't look at the titles. No matter what it turns out to be, it is always instructive. I put in the coins and punched it up.
The Allman Brothers Band song, Whipping Post came on. We looked at each other and ordered more coffee. We both started playing air guitar in the red leather booth. We both laughed and we both knew it was the only alternative left to us. Larry didn't seem overly concerned about the car as he already knew what needed to be fixed. He was, however very adamant to get back to Kenora quick.
I now felt a strong pull back to the road. It was as if our two fates combined weren't going to come to a happy end. He felt it also. I paid him for the gas and he bought my breakfast. I had lots of daylight left and was anxious to clear town. I wished him a good trip and a speedy return home. He said he wanted me to promise him something.
I asked what that might be. He said I must promise not to hitch-hike in Saskatchewan. He said everywhere else was fine, but not there. Not this time. He looked me dead in the eye and his voice was as serious as I had heard all day. I sat back down. I promised him. This done, I felt I was entitled to some kind of explanation. He said he didn't want me to meet Peetie Wheatstraw. I looked for the hint of a joke and realized he was sincere.
I asked who that was. Larry said it wasn't a particular person, but the name of a “meanness.” I had heard my Texas grandmother use the same term when referring to evil people and wicked deeds. It lives in vast open places and is carried on wind. I said to give an example. With no hesitation, as if he was re-telling an event that had already happened, Larry said a guy is hitch-hiking in the prairie. Miles from nowhere. A truck pulls over and invites the hiker into the bed. Peetie Wheatstraw is driving and he may have some friends with him.
The truck has furry dice hanging from the rear-view mirror and a big roll-bar over the cab. A few miles onto the way, Peetie pulls off the highway and heads out across a pancake-flat field. He starts cutting donuts to warm up. The hiker tries to secure his pack and his person. The crew are strapped in with strong belts and cross-harnesses. Peetie now speeds up and purposely rolls the truck. Its a dice throw how it comes out for the hiker. He may be killed, he may be injured. He is miles from nowhere and Peetie is in control.
Larry looked up and to his right as he spoke this and then looked straight at me and said, “Peetie is usually a white guy. An Indian Peetie would just stick a knife in a guy and take his gear.”
I rose to go. I turned and asked him why he had to be back so quick to Kenora. He, for the first time mentioned that he was married and had two sons. I told for the first time that I was newly separated from my wife. He said he had had a big fight with his wife. She had gone to a relatives house. He had driven out to Vancouver Island in a rage. He was heading to his brother's place when he picked me up. Now he was cooled off and he wanted to patch things up. He said the awful rush was on account of a letter he'd left on the kitchen table. “Ye little snakes! If she reads it, I'm single. Mike, you can't run away from anything.”
Listen to the track L-17
Copyright © 2015 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.