the true stories
Damn, it was cold! It was early summer and I had just spent a soggy night in a leaky tent. I had pitched it on the railroad right of way next to some grazing cows. At about two AM, I was startled out of my skin by the piercing headlight of a freight. It was so intense, I felt it. The whistle blew right as it got level with my tent. That was it for the night. I was soaked anyway, so I packed up and grumbled on down the road to warm up.
A few miles out of Pritchard, B.C. I started to feel better. Eventually the sun came up and burned off the chill. My spirits picked up and so did the traffic. This was day two on my journey to Africa and I was looking for a good one. As if my thoughts had been read, a green Chevy Nova pulled up to a stop just yards ahead. This meant they had intended to stop after seeing me. The ones who weren't sure came to stops much farther ahead.
My best friend in Texas had the same vehicle and we had driven it from Vancouver to Houston only a couple of years before. I had warm memories from that trip and seeing a similar machine brought them back to the surface. Just enough so, that they over-rode the fact that the car had no plates. I had noticed it right away, but instantly put it in the back of my mind as being of no importance. I wanted to ride in that green Chevy Nova.
There were two fellows in the front seat and they were going to Calgary. I said it would get me over the Rockies. I tossed my pack in the back seat and hopped in. There was a beat up alligator suitcase on the floor and two cheap sets of business clothes carefully hung on the hook above the window. The guys were approximately twenty-five years old and spoke with the gentle drawl of Alberta. They were in jeans and western shirts. The driver was a bit older and less talkative. His buddy was obviously not the brains of the pair.
I lit a smoke of some homegrown my brother-in-law had given me as a parting gift. It was sweet, mild and less intoxicating than an American beer. We sped onwards toward the pass over the Rockies. The countryside grew more and more beautiful. I had never been over this ground and was increasingly enchanted with every mile. Gordon Lightfoot came over the radio singing Alberta Bound . It was perfect.
More time passed and the fellows got less chatty. I figured they had been on the road along time. I was tired but enthralled with the scenery. The most magisterial mountains I had ever beheld stood all around. So tall, I had to crane my neck to see the tops out the window. The sun made some of the glaciers look like sherbet. The layers of different minerals formed rock rainbows. It was a special place and I was in awe.
We began the climb. Signs occasionally warned of wolves, bears, moose, cougars and reminded one not to litter. We were remote and I was in heaven. About this time the two fellows started looking at each other back and forth. This went on for a few miles without a word said. Eventually, the driver turned slightly and asked if I had a driver's license. I assured him I did.
The younger fellow turned right around facing me and said with a malignant grin, “Good. If we get stopped today, you're driving. We stole this car, asshole. Killed the owner. Got it?” His Alberta accent was gone and though I couldn't pinpoint it, I put it much further south. For the first time I noticed every crooked tooth in his rat smile. The driver was screening the rear-view to catch my reaction. He got none.
I remembered an old man I had met on a Greyhound bus late one night in Beaumont, Texas. He'd had the same suitcase as these clowns. He had asked me to join up with him. He needed a younger man to help him. His business was armed robbery for small jobs like gas stations, motels and small town banks. He'd been at it for most of his life and promised to teach me everything I needed to know. I told him I wasn't interested.
I remembered my how my father played cribbage with some of his associates from time to time. One old man was my favourite. I would sit in his lap and watch the game. He had white hair and a soft voice. He used to pull a nickle out from behind my ear and give it to me. The guys all had pistols strapped to their shoulders. One day I told my father that I really liked the old guy. My father said, “You do, eh? Guess what he does for a living?” I said I couldn't guess. “He kills people. He's a hit-man,” said my father.
I remembered riding my Stingray bike to the Italian store for comic books and candy bars. I was about nine years old. I had been riding along a concrete-lined bayou next to a big chain-link fence. A large boulevard ran to my left. I saw a two foot long, perfectly intact snake skeleton laced through the fence and I stopped immediately.
I determined that it couldn't be removed without breaking it. I was trying to decide if I could reassemble it with glue. I heard a loud screech on the boulevard just ahead. I whipped my head around to see if I was going to be hit by a car. I saw two cars. One had pulled in front of the other and diagonally cut it off. It was a big black car. The other car was smaller and the colour made no impression on me.
What made an impression on me was the two men in black clothes and white shirts at the driver's side of the smaller car. They jerked the door open, hauled the driver out by his neck-tie and bent over him for about two minutes. They went back to their car carrying something in a handkerchief. They burned rubber out of there. I saw the blood on the pavement when the man in the smaller car righted himself and took off. The whole process had taken under five minutes.
These memories fled and now I became very angry. I had broke camp in a rush and hadn't strapped my knife on. It was in my pack. I sat silent. My eyes pointed directly to the rear-view mirror and I opened two tunnels into my soul. One connected to a battlefield in Tyler, Texas and one to a beach in England where a dragon ship lay at anchor. I softly unzipped my pack and put the blade in easy reach.
I had my life savings around my neck and had vowed it wouldn't be removed if I breathed. The car sped on. I bored holes in the rear-view. The driver said, “We're going to rob your ass up ahead.” The other fellow cackled. Calculations went on rapidly through my mind. Did they have a pistol or two? Did they have a rifle in the trunk? Would they frog-march me out to the trees?
One was going to join me in the hereafter, at least. There was a slim chance of getting control of both of them but it needed me to act first. The vehicle was moving fast on this particular piece of road and I didn't relish the thought of a crash. I hadn't seen a weapon and these guys might have been practical jokers. When you are walking in snake country, the fact you didn't see one yet is no reason to let down your guard.
I wasn't amused. The driver and his side-kick talked about crimes they had or hadn't committed. Every time the eyes of the driver glanced up at the rear-view, they were met by mine, cold as a lobster's. I had spoken no other word since saying I possessed a driver's license.
The minutes wore on like hours my new friends got quiet. Now the driver kept looking every few seconds into my eyes. I sat myself dead centre directly behind the mirror. I felt the atmosphere change. I stared straight ahead and spoke not a word. We happened upon a rest stop way up near the pass. There were a few cars pulled over and a variety of people milling around. There were some vending machines. The perfect place to escape?
Our car stopped. The driver said, “We were just joking, man. You want a Coke?” I said nothing. Sidekick went out to get a few bags of chips and some drinks. I stared at the rear-view. He returned and dropped a few bags of potato chips on the front seat. He got in and offered me one. I stared in the rear-view. We resumed our journey.
Soon we were running downhill. My ears popped with the decrease in altitude. None of us had spoken since the rest stop. Before long, the prairie lay on front of us. The driver went into Calgary. It was getting twilight. Every time he looked in his rear-view our eyes met. Sidekick started to fidget in his seat and appeared to be under some stress. I was offered a drop-off anywhere in town I chose.
For the first time since the drama began, I spoke. “Can't stay in town. Got to be outside of the city limits,” I said. I was driven to a nice little place called Eagle Lake, miles out of their way. The fellows seemed mighty relieved to be rid of me. The car u-turned and I watched the tail lights speed off for Calgary. I made a fire, had some soup and bunked down for the night. I pitied the fools. Some things are not funny. Especially when you don't know a person well.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.