Childhood Lost 17
Several miles up the tracks, I cut the nearest highway. Dawn was breaking to the east and by now the anesthesia of death was wearing thin. It was a cold gray morning, blood red at the edges with a discordant wind whistling madly through the wires. I hadn't had a smoke in hours, I was bone chilled, emotionally exhausted, and I'd felt nothing but empty since the old man died. I tapped out a Camel and fumbled with my lighter. The damn wind seemed determined to help me kick the habit. It blew straight on, sideways, all ways, but I finally got a light.
The first few drags, as always, lifted my spirits and turned out the lights on hunger. Counting the hours back, I realized I hadn't eaten for over a day. Hell, it didn't matter. I couldn't keep from thinking about Bo and the miserable way I'd left him, stretched out in a boxcar, cold and dead. "What should I have done?" I asked myself for the hundredth time. "Called the police?" No, I'd seen up close how those bastards worked. Between them and their friendly f__king court system, they would probably claim I killed him. They'd stick me in a cell where the accused would stand condemned, try me in a local kangaroo court where his eminence, the honorable judge so and so, would sentence me to hang by the neck forever and God, who I had reason to suspect wasn't any too fond of me anyway, would be enjoined to have mercy on what passed for my soul.
"Maybe," I mused, "I should have called in anonymously? No, that would only prove someone was with him when he died, someone they'd start looking for." In the end, I concluded that I'd done the only possible thing. Besides, no matter what I did it wouldn't change things for Bo one damned iota.
Hitchhiking was illegal in the great state of Washington of the sixties. The cops, always on the lookout for serious violations of the law, arrested hitchhikers on sight. I knew if they caught me out on this highway, whether I was thumbing or not, they'd pick me up on suspicion of violating any handy local convenience as a pretext to arrest me and find out who I was. It was wide open terrain, there were no trees to hide behind and it was broad daylight. I didn't have a lot of choices.
A great moral axiom I'd learned at church now stood me in good stead. If they're going to blame you for something anyway, you might just as well do it.
I'd never thumbed a ride before. It seemed like a demeaning way to travel, but the highway had no end that I could see. Having no better sense than to thumb everything that rolled, I even tried a long haul trucker. He pulled over and waved me aboard.
His name was Bill Callahan, he said, as he shifted smoothly through a maze of gears. He was heading home to Missoula after a two week run to Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington. He had one last stop to make in Spokane and figured to be home in Montana by evening. And what in hell was a child like me doing out on the highway in the middle of nowhere this early in the morning, he wanted to know? I told him the truth as it affected me, not as it might have been interpreted in the self serving language of church or state.
Keyed up as I was, the words poured out in a tangle of emotion rather than the crisp, evasive recital I always strove for. My mother and father were dead, killed one morning on the way to church; only I had survived. Since I had no family worth mentioning, I'd been placed in a state run orphanage. Conditions there were horrible and I ran away. The cops were probably looking for me now; I had no idea where I was going or what I was going do when I got there.
Bill took a few moments to formulate a response, as if searching for just the right words. When he found them they were sincere. "I'm sorry kid," he said quietly. "What a hell of a way to start your life." The compassion of a stranger was unexpected. I had no time to prepare for or guard against it. I started crying and couldn't stop. It was as if I'd been running flat out from loss, stress, loneliness; from the hell of life itself, and for some damned reason, they'd all caught up with me at once.
I wiped my eyes and took solace in a hastily lit Camel. "I'm okay, Bill. I just have to figure out what I'm going to do next. What would you do if you were me?" I asked quizzically.
"In this day and age, I don't know, kid." he replied. "I run away from home in the late forties. Time's were different then. People in them days cared more for each other. A guy could get a ride one hell of a lot quicker then and hard work was easy to find. I guess if I were you, I'd head up to eastern Montana, to the high plains. There's a lot of cattle ranches up there. I'd try to land a job on one of those." He paused for a moment then added, "That's where I run away to when I was a kid. I learned a bunch on the ranch I worked at. Learned how to ride and rope, milked cows, plowed and disced, harrowed, and harvested fields, and they taught me how to drive truck there. Them was good days and I wouldn't trade 'em. That's what I'd do if I was you," he said.
We rode on in silence for the best part of ten miles. If I could manage to get a job on a ranch, many of my current problems would be solved. I doubted that Lawrence and his cops would go to the trouble of hunting that far for me. Like most authorities, they were primarily bullies. When the pickings were easy they had a banquet, if not they waited until they were.
I'd belong somewhere. That in itself meant worlds. I'd have money, the importance of which was becoming clearer with each mile I traveled, and I'd have time to sort life out. "I'm going for it, Bill," I announced. "What's the best way to get there?"
He grinned and said, "I had a feeling you might."
We made a last stop in Spokane then headed east through Couer D'Alene, Kellogg and Mullen, Idaho, reaching his home in Missoula early that evening. His wife seemed totally unperturbed with him for lugging a stranger in off the road and inviting him to spend the night. She even washed my clothes while I showered and then lounged about in some of Bill's, which were several sizes too large for me. We had a pot roast dinner with corn, mashed potatoes and gravy, cold beer and apple pie. After a couple hours of slothful relaxation in front of the fireplace, Bill got out his maps and traced the route he advised me to follow.
"Head east to Garrison and take Highway 12 to Helena. It's good looking country this time of year but the nights will get colder the farther you go. Hook up with Highway 15 to Great Falls, then take 87 out of Great Falls to Havre. You'll be on Highway 2 then, the home stretch! Stay on 2 'till you get to Malta."
"While you were taking a shower, I tried calling the ranch I worked on, but there wasn't any answer. I'll keep trying 'til I get them. The owner's name is Adair Hotchkiss. I'll ask 'em if they're in need of a ranch hand and if they are I'll ask 'em to give you the same chance they gave me. When you get to Malta, call this number." He handed me a slip of paper bearing a sketch of the route I was to follow, Adair Hotchkiss's phone number, and notations of the names and locations of other ranches I might try. "At least this gives you a road to follow and a chance at making it. If it don't work and you come back this way, stop in and we'll figure something else. Okay?"
I couldn't think of anything to say that would've expressed how I felt, so I just said, "Thanks to both of you. You've really been great."
The early morning air was crisp and clean. Bill, Katherine and I said our good-byes in the driveway, in the shadow of his rig. Katherine handed me a plain, white, sealed envelope. I started to open it, but she reached out and gently touched my hand. "Wait at least until you're out of town, maybe even until you get to Helena," she said. "It's a gift from us that will grow in ways you can't imagine now," she added softly, "and the longer you keep it, the more valuable it will become."
"Thanks to you both," I said. "Without your help I don't know where I'd be. When I get wherever I'm going, where ever that is, I'll give you a call and let you know about it." We shook hands and I walked off down the road feeling better than I had in days. It was a struggle but, I didn't look back.
I hitched a ride through Garrison that took me a dozen miles up Highway 12 almost as soon as I stuck out my thumb. After that I walked for hours. I tried toting up the months and days as I walked along. I knew it was November, late autumn, but the precise day escaped me. It didn't seem to matter much, though; at least I was still free of Mother and Father, Herbert and Herbert and their seriocomic Greek chorus of God and Sherlock wannabes. The nearly deserted road ran due northeast, a narrow ribbon of ice age gravel and pre historic effluvium, bisecting stubble fields of earth and gold as it ran down out of far blue mountains. The air was cool and clear with a morning hint of shallow haze which deepened as it receded into the obscure distance. I had a pack and a half of smokes, several books of matches, and a couple of dollars in my jeans. For the moment, there wasn't much else I needed.
I reached Helena early in the evening and stopped at a small store on the northeastern edge of town. With the last of my money, I bought a loaf of bread, a small jar of mayonnaise, an extra pack of cigarettes and two bottles of Coke. As I walked along in the utter darkness of a rural Montana night, I concluded that it was entirely likely that mayonnaise sandwiches would never achieve the popularity of roast beef or hamburger. Nevertheless, they were at that moment a feast.
The temperature, which had been steadily falling all afternoon, began dropping rapidly and a fierce northeast wind howled down out of the high plains shot through with ice and snow. Within an hour, the road had disappeared, buried beneath a drifting blanket of deadly white. An hour later, I lost all sense of direction. The only way I could tell I was still on the road was to scrape away the snow from time to time and verify that asphalt did indeed exist beneath. My hands, feet, arms and legs were numb. As I pushed on, it became progressively harder to walk. I would have stopped, but there was no point in doing so. There was no place to hide from this storm. After what seemed like forever, the wind died and the snow flakes became fat and lazy, floating idly down as if they couldn't be bothered to fall straight. I stopped by a twisted rock outcropping to rest, have a smoke and to try to work some feeling back into my arms and legs.
A large cardboard box was wedged beneath an overhang. Five feet long and probably three feet square, it had been jammed up against the rock facing by the force of the wind. After a bit of urban renewal, which included moving the box to the protected side of the outcrop and piling snow up against one of the open ends, I crawled inside, pulled the box down around me and was asleep before the next snowflake fell.
I awoke to one hell of a racket. Judging by the light outside, it was mid morning. I was warm, comfortable, and the very idea of moving even so much as a muscle was repugnant. Nevertheless, I had to determine what all the noise was about. I crept out on all fours, like a dog night-weary from chasing the moon. A snow plow was grinding its determined way up the highway followed closely by a dump truck dribbling sand from a slightly raised box. Although nearly a quarter mile away, the sound they were making still set my teeth on edge. I waited until they were well out of sight before lighting out, shivering in the cold morning air.
I hadn't been walking more than fifteen minutes before a middle aged man in a silver Cadillac came flying up behind me. Before I even had time to stick out my thumb, he pulled along side, opened the passenger door and asked if I wanted a lift. He didn't have to repeat himself. The interior was warm, comfortable and luxurious. I made up my mind on the spot that the first spare five or six thousand I made, I was going to buy a car exactly like that one.
His name was Jake Allison, he said. He was a gambler and played Reno, Las Vegas and other lesser known (yet moderately profitable) establishments all along the west coast. He was on his way home to North Dakota. "What's a kid like you doing out in the middle of this god forsaken land?" he wanted to know.
I recounted a moderately abridged version of the events which brought me to Montana...not so much to conceal as to make what was, to me, a baffling set of circumstances manageable. "It's just me in my life these days, Mr. Allison," I said in conclusion. "I've got to make my way somehow and this is about the only way I know, to just keep going 'til there's reason to stop."
He nodded in apparent understanding. "I've known a lot of people who would have given up and died if they found themselves in your place, kid," he said after hearing me out. "Don't ever give up. Remember, life is almost nothing but chance. As long as you don't lose your nerve you've got house odds, just like anyone else."
I looked around at his expensive car, the rich cut to his clothes, his elegant western boots and commented, "This looks like more than chance to me."
"Not really," he replied seriously. "I could have been born to different parents, gone to different schools, turned right instead of left at any number of places along the way and I'd never know life as I'm living it now. Most people don't start out to be what they become. If they could have looked ahead and seen their future, they would have chosen to be something else. There are very few of us," he observed, "who're satisfied with the way our lives turned out."
We drove on in silence for the better part of half an hour. By the time we were past Great Falls, the ice and snow from the last nights storm was gone. The next town of any size was Havre, on U.S. Highway 2. From there it was a straight shot to Malta.
The trip down U.S. 2 was a novel experience for me. Not because it was all that different either in construction or appearance than any other Montana State Highway I'd been on, but because it had no speed limit. Jake held the Cadillac to a moderate one hundred miles an hour. The lands outside whipped past in a blur. This was as close to flying as I'd ever come and I relished every mile of it. His machine, he informed me, was capable of greater speeds but, he maintained, one should always eschew excesses of any kind. "Just because you can do a thing," he told me, "doesn't necessarily mean you should."
We rolled into Malta thirty minutes ahead of sundown. After a long and comfortable ride, the twilight air was cold and cheerless. "Goodbye, Mr. Allison, and thanks for the ride," I said through the half open window.
"Glad to be of help. Good luck to you, kid. Oh! I almost forgot, I want you to have this," he said and handed me a ten dollar bill through the window. He drove off into the darkening east before I even had a chance to thank him, but I guessed he knew.
I watched the swiftly receding tail lights of the caddie as they melted into the crumbling day, lit a Turkish talisman against depression and loneliness and walked the streets wondering, "What now?"
For a small town, Malta had all the necessities. A Great Northern Railroad Station where passenger trains still plied the rails between east and west, several banks, a couple of restaurants, and an astonishing number of bars. For guests who preferred their pleasures and necessities under one convenient roof, there was the Great Northern Hotel, a combination bar, hotel and restaurant. I stopped there in search of a room to spend the night. The bar seemed to be the hub of nearly all the activity. I sat down at a far end, picked up a menu that was lying there, and began to read.
Within seconds a plump, middle aged, pleasantly featured waitress appeared and asked me what I'd have. I ordered the biggest hamburger they made with a special request to please hold the mayo, a mountain of french fries, hot coffee while I waited and Coke with my meal.
Hamburger had never tasted so good, neither had the french fries or Coke. As the waitress came to clear away the wicker basket and collect the heavy green Coke bottles, I asked her if she knew Adair Hotchkiss, a rancher in that area. "Shore," she replied, with a hint of a drawl. "Why everybody knows Adair. He's the biggest rancher in these parts."
"What kind of a guy is he?" I inquired.
"Well, he's one of the nicest men you'd ever want to meet. Why'd you want to know, honey?" she asked curiously.
"I'm thinking about calling him for a job." I answered.
"He's a good guy to work for, I know that for sure." she volunteered. "I worked for him and his wife Beatrice for two summers as ranch cook when I first came to Malta. That was back, oh, the last year or two of the forties, maybe first of the fifties. They were fair, decent and nice people. You'd do well if they'd hire you."
"Did you know a Bill Callahan then?"
"Billy? Why, shore. He wasn't much older than you in those days, but a harder worker you'd never find. I fixed many a meal for that boy. Lord, he was a character." She laughed. "How do you know Billy anyway?"
"He gave me a ride and suggested I call Adair and ask for a job," I replied.
"Can't hurt to try, child. There's a pay phone just up the hallway between the hotel lobby and the bar." She pointed the way.
I dialed the number Bill had given me and a high pitched voice said, "Hello."
"Is this Mister Hotchkiss?" I asked.
"Naw, my dad passed on years ago," the twangy voice replied with a good natured chuckle. "My name's Adair. Who am I speakin' to?"
"My name's Deke Collins," I replied. "I'm looking for a job. Bill Callahan said I might look you up and see if you needed a ranch hand."
"I just talked to Bill last night. He called and said you might be coming up this way. Tell you what. Check in at the Great Northern and get a room for the night. If you need a bite to eat, order whatever you want and tell them to put it on my bill. I'll drive in and pick you up in the morning. Sound fair?"
"Sure does. Thanks!" I replied fervently.
"Don't mention it. Meet me at ten o'clock in front of the hotel, okay?"
"Sure thing, Mister Hotchkiss."
"Please," he implored just before he hung up, "anything but Mister."
I checked into my room a few minutes later. Sparsely furnished, it sported a well worn chair, a small, scratched hardwood table carelessly covered with turn of the century cigarette burns and a single bed. I tested it out for comfort, relaxed, and woke up in my clothes at eight the next morning. My reflection in the cracked, full length mirror precariously fastened to the door was frightening. Night tousled hair framed a dissipated face which stared back at me from drooping eyes too bleary to care. My clothes were rumpled and I needed a shower and one of my weekly shaves. All things considered, I mused, I looked like hell. It was the perfect way to meet a new boss.
I stumbled down the winding staircase to the restaurant, ordered hashbrowns, sausage, eggs, and toast, lavishly accompanied by several gallons of jet black coffee. The sausage was exquisite. I hadn't tasted anything like it in years. I wolfed down several of the plump, delicious links before remembering why. It was pork, the consumption of which was a sin. I struggled through my breakfast remains, heavily laden with a pernicious burden of guilt...and the sure and certain knowledge that the further I strayed from the truth and the way, the longer I refused to abjectly repent before God and the ministry of his church, the more frequent transgressions like this would occur. For Satan would slowly divest my mind of whatever divine knowledge I once possessed until, at last, my conscience would become "seared as with a red hot iron!" and I would become, in the end, so depraved that blasphemies such as eating pork wouldn't even register as sins anymore. I would then be just like all the other heathens in the world.
Worse actually, because I once had known the way. I had supped in Eden, had been offered life eternal by God Almighty in exchange for the paltry pittance of perpetual allegiance to his thirteenth apostle. And I had blatantly refused that gift. I hastily lit up a Camel to rid my palate of the haunting after taste of filthy, prurient pork, paid the check and walked out into a bright Montana morning to wait for Adair.
I lounged up against the hotel wall, one foot back against the time blackened brick, and watched the handful of natives slowly come and go along and across Main street. It was a clean little town. The streets not only looked like they got rolled up at night, but that they got swept and cleaned as well.
When Adair pulled up and got out of a new four wheel drive GMC, I had no doubt that's who he was. From his silver gray Stetson to his black western boots, he looked like a cowboy. All else between was faded denim. He approached me with his hand out. "You Deke?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," I replied.
He cringed as if a low flying buzzard was about to poop on his head. "Just call me Adair, son," he chuckled. "We're sort of informal here-abouts. Listen, I got a load of wire to pick up at the grange. You want to collect your things and I'll meet you back here or you want to come with me?"
"Everything I own is either on me or in my pockets. How about if I just ride along and give you a hand?" I inquired.
"Sounds right," he said with a grin. "Climb in."
The grange supply was about six blocks away. Adair backed his rig up to the loading dock near some ponderous rolls of four-barb wire and said, "Why don't you wait here? I'll get this signed for and be right back." When he returned, he tossed a new pair of leather gloves at me. "You gotta wear these to handle this stuff," he said. We loaded eight spools, a dozen bundles of six foot steel posts, slammed the tailgate shut and were on our way inside of fifteen minutes. He headed east out of Malta then turned north onto a dusty seldom graveled road.
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