Tuesday, July 12, 1966 7:30 AM (Laramie, Wyoming)
Jerry Weiss glanced idly at the cowboy standing at the west-bound Interstate 80 entrance ramp with his thumb out, then fed the truck more gas. He liked company on long trips, but most cowboys were redneck assholes.
Men didn't stand like that. He looked more closely as he passed the figure. Cowboy hat and boots, blue jeans, denim jacket . . . Long dark hair, full hips, soft features . . . His foot slipped from the gas to the brake and he steered to the edge of the road.
In the side mirror, he saw the girl grab the backpack at her feet and start running for the truck.
He got out, gripping the door to give his left leg extra support and walked to the back of the truck, painfully aware of his slight limp. She waited by the tailgate. "Going far?"
"Reno." She was a tall rangy brunette, Jerry's age, with a weathered face and muscular body, wearing a battered black Stetson and scuffed boots. The top two buttons of her white cotton shirt were unfastened, showing off her small breasts. A broad leather belt with a peace symbol buckle circled her narrow hips.
"Cool. I'm going through Reno to San Francisco."
Jerry opened the aluminum camper shell door. A mattress on a steel frame occupied a third of the pickup bed. The rest was empty, except for a sleeping bag, a cheap suitcase, a battered typewriter case, a thin black attaché case, and three cardboard boxes.
The cowgirl stood still for a moment, coolly appraising him. She had strong Slavic features, thick straight black hair touching her shoulders, and gray eyes. "All right." She had a big back country backpack with a compact sleeping bag fastened to the top of its frame. She set it on the pickup bed's metal floor, then put her hat on the mattress. "Let's go."
She looked around the cab as they climbed in. His crumpled gray Stetson sat on the dashboard, pressed between the windshield and the lip of the instrument cluster. She spent a few seconds examining the old but well-maintained Winchester .30-30 locked in the rifle rack behind the bench seat. "Nice gun."
"It was Grandpa's." Jerry started the engine and put the truck in gear. "He taught me how to shoot." Dad sure as hell hadn't.
He stomped the gas and they roared up the entrance ramp. When he'd pushed the old Chevy up to the 75 MPH speed limit, he turned to her. "We're going to be together a while. I'm Jerry."
"Suzie." She smiled fleetingly. "Thanks for picking me up."
"My pleasure." He glanced in the rear view mirror. "Laramie's out of sight. Things disappear pretty quickly in these rolling hills."
"Yeah." She scanned the landscape. "Colorado's pretty rugged. This is even more desolate."
"Wyoming doesn't get much rain. If it doesn't snow in the mountains during the winter, the rivers are empty for the rest of the year."
They crossed a long bridge in the middle of the prairie. "When it does rain, it's fierce." Jerry gestured at the empty creek bed. It was a quarter-mile wide. "That's either dry or a raging river."
Suzie looked out over the expanse of sagebrush and gravel. "It's hard to believe how much things can change . . . and how quickly."
Outside, the almost-barren prairie stretched away to sheer cliffs in the distance. The towering stone walls gradually marched away to the north as the truck proceeded. They'd shrunk to low ridges on the horizon when Jerry asked, "You smoke pot?"
She turned to face him, taking in his short hair, red checked shirt with rolled-up sleeves, faded blue jeans, and beat-up boots. "Sometimes. You don't look like the type."
"Appearances can be deceiving. It's in the glove compartment."
"All right." She opened the metal door. A baggie holding a dozen hand-rolled cigarettes and a matchbook were inside. "I haven't done this in months." She took a joint out and lit it.
She seemed more relaxed after they'd finished the joint, leaning back and watching the scenery. "I don't know any pot-smoking cowboys. I got high with a few of the guests."
"I've been working on a dude ranch in Colorado. The J-W." She pronounced it "J-bar-W." "Heard of it?"
"No. What was it like?"
"A lot of riding and camping. I was a guide on the one- and two-week trips. I got to know a lot of people . . . Sometimes too well." She looked briefly uncomfortable, then changed the subject. "How about you? You're different from the cowboys I know."
"I'm a reporter. Got my degree last year. Back there in Laramie. University of Wyoming."
"You still living there?"
"I've been working on my parent's ranch. It's north of Lusk." She looked blank. "It's a little town a couple hundred miles northeast of here."
"That's a long drive," she said. "At least three hours. You come all that way this morning?"
"No. I stayed with my sister Sarah in Cheyenne." That was only 50 miles away. "I wanted to see her before I went to California. Her husband's in Vietnam and she's about to have a baby."
"That must be tough on her."
"It is. At least, he's not in combat. He's a jet fighter mechanic. That's kind of safe, unless the Viet Cong attack the base. They've only done that twice since he's been there. It's usually just a few mortar rounds and some shooting."
"I guess you're close."
"Yeah. To Sarah and her husband Luke. He's one of my little brother's buddies, but he's pretty cool. He knows what it's like over there." He stopped speaking, thinking of explosions and torn bodies.
"Mom wants Sarah to come home, but she'd rather stay in Cheyenne. A lot of her friends are military wives. They understand."
Suzie looked troubled. "What are we doing over there? Really? It used to seem necessary and right, but now . . ."
"The old farts that run this country are getting rich off the war. They don't care about people dying. It's just a cost of doing business to them."
"Does the rest of your family feel that way?"
"Sarah and Luke do."
"But the others don't."
"Course not. But it was Big Brother that really pissed them off."
"Underground paper. I published it my last two years of college. My way of fighting against the war."
"Did it do any good?"
"Probably not. It sure screwed my career as a reporter in the Rockies. Guess I should have thought of that."
He tried to sound casual. "Sometimes you have to make sacrifices for the things you believe in."
It had grown warmer in the truck cab. Suzie removed her blue jean jacket. Jerry watched her squirm around on the bench seat, getting an occasional glimpse down her partially-unbuttoned shirt. She didn't need a bra, and wasn't wearing one.
Suzie didn't seem to have noticed his attention. She was leaning back, looking at the mountains towering on their left. They headed northeast, skimming along the south edge of a 100-mile divide in the Rocky Mountains.
Jerry decided she wasn't going to talk on her own. "You from Colorado?"
She hesitated for a split second. "Yeah . . . My Uncle Bob's a rancher." She smiled briefly. Jerry liked her smile. He hoped he'd see more of it.
"He raised me with three teenage cowboy sons. I wouldn't let them leave me behind. I learned to ride, rope, shoot, and do everything else as well as they could, except pee standing up."
Jerry laughed. She rewarded him by smiling again.
"I don't know many real cowgirls," he said. "Mom's one. She had to be, running a ranch during World War II."
"That's all I wanted. To be a cowgirl" Suzie looked serious again. "I tried college, but it didn't work out."
"Didn't fit in. I wasn't looking for a rich husband." Her tone was final.
After an awkward pause, Jerry started asking Suzie leading questions about the dude ranch. It didn't take long to get her talking.
She'd been there two years, guiding tourists on horseback camping trips and doing regular cowhand work to keep the ranch running during the off season. She told him all about the job, but didn't say anything about her coworkers or give a reason for leaving in the middle of the season. He knew better than to push her.
6:45 PM (Salt Lake City)
Shadows from the mountains to the west stretched across the city. Jerry was tired. The steep mountain passes and the numerous places where I-80 was still under construction had slowed them down and worn him out.
Sometimes, he and Suzie had been content to let the miles roll by in silence, but they'd talked quite a bit during the trip. The conversation had been pretty comfortable, as long as they avoided personal subjects.
They were approaching the city limits. "I'm stopping here," Jerry said. "The motels are going to fill up soon. I'm not planning on camping out." He tried to sound casual as he asked, "What do you want to do?"
He caught Suzie looking at him like a painter studying a model. She flashed a shy smile. "Go on to Reno with you."
"All right." Jerry tried to sound like he wasn't surprised. "Let's find a place."
They passed a dozen motels with their "No Vacancy" signs lit before seeing a slightly run-down place on a side street. The middle-aged woman behind the desk said, "We have one room left, with a single king-sized bed."
When Jerry hesitated, Suzie spoke up. "We'll take it."
On the way to the room, he said, "I'll sleep in the truck, if you want."
"You don't need to. I've slept with cowboys before." She caught his expression and flashed another smile. "Just sleeping. On camping trips. Not fooling around. Okay?"
"Sure." He tried to put the fantasies aside. He'd already gotten more than he'd hoped for when he picked Suzie up.
In the motel room, Suzie asked "What happened to your leg?" She'd seen him limping as they unloaded the truck.
He and Ralph had been racing when Arrow stepped into a prairie dog hole. He'd never forget that snapping sound, or the horrified expression on Ralph's face, or clinging to Arrow as they fell, or the unbelievable pain . . . Or the way Dad had said, "I had to shoot your horse."
"A horse fell on me. It happened a few years ago. Doesn't bother me too much anymore."
Jerry made drinks after supper, mixing whisky from the bottle in his suitcase with Seven-Up. The single row of Coke bottles in the vending machine was sold out.
They sat at the little table by the door and smoked another joint. When they'd finished it, Suzie kicked her boots off and lay on the bed with her back propped up by pillows against the headboard. Jerry sat facing her in the room's only padded chair.
She was looking at him again. He liked the way she looked at him. "Why are you going to San Francisco?"
"Things are happening there. A lot of big stories. I'm going to write some of them."
Something made him want to tell Suzie the rest. "There's also some family business. I inherited my uncle's house."
"I'm sorry about your uncle. Were you close?"
"I didn't know him."
"Never heard of him. Not until I got the letter from the lawyer."
"That seems so strange," Suzie said. "I'm from a big Polish family. Some of us don't get along, but we all know each other."
"We're German Catholics. Same kind of big families. You have to do something on those long cold Wyoming nights." Jerry laughed, too loudly. "I thought we were close-knit." He took a large manila envelope from the attaché case and dumped its contents on the table.
He picked a newspaper clipping out of the papers. "Instead, everyone . . . Grandpa and Grandma . . . Mom . . . Dad . . . all my aunts . . . hid my only uncle from me. How could they do that? What did he do?"
"The lawyer sent this with the letter." Jerry handed her the clipping. The headline read "Local Journalist Identified as Junkyard Murder Victim."
Suzie's eyes widened. "Murdered." She scanned the story, then looked at Jerry with a worried expression. "What are you going to do?"
He ignored the question. "Did you see the part at the end? About him being a journalist?"
"Yeah, just like you."
"I thought I was the only writer in the family. Couldn't figure out where I got it. Sure wasn't from Dad. Far as he's concerned, you're either a cowboy or a sissy. He hated writers even before the U. W. Journalism Department made me a commie."
"He really said that?"
"Oh yeah. And a lot more. He had fun giving me all the shit jobs around the ranch. Talked about making a man out of me. I was ready to split even before I found out about Uncle Carlton."
"Did you ask your parents about him?"
"Dad just cussed me out. He told me 'never say that name again.' Mom got really stiff and said, 'Your uncle decided to remove himself from the family.'"
Suzie held up the clipping. "What are you going to do about this?"
"Carlton's murder? I'm not messing with that. Real life isn't a detective novel."
"Good." She handed him the clipping, looking serious. "I don't want you to end up dead in a junkyard."
"I don't either. I'll leave the murders to Sam Spade, Lew Archer, and Mike Hammer." He enjoyed her brief smile.
"I'm going to find out what happened between Carlton and the family. I'll never be able to trust them again until I do. Maybe not even then." He glanced at the clipping, then set it on the table with the rest of the papers. I'll talk to his lawyer and Rubin Spearman -"
"The guy who published your uncle's tabloid? With the cheesy name?"
"Crime and The City!, complete with exclamation mark. With a couple of leads, I shouldn't have much trouble finding the rest of Carlton's friends. He told someone. People always do."
"Good." Suzie rose from the bed and stretched, then turned to look at Jerry's travel alarm clock on the nightstand. It was 9:20. "I'm ready to go to sleep," she said. "I camped by the road last night."
"Yeah, it's been a long day." He watched as she took some items from her knapsack and closed herself in the bathroom.
Her boots lay in the middle of the floor. He picked them up to put against the wall. They were unusually heavy. Each boot had a little leather pocket sewn into the lining, holding a tiny pistol. The left boot had a switchblade in another leather pocket.
The derringers were old but deadly. Their steel over-under barrels and frames were burnished to a soft gray by untold tiny scratches, and their wooden grips were worn smooth by decades of handling.
He put the boots beside the bed and sat back in the cushioned chair, listening to the shower running in the bathroom. It wasn't that unusual for a woman to be armed. Even a tough cowgirl was vulnerable to a much bigger stronger man.
Suzie emerged a few minutes later, freshly showered and wearing a man's shirt with tails reaching her thighs. She sat on the side of the bed. "Be a gentleman and turn your back."
He obeyed, twisting to view her reflection in the mirror over the dresser. She removed her shirt and set it on the nightstand. She was wearing panties but no bra.
Her breasts were small and firm, with pink quarter-sized areolas and little upturned nipples. She caught his gaze in the mirror and smiled briefly before swinging her legs into the bed and pulling the covers up to her neck.
Jerry showered and dried himself quickly, then put on clean briefs. He decided not to bother with his blue jeans. He could see Suzie watching him as he approached the bed, smiling faintly at his muscular body and tight underwear.
He remained awake, listening to Suzie's breathing as she slept, imagining her lips against his, her breasts and buttocks under his hands, his body between her legs, his hard dick . . .
She was only two feet away.
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Copyright © 2020 by Ken James