By M.E. Proctor
It was something out of a dystopian graphic novel. The gray brown color of the flat land, the lack of any vegetation that wasn’t a dry blanched stick, the barbed wire fences gaudily decorated with shredded plastic bags, and the constant caravan of trucks spewing exhaust fumes. Pumps dotted the area. A road leading to a shack and a pump. Another road, a shack, and a pump. Repeat. Puke. Guys at home said there were jobs aplenty in the Permian. Good paying jobs, more money than any other job could bring for kids like Jamie that finished high school in the middle of the pack and were done with books and book learning. Right there, leaning on the door of his old pickup, with the sagging motel and ragged bar behind him, and miles of dusty nothingness in every other direction, Jamie knew that life in the gas fields wasn’t for him. What did it do to a brain, and a soul, to wander in this circle of hell, to soak in such ignominy hour after hour, day after day?
Jamie lit a cigarette and reached inside the truck for the road atlas that had come with the vehicle. Same vintage. It made for interesting navigation, with all the roads that were not on the maps or had gotten wider with the years. Still, for general orientation, the atlas worked fine and it gave him an understanding of space and distance. He’d come a long way from Louisiana. It gave him a dark kind of joy to know he’d traveled further than anybody in his family. Except for a great-grandad who fought at Guadalcanal, that is. Bet he’d seen misery, talking about circles of hell.
Where from here? Anywhere but east. Jamie was not going back. He had enough cash to pay for gas and meals for a few more days, if he was careful, and he could sleep in the truck. It’s what he’d been doing since he left home. California and go up the coast. See the sights. It sure had to be prettier than this. And he could look for jobs on the way, to tie him over and keep going.
A scrunch of gravel made him look up.
Now that was a nice truck, a brand new F-150 V-6, glossy black and so clean it must have been dropped from the sky. Did they invent some sort of dust repellent coating because with all the crap in the air and on the road, that shine was as improbable as winning the Louisiana Lotto. Jamie took a deep drag off his cigarette and stared harder at the vehicle than he ever gaped at a girl. How much did that go for? Eighty grand easy. Maybe he should stick around if the clients of this rathole bar could afford that kind of ride. He glanced at the litany of cancer-spitting trucks on the road and shook his head. Nah, couldn’t do it.
A big guy in a brown Stetson, dark jacket, and ostrich boots under faded blue jeans climbed out of the truck.
He tipped his hat to Jamie who gave him a little head bow.
“Coming or going?” the man said, with a brief chin nod at the bar.
“Hard to decide,” Jamie said.
The man chuckled. “Yeah, this place has a lot going for it.”
He tilted his head to look at the truck’s license plate and Jamie knew it was all an act. The guy had plenty of time to notice he wasn’t local when he drove into the parking lot.
“You’re far from home, kid.” He extended his hand. A big paw, brown and callused. Jamie shook it. “Cash Caulfield. You know why they call me Cash?”
“Because you used to have none?” Jamie added a hint of a smile to the pun. He was that rare phenomenon, a smart mouth with a straight nose and all his teeth. Thanks to that face-saving smile. “Jamie Levesque.”
Caulfield considered him for a moment. “Good answer. You’re quick. You’re off to college in the west, in that rust wagon?”
“Yeah.” Maybe the man believed him, or not. Jamie tapped the side of the door. “It doesn’t look like much but it’s solid. It’ll go the distance.”
“I bet. Buy you a beer?”
“I’m three years shy, Mr. Caulfield. I’m not sure it matters to the barkeep in there, but it sure will matter if a cop takes a look at me out there.”
Caulfield opened his jacket. The casual gesture revealed a gun in a shoulder holster and a five-point silver badge Jamie had only seen in movies. Texas Rangers, it said at the bottom.
There was also a wide silver belt buckle that didn’t look stupid on him. He had the kind of frame that made it look proportional.
“I’m glad I didn’t jump on that beer offer.”
“It was a test,” Caulfield said. “I have business in that bar and I need a friendly pair of eyes in my back. Think you can do that, Jamie Levesque?”
“You deputizing me?”
Caulfield laughed. “I’ll give you a plastic one. Here’s the deal. I’m gonna chat with the bartender. He doesn’t know me but I’ve reasons to believe somebody in there does, man or woman. If I’m right, they’ll make for the exit lickety split. You take a mental picture of the individual, try to see where he or she goes.” He made a sweeping gesture at the parking lot. “If the mark gets in a vehicle, you tell me which one. Got it?”
“Okay. I try to stop the, uh, mark?”
“Heavens no! We go in, and you find a seat with a good view.”
Jamie smiled. “When do I get the beer?”
Jamie thought the plan was half-baked. Caulfield asking him for help was spur of the moment. He suspected his truck’s Louisiana tags had given the ranger an idea. He must not have planned to go inside alone, maybe just make a note of the license plates in the parking lot and follow up later.
“I should go in first,” Jamie said. “Order a drink and get a seat. Then you come in. Five minutes. Won’t look like we’re together.”
Caulfield shot him a heavy stare, one eyebrow lifted in doubt. “You think you know best, kid?”
“I read a lot and I like movies.” He didn’t add that it was common sense. The remark may come across the wrong way.
“This is one dinky dive, Jiminy Cricket. I don’t feel good letting you be all by your oneself, even for a few minutes.”
“I was about to go in when you showed up. If they shoot customers on sight, no wonder the business is through the basement.” Before Caulfield could order him back, Jamie shucked his cigarette stub and walked around the front of the truck. He scanned the other parked vehicles. He was proud of his photographic memory. Five trucks in various stages of decay. He would remember each of them.
The screen door hung by one hinge, the other was replaced by a length of twine. The wooden door behind was open and solid. From close by the building was sturdier than it appeared. The repairs made over the years were at war with geometry and esthetics but the materials were chosen to last. The place could sustain a siege. Which might have been the intent. The bar was dark, with a couple of narrow dirty windows, and stifling. Jamie felt a bloom of sweat the moment he stepped inside. A dozen people were in the room, including the bartender and a ragged-looking server in too small denim shorts and a minimal tank top. Nobody sat at the bar. Two of the three occupied tables had a woman at it. Even in the sparse light, Jamie could see they were young and washed out. He knew the type, semi-pro. The men might be twenty to forty, clad in stained denim and matching work shirts. If they came to the area to make oodles of money working in the gas fields, it didn’t pan out. Jamie ordered a Dos Equis because that’s what most of the men were drinking. He wasn’t asked for an ID, paid with cash, and sat at a table in a corner near a window. All the patrons were in his range of vision. He had taken a blessed sip of the ice cold drink when Caulfield came in.
Jamie’s entrance had garnered a few indifferent looks and a beat pause in the conversations. Not so when the big man let the screen door slam shut. Heads snapped at every table. Jamie wondered if a general stampede was in the cards. Wary eyes followed Caulfield’s progress to the counter but nobody moved. Jamie took another long sip.
Caulfield hauled himself up on a barstool. There was no mirror behind the bar. He was blind to the scene behind him. The patrons relaxed and conversations started again, however at a lower sound level. Jamie pretended to stare at his bottle. He watched a man wearing a green John Deere ballcap move his chair from the table. The blonde girl sitting next to him did the same. They were careful not to let the chair legs scrape the floor. Caulfield was in deep conversation with the bartender. It was a one-sided chat. The man behind the counter wasn’t talking, just shaking his head.
Green ballcap stood up and pulled the girl after him. In a few hurried steps, they were at the entrance and through the screen door. Jamie expected to hear a roar of engine but, instead, he saw the couple run past the grimy window to his left. They were going to the motel. Damn, their vehicle must be parked over there, Caulfield hadn’t planned for that. Jamie drained his beer and walked out. If he stood at the corner of the bar, he had a partial view of the scattered rental cabins without losing sight of the bar entrance. It wasn’t good enough. The motel had two access roads, from the bar parking lot and further down the road next to a cluster of pumpjacks. Jamie took a gamble. If green ballcap was Caulfield’s target, he would not leave the motel through the bar entrance.
Jamie got in his truck and drove out of the parking lot. He squeezed between two barreling trucks causing a flurry of aggravated honks, and aimed for the cluster of pumps. He turned into the side road and had to stand on the brakes. He skidded in the dirt and missed the front of a hulking brown Ram by a hair. Green ball cap was driving. The girl was in the passenger seat, only the top of her head was visible over the dashboard. Jamie caught the license plate number in the rear view mirror. The Ram bumped onto the road without slowing down and disappeared between the spewing trucks. Adrenalin firing, Jamie drove back to the bar through the motel access road.
Texas Ranger Cash Caulfield stood next to his pristine black chariot, fists on his hips, scowling like a mad prophet.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
“He’s driving a brown Dodge Ram.” Jamie rattled off the license plate and the description of the man in the John Deere cap. “He’s got a girl with him. Blond. Younger than me. You gonna go after him or you’d rather waste time chewing my ass?” His heartbeat was slowing down. He took a deep breath. “They’re headed north. In a hurry.”
Caulfield hummed, eyes on the dusty road. “You think you’d recognize him in a photograph?”
“Yeah, pretty sure, he’s got a scar through his left eyebrow. I’m not sure about the girl. All dolled up like that, could be anybody.”
“Get back in your truck and follow me.”
Jamie spent three weeks with Cash Caulfield running after the man in the green ball cap, a notorious trafficker. They found him and other cops took over. That’s when Jamie learned that Cash got his name because he always caught his man, like a bounty hunter, even if his salary was his only reward. It didn’t make Jamie want to become a Texas Ranger, it wasn’t his vibe, but it convinced him he could do better than roam the country in a rattling bucket.
“You’re not headed for college, are you?” Caulfield said.
They were having dinner together at a nice place in Marathon, to mark the successful conclusion of the chase.
“I might,” Jamie said. “If I find one that’ll have me.” He’d changed his mind about the value of books in the past few weeks. His face scrunched up. “Not sure I can afford it, even if they’ll have me.”
“There’s a few places in Texas where I have a bit of sway. Legendary Texas Ranger and all that. I couldn’t have done it without you, Jamie.”
“You’re not going to get all mushy on me now …” Jamie was feeling pretty sentimental himself. They had wine with dinner. He was discovering that alcohol made him sappy. That was useful knowledge.
Caulfield raised a warning finger. “Easy now, Jiminy Cricket. You want the college or not?”
A moment of hesitation. A sip of wine. A swallow that felt dusty dry despite the liquid. His life was about to take a turn.
Bio: M.E. Proctor was born in Brussels and lives in Texas. After all the years, she still struggles with the Imperial system. She’s currently working on a contemporary PI series. Her short fiction has appeared in Vautrin, Bristol Noir, Pulp Modern, Mystery Tribune, Reckon Review, Shotgun Honey, and Thriller Magazine among others. She’s a recent Derringer nominee.
Twitter: @MEProctor3 – Substack:
She can be found at her Substack Website HERE.
She can also be found at her Shaw Mystery Website HERE.
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