This is a work of fiction developed as a writing exercise. It retains many of its sharp edges. The setting is not an indictment of policy but rather a set-piece for this character study. Perhaps I will someday decide to return to it, but until then, it remains the original, from 21 Sept. 2010.J Green, Cheyenne, Wyo.
John Prosser had a hangover.
When he first awoke, he wasn’t sure if he was still alive. As soon as he determined he was, he was unhappy about it.
He scanned the floor well of the truck and determined he had drank about a gallon of whiskey, gin and vodka the night before. His head felt like it had been removed from its neck and screwed onto a fire hose. His neck bothered him, as did his back, from sleeping in the truck. His extremities ached from the cold. He couldn’t see out, as the windows were covered outside with snow, and inside from the condensation from his breath.
Prosser popped the lid off a bottle of aspirin he had in the door pouch of the Ford. He chewed four tablets and grabbed the nearest bottle to rinse out the alkaline taste.
He ended up with a bottle of Beefeater – the wrong choice against the chalky taste of the aspirin. He nearly vomited, but both aspirin and gin were in too short of supply to waste, so he forced his stomach back down and out of his throat.
He lighted a cigarette and began working the controls of the truck to see if it would start in what he guessed to be -15 or -20 degree air, with wind whipping up from the north. That was the only sort of weather here at this time of year.
Pedal down and up and down and up a few times, choke all the way closed. He hoped the battery hadn’t frozen. Prosser said a silent prayer, or mayhap a curse, under his breath as he turned the key.
The 20-50W weight oil in the truck was excessive for summer use in this neck of the woods, but it was impossible to justify wasting such a finite resource to make starting in the winter easier, Prosser had told himself a week ago. In the sub-zero temperature, it was brutal. The starter motor strained to turn the engine over, but it did, slowly.
After about ten seconds, the oil and started to move around a bit and the cranking picked up. The old 390 popped once, a second time, and then four times in quick succession. Prosser pumped the gas and turned the key with his left hand while he had his right on the choke.
Another thirty seconds of this and the FE (Ford-Edsel) engine finally caught. Prosser had to attend to the choke and throttle for about 90 seconds while the eight-pot settled into something approaching a regular rhythm.
Amanda Els rubbed her own eyes as she awoke next to Prosser. She, too, took a drink of the gin, but mostly to warm herself rather than to nurse any hangover. “You need to drink more,” he had kept telling her, and she was beginning to think he was right.
After Prosser had finished the starting routine, he noticed Els was awake. What how could she not be after all the racket of starting the damn truck. He nodded to her to put he coat up as best she could: he was going outside.
He had closed himself off as best as possible and lighted a cigarette. Presently, he opened the door and stepped into a swirling white-black. Els guessed the time to be about 5 am, but was unsure. Time was difficult to figure.
Prosser went to the back of the truck and changed two connections. The first disconnected the dipstick block heater, which was the only reason the 390 had fired without a jumpstart and ether. He doubted he could have found enough ether to keep the fleet going. The second connection closed a circuit allowing the truck’s generator to begin restoring power to the banks of batteries in the truck bed that had been powering the dipstick heater. He was beginning to wonder if it wouldn’t be acceptable to change the oil for 0-10W or something lighter than this damned 20-50 weight.
Two other vehicles had started since Prosser had begun cranking the old Ford. A mid-50s Chevy Nomad and a ’70 Hemi Charger were idling, the Nomad with no small degree of throttle and choke input from its driver. A third vehicle, another old Ford truck, appeared to need a jump start.
Prosser had been as cold as the snow when he had gotten out, and he was as cold as death now. He sucked hard on the Marlboro and hopped back in the cab.
Els had the heater fan on high. Prosser reached over and shut it off.
“What the hell are you doing?” she asked out of habit.
Prosser replied, out of habit, “Don’t turn the fan on until the engine warms up. You’re just blasting us with cold air.”
“Damned if the air ever warms up anyway,” Els muttered. She lighted herself a cigarette while Prosser took a long swig from the Beefeater. It was better this time, unaided by aspirin. He knew he would have to eat something this day.
“Remind me again why we’re all driving this century old scrapheap instead of something modern? With heated seats?” Els knew the answer to that, too.
Prosser sighed as he finished the cigarette and put it out in the ashtray. “Amanda, this stinks, and it stinks bad. Thank god it’s so cold, otherwise the stink’d be so bad we’d be puking our guts out. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Maybe in the next life you can have a Mercedes, or a Bimmer.
“Joe looks like he’s got trouble. I’m going to go talk to him and see what it is. Julie and Tom are fired up. As soon as this heap heats up enough to clear the windows and I can get Joe rolling, we’ll be out of here. Maybe someplace warmer.”
Els looked him in the eye with just a little light from the few gauges in the old Ford to light their faces. She looked much older than her 43 years. Prosser looked even older than her, even though he was only 30. She looked tired and scared. So did he.
Prosser knocked on the window of the other Ford, this one a 360. Joe McGuiness tried to roll the window down a crack, but it was frozen shut. He opened the door as little as he could.
“Howdy Joe. What’s the problem?”
“I think the dipstick heater didn’t go on.” The men exchanged solemn glances in the dim light thrown off by the cab bulb. They couldn’t exactly go to the parts counter at NAPA.
“Have you tried tying the power pack into the ignition circuit? That’ll turn this puppy right over. Those batteries should be fresh if the heater didn’t work.”
Joe nodded. “I think a few of the cells must’ve frozen. I can’t get enough off of them.”
Prosser, already becoming dizzy from the cold, tried to think. “Did you disconnect the battery under the hood? Maybe a cell shorted or something.”
McGuiness passed Prosser a bottle of something – he quickly determined it to be a whiskey of some sort – while they tried to work it out. Prosser took a gulp and handed it back. “Alright, give me a minute to see if I can get the battery disconnected.
McGuiness slammed the door shut as Prosser moved to the front of the truck and wrestled with the hood. Snow weighed it down, and once he did get it propped up he was afraid the wind would blow it down over his head at a moment.
He worked as quickly as he could. In this cold he couldn’t take his glove off, as his skin would freeze instantly to the battery terminal. Instead, he pulled a large knife from a sheath and simply cut the negative battery cable.
Prosser could tell it had made a difference as the light coming from the cab of the truck brightened considerably. He put the hood down while McGuiness started cranking.
It was a long crank with many false starts. If he had had any, Prosser would have squirted a good bit of ether into the carburetor, but he didn’t. After the 360 finally caught, he knocked on the window at McGuiness, flashed a thumb-up, and went back to his own truck.
This time he did not complain about Els having the heater blower on. In the ten minutes he had been outside working on McGuiness’ truck his own had warmed to the point where the air was warmer than ambient, probably about 30 or 40 degrees. From this point it wouldn’t take too long to start roasting the cab.
He pulled his boots and socks off, resting his bare feet on the bench seat between Els and he. She grimaced as he turned the cab light on: they were gray and turning to black in the tips of a few toes. Prosser did not make any perceptible sign, indeed, the damage was not as severe as he had worried. A few toes and he might stave off the worst of it.
Of course, once you started cutting off toes…
Both of them were in a bad way once the operation was completed. They were both drunk and Prosser was suffering a mild case of shock. At least they were slowly starting to warm up. The windows were now wet inside and the snow was starting to push away on the outside. In a few minutes the defroster would quit helping, as an envelope of air would form between the outside of the windshield and the snow. He would have to get out and scrape a bit.
While Els’ physical condition was far superior to Prosser’s, her psychological status was worse. She hadn’t hunted for many years, as he had, and so was not accustomed to butchering flesh and bone. It had not gone well.
Four toes – the smaller three on the left foot and a middle on the right – had been touched by the blackness, and Prosser told Els those had to come off before he became gangrenous. She took his big knife, but that proved too unwieldy. Finally he had produced a pair of dikes.
No one came from the other vehicles as she contorted herself in strange ways to bring enough pressure on the sidecutters to sheer through the bones of Prosser’s toes. But they felt his screams in their own bones, as the cold gnawed upon their own flesh.
It was over. She had bandaged his feet as best as possible and there was more whiskey and gin. He had put socks and his boots back on. For now, his fingers looked alright.
He had bitten through the heavy leather gloves and gnashed his teeth, but had managed to avoid biting through his tongue. “Good thing,” he joked to Els, “because talking seems to be the only gawddamned thing I can do.”
McGuiness had been good enough, at least, to fuel the fleet of four vehicles up while Els had been putting Prosser back together. They were ready, now that the snow and ice had been scraped from the windows. Prosser and McGuiness joined Julie Reynolds, the driver of the Challenger, with Tom Allison and his brother Jack in the Nomad.
“As best as I can figure it we’ve got about half a day of bad stuff, and then we might be able to get out of this shit. But it’s going to be a devil,” Prosser said as he noted their route to Dubois and over the pass. Half a day was probably a bit overoptimistic, as they hadn’t even made it to Dubois from Casper the previous day. Prosser had taken responsibility for the decision to pass Riverton and the possibility of a warm bed.
“I figure we’ve got to stop in Dubois.”
There were nods and murmurs of agreement.
Tom Allison asked two questions at the front of the mind of each assembled. “John, how bad is the frost damage? And can we make it over the pass?”
At 9,658 feet, the Togwotee Pass between Dubois and Moran Junction, Wyoming, was difficult enough in a modern vehicle. Of their little fleet, only McGuiness’ Ford was four-wheel drive. The rest were rear-wheel drive, although Prosser’s Ford had tire chains.
“The Pass is going to be difficult. I won’t lie about that. Joe, you’ll have to go first and blaze a trail for us. I don’t know if I should go second to help mash things down, or carry up the rear. I guess we can worry about that tomorrow.”
“How about those feet, John?” This was Jack Allison asking.
“They hurt like hell,” Prosser said, taking another swig of whiskey. “But they’re okay for now. I think I should be able to avoid gangrene. But I have to find some better socks in Dubois.”
“Too bad we had to beat it out of Casper so quick,” the elder Allison continued. “You sure you’re up for it?”
Prosser, the youngest of the men, grimaced. He had promised these folks he would see them through to Idaho, where there was at least a chance of getting away from the fallout and snow.
“No choice about it, Jack Allison. I’ve got to be up for it.”
Prosser looked across at the two Allisons. “Jack, Tom, do you mind if Amanda joins you to Dubois? I think she’s getting a bit nuts with me, with my feet and all. She looks like she’s about to lose it.”
Tom nodded but Julie Reynolds spoke up. “Send her with me. I could use the company.”
Prosser smiled weakly. “Sure. I’m sorry Julie, I should have thought you might like some conversation.”
Ten minutes later and they were off. McGuiness had insisted Prosser and he switch vehicles.
“Why are you having John drive your truck?” Iris McGuiness asked her father.
“Because he knows this country better than I do, and he needs the four-wheel drive to lead.”
When Iris next spoke, she did not vocalize the first part of her accusation: that following U.S. Route 26/287 to Dubois did not take an expert, even in these conditions, or that Prosser’s feet would have a terrible time working the clutch in the old Ford. “Why did we put the youngest adult in charge of this?”
Joe McGuiness looked at his daughter, 19. They both shared wild red hair and in a different life the elder McGuiness’ biggest worry would have been fighting off suitors for his daughter.
“You’re the youngest adult here,” he sidestepped.
“Damnit dad, you know what I mean. He’s 30. You three other men… not one of you is under 50.”
McGuiness took a long drink of whiskey, which he then offered to his daughter. The heaters in both trucks worked well, as there wasn’t as much space to warm as in the two cars, but they were both still shaking the cold from their bones.
“John took the job because he knows the land. Because he knows how to fix these old cars up and make them go when nothing else does.
McGuiness swallowed hard and then told the truth. “And John is doing it because he’s the only one with spine enough to shoulder the load. Our survival depends on him. Julie is the only one with as much… spite… as he has, but she doesn’t know enough about the high country, or keeping a ’56 Chevy running in the dead of winter.”
Iris McGuiness softened considerably at her father laying himself so open to her. “Remind me why we’re driving these old hunks?”
Prosser had started off ahead of them, heading west. Joe McGuiness felt a sympathetic pain in his own pink toes, as he imagined Prosser wrestling with the heavy clutch of the other Ford, as he shifted Prosser’s own truck, an automatic, into Drive.
“There are a number of reasons,” he began, drinking the whiskey again. “Light me a cigarette, would you?”
Only Prosser had been a smoker when this whole thing had begun, but all but Reynolds had taken up his habit in the interim. Iris McGuiness did so, and handed it to her father as he gave the whiskey back to her.
She knew well what he was about to tell her, but maybe it would take some of the Catholic guilt he carried off his already overburdened mind for awhile.
“Nuclear weapons emit a blast of energy when they’re detonated in atmosphere, an ‘imp,’” he slurred EMP. “That fries electronics. Why your watch doesn’t work, why your cellphone died, why none of the lights are on anymore. Newer cars are so electronic John – the solid wrench that he is even – could spend a month and never get one running.
“And even if he could, he can work on these old things with just the few tools we’re carrying. Short of a thrown rod or something like that, you can fix an awful lot on these old things. That’s also why we brought four cars when we could have squeezed into just the two trucks: if something does go bad, we’ve got a little slack.”
“And I wouldn’t want to cram in with the five others in these two things,” Iris McGuiness interjected, trying to indicate her approval of that decision. Joe McGuiness had been the one to suggest they bring along the Nomad and Charger.
“Indeed. We stink bad enough as it is.” It had been three days since they had even sponge-bathed, the recent part of their trip had been so hurried.
“Older cars are less sensitive about their fuel, too. They use lower pressure systems, and a little gunk that might grenade a newer system isn’t as big a deal in these old things.”
“And finally, who wants to save some new Audi? A ’56 Chevy, that old Charger. Even these two trucks. They’re something. A new car… that’s just an appliance.”
At the moment Prosser was wishing he had the appliance of a lighter clutch pedal, or even – perish the thought! – an automatic. Even though the old 360, also an FE-family engine like the 390 in his truck, had a wide torque band, conditions were forcing him to shift frequently between second and third gears. He could feel blood seeping into the sock on his left foot. Only the fact that he was missing but one toe on his right foot made it any more bearable.
It would probably take about half the morning to get to Dubois, assuming there were no big problems, and that was a hell of an assumption, Prosser reminded himself. He was sweating, still the shock. The hangover was gone now, replaced with an empty sickness from drinking and drinking and drinking. Before they had left he had managed to eat some canned green beans, although they had been unsatisfying and left him cold anew, as he had to melt frozen chunks of them in his mouth.
It was terribly slow going. In the pale light of the morning, chasing him through the blizzard behind him, visibility was nearly zero. He was probably driving right down the middle of the highway, using the delineator posts to either side of the road to mark his route.
It did not look as if it were much better behind him, either. Joe and Iris McGuiness were in second spot with the other Ford, and he noticed quite a bit of swerving side to side as the automatic searched for tender on the icy roadway. Prosser doubted either of the cars were faring any better.
Joe McGuiness backed off the throttle and swore loudly before pumping the brake a few times to slow. “Sonofabitch,” he said softly. Prosser had just disappeared into a cloud of white after bashing into a particularly nasty drift. He did not want to alarm his daughter and so said nothing more, but he thought about the rotary snow removing equipment sometimes needed in this part of the country. Dubois was a dubious enough goal, he thought to himself. Maybe they would find some more operational four-wheel drives there? He didn’t let himself believe it.
Prosser and the 360-Ford appeared again not too far ahead. As much as he disliked the idea, McGuiness had to stop. He could only see the one working reverse light of the forward truck. And then, brake lights. Then nothing. McGuiness knew what Prosser was doing: the first shot at breaking through the drift had been unsuccessful, so he was having another go.
“Shit.” Reynolds nearly rear-ended the fuel barrel Joe McGuiness was pulling with Prosser’s truck. The brakes in the Charger were as bad as muscle car reputation had suggested.
She had been talking to Els – mostly at Els – trying to get the woman to say something. The younger woman’s face was ashen, defeated. Reynolds ran her hand through her gray hair and waited.
“He’s run off, hasn’t he?” Els wailed.
“Of course not. John is fine, I’m sure. Joe would’ve gotten out if there was trouble.”
After about thirty seconds Reynolds saw the fuel barrel begin to move. “See, whatever it was, John’s broken through. Now to see if we can get moving again.”
Prosser was running a fever now and he knew it. He figured they were, perhaps, a third of the way to Dubois. He needed water, something more to eat, and to lie down. The shoe leather of the left boot had been wet to begin with, trudging around in the snow, but now he knew it was blood keeping the boot from drying.
It had taken four forceful runs to break through the drift, which had been almost to the hood of the truck. He was now about 50 feet forward of it, waiting for the rest of the convoy to come through, if they could. He shuttered to think how long his foot would last if he had to get back out into the snow and connect a snow chain.
Even with his fever, he shivered a bit. “What did I do to deserve this?” he asked in vain. He wasn’t sure, but he feared he was suffering some radiation sickness, as well.
Between the tire chains and the weight of the fuel barrel, the 390-Ford with the McGuiness’ managed with little trouble. The steering was tricky, Joe McGuiness noted, but it was so slow going that it didn’t much matter, anyway. He blinked the high beams at Prosser as he came within about 30 feet, the limit of visibility.
Reynolds was a wry woman and had seen much in her days. While the low-slung Charger wasn’t her idea of ideal winter transportation, she had owned one some four decades earlier. Careful use of the accelerator and much patience started them on the way again.
When she had been a child, everything was rear-drive save the highway department trucks – and some hearty souls living in the country – with four-wheel drive. While her parents had had studded tires with chains, she could manage this. The most important part was to follow the taillights of the fuel barrel without running right into them. The snow here was deep enough that she only saw every third or fourth delineator post. She wondered, how in the hell is John doing this? His feet must be killing him. Literally.
With them moving again, Els was in a little better way. “I wish I knew what happened to my brother.”
Reynolds took her eyes off the road for a moment to steal a sideways glance. “I know sweetheart. I wish I knew where any of my friends are, if any of them made it. I wish I knew anything other than this damned snowstorm.”
Tom Allison had more difficulty getting the Nomad going again. The windshield wipers and defroster were losing the war and the cabin temperature was probably only at about 35 degrees. Jack would reach over with a handkerchief from time to time to wipe away the ice from the inside of the windshield.
“They don’t build them like they used to,” Tom Allison said as more a curse than observation.
“Oh, they just don’t build them anymore,” his elder brother tried to joke. The Powerglide automatic had only two forward gears, and neither was right for this road. “Try backing up a few feet. You’re going to need quite the run at that to get through it, I’d guess.”
Tom Allison slammed the shifter down into Reverse. He had needed to remind himself Reverse was at the bottom of the shift pattern on these old Powerglides.
The back of the Nomad twisted left to right, unable to find enough traction with its open rear differential. Tom Allison pushed the lever back into Low, but didn’t feather the throttle enough. The 327 sputtered and died.
“Shit!” Reynolds again spat. Blinking lights in the rearview mirror. Trouble. She flashed her own highbeams at the McGuinesses as she stopped. As little as she liked the idea of walking more than a foot in the weather, she did not dare reverse.
Joe McGuiness relayed the message and made sure Prosser stopped. He wasn’t sure what would happen next. It was probably only two hundred yards from Reynold’s Charger to McGuiness’ truck, with Prosser in it, but it was a cold two hundred yards for a man with six toes and wet boots.
Prosser put the truck into neutral and sat for a moment. He was ready to give up, on the cusp of just putting the truck back into gear, and going ahead without regard.
His chest heaved and he coughed up a bit of blood, which he quickly washed down with some whiskey. No, vodka.
He was dying in a hurry and he knew it. But what he did not know was what these six other people would do without him. At this point he was unsure whether he could make it to Dubois, and making an ascent over Togwotee seemed a one-in-ten shot at this point.
But there wasn’t a damned thing he could do. Accept his fate, and press on until he could no longer. He allowed himself to light another Marlboro before be pushed the clutch in again and selected reverse.
He backed slowly until he was next to the other Ford, alongside her passenger window. He rolled his down, as Iris McGuiness did the same.
“Beautiful morning for a drive in the mountains!” he hollered at the McGuinesses.
Even though the snow was quickly blowing into her face and wetting it, Iris McGuiness noted that Prosser’s face looked too wet.
“Sure is!” her father bellowed back to Prosser. “I think it must be the Allisons, it looked like Julie was doing alright.”
Prosser somehow managed a toothy grin. “Always the guys in the back. Maybe they hit a moose and are going to throw us a bar-be-que?!” He rolled his window up and pressed backward again, even more carefully now. It would be no good if their only four-wheel drive got stuck.
It took him three minutes to snake down another one hundred yards to the Charger, where he repeated the approach. He noted Els did not look well, but yet better than he. Like saying a hanging doesn’t look quite as dead as a gunshot to the head, he thought. After exchanging pleasantries with Reynolds, he formulated a new plan.
“Alright, it’s risky, but so are too many of these stops. I want you to go pull up as close behind that fuel barrel as you can. I’m going to chain you up to the ninety,” he said, referring to the 390 engine.
“Once I get the lead sled up, I’ll pull the Allison boys ahead of you two and the McGuinesses. We’ll go in two-by-two.”
Reynolds nodded and was rewarded by the same grin as their windows went up.
“How does he do it? Smile in all of this shit?” Els asked.
“I don’t know but you’ve got to thank god that he does. Otherwise, we’re toast.”
Prosser needed another six minutes to wind his way back to the Nomad. Tom Allison had managed to get the engine running again, but had had no further luck in getting unstuck. Prosser backed up to the front of the Chevy, instead of beside it, and jumped out.
He nearly fell several times. His feet were still bloodied and bleeding, and cold, and he hadn’t even begun to consider the new complexities of keeping his balance with missing digits. But he managed to slide to the driver side of the Nomad, opened the door, and slid in next to the Allison brothers.
“Who taught you southerners how to drive, anyway,” he quipped.
Tom Allison was frustrated from becoming stuck and lashed out. “You’re the one who held us up.”
Jack Allison quickly had his hand on his brother’s collar. “Now, now, we aren’t used to driving in this shit,” he said. “Two snowflakes in Atlanta and the whole damn town shuts down.” Neither Allison mentioned they had both been in Wyoming for over 20 years.
Another day and Prosser might have had words for Tom Allison, but it was everything he could do not to pass out, puke, or just die. He nodded, and then told the brothers what he planned to do.
“That’s crazy,” Jack Allison said. “A few blocks, maybe, but I don’t think you can pull up for another 30 miles like that.”
“It’s either that or leave this behind. We’ve got an awful lot of stuff in here.”
The Allisons reflected on that. “Yeah. I don’t like it. But I guess you’re right,” Jack Allison said.
Tom Allison felt worse than if he had just killed a kitten, having lashed out at Prosser. “Alright. Jack, you can drive this? I’m going to go with John here and tie up the chain.”
Jack Allison nodded. It was a good idea for someone else to volunteer to get cold and wet before they killed Prosser making him shoulder the entire burden. And judging by Prosser’s appearance and demeanor, it was almost certainly a good idea to have someone in the cab with him.
Prosser wanted to argue the point but he was no longer sure he could attach the chain. He reached across the younger Allison’s lap to shake hands with the elder. “This is a damn tricky game, Jack. It’ll be no good if you rear-end me and bust your radiator. But if you ride the brake too hard I won’t be able to get going.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“That’s all any of us can do. Good luck.”
As they shook hands one more time, Jack Allison wondered if this was the last time he would speak to Prosser.
Tom Allison barely managed to climb back in the cab with Prosser after attaching the chain. He was in good shape for being 54, and Prosser hadn’t looked particularly well when they had stumbled upon one another. How in the hell has he hung on this long? Prosser certainly didn’t look well now, but his eyes were clear.
Prosser shifted into first, a granny-low. All four wheels spun for a moment and then began to catch. As soon as they felt like they were engaged, he shifted into second and then let out the clutch. The wheels spun again as the chain went taunt. For a moment he wasn’t sure he would keep going forward, but he heard the small block Chevy behind him scream as Jack Allison punched it. They started moving on.
From the first encounter with the drift until now, as Prosser and the Allisons reached the rest of their convoy, nearly an hour had elapsed.
Instead of being parked behind the truck, Reynolds had pulled up alongside of it. He stopped behind the fuel barrel.
This time it was Joe McGuiness who wetted his feet. He ran to the passenger side of the 360 – what he had come to think of as his truck, when in reality all four vehicles had been stolen. Tom Allison piled over to the center seat to make room for the Irishman.
“Good to see you again, Tom,” McGuiness managed with almost convincing brio. He turned to Prosser. “We decided to ditch the Mopar. Julie doesn’t feel good driving it right up my ass. And with the gas kettle, neither do I.”
Prosser nodded. He didn’t necessarily agree with the decision but he was glad someone else was making them. They’d have to learn a bit of leadership in a hurry the way he was going.
“I figure Amanda can ride with us and Julie can either ride with you or Jack. We’ve unloaded as much as we could, but it doesn’t amount to much. A case of whiskey and twenty cartons of cigarettes. Two flats of canned stuff that may or may not be any good after freezing.”
“Good work Joe,” Prosser said. “Tom, would you rather stay with me or go back with your brother?”
“I’ll go with Jack. You can have the pleasure of Julie’s company.”
Prosser nodded. “Alright, it’s set then. Joe, send Julie to me. You’re going to have to try and run the Charger out of the way. I don’t know if I can ram it while I’m pulling the Chevy too.”
McGuiness agreed. The other two men scampered out of the truck. Prosser lighted another cigarette as he waited for everything to come together. Reynolds joined him in the cab after about 30 seconds.
He smiled at her as he took a drag. Ahead of them, Joe McGuiness was wrestling with the Dodge, trying to get it out of their way. He wasn’t having much luck.
After about five minutes, he got out of the car and threw up his arms. Prosser nodded. McGuiness returned to his daughter, and some warmth.
“Well, here goes nothing,” Prosser remarked, as he again shifted into low and grimaced at the pain in his left foot. At least it’s still hurting, he thought hopefully.
He had timed the shift right, hitting second gear just as the wheels were digging in and about three seconds before he hit the Charger. “Damn shame to leave that thing out here in the middle of nowhere, but I think you guys may have made the right choice,” Prosser said to Reynolds. “In a perfect world, I think we would have kept the Mopar instead of the Chevy – seems it was doing better. But we all know this ain’t a perfect world.”
Reynolds didn’t say anything.
Joe McGuiness had been thoughtful. He had left the Charger running and in gear, with the rear tires alternately spinning at just a few miles per hour, going nowhere. He had also turned the wheel just a bit to the right and what would have been the barrow pit under all that snow.
“Sharp, Joe,” Prosser said aloud as he made contact, a jarring thing. There was a second impact half a second later as the Nomad hit the back of the Ford. It didn’t seem enough to damage the old sled, though, Prosser noted optimistically.
“What?” Reynolds asked.
“He left it in gear, or maybe in neutral, so I don’t have to push locked rear wheels. He was also smart enough to steer just a bit toward the ditch. Too much wouldn’t have helped.”
The Charger was now almost away to their right. Prosser didn’t like the idea much, but he didn’t have any others. “Hold on.”
Prosser shifted the transfer case into two-wheel drive and stomped on the gas while twisting the wheel to left. The back end of the truck slid out right, tugging the Nomad with it. The burst pushed the Charger clear. Prosser got off the gas for a split second then shifted back into four-wheel drive before flooring the accelerator again.
His right foot screamed in pain as it slammed into the floorboard. Prosser did not confront the fact he no longer felt much pain in his left.
The Dodge slid onto what would have been the shoulder if the road had been clear, where its front end lodged in a five-foot tall snow bank. The well-tuned engine continued to run, turning the rear wheels at idle, for about an hour. Then, ironically, the engine overheated and died, as the snow turned to hard ice and the radiator could no longer cool the antifreeze.
Another forty minutes after that and the battery finally gave out. The headlights flickered one last time and the heater fan failed to turn another revolution.
The Charger was dead, another casualty that had done its duty, and well, only to be used up and left beside the road. Prosser wondered if that was to be his fate, as well.
The three vehicles had arrived in Dubois sometime in the late afternoon the previous day. Prosser had fallen into a stupor almost as soon as he brought the 360 to a halt.
The Allison brothers had helped carry him into a house, where they removed his bloodied boots and socks to inspect his feet. Jack Allison had been a marine medic at the tail end of Vietnam and grimly announced the rest of the toes on Prosser’s left foot would need to be removed, and two more on his right.
Els had managed to avoid yelling at Jack Allison for not volunteering to do this duty earlier that day.
Prosser was now in a bathtub with only his underwear on. Joe McGuiness had managed to pick a house with a propane tank firing the hot water heater, which even still had water in it. He dispatched his daughter to bring in snow, of which there was plenty, to cool the water.
It had been 18 hours since they had put Prosser in the tub. They had stabilized his temperature, with aspirin and water and some pear juice as well. His fever broke in the morning.
“Ugh,” he muttered. “The room service here stinks.” Amanda Els had been keeping watch, warming the water as necessary and making sure he did not drown. It was the first coherent thing he had said since screaming and writhing in pain when the cutters had taken his toes.
“John, thank god.” Els put a cup of water to his lips, which he sipped from but did not swallow.
“Whiskey and a cigarette, I think.” She didn’t like it, but neither did she argue. At any rate, she had both near at hand.
Prosser lifted his left foot out of the water and examined the bandage. “That dressing needs to be changed. I can’t – can you, or should I call for Jack?”
Els squirmed but firmed. “I’m sorry I had such a tough time with it yesterday. I know it hurt you…”
“Nonsense. It is an endearing tribute to your humanity that you waver before causing another person pain, even if it is necessary pain. You go right on being human.”
She began to remove the dressing, and blood slowly started to trickle into the bath. “It’s a good sign that it’s still bleeding a bit,” he said, sucking on the cigarette.
“You’ve had some penicillin. I guess Jack knew a thing or two about that.” After they had stabilized Prosser the previous afternoon, Tom Allison had gone out and found the Dubois Medical Clinic, just up the highway from where they had made camp. He had brought the antibiotic, enough for several nasty injuries, and bandages to keep up a marine squadron.
“I think I recall him mentioning he had been a medic once upon a time,” Prosser said.
“Can I ask you something?”
“If you knew, why did you ask me to… cut off your toes yesterday?”
Prosser grimaced and not from the pain of Els unwinding the bandage. “I’m sorry for that. I knew you would be nicer.”
“Why? Jack is a good man.”
“Yes, he is. He’s also a trained man, or he was once upon a time. He probably would have taken all the toes on the left foot, and maybe an extra one or two on the right.”
“Wouldn’t that have been better? I mean, he said there was a danger of gangrene with you’re having left the others on in the shape they were in. And I know you were in pain the whole way up.”
“Maybe. But I’m not in the habit of giving up my extremities just because it might save me a fever.”
And now he could finally see his foot, or what remained of it. The previous morning, Els had done most of the work and he hadn’t had a good look at it after she had cut. But now, with faint daylight coming through a high window in the west and a white gas lamp burning, he could see.
Jack Allison hadn’t taken any chance. The toes were all gone, and he had stitched up the wound enough to keep Prosser from bleeding but enough, hopefully, to expel any gangrene and prevent other maladies.
Els met his glance. “You should be glad you were in a delirium. I think it would have killed me to have seen that.”
“Nonsense,” Prosser said, drinking slowly from the whiskey and finishing the cigarette. “You did fine yesterday. He was just doing what had to be done, just like you’re doing now.”
“He said you’re an idiot.”
“He’s right. Did he save the toes or throw them out?”
Els swallowed hard. “They’re outside in the snow, but he didn’t want to be rid of them.”
Prosser gathered himself and then yelled, “Jack!”
The elder Allison wasn’t the first through the door, but was there with the rest of them in about 30 seconds. Els continued bandaging the foot.
Jack Allison had been sleeping, it looked like. Prosser noted Tom Allison’s absence.
“Well, John, you look like hell!” Jack Allison said, trying to sound cheerful.
“I owe you my life,” Prosser said simply.
“If I should have to repeat that a few times perhaps we’ll be close to even.”
“Maybe you will? This left foot is a bang-up job Jack. What did the other look like?”
“I suppose you’ll want to see?”
“Not really, but I should. Good to know what I’m working against.” Jack Allison nodded and stepped out.
Iris McGuiness was red faced and nearly cried. It had been three days since any of them had had a proper bed to sleep in and everyone was a bit catawampus from the change. “We thought you were dead.”
Prosser did not say he had feared the same. “Too stubborn to die, and I wouldn’t have anyplace to go. God won’t have me and the devil’s afraid I’d take over.”
Joe McGuiness put his hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “It was a close shave, John.”
“Well, we’ve pulled through this round anyway. Where’s Tom?”
Jack Allison returned with a bloodied mixing bowl that he had used as part of his surgical theatre. The feet had been so bad he had begun cutting before his brother found the medicine and some proper surgical equipment. He handed the bowl to Prosser.
“He’s out looking for supplies and keeping an eye on things. The weather has let up just a hair.”
Prosser didn’t say anything as he looked at the remains of his feet, here in a dish.
Reynolds asked. “You don’t think anyone else would try and come up the road in weather like this?”
Prosser continued to study the pan. He gestured to Iris McGuiness, who lighted a cigarette for him. He didn’t seem to be bothered by the half-frozen blood on his thumb, the thumb he used to take the Marlboro.
“Are you asking if there are any other lunatic bastards in the world like us? I suppose there might be, and some of our friends might fit the bill. I’ll grant that it’s possible, but I’d make it a small likelihood.”
“Do they know we came this way?” Reynolds asked.
“No, although they’ll be pretty confident that if we went anyplace this was it. They may think – I hope they think – that we just camped out someplace, that we were too smart to mess with this damned weather. But if they know ass-from-hat in this country and weather patterns, they’ll know we came this way. It’s too bad the road to Thermopolis was blocked. I wouldn’t have dared it, but it might have given them pause.” He sucked noisily on the cigarette. “But like I said, I hope they think we’ve holed up someplace in Riverton, or even Shoshoni.”
His delivery didn’t do much to lighten their spirits. He knew they wouldn’t be much match for whoever it was following them. Jane McGuiness, Caleb Reynolds and Betty Allison could each attest to that.
“Don’t put this foot back in the water. I put some salve on it,” Els said, surprising Prosser a bit. He did as he was told and left it propped up over the side of the tub. She drained a bit of water before turning the hot tap back on for a minute. Then she began working on his right foot.
“After Amanda fixes me up, I’ll be out of here. How is the water situation?”
Joe McGuiness told him. “We’ve got plenty of propane to heat water and I imagine you know we’ve got enough snow to have many a bath. Enough white gas to stay in the light for awhile, a few days at least. I doubt you’ll like it, but we’ve had a roaring fire on since as soon as we could make it.”
Prosser grinned just a bit, but the first real grin he had given in two days that wasn’t coaxed by fatigue or sickness. “Hell, Joe, if we’re going to die, may as well do it comfortable?” He did not want to pass judgment on what had been done while he was under. These people needed to learn to lead themselves. His feet were alright for the moment, but he didn’t know how many more cat’s lives he had left.
Two hours later Prosser was asleep again after having been clothed and fed. It seemed like a royal banquet, even though it was but two tins of SPAM, some crackers, corn and pears. There had even been coffee, which he passed on, knowing he wanted a little more sleep.
In the drawers of the house they had found clean socks for him and his pants had been dried. He was as close to happy as he could be. A fire on the hearth and someone else watching the road into town.
Prosser had insisted on taking a two hour watch, and he sat inside the 360-Ford – the four-wheel drive – smoking a cigarette, drinking gin again, and watching the road to the east.
The pain when he walked to the truck had been nearly blinding, but he found he could work the clutch without scowling too badly.
During the daylight hours one person would sit in the truck and watch the road while another walked around town looking for supplies. They had decided it would be impossible to challenge the Togwotee in this weather. He hoped their would-be pursuers felt the same way about trying to come up to Dubois.
If they – whoever they were – decided to come up, and made it, it would be trouble. Between the seven of them, they had enough in the way of guns and ammo. But only Jack Allison and Prosser had much experience shooting, and Allison’s was nearly forty years old.
Prosser was moving around a bit better, but not as well as he would have liked. He didn’t know how many were behind them, but it wouldn’t take more than a few to finish them.
He was also concerned. There were two ways they could have played it in Dubois. They could have holed up one place and hoped if their pursuers came after them they might miss signs of their presence.
Or they could do what they were doing. Make so many tracks all over town it would be clear they were there, but maybe make it difficult to track them down.
Prosser didn’t know that they were doing the right thing. But he knew it was better than to allow himself to become paralyzed by fear, or to second guess his fellow travelers. If one of them made a decision, he would support them to the bitter end.
After what he guessed to be two hours he idled back up to the house they were staying in.
Iris McGuiness was out and about in the other Ford and her father was about to go find her before starting his own patrol.
“Hold on a sec, Joe.” Prosser stumbled and put his weight on Joe McGuiness’ shoulder as his foot bothered him.
“Let me give you a hand John,” he said.
“I’ve got something I want you to hear.”
It only took ten minutes for Prosser to describe his idea and answer the few questions the group had.
“Joe, I’ll go find Iris and make the pitch to her, if you don’t mind.”
McGuiness did not. As Prosser hobbled out the front door, Tom Allison strode up to him.
“I wonder if a sales pitch is the only thing he’s taking your daughter?” McGuiness had already reflected on that.
“So what if it’s not? Present company accepted, Tom, but I can’t think of too many other people I’d rather she end up with. And she can always say no, if that’s what it is.”
“Do you think he’d listen if that’s what she said?”
McGuiness instantly looked tired. “Tom, what are you getting at? Do you really think that gimped up man is going to go rape my daughter with my implicit consent? Remember, if it wasn’t for him, we’d all be far up the Shit Creek without a pattle.”
Tom decided he had pressed hard enough. “Of course,” he said furtively before he walked off. He was off, so he would eat and drink a bit, then try and sleep. He would do the first two slowly, so he could observe Iris McGuiness when she returned.
When neither of them had returned in 90 minutes it was Reynolds who spoke to the elder McGuiness.
“Whatever they’re doing, I’m sure they’re fine. I’ll even go out and check on them, if you’d like.”
McGuiness stroked his short red beard but said nothing.
“Joe, I overheard what you told Tom, and you’re right, twice. John Prosser is the only thing standing between Death himself and us. He is also likely the best man your daughter is likely to find.”
He began to pull away, but the taller woman grabbed his forearm. “He may be one of the best men a woman could fine on either side of this… thing.”
McGuiness looked up at her. “You want him, too?”
Another forty minutes passed, although the group had only one working watch between them and it was with Iris, so they had only an idea that it was now 4 pm.
They had all become expert in listening to exhaust notes and shift patterns. The 360 would be Prosser returning.
But it was Iris McGuiness.
Questions came from several different directions as to where she had been, and why she was driving “her father’s” truck, instead of Prosser’s, which she had set off in.
The hair on the back of her neck went straight, and she wasn’t sure why, but Reynolds noted how Tom Allison looked Iris McGuiness up and down.
“He told me his idea, and I thought it was as good an idea as any. I helped him a little bit. He had one ready and thought he’d have a second fixed by the time I came here and rounded up two of you to go get them.”
Both Tom and Jack Allison volunteered. Only Reynolds thought strangely of this, because she knew Joe McGuiness had some experience with mechanics but thought Tom Allison did not. But she did not speak up.
The younger McGuiness led the two Allison brothers back out into the cold, to the idling 360. As soon as the door was shut, Reynolds bolted to Joe McGuiness.
“Are you going to let that wolf into the fold with your daughter?”
“She’s going to have to learn to take care of herself at some point.”
Reynolds nearly shrieked. The only remaining occupant of the house, Amanda Els, came at the sound of commotion. “What’s going on?”
Reynolds ignored her. “You heartless bastard, that’s your own daughter!”
The short Irishman suddenly became angry and looked up at the woman, five inches taller and five years older. “You will not speak to me about my daughter in such a way you –” he bit his tongue. Reynolds was defiant and McGuiness was cooling quickly.
“What the hell is going on?” Els asked again.
Tom Allison had a plan.
He didn’t much care for it, but he couldn’t think of anything else to do.
It had been years since he had last been laid, and by the looks of things it would be years more – if ever. Both Els and Reynolds had quietly rebuked his advances over the last few days. So had Iris McGuiness, but he thought he could work around that.
Iris McGuiness pulled the truck up short, struggling with the heavy clutch. The moisture on the bottom of her cowboy boots made keeping straight on the pedal difficult.
“Well there’s the second one. Where the hell is the first one?” she asked of no one in particular.
Prosser was no where to be found.
“You don’t suppose…” Jack Allison began to ask.
“No. No!” McGuiness cut him off.
“I don’t see any other explanation for it,” Tom Allison said.
“We’d better get back to the house,” Jack Allison said.
“Not yet,” his brother interrupted. “I’m going to have a look around.” Tom Allison stepped out of the truck.
He was surprised and confused when he reached “the second one,” which was a much newer Dodge Ram pickup. It didn’t make sense.
The gasoline engine was running and the windows were slowly defrosting. There were footprints leading off to the south, through the snow. He walked back to the older truck.
“He got the sonofabitch running but he isn’t around. It’s warming up now.” The mustachioed Allison thought for a moment. “Jack, how about you take that Dodge and we’ll have a look for JP. Iris, would you like me to drive?”
Jack Allison nodded. The Ram would probably ride better than the old Ford, which felt like it was little more than a hayrack mounting a tractor. Iris McGuiness agreed, too, and prepared to slide over into the passenger seat.
Just as Jack was getting out of the truck, the other Ford blasted into view, sliding around a corner and nearly driving into a ditch. It pulled alongside the 360 as Prosser rolled down the window.
“We’re out of time. Headlights down the road. It cleared a bit and I got a good look at them. Probably ten miles out yet, coming slow, but we’re out of time.
“You three get back to the house on the double and start loading that Dodge up. I’m going to go get my new wheels. I’ll meet you there as fast as I can. We need to be on the road in ten minutes. Make sure you leave one seat open for me.”
Jack Allison began moving for the Dodge as Prosser yelled after him. “Jack, have your brother help you hook the fuel barrel up to that Dodge, it should pull it better than the 360, and I’m leaving this ’90 behind.”
Jack Allison nodded. Tom Allison stood for just a moment in the snow, then commanded Iris McGuiness to scoot over. She did.
Prosser was already reversing. “Remember: ten minutes!” He dropped the 390-FE into Drive and spun neatly around in a semi-circle before blasting back down the road.
“Where in the hell is he going?” Tom Allison asked no one in particular, it having not occurred to him that Iris McGuiness might know. But she did not.
“Christ, that motherfucker isn’t going to try an engine swap in ten minutes is he?” Tom Allison asked almost rhetorically as he pushed the transmission into second, not needing the granny low. Both the Ford and the Dodge began a sprint for the house.
“What?” Joe McGuiness screamed, almost in a panic. “Ten minutes!”
“Aye,” Jack Allison said, “and that was nearly five minutes ago. We need to throw everything into the truck and leave the Nomad.”
“Was John sure this new truck will work?”
“We didn’t have time to discuss it,” Tom Allison said.
“I did ask him about that,” Iris McGuiness said as she helped them load up the crew cab. “He said as long as we don’t put any gas in it he’s sure it’ll be OK. It has a full tank, and he thinks that’s good for about 200 miles… enough to get us over the mountains.”
Prosser pulled his next trick in short order, as he appeared down the highway in a Caterpillar grader. “There he is!” Iris McGuiness shouted.
“Well I’ll be damned,” her father said quietly.
The 12E stopped along them and Prosser hobbled out as best as he could. It was clear to everyone his right foot was bothering him. But he put on a brave face.
“Are we ready?” Nods of agreement. “Alright. I welded a tank on the back of this pig and should have enough fuel oil to get to Jackson, I hope.”
“Here’s the plan, although we’re going to have to play it by ear, I think. I’ll lead us out of town. As soon as one of you spots a place where it looks like a choke point, stop and I’ll get out of your way. Pull ahead, and I’ll try and close the road behind us.”
“I hope to hell this works,” he said, scrambling back on the blade.
Prosser had hoped they would leave town soon enough that the evidence of their passing would be blown over by the time their pursuers arrived, making them waste time searching the town for them. That was unlikely to happen now, as the headlights of their convoy – Christ! There must be 15 of them! – were now visible only a mile or two away, even through the snow.
Prosser had thought about trying to put together a makeshift bomb or distraction but was glad he hadn’t taken the time to try. If they made it out of town, it would be by a whisker.
He steamed ahead as fast as the old Cat could muster, dropping the blade to blaze a trail for those behind him. In truth, he had no idea how far the auxiliary fuel tank would carry him.
Prosser had driven a 12E a few times about ten years ago. They were ancient technology then. It had taken him an hour to work out how to start it, with the interior a mess. Another hour to start it. And finally, he had found the electric heater, a blessing.
He knew that many of the 12’s had come with open cabs. Thank god the Dubois office of the highway department hadn’t ordered one of those.
“Well, it looks like our friends have traded in their Charger for a blade? Nice of them to think of clearing the highway for us,” Michael Bader said from the passenger seat of the GMC now barely a half mile behind the convoy.
The man behind the wheel, Richard Maker, pushed a little harder on the gas. “I’m surprised they made it this far without something like that. Tom said they didn’t even have but one set of tire chains and only the one truck was four-wheel drive.”
“I’m not surprised. I might even be surprised if we catch them. You know their leader?”
“I didn’t know they had a leader.”
“Of course,” Bader almost spit. “Of course you do. Of course. It’s John Prosser.”
Maker eased off the gas. His prey was throwing up enough powder it was difficult for him to see, and their own help would be trying to avoid rear-ending him in the confusion.
“Who the hell is that?”
Bader punched the dashboard between sliding a slug into a pump-action shotgun, a Remington 870. “He’s a highway man. He popped my brother with that load of weed on I-80 last year.”
“We’re chasing this guy like Satan behind the Virgin Mary because he sent your brother down the river?” It hadn’t occurred to Maker to ask before why Bader was so full of hell of run the man ahead of them down.
“My brother went to Rawlins before the feds got their shot at him, and he got a bunch of dick up his ass. Nobody does that to my brother,” Bader growled. He did not mention that it was his brother-in-law, or that he didn’t care. He needed an object for his hatred.
Bader had never smoked marijuana, but he was an avid methamphetamine user. It had been 43 days since he had used the last of his stash, and he hadn’t been able to put together the ingredients to make a batch, yet. But chasing Prosser was almost as good fun.
“Damn you Christ,” Prosser swore as he downshifted the big Cat into third gear. He had seen blades buried before and he wasn’t about to make that mistake here.
“It’s not enough that I’ve got to lead a bunch of desperate people in a hopeless task. It’s not enough that I’ve got to fight off frostbite and gangrene. No, you’ve got to put the devil himself with his nose so far up my ass I can’t have a fart. Fuck!”
He had gone easier on the booze up to this point, trying to make sense of the old Cat. He had also been uncertain what effect that much alcohol would have on the penicillin. Damnit, he thought to himself. He was due.
“The sonofabitch is mooning us?!” Bader screamed. Although he was ahead of two trucks, Maker had closed the distance enough that he could now see that Prosser had stood and dropped his pants.
“In Christ’s name,” Reynolds muttered. “Has he lost it?”
Jack Allison, who was driving the Dodge with the McGuinesses chasing in the Ford, allowed himself a belly laugh.
Reynolds turned and hit his arm. “Damnit, damn, damnit, are we fucked?”
Jack Allison let himself laugh a little longer as his brother and Els also tried to work it out. He had heard that laughing was good for the body and mind, and he didn’t know when his next chance would be, so he let it run its course.
“Don’t worry. He’s due for another shot of penicillin.”
And sure enough, there was Prosser’s red-white ass and him pressing a bottle of whiskey up to it.
Jack Allison could barely contain himself. “Remind me not to drink from that bottle!” he roared.
“What’s he doing, giving himself a Jack Daniels enema?” Maker asked. Bader was beside himself, certain Prosser was mooning him, him personally. It hadn’t occurred to him that Prosser didn’t have an idea who he was, or even if he did, that the name would mean nothing. His brother-in-law, the marijuana mover, had been named Colin Lowe.
“Honey, I don’t think I’ve told you I love you enough,” Joe McGuiness told his daughter.
Iris McGuiness tightened her seatbelt. “I love you too. Whatever you want to do, do it.”
The distraction Prosser was unknowingly providing half the living in Wyoming had so incensed Bader he hadn’t noticed that Maker had drifted casually close to the rear of the old Ford. Maker did not, either, until he noted the brake lights on the 360.
The brake lights were just an accident. Joe McGuiness had accidently tapped the center pedal while he was jamming the accelerator and clutch pedals to slam the truck into granny low gear.
Even though the GMC had antilock brakes and better tires than the Ford it wasn’t a match. ABS – antilock brakes – weren’t as good at stopping in deep snow, when letting snow pile up in front of the tires worked best. The extra weight of the car batteries Prosser had installed in the back of the Ford helped, too.
“Shit!” Maker yelled as he pumped the brake pedal, another mistake. He should have held the pedal down, but he wasn’t used to driving something so modern.
The GMC 3500HD slammed into the back of the old Ford. The heavy duty hitch that Prosser had installed on the Ford to pull the fuel barrel inserted itself through the radiator of the GMC and into the water pump, cracking the block.
The airbags deployed in the newer truck, as well. Bader’s nose was broken as the deployment forced the Remington into his face. Maker was not so seriously injured or confused, and he pushed his own airbag away.
The GMC had stalled and Maker figured the engine would soon be toast, but he wanted to get out of the way so the rest of the trucks could come help. Instead, he was promptly rear ended by one of his own trucks, which pushed them into a V across the highway.
Joe McGuiness couldn’t think of a prouder moment since he had stood there at Elise’s birth 17 winters ago. Elise was gone now, and so was his Jane, but he still had Iris, and he wasn’t about to give her up.
Downshifting, instead of using the brakes, Joe McGuiness had never gotten out of gear. As soon as the collision had started, he had floored the throttle again and was already in third gear when the other Ford, this one much newer, slammed into the back of the GMC.
He was happy. The cloud of steam in the rearview mirror told him the radiator in the GMC had been purged, which would disable the truck in short order if the collision switch had not. As for his own Ford, it felt like one of the rear springs had broken and there was some chassis damage. The truck was pulling to the right. But he didn’t appear to be losing fuel.
“Hot damn Joey Mick!” Prosser yelled, having no idea his own depantsing had opened the opportunity. He popped back into top gear and hoped to clear enough distance to close the road before his pursuers were upon him again.
Bader was coming to, into a white rage. He kicked the hole in the dash where the airbag had been. His eyes were blackened and his nose continued to gush blood. Maker was furiously trying to start the engine.
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know!” Maker yelled.
“Check the battery.”
Maker opened the door and stepped out. As he did so, Bader dropped the Remington down and pulled the trigger. “Don’t tailgate – fuck!” he screamed.
Maker survived only long enough to realize his midsection had just been turned into a fine mist, which began freezing almost the instant the slug tore through his chest. The millions of blood droplets had nearly infinitely more surface area than just a puddle of blood would have, allowing the -15 degree air to suck the moisture from the blood cloud in seconds. That’s about how long it took Maker to hit the ground dead.
Bader slid over into the driver’s seat and tried the ignition as few times. He was starting to calm down just a bit.
He grabbed the Remmy and jumped out.
“Jackson, will that piece of shit start?”
“No boss, I think I tripped the fuel cutoff.” The fuel shutoff switch, or collision switch, is a circuit tripped by inertia or momentum, designed to kill power to the in-tank electronic fuel pump in newer vehicles, to prevent it from pumping gasoline into a wreck that might be on fire. The force of the impact between the GMC and McGuiness’ Ford had been enough to disable to the fuel pump in that truck, but not in Jackson’s Ford.
“Damnit I’m working on it,” and he was. Jackson wasn’t familiar with this vintage of truck, a 2009, but he had once owned a 1986. He had part of an interior panel ripped off, trying to figure out if that was where the switch was.
“Fuck it. We’re out of time.” Bader signaled to the third truck to pull up. “Push these two heaps out of the way. Be careful: don’t trip any fuel switches or any of that shit.”
The driver nodded and began to line up with Bader’s GMC.
Joe McGuiness was still feeling the afterglow of having performed well. He was smoking and drinking a bit as he followed the Dodge and Cat up the mountain. They came around a bend and he slammed on the brake. Iris McGuiness looked at him, concerned. “It’s time,” he said.
Prosser immediately noted that both trucks had stopped. He continued on about 50 yards further, before backing up and to the left. The Ford and the Dodge pulled past him.
It was a tricky spot. Prosser didn’t dare back into a barrow pit and get stuck, or worse, drive clear off the embankment. But he had one shot.
He turned the blade on the grader as far near perpendicular as it would go. The newer Cats could dig trenches, their blade articulating mechanisms were so much more flexible. This thing had been designed in the 50’s, and it felt it. Instead of hydraulics, he was grinding direct outputs into a multiple power-take-off. The way it was meant to be.
A dozer would have been much better for this job, he thought. The road department yard had a dozer, too, but he had left it there. Too slow.
Prosser did his best to put up a berm, but he was hardly expert with heavy equipment. He did as best as he could, as quickly as he could. He figured he had another minute, two perhaps.
He nearly had a heart attack when Joe McGuiness pounded on the door. He stopped and opened it, leaning over.
“Iris and I are out of the truck and got most of the stuff out. If one of us rides with you in here…”
“That’s cutting it close, Joe. We’ll be sitting on one another’s laps if I have to bail from this.”
“I think I broke the rear axle when I stopped up our friends back there, and I know a spring is gone.”
“Alright Joe, have it your way. Is Iris in the Dodge?”
They were yelling over the wind. “Alright, get back in the Ford and put it right here, right where I’m at, sideways. I’ll see if I can push it over.”
The highway was narrow enough here that it was just possible an overturned truck, in deep snow, might be enough to slow their pursuers’ progress. Not long, not when they had 13 or 14 trucks, but maybe a little while.
As Joe McGuiness maneuvered the 360 into position Prosser could tell the man hadn’t been lying. The truck limped into position, with McGuiness fighting to steer it successfully. When he was done, he leapt out and joined Prosser in the cab of the blade.
Prosser handed a jug of whiskey to the elder man as he turned the Cat back perpendicular of the Ford.
“By god, Joe, those were two good trucks. The lead sled and the Charger, too.”
“Aye,” McGuiness said simply, splashing out a bit of the whiskey before taking a long drink. He had only been in the snow for a total of ten minutes or so, transferring what he could from the Ford to the Dodge, but his feet were solid-cold.
Prosser pushed the transaxle into Reverse and backed up to the Ford. He then lifted the scarifier, which dumped the 360 onto its side. Reversing some more, he pushed the truck onto its roof.
“Did you fuel it before we left?”
“Sorry Joe, going to have to ask you to take another walk in the cold.” He handed the Irishman a road flare. If there’s a fuel leak, stick this in the snow next to it, give yourself a minute or two but make sure it’s going to go off. If there’s no leak,” he grabbed his 12” bowie knife and handed it to McGuiness, “make one.”
Bader was many things. Not an idiot. He now had two trucks ahead of him and he kept the Remington in a position where it wouldn’t break his nose, or anything else, if the airbag went off in his face again.
As he followed the leaders around the bend again he was afraid there would be a collision, but this time everyone managed to stop before they hit the old Ford in the road.
“Canny bastard, isn’t he?” Bader said to no one in particular. He motioned for the trucks, one of which had a snowplow, to ram through the obstacle.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Bader,” his new driver Timothy Fargo said. “Billy hits that wreck too hard and he’ll break that plow.”
Bader had resisted having Fargo as his driver up until now because he knew Fargo was no idiot. “Stop him.” Fargo flashed his headlights a few times. “Damnit, we’re losing time,” he muttered, as he stepped out of the truck, without the shotgun.
Fargo immediately grabbed it and ejected the shells. He reloaded all but one, first putting in a fouled shell he had ejected three days earlier. That bastard Prosser had nearly taken Fargo’s life for the mistake, a .41 magnum round having blasted most of Fargo’s left ear off while he chambered a fresh load.
At any rate, he wasn’t going to risk Maker’s fate.
Bader was halfway back to Fargo’s Toyota when the Ford 360 went up.
It was a wonderful explosion, Prosser noted, probably because of the dual tanks on the old Ford. One had leaked and gotten lots of the truck wet with gasoline, while the second had sat there, full, like a firecracker.
The force of the explosion surprised everyone. Prosser’s and McGuiness’ ears popped and they felt the heat.
Bader was not surprised by the presence of an explosion, but the force of it had taken him back… about ten feet. Once he regained his bearings, he noted the windshield of both the plow truck and the Ford in the ditch were spiderwebbed, the Ford broken by another airbag deployment.
“Damnit Fargo, while I straighten this out, unplug your airbag fuses,” he ordered through the open window of the Toyota. Fargo thought about it, and removed the key from the ignition of the Tundra, turning the passenger side switch to Off. Bader was smart, but not experienced.
Prosser had moved the grader back ahead of the Dodge and was plowing ahead. “What did you put in there?” he asked Joe McGuiness.
“Nothing. But all those lead-acid batteries in the back may have had something to do with it.” He really didn’t know, and didn’t care to take credit for good luck.
“We’re fresh out of vehicles to pull stunts in. The problem is, I’m sure they can catch us up faster than I can plow.”
Joe McGuiness had been thinking about that. “I know. It’s a shame you can’t plop that Dodge up on your front girder and just push on without plowing.”
The dream had occurred to Prosser but he didn’t see how it was possible. He had thought about chaining the Dodge to the Cat and just pushing through, but the tires from the Ram would still leave a path. “Yep. I’m open to any other ideas.”
“Any dynamite in this thing?”
Prosser laughed. “Best I can figure it, we’re about 20 miles out from the pass. Headlights?”
Joe McGuiness scanned the darkness behind them. “None that I can see, but we’re throwing up a hell of a lot of powder.” He paused and fished out two cigarettes. “You know what I miss about my old Ford?” Prosser shook his head. “The cigarette lighter.”
Prosser allowed himself another laugh. Desperate people in a hopeless task. “Use the heater, it’s an open electric.” Joe McGuiness nearly melted his eyebrows doing so, but managed to light the Marlboros.
Bader and his fleet were now 12. The Ford with the broken windshield had been abandoned, but the Chevy with the plow would be held in service. They had scooped the glass out, and he was glad he wasn’t the one driving it.
They had managed to sneak past the burning 360 and were now making slower progress. His band of followers were already wondering why they were running after this man Prosser as if they were being chased by Satan himself, and would likely revolt if he pushed them too much harder.
Prosser searched his mind for ideas. The cab of the Cat was scarcely large enough for Joe McGuiness and him; there was no way seven could squeeze in. Similarly, even if he thought the Dodge was the better way to go it would be too cramped.
“Joe, I’m open to any ideas you’ve got. Come up with something or I’ll make you get out and walk,” he joked.
“Do you think that Dodge could make it? If we could leave this thing across the middle of the road and sabotage it… I don’t think their whole fleet of fucking trucks could pull it out of the way.”
“I had thought about that, but even if the Dodge could make the rest of the pull – and I don’t think it could – seven is too many for that truck. Any ideas on the fuel barrel?”
“I’ve been kicking it around, but, no. Not yet.”
“I had a thought to turn around and run this thing right down their gullet,” Prosser said, for the first time confessing not a suicidal tendency, but a tendency to want the nightmare over. “But I still don’t think that Dodge could make it.” They were running into occasional six-foot drifts and Prosser was beginning to worry if the blade could make it.
“Could we blow up the cliff face?”
“Yeah, with that dynamite you forgot to pack. I can’t see doing it with the gas.”
“I knew we should’ve gotten premium.”
The men finished their cigarettes, tossing the butts on the steel floor of the cab. Joe McGuiness had another swig of whiskey and offered it to Prosser. “Damn drunk drivers.”
Prosser snorted. “Only way you could get me on the road on a night like this.”
“Mind if I ask you a question?”
“Depends, but shoot.”
“What were you in the previous life?”
“Joe McGuiness, meet Sergeant John Prosser, Wyoming Highway Patrol.” Prosser could barely say it with a straight face given the drunken driving comment.
“No kidding. Joseph McGuiness, truck driver.” They shook hands anew.
“That makes sense. You pulled quite a trick on them back there.”
“Nice to know something I know is useful still.”
“No, not anymore. I know my way around an engine, a bit, but I’m afraid most of my knowledge died with that 360 we put the light to back there.”
“If it’s got a motor, I can fix it. If it’s got wheels, I can drive it,” Prosser said, repeating something he had said when he interviewed for the highway department position that led to his patrol posting. “Probably.”
“Wait, I’ve got an idea,” Joe McGuiness said. “You’re not going to like it.”
“Tell me something I didn’t already know.”
Progress was coming much slower for Bader and his compatriots. He wasn’t familiar with the motor grader Prosser was driving – it was too old – but he knew his convoy was now traveling at what was only a comfortable cruising speed for a newer model blade. He doubted Prosser could be pushing at full speed in these conditions, but he also knew the patrolman wouldn’t be taking a slow pace.
They hadn’t reacquired the lights from their marks since the 360 explosion. The wind was blowing, and maybe even fresh snow was falling, enough that Bader had told the lead Chevy to lower its blade. They were all driving four-wheel drive trucks, and all but two or three of them had tire chains, but it was still tough going.
“How far to the pass?”
“Probably 15 miles,” Fargo said before plucking the cigarette lighter from the dash. The only reason he had taken the Toyota was because it had a cigarette lighter. The rest, or at least the rest unspoken for by the time it was his turn, only had “power ports.”
“Michael, tell me something,” Fargo said to the acting commander of their posse. “Who is this guy? Some random guy working for the highway patrol isn’t this good.”
“Sure, some random guy might be. You never know what you’re capable of until you’re put to it.”
Fargo thought about that for a moment. He and Bader had never been friends, but he had been familiar enough with the other man to be confident Bader had never killed another human in cold blood before a few days ago. They were all pressed to things Fargo would have thought unlikely two months ago. Until then, he had thought most of it was because Johnny Law wasn’t around to put shackles on them any longer. But perhaps the desperation really had brought out something in them.
Or at least some of them.
“I told you you wouldn’t like it.”
Prosser frowned. “I don’t. But you’re right, all the same. We’ve got to try something. And we need to do more than buy some more time. We need to convince these guys to leave us alone for awhile.”
“Wait a sec John. No way we can do that. These clowns aren’t going to turn around unless we can kill half of them in a shot. You don’t come halfway to hell to decide heaven’s where you really wanted to go.”
“How reliable is your man?”
Bader had worried someone might challenge him, but he hadn’t expected it to be Fargo. Perhaps this wasn’t a direct challenge, but he wasn’t about to find out.
“Oh, he’s reliable alright.” Colin Lowe had been supplied cigarettes and a little marijuana in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins by a guard named Tom Allison.
Before, Bader’s faith in Tom Allison would have been nearly unshakable. A married man, it had taken an unusual track to wind him in. No children, no debt to speak of, but a history of being too hard on the exotic dancers in Green River had brought him to Bader’s doorstep. That was before, though. Bader wasn’t sure how well he would hold up in these circumstances.
“We still have the pussy?”
Fargo nodded. In one of the trucks toward the back of the convoy was a 15-year old named Jasmine, who had been unfortunate enough to have lived. Or perhaps her misfortunate had been in her company.
“You’re right, I don’t like it. Prosser was finishing his second cigarette since Joe McGuiness had started relaying his idea.”
“Nope. There’s a turnoff for Brooks Lake up here in another four or five miles. We’ll do it there.” After a moment of silence, he asked McGuiness, “Ever been to Brooks Lake?”
“No. I’ve only been this way once or twice in my life, coming and going to Yellowstone. It must be damned pretty.”
“That’s what I’ve heard. I just sat in the drive a few times to run speed traps.”
“Can we pull it off?”
“Do we have a choice?”
Bader’s rage was again building in his chest, subtly encouraged by Fargo, who continued to twist the other man ever so slowly.
Bader was an intelligent man, and passionate too. Fargo was working hard to exploit that. Part of it was his own ambition, wanting control of the ragtag gang Bader and he had assembled. Part of it was simply not wanting this pursuit to get him killed.
Julie Reynolds hadn’t been happy that Tom Allison had been elected to drive but it had been tolerable until Iris McGuiness’ father had ditched and sent her to ride with them.
A subtle attempt at convincing Tom Allison to let Iris McGuiness sit in the back had backfired badly. Now she was in the back, but Tom Allison had pushed his driving duties onto Reynolds in the bargain. Exploiting her attempt to help Iris McGuiness, Tom Allison had beaten Reynolds.
Now Jack Allison sat in the middle-front seat and Amanda Els was shotgun. Both were somehow dozing, probably because they had taken late watches in Dubois just ahead of Iris McGuiness. Reynolds hoped the woman behind her was awake and aware, but she didn’t dare to move against Tom Allison unless she was certain, dead certain, he was waiting for a chance to rape the redhead.
Why does our hero have to the only one who can drive the damn tractor? Reynolds thought. If Prosser were anywhere in the cab, she was sure Tom Allison would leave McGuiness alone.
“What do you think of Iris?”
“She was a hell of a lot of help getting this bugger running, that’s for sure. She…” Prosser looked down at Joe McGuiness, then chuckled. “Sorry, Joe, I’m thick as a side of 4H beef. You’ve got a wonderful daughter. I hope she remains wonderful until we get through this shit.”
“If we get through it, you mean? Were you married?”
The forced intimacy between them all had ceased to bother Prosser. “No. No time for it, no interest in it. I hadn’t been in the patrol long, but long enough to see it isn’t particularly compatible with the sacrament unless you’re a senior man.”
“You said you a sergeant though?”
“That’s just a fancy way of saying you’re on the way to senior, if you don’t foul anything up.”
“Are you a religious man? You called marriage ‘the sacrament.’”
“Catholic, Joe?” Joe McGuiness nodded. “I was so raised. Not quite sure what I am anymore. Tell you what: we can get drunk for a month and talk about theology after we get to Idaho Falls. Deal?”
“On one condition.”
“I want you to think about marrying Iris.”
Prosser guffawed. “Don’t you think she has something to say about that?” He softened his voice. “But I am most flattered, sir.”
“Don’t ‘sir’ me, John Prosser. You’re the only reason we’re not all dead. I want you to think of my daughter well because you’re a good man, but we all owe you a debt of honor regardless.”
“Hardly, Joseph McGuiness. I don’t know why fate pulled my lotto number for this job, but I’m hardly the only one who would be running the show. I just happened to step into the gap.”
“I don’t think –”
“– Bullshit. You could have. Jack doesn’t want to admit it, but he could have. I suspect you both would’ve had to fight Julie over it, though.” He chuckled. “Now look alive. The Brooks Lake turnoff should be another few hundred yards ahead.”
Fargo had said a number of things and he wasn’t sure which single one had tripped Bader. But one of them had. He had abruptly ordered Fargo to flash down the lead truck. Bader would drive the plow truck – sans windshield – alone. Once they all came to a halt, Bader bounded to the GMC and sent its freezing driver back to Fargo.
“Christ, Tim, I owe you,” the former plow driver said as soon as he climbed into the cab and activated the heated seat, turning the heater to high. “I was freezing my face off.”
Fargo didn’t say as much, but a sideways glance at the man told Fargo all he needed to know. He thought the man would lose most of his nose in a matter of hours. “Dickweed there thought you were driving too slow and I told him you were probably freezing your cock off. He figured he could do better.”
It would be a tricky game, now. Bader would need to catch up his nemesis before his face froze off, and his rage ebbed. There was no one else in the cab of the GMC to prod him on, now.
“Uh oh. Headlights.” Joe McGuiness was peering out the back of the Cat’s cab. “Hmm. Looks like just one set, though. Would they have separated that much?”
The Dodge was running with no headlights and the old blade had individual switches for each bank. Prosser had his highbeams on, piercing forty or fifty feet through the black snow ahead, but no tail lights and only a few cab lights. Joe McGuiness’ night vision was in better shape than anyone else.
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t think so, but these guys have proven to be a tough bunch to figure. How fast is he coming?”
“Faster than we are, gaining for sure. Pretty good clip. Maybe half-again as fast as we’re moving.”
“Do you think he’s seen us yet?”
“I doubt it. I only have him from moment to moment and I don’t have my own headlights blasting back at me.”
“Does he have a plow blade on?”
“Damnit, John, how the hell should I know? What brand of underwear does the Pope wear?” He squinted. “If I had to guess, I’d guess yes. It looks like he’s got the high headlights over a blade.”
“Alright. This is going to have to be perfect. You’ll have about fifteen seconds, if I remember the road right.”
“Oh, hell, that’s at least ten more than I need.”
Bader had seen the lights of the Cat once or twice, he thought, but moment-to-moment his vision was about shot. The GMC had an excellent heater, and heated seats, too – but there was nothing to blunt the -15 degree air blowing in through the blasted windshield. With the combination of windchill and his forward progress at up to 40 mph, Bader’s own nose was quickly being frostbitten.
Prosser slowed the blade to a crawl and popped open the door. Joe McGuiness was promptly out, to deliver the news.
“Slow down so I can unhook this damned fuel barrel!” he hollered at Reynolds. He did so, and then ran back to the truck as fast as he could.
He climbed into the back seat, pushing his daughter into the center.
“Hello Julie. Beautiful evening for a drive through the snow.” He didn’t pause to breathe. “There’s a turnoff just up here off to the right. Take it, and plow your way in as far as you can make it. You’ve got to get far enough from the road so we can’t be seen.” He turned to Tom Allison, who was awake but nearly entranced by something. “Tom,” Joe McGuiness then reached ahead and shook Jack Allison’s shoulder, “Tom, you and Jack and I need to bail out as soon as we get stopped and head back to the highway and try and cover our tracks.
“That’s nuts,” Tom Allison growled.
“I’m waiting to hear a better idea from you,” Joe McGuiness retorted.
“Give up,” he said.
Everyone was surprised when it was Iris McGuiness that slapped Tom Allison across the face. “Fuck – that – shit.” She said coolly. “We’ve come too far.” For a moment, Joe McGuiness saw what Prosser had meant: in the right circumstances, any of them might be the boss.
Reynolds jerked the wheel toward the turnout and buried the throttle. All 345 cubic inches of Hemi growled and barked and then sang as the automatic transmission searched for the best gear to go piling through the snow.
The Caterpillar 12E continued up U.S. Route 26/287. Prosser hoped they knew what the hell they were doing.
If anyone had bothered to clear the plan with Bader he would have signed off on it in a heartbeat. He didn’t give a damn about any of them except Prosser. He knew there were a bunch of horny fucks following him that would be especially interested in Iris McGuiness, and to a lesser extent Amanda Els and even Julie Reynolds (although he didn’t know any of their names). But he didn’t give a fuck.
Bader even noted the tracks running off the road, but they weren’t the tracks of a blade. He pushed on, too quickly, his own plow throwing snow over those same tracks, obscuring them.
Prosser’s night vision wasn’t particularly good, looking into a 45 or 50-year old rear view mirror and off the glare of the rear window in the cab, but he could see behind him well enough to identify the plow chasing him.
He thought now about the shot of penicillin he had given himself earlier. It was a waste, he thought. This was it, or it would be shortly. It still had not occurred to him, that by lowering his pants, he had saved the day again.
The board was set.
Neither John Prosser nor Michael Bader had any idea another day had rolled over while they galloped toward the Togwotee Pass.
None of them did, but for a few minutes the whole of the world ceased for these 28 men and women at the top of the Wyoming Rockies. The whole of the world ceased, the efforts of the six in the Dodge to cover their tracks, or of the 20 others following up the highway toward them.
For a bit, it was John Prosser and Michael Bader. Neither had the time to reflect upon the fact that their goals were nearly identical. Prosser had already declared his own life forfeit if it would save the six behind him. Bader didn’t care if he destroyed the whole of the world, himself included, if he could just kill Prosser. And he didn’t care if the six lived or died in the process. Or the whole of the world.
Prosser needed to get as far ahead of the six as possible, to draw off his pursuers and to clear the road ahead to the pass. He had no idea how he would clear the road of both snow and the convoy behind him. And even if he did, it was entirely possible the Dodge had been so buried in hustling off the highway they six would never get out again.
But his role was coming to a close. He had told John McGuiness: there were six people in that group, some more than others to take the lead. But someone would. If he could fulfill his part of the bargain, their fate would finally be in their own hands.
Bader’s rage was failing. He knew this. He accelerated, lifting the plow blade to enable him to travel faster. For some reason, Prosser was still driving with his blade down. To make a diversion, that cunning bastard, Bader thought.
The GMC sprinted ahead toward Prosser. It would only be two, or maybe three minutes, before the pickup would be bouncing off the back of the Caterpillar. And the Remmy would punch holes through the glass cab.
It was a chance, but Prosser shifted back into top gear on the 12E. If he didn’t run off the road and into a canyon there was a very real chance the internals of the old motor-grader would simply explode. He was glad it was a state-maintained vehicle: at least he knew it had enough, and the right type of, oil in it.
The Cat drove past the sign: Togwotee Pass, 9,658 feet.
Had he been able to look at his face, Bader would have seen the end of his nose was now black like Prosser’s toes had been two days ago. His cheeks were gray and his ears blue. He pressed on, setting the Remington’s barrel on the dash and out the windshield.
Prosser saw the shotgun too late.
Bader pulled the trigger, and there was only the sick sound of a click as the internal hammer fell upon a bad shell.
Prosser saw Bader move to pump the action on the shotgun, ejecting a fouled shell from the action. He noted his good fortune, that a bad shell had saved his live twice in a week. He stood on the big Cat’s big brakes.
Bader knew he had lost instantly. It was a replay of the Ford 360 downshifting only an hour earlier. But the GMC’s airbags had already been used up, and he wasn’t rear ending a 1975 Ford F-250 at 20 or 25 mph. He was running into over ten tons of 1962 Caterpillar at about 50 mph.
The impact was notable from the cab but not terribly jarring. Pickup trucks had gotten much heavier in the last decade or so, but even four tons of Detroit iron barely bothered the old blade. Part of it was that about half the pickup’s weight was in mechanicals and seats and plastics, but it had run right into what amounted to an eight ton I-beam.
If it hadn’t been for the scarifier attachment, Bader might have survived long enough to worry about his frostbite. Instead, his skull flattened against an 1,800 pound slab of steel. It was better than he deserved, Prosser reflected, massaging his throbbing right leg.
Headlights were coming up the mountain. Many headlights.
Prosser released the brake, shifted back into second, and began again. He had a job to do.
Joe McGuiness and Jack Allison were arguing.
“We have to stay put,” McGuiness said. “Until we have an idea where these guys are going.”
“We should go back down the mountain and wait it out in Dubois,” Allison countered. “We’ll freeze to death up here.”
McGuiness scowled. “Damnit, there’s a man not five miles up the road, dead or dying so we don’t have to just yet. We can’t run.”
“Once the fleet runs by and sees we’re not up there, they’ll be back for the women. They’ll find the fuel barrel.” This time it was Tom Allison speaking.
McGuiness turned to the trees and thought for a moment. Next it was his daughter to speak up. “Julie, how much fuel do we have?”
“We haven’t even been through an eighth of a tank. We’ve barely been running.”
Iris McGuiness chewed that over for a moment. “Can you back out?”
“I don’t think so, not without quite a bit of digging. I jammed it in there pretty good on the way in.”
The elder McGuiness was beginning to grasp his daughter’s idea. “That’s just what John ordered sweetheart. No need to apologize for doing the job.” He paused. “We can sit here and idle on and off for a long time on three-quarters of a tank. With six of us in the cab we won’t need to run the motor as often, either. We could probably sit here for three or four days and have enough fuel to make either Idaho Falls or Dubois.”
“God damn you Joe McGuiness, I’ve heard enough of your shit,” Tom Allison said loudly, and angrily. “We’re going to dig this bitch out right now and we’re going to go to Dubois.”
Joe McGuiness took a breath of the cold, thin air. The line of trucks started passing by their position and for over a minute no one said a word.
“What’s in Dubois, Tom? We’ve agreed our future lies ahead, in Idaho Falls. Why do you want to go back?” Before Tom Allison could answer, Joe McGuiness continued, “I’ve seen the way you’ve looked at my daughter. What’s back in Dubois?”
Tom Allison was incensed. “Why you cock sucking Mick fugh”
A single gunshot punctuated the conversation. Jack Allison was on the ground in a moment.
“Damnit Tom, what have you done?” He looked up, with fever in his eyes, searching from face to face. His gaze came to an unexpected place, as he locked eyes with Amanda Els.
“I’m so sorry Jack,” she whimpered, all while holding the gun steady on Tom Allison, waiting to fire again if needed. She needn’t have worried: hers had been a good shot. By the time Jack looked back at his brother in his arms, Tom Allison was nearing unconsciousness from oxygen starvation. Els’ single round had destroyed Tom Allison’s heart.
The organ. The western idea of “heart” in the man had died some time ago.
The headlights were growing nearer, and Prosser knew he was out of time. Again.
In another set of circumstances, Fargo probably would have let Prosser go. But he now had to claim the mantle of leadership.
“Christ, it looks like Mike ran right up this guy’s tailpipe. Alright, as fast as we can go, but keep me far enough back that we don’t both get busted noses if he slams on the brake,” he instructed the driver.
The driver sped up but soon slowed down and cursed. “What the hell is he doing?”
He was no longer running interference. They were after him. He didn’t swing the blade to safe his life, but because it would buy him a minute or two more to maybe save the others’.
The direct drive rattled hard against his erect forearm, which rotated the blade from nearly perpendicular to the travel lane until it was nearly parallel.
Fargo saw it a moment before it was too late, but too late to communicate to the driver. Instead of slamming on the brake again, Prosser had just cut all the road out from under them. The massive grader had two feet of ground clearance under most of it, but even the Dodge Power Wagon behind Fargo’s Toyota only had about nine inches.
It probably would have been sufficient for Prosser to have simply lifted the blade right up off the ground, but instead he shifted it as quickly clockwise as he could, and then back anti-clockwise. It did little to change the road conditions under his own drive wheels, but resulted in conditions similar to a demented game of Chutes and Ladders for his pursuers.
The driver of Fargo’s Toyota made one mistake, and they sailed over the berm the blade had created. They continued sailing, over the guardrail – concealed by snow anyway – into a canyon along the south of the highway.
In the end, it was to Fargo’s advantage he had turned off the passenger airbag in his Toyota. When the nose of the truck struck the canyon floor, the driver’s airbag caused him about a tenth of a second of additional agony to Fargo. The girl, Jasmine, managed to mouth a word before she was compacted into the canyon floor: “Thanks.”
The blade trick had shed all but four of the trucks following Prosser. He had one last trick left for them. He hoped it wouldn’t disappoint.
Those last four trucks continued on Prosser’s tail not out of loyalty or personal anger but because their drivers no longer knew what to do with themselves. Bader had come along and given them a purpose again, and that was what they were left with. They closed and a man hung out of the passenger window of the second vehicle, the last to have a passenger. He aimed with a rifle.
Prosser saw it too late. He heard it before he saw it, really. A single shot from the 30-06 reached out through the night and the dark, and through the glass window of the 12E’s cab, into and through his left lung.
He continued smoking his last cigarette. A shot in the lung was fatal, but not immediately. Prosser had exactly one chance left. He sucked on the Marlboro hard, knowing he would start foaming blood at the mouth in a moment, and that would be the end of his smoking habit.
The marksman was impressed with himself and, after cycling the bolt, took aim for another shot.
Prosser was ready this time.
The actual blade on a motor grader can be raised or lowered, or set on “float,” where it floats on the road surface. A good operator would lower the blade to the road and then float it.
Instead, Prosser immediately pushed the blade to float, which dropped it to the road surface instantly. He then pushed it down.
The D333 diesel engine split its power between forward propulsion and downward force on the blade, with the force multiplier on the downward force being enormous. The 12 foot blade dug down into the road surface, lifting the front tires of the grader off the highway and costing Prosser any steering control.
Even when the blade had hit its stop he pressed on the control. Even through the snow, the blade began throwing sparks from the road surface. Prosser let off the control to lower the blade – it was still full-down – and began switching off the lights.
The shooter couldn’t see anything expect sparks flying from the undercarriage of the 12E. He screamed at his driver to pull in closer and put on his high-beams. The other three trucks flanked him in a diamond configuration.
The front end of the grader was still off the ground when the left side of the blade caught the guard rail. Prosser held the throttle to wide open in third gear as the old Cat scratched and clawed and whatever was in her way. She was now tearing up the guard rail, which was immediately spit upon the trucks in her wake. The man with the rifle was the first struck, but it was only a moment before all of them were either struck and disabled by debris or lost control avoiding contact.
A tired weld had finally broken on the Cat and she surrendered her blade. Perhaps the drivetrain had failed then, too, but it had happened too quickly. The dual rear axels had run over the blade, still embedded in the road, and that had been it for the 12E.
Prosser got out of the wreckage and unceremoniously executed the five men, although he thought only one of them was still alive. He took the revolver, with one round left, and looked at it. He then jammed it back in its shoulder holster and returned to the Cat for a drink. He thought he could manage another cigarette, too.
Day 51: Epilogue.
After Amanda Els had killed Tom Allison there had been some silence before Jack Allison decided to take his chances up the forest road toward Brooks Lake, alone.
The remaining four had waited for over a day before they began to dig out. While they were doing so, Iris McGuiness throught she heard a single scream and a gunshot.
It did not take them long to reach the four trucks and their five bodies. The weather had cleared overnight and the Dodge clawed through the two or three inches of snow over most of the road without difficulty.
Sergeant John Prosser sat at the helm of the old Caterpillar, complete. An unfinished cigarette dangled from his lips, a jug of whiskey from his left hand, his Wyoming Highway Patrol badge in his right. A frozen blossom of crimson marked the wound through his left lung, barely an inch below his heart.
“Another casualty that had done his duty, well, only to be used up and left beside the road,” Iris McGuiness said quietly.
“What?” her father asked.
“Something John was trying to tell me the other day.”
As they toiled to bury Prosser under a simple carom of rocks at the roadside, another truck approached, but from the west. Joe McGuiness had his hand on a pistol under his jacket, but did not pull it.
The driver stopped the old Ford and stepped out, leaving her two companions in the heated cab.
“Looks like you lost someone here.”
“We did,” Amanda Els, managed to say, barely.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “We’ve come from near Idaho Falls. There isn’t a thing left behind us. Can you tell us where we might go?”