I was sitting in the passenger seat of truck waiting to leave. Thurman was tying down the tarp that covered our load. While waiting, I saw two dogs running along the fence of old man Westbrook's south forty. One dog, a black and white collie ran along the outside of the fence on the road, and the other, a black sheepdog, was on the inside looking for a way out.
I don't know how black dog had gotten in that field in the first place, but he was trapped there now. I was still thinking on it when Thurman jumped up into the driver's seat, slapped the dashboard and said, "That's it! Californie here we come. Hide all the chillren and lock up your women folks."
I knowed he was putting on a show of false bravado for my benefit. I was sitting all cross-legged on this one. Part of me wanted to jump out the truck and run back up on that hill to where a small pile of broken dirt now blanketed the body of my beloved Guinnie.
She'd died in the early morning hours two nights before. I heard her struggling for breath, and by the time I had got up out of chair and hurried over to the bed, she was gone. The lamp on the table by her bed gave off a dim, golden light that seem to halo her face while the rest of the room hid in shadows.
Taking her pulse just to be certain, and so I could say that I did, I straightened out her frail body on the bed, shut her anguished eyes, and placed her arms down by her side. There were still little beads of sweat on her forehead from the fever and some spittle in the left corner of her mouth. I wrung out the wash cloth in the basin and wiped her forehead clean and then wiped off the spittle.
Straightening up, I placed the cloth back in the basin and looked down at her lying there dead. As long as I live, I'll carry that image like a ten foot cross. For a second, my right leg buckled and it felt like a milkcow had kicked me in my chest. I had to reach out and grab the headboard to keep from falling.
I didn't wake Thurman. He was wore out too and had went into Stewie's room to sleep. Instead, I bent over and kissed Guinnie's lips one last time, left the room and closed the door behind me. I went over to the heavy oak table that my daddy had made for my mom, put my head down on it, and sobbed.
I cried until I went to sleep. I'll remember the sounds of that night too. The winds outside had died down a little but were still moaning like a crying mother who had lost her only child. Sometimes, I'd stop sobbing and then the only sounds of life inside that cabin were me sniffling and blowing my nose.
Thurman had the coffin built by the time I woke up. We wrassled the box up the hill with the wagon I'd bought for Stewie's birthday. I tried to read Psalm 23 through but couldn't finish. Thurman waited until I closed the book shut and started tossing dirt.
As the truck pulled out of the driveway, I looked into the side mirror and saw the flames from the cabin dancing against the darkened sky. I turned around in my seat and took one last look back up at the hill. I saw the wire fence and the high arching gate lit up by the flames and a thick river of black smoke flowing just above the grave stones.
When I turned around and faced the road west, I was just in time to see that black dog struggle free from the hole he had dug beneath Old Man Westbrook's fence.
Most Okies fleeing the state scurried like ants across the West, thinking that they were all going to get there first and gather the first fruit. Thurman and I drifted like a rudderless ship blown hither and yon by a tormented wind. I pictured our journey west as being like that Greek fella we learned about in Mr. Fletcher's class who had left home to fight a war and ended up meandering all around the Mediterranean Sea on his way home.
Thurman took a notion to see Ft. Sumner, New Mexico, the place where Billy the Kid was killed, so we headed in that direction. Outside of the small town of Taiban we came to halt behind a car with its hood up at a stop sign. There was a lady who looked like a librarian wearing a gray coat and red hat standing forlornly by the side of the road. There was about a hundred crow lining the telephone lines above her head. There was even one perched on the upraised hood.
We got out and pushed the car out of the road and gave her ride to her house. It was a little white clapboard structure on the outskirts of town. Ruth Claiborne, was her name, and she insisted that we let her fix us dinner for our help.
Thurman asked before he got out the truck, "Don't you think you better ask your husband before you go asking strange men to dinner?"
She replied in a weary voice, " My husband took off on me. I guess he got gold fever too and headed west. I been here by myself for the last six months."
As we walked toward the house, I noticed the gate was broken and although there was a yard, the grass was all dying. When we walked in, Ruth hurried to a light a kerosine lamp. The house was wired for electric which caused me to wonder if she'd paid her bill.
She had a smokehouse out back, and went outside and returned with a slab of bacon and a half dozen fresh eggs which she promptly fried up and served us along with some steaming hot coffee.
She wasn't an unattractive woman and seemed to like Thurman quite a bit. By the end of the meal, she had made it plain that she had a hunger of her own that needed satisfied. Something between them had passed me by unnoticed where they had mutually agreed on what they were having for dessert. They got up together, and she guided him by the hand into a small room at the rear of the house.
The back door had been left opened when she had walked to the smokehouse. I walked over to where it was and looked out the back screen door. There was a flower bed on both sides of a small path, but the flowers were wilted and the ivy that grew on the trellis behind the house was also turning brown.
The rusty hinges of the screen door screeched when I stepped outside. There was little concrete pad with a water pump on it. The cover of electrical box that held the switches had been removed. The screws and the screwdriver were still sitting on the concrete by the pump.
The fusebox to the house hung from a weatherbeaten wooden pole behind the pump. It was opened too. I walked over to where it was and looked in. Sure enough, a fuse was blown. There was a spare on the inside bottom of the box. Flipping the switch off, I replaced the burned out fuse in a matter of seconds, and when I flipped the switch back on, the lights came on in the kitchen and the pump started pumping. The radio came on in the kitchen too right in the middle of Bob Wills singing, " Right or wrong I'd knew I lose you, Still I prayed that you'd be true."
I put the cover back on the water pump switch and walked around to the front yard, turned on the water hose, and started watering her yard. About fifteen minutes later, Thurman came walking out of the house.
He was buttoning up his shirt, "Ruthie said to tell you thanks. She's a little shy or she'd come out and said it herself."
Climbing into the truck I asked, "Well, how was it."
Thurman started the truck, "A gentleman never talks about such things."
" I never asked a gentleman the question." He nodded sadly in my direction, and we started heading west again.
Ft. Sumner wasn't much to look at but was as good a place to die as any, I reckoned. I had an eerie sense of doom the whole time that we were there. It was in Arizona though, Winslow to be exact, the next time that fate once again stepped across our path and demanded our attention.
We were about four miles out of Winslow when the left rear tire went flat. We'd already run out of all the patches we had brought from home, so Thurman volunteered to walk into town and get some.
I reckoned I fell asleep. I was awakened by a tap at the window. Startled, I woke to see a hideous looking one-eyed man looking back at me with a lethal grin. He had tapped the window with the business end of a big baseball bat that he held menacingly in his right hand.
"Get the fuck outta my truck!" he said in a sinister tone.
I was shocked but unafraid; I replied through the window, "Listen Mister. This ain't your truck. It's mine. I am waiting for my brother to retutn with a patch to fix that flat and then we'll be on our way."
He looked a bit like a scarred up, unshaved, one-eyed Charles Laughton, the way he looked when he played Captain Bligh in Mutiny on The Bounty. Me and Guinnie had seen the movie in Tulsa when it first came out.
" I didn't ask you shit, Foo. I told you to get the fuck outta of my truck." When he spoke this time a scrawny, pitiful looking bitch and two husky boys wearing overalls and who looked a lot like the man crawled out of a rusty green 32 Ford four door parked in front of the truck. Both boys were carrying bats too.
One of them, the larger and older of the two I figured, ran over next to his dad and started dancing around yelling, "Get out the fucking truck, now sumbitch! I need my ass some batting practice!"
" Let me get my hat, and I'll come out." I said calmly reaching across the seat and picking up the hat Thurman had left there. Beneath it was his .32 pistol. I grabbed it too. I stepped out the truck putting on the hat with my left hand with my right hand in my jacket pocket. Immediately, them two inbred boys started acting even crazier.
"Look at that one, daddy. You'd like him, huh?," the older boy said to his dad.
The other boy stepped out from behind his mom and yelled, "Daddy been in prison. He don't like women no more, huh, Ma?"
The one-eyed man got mad, "Shut up, you damned idiots!" He turned to me and demanded," You better have them damned keys."
"Got em right here." I whipped out the pistol and shot him twice in his left foot.
Thurman returned bout thirty minutes later, I saw him coming from a mile down the road riding a bicycle. I didn't ask him where the bicycle came from; he just loaded it in the back while I patched the tire, and soon we were back on the road.
The sun was already setting when we drove slowly through Winslow. Thurman hadn't said a single word even though I saw him notice the blood at the side of the truck. We pulled up to a stop sign.
"Thurman. I figured out a test to see whether this Californie of yours is gonna work out."
He didn't say anything but looked at me sideways, so I knew he was paying attention, so, I continued, " Iffn we get there and stay there for a bit, I'll know it's all good, if you crack a smile."
There was what Mr. Fletcher would've called a pregnant pause, Then he asked, "What makes you say such weird shit?"
"Just that I knowed you all my life, and I ain't even gotta switch hands to count the times I saw you smile. I don't think I ever heard you laugh or even tell a joke."
"You know well as me, our folks didn't hold much with a sense of humor." He took a swig from the pint bottle he had between his legs and then handed it over to me."
Before I took a swig, I said. "Ain't talking them, talking bout you."
There was longer pregnant pause, so long that I'd given up on getting any kinda answer. Then he suddenly said, " You remember Hoss Toliver?" I nodded. He went on, " He told me one time that their oldest boy Hughie didn't talk until he was eight years old. Mrs. Tolliver got sick, so Hoss had to fix breakfast. He sat it down in front of Hughie and turned to get the butter when Hughie said, ' Damned bacon's burnt.' His daddy turned and said, ' What the hell, son, you ain't said nary a word this whole time.' Hughie looked his daddy in the eye and said, "Mama don't burn the bacon.'"
I was in mid-swig and sprayed whiskey out of my nose and all over the dash and the inside of the windshield. I laughed so fucking hard snot bubbles formed on both nostrils.
When I stopped laughing, I looked over at Thurman. He had both his eyes focused on the road ahead, both hands on the wheel and just a hint of a smile on his lips.