Photo by Ré Harris
This started out on Words One Hundred as a hundred word story from one of Julia’s prompts. It seemed interesting to some of those who read it, and they wanted more. I realized how much I liked writing it and how it seemed to be writing itself, so since this week has been weird for me and I have to get a lot of things done tomorrow, I figured I should just let it flow.
As always, feedback is very much appreciated. Whether you like the story or you don’t, I’d love to know. Here goes:
It was 1926, back in Utah.
With trouble hot on our trail, I woke with another headache. Vince gazed out at the mountains like he was thinking of another woman.
“You want to fend for yourself?” I said, checking the gun under my pillow.
“What’s your problem?”
I raked fingers through my hair, staring at the latch on the door while cold wind blew through the cabin and grabbed me under the threadbare blanket. I rose, fully dressed, holding my gun.
“You’re always upset about something,” he said.
“And you hate women with brains.” Light reflected outside the other window as I crept closer to it. “Too bad you need ’em.”
Vince’s pause before saying, “Now what?” said he’d caught on to his lack of diligence. Could’ve been cornered before he remembered to check another direction.
“What’s the point of the gorge at the back and only two ways in? Why take watch, if daydreaming’s all you’ll do?”
He cocked his piece at the window with the mountain view, before tossing a whispered yell. “Shut up.”
I let it go.
I woke with another headache for sure — Vince. Not sharp, but damn if his neck didn’t smell like clover sometimes.
Billy approached behind bushes, pistol in hand, rifle slung. I eased the window up and aimed.
After the shot, Vince was quiet as Billy’s whining started up outside, muffled but gaining volume as my heart ticked off the seconds. “You see anything over there?” I said.
I didn’t watch him check before he said, “No.” I felt his eyes turn to me. “Was ‘at Billy?”
I didn’t answer.
“Why the hell’d you shoot him?”
I wasn’t in the mood for stupid questions. Vince would see what was what in time. I waited and watched as Billy wailed. If he knew anyone had followed him, he’d let it slip while writhing on the ground clutching his bleeding leg.
“Maybe he was just mixed up about the meet,” Vince said.
“Should’a stayed mixed up someplace else if he wanted to go on two legs.”
“Shit, girl … we made it here okay, didn’t we?”
“Halfway to Mexico in a car’s better.” I shot Vince a nasty look. “Why was he on foot?”
Vince strained himself. “Crap.”
I searched the brush past Billy and waited some more.
Billy kept saying, “Aw, come on! I can’t walk! Help me! Help me dammit!”
Any time someone calls me Dammit, it makes me take longer. Vince didn’t even ask. Good thing. I wasn’t done running permutations in my mind. We didn’t just have to wait for signs he wasn’t alone, I had to figure out the order of things as best I could before we dragged him in. I wished we had a wireless so I could get some idea what the cops were thinking.
I didn’t see any more movement, no more reflected sun flashing. I told Vince I’d cover him while he dragged Billy in. From the sigh he let out and they way he flew out the door, you’d think the two were best friends from childhood or something. Maybe he just wanted to know what had gone wrong as much as I did. We thought Billy’d been pinched.
Once inside and on the bed, crying as loud as he had outside in the dirt, our no-longer-missing wheelman was submitting to Vince’s attempts at a tourniquet around his bleeding thigh. While writhing in pain, his eyes looked for me in the background. I moved around the room to vex him. Every time he lit on me, he looked scareder than usual. For a minute, I tried to remember what he’d seen me do that’d make him worry so much. Then I figured it must just be the bullet in his thigh.
When Vince had done the best he could, I went over to the bed and looked Billy in the eye.
“I couldn’t get there,” he said, sucking up snot. “The car … stopped on me.”
I reached my leg over and sat on his chest.
“What the hell?” I heard Vince growl. “The man’s hurt. What’re you doing?” I was glad I was wearing slacks. Vince couldn’t have a cow because a stupid skirt was hiking up.
I pressed the tip of my gun against the side of Billy’s forehead and his eyes closed tight. “Jesus, girl …” he slobbered. “You got no call to do that!”
“I fixed that car myself. She ran sweet and fast.” I stopped right there. It doesn’t do to talk more than you have to. Billy wasn’t the kind to know that.
“I don’t know what happened. It just stopped … it stopped right past the Mattson bridge. Running just fine, then she just stopped an’ I couldn’t get ‘er going.” He must’ve thought that sounded good because he added, “Maybe you don’t know all there is about engines.”
I held the gun steady and ruminated. I started back at the beginning and thought about how I’d laid out the parts as I took each one out, cleaning and checking. That line of thinking didn’t go on for long. I’d been making pocket-money since I was fifteen fixing cars for anybody who wanted it done cheap and right and didn’t care that a woman was doing it. I cocked the hammer and reached back to Billy’s wound. He squealed like a baby when I poked it. Vince was breathing hard, but when it came to fixing cars instead of driving them, he always kept quiet. “Where’d you say it stalled?” I asked the baby.
“Mattson bridge … Come on, Maybelle, put the gun down. We’re all in this together, remember?”
I leaned in as I reminded him of something. “Call me May or Belle, but if you ever slap the two together again I’ll shoot you on the spot.” I waited for him to nod, then I straightened up. “Now tell me exactly where it stalled.”
“R … r … right after the bridge, right after that little bend.”
“He’s lying.” I said.
Vince asked how I knew.
I stared into Billy’s weepy eyes as I dug the barrel harder into his temple. “If it stalled on the town side of the bridge it would’ve rolled down, all the way down to Burt’s dusty five and dime at the edge, before stopping. Road’s on an incline down to there. He would’ve only had to steer. He coulda got to us in time and warned us before we started.” I turned to Vince. “You don’t think for a minute I fixed a car that stalled out right away.”
Vince shook his head.
I looked back at Billy. “Who’re you working for?”
Billy wept and sputtered. “I don’t know what you’re on about …”
“I guess it doesn’t matter which ones,” I said. “Benson’s gang, or those city boys fighting ’em and wanting to run all the counties. One side or the other figured us out. Or maybe you told ’em. Did you do that to get in good with the ‘big boys’? They waiting for you to report back? You came up here to shoot us and take the money back to one or the other.”
“How the hell’d you figure that out?” Vince said.
I knew he didn’t expect an answer to that. “We don’t have much time.”
“How we gonna go without a car?” he said.
I smacked Billy across the head hard enough to put him out cold. “We’ll talk about that later just in case he can hear a little.”
“You’re not gonna kill ’em?”
“Whichever gang he went to will take care of that, if he doesn’t bleed to death first.”
Me and Vince hadn’t spread out much in the cabin, it was too cold in there to even undress, so we strapped a lot of the sacks with the cash around our bellies and buckled the rest of it, and anything else loose, into the two big over-the-shoulder bags we’d brought it all in. I strapped on Billy’s rifle and Vince got his gun and all the extra ammunition. As we started putting on our coats, I got an idea for a way to get down the mountain that I was pretty sure neither gang knew about. I’d lived and explored around there since I was real little — sometimes with my dad.
Watching Billy in all that pain put me in mind of Daddy’s last moments, when he’d grabbed my hand and made his peace.
Daddy’d been laid on the kitchen table by coworkers from the mine. They’d put a couple of dish towels under his head and the little crocheted blanket from the couch over him, up to his chest, so I wouldn’t see the wound when I got there. When I took his hand, he turned his grip on me and kept trying to raise his head as he rasped and blood dribbled out of his mouth and down the side of his face.
“They killed me, May,” he said. “They done killed your Daddy in that mine.”
I started to cry but he told me to stop.
“You listen to me,” he said. “I taught you everything I knew after your mama passed. I did the best I knew and I never cared you were a girl. You’re smarter than I ever was. Once you know something, you just do. You don’t have to think too long. That’s a good mark for a mind.” He spat out some more blood and went on, holding my hand even tighter and pulling me closer. “Do better than I did. Don’t go out poor. They got plenty, girl. Don’t you go out poor.”
“Oh, Daddy,” I said. I tried so hard not to cry, but tears fell.
“Promise!” he said so loud that it scared me.
I whispered into his ear, “I promise, Daddy.”
He’d been the one to teach me about cars. He taught me how to shoot and run as fast as any boy. He told me how he’d robbed strongboxes, store registers and a bank before he met my mama and went straight. He wasn’t scared to tell me that. He knew I’d still love him.
It took me a few years to figure things out. I wanted to do it once, big, then go someplace warm and live the way Daddy wanted me to. I would’ve got it done someday on my own, but meeting Vince made it perfect. He was another set of hands and someone who knew most of the ropes. He knew enough to see that I could plan things well. And since that wasn’t his strong suit, he let me plan it all. The coal company would never know who’d robbed their safe if we could just get the hell out of there and on our way south. I wasn’t going to let the little problem with Billy mess it all up.
As I was about to put my hat on, Vince caught me under my coat just above the waist, just above the tens, twenties, and fifty-dollar bills I was sure we’d get across the border. He moved his thumb around just under my breast the way he knew I liked.
I said, “I thought you dreamed of bleached blondes.”
“What’s a bleached blonde got over you?” He looked me up and down, those thick lashes of his threatening to melt me all over again.
I wiped a wisp of brown hair out of my eyes and felt for the pins holding my curls in place.
“You gonna listen to me for a change when we get to Mexico?”
“I’ll listen to you all you want,” I said. “I’ll even buy one of those pretty dresses and walk through the garden holding my shoes in my hand like we saw in that picture. Maybe wear a big straw hat with flowers around the brim …”
“Not gonna buy yourself a diamond ring, too?”
“Husbands are supposed to do that.”
“All right then. I will.”
I smiled at him.
“How ’bout babies?”
“Sure,” I said. We had plenty of money for that life. “We’ve got to get out of here now,” I said. “Let’s go.”
As we went down the side of the mountain farthest from town, going my most secret way, I kept my eyes and ears open, but I couldn’t stop smiling.