Middle of New Mexico
I looked in all four directions, north, south, east and west and there was nothing anywhere as far as the eye could see.
I pulled my rig over to the side of the road, if it was even a road at all.
I knew I was screwed. I did not need anyone to tell me that.
I was due at the army base at Alamogordo at oh-nine hundred hours to deliver whatever it was in the big barrels Hector had loaded in my trailer with the big old yellow stickers pasted on the sides with that strange black design. Dale was right, this job wasn’t made for a rookie driver. The road I had turned did not have a post. And no matter how many times I looked at the unfolded map on the seat next to me, I could not find it.
In less than an hour, the sun would go down between the mesas on the horizon in a brilliant orange blaze, leaving the opaque blackness of the night to completely engulf me. The darkness would be absolutely complete except for the velvet blanket of stars above me and the half eye of a sad moon. Not enough to read any road signs that might possibly be posted in this deserted part of New Mexico.
Seeing no conceivable way to make the delivery time on my docket, I decided to pull down my blanket, brush the map onto the floor of my cab and try to get some shut eye. My only hope was to wake at the crack of dawn and pray that I was somewhere near my destination otherwise I would bust my delivery time. Mr. Owen would not be happy since he made it abundantly clear that I needed to get whatever it was to the army post by nine am. I felt my stomach rumble, but I would worry about that once I got to the base.
I don’t know how long I had been asleep when I heard someone knocking on the passenger door.
My eyes opened as my heart began to race.
Who the heck would be knocking on the door of my truck?
Slowly I reached for my Louisville Slugger that I had stashed under the bench where I had made my bed.
“Mister? Are you in there?” I heard a strange voice ask after knocking for a second time.
I held my breath as I brought the bat to where I could see it in the dim light of the cab.
“Is you alright?” He asked. I could tell the voice belonged to someone who sounded quite elderly. Slowly I reached over the door handle on the passenger door.
Another knock. I swallowed hard before speaking, “Mister, I must warn you that I am armed.”
“Shoot sonny, anybody with a lick of sense is armed in these parts.” He chuckled,
“What do you want?” I tried not to sound irritated, but was not successful.
“Open yawr door.” His voice squeaked.
Slowly I peered over the passenger side window. Standing there was an old man with a white beard and hair wearing the complete cowboy regalia, boots, chaps over his dungarees, a big old brass belt buckle, flannel shirt with leather vest covering most of the shirt, a bolo tie and a hat much too large for his shrunken head. What concerned me was he had a holster with a Colt Peacemaker hanging inside the pouch. Figuring if he was going to use his shooting iron, he would have done so already, so I slowly opened the door still holding my baseball bat, ready to use it if the situation called for it.
He reached up and tipped his hat with his right hand, “Howdy sonny, my name is Billy, Billy Smith.”
Even as he said his name, it sounded like an alias to me, but I was in no position to question it.
“I’m Grady. Grady Lawton.” I let go of the bat.
“Pleasure to meecha.” He tipped his hat again, “Now, my question is this...what in tar-nation is you doin’ out here?”
The question hit me like a heavy hammer, but I answered it right away. “To tell you the truth, I’m lost.”
“Figured that. No one is out in these parts unless they is lost.” He chuckled. “So my next question is...where is ya headed to?”
“Well, I’m due at the army base at Alamogordo by nine.” I sat up which made him seem even smaller standing there next to the truck.
“Oh Sonny, I doubt very much you are gonna make that, but if’n ya let me tag along, I can getcha there by tomorrow afternoon.” He shook his head. “It’s the best you’re gonna do, sonny.”
I sat there, pursed my lips and sighed before I waved him into the passenger’s seat.
“I can see ya needs some vitals.” He got in with what seemed like a great deal of effort.
“I could eat.” I started up the engine as he got comfortable.
“Place up ahead at the fork in the road. They know’d me there. Got a perdy little thing named Alice. Sweet smile.” He tipped his hat down over his eyes, “I can getcha to that base, too.”
“I will drive all night.” I pulled out onto the flat surface that served as a road.
“If ya wanna make it by early afternoon, I would recommend thacha do.” He nodded.
“Where are you from, Billy?” If I didn’t have my headlights, the road was invisible in darkness. I could hear the crunch of the gravel as my tires moved along.
“I was livin’ in a retirement home on account of some debt I had accrued a long time ago.” He pulled out a hand-rolled cigarette, but even in the half light of my dashboard, I could tell from his facial expression he was not at all pleased with the outcome. “I done what I have done so many times before. I made a jailbreak and runned away.” An evil smile crossed his face through the cloud of smoke he exhaled.
“Really?” I shook my head.
“Turn right up here.” He pointed one of his gnarled fingers at a road sign I would have missed if he hadn’t alerted me. “Ain’t no jail ever was able to hold old Billy Smith, that much is for sure. I’ve been in these parts since I was fourteen years old.”
“Wow.” I snickered.
“Yessir, I lived through the Lincoln County Wars as them history books called it, but that ain’t how we know’d it.” He shook his head with that evil smile still painted on his face.
“How did you know it?” I asked as suddenly the lights of a roadside diner came into view.
“The Regulators against the Dolan Gang for control of Lincoln County.” He shrugged his bony shoulders as I began to slow down for the “Buzzard Landing Grille.”
“I see.” I parked my rig in the back of the blacktop parking lot.
“So where are you from, sonny?” He asked, tossing his cigarette into the desert.
“Back east.” I climbed down smelling the wonderful aroma of grease hanging in the air as my appetite came roaring back with a vengeance.
“I figured that.” He slowly made his way down to the pavement. “You are a pretty young man and all.”
“I was in the army.” I admitted.
“So dija fight the Japs of the Nazis?” He wandered up to where I was standing.
“Neither...I was at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Worked in a mortician unit.” I opened the door to the diner. We were the only two people in the joint.
“Sounds dreadful.” He said.
“Yes, it was.” I closed my eyes, but the smell of deep fried food filled a pleasurable place in my mind.
“Well, as I live and breathe, Billy Smith!” A woman’s voice rang out from the kitchen.
“Rosy, long time.” He sat himself at the counter.
“And who is this handsome fella you are with?” She appeared from the double swinging doors with a pair of menus in her hand.
“This is Grady Lawton. I ran into him on my escape.” He pointed to me as I sat in the stool next to him.
“Pleasure to meet you, Grady Lawton.” She placed the menus in front of us on the counter. She was neither short or tall, but she filled out her starched white uniform quite nicely and her perfume was nearly hypnotic. With her blonde hair piled quite high on top of her head with a white cap put there almost as an afterthought, Rosy was ready to take our order. As she prepared to do so, she raised an eyebrow that had been painted on, “So Billy, did you escape again, did you?”
“Yup.” He nodded carefully examining the menu.
“They catch you-”
“Nope. This is my last time around.” He handed her the menu, “I’m gonna say so long to my comrades. I’ll have the stew.”
“Stew it is.” She winked at him, “C’mon Billy, you’re gonna out-live us all, you know.”
“Not according to my doctor. I got the cancer.” He tried to smile.
“So sorry.” She was genuinely saddened by this.
“Got some folks I need to say so long to.” He glanced over at me.
“Chicken and fries.” I glanced back at him as I handed her my menu.
“I have lived a long life. Never a dull moment.” He smiled.
“Most of your folks have already checked out, Billy.” She put her hand on his rough cheek,
“I know, darling, but we all have a date with destiny, don’t we?” He kissed her hand. There was a single tear that rolled down her rosy cheek.
We ate in silence. I paid the tab when we finished. When Billy hobbled out into the parking lot, Rosy grabbed my hand and looked me in the eye, “Grady, he’s a good man. You take care of him.”
“I will.” I promised and walked out the door.
As the dawn broke, we were driving through Carrizozo and then onto Oscuro. Billy had pulled down his and was snoring on the bench seat next to me. From here, there were signs that clearly marked the route to the army base. By nine in the morning we had reached Tularosa and still had about an hour to go. Tularosa seemed like just a whistle-stop in the big empty spaces of New Mexico. Road signs marking White Sands began to appear.
“Isn’t this where the army is testing that bomb?” Billy stirred from beneath his hat.
“I dunno.” I shrugged.
“I heard that’s what’s going on.” He crossed his arms across his chest. “I wonder if that’s whacha carryin.’”
“All I know is they loaded it in the trailer and told me to take it to Alamogordo.” I looked at my watch. It was already half past nine. I would call Mr. Owens when we got there and let him know the reason for being late.
We arrived at the front gate at around eleven because some of the roads were under construction. There were two guards at the front gate. One of them approached the truck as I slowed down. It was already very hot and dry, I found out when I rolled my window down.
“Please step out of the truck.” He insisted.
“What for?” I asked, but since he had a rifle in his hands, I did not wish to start anything. Billy scooted down in his seat so he would not be seen.
“Colonel Godly was expecting you two hours ago.” He said when I stood eye to eye with him.
“Ran into some difficulty.” I explained.
“Colonel is on his way and he has asked you to wait here.” The guard told me.
“Perhaps I can have a seat over yonder.” Billy pointed to an area with a bench in the shade.
“Good idea.” I nodded.
“Who is he?” The guard asked.
“Somebody you may read about one day.” He tipped his hat and began to walk toward the bench.
“Is he dangerous?” The guard asked, noticing the Peacemaker in his holster.
“Nope.” I answered as I saw a jeep speeding toward the front gate.
“I’ll keep an eye on him.” He replied.
“He’s just gonna take a nap.” I shook my head as the jeep came to a screeching halt. There was an eagle placard on the bumper of the jeep on the passenger’s side. Billy was already asleep beneath his hat.
“Are you from Owen’s Freight?” A short stocky man stepped from the jeep.
“Yessir, Grady Lawton.” I held out my hand, but he looked at it as if I had drawn a weapon.
“I need you at Test Site A as quickly as you can get there.” He pointed to an empty area past the gate. “Follow me.”
I did as I was told, leaving Billy to his nap as we went over an incline in the road to where there was a shelter encased in cinder blocks and sandbags.
“With any luck we can detonate within the hour and not have to call President Truman.” Colonel Godly’s plump face was nearly scarlet red as he waved to some of his soldiers. “Get that truck unloaded in five minutes.”
With the precision of a well-oiled machine, the soldiers unloaded my trailer of the barrels with the yellow and black stickers and transported them to a secluded location about a mile away.
“This delay was a matter of national security.” He informed me, “And I had to let Mr. Owens know about the delay.”
“I wish you hadn’t done that.” I bowed my head.
“I had no choice.” He shook his head, “Now you have fifteen minutes to clear the base before I lock the gates. Once the siren sounds, no one will be allowed to leave.”
“I guess I’ll be on my way.” I said climbing into the cab and starting up the engine.
“Be glad I did not have to call the president. He really gets hot when we blow one of our detonations. He is not one of the easiest guys to get along with.” I did not hear the last part, because I was racing toward the front gate that was going to close in a few minutes.
I got out just as the alarm sounded and the two gate guards closed the front gate. Billy was still asleep on the bench and for a moment, I contemplated leaving him there, but he had saved me and I figured I owed him.
“Billy.” I shook him.
“Whaaa?” He reached for his pistol.
“Hey, hey, it’s me, Grady Lawton.” I stepped back. He blinked his eyes a few times. “We’d better get going. They are going to detonate one of those bombs.”
He was on his feet and moving toward the truck. In a couple of minutes we were on the road as a siren sounded one last time. There was this quiet that I cannot describe and a few minutes later a wind began to blow across the empty terrain.
We drove back to Oscuro where I found a payphone to call Mr. Owens.
“Hey boss, Grady here.” I heard his voice answer the phone.
“Grady? What the heck? You were late.” He did not sound happy and my heart sank when I heard the dissatisfaction in his voice.
“I know...I know...I got lost.” I stammered.
“Kid...Kid...I got to let you go.” He sighed.
“Why?” I was numb.
“We have a contract with the army that includes that we will be on time with all shipments.” He sniffed.
“I see.” I put my hand on the phone and did my best not to shed any tears.
“Get that truck back to Santa Rosa by tomorrow.” He said before hanging up.
“What happened?” Billy asked.
“I got fired.” I hung my head.
“Well if that don’t beat all.” Billy put his hands on his hips, “I got an idea. I will pay you in gold if you take me to pay my last respects to my compadres.” He patted me on the shoulder.
“I can’t do that.” I shook my head.
“Why not? You been fired. What else can they do to you?” He asked, looking me in the eye.
“Put me in jail for grand theft.” I shook my head.
“Hey, grand theft? Kid Lawton, I’ve lived my entire life on the other side of the law. Maybe before I go, I can teach my replacement.” He put both hands on my shoulders.
“How much gold?” I asked.
“Enough so you won’t ever have to worry about it again.” He nodded.
I don’t know what made me decide to follow him on his journey. All I know is that my life would never be the same again.