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The long road home

I

“What the hell is wrong with you, Danny Reid – you drunk? You damn near got me killed drivin' like that!”

The man, Jack Hoskin, came around the front of his pickup, now stopped askew on the shoulder of the two lane highway, and pulled down the wide brim of his hat against the sand and hot wind off the desert.

“I've got a good mind to pop you one, just on principle if y'all ain't got nothing to say for yourself.”

He concluded, stopping with the toes of his boots tipping up onto the hot asphalt, and watched as, from the other truck, the driver's door hanging open and  stopped in the middle of the lane, Danny descended, his boots settling onto the hot surface and he gathered his long coat about him and, likewise, tipped his hat against the wind and dust. He said nothing as his face fell into shadow.

Around them, where the wind and sand swirled and gusted, there was nothing but isolation. The highway, running through 500 miles of desert from Chacma to Pueblo Santa Maria, was rarely used by other than clatter-trap buses of seasonal migrants – that, of course, was in the winter. In the summer, more often than not, the highway was obscured or, even, completely lost under clouds of dust and drifting dunes. No one went there without a purpose.

Finally, Danny spoke.

“I want my boy back. Gimme back my boy, Jack!” He shouted to make himself heard above the hiss of the wind.

“I'd like to, Danny, I really would. But I explained that to you before -  I just can't do it. You know the reasons.” Jack looked down at the toes of his boots and then back to study Danny Reid. Jack's sun-creased face was pulled into a frown.

“It ain't like he can do nothing to nobody no more, Jack. Can't hurt no one. Some done hurt him and I got me a mind...”

“I full understand that. You're grievin'. But, at the same time, I can't let you take things in your own hands. Y'all hear me, Danny Reid?”

Jack had his own purpose. He had received the report of an abandoned vehicle and, hoping to find it false, took the day to investigate – driving the 10 hour round trip that would leave him exhausted and irritable because those hours of solitude, just a man and his thoughts, can have that effect. What he worried most about was arriving home in that state and the reaction of his wife.

'Jack Hoskin! Where you been all day? I tried to call y'all home for lunch and young Miss Andie said you gone out to the desert! You know you can't go down there on your own! Who knows what might happen?'

'I just went out to check a report, Kate. Nothing to worry about. I just need to get me a shower and freshen up.'

'I know you do! I can smell you from up the street but, mark my words, Mr. Jack Hoskin, y'all ain't paradin' around my clean house with all that desert on you. You just strip down right there an' git your hiney upstairs t' the shower afore I got half the desert in here, too!'

It wasn't that – the nagging. That made him smile. It was only because she was worried about him. He knew that, later, emerged from the shower fresh and clean, sporting stiff, sun-dried jeans and a light sweater to guard against the night chill, she would be all 'my man' and 'baby' because he was home and safe. They would dine on roast chicken and fresh, cool vegetables - if he made it home.

The other reality, aside from the desert, of course, was Danny Reid who had followed him all the way from Pueblo Santa Maria with the intention of killing him.

II

Danny Reid stood gazing back impassively at Jack Hoskin and letting the voiced warning roll around in his thoughts. Absently, he turned his head and spit. It landed a few feet away, already dried to a sheen and startling a dung beetle that walked on stilted legs to protect its iridescent body from being fried. A bead of sweat drained down the side of his cheek and he wiped it away with the back of his hand.

It was true that his son, Pat – so often referred to during the proceedings as 'the accused, Patterson Anthony Reid' – had been born under a bad sign. His behaviour had been unpredictable and destructive as a child and as only a child is capable, which sent his mother, Lilith, into fits. As father and mother, they had tried all they could to tame his violence but, as he grew older, it had only become worse.

“Jack, I got this anger and hatred inside me and it just won't let go, nohow. I got to get it out or it's gonna eat me up.”

On the other side of the highway, Jack nodded. Keeping his right hand on the belt of his jeans, with his left, he pulled a pack of Marlboro's from the pocket of his vest. He tapped it on his hip and a few cigarettes popped forth. His gaze was locked, unwavering, on Danny

He thought of just drawing one out with his teeth but, reconsidering, he stepped forward in the front of the star decal on the side of his truck that read 'Pueblo Santa Maria County Sheriff' and extended his arm. Across the white line, Danny nodded and accepted. Stepping back toward his own truck, in the midst of the vast, shimmering emptiness of the desert, two lighters flared simultaneously.

“I'm doing my best to understand, Danny, but we're in a situation here that ain't none too good.” He spit some tobacco from his lip.

“Now I done tried to be your friend through all 'em troubles with your boy. My problem ain't never been with you and you know that.”

“You went and got him killed, Jack! He's dead! How y'all wantin' me t'feel about that?”

Danny knew that, in the desert, crying would cause the dust to stick to his eyes but, he couldn't help it. His eyes stung and the tears, viscous and warm, flowed down his cheek to the corner of his mouth where their salty taste intruded. He thought of Pat lying in a pine slat box in a shallow grave marked only by a prisoner number at Middleton State Penitentiary.

“I didn't get him killed and, if y'all think long enough on that, y'all know it's true. He got hisself killed, Danny. You can't be blamin' yourself and you can't be blamin' no one else neither; what he did, he did on his own.”

Danny straightened his shoulders and shifted his coat trying to compose himself. He felt the weight of the handgun in the pocket.

The motives had never been clear and, as usual, the media had jumped on it with the standard monikers like 'vicious crime', 'senseless violence' and, the worst, 'an orgy of blood and flame'.

It had been a surprisingly cold night in Tuscon. Pat was drinking at a strip club. The fight was just the start of it. No one was quite sure how it had started – it was probably as innocuous as a bump or a spilt beer but, in Pat, it had released a demon. He had jumped on the guy, a small-town cowboy and, before anyone could stop what was going on, he had pummeled the guy's face into a pulp. He had required reconstructive surgery to resemble a man after that.

The error had been with the management. They had him ejected – after all, Pat had insisted that the other guy started it – and he was free to continue his rampage since, with the fight, girls and alcohol, he was well fired up.

What never came out during the proceedings was how he got the police issue revolver. Pat decided to rob a liquor store. Maybe he was thinking of leaving the state and heading up to Reno or Vegas.

After the fire, the forensics experts had pieced together what remained of the surveillance video. He had not been incited by the attendant or by the manager who emerged from the back office during the course of the robbery. He simply decided to shoot.

He had been calculating. That was his downfall. He shot both first. Then returned and emptied the clip on the attendant – mostly to the head. He raided the till, fetching a total of $178.56, while standing in the midst of a smear of brain and bone on the floor. He could have stopped and left but he didn't. He reloaded.

The final images from the video – damaged and grainy from the recovery process – showed the manager holding his gut and begging. Pat got up close and fired into his gut again. The man's intestines began to spill, split and stinking, from the combined wounds. Then Pat had aimed and fired six more times. Finally, he had left.

Not revealed on the video was how Pat had, in an obtuse intent to erase his crime, then torched the place. His prints were all over the can of lighter fluid.

“Your boy did what he did, Danny. There ain't no getting' around that. I can be your friend if that's what you be wantin'. But, right now, I gots t'tell you somthin'. If you lift that sidearm in your pocket, then I ain't your friend no more. I'm the Sheriff of this here County and, you know like I do, you ain't gonna lift that thing very far before I stop ya. It's all up to you, Danny Reid.

“Honestly, I hope y'all make the good decision.”

III

The heat, space and eerie silence of the desert, divided in two by a shimmering, arrow-straight, strip of black-top can make a man, out in the middle of it and, as long as he isn't starving for water, thoughtful and introspective as though the noise of regular town life, like in Pueblo Santa Maria – it's people, horses and the grinding of truck gears – somehow drive those more meaningful thoughts from his mind.

For some men it is better that they not go the desert because, either, they do not want to know their own thoughts or, maybe, their hearts are blackened with evil or scarred with hatred and the heart - beating, beating, driving the blood every day from birth to the last feeble pulse – it pushes the blood to the brain and that taint settles in the brain and colours what a man can think with blackness.

Danny Reid had battled with his own thoughts and he did not like what he found there. His coat flapped around his legs irritably in the hot wind and, behind, his truck was like a hot ember to his back. He swiped at a fly with his left hand and a small river of sweat drained down his back, staining his shirt. He knew why he had come to the desert: to kill Sheriff Jack Hoskin. Jack had been the one to arrest his son; the one who had started the process that led to Pat being killed. What he did not understand was how Danny Reid had also died; how the man he was before – caring, kind and gentle – had been replaced by this one whose eyes, narrowed to slits and shaded beneath the broad brim of his hat, showed only hatred and the desire for revenge.

Jack Hoskin stood still on the opposite side of the highway only occasionally wiping at the sweat which collected on his broad throat. His right hand never strayed from resting on the belt of his jeans and only inches from the holster tied to his hip. His black shirt and leather vest where was pinned the silver 'sheriff's star' felt sticky and he shifted his posture to allow the damp fabric to fall away from his back. His own truck behind him, also bearing the insignia, was little protection from the blazing sun but, in the time that they had stood there, the shadow had grown longer by a few inches.

Jack was a different kind of man – perhaps among few - who, with neither resignation nor great force of will, chose to confront what rests in their own hearts and minds and, never shying away, try to find what meaning there as they are in grade to discern.

Jack coughed, spat and dropped his cigarette butt to the ground, twisting it out with the toe of his boot.

“Getting warm,” he commented to no one in particular.

“Ugh,” assented Danny from the other side of highway. Danny tilted his hat back and looked upward. “Gonna be a long, hot season – can see it in the color of the sky.” His words were borne away on the wind.

Jack imitated him, scrutinising the pale, blue arc above to where it collided with the distant mountains almost lost in the sheen of heat.

“Damn, if you ain't right, Danny. I suspect some people'll be wantin' them wells dug deeper this year.”

“Ain't gonna be getting none better 'round here.” Danny kicked at some dust that had collected around his boots.

“No, it ain't.” Jack looked at his own dust covered boots and then back at Danny.

“Y'all mind if I ask you something, Danny?”

“Nope.”

“Why do you think we are here? I don't mean 'here, right now' but here.” He gazed around at the limitless and featureless desert that surrounded them for boundless miles.

“I don't rightly know, Jack. I ain't much one to believe in God – especially now. I figger, if there was one, He mighta done something for my boy, y'know?”

“Yeah. I don't much go for God, neither - or all 'em Natives with their spirits for that matter.”

Danny tilted his head against a gust of wind sand and then spoke louder.

“Why do you think, Jack?”

Jack spat at the ground but it was dried and whisked away before it landed.

“I got me some ideas – might be right or wrong – but it worked for me so far.”

“I'm listenin',” said Danny. He shifted his boots that had begun to singe the soles of his feet.

“I think we're here to learn something, Danny. Now, I know, that ain't sayin' much but hear me out.”

Danny nodded and swiped at another fly.

“See, I don't know what it is but, what I do know, is that some men search – if they're searchin' – all their lives. They never find nothing 'cause they ain't lookin' right.

“Now the thing is – and here's the catch – you gots to chose to learn 'cause if you don't then you might spend your whole life tryin' and not getting' nowhere.

“Take that boy of yours...”

Danny stiffened. Jack continued.

“You and that good woman of yours, Lilith, you done tried with him – I know you did. Why, I talked to that boy myself damn near enough t'make my tongue fall out but it wasn't near what you and Lilith done for him. The point is, he chose not to learn and, goddammit, if a man – and he was a man – makes that choice, then there ain't nothin' you or I or nobody else can do for him.

“See, Danny, it's like you and me standing here in the middle of this Hell. I can tell you what y'all need t'do but, if you already made your choice, then we ain't gonna learn a damn thing. Today, I'd rather learn something about the good man you are, Danny Reid – a good husband – and you were a good father, too. Maybe, y'all can learn something about me. I dunno.”

Jack stopped and spat the dust from his mouth.

Danny listened and heard the words that, carried on the hot wind, settled like dust eddies in his mind. He wondered about his own choices and, if, somehow, he had learned something wrong but, he had to admit that, at the moment, he didn't know what to do with that knowledge or where to put it. At this point, he knew from Jack's discourse, that the choices had been made a long time ago – maybe somebody would learn, someday.

In the desolate expanse of desert, two men stood facing each other. Danny spread his feet, the heels clicking dully on the soft asphalt. He took a step forward. Jack moved toward the front grill of his truck and calmly locked his thumbs into his belt facing Danny. Their eyes neither flinched nor, barely, blinked, drying and reddened in the heat. Danny's right arm moved slowly.

“Y'all can take this,” he said holding up the powerful handgun dangling from his index finger. “I won't be needing it today.”

Jack nodded, relaxing, and retrieved the weapon. He ejected the cartridge and the magazine and tossed both through the open window of his truck where they landed in a puff of dust and clink of metal on the passenger seat.

“We best be getting' on, Danny Reid. Lilith be worried about you.”

“Kate, likewise.”

Danny looked at his boots and then followed the lengthening shadow across the highway.

“It's a long road home,” he commented to no on in particular and the wind took the words, carrying them off into the dryness and loneliness of the desert under a slowly darkening sky.

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