Soap and Water - 014
Download an audio version at (www.joshuamalbin.com/soap-and-water).
In many ways Cutt’s life would have been easier if he’d been more like Marsh, willing to shoot civilians when they became inconvenient and call it the price of war. Now, for example, he had three of them on his hands and no idea what to do with them. He couldn’t keep them forever and he’d already decided not to kill them. If he let them go, though, what would stop the reporter from heading straight to Fort Carson to get the Army?
Finally he decided to send her and the Nationalist off first and hold back the young one a couple of days. The reporter was protective of her; she wouldn’t call in the Army until she knew the girl was safe. It would give his guys time to spread out to a few other temporary shelters, which it was about time for anyway. They were most comfortable in the mine, but he never let them stay here more than half of any month. Undoubtedly the Feds would wreck the place if the reporter brought them here later, possibly even collapse the ceiling to ruin it, but they’d survive.
Keeping the girl might also give him a chance to talk her into … not riding with his men in Pike, exactly, but if she could get a few foolhardy development buddies to take on the Feds in Denver again, it could relieve the pressure up here.
Wyatt didn’t want to leave Veronica alone in a camp of horny outlaws, no matter how tough she claimed to be. Even if Cutt sincerely meant to return her unharmed in two days, he might decide later it was too risky, or he might not be able to keep his men disciplined. But it was Meg who’d hired him for her safety, not Veronica. His obligation was to her.
And in hard fact he couldn’t do much to protect Veronica if they stayed anyway. This was just one of the shitty things that happened to people in the West sometimes. You couldn’t always help them.
Before they left he did try to give Veronica advice. “Pick one who doesn’t make you too sick, who you think the others respect or at least they’re afraid of,” he said. “One who you think won’t want to share. And—you know.”
Meg, standing nearby, closed her eyes a long moment and decided not to say anything. Veronica was smart and tough enough to see for herself that Wyatt’s caveman horseshit only meant there wasn’t any useful advice to give. “I promise we’ll be there to get you in two days,” she said.
Veronica curled her lip to show she didn’t believe it, and tapped the nearest wood post with her fingertip. “I hope so.”
Cutt’s men gave Wyatt and Meg water and candy bars, brought them to a meadowed hilltop, and rode away. They even told them where to look for Wyatt’s truck: on a dirt road above the mountain town of Westcreek. They did not say how to find Westcreek from the hilltop, however. They did not say where the hilltop was at all.
The two walked downhill, grass whipping their feet and calves. Eventually they came to pine trees and their footsteps went silent on the duff, until they found water, a stream running low in its banks, and Meg rinsed the scratches on her arm. Even though it was fall, long past snowmelt time, the water was still cold. It stung.
Then both of them washed the bird shit from their clothes as well as they could. The floor of the mews antechamber had been speckled with it, leaving white smudges on everything they wore. They took off their shirts to dip them in the stream but by mutual unspoken modesty not their pants, instead carrying water to the dirty spots on those with their hands and rubbing at them with stones. Even so Wyatt found himself staring at Meg’s plain black bra. Her upper body was very pale and she had a distinct mole on the ribs below her right breast; she was fit in the manner of older women, her skin stretched tight over muscle. Her thin lips compressed to nothing as she concentrated on rubbing a spot with a rough pebble. Wyatt felt intensely guilty, suddenly, to have stolen her passport, and to hide the blush he was sure was coming pulled his shirt halfway on, pretending to struggle with the arms so it hid his face. It was hard to believe himself a strong, self-sufficient Western man, capable of looking after his daughter, when he had to steal to do it.
When he did lower the cloth he saw that while his shirt was broadly splotched with water hers was only polka-dotted wet, as she’d somehow managed to dampen and scrub only each dirty point.
Though the air was cool its thinness drew the water off their clothes quickly, and they were soon dry. They walked along the streambank until bushes and small trees forced them away, and then picked their way along the slope above. That hill flattened out more and more and eventually they walked on nearly flat ground, parallel to the stream and marking its presence only by its bramble and an occasional patch of sunlight. Then they found an old logging track and followed it. After a while it met a good dirt road and they followed that, the valley walls rising to hem them in until they were stopped by a four-strand barbed-wire fence, its three-strand gate stretched across the road. The gate strands were wrapped around and nailed to a peeled branch, steel hoops at the top and bottom of the adjacent fencepost circling the branch and holding the gate taut. Wyatt released it by squeezing branch to post until the hoops slid off. They went through and he replaced the hoops to draw it closed again.
“Be careful,” he said. “If the gate is up someone has cows here, and that’s been illegal for a while. Make plenty of noise so they can hear us coming.”
Soon they saw cow patties along the road and the stream’s brush beaten down, banks trampled flat and muddy. They heard mooing before they saw the herd itself, milling across the road, the stream turned into a wallow. There were about fifty of them. A pink salt lick by the road, contoured by the erosion of tongues into a miniature Brancusi sculpture, proved they were in that stream-bottom on purpose, but there were no cowboys to be seen. Wyatt stamped and yelled to scare them off the road and the ones grazing trotted a few feet off; the ones ruminating or sleeping just raised their heads.
“This means we must be nearer to people, or roads at least, right?” Meg said.
“Mm,” said Wyatt, and didn’t add that nearer might still be measured in daysof hiking.
For that reason he kept them walking slow, and when he noticed Meg favoring one leg made her stop before she was fully aware of the limp herself. She took off her sneaker and sock and found a blister forming between her big toe and the next one. Wyatt had her rip off the pocket of her shirt and tear it in two, and tied one strip around each of those two first toes. When handling her naked foot he had an urge to run his hand up the bottom of her calf to the crook of her knee; he held her ankle in the circle of his thumb and forefinger a moment while he mastered it, and wondered what she thought of him. Then they each ate a candy bar and sipped from the canteen. They had to save their water now that the stream was full of manure.
Later the road forded the stream just below its confluence with another. Ahead a camper trailer took up the whole of the road, an old Honda Civic beyond it in its shade. A man and a woman sat at a folding table outside the camper’s front door, drinking out of blue metal mugs and watching Wyatt and Meg approach.
After the border closings, surging Nationalism had led Westerners to rediscover their old romantic icons of cowboys and frontiersmen. While many people were joining Posses or the nonviolent resistance, many others simply wanted to run away. White suburb-dwellers who couldn’t get out of the Territories had done the nearest thing to cowboying and frontiering they could, buying campers and RVs and going on the road. They’d fled into the National Parks and Forests at that time free of Rangers and set themselves up, thousands of them, tens of thousands, sparking forest fires with their Hibachis and fouling streams with their sewage and oil leaks. After only a year the fad petered out. Most admitted their incompetence and went home and the few who weren’t incompetent joined Posses and became the mountain-man rebels of their office-cubicle dreams.
Wyatt mistrusted them. Real backwoodsmen at least claimed to respect their lands, and honestly believed they could look after them better than a government far away in Washington. Camper people just made a mess. But this was no time to play more-Western-than-thou. The man was smoking and that made Wyatt want a cigarette himself. His were in his pickup and none of Cutt’s men had had any tobacco; he’d been without nicotine for two days.
Meg noticed that the woman had her hair cut up the back of her head in a shelf, something to which women all over the West seemed to be condemned. Meg always felt sorry for the women who got those cuts, spending their money to look beautiful and receiving instead the same chop-job as millions of others. Even here, although she’d probably had to travel miles for it, this woman had gotten herself that same sad do. The man had no such worries. All he had left was a bald man’s fringe of long hair.
“Where you folks coming from?” the woman said.
Wyatt gestured toward the top of the mountain. “You know the Pike Forest Posse?” he said.
“Don’t know if that’s who they were, but we’ve seen shaggy-looking men pass from time to time,” the woman said.
“They had us a day but they let us go.”
The woman nodded and the man continued to watch them. There was a silence.
“Do you have anything to eat?” Meg said.
“We’ve got some beans,” the man said. “Not any meat right now.”
Their names were Darrill and Elizabeth Aberall, and they were from Denver. They’d been campering a year in this same spot, but didn’t think they’d go on much longer.
“It’s been an adventure,” Elizabeth Aberall said, “but we haven’t quite managed to live off the land—”she drew quote marks in the air—“the way we’d hoped, have we.”
They brought what food they had and Meg and Wyatt crammed together on the camper door’s low step, eating beans and canned corn from a Tupperware container with metal spoons. Meg thought Elizabeth and Darrill looked a lot alike and wondered whether they were married, as she’d first assumed, or brother and sister. They wore no wedding rings and hadn’t mentioned children.
Elizabeth had been a consultant, she said, doing technology inventories for businesses, and Darrill had been a patent lawyer at the University of Colorado.
“So last August,” Elizabeth said, “we were in Denver and neither of us had any work anymore, and we couldn’t get a visa for love, money, or chocolate, and then one day we see this camper advertised and we thought hey, we should buy it. We’d watched folks go out in their campers before, and a couple was coming down from the mountains and wanted to sell it—they said it worked real well and that since there were no Rangers or game wardens you didn’t ever have to worry about food. You could just put corn on the ground and shoot deer from the kitchen window—I can even show you where the man set up to hold a rifle. Turns out neither of us can hit a deer at ten paces, and at that distance it’s only a little smaller than the side of a barn.”
When she learned Wyatt and Meg had to get to Westcreek to retrieve the truck, Elizabeth was delighted. “Wonderful,” she said. “We’ll drive you there.”
“She wants to check her email at the library,” Darrill said.
“I have in a put order,” Elizabeth explained.
“She’s in the markets,” said Darrill. “She thinks she can outsmart those East Coast Jews.”
But it was too late in the day to start now. They wouldn’t make it home before dark, and, Darrill said, “That dirt road is a real bear to drive at night.” So they invited Wyatt and Meg to stay with them, giving them a sleeping bag, a blanket, and the padded bench in the front half of their camper space. There wasn’t enough room to lie down on it. There wasn’t enough room even to lie down across the camper floor—it was not much wider than an SUV, and most of its length was taken by the Aberalls’ sleeping berth. Worse, someone had once lit a fire on the floor here, leaving sear marks on the linoleum tile and the plastic front of the bench. After a bad night in the mews, Meg didn’t think she could stand trying to rest knees-to-chin in here; she took the throw pillows from the bench, put them and the sleeping bag under her arm, and went out to the road. She unzipped the bag and lay it flat, then went in to fetch the blanket and Wyatt, who was trying to arrange himself on his back, his feet out the small window.
“Don’t be such a gentleman,” Meg said. “Come outside.”
They lay side-by-side on the sleeping bag and shared the inadequate warmth of the blanket. At this altitude it was already getting cold at night, not yet freezing but near it, and Wyatt knew that in a few hours they’d both wake up dewy and shivering and have to go back inside anyway. But he didn’t say so, and that surprised him a little. Maybe he wanted Meg to turn to his body for warmth before she woke up from cold, or maybe he’d liked that she’d led him to lie down next to her. If that’s what it was, he was being stupid. She couldn’t trust him—she shouldn’t, anyway—but still he wanted her to like him? Besides, she was too old and he wasn’t even attracted to her. He puffed air out his nose, a short laugh.
“What’s funny,” Meg said without lifting her head.
Hours later Meg did wake up from cold. Wyatt was off in the bushes, urinating; she could hear it hitting the ground. He must have let in the air when he got up. The sound of the brook nearby made her want to pee too, but she hated to give up the little warmth the blanket still held and so tried instead to huddle her body tighter around her bladder, as if warming her insides would reduce their need. She could feel, as she shifted, that the pattern of the throw pillow had impressed itself on her face.
Wyatt came back and in lifting the blanket let in another wave of cold, prolonged by the cold he brought with him on his body. There was no heat left to protect. She got up and squatted off the other side of the road.
When she returned he’d wound more than his share of blanket around his shoulders and head, and she had to prod him and pull at it to make him give it up. He rolled onto his back and fell asleep again, and she found herself watching his mustache twitch over his obscured mouth. In the dark it was all she could discern of his face. Her hand was pillowed on a little mound of sleeping bag between her chest and his, catching the rhythm of his breath as his chest’s expansion displaced it. She wondered exactly how much younger he was. About a decade, probably.
In high school her theater group had put on Twelfth Night, and after the opening party they’d all fallen asleep around the host girl’s house, three and four to a bed. She’d used the cover of both their feigned sleeps to run her hand under the clothes of the boy lying next to her, going so far as to take his erect penis in her hand, at fifteen the first she’d ever touched. She’d pulled at it rather than pushing, not knowing it was the wrong thing, until the boy suddenly and roughly turned away. The next day neither of them had mentioned it.
It was more than warmththat had made her want to lie next to Wyatt, she thought. It was the aftereffect of trauma: she couldn’t face sleeping alone tonight. She felt bound to this man because they’d been kidnapped together and she wanted to feel protected instead of vulnerable. The smell of his skin was powerful. But it didn’t mean anything, she told herself, not really.
The next morning Elizabeth and Darrill fed them cornflakes with powdered milk. The milk had been reconstituted poorly: clots drifted among the flakes. Then they put Wyatt and Meg in the back of their Civic and crept down the road, going cautiously over every rock and hump so as not to bottom out.
“How on earth did this thing tow your camper up this mountain?” Wyatt said.
“Friend of ours lent us his Suburban,” Darrill said.
“How will you get it back down?”
“We thought we’d just leave it.”
The town of Westcreek, buried as it was in a National Forest, had for many years served mainly loggers, campers, sport hunters, and sport fishermen. None had visited in a while. A troop of Rangers had been redeployed to the Forest recently and did come through from time to time, tense from being too often shot at and from knowing that their return was only a provocation without useful purpose. There were occasional truckers taking a long way around Interstate highway checkpoints, occasional log-poachers (all logging was illegal now, not by policy but because Forests didn’t have the staff to measure and mark sales), food hunters from Denver and Colorado Springs, and the Aberalls, for whom the young librarian unlocked his domain.
“Connection’s been spotty lately but boot up any machine you want,” he said, indicating four computers in a row of gray-cloth-walled workstations.
Elizabeth Aberall took one computer to check her stocks. Meg took another to type and file the drug-smuggling story she’d been composing on notepaper.
“Let’s see if we can’t find your truck,” Darrill said.
He and Wyatt found it where Cutt had said it would be, off the main road a mile beyond town. Their packs and gear were still in it, which surprised Darrill but not Wyatt. Posse business, as he’d understood it from Meg’s interview of Cutt, was conducted almost entirely by barter. In exchange for protection the cartels delivered weapons, food, and equipment. What they took from trucks on the highway was worth the trouble of selling. They had no use for Wyatt and Meg’s clothes and they had plenty of camping gear.
Veronica’s cat was waiting there too, stretched on its side on the seat. It was exhausted, and barely looked up when Wyatt opened the cab door. He poured water into a coffee mug and put it by the animal’s head, and it struggled to its chest and drank for a long time. Fortunately, although it had escaped its milk crate it had continued to use the litter pan Veronica had put in the crate’s bottom. He dumped out the litter, put the crate in the truck bed, and left the doors open, holding the cat in his arms. After a while the intense smell of shit and urine mostly dissipated.
When he could sit inside without gagging he deposited the cat on the seat and drove to collect Meg and head down the mountain.