Soap and Water - 035
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’Tit Jean drove the scooter until well after dark, buying gas and food where he could. He was climbing the Wasatch Mountains when the sun went down; the temperature dropped fast and the wind cut through his parka, making him shiver against the bike’s vibration. He was tired, but I-70 wound upwards through an endless succession of red-rock cliffs and canyons, nowhere soft to rest.
Eventually in a high valley along I-15 he passed a series of ranches, their alfalfa fields mown to stubble. He left the highway and crawled into the grass beneath a windbreak cottonwood. He got a few hours’ sleep and woke freezing, stiff, and miserable.
He drove a little farther south on the Interstate, then headed due west on a state highway. The most direct route to Rachel was on state roads through nowhere.
He passed into another valley of mown alfalfa, fields carved from the saltbush that otherwise filled the basin rim to rim. Clouds hung from the edges of the sky, just over the mountains. A prairie falcon shot across the road, harassed by a sparrow.
At the far end of the valley the road reached and turned to parallel a heavy rail line. The road and railroad climbed the last mountains before the border in tandem, clean-smelling pine and sagebrush replacing saltbush on the way. ’Tit Jean climbed over humps of land, through one saddleback after another, until at last he bumped over the cattle guard marking the border of Nevada.
Past the summit the forest scattered quickly to nothing. The road descended to the floor of a circular valley and led him into a four-block town, so tiny that from the welcome sign he could see its far limit, the place where his current road debouched into another. A Humvee sat aslant that three-way intersection, blocking all directions. The GI to the left of it had a rifle trained on him.
’Tit Jean released the bike’s throttle and slowed. The GI yelled something incomprehensible. ’Tit Jean squeezed the brakes and stopped altogether.
“You motherfucking rustler, I said don’t you dare turn around!” shouted the GI.
’Tit Jean went dizzy with fear. He eased the throttle open and crept toward the roadblock. How pointless it would be to die here, no use to Guerin at all.
The GI ordered him to stop twenty feet from the Humvee, then get off the bike and lie on the ground. He heard boots on the pavement and the GI came to stand near him, pulled his hands out in front of his head and bound them with a plastic tie. Then the GI pushed ’Tit Jean’s scooter halfway into the dried-up privet hedge surrounding the nearest house, returned, grabbed his upper arm, and pulled him to his feet.
The young man was light brown, with shaggy hair and the beginnings of a beard. ’Tit Jean realized that he was alone, not backed up by an Army checkpoint’s usual squad of eight or so. He’d gone Injun, this one.
“You’re a dumb fucking rustler, aren’t you?” said the GI. “I’ve watched your people roll by for three days now and you’re the first stupid enough to try it alone.”
“I don’t understand,” ’Tit Jean said. “What is a rustler?”
“You’re in the Basin now, baby. You can’t get over on us that easy.”
The GI made him sit on the pavement, legs stretched in front, shoulders leaning on the Humvee’s front bumper, bound hands in his lap. It wasn’t comfortable, but it wasn’t painful. ’Tit Jean thought about offering a bribe, but it seemed like the young man was at least half insane and hadn’t decided what to do next. If ’Tit Jean said the wrong thing it might tip the guy’s decision the wrong way.
The GI leaned against the Humvee and stared into space. The sun was about halfway into the sky, shining directly into ’Tit Jean’s eyes, and the air had grown hot. His adrenaline refused to ebb. It and the sun dried his mouth until his tongue felt swollen. His pulse throbbed against the inside of those plastic ties.
Time passed. He couldn’t imagine how much. He kept his eyes locked on the GI, who did virtually nothing. He lit a cigarette once, smoked it down, and stubbed it out on the asphalt. A few times he walked away from the Humvee a few paces, turned around, and came back to where he’d been standing.
’Tit Jean’s thirst grew unbearable. He couldn’t work up enough saliva to swallow, even though a grain of sand or something irritated the back of his throat. The insides of his nostrils felt stiff.
The GI was a few steps away again, smoking a second cigarette. ’Tit Jean still feared him, but he couldn’t think straight unless he got water. He put his elbow on the bumper and started climbing to his feet; the movement attracted the GI’s attention and he spun around, unshouldering his rifle.
“Sit the fuck back down!” he yelled. ’Tit Jean dropped on his rear and looked up at the GI—at his gun, anyway—through his bound hands and forearms, which he’d lifted instinctively to protect his face, as if they’d do any good against a bullet.
“I need some water please,” he said.
“Open your mouth then,” said the GI. “I can spit in it or piss, your choice.” He was so young, ’Tit Jean thought, younger even than the secretary at the airbase. Too young to have developed empathy or pity.
“I have some money,” ’Tit Jean said. “Let me pay you.”
“I’ll take your money,” the GI said, “but that’s all it is, me taking your money.” He knelt next to ’Tit Jean, bringing the barrel of his gun near ’Tit Jean’s face, and stuck his left hand into ’Tit Jean’s right front pocket.
“Wait.” ’Tit Jean grabbed the GI’s arm with his bound hands. “My son is your age. He is missing. I need—”
The GI slammed the back of the rifle into ’Tit Jean’s left wrist and a shock coursed up his arm to the shoulder. “Don’t ever touch me,” the GI said. He stalked over to ’Tit Jean’s scooter, lifted the seat to expose the carry space, uncapped one of the gallon jugs, poured all its water to the ground, and threw it over the privet hedge. Then he did the same with the other, and for good measure took ’Tit Jean’s gas can and put it in the rear of his Humvee.
’Tit Jean went into a daze. He let the GI search him as thoroughly, and soon the boy had found all the money ’Tit Jean had left, about $2,300, including the $400 in his shoes. He also took ’Tit Jean’s wallet (and with it his driver’s license and forged visa), his cell phone, even his tube of lip balm.
Then he stood upand got into the Humvee, maybe to count his spoil. He was there for a while. Finally he came back and did give ’Tit Jean one swallow from his canteen.
“You’re not in a Posse, are you?” he said. “I got that wrong.”
“Is that what ‘rustler’ means?” ’Tit Jean asked.
The GI took a lock-blade utility knife from his pocket and opened it, used it to cut the plastic tie. It made ’Tit Jean’s wrist spasm in pain and his vision turn red. “All right, you can go,” the GI said. “You’re lucky I’m in a good mood.”
’Tit Jean wished he could explain to the boy that momentary acts of decency couldn’t make up for previous and continued barbarism.
His wrist wasn’t working right—it hurt like hell whenever he tried to move it—but he was able to wrestle the scooter back to the road with just his right hand, and since the throttle was on the right he was also able to get moving. The brake lever was on the left, though. He rested his left hand on it and hoped the wrist wasn’t too injured to function in an emergency.
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