By Jim Thompson
Read by Brian Troxell
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When Carol, a knockout beauty, shows up looking to follow the caravan of workers, Tommy falls for her almost immediately. There aren’t any jobs for women on the pipeline, but Carol knows a few things she could do for the workers to keep afloat — an arrangement that Tommy can’t bear for long. As Tommy’s about to find out, when you’re South of Heaven, you’re far from grace – -and sometimes the only way out is down.
As dawn speared across the Far West Texas prairie, the last of the night's heavy dew fell. I sat up shivering, looking down along the twisting bed of the dried-up creek where six hundred of us were jungled up while we waited for the pipeline job to start. The line was to be one of the biggest jobs in years—all the way from out here in this high-lonely gas field to Port Arthur on the Gulf. But word of it had gone out weeks ago, and the men had been drifting in here all those weeks—jailbirds, mission stiffs, hoboes—and hardly a man-jack among 'em with more than an empty gut and the raggedy-ass clothes he wore. One of the few exceptions (and he wasn't much of one) was the guy I traveled with, Fruit Jar.
He was dozing a few feet away from me, sprawled out on the cushions of his Model-T Ford. I toed him in the ribs, jerking my foot back fast as he sat up, cursing and flailing his arms.
"Huh? Hey? Whassa matter?" He glared wildly out of his red-rimmed eyes. "Whatcha doin', Tommy?"
"Thought I'd tell you I was going into town," I said. "See if I can get us something to scoff."
He stared at me a moment longer, figuring out what I'd said. Then, he suddenly winced and groaned and put on his smeary sunglasses. Fruit Jar was on canned heat—about half the boes you saw out here were heat-heads. They eventually went blind from drinking it, and while they were getting that way even a very little light drove them crazy.
"You're a good boy, Tommy," he said, at last. "See if you can stem a little heat, huh?"
I said no, I wouldn't; hustling scoff grub was my limit. "You and me rubber-tramp it together, but that doesn't make me your punk."
"Aah, now, Tommy." He rubbed shaky hands over the stubble of his bloated face. "Well, maybe you can pick up a can of tin cow, huh? And maybe just about a quart of gasoline? The way I feel, a little milk and gas would make a mighty fine drink."
"No," I said.
He was still whining and begging as I walked away from him, and I decided that it was past time that we parted company. I'd be on a job soon, and I didn't owe him anything. Having a way of getting around was awfully handy out here, but I'd more than paid for any rides I'd got by changing tires and keeping the T-Ford running, and doing all the things that Fruit Jar was too drunk or lazy to do for himself.
I walked on up the creek bed toward town, stepping over and around the sleeping boes, brushing the twigs and dirt off my jeans and shirt. I was wearing a good hat, a gray city-style Stetson with the brim turned up front and back, and of course I had good stout shoes with an extra pair of soles nailed on them. That's one thing you learn when you make the big labor camps. Always wear a good hat and good shoes, so even if you don't have much in between, folks will know you're not a bum. A bo—hobo—yes, but not a bum. There's a big difference between the two.
Just around a turn in the creek bed, three boes were huddled around a little fire, warming up a can of last night's coffee grounds. I nodded to them, kind of hesitating, but they didn't nod back, and one of them took out a match and handed it to me. That's the hobo way of saying you're not welcome—that you're to start your own fire, in other words. So I kept on going, rounding another bend. And then I came up short, my mouth falling open in surprise.
He was a tall, good-looking guy in his middle-thirties, lounged back against the grassy hillside. He was drinking from a half-pint bottle of bonded whiskey, and smoking a tailor-made cigarette. And he gave a lazy grin and a wink.
"Tommy, boy," he drawled, " 'light and look at your saddle, friend."
I couldn't speak or move for a minute; I was that surprised and glad to see him. Then, my voice came out in a yell, "Four Trey! Four Trey Whitey!"
"Please, Tommy"—he winced, tapping his head. "Not so early in the morning."
I hunkered down in front of him, grinning from ear to ear. "Boy, am I ever tickled to see you!" I said. "Why, I heard you'd been killed."
"Just shot a few times, Tommy. Just cut up a little. It was the other guy that got killed."
"You figure on sitting-in here?"
"I have set in here, Tommy. And being reasonably sure that you'd be here, I set you in with me."
"Hey, that's great," I said. "That's sure good news, Four Trey."
"So act like it," he chuckled. "Drink up and smoke up."
He tossed me the bottle and a part-package of cigarettes. I lit up and took a long thirsty drink, and he took another bottle and another package of cigarettes from his pocket. We drank and smoked, not saying anything for a time. Just grinning and looking at each other, like old friends will when they come together.
"Yes, Tommy," he said, at last. "The sere and yellow days are gone, and the birds are about to bust their guts with singing. Briefly, the line starts hiring tomorrow, and you and I shall be working on it, and two weeks thence, with the coming of the first payday—guess what we will be doing then, Tommy."
"Now, how could I ever guess?" I laughed.
He was sitting on a bindle of work clothes, but he wore an expensive suit and shoes and a snowy white shirt—a white one, for Pete's sake! I was sure he was carrying a big roll, plenty to travel first-class. But he liked it this way, so here he was jungled up with six hundred other boes.
"So you've got the stroke on the gambling," I said, taking a small sip of the booze.
He nodded that he had. "The exclusive stroke, Tommy. It just happened that I knew some of the high-pressure from a drainage job in East Texas—Higby, remember him? So it's you and me alone from here to the Gulf. You on blackjack and me with the dice. Now, about your cut…"
"Hell," I said. "I trust you, Four Trey."
Four Trey said drily that that was nice, but spelling things out was much nicer. "Anyway, we'll make it the usual. I bank the game, and you cut twenty per cent of the take. Fair enough?"
"Fair enough," I said.
Maybe I should tell you that contractors on pipeline jobs liked to have one or two straight gamblers around. Nor did they mind if a couple of women followed the camp, as long as they were clean and didn't come into the camp-proper. It wasn't often that a woman did follow it; it just wasn't practical, you know, roughing it on her own as much as a hundred miles from the nearest town. But there were always gamblers. Pipelining is rough, hard work, seven days a week, and gambling kept the men from getting restless. It also kept them broke enough so that they weren't always jumping the job.
"What kind of a job are we getting, Four Trey?" I asked, because we would have to live in the camp, naturally, and if you lived in camp you had to work. "Are we down for time-keeping again?"
He shook his head, looking a little unhappy for the first time. "I'm afraid not, Tommy. The banks or whoever it is that's backing the job are putting in their own timekeepers."
"Well…you mean we're going to have to muck it?"
"Oh, no. We're certainly not going to stoop to mucking. It just wouldn't be worth it, getting our hands all calloused with those long-handled spoons."
I said I could muck it, swing a pick and shovel with any man. But I was just as pleased to be doing something else. Four Trey said that I wouldn't like the job we were going to do.
"But it was the only halfway decent thing open, Tommy. The only job we could possibly hold, and handle our gambling."
"I don't care what it is," I said, "as long as it isn't powder monkey. I don't work with dynamite."
"Dyna's a good girl, Tommy. You can chew her up and spit her out, and she won't say a word."
"You…" I stared at him. "You mean, that's the job? Powder monkeyin'? You…you…" I choked up. "You think I'm goin' to powder monkey after what happened to…?"
"A real good girl, Dyna is," he wheedled. "She wears lousy perfume, and you get by-God hellish headaches from it. But safe? The safest stuff in the world."
"Sure, it is! That's why the job is open, why powder monkeys get wages and a half!"
"You had me fooled, Tommy. You never struck me as being a coward."
"I'm not a coward!" I snapped. "I just don't like dynamite, and you know why I don't!"
"I know," he said softly. "But that's the way it is, kid. I'm down for powder monkey, and you're down as my helper. That's what you do or you don't do anything."
I hesitated. I took another small drink. He caught my eye, nodded slowly.
"That's it, Tommy. Dyna or depart."
"But, dammit, Four Trey…!"
"So what's it going to be?"
There was only one thing I could say, and I said it. He grinned approvingly and held out his hand. "That's my boy. Let's shake on it."
We shook. I looked down at my hand and saw that there was a five-dollar bill in it.
"Happy birthday, Tommy," he said.
"Oh, now, look," I said, feeling kind of embarrassed. "You didn't need to do that, Four Trey."
"Why not? A man doesn't get to be twenty-one but once in his life."
"But I'm not even sure that I am twenty-one. I think so, but I'm not sure."
"Well, now you can be sure," he said. "I say so, so you can depend on it."
"Anyway, my birthday was last week," I said. "I forgot all about it until just now."
He yawned and leaned back in the grass, making a waving motion for me to be on my way. "Go scoff, Tommy. Have some fun if you can find anything to have it with."
"Thanks," I said. "Thanks a lot, Four Trey."
"Just be sure you meet me out at the camp in the morning. Better make it around five o'clock. We'll have to hire on, and we'll be working up ahead of the ditchers and draglines. Wherever there's hard rock."
"Right," I said. "I'll be there."
He cocked his hat over his eyes and folded his hands on his stomach. Seemingly, he fell asleep at once. And I went on up the creek bed and into town.
They tell me that things haven't changed much in Far West Texas in the last forty years. It was a wild and lonely land to begin with; it had been so since the world was young. And when man had gotten what he could from it, it went back to the wildness and loneliness. Or so I'm told, at least. I can't say, of my own knowledge, having had no reason to go back that way, and maybe a few for not going back. So all I can tell you is what it was like that morning some forty years ago, when I was twenty-one or thereabouts.
The town was named after a place in Russia, as many towns in West and Far West Texas are. The geologists discovered that they were all part of the Permian Basin, which the drillers had first tapped in Russia, so they were given Russian names. Or sometimes Persian—like Iran—since its underlying rock structure was also Permian Basin.
It, the town, wasn't like any other town you ever saw. There was no pattern to it. The streets, if you could call them streets, ran every whichway. The buildings—wooden, unpainted, wobbly-looking from the unceasing wind—seemed to have been dropped down wherever their builders took a notion. There'd be two or three huddled together in a row, kind of leaning into each other for support. Then, maybe a couple of hundred yards away, there'd be another building and, sitting cater-cornered to it by fifty or sixty feet, a half-dozen more.
All in all, the town probably covered a couple of square miles, with perhaps a hundred buildings—cot-houses, stores, restaurants, barbershops and so on. All but three of the businesses—a general store, a restaurant and a garage—were closed down now. Many of them would go back into operation with the first payday on the pipeline, and for as long as the camp remained close to town. But right now it was as desolate a place as you'd ever see.
The wind was blowing as it always did—soughing and whining like a weary giant. Even early in the morning and with everything dew-wet, dust devils were dancing across the prairie, marching up and down the crazy-quilt streets like long lines of dirty clothes. It was very quiet, so quiet that seemingly you could have heard a sage hen drop an egg in her nest. And then way off to the southeast, coming from the direction of Matacora, the county seat, I heard the sound of a car.
It was coming on fast, and the racket told me what it was—a T-Ford with a patent gearshift and a high-speed head. You saw quite a few of them in the oilfields in the days before the Model-A and the V-8. By the time I was passing the first empty buildings, it was right behind me.
It roared past, almost hiding me and it in its dust. Then, the brakes slammed on and it skidded, ploughing up still more dust, and it backed up to where I was and stopped.
There was a big star painted on its side. The man who climbed over the door and came toward me was also wearing a star—a deputy sheriff's badge.
He was one of those square-built guys, with practically no neck and not much more forehead. His name was Bud Lassen, and I'd seen him and others like him in quite a few places out here, wherever there was a large influx of transient labor. It may sound melodramatic to call them hired guns, but that's what they were.
The local authorities weren't set up to handle large groups of men. Anyway, the locals were usually pretty nice people, and they didn't want to dirty up their reputations. So men like Bud Lassen were deputized for a few weeks or months, and they did whatever was necessary and a lot more besides. Because they liked giving people a hard time. They liked having the whip hand over men who were usually too overworked and underfed to strike back.
Lassen put himself in front of me, one hand on the butt of his forty-five, the thumb of the other looped through his gun belt. He looked me over, hard-eyed, from head to foot, teetering back and forth on the heels of his boots.
At last, he said, "What's your name, bo?"
"You know my name, Bud," I said, acting a lot braver than I felt. "You sure as heck ought to know it, anyway."
"Don't be smart with me, punk!"
"The Oklahoma Construction Company," I said. "A high-line job out of Odessa. You tried to shake me and Four Trey Whitey down. Guess you were too dumb to know that Four Trey wouldn't have operated without talking things over with the sheriff."
He stared at me, the red spreading down his bull neck and up into his thick, pock-marked face. He nodded very slowly, as much as to say he remembered me all right. Which he certainly should have since I'd helped to get him run out of Odessa.
"Tommy Burwell," he said. "You sweatin' the line, Tommy?"
I said, sure. I was waiting for the line to open. "What else would I be doing out here?"
"Then pass the word, Tommy. Tell your junglebird buddies I'll just be waitin' for 'em to start some trouble in town. Tell 'em the first bastard that pulls anything will get his skull parted."
"Tell them yourself," I said. "There's six hundred of 'em jungled-up along the creek bank, and I know they'd be tickled to death to see a nice guy like you."
"And here's some more news for you," he went on, as though he hadn't heard me. "I'm singing on with the line in a few days—special guard. And what I said about startin' trouble goes double for then."
"I'm glad to hear it," I said. "You won't be wearing a badge."
His eyes flickered. I weaved and tried to step back. But his gun was already out of its holster, upraised to slam me on the side of the head. I threw my hands up to protect myself. He laughed with a grunting sound, and the gun barrel whipped into my guts.
I went down on my knees, doubled over. By the time I could straighten up, he was clear over the other side of town, stopping in front of the general store and post office.
I managed to get to my feet. I patted and rubbed the soreness a little and then I went on toward the Greek restaurant.
I'd taken a lot more than a punch in the stomach before and I reckoned I probably would again. So I wasn't particularly upset by what had happened or frightened by the possibility of something worse. I didn't have enough imagination to be scared, I suppose. Enough imagination or experience. Young people just can't believe that they're ever going to die—everyone else is, but not them. They can't believe that they won't survive anything that's thrown at them.
When you're twenty-one, what you believe is that somehow you're going to be a famous ballplayer or lawyer or writer or something that will make you a million dollars, and that you'll marry a beautiful wife and live in a beautiful house, and, well, never mind. And never mind how you're going to do it. You just are, and that's that.
Still, a hard crack with a gun barrel can have a sobering effect even on a twenty-one-year-old, and mine had taken quite a little of the perkiness out of me. I took a long look at myself, trudging along in the dust, with my hat brim turned up front and back and my belly burning with before-breakfast booze. And the picture wasn't a nice one at all. There was nothing romantic or dashing about it. I was a drifter, a day laborer, a tinhorn gambler—a man wasting his life in a wasteland. That's what I was now. That's what I'd be in another twenty-one years if I lived that long, unless I started changing my ways fast.
I told myself that I would. The telling made me feel better, sort of removing the need, you know, to actually do anything.
I began to whistle, planning what I'd have for breakfast, planning how I'd spend my five dollars. Because, of course, I was going to blow it. That was what money was for, and there was always more where the first came from. Always and always.
There is no end to always when you're twenty-one.
I began to walk in time with my whistling. Sort of marching in time to it. Marching onward and upward to some vague but lofty goal. Or so I saw myself that long-ago morning.
What I was actually heading into was the big middle of the biggest mess of my thoroughly messed-up life.
I suppose most of us aim a lot higher than the place we actually hit. Most of us mean to do better than we wind up doing. I know I did, anyway. In the beginning, that is.
I worked hard in school and I got better than good grades. The teachers at the consolidated high school in my native Oklahoma had pointed me toward college and put out feelers for scholarships. My grandparents—my only living kin—had done everything they could to help me, wanting for me what they had never had for themselves. Everyone was pulling for me, and I was doing plenty of pulling on my own. According to the high school yearbook, I was the student most likely to succeed. And no one could have convinced anyone that I wasn't.
Then, when I was just short of sixteen, my grandparents blew themselves up, and everything else seemed to blow up right along with them.
My grandma and grandpa, God bless them, sharecropped sixty acres of the world's sorriest land. Stab a stick down anywhere, and you'd hit rock after about eighteen inches. They needed a new privy, and, since you couldn't dig in the rock, grandpa got half a box of dyna from the landlord's store. He was used to working with it; so was I and so was grandma. You live on a rocky farm long enough and you don't think much more of a stick of dynamite than you do of a stick of candy.
I was about a half mile away, coming home from school, when I heard the explosion. And even that far away I could hear grandma scream. It seemed like I ran forever before I got to where she and grandpa were; and by then—well, I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to remember what they looked like. Because what it was, wasn't people.
I'm not sure how it happened. But I suppose a charge misfired on them. They waited a while, making sure that it wasn't going to explode. Then, they started to put a new cap and fuse on it. And then, then just when they were bending over it…
Don't tell me Dyna's a good girl, that it isn't dangerous. I know better.
As I say, I was just short of sixteen at the time of the accident; in another month, I'd have graduated from high school. But I didn't wait around to do it. I knew what happened to sixteen-year-olds who didn't have kinfolk, and I didn't want any part of it.
I went down and hid in the weeds along the railroad right-of-way. I caught the first freight train that was traveling slow enough to catch and I kept right on going.
The wheat harvest all the way to Canada. The stoop crops in California. The apples in Washington and Oregon. The potatoes in Nebraska and Idaho and Colorado. And then the oil fields and the big construction jobs through the Midwest and West and Far West. I'd made plenty of money to finish my education—college and anything else I wanted. I'd made plenty, and peed it all off.
A couple of years ago, Four Trey Whitey and I had worked almost six months steady, and, what with gambling, I came off the job with around six thousand dollars. And the Lord only knows how much Whitey had. So we went into high livin' Dallas and got a suite at the biggest hotel in town, and then we got drunk. And stayed that way.
Just booze—no women. Whitey was impotent, I think, so it wouldn't have been polite for me to suggest women. I probably wouldn't have, anyway, since I'd been raised a strict Baptist, and when you drink like we did you don't think much about sex.
At the end of the month we were both broke, and I was having the d.t.'s. But Four Trey managed to get me into the county hospital alcoholic ward before he left town. That was his way; nice and considerate up to a point, but not taking anyone to raise. He'd work with you or go on a party with you, but he was a loner—a guy who didn't want anyone hanging on him. And he could get awfully damned sharp if you got in his way. So.…
So here I was again, trudging the red dust of another God-forsaken town, starting out on another job in the wilderness. And telling myself that this time it would be different, that I would be different.
I was walking past the deserted hotel when I heard the sound of voices, sort of mumbling and singing, and I stooped down and looked under the porch. Three boes were under it, sprawled around a big old-fashioned chamber pot and sipping from its contents.
I figured, correctly, that they'd stolen the pot out of the hotel and what they had in it was anti-freeze mixed with water from the Pecos. But I called to them, kidding.
"You boys getting pretty hard up drinking pee, aren't you?"
They whooped and hollered. "Best you ever tasted, Tommy. Come an' join us."
I said thanks, but I guessed not. "Bud Lassen's in town. Maybe you'd better play it kind of low."
They all said what Bud Lassen could do to himself, and what they'd do to him. "Hey, listen, Tommy. I got a new joke about pipeliners."
It wasn't new. I'd probably heard it a hundred times—a kind of dirty dialect joke. But I listened to humor them:
"Mammy, mammy! Big bunch o' pipeliners comin'!"
"Hush yo' mouf, gal! Them pipeliners screws each other an' does their own washing."
"That's rich," I said. "Very funny. Well, you boys be good."
I hurried on before they could stop me, and their singing trailed down the street.
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- Jul 1, 2012
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