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One Step Over the Border
By Stephen Bly
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 26, 2009. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Copyright © 2007 by Stephen Bly
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: September 2009
It takes a lot of folks' help to get a project like this one published… special thanks to my friend Chip MacGregor… my editor, Christina Boys… my agent, Frank Weimann… Cara Highsmith, David Palmer, Lori Quinn, and the whole staff at Hachette Book Group USA, and especially my wife, Janni-Rae, who has always been my "Juanita."
Central Wyoming, Summer of 1996
The yellow dirt road that stretched before him reminded Laramie Majors of the countryside around his grandparents' place in Oklahoma. Miles beyond the blacktop sat their two-story, white clapboard house with a front porch swing and sweet tea that tasted a bit sinful if you'd just come back from church. As a kid, those trips north lined a route of escape from the tension of home and invited him to a different world. At Grandma's house, no one yelled. No one got hit. And Mamma never cried.
But the parade of gray sagebrush, dull green scrub cedars, and squatty piñon pines on the rimrock reined Laramie back to Wyoming. Yellow grime fogged after his truck like a swarm of South American ants, a creeping disease across the fenders of his silver Chevy pickup.
Dwight Purley had told him to take the shortcut through the south end of the Bighorn Mountains. But Dwight presumed Laramie knew more about Wyoming geography than he actually did. Although the blonde gal with stubby pigtails and logger's biceps at the Sinclair gas station had assured him this was the right way, he now found himself grumbling over her apparent misdirections.
He questioned again if he should have stayed on the pavement out of Casper. This endless dirt road didn't have the feel of a shortcut, and the fuel gauge had dropped near empty. He hadn't seen a ranch, a rig, or an occupied cabin for miles and didn't know which direction to walk to find gas. He considered turning back, but the drive to make it there today pushed him over the next hill. He had promised himself he would not go back to Texas a failure. It was a promise he intended to keep.
Laramie smeared the dirt off the dash and slapped the front of the fuel gauge in hopes that it was stuck, then punched off the CD player. As he crested the hill, he slowed to a stop as two dozen pronghorn antelopes ambled across the road. They turned to gawk at his rude intrusion. He stared back at their blank, clueless expressions, wondering how many times the same look plastered his own face.
The thin blue Wyoming sky unfolded to the west. Hills gave way to rolling sage and brown grass prairie. As he dropped down into a cottonwood draw, he spied a log cabin. Its battered shake roof sported a new satellite dish receiver. Thick gray smoke curled from the chimney. A girl of about ten scampered from the outhouse wearing red striped shorts, cowboy boots, and a Nike T-shirt.
She waved, then disappeared into an unpainted barn.
Laramie waved back. She was the first person he'd seen in almost an hour.
Eight miles further west he reached Highway 20. He turned north and followed the green highway signs and bright hotel billboards that lured him toward Cody. He rolled down the windows, hoping to blow out some dust. And memories.
Majors parked his pickup under the only shade tree on the level street. He studied the scrap of scribbled brown paper: Hap Bowman, 2490 Paradise Road, Cody, Wyoming.
The home looked like a 1960s tract house, only there were no other residences. No landscaping. No parks. No sidewalks. No neighborhood improvement association. Just one dwelling in bad need of paint on stucco with fake brick walls.
The wide, empty street led to nowhere. Laramie fastened the top button on his collar and practiced a crooked smile in the dusty mirror. He knew it was time to cowboy up, to get his small talk in gear. No one discerned how tough it felt for him to meet new people.
A 1992 black Dodge truck was backed into the driveway. Behind it, on eroding blacktop, a wheelless Volkswagen van perched like a miniature diner, propped up by cinder blocks and weeds. A battered canvas awning stretched out the side. A dust devil that had spawned in the vacant lot next to the faded green house seemed reluctant to leave. Laramie watched the dirt swirl a moment as if waiting for an oracle to make a pronouncement.
An aluminum screen door hung crooked, slammed too hard, too often. A half-built front deck stretched out into sunburnt grass, its gray-bleached boards a testament to a long-abandoned building project. The black dog asleep on the porch defied pedigree, but Laramie noticed a huge pink tongue hanging out.
Once again, he studied the penciled note, then surveyed the yard. He detected no horse. No barn. No corral. No run-in shed. Not even a plastic steer head stabbed into a bale of hay. Not one sign that this guy ever practiced roping.
Laramie brushed his gritty fingers through short, curly brown hair and rubbed his clean-shaven chin. He took a deep breath and muttered, "Mr. Dwight Purley, you said I needed to meet this Hap Bowman. You said he could head rope a steer as good as anyone in Wyoming. I will trust you enough to knock on that door. But this scene better improve quick, because it isn't looking real good right now."
When Laramie reached the front step he patted the dog, but the animal showed no interest in him. Afternoon heat reflected off the walls like a radiant electric heater in winter. Laramie longed for the comfort of a glass of Grandma's sweet tea or the throat-clearing rush of an ice cold beer.
He scraped open the busted screen door, hesitating to knock on the peeling white paint of the wooden one when he heard a blast of angry Spanish words, followed by a loud crash and a yelp.
Laramie ground his teeth, then checked the note one more time: 2490. He eyed his truck and considered a hasty retreat when a man hollered from inside, "Juanita! Put that down."
Even the dog flinched when the lid to a white porcelain commode busted out the front window, scattering glass on the unfinished deck.
The wooden door flung open. A black-mustached man about Laramie's age sporting a black, beaver felt cowboy hat and several parallel streaks of blood across his cheek emerged.
"Ehhh… Hap Bowman?" Laramie stammered. "Dwight Purley sent me to ask you about…"
The shorter man grabbed his outstretched hand and yanked him indoors. "Man, am I glad to see you." Then he barreled outside, the door slamming behind him.
The room reeked of garlic and dirty diapers. A divan sprawled backward. A slice of pizza plastered the wall. Majors heard a roar from the yard and peered out the busted window in time to view the Dodge pickup spin out into the street and head south.
The bristles of a broom smacked Laramie's ear. The surprise, more than the impact, staggered him into the trash-covered pine coffee table. He cracked his shin and hopped around the room trying to flee his attacker.
"Who are you?" the dark-haired lady snarled. Her full lips were painted as red as her long fingernails.
"Excuse me, ma'am… I didn't mean to intrude… I just…"
She walloped him in the side, then jabbed his ribs with the broom handle. "Well, you did intrude. Where'd Hap go?"
Laramie hunkered behind a cluttered, mucky end table. "I wish I knew. He's the reason I stopped by. I need to talk to him."
The brown-skinned woman yanked open the gauze curtain. "It figures he'd run out on me." She spun back. "What are you staring at?" She grabbed up a jar of baby food and cocked her arm.
Laramie shielded his face. "Wait, lady. Whoever got you angry, it's not me. I was told to come talk to a Hap Bowman who lives here."
"He doesn't live here."
"I guess that's my mistake."
"He never lived here. That's the problem."
"Then I'll be leaving. I just wanted to talk to Hap. Sorry for the inconvenience."
"Inconvenience? The jerk ruined my life. Look at me. Look at me! He turned down all of this."
A full, stained yellow T-shirt hung outside her skin-tight jeans. Bright yellow round earrings dangled even with her chin. Smeared mascara darkened her sad eyes. Slumped shoulders belied her feigned defiance.
"I'm sorry for whatever's going on here. But I never met Hap before. I have no explanation for his behavior. I'm a roper and I was told that…"
The pureed peaches sailed at his head. Laramie ducked. The glass jar crashed into the black iron table lamp, which tumbled to the soiled green shag carpet.
Laramie retrieved the lamp and shoved it back on the table. "I take it you don't like ropers."
"What he did to me wasn't right." When she tossed her head back, a wave rolled down the massive black curls.
Laramie scooted toward the front door. "I really need to get on down the road."
"That's what they all say." The fake yellow flowers tumbled out, but the orange pottery vase flew across the room and shattered on the wall below a Clint Eastwood movie poster.
Laramie's hand clutched the sticky brass door handle. A baby's cry wafted in from a back room.
"Don't you dare move. I want to talk to you." The woman scooted down a carpeted hallway and into the next room.
Common sense told Laramie to run, to dive through the glass shards of the broken window if needed. But as he had hundreds of times before, he froze, unable to escape the person who confronted him.
A diaper-clad, cocoa-skinned boy with thick black hair and a round nose rode her hip when she returned. "What did you say your name was?"
"I didn't. But I'm Laramie Majors."
"I'm Juanita and this is Philippe."
"Pleased to meet you both. I presume that's Hap's little boy?"
"Why do you presume that?"
"Well, I, eh… sorry, I assumed you two were a couple."
"Do you think I would make love with some scrawny cowboy who treated me that bad?"
"No, I, eh…"
"I am not an easy woman. Is that why you are here? Were you told Juanita has no virtue?"
"No, ma'am, I guarantee that was never in my mind. I really must get…"
"It wasn't in your mind? Are you saying that I am unattractive?" She threw her shoulders back. "I am not ugly."
"No, ma'am… I just…"
"Many men want to make love with me. I am not hideous."
"I never implied that you were…"
"Do you want to make love with me?"
"Good grief, lady, I don't even know you."
Still toting the infant, she scooped up an open can of soda.
Laramie held up his hands. "Don't throw it. You don't want to mess up your house."
Her glazed eyes appraised the broken front window and the trashed living room. "Yeah, right. It wasn't always like this. But it's not your fault. I'm just mad."
"I can see that." Laramie relaxed when she set the can down.
"Something inside me just snaps when I get angry." She strolled toward him. "But I'm not mad at you."
Laramie's back mashed flat against the door. "I'm grateful for that. Now I need to…"
Her voice softened. "You are too skinny, but other than that you are a handsome man."
Laramie's blue shirt collar squeezed too tight. He eased open the front door behind him. "Thanks, ma'am. I hope things start going better for you."
"You must know that under these grubby clothes, I am still a beautiful, sensual Latin woman."
The loud ring yanked their attention toward the kitchen.
"You'd better get that phone, ma'am, and I'll be…"
"Here… hold Philippe." She shoved the baby into his arms and slalomed through the litter toward the telephone.
Round, brown eyes ogled up at Laramie as he tried to maneuver the six-month-old with a mushy plastic diaper into a comfortable position. He hadn't held a baby more than twice in his life—his cousin's boy, Ronald, at his dedication, and his fourth-grade teacher's one-week-old baby girl when she brought her to school. Panic growled at his stomach.
He rocked Phillipe back and forth. Sweat dribbled down the back of his neck as Spanish threats boomed from the back room.
"Lady, I have to go," he called. "Come get your baby."
"Un momento," she yelled.
The baby grabbed his ear. Laramie shoved his hand away.
"Now, now… shhhh. Everything's okay. You're being raised in the most dysfunctional home in Wyoming, but everything's okay. I know how you feel, little pal… I've been there, too, but crying never changed anything."
The baby continued to sob as Laramie hushed him.
There was a hollered, "¿Viene aquí? ¿Ahora?" Then silence.
"Juanita, I have to go. Come get your baby. Philippe needs you," Laramie called out.
Philippe began another round of wails.
"I suppose you want your diaper changed. That's not my department, son. In fact, you've already experienced all of my child-care skills." Laramie hiked toward the kitchen. "Juanita?"
The wooden counter around the sink and the square table were piled with food-hardened dishes. Two metal folding chairs with Property of Park County Social Club stenciled on the back completed the furnishings. Next to the open door of an avocado-green refrigerator, a beige wall phone swung back and forth on a long cord that at one time had spiraled.
Laramie paused at the doorway next to the phone and could hear someone still on the line, shouting in Spanish.
In the laundry room, there were dirty clothes piled on the floor and on top of the avocado-green clothes dryer. The back door and screen door swung open in the slight breeze.
A large horsefly buzzed into the pantry as Laramie inventoried the backyard. Brown weeds bunched around an abandoned chain saw. A trackless snowmobile lay on its side next to a dried garland of once-fresh flowers. A faded blue silk banner read: Congratulations.
"Juanita?" At the sound of his voice, the baby cried again.
"Shhh… just hang in there, little partner. If I wasn't twenty-one, I'd be bawling, too. Your mamma will be right back."
Laramie wandered across the backyard, baby riding his arm. Dry grass crinkled under his boots. He poked his head in the open door of a portable storage shed. "Juanita?" In the shadows of the shed, he spied a heavily chromed and polished Harley-Davidson motorcycle. "Baby, does your mamma ride a Harley?"
Untilled, bare ground stretched for a half-mile behind the house. Laramie circled the entire dwelling but found no one. "Philippe, where did she go?"
Laramie hiked back through the laundry room and kitchen to the living room. The short hallway led to three small bedrooms. In one squatted an unmade, cluttered waterbed. U-Haul cardboard boxes crammed a second room. A window in the third had been darkened with foil and duct tape. Under it was a crib. Beneath the crib, a toy-lined floor.
He rapped on the only remaining closed door with his free hand. "Juanita, are you in there?"
He tried the cold aluminum door handle. It wouldn't budge.
He banged again, this time with force. "Juanita!"
The baby wailed.
Majors heard the front door slam and hurried out into the hall. He paused before a hulking, bushy-bearded, tattooed man in black jeans and sleeveless blue denim shirt who tilted the couch back to its rightful position.
"Who are you?" the man roared.
Laramie edged toward the front door. The rancid air of the room now reeked of fresh grease and old sweat. "This is all a big mistake."
The man whipped out a switchblade knife and flipped it open. "Where's Juanita?"
"She, eh, shoved the baby in my hands and took off toward the back of the house. Maybe she's in the bathroom. I'll sit your baby here in this chair and be on my way."
"You ain't goin' nowhere until my Juanita clears this up."
"Look, mister, I never met your wife before today. I just…"
"I didn't say she was my wife." The man stalked closer. "You just stopped by to do what to her?"
"I needed to talk to a guy, not Juanita. I was told he was here. But I think I… eh, just missed him, and then…"
"What guy? Who's been hanging around here?" The big man jabbed the knife in the air. "What was his name?"
"Eh… his name… I think it was Ha… Hamilton. I don't know his full name. A mutual friend mentioned that I should…"
"What mutual friend?" the big man growled.
"Dwight… eh… Dwight Eisenhower," Laramie blurted out.
"Does he work for the road department?"
"No, but I think he did have something to do with the interstate."
"Never heard of him." The man scraped the piece of pizza off the wall with his knife.
"Look, here's what happened. I asked her about, eh, Hamilton, then the telephone rang. Juanita shoved the baby at me, went to answer the phone, and never came back. That's all I know."
"Juanita!" the bearded man bellowed. "Get in here."
"Maybe the phone call was from a neighbor. An emergency of some sort."
"It's a mile to a neighbor's house and they threatened to shoot us if we ever showed up on their property again." The man gazed out the broken window toward the street. "Was the call in English or Spanish?"
"Spanish." Laramie thought about closing his eyes to make the whole scene disappear. But that had never worked when he was a kid and he knew it wouldn't work now.
The man exploded like a jack-in-the-box. "I'm not going to put up with this anymore." He stomped down the hall, then waved his knife at Laramie. "Get down here."
"Because I want to see what's going on in the bathroom. If you even so much as touched her, I'll kill you."
Laramie toted Philippe to the hall.
The big man beat on the door. "Juanita, open up right now."
Laramie figured he could outrun him, provided he didn't have a gun or throw that knife. But he froze again, this time out of fear.
"Did he hurt you, Juanita mía?" He jammed the point of the switchblade into the door handle and twisted it. The white door popped open.
Majors spun for the living room when the man disappeared into the bathroom. The scream "Nooooooooo!" would have rattled windows, if there had been any left. Laramie propped Philippe on the sofa. "Sorry, little man…"
"I'll kill you!" The man lumbered down the hall.
Laramie banged open the screen door and hurled himself off the deck.
"Hey," someone to his right called out. "Do you know how to use one of these?"
Hap Bowman stood like a sentry at ease in foot-tall weeds in the front yard. Amazed at the man's calm demeanor, Laramie reached out his hand as Hap tossed him a coiled nylon rope. The big man roared out of the house. The dog on the porch let out a solitary "woof" without raising his head.
As the wild man stormed down the wooden stairs, Hap's rope looped his arms. When he yanked back, the man flew off his feet onto his back. At that moment, Laramie's rope circled the man's legs. Amidst screams about parentage and curses meant to last for generations, the man flailed in tall dead grass and weeds.
Laramie heard a crack, like a bat hitting a baseball. The man collapsed.
"Did he just knock himself out?" Hap asked.
After wading through weeds and trash where the man lay, Laramie scratched the back of his neck. "I think he hit his head on a bowling ball."
Hap meandered over to him. They gawked down at the unconscious man. "That was mighty thoughtful of him, because I didn't know what to do next."
"I'm grateful that you showed up, Bowman, but you were about an hour late. What's going on here? Dwight Purley told me I needed to talk to you about roping together. He said you were cowboy from boot to hat. Then you run out the door and leave me in a situation straight out of the Jerry Springer Show."
Hap squatted beside the big man and examined the lump on his head. "It's a long story. I didn't know you were aimin' to stick around and visit with Juanita. I figured you were right behind me, comin' out the door. I waited down at the stop sign, but you never showed. I was beginnin' to think I had the wrong guy. I called Dwight. When he mentioned you bein' tall, skinny, and a tad shy, I figured I'd better come pull you out. Who is this guy, anyway?"
"You don't know him?" Laramie asked.
"Nope. Never seen him."
"He claims to live here. I think he's the father of that baby."
"So, he's the one."
"The baby," Laramie groaned. "I dumped him on the divan when I ran for my life."
Laramie and Hap jogged back to the house. The black dog on the porch opened one eye, then closed it quick.
Philippe stood on the couch chewing a dry, yellow celery stick.
"Where the heck is Juanita?" Hap asked.
"I don't know. She left me holding the baby."
"What do we do now?"
"You check out the bathroom."
Laramie plucked Philippe off the couch. "Because the old boy in the yard spotted something in the bathroom that made him decide to kill me. If you find a body in there, I don't want to know about it."
Hap stepped over a spilled tray of cat litter. "Where's the bathroom?"
Laramie waved at the hall. "You don't know your way around this house?"
"This was the first time I've ever been here."
"You aren't going with this Juanita?"
"We've been talkin' on the phone for three months, but this is the first time we met."
"You made a great first impression. The bathroom is the first door to the left." Laramie bounced the baby and snatched a look out the busted window. "Hurry up. That self-inflicted bowling ball wound won't keep him down forever."
Hap wandered back with two sheets of paper. "She taped a Dear John letter to the toilet seat lid, which seems rather appropriate."
Laramie surveyed the room. "She was leaving all this?"
"It says she's splittin' with a dark, handsome cowboy."
Hap shrugged. "Me, I reckon. That's why she went crazy. I told her there was no way I was takin' her and the baby with me."
Laramie continued to shake his head as he gaped at the room. "That explains it. A scorned woman." Philippe swatted him in the ear with the dried celery.
"She deceived me, man. During all those phone calls, she neglected to mention that she lived with a guy, had a kid, and had gained umpteen pounds since the picture she mailed me. Worst of all, she lied about having a birthmark in the shape of a horse's head under her right ear."
"What's a birthmark got to do with anything?"
"I told you, it's a long story."
"Hey, is he dead?" The voice from the front yard was female, curious, but not panicked. They found Juanita crouched over the unconscious man. "Did you kill him?"
"Where have you been?" Laramie marched out to the woman and shoved the baby at her.
She straddled Philippe on her hip. "When I heard Francis was on his way home, I knew I had to get out of the house. If he found you here, he would beat on me and the baby again."
"What about me?" Laramie asked. "Weren't you concerned that he would carve me up?"
"Why should I be? I don't even know you." She turned and purred at Hap. "Honey, did you come back for me?"
"I came back for Laramie, my new ropin' partner."
"Well, you're stuck with me now, too," she said. "I'm going with you. When Francis wakes up, he'll kill me, now that you did this to him."
Hap held up his hand. "I told you, I'm not taking you with me. I came up here for a chat. That's all I promised and you know it. We agreed to a 'no strings' visit."
"Do you call ten minutes a visit?"
"A short visit. That's all we needed."
"If you didn't plan on staying longer," she whined, "why did you give this guy my address?"
"I'm not staying here. Give me and the baby a ride to my parents," she demanded. "You owe me that much."
"Where do they live?" Laramie asked.
"Get your stuff, quick, and change the baby's diaper. We'll give you a ride," Laramie offered.
- On Sale
- Sep 26, 2009
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Center Street