Snowflakes crystallize on the windshield, giving me an idea. With my left foot I work the pedal added for operating the wipers and distributing lab alcohol over the glass at the same time. If it’s freezing here, it’ll be even colder at the top of Ranger Hill. Despite the snow stealing my speed advantage, my special tires might turn the tables yet. Just last week, after word of the forecast, I embedded the rubber with pecan shells.
I switch off the electric lights and cut the gas to the carbide lamps, bouncing back toward Highway 1 on nothing but touch and memory. Closing within fifty feet, I see the lead driver startle as I appear out of thin air like an apparition. He gesticulates wildly to the goon holding a rifle in the passenger seat as I pass them by.
The element of surprise gone, I veer back into the road and pull the chains to the Auto-5s, lodging a shot in the engine block of the trailing Model T. Fishtailing, I bounce across the road in front of it and gun the engine to pass them on the passenger side. Simultaneously, both goons riding shotgun find their triggers, perforating the side and trunk of my Model T.
While accelerating toward the paved surface of Highway 1, their second shots miss. My jaw pops as I unclench my teeth. A flat tire or a hole in my gas tank and the night ends sooner than later, and I still have several miles to go—several miles between me and my second chance.
December 15th, 1919
John McCutchen showed up this morning. J.T. brought the old man in over his shoulder, asking for me by name. He flashed his irons, and the company chose to send for me rather than shoot it out in the lobby. But they warned me that they would reconsider if I tried anything funny. Funny? What the hell could I find funny about any of this?
It broke my heart, Dot. John was almost gone already. J.T. had done what he could to comfort the old man. Crossed a couple of check points to get him to the hospital, which must have been no small deed. Damn if every time I see the boy I don’t experience the grief of our Elizabeth’s murder all over. I can see it in his eyes too. After sixteen years as a Ranger I know he’s got other ghosts to haunt him, but Liz was the first. Like you were for me.
That first one’s different. I never could say goodbye to you, Dorothy. Maybe it’s punishment for the guilt. Maybe I still need your ghost to keep me alive. All I know is after today, J.T.’s got one more to add to his collection. But this one’s gonna demand blood recompense.
Dammit, Dot. There’s just certain things a man should never be asked to do. Putting a bullet in the head of his crazed old man is one of them. I tried to tell J.T. there was nothing to be done, that the twitch was a one-way road to hell, but he pleaded with me. And John had been the one to pull me out of the gutter after Elizabeth.
I really wished there was something I could do. I took my stethoscope and played the role, Doc Quick on call. But I got too close. The old man looked nearly dead, and I couldn’t picture John hurting a flea. But when the cold metal touched his chest, his eyes lit up. He seized my collarbone in his jaw, gnawing on it like a junk yard dog.
Before old John could snap the bone in two, the lobby echoed with a single shot. Just like I done thunked his knee with my hammer, J.T. dropped him on reflex alone. Not until I cradled his dead papa in my blood-stained smock did the emotion settle into his eyes—the realization of what he’d just done. And a hell of a thing at that.
It’s a shit world, Dot, and everything’s come out sideways. There ain’t nothing but to take what’s left and get clear. But when a man ain’t got nothing left, what then? You and I both know I’ve been there, and that the devil knows me by name. Well, J.T.’s there now, and poke me in the eye if I’m lying, but I fear for the devil.