The second driver had hesitated until he spotted his buddy flopping in the road like a fish tossed on shore. That seemed to clarify his predicament—the new directive being something about killing me. Each driver carried a Tommy Gun. One of them lay on the seat beside me while the other unleashed a torrent of shattered glass and buckling metal in a burst of bullets.
Maybe I think better with my head between my legs, or maybe I just couldn’t see the wooden crate labeled “dynamite” from any other vantage. But once the idea had come, there was no going back. Yanking open the crate, I dumped its contents on the seat with one hand and fetched my lighter with the other.
Lightning fast, I tossed a handful of sticks out the window for later, flicked the lighter to life and lit the closest fuse I could find. Slamming on the brakes with one foot while kicking the driver-side door open with the other, I waited for the impact to come from behind. As the pursuing Model T slammed into the rear bumper, I sprang from the seat.
Tucked into a loose ball, I struck the dirt road butt-side first, protecting the back of my head with my hands. Over the melding sounds of my body impacting the road, squealing brakes and grinding metal, a feral screeching and skull-fracking rumble subsumed me. A hot blast accelerated my roll, tossing me into the ditch.
After rolling over a dozen times, I came to a stop face down. Maybe it hadn’t been fun so much as satisfying. But immediately my thoughts shifted to my father. If the wagon had been too close to the explosion…
I hefted my chest off the ground with effort and scanned the scene. Apparently, Model Ts were built pretty solid. The majority of both chassis had remained intact, only the top of mine completely gone. Beyond both smoldering autos, I spotted the wagon. I exhaled. My father had reined the team of mules off the road, and was leading them around to pick me up. Tough old bastard wasn’t dead yet.
I stood slowly and checked for damage, finding nothing worse than superficial cuts on my hands. I’d have Doc stitch ‘em up if they needed it. Limping slightly, I backtracked to pick up the sticks of dynamite I’d tossed out of the T. If the company kept security two miles away, there’d be even more at the front gate.
For the first time, I wondered if they’d allow Doc to see patients at all, and what I could do to encourage them to reconsider. It was uncharacteristic to not plan things through, but my father had always rattled me.
“You think those men were ready to die?” Dad coughed as he dropped the reins to scoot over.
“Ready or not, I sure as hell ain’t.”
“That’s the problem, son.” He looked me in the eyes, his whole body trembling uncontrollably. Something vast and terrible was dragging him down, yanking him below the surface. Maybe only his arrogance allowed him to keep coming up for breath. He continued, “I’m ready. Your mother was ready.”
I slapped the reins gently. Less than a mile away, no doubt the hospital had heard the explosion. “Picking up where you left off, I see. But wait, weren’t you lecturing me about the truth?”
He clutched my arm, grip like an eagle’s talon. “Weren’t you accusing me of killing my wife? What the hell do you know about the truth? Dammit, son. You’ve used one lie all these years to hide from an even bigger one.”
On the cusp of a closet full of bones, I snapped. “Why did you leave the barn exactly the way it was?”
He paused, looking concussed by the question. “It was the way you left it.” He blinked, sheltering his eyes from the sun. Just when I thought he’d gone under again he continued. “Son, I never quit on you. You quit on me. I’ve waited all this time for the chance to say I’m sorry. To tell you it wasn’t your fault. I hurt so much after your mother’s passing, I never realized what I was doing to you.”
I applied two fingers to the pressure point at my temple, my eye twitching gently. “Why are you saying this?” My mind had bitten down hard in effort to numb the pain.
“I’m telling you what you’ve always needed to hear—since the first time you came back, just days after your mother’s death. I know now what I should have said then.” His lungs began to gurgle as he spoke. The muscles in his face and jaw jerked, making each word harder to form than the last. “It wasn’t your fault. She died from a weak heart, a physical condition. She’d had it since before you were a notion. Nothing would have changed, son, whether you stayed or left. It wasn’t your fault.”
“I…” My hand fell from my temple. I wanted to argue, to take offense at such a brass assumption. Instead, my hands shook. A burning swelled behind my eyes, none like the seizures that had gripped me my whole life, but of a different sort.
Struggling silently, I gave in and the door burst open. What had been a closet full of bones burst into dazzling flame before my mind’s eye. In an instant it’d changed to the gentle humming of my mother’s voice as she held me close on the way to Sunday service.
For the first time in twenty years I didn’t want my father to die. All but dragged under and done, I clasped him in the only embrace I could remember us sharing as men. His ribs dug into mine as the pounding of his heart nearly split the man in two.
And the next words came harder than any others I’ve spoken, knowing full well that once they’d left my lips, there would be no others between us. “I know. It weren’t yours neither.” His grip slackened. “I love you, Daddy.” I choked on the words while lowering him gently into the back of the wagon and covering him with blankets.
I pulled up on the team one hundred yards shy of the hospital gates. The facility resembled an abandoned military base more than an active medical clinic. Sloppily-strung barbed wire littered with newspaper and tattered clothing encircled the perimeter. An unpainted guard booth blocked the drive.
My father was still alive, and nothing on heaven or earth was going to stop me from getting him to Doc.