With my dad babbling in the back of the buckboard and Nanette beside me, a quiet and reflective trip was out of the question.
After concluding there wouldn’t be a late night visit from local hooligans, I had dozed for a good hour and woke sometime between five and six in the morning to the sound of Nanette making biscuits. We had packed and headed out before first light.
We chose the old pioneer route from the Ranger camp days that no one much knew about anymore. Blending with the contours of the land, rather than gashing across them, meant more switchbacks and meandering bends. But it also meant a single buckboard would rarely be exposed to a clear line of sight, if any wandering eyes be looking for one.
The Thurber hospital had been built ten years earlier midway between the largest mining town in Texas and what had become the largest oil boom in the nation, in and around Ranger. The location seemed prophetic. Maybe it had been one of those self-fulfilling kinds.
Top of the line facility. I’d been there once, a few years earlier, to visit my father-in-law, Doc. Elizabeth and I had only been married a couple of years, but I stayed in touch with the old-country-vet-turned-people-doctor more regular than the rest of my family. Save his love for Model Ts, he’d stayed true to the values of an older era—one I still preferred.
A couple miles from the facility, we spotted our first signs of trouble—a roadblock perched where the wagon path crossed Highway 1. The new state highway had bypassed the company town of Thurber, private rail the only way in or out, while including the hospital on its route to Ranger. The implications meant Texas Pride Energy, the company that built the hospital and owned Thurber along with much of Ranger, was either cocky, reckless or as powerful as they projected. At present it meant a rough couple of miles for me and my dad.
“Just like we planned. All I need is a head start, then you get clear.” Before I crawled into the back of the wagon to lie down next to my father, I looked Nanette in the eyes. “You sure you can get back on your own?”
“Hell yes. What, you think I can’t walk? I was born ‘fore horses were domesticated.”
She took the driver’s seat as I pulled the blanket over me. Drenched in sweat and radiating heat, my father came to when I touched his side. “Junior? J.T., what are you doing here?”
“Don’t worry, I’m taking you to see Doc Quick. It’s not just you. There’s been an outbreak. He’ll know what to do.”
“It’s the land son. The land’s fighting back. The water, the soil. The company’s poisoned it, now it’s poisoning us.” It was one of the most cogent things my father had said since I arrived, even if it was hogwash. “I’ve seen things son, things that won’t let me live.”
Voices hailed us. “Hush now, Dad. Nanette’s gotta work her magic.” I laid my hand on his chest to quiet him. The rate of his heart beat startled me, faster than a caged rabbit.
“Oh Lordy!” Nanette wailed. “I got myself a troubled pregnancy here. Young girl all but gave out, and da baby still won’t come. Please, good sirs. Gotta git ourselves to da’ hospital lickety split.”
“Not possible, ma’am.” A cold voice returned. “Quarantine for influenza. No one in or out.”
“Oh Lordy, a sick baby is better dan a dead one.” The buckboard pitched as Nanette jumped off to plead her case. I hoped she’d trained these mules as well as she claimed. Without pause she clucked her tongue loudly, the cue for the mules to carry on with or without her. “Surely ‘ere’s room in dis big bad world for one more little baby!” We were moving again, the mules carrying on without a driver just as the maid had said they would.
“Ma’am! Your wagon!”
“Oh, tis a miracle! The Lord is driving da mules now. Surely tis a sign he deems to spare my niece and her little unborn angel.”
“You need to stop that wagon, now.”
“Do I look like some kind a athlete to you?” She seemed to be enjoying everything a bit too much. “I suppose you boys better help me run it down.”
I lifted the corner of the blanket enough to illuminate my father’s face with the early morning light. “Hang on, Dad. Things are gonna get bumpy.” I counted to three and leapt out to take the reins.
“Hey! Hey you!”
I cocked my head to see how much trouble would be on us, and how quick.
“Stop that wagon!”
The only two guards were still giving chase on foot. Through the corner of my eye I caught Nanette already beating a retreat. “Hyah!” I slapped the reins, kicking the mules up from a walk to a smooth lope, another sign of their top-notch training. The guards swore, and I figured it a good time to duck. Precisely then, bullets whizzed overhead, kicking the mules into full speed.
They’d be coming. It would take time to get back to their Model Ts, but not enough. Nanette had gotten us half way there, I’d have to buy the rest.