Distant Thunder

The sun was hot, and Wilson’s crew sought shade were they could find it. Some of the hands leaned on Wilson trucks, others covered their heads with their t-shirts; a few men gathered under a small patch of bush along the northern line. It was fifty-five minutes past noon. Lunch was finished and the crew was relaxing for a few minutes before getting back to work. 

Jake leaned against one of the battered Fords and rolled a smoke from a pouch of tobacco he carried. He wasn’t a big man, he was tall and somewhat beefy, but he wasn’t what you’d call big. He was quiet and well mannered, and even though he’d only worked on Henry Wilson’s ranch for six months, he was now an integral part of the crew.

His coriaceous hands worked from memory, his fingers pinched out just enough tobacco to fill the rolling paper. He twisted the two sides together with expert precision, licked the edges, stuck the finished product in his mouth and lit it.

Marcus sat on the ground with his back against a rear tire of one of the Wilson trucks. Like Jake, he was a loner. He’d been on the Wilson Ranch for six years. He did his job, collected his paycheck and minded his own. He liked Jake from the start. Liked his style. Marcus got up from the ground, dusted off his jeans and walked slowly to the front of the truck where Jake stood quietly enjoying his cigarette.

“You do that pretty good. Roll a smoke, that is.”

“I’ve had a lot of practice.”

“You don’t say much, do you?”

“Not much to say, really.”

“I suppose.”

Jake flicked his cigarette in the dirt and grabbed his shovel. He liked Marcus. Marcus was different. He knew when to talk and he knew when to listen. Most importantly he knew when to give another man his space. Jake gave a slight nod before he went back to digging. He thought maybe he and Marcus were becoming friends, although it was hard to tell, he’d never really had a friend.

“Get off your lazy asses,” foreman Ernie barked. He’d never let Henry Wilson catch him talking to the crew that way. It didn’t really bother most of the guys. Ernie was a stick-figure with a scruff of growth on his emaciated face, a weakling who could do no other job than boss people around. A good stiff wind would blow the half-filled bag of shit away.

“Get your ass moving, T-bone,” Ernie poked the bear a little more. He turned toward Marcus, who was enjoying one last mouthful of water from a flask before returning to his shovel. Marcus wiped his mouth and waited. Ernie looked away.

The bunkhouse was a long, narrow building located behind the horse barns. There were ten double bunks built against the back wall. A dart board and a large table the men used mostly for playing cards sat against at the front. At the far end of the room, to the right, were the showers and toilets. The accommodations didn’t rival the Royal Hotel, but they were clean.

A sign on one wall had three rules stencilled on it:

1. Bunkhouse must be kept clean at all times

2. No excessive noise

3. Respect other hands and their property.

Everybody obeyed the rules, except the odd time when the younger fellas returned from a night of drinking. They’d get a little loud until one of the older crew members shut them down. For the most part the hands got along.

Ernie walked into the bunkhouse with two new recruits. There were three or four other men in the room, the rest had let out for town to spend their money on women and booze. Ernie pointed to a set of empty bunks. “You fellas can fight over who gets the top and who gets the bottom. The washroom and showers are at the far end, breakfast is at 6 am in the camp kitchen next door. My quarters are located upstairs of the kitchen. Work begins at seven sharp, so if you miss breakfast, you’ve got a long wait. Bag lunches aren’t usually brought out until around noon. And trust me boys,” Ernie grinned, “you’re gonna need the energy.”

The two new recruits unpacked their bedrolls. What few belongings they had stored under their bunk. Fresh hands were nothing new. The turnover rate on a ranch the size of Wilson’s was high. It was long, difficult work. If the blisters and callouses didn’t run a man off, the burning sun and dust would. The two new guys were hired to replace a couple of college students who thought they’d come out for the summer and get a taste of the cowboy life. They lasted less than a week.

The other men continued doing what they were doing. Jake was on the top bunk closest to the showers, reading a book. Ted and Andy played cards, while Marcus threw a few darts. None of them bothered to welcome the two hands. It was pointless to befriend new recruits until you knew they were actually going to be able to stick it out.

“Hey. Give me one of them.” One of the new hands approached Andy, who sat with his back to the man. 

Andy laid his cards on the table, got up and turned to face the new recruit. “Are you talking to me, son?”

“Yeah, man. Give me one of those.” He pointed to the cigarette dangling from Andy’s lips. 

“Did your mama not teach you any manners?” 

“All I want’s a fuckin’ smoke. No need to be an asshole.”

“Asshole? Listen boy…”

“Easy fellas.” Marcus stopped throwing darts and moved toward the altercation. 

“Don’t call me boy.”

“Well, BOY. I reckon if a man wants to smoke, he needs to buy his own tobacco. If he can’t afford tobacco, then he shouldn’t smoke.” 

Ted, who had watched the unfolding drama without saying a word, let out a chuckle that brought a grimace to the new hand’s face.

“You’re lucky you’re an old man, or I’d bust your skull.”

Marcus stepped in between the two men. “Let’s just calm down. Andy, go back to your card game, it’s not worth the hassle.”

The new recruit stood in the middle of the room, cocked and loaded; a dangerous man who’d exposed himself quickly with his mouth. He went to say something, but Marcus stopped him. “You,” he pointed at the young man, “I suggest you save that energy for tomorrow.”

The young man grunted, mumbled something under his breath and returned to his bunk. Marcus looked over at Jake’s bunk. Jake didn’t look up from his book, but Marcus knew he was watching.

Juarez showed up with sandwiches, potato salad, apples, coffee and water for the men at a quarter to twelve. It had cooled down considerably from the previous day and Juarez, an elderly gentleman with a heart bigger than Texas, wore a lined jacket. He was one hell of a cook, and loved by everyone on the crew. He’d been working for Henry Wilson since ’76, after he’d come up from Mexico. He spoke little English, but understood it well.

Juarez handed out the sack lunches and then started to pass out Styrofoam cups filled with coffee. Kyle, the loudmouth from the night before, opened his bag, cursed and headed to the back of the truck where Juarez was slinging coffee.

“What’s this? Two sandwiches, salad and an apple? A plastic spoon?”

Juarez acted like he didn’t understand. He shrugged his shoulders and kept on pouring coffee. 

Kyle grabbed the old man by the shoulder. “Don’t ignore me when I’m talking to you, old-timer.”

“Leave him alone,” Darrel Duncan called from a tree stump he was using as a chair. “Eat your lunch and shut up.”

Most of the men on Wilson’s crew were quiet and reserved. They were older hands, strong and dependable, but few were the fighting kind. Darrel got to his feet and headed toward Kyle. Chuck, the other new recruit, stepped toward him with his fist balled up. “You’ve got a big mouth.”

“You better both sit down and shut up. If you want to pick on someone, pick on me,” Jake set his lunch down on the hood of the truck. “There won’t be anymore of this bullshit. Did you guys come here to work or cause trouble? If trouble is what your looking for, you’ve come to the wrong place. We’re here to do our job and get along best we can, if you can’t do that, then I suggest you move along.”

Ernie stood up behind Jake, all balls when he had more than two hundred pounds of muscle in front of him. “Ats right. You don’t like it, you can leave.”

“When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.” Kyle moved towards Jake. “I know who you are, and you don’t scare me.”

“Son, you don’t know me. And you’re far too stupid to be scared.” 

“I know you killed two men.”

Jake advanced on Kyle. Marcus got between the two. “Let’s finish up our lunch, we’ve got lots of work to do.”

“Step aside.” Jake didn’t look at Marcus when spoke. 

“Jake. Let it go.” Marcus pointed at Kyle and Chuck. “I’ve heard enough out of you two. When we’re done today, I think you better pack your stuff and leave.”

“That’s my call,” Ernie snapped.

“Then call it.”

“Marcus is right, you guys better move on out tonight.”

Kyle threw his lunch on the ground and took a swing at Ernie, knocking the scrawny foreman into the side of the truck. Ernie wailed in pain and crumpled to the ground.

Chuck pulled a small knife from his pocket and moved into the fray. Before he could open the blade, Marcus let go a right hook that connected just below the cheek bone. Chuck stumbled backward, spitting out blood and teeth. Kyle moved in, but it was too late, his nose exploded from the force of Jake’s fist and he collapsed to the ground. Chuck got his bearings and came at Marcus, who countered with a boot to groin. The fight was over.

Marcus manhandled the two new recruits into the back of one of the Wilson trucks. “Ernie, I’ll ride on up to the house with you. Make sure these clowns get their gear and get gone?”

Ernie nodded.

Marcus found Jake outside rolling a cigarette. “Sorry for stepping into your fight today. I should have let you handle it your way.” He turned to go back inside.

“The kid was right, you know.”

“How’s that?”

“I killed two men.” Jake lit his smoke.

“None of my business.”

“Ten years ago Ike Johnson, his brother Luke, and a man by the name of Carson Tucker jumped me outside a bar in Milton. Luke had a knife, Tucker used his boots, Ike his fists. The struggle lasted no more than ten minutes, but the end results changed all our lives forever. When the grunting and wailing stopped, Ike Johnson was nothing more than a heap on the ground, unconscious, bleeding from a fractured skull. Carson Tucker was writhing in pain, his left arm broken in three places, his face swelling like rising dough. Luke Johnson lay in a puddle of blood, dead from his own blade. The cops arrested me the next morning. Ike Johnson joined his brother in eternity a few days later. Carson Tucker eventually recovered from his injuries, but as far as I know he’ll walk with a cane for the rest of his life. It was self-defence, but I still served five years.”

“You don’t owe me an explanation.” Marcus stuck his thumbs in the front belt loops of his jeans. “A man’s past doesn’t have to dictate his future.”

Jake dropped what was left of his smoke on the ground and crushed the cherry out with his boot heel. He liked Wilson’s Ranch, but he knew it would soon be time to move on. “Sometimes a man’s past is his future.”

She loved watching him sleep. It had been less than four hours since his truck rumbled up the driveway. There was no mistaking the sound; the guttural roar of the old Chevy that carried this complicated man in and out of her life over the last four years. One minute he was there, making love to her like the world was going to end, the next he was gone. His scent would linger for days.

Lacy sat in the glow of the early morning and listened to him breathe. He always did this, showed up without warning. No phone call. Nothing. He would appear, and she would drop whatever it was she was doing to give him what he needed. Often it was a soft place to fall, shelter from the storms that raged inside him. They would talk and make love, and talk some more. She would cook; he would eat very little. They would make love again.

“How long will you be staying this time?” Lacy whispered. She’d told herself the last time he left she was done. It was too hard, loving so fiercely for days, sometimes weeks on end, and then being alone. As fast as he came charging into her life, he would be gone. How many times had she stood in the doorway and watched the glow of his taillights disappear down the long, curving gravel road that lead away from her place?

His chest barely moved with each laboured breath. He didn’t look well. He didn’t sound well, either. His face was bruised, the knuckles on both his hands were swollen and scabbed over. Lacy crawled back in bed, carefully easing her body next to his, mindful not to wake him. When he arrived earlier, he’d looked like he hadn’t slept in days. Too many late nights shadowboxing old ghosts, she figured. Sleep finally took her, but not before she kissed the scar on his right shoulder and whispered, “I love you.” He never moved. In the morning she would find out why he was here. Never where he’d been or where he was going. That was always a mystery, even to him. 

When she awoke, Lacy was alone in bed. She listened, but heard nothing. Her heart sank and felt like it had been carved from her chest with a dull kitchen knife. Was he gone already? It was rare for him to come and only stay one night, but it had happened before. This crazy man she loved was as unpredictable as the weather. Just when she thought he would stay calm and be around for awhile, he’d tear out of her life with the force of a coastal hurricane. He never stuck around long enough to survey the wreckage, ever.

“Coffee?” Jake was standing in the doorway, shirtless, dressed only in jeans. 

“You’re still here. I thought you’d left.” Lacy wiped sleep from her eyes. 

“You were out cold; I didn’t want to wake you.”

In all the time she’d known him, he’d never woken up before her; never made coffee. “Two cream, one sugar, please.” By the time she’d showered and dressed, he’d whipped up bacon, eggs, hash browns and toast. 

“Sit. Eat something.” Jake pulled out a chair at the table.

“You cooked?”

“You sound surprised.”

“It’s just that in all the years I’ve known you, you’ve never cooked.”

“Lots of things I haven’t done.”

“Why are you here, Jake?” Lacy tried not to make eye contact.

“I needed to see you.”

“Really?”

“Is that so hard to believe?” 

“I didn’t think Jake McNeil needed anything or anyone.” Lacy’s eyes welled up with tears. She tried to stem the flow, but years of hurt came bursting out. 

Jake was silent. Their relationship was never one of an emotional nature, not as far as he could tell. It was passionate, fiery, sexually charged, but never emotionally driven. Lacy loved him when he needed it most, and she let him go when he had to move on. He didn’t do well in these kinds of situations – talk about feelings; women crying.

When he met Lacy, she was a young barmaid at Smoky Joe’s. She was thin and beautiful, but tough and tender. She could play pool like nobody’s business. Jake admired the dark haired beauty from afar for a few nights, watched the way she handled herself and her customers. She was sweet when the situation called for it, but had no trouble dealing with the touchy-feely drunks that came out of the woodwork around closing time.

It was a late night altercation with a drunk would-be-romeo that brought Jake and Lacy together. Jake watched in amusement as Lacy dealt with the inebriated asshole, but his amusement turned to anger when the man crossed the line, got up from his chair and grabbed her ass. She slapped him and turned away. When he got up and grabbed Lacy’s arm, Jake had seen enough. 

“You fucking bitch.” the words barely left the man’s lips when Jake’s fist turned his face into a bloody pulp. A busted nose, two broken fingers and a cracked jaw sent the man to the hospital and Jake out the door and into the night. 

When Lacy finished her shift, Jake was waiting for her, leaning against his truck. 

“Thanks tough guy,” she teased. “I could’ve taken care of that drunk.” 

“I know.” Jake grinned. “Just didn’t want you to mess your pretty hair.” They were inseparable for weeks after that. They spent most of their time making love and just being together. 

Jake’s room at the Inn across from Smoky Joe’s went unused for weeks that fall. Lacy couldn’t understand why he kept the room. She insisted he just get his things and bring them to her place. He was staying there, anyway. He declined, brushed her off with a hard kiss on the mouth and more thunderous love making. She didn’t know then that he needed that room as much as he needed air to breathe.

It was morning. Lacy woke to find Jake’s side of the bed empty and cold. She knew it was time. They’d spent the previous day and night in bed, making love, talking about dreams and the future – her about a family and a home, him about distant places and dirt roads that go on forever. They both wanted more out of life, but Lacy knew wanting and needing were two very different things. Jake changed the subject when she asked about the bruise on his face and his busted up knuckles.

“Are you ever going to let me in, Jake McNeil?”

“You’ve gotten closer to me than anyone has in a long time.” 

“Where do you go? Who do you see? Are there other women?” Lacy felt her face flush.

“Not since we were first together.”

“Then stay. Don’t go. Whatever it is you’re running from, your past, whatever, we can work through it; figure it out. I love you.” The words hung heavy in the air. Although she knew she loved Jake from the moment they first met, she’d never said it while he was awake. She’d whispered it, thought it in her head and yelled it to the stars when he was gone, but she’d never said it out loud to his face. She was always afraid he wouldn’t say it back; that despite their connection, he didn’t love her the way she loved him.

“I love you, too, Lacy.” 

“There’s a but in their Jake. I can feel it.”

“I’ve done things I’m not proud of. Things I can’t take back. Being with me will only bring darkness into your life.”

“I don’t care. Whatever it is…”

“I’m not the man you think I am, Lacy. Some things can’t be changed or fixed. Some folks are chained to a destiny they can’t outrun.” He kissed her and made love to her like the world was ending. In many ways, it was. 

Jake’s truck was gassed up and ready to go. He’d gone into town while Lacy was asleep, stopped by Johnson’s Petrol Station and picked a few things up at Howard Huss Hardware. He thought about Marcus. He could see his new friend laughing, nursing a beer. It was a couple nights after the altercation with the two new guys. The men who had places to go on the weekend, were gone. Guys like Andy, Duncan, Marcus and Jake, who had nowhere to go, hung around the bunkhouse, had a few laughs, a few beers and told tall tales. 

It was in the middle of one of Duncan’s yarns about his younger days on the rodeo circuit when it happened. A shot rang out and almost instantly the window shattered. Marcus went to the floor hard. Andy and Duncan took cover. Jake rushed to Marcus’s side and pulled him out of harm’s way. There was blood everywhere.

“That’s one down. Three to go.” A man yelled from outside the bunkhouse. It was Kyle. “Your luck just ran out McNeil. I knew who you were the minute I walked into the bunkhouse the other day. I should have killed you that night, while you were sleeping.”

“Like the coward that you are?” Jake moved toward his bunk and grabbed a Strider SMF out of a knapsack. He slid the blade in his left boot. 

“A coward is a man who jumps three other men when they’re too drunk to stand up. Like you did, Jake.” 

“You have your facts wrong, son.”

“I know what my brother told me.” 

Jake motioned for Andy and Duncan to head for the washroom. “Carson Tucker was your brother?” 

“That’s right.”

“Well, your brother is a liar and a coward. And if he has a score to settle, he should be here settling it himself.”

“He would. If he was alive. He killed his self about five years ago. He was never the same after you suckered him. After you took his leg and his dignity. It was my lucky day when I got hired here.” 

Jake heard other voices outside. He moved toward the door of the bunkhouse. Kept himself low. “You’ve brought reinforcements. Being a coward runs in your family and among your friends.” 

“I don’t need help. But I knew you wouldn’t be alone.” 

“These guys have nothing to do with it. This is between you and me.” 

“I beg to differ. Your dead friend put himself in the middle of it. The other guys in there with you, well, they should have went to town with the rest of crew.”

Jake weighed his options. Andy and Duncan were tough hands, but they were older and slower than he was. Older and slower than Kyle and Chuck and whomever else was waiting outside. This wasn’t going to end well, for anybody. He slid along the floor back toward the washrooms. One of them had to get to a vehicle and drive the ten miles to the main house. No one would be there on the weekend, but there was a telephone. 

“Did you do it?” Lacy startled Jake – drew him out of his fog and back to the present. “Did you kill those men?”

Jake backed out of the cab of his truck and turned to face Lacy.

“It’s all over the news, Jake. I saw your picture. You were in prison?”

“That was a long time ago. Before I met you.” 

“You killed those men. At the ranch. And the other men before?”

“Yes.”

“The news said you served five years for killing two men in Milton and injuring a third?”

“It was self-defence.” 

“But what happened up near Tyler, at that Ranch? Was that self-defence, too?”

“Lacy…”

“Just answer the question.” 

“It was.”

“Six men dead, three of them Ranch hands. Why?”

“We were ambushed. By the brother of the man who survived the fight in Milton that sent me to prison. He and a gang of thugs snuck up on us a few nights ago. They killed my friend Marcus and two other ranch hands. I got three of them, but two got away.” 

Lacy was sobbing. Jake reached to comfort her but she pushed him away. “What now? 

“I finish it.” 

“Police all over the state are looking for you.”

“Yes. They won’t tie me to you, Lacy.”

“I don’t care about that. I care about you. I’m scared.” 

“I know.” 

“You killed those men.”

“I had to.” 

“Then you can explain it to the authorities.”

Jake reached out for her again. This time Lacy collapsed into his arms. “It doesn’t matter what I tell them. It didn’t matter ten years ago, and it won’t matter now.”

“You have to try. They will kill you. They are blaming all six murders on you. They didn’t say anything about two other men.” 

“There were two other men.”

“The news said…”

“Do you believe me when I tell you there were two other men?”

Lacy tried to compose herself. “I do. But you can’t just run for the rest of your life.” 

“I don’t plan on running for the rest of my life, Lacy.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Find the other two men.”

“And kill them.”

“Yes.” 

“What will that prove?”

“It’s not about proving anything. It’s about making things right. Squaring a debt.”

“I can call my father in Blackstock. He’s friends with Judge Conner. I’m sure he can…”

Jake pulled Lacy tight to his chest. He kissed her forehead. “Remember what I told you last night? About destiny? This is how it was always going to end for me. There’s nothing you, your father or anyone else can do.”

Lacy’s Jeep bounced along the rutted gravel road. Jake knew the side roads like he knew the curves on Lacy’s body. It would take him a day, a day and half travelling the back way to Milton. He could avoid the authorities. Marcus, Andy and Duncan died because of him, and he would set things right. He would find Kyle and the other man and end it. 

He thought about Lacy; her soft lips against his. The fountain of sorrow as they said goodbye for the last time. He left her tied up in a chair in her kitchen. His talent with a rope had won him awards when he was a younger man in the rodeo, but the knots he tied around Lacy’s hands and legs, while strong enough to leave superficial marks, would be easy to work out of. 

Lacy would do as he asked. Once she worked herself free from the ropes, she would call the Sheriff. Report how the man on the news showed up at her place, stole her gun and her jeep. Tied her up. She would leave out the part about him stealing her heart and her soul.

(January 2021)