Tuesday, On the Road
Squinting into the distance, Denny watched the Jeep disappear around a curve. “See that?” he asked Jake. “It’s been a couple of days since the last rain, and you can see dust where they’re going down the mountain. That’ll work in our favor.”
“How do you figure?”
“We’ll be able to see a ways ahead, so we’ll know if we’re likely to run into the sheriff. That way we’ll be able to take diversionary action.”
“You know how Poppy prayed. We aren’t going to lie.” Jake studied Denny’s eyes for an indication of where he stood on the issue.
“Yeah, I know,” Denny replied, “but I feel like this: If we handle it right, we won’t actually have to lie. We won’t volunteer any information, but we won’t have to lie. See what I mean?”
Jake paced around the Humvee, rubbed some of the dirt off the rear window and looked in. All he could see was a dark cloth partially covering a torn back seat. When he opened the door for a better look, he made the mistake of inhaling. “What in the world did you have back there?” he managed to ask between coughs. “I sure hope you don’t plan to hide me under that tarp.”
“That’s my plan. Even if you took a bath in that perfume you wear, nobody will be able to sniff you out back there.” Denny stayed on the porch, obviously enjoying Jake’s reactions.
“I believe I’d rather deal with the sheriff.”
“Thought you might feel that way.” Then abruptly, “I wanna go now.”
Denny noticed Jake’s questioning expression and stepped toward the truck, planted his feet wide apart and folded his arms across his chest.
“I’ve been keeping up with whatever they put out over police radio. Of course they’ve been receiving tips from all over the country, people sure they saw your truck, and they chase down a lot of those leads, the ones that sound plausible, anyway. So far none of ‘em panned out, but this one guy over on 281—he runs a little gas station over there—claims he saw a dark blue truck with no trailer when he opened up Friday morning. Between 4:30 and 5:00. He remembers it real clear because they just don’t see those big fancy outfits come through there. He says he saw the truck heading south and they’ve been narrowing it down to where they have a pretty good idea where you might be.”
Jake expected something like this sooner or later. He felt as if a noose were tightening around his neck.
“I half expect a sheriff’s car to show up sometime today,” Denny went on. “Once they come up here, of course, they’ll find your truck. We don’t need to be here when that happens.”
“Where are we going to hide out all day?”
“We’re gonna count elk, Bubba.”
“Elk? In Arkansas?”
“Yep. They were re-introduced a few years back, and now there are several different herds. It’s amazing. You can tell which herd it is, most times, by the boss bull. And wait until you hear that ol’ boy bugle! It’s primitive, man!” Denny hung his head and wagged it back and forth in wonder. “Bugling—that’s his mating call, you know—is really an amazing sound.”
He turned his attention to the day ahead, stowing Jake’s gear—his shaving kit and duffel—in the under-seat compartment of the Humvee.
“We’ll take Kate’s food along, and some water, and we’ll just hang out in the hills. If we run into somebody who might be looking for you, they more’n likely aren’t figuring on you hanging around taking in the fresh air and watching elk. That’s an old trick for hiding something—putting it out there in plain sight where nobody expects it to be. That’s what we’re gonna do in your case.”
“Then you don’t really intend for me to have to crawl under that tarp back there.” Jake was relieved.
“No,” Denny stepped back for a long look, “Don’t have to. You don’t look so slick anymore. Don’t smell too good, either.”
“Thanks. I guess.”
“You’re welcome. Now, is that everything? Your truck locked up? Let’s roll on down the road.”
Jake replied by climbing up into the passenger’s side of the ungainly vehicle.
Denny reached into the back and retrieved a pair of reflecting sunglasses, a wrinkled, semi-clean camouflage jacket and a matching cap. He handed them to Jake and stepped back to watch Jake put them on.
“You’re right, Bubba, you do grow a grubby-looking beard overnight. With that cap and maybe a roll-your-own hanging out of your mouth, you could pass for a hillbilly—a real woolly booger.”
“You say the sweetest things, Turco.” Jake slumped down in the seat and thought this might at least turn out to be an interesting way to pass the time. If he didn’t end up dead.
“That’s the spirit, Bubba. You don’t mind if I call you Bubba, do you? Or do you prefer I stick with Slick?”
“No, Bubba is fine. Now, are we going somewhere in this thing, or were you planning to spend the day thinking up cute names for me?”
Jake looked down at Denny’s planted feet and wondered how the big man managed to lift his great weight from there to the driver’s seat.
In less time than Jake spent thinking about it, Denny stepped on the running board and swung his massive frame up behind the steering wheel, with no apparent strain. He looked over at Jake, a trace of a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. “Ready to roll?”
For the first thirty minutes, the two men rode without speaking. Denny concentrated on his driving, his right hand on the steering wheel while chewing on the thumb of his left hand.
Grateful for the sure way Denny handled the Humvee, Jake eventually relaxed his usual driver-vigilance enough to enjoy the way spring thaw water trickled between rocks, forming hundreds of little waterfalls. He wondered if he would ever be allowed to drive his own truck back down this narrow, winding road.
It was surprisingly quiet inside the noisy vehicle, Jake noted. Had they chosen to, they could have talked without shouting.
They followed a wider paved road for less than a mile when Denny made an abrupt turn onto another narrow blacktop that ran alongside the massive limestone bluffs of the Buffalo National River. Jake realized he hadn’t seen a single person or any sign of one since they left the cabin.
The drive down out of the mountains had made Jake tense. The road here, though curved in places, was flat, and he felt himself begin to relax. He slipped his mind into neutral and breathed deeply, mentally yielding to Denny’s determination of where to drive and how to spend the day. The Humvee’s size and power reassured him, the rumble of its great engine soothing him with an orderly concert of well-oiled parts performing their assigned functions. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, the mid-morning sun warm on his face.
“So, why did you do it, Slick? Why did you grab the kid?” Denny’s broke the reverie with his low, flat growl.
Jake sat up so fast that his cap fell over the back of the seat. He retrieved it and put it back on his head before turning in the seat to face Denny.
Denny never took his eyes off the road but continued staring straight ahead, his jaw clenched, his eyes narrow slits behind sunglasses.
“What are you talking about, Turco? You were right there when we sat in Poppy and Kate’s kitchen and I told my life story. Weren’t you listening?”
“Don’t go all indignant on me. You might be able to sell that yarn to a couple of old folks hiding out from the rest of the world but I can guarantee you, it ain’t gonna fly with the Feds.”
“But it’s the truth! They believed me because it is the truth.” He shook his head, bewildered. “Now what? Are you going to turn me over to the FBI and tell them that I kidnapped Austin? You know what they’ll do to me.”
“Don’t mean a thing to me one way or the other, but they’ll go a lot easier on you if you come clean right away. You tell it to me straight and I’ll speak up for you. Now go ahead and tell me why. You aren’t a pervert. You didn’t try to hurt him. Just why did you do it?”
Since early Friday morning, Jake had been gradually moving away from the fear that gripped him with such crippling force that he felt like all blood and muscle had drained out of his body. Now here it was again. He was trapped in a nasty old vehicle with a giant lunatic. Fear paralyzed his ability to think. He sank back down, defeated.
“What difference does it make? My life is over no matter how you look at it. So haul me in, or put me out on the road and shoot me. There’s nothing I can do or say that changes anything.”
“Pardon me, but am I invited to your little pity party? You put your life in my hands, you know. I deserve to know the truth. Why are you giving up so easy? Your life is done for? You’re, what, thirty years old? That’s a little early to cash it all in, isn’t it?”
“I’m 31. My ex-wife hates me, my little boy is probably still getting beat up and I can’t see either one of my kids, I’ve lost Tina, and now I’m going to prison for the rest of my life unless you shoot me first, which strikes me as a distinct possibility. Which part of this story has a happy ring to it?”
“Let’s start with the ex-wife deal and the kidnapping charge. I heard it all when Poppy first called me in, but I wanna hear it again.” Denny still didn’t look at him. He pulled the truck off the road, onto the driveway into a field, and shut off the engine. After a glance in the rearview mirror, he jumped down to the ground and motioned for Jake to do the same.
Jake slid out of the vehicle and found himself standing on the edge of a path through thick grass and brush. He remembered hearing stories about poisonous snakes in Arkansas, and gave a grateful glance at his boots. He watched as Denny folded back the smelly tarp and handed him a pair of heavy binoculars.
When Denny withdrew a long cylindrical case, Jake decided to take his chances with the snakes and sprinted toward a grove of young oaks.
He hadn’t gone far before he heard Denny’s throaty laugh. “Come on back here, Bubba! You’re running from a spotting scope.”
He didn’t know what a spotting scope was or why he shouldn’t run from it, but he turned back to the Humvee. He gave up trying to hide how sheepish he felt when he realized Denny wasn’t looking at him anyway.
He watched Denny open the leather tube, remove a long, heavy lens, and lay it across the hood of the Humvee on a v-shaped block. He adjusted the focal length and motioned Jake to look through it.
“Holy…! What is that thing?” Jake stepped away from the scope and looked into the distance.
“That’s Ezekial, the bull of the C herd. Magnificent, isn’t he? Now take these binoculars and see if you can find him.”
Jake steadied his elbows on the hood of the Humvee and held the binoculars to his eyes. He adjusted the focus and finally found the same bull elk, but in far less detail. He noted several elk cows near the bull.
“That’s quite a scope you have there, Turco. I found him, all right, but I don’t know if I could have told you if that one animal was a bull or not if I hadn’t seen him through your scope.”
“Yeah, that’s my new Zeiss. The binoculars are Bushnell and real good quality, too, but I’ve always wanted one of these. Well, I think we can find another herd, and maybe drive a little closer to it. Hop in.”
Denny carefully returned the scope to its case, and Jake hung the binoculars around his neck. They had gone perhaps three more miles when Denny pointed to what looked like a flame of dust licking its way down the side of the mountain on their right.
“Here we go, Bubba. Somebody coming down from Poppy’s place is kicking up dust.”
“You sure? I thought we came from the other direction.”
“It’s easy to be confused out here; we’ve been around a whole bunch of switchbacks and hairpins since we left the cabin, but yeah, that’s the mountain we came down.”
Jake felt a rivulet of sweat crawling, like a slobbering bug, down the middle of his back. His eyes felt dry and hollow. “Now what?”
“I’m stopping right up ahead. As quick as you can, set up just like we did back there. Keep your cap on, sight the binoculars off the hood, and play it by ear.”
Denny pulled the Humvee into another field turnoff and shut off the engine. “Okay, Bubba. Show time.”
Jake tried unsuccessfully to find elk through the binoculars until Denny, sighting through the scope, pointed into the distance.
“Right over there, behind that big tall tree. That might be a cypress—trees aren’t in my area of expertise—but there’s the bull.”
“Wow! I see him now. He’s even bigger than the last one, isn’t he?” Jake heard the crunch of tires on gravel as a car from the county sheriff’s department pulled up beside the Humvee. Help us, please God, he prayed silently. He wished he’d been a Christian long enough to learn how to pray correctly. This wasn’t the time to get it wrong.
He kept his glasses trained on the elk, even when he heard a whoop from Denny. The inside of Jake’s sunglasses picked up the reflection of the sheriff’s deputy standing beside Denny, his arms folded.
“Hey, Merle.” Denny said, “Say, take a look through this thing. Isn’t that Moses, the bull from G herd? It sure looks like it to me, but this is definitely C herd; I recognize the cow with half a tail missing.”
Deputy Merle Doran pocketed his sunglasses before looking through the scope. “I don’t see anything unusual with them elk, Turco.” He put his glasses back on. “I’ve just been up to the VanderLeiden place, and there I did see something quite out of the ordinary.”
“Yeah, how’s that?” Denny was back watching elk through his new scope.
“First of all, they ain’t there.”
“What’s so strange about that? They have to go down into civilization at least once a month. I’m guessing it’s time for their medical appointments. You’ll probably find them in Harrison. What do you want with them?”
“Them not being there ain’t the only thing that’s not where it ought to be. There’s a truck parked under their trees.”
“You mean the Jeep? That is odd. If he isn’t driving it, Poppy usually keeps that one in the shed just to the north of the house.”
“No, I don’t mean the Jeep. That’s just one of them yuppie cars; that’s not a real truck.” He jerked a thumb at Jake. “Who’s that,” he asked, “another one of your environmentalist weirdos?”
“You can call us weirdos if it makes you feel better. Some of us believe these animals are worth protecting. You guys just like killing things—you probably think you still have to shoot your own food.”
Jake showed intense interest in elk as seen through binoculars. He thought he had better do something besides staring into the glasses, so he lowered them for a moment while he fished a small notebook and pencil out of his shirt pocket. He flipped open the notebook and wrote down the number of elk in the herd, and wrote “G herd bull in C herd,” followed by the date. He checked his watch for the correct time and wrote that down, too. He took care not to look at Denny or the deputy, pocketed the notebook and resumed watching the elk.
“No,” the deputy continued, remembering what they had been talking about, “I didn’t mean their Jeep; this was a real truck. A great big thing with a sleeper cab.”
Denny set the scope down and looked at the deputy with a look of wide-eyed astonishment. “You don’t think that truck is the one in the news, do you?”
“Fits the description.”
“I thought you told me they weren’t home.”
“I didn’t see anybody around. And the Jeep is gone. I’m thinking that trucker might have done something with the old couple and took off with their car.”
“Wait a minute. You don’t mean to tell me you think that kidnapper got a drop on Poppy, or even Kate, for that matter.”
“Got a better idea? There’s quite a bit of fresh-turned earth up there.”
Denny stood up straight, motioned for Jake to have a look through the scope, and turned to face the deputy.
“Merle, there’s no way that truck drove onto VanderLeiden’s without them knowing about it. And if you think any sissy trucker could draw on Poppy, you have another think coming.” Denny treated them both to a full-scale chuff-chuckling episode complete with chin wobbles. “If somebody’s buried in them plowed fields, it’s the trucker, make no mistake about that.”
Moran stared into space, obviously uncomfortable. “Well, I thought you ought to know. If you see or hear anything, give us a call.”
“You bet. And if I run into that trucker and he gives me any guff, I’ll call you to pick up his remains.” He went back to his scope, Jake went back to the binoculars, and the two of them counted elk until the dust from the patrol car settled into the distance.