MacGuffin (Winter, 2012)

Mel and I had been back from ’Nam two years in October 1970, working on a ranch again in the foothills north of Kalispell. Same as before the war, my job was guarding range cattle from wolves and marauding mountain lions, protecting wandering herds of spindly range cattle. The same old job. This morning, I scanned the hills with my one good eye; the gusty wind made it difficult. Goddamn it. Seeing nothing moving, I put the glasses down on the pickup seat, pulled the clip from the rifle, and adjusted my eye patch. I scratched a wooden match against the horn button of the rusted Ford, lit another cigarette, and drove the narrow gravel road through dry grassland to Mel’s place. He was with me that night on that hill called Firebase Warrior. We made it out after the fight. Me with shrapnel wounds to my head and left eye, Mel with a gunshot injury that took most of his left leg. Back then, we both wanted to get the hell out of the army and back to Montana.

But things weren’t the same as before. I couldn’t see well, couldn’t sleep very well, and didn’t fit into ranch life no more. I wanted to try something different. Maybe buy some land in Canada. Make a new start. Before the war Mel and I both worked the hills, herding cattle, keeping them together and safe. Now Mel seemed content managing ranch business instead of riding all over hell rounding up strays. He settled down with his new woman in a small house near the ranch. But he said he’d go with me to Canada for a couple days to look at wheat farming in Alberta.

It was a Friday. “You ready to go?” I asked, slamming the pickup door closed with a tinny sound. Mel stepped out of the screened porch and limped to the truck. “Mel, you ready? I thought you’d be waiting outside.”

“The way you drive, thought I’d wait inside.”

Mel threw his bag and a couple of shotguns into the rear of the worn-out pickup, shoved a six-pack between us, and flipped his cigarette stub into the dirt. We started driving to Canada on a highway heading north through dry scrub country, the old truck stumbling through the gears.

“You know there’s lots of Indians in Alberta, don’t ya, Nick?”

“That don’t bother me none. We shot their buffalo. They had to head north, had to make a change.”

Guess I sounded kind of irritated.

Mel looked over at me. “Jesus, Nick, you feeling okay? Look beat to hell.” He stared at my face, the missing cheekbone below my eye patch, the crooked smile, the scarred forehead; it was something you had to get used to.

“Haven’t slept much since ’Nam—just keep waking up with the shakes,” I said, taking my hand away from the gearshift. “People see my face all scarred up, stare at my eye patch—” Mel interrupted: “You weren’t much to look at even before we got hurt.” I slammed him in the shoulder and continued: “Besides, everyone thinks we were stupid to join the army in the first place. Fuck ’em, I’m ready to start a new life, start farming instead of runnin’ these damn cattle.”

Gusty winds whistled around the truck, pushing dust and tumbleweeds across the narrow blacktop. It was hard to talk. The truck was weaving, sometimes over the centerline, other times on the grass shoulder. I couldn’t see worth a shit. Too stubborn to ask Mel to drive, I guess.

We were silent for a while. Then, well into my second beer, I started up with a loud voice. “I knew we couldn’t trust them; they smiled during the day, cut your throat at night. Farmers watched us on patrol, became informants and killers by night. Fucking slant-eyed gooks.”

Mel changed the subject: “Weather’s supposed to be nice; sunshine, in the fifties, barely freezing at night.” He didn’t like to think about the war, had sort of walled it off in his mind, something I just couldn’t do.

Sunrise lit up the western sage hills near the border. We slipped through customs into Alberta and late afternoon pulled into a dusty truck stop outside Medicine Hat. Gas–Food– 24hours, the blinking sign said. I walked slowly so Mel could keep pace.

Sitting there in the booth, one of my knees bouncing rapidly up and down, I stared at the faded red Formica through a cloud of cigarette smoke. A young, flirty waitress drifted over, shiny black hair, dark eyes, a white apron over her blue uniform. Pretty, real pretty. She blinked. “Well, what will you boys have?” I saw her beautiful white teeth when she smiled, and the name Lena sewn on her blouse. “What will you boys have?” she said again, throwing us off guard. We stammered a little, each ordering eggs and bacon in the late afternoon.

“Damn nice piece of ass,” I said, watching her walk away and grinning at Mel. “Best I’ve seen in a long time.”

“Just lookin’ won’t get you very far, Nick. You need to get out and mix a little to find a woman. Say something clever to Lena when she comes back. Lay it on her when she brings our order. Let’s see how you do.”

“I ain’t so good at talking to women, Mel. They look at my face and don’t bother to ask me to repeat an opening line.”

Then Mel started kiddin’ with me: “Well shit, you need to try somewhere quiet and personal. Have you tried trolling church services or retreats?”

“Mel, I didn’t ask you for no love-life advice. I ain’t ready to settle for some Bible- quoting lunatic. Maybe you are. I’ll give you a mailer I got from some half-assed California church the other day: ‘Trust in touch,’ it said, ‘nature’s guide to ethical bodywork. Enhance polyamory relations.’ There was even a picture of a happy-looking woman hugging a goat and advising to get my colon irrigated. ‘The road to wellness is paved with good intestines.’”

“Well, Nick, you’ve always been full of shit. Maybe you could go for a short visit.”

“Screw you. Several times a week I see that gook soldier coming over the top of our fighting hole with his bayonet. At the last second, I hit him in the chest with M16 rounds, and he falls into our foxhole between us. By that time, I’m up screaming, running around the bedroom looking for more ammo. Remember his blood soaked our boots, and his narrowed eyes showed no fear?”

“Nick, you’ve got to get on with things. You can’t just be stuck where you are. We survived, maybe just barely, but we’re here, and that’s the past. Maybe you need some pills to get settled.”

God knows I needed somethin’ to put ’Nam away, out of my head for good. I looked around the crowded diner, booths filled, ceiling fans swirling smoke, plates clattering, Merle Haggard’s rough voice singing from somewhere. Then Lena brought our order. “Can I get you anything else?” She smiled, bending closer to refill our coffee. “Haven’t seen you two around here before.” About then, Mel kicked me under the table.

I looked up from her low-cut blouse. Right then was where I should have said something clever, but I couldn’t think of nothin’ except: “Came to look at farmland, maybe buy some. It’s too damn dry in Montana, where we’re from. Thinkin’ about making a new start.” I thought she was looking at my scars. She might have been, but she rested her hand against my chair back and smiled at me. Then Mel tried to help out: “Lena, you must have lots of friends, probably know lots of the farmers around here too. You know of any land for sale?”

“Johnnie Moon’s lived on a big stretch north of Medicine Hat for years. Wife died, family moved away; now he’s selling out near the reservation where he grew up.” She smiled. “You two guys look strong, like you’ve worked hard. Take a look at his land—might suit you.” She smiled at me again—bright as morning’s first rays of sunrise. “Might get some leads if you show up at the Eagles Bar tonight. My friends and I usually get together there on Fridays.” I noticed her limp when she walked away from us.

We checked into a nearby motel and headed to the Eagles after dark. Mel and I sat at the bar that first night. It was the kind of place I liked. Dark, beery, sawdust floors, Tom Jones echoing softly. I had thought about those lyrics a lot in ’Nam:

Yes, they’ll all come to meet me, arms reaching, smiling sweetly,

It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home.

Down the lane I’ll walk with my sweet Mary, hair of gold, lips like cherries

I was thinking how differently from the song our homecoming had turned out when I heard Lena’s voice.

“This seat taken?” she asked. After a while we moved real close. Her easy looks, her spicy perfume, our faces were damn near touching, and talk came easy. Later, we danced that sawdust floor, her arms around my neck, caressing my head, her right hand sometimes sliding gently across sensitive scars. No one had ever done that. There was no pain, just the warmth and soothing of her fingers. I didn’t notice her limp.

* * *

Saturday we didn’t see much good farmland for sale. Either too sandy near the river, too dry near the foothills, or too many hills for easy harvesting. Mel stayed back at the motel that evening, but I went to the Eagles with Lena again that night. Talked some more, slid across that dance floor again, heads together, arms tightly around each other. Finally we eased out the bar door and steamed up the old truck’s windows.

We drove the dirt roads along the river early the next day. Brush corseted the narrow roads; weathered shacks scattered the land. There were only a few people, Indians. In all directions, the land was gently rolling, covered with wheat stubble after the harvest; small lakes filled shallow valleys between the hills, the same all the way to distant foothills.

“Jesus, Mel. It’s like the moon covered with brown fuzz.”

At first it was warm, clear skies arched above. Then, a few hours later, clouds moved in from the foothills.

Just after noon we saw a Land for Sale sign wired to a crooked mailbox, the faded letters “J. Moon” on its side. The clapboard house unpainted and partly covered with stretched coyote skins. Rusty truck parts and broken farm machinery scattered about in tall weeds. Mel rolled down his window and shouted at someone behind the house, someone in a long black coat, bent over, working a wrench on an old tractor.

“Are you Johnnie? Is this where the sale is?” The man straightened when Mel asked, turned toward their truck, and pointed with his wrench toward foothills.

“Walk as far as you want,” he said. “Land goes all the way to them hills.”

Heavy, twisted clouds now blew in from the west on a raw wind.

“Weather don’t look too good,” Mel said. I stopped the truck about a mile from the house on a narrow path through the wheat stubble. Mel looked across miles to the hills. “Goin’ to town must be a big thing around here. Shit, no one to talk to. Even if someone showed on the horizon, they’d talk Indian.”

“I guess Indians talk to Indians,” I answered, opening my door. “Weather’s changing fast; we’ll just walk around a little. Let’s leave all our stuff in the truck so we can move faster.” I bent over and picked up a handful of soil. It was dark, thick, and porous, unlike stony Montana. Wheat would grow easily here with a little water.

“Let’s see if there’s still water in the small lakes this late in the season,” I said.

Mel was walking well despite the limp. He looked over at me. “I can see why they stay on the reservation. At least you’d see someone, maybe even an occasional woman. Montana seems like a roaring damn party compared to this. What would you do at night, Nick? Talk to your dog, snuggle up to a retriever?”

I didn’t answer him, but I knew what to do if I stayed here. Lena and I’d know what to do nights.

We walked a few hours over rolling hills and around several small lakes gouged by ancient glaciers. Mel and I looked back frequently and could still see our red truck in the distance and follow scuffed footsteps in the fields behind us. We stopped when a covey of prairie chickens flushed, chuckling nosily. “Hell, we shoulda brought the shotguns, not left them in the truck,” Mel said. The clouds darkened. It started to snow—just a little. Then suddenly the wind came on strong with sheets of snow, and the truck became hidden somewhere in the rolling valleys of harvested fields. Our tracks were gone.

“Nick, I don’t know where the hell we are. Do you? It all looks the same without the sun, just those damn rolling hills—no buildings, no roads, now even the foothills are gone—can’t see nothin’. The wind shifts around; we can’t depend on it for finding our way back either. Wish to hell I’d brought a compass.”

We walked the land for another hour trying to find the truck but somehow circled back to the same old split willow tree. I recognized it.

“Let’s face it, Mel, we’re lost. Walkin’ circles and it’s getting dark. Still snowing hard. We better hunker down and wait for morning.”

The wet snow soaked our jackets. Feet were wet. It was very cold. We dug into a dry bank of the nearest lake, laid branches, and piled snow around the rim. The ground was still soft; scooped it out army style to make a shallow cave.

Mel looked over at me. “With a gun we could’ve fired a shot for help. Let’s just wait it out until morning. Try to get through the night. Keep together to stay as warm as we can.” He tried to light a small pile of grass and sticks, but the matches were soaked, useless. We sat close, side by side, dug in. Mel brushed some snow off my eye patch and forehead, then drifted off even though I kept talking to him.

“Stay alert, they may be coming to get us,” I said, trying to scare him awake.

“Watch out, the motherfuckers are coming up the hill!” I muttered and pulled icy branches closer.

“Get ’em, get ’em.” No response. I hit his shoulder hard. Again, only a murmur.

Then I believed we were back in ’Nam myself except I could see Lena, see her smile and feel her soft hands on my face.

Finally, I must have drifted off until a gray dawn began spreading faintly across the horizon. The snow had stopped.

Something was moving toward us. Just a faint shadow pushing through snow. I reached for my M16; again I reached but couldn’t find a weapon. I shook Mel hard and shouted:

“Watch out, the motherfuckers are coming!” Again, he just murmured. A dark form circled slowly around us, tracking the snow as it moved closer. A man wearing a furred hood. Smooth skin, slanted, unafraid eyes. Arms reached out, pulled us from the bunker. Wrapped us in thick blankets.

Johnnie Moon’s house was very warm.