Hap Davis had always been a cowboy. His first memory was riding up front his dad in the saddle on the Whitehorse Ranch. Later he followed along on his own pony over in the Alvord Country, and he’d been riding ever since, right up here to the Diamond D. A lot of his riding, now, was in a pick-up, like that battered old thing sitting over there with the sheet of tin over the back window and the rolls of barbed wire bristling out of the bed, but it suited him: just riding the fence line, fixing it where it needed, and shooting close enough to coyotes to keep ‘em skittish. Hap was supposed to kill them, but mostly he just kept them on their toes, because after he’d thought seriously about it, he and coyotes were a lot alike.
It was a hard life but it was a good life. At least it was the only one he knew. Some might not think so much of this little evening fire he was poking right now, but for Hap, when that lid came off the Dutch oven, this little fire would be the best friend a man could have. In no time at all the stars would be coming out, and lying there in his bedroll looking up, he’d know that he owned the whole dern universe. Sure, there was a line shack not far over there—all that was left of the old Spindler Ranch—but there was no reason to sweep out a spot on the floor boards to sleep among the packrat crap unless water—rain, sleet, or snow—was falling on his back, and that didn’t seem too likely in this desert for a couple of months.
Hap had just taken his second tug of cheap whiskey and tepid beer when God decided to vacuum sweep the sky; or that was how it seemed for a moment.
First, Hap heard the whining, followed by the sweeping-brush right close above his head that nearly blew off his hat. Then, that black…whatever the hell it was, sinking closer and closer to the sagebrush as it flew—or sunk—toward Nevada. Now, Hap had seen some strange things in the desert: warplanes appearing out of nowhere and closing on him—Hap looking eyeball to eyeball with the pilots—and practically getting knocked flat when the dern machine flew fifty feet above him at close to the sound barrier; teams in camo, whup-whupping, up out of canyons and craters in helicopters when Hap least expected it, scaring the bejabbers out of his horse, and yes, Hap, too.
Hap figured these pilots and teams were training for secret missions, and he could live with that, but he’d seen a few UFOs—things Unmentionably Frickin’ Outlandish. Most of the other buckaroos had seen stuff, too, and didn’t talk so much about it. But sometimes they did: say, on a howling Sunday night, when men weary from feeding livestock through once-in-a-few-decades-knee-deep snow, sat with a jug and talked about long-lost women and the weird things a man couldn’t help but see if he spent enough time in the backcountry.
But when Hap saw the black, hat-shaped—whatever it was—plow up sagebrush half a mile down the line and throw dirt and caliche in a grand ol’ rooster tail, he said—just like he was talking to a good horse, “That must be one a those Air Force boys in a world a hurt.”
Hap hopped in the truck, twisted the ignition wires together, and pressed the starter button dangling from the dashboard. The six cylinders roared—he’d torn off the muffler again in a rock garden a few weeks before—and Hap rode to the rescue. He didn’t have much to offer: a battered orange-colored cooler half-full of alkaline drinking water, his bedroll, and a first aid kit, worthless except maybe for a few band aids and the snake bite cups—and he didn’t think he’d need the snake bite cups. He followed the fence track for a quarter mile, and then crashed up through the sagebrush. About two hundred yards out from the object, a guy in a space suit was waving his hands frantically at Hap. Hap stuck his hand out the window and waved back, happy as a polecat that the man was moving. The man began to run toward the pickup. “He’s darn happy to see me!” Said Hap.
The man planted himself in Hap’s path, waved his hands several times, and finally pointed a pistol directly at Hap.
“Whoa!” Hap slid to a stop, his own dusty rooster tail enveloping him, and he wondered what the hell he’d gotten into.
He considered throwing the rig into reverse and getting the hell out of there, but he wasn’t sure he could back over the old-growth sage. Besides, the man was close. Hap was sure he could pick off a whistle pig at that distance.
“Shut off the engine!” Space suit-man shouted through the open visor.
Hap untwisted the ignition wires but left the headlights on. It suddenly seemed very quiet.
The man holstered the pistol. When the dust cleared the headlights, Hap could see a face within the helmet.
This hombre didn’t look like a little green man or a Russian—not the Hap was any judge of either. Hap sat very still as the man crossed the two-dozen yards of sagebrush to the pickup.
“Sorry, Sir.” The man said. “We have an explosive situation from the ruptured fuel tanks.”
Hap thought: How the hell was I supposed to know that, but he said, “Guess I shoulda known that.”
“Do you have a cell phone?” The man asked.
Hap pushed his sweat-stained straw hat up on his forehead, reached into the open cavity that once had a glove box door, pulled out an ancient cell phone, and wiped the dust off on his pant leg. “Yea, I got one, but I garr-’n-tee, you won’t get a signal out here.”
“That confirms”—the man set his jaw. “How far to the nearest reception?”
“Maybe on the highway, but that’s two, three hours away on account a we got to cross the river. Meanin’ we crawl down and out of the mother of all canyons.”
Hap could see the man’s head-wheels a-turning.
“You hurt any?” Hap asked.
“No.” The man looked out across the desert. The sun had sunk a good way below the horizon and the evening star was shinning brightly above the mountains to the west. The sky clouds were aglow in red and gold.
“I got coffee half a mile back there,” Hap jerked his thumb behind him, “and a little whiskey if your nerves could stand a little smoothing.”
“Thanks, but no.”
“I can roll you a smoke.” Hap pulled the pouch from his shirt pocket.
“No, thanks. Please don’t light up.”
“No problem.” Hap reached into the bag, pulled out a big dangle of shreds with his thumb and forefinger, and stuffed it into his cheek. “You know, I don’t smell any fuel, and with all due respect, you might be over-reactin’ to the situation.”
The man smiled. “I’m not.”
“Well, the bombing range’s not more than forty miles as the magpie flies. I’ll bet they got a chopper comin’ right now.”
“If only they knew I was here,” the man said.
Hap had maybe a sum total of seven years of schooling, but he wasn’t stupid. That must be one of those invisible spy planes, he thought, and this was a spy fella, or he was training to be a spy fella. “I suggest we walk back to my hotel and get some food into you.”
“Thanks, but I have to hold this perimeter.”
Hap snorted. “I garr-’n-tee the jackrabbits won’t mess with your airplane.”
The man seemed to consider this. “Were you in the military, Sir?”
Hap chuckled. “In my day, I’m not certain the draft board knew where I was. Half the time I didn’t.” Hap reset his hat. “No, I wasn’t. And you can call me Hap.” He stuck his hand out the pick-up window.
“Pleased to meet you, Major… Bill.” Hap gave a good long handshake to prove he was a loyal patriot. “Surely they got radar or satellites or GPS on you. Someone will be along.”
Bill shook his head. “I lost COM— I’m ninety degrees and a hundred miles off my flight path and lucky to be alive. It will take a while. But yea, they’ll be along.”
Hap had seen men thrown and kicked by animals. Not all injuries raised blood. This young major seemed a little sideways to Hap. Crash landing had to be a shock to the senses.
“So, here’s an option,” Hap said. “In half an hour or so, we’re gonna get a good stiff breeze out of the west. Probably. It should be safe then to move this chariot.” He patted the pickup dash. “I’ll go out to the highway and call whatever number you want and give any message you want me to. In the meantime, let’s walk ten minutes back to my camp and get some dinner and coffee. If your ride is as dangerous as you say, maybe we ought to put some distance between it and us.”
“Okay. Let’s go to your camp.”
“Now you’re talking.” Hap got out of the pickup, winced as he clicked off the lights—there was no explosion—and left the door open to prevent sparks. They started walking through the sagebrush. “I don’t expect you to spill any secrets, but my boss has one of those handheld GPS outfits that talks to satellites. I’d think they’d give you something like that, for cases like this.”
“There is a problem with that.” The man smiled slightly.
“Huh.” Hap sort of figured it out, then. If you were invisible, it meant you didn’t send out any signals. Hap had read a few things. “Can I help you with that helmet or something?”
Bill chuckled. “Sometimes a guy forgets.” He messed with some gizmo and took off the helmet.
Hap took out his tobacco pouch. “We oughta be safe, now, don’t you think?”
“Go ahead and smoke.” Bill chuckled friendly-like. “If you can still see.”
“Shoot, I can roll with my eyes closed.”
At camp, Hap checked the coffee pot temperature with a quick touch of his palm. He sat the pot aside, propping it good in soft dirt. He took the thermos out of the grub box and filled the stainless steel screw-off cup for Bill. “Careful ‘till the metal cools. I’d give you mine, but, well, it’s a good thing it’s about dark.” He chuckled. Hap poured for himself into his battered, truck stop-plastic-reduced-price-next-time, refill cup. “I have sugar if you want,” he said.
“No thanks,” Bill said.
“I don’t suppose you want a little of this?” Hap held up the whisky bottle.
“Thanks, but no.”
Hap poured a healthy slug into his coffee, and set the hardly-touched beer into the grub box. It would be nice and cool, albeit flat, in the morning. He poked a few more sticks of sage and salt bush into the fire, and because it was a social night, tossed in a few chunks of the emergency juniper he’d pulled from the back of the pickup when he’d set up camp. The fire flared and sweet juniper smoke mixed with the pungent sage.
Bill had been blowing on his coffee and finally took a tentative sip and then another. “This isn’t half bad, Hap. Not bad at all.”
Hap chuckled. “My own special formula. River water boiled good, and you leave in half the grounds each time you make a new pot. It don’t get good until the fourth or fifth pot.”
“Some claim coffee should float a spoon. I keep a horseshoe nail handy for testing.” Hap laughed. It was nice to be joking with someone.
“Do you ever get lonely out here, Hap?” Bill asked.
“I’m lonelier in town. You ever get lonely up there?” Hap pointed up.
“I’m usually too busy to think about it, but no I don’t.”
Hap figured the two of them had something in common, but it would be right hard to explain it to most folks. Hap couldn’t quite explain it to himself.
The fire was soon down to a few juniper coals. Steam puffed occasionally from under the Dutch oven lid. Hap lifted the oven off the tripod rocks with a hook made from recycled power line cable. (The scrap left behind or stolen when the high-tension towers went through had transformed life in this corner of the desert). Hap dug a pair of plastic, store-bought butter tubs out of the grub box and dipped them full of thick stew. He passed a spoon to Bill. “The onions and spuds prevent scurvy.” He grinned, and tossed a few more sagebrush limbs onto the embers, then settled back onto his sitting rock.
Bill blew to cool his first spoonful and took a tentative taste. “You should be a chef,” he said.
“You came calling on spam-a-role day.” Hap chuckled. “I can’t help noticin’. You sorta sound like folks around here. You come from Texas?”
Bill took a moment to answer, “New Mexico.”
“Yup. Ranch-country folks. We all sound alike wherever I’ve been.”
“I guess we do at that,” Bill said.
They stared across the sagebrush to the squib of horizon clouds flaming red in the last light of sunset, eating their spam-a-role.
Finally, Bill said, “When that breeze comes up, it might be better if you just drove your truck a long way from here.”
“And forget you ever saw me. Or anything about this.” He nodded into the dark toward his now invisible aircraft.
“Okay,” Hap said slowly.
“Some men in suits will probably come around to tell you the same thing, but not quite as nice as I just did.”
“Theoretically, I should keep you here, but I’m not going to hold a gun on an innocent American who’s only been neighborly.”
“That would not be neighborly.”
“And we never talked about this.”
“‘Course not.” Hap took a tug straight from the bottle.
Sure enough, Hap’s breeze came up an hour after sundown and Hap led them back with his battery lantern. They paused at the pick-up.
“I want to thank you for your hospitality, Hap. I’m going to have a long night.”
Hap pulled the old wool blanket off the shredded seat cover. “You better wrap yourself in this. You’re not dressed for these nights.” Bill hesitated. “Toss it off in the sagebrush when your friends arrive,” Hap said. “I’ll probably find it.” Hap folded the blanket several times and passed it to Bill.
“Well, thank you again, Hap.” Bill extended his hand.
“Good luck to you, Bill.”
Hap had only been neighborly but at least he’d fed the fella before sending him on down the line.
It did not take long for Hap to load the grub box into the pickup and shovel some dirt over the fire ring. He ground slowly across the desert to the Casino Rim and descended the treacherous grade in the feeble glow of his headlights, holding the rig in granny gear the whole way and pumping the brakes whenever the engine compression couldn’t hold him back. When he reached the river, and now nearly a thousand feet lower, he threw out his bedroll and fell asleep to the sound of running water under more stars than he could have counted in a month of summer nights.
Not long before first-light he awoke to the sound off whomp-whomps not so far above him flying south below the canyon rim. There were no lights at all but he could see two shapes move against the star field.
Later, he fried some Spam slices with spuds and onions. He filled the orange-colored water cooler and half a dozen plastic milk jugs with river water. He walked the slump-backed bridge—collapsed forlornly into the river from a high water year a decade before—and judged the ancient, broken bridge timbers were good for another go. He ground the pickup slowly up the far canyon grade and stopped in the sagebrush on a rise of land. With his old reliable binoculars, he could see two black helicopters shimmering on the desert-flat near the old Spindler Ranch headquarters, maybe five miles away across the river. He rolled a smoke and settled back on the pickup seat. A little past mid-morning a huge helicopter came in from the south and hovered above the other helicopters before settling onto the desert. Hap got out of the truck and stretched his legs following jackrabbit trails across a few miles of desert.
Late in the afternoon the huge helicopter lifted a black shape. The shape must have been wrapped in something, because even at five miles, Hap could see some moving fabric, like dark bat wings fluttering toward Nevada.
Hap reached the Westside fence line about six pm and turned south. He had half a sack of spuds and another half-full of onions, and enough Spam and canned beans aboard for four or five days. He had enough Spam and other canned goods squirreled away on the desert to last him a couple of weeks. Headquarters wouldn’t worry about him for at least ten days or longer. If some “Men-in-Black” showed up, let headquarters deal with them, at least until he got back. He doubted men in polished shoes would come all the way out here to the dusty, badger-land of the rim country.
The world seemed fine for a while. He was as content as a man could be without a horse. Hap drove down the line to sagging wires and a half-dozen fence posts leaning forlornly on a bone-dry playa. He didn’t start repairs. He set up camp, started coffee, and pulled out the whiskey. He had plenty of time.
Randall E. Morris is an inveterate collector of tales, an intemperate storyteller, and scrivener of myths about the modern and historical Western USA. He also writes stories set in Central America where he lived for many years, and science fiction future-histories. A populist, pioneer family history, his own backcountry experiences, and fringe-of-society people he has met on the journey influence his stories.