A highway patrol car had been behind us for the last mile. I didn't know how to get Mason to glance in the rearview mirror without tipping off the hitchhiker. I increased the speed just a little, and the guy said, "A mile an hour more and he's dead."
Mason grunted as the gun was jammed into his ribs. I slowed down.
"And I know about Smokey, too, so just stay cool."
I swallowed a sigh and waited for the patrol car to pass us. I've never been driving the speed limit yet that a highway patrol car didn't scoot on by. But it just stayed behind us, a few car lengths behind us, probably just waiting for the chance to pass. We were on a two-lane highway, going around bends and up hills. There wasn't a whole lot of chances to pass.
I was getting fed up. I hate being nervous, it ain't a natural condition for me. If it'd been just me in the truck with the creep, I wouldn't have been so tense. But Mason was giving off tension like sound waves, and I could just imagine what was happening to his stomach. It really bothered me to know that he was scared.
This might be my last day alive. It hadn't been exactly the most fun-filled so far.
I said, "I think he put his lights on."
The hitchhiker turned to look. I put my foot on the brake and tried shoving it through the floor. I spun the steering wheel like it belonged to a boat instead of a car. The truck whirled around and slid like a panicked horse. It skidded across the road and teetered on the edge of the ditch for what seemed like an hour; every single thing that had ever happened to me flashed across that windshield like a movie. It almost turned over, then rocked to a slanted standstill, half in the ditch. The hitchhiker slung open the door and leaped out before we stopped moving. Mason had reached out to brace himself on the dashboard, but changed his mind suddenly and got his head cracked good. I reached out with one arm to keep him from sliding out the door into the ditch. The hitchhiker grabbed his other arm to drag Mason out with him. Our eyes met for a second. I didn't look at the gun, but I knew it was pointed my way. Damned if he was going to get Mason out of that truck to use as a shield. Not if I could help it.
He didn't shoot, I think he didn't want to waste the time or the bullets. He must have known he'd need all he had left of both. Already I heard the police shout a warning, heard the first crack of a pistol like a huge firecracker. I hauled at Mason's arm, determined to keep him inside--the hitchhiker let go and gave me a funny little cat grin before he disappeared back of the truck. All that happened in about three split seconds. Then Mason jerked me down across the seat with him.
"You want to get shot?" he whispered hoarsely. I hadn't even thought about the police accidentally shooting us. The window of the open door shattered and disappeared. The firecrackers were bursting in uneven strings now, they didn't sound anything like hunting shots. We hugged the seat covers, and I thought this was probably what it was like to be in a war, wondering if I had a gun, would I climb out and join in.
We lay there piled up, just moving enough to breathe, even after it was quiet.
"You kids all right?" A policeman peered in the window.
We sat up slowly, and after a second we climbed out the door. There were about three highway patrol cars there, and two more cars that must have been unmarked cop cars, because they were full of police. The police radios were scratching and spitting like a den of angry cats, sirens were going, the police were yelling back and forth at each other. But after the shooting, it almost seemed quiet.
Mason walked to the back of the truck and hung onto the sides of the truckbed, resting his head on his wrists, gasping.
"He was holding a gun on us," I said to the policeman, keeping an eye on Mason. He was in bad shape. And now that it was all over, I was a little shaky myself. "He was goin' to make us drive him to the state line."
The cop nodded. "There's been an APB out on him. Somebody spotted you guys picking him up and called us. He escaped McAllister early yesterday, killed a trustee while he was at it. Then he got to the city and shot a guy there. That one's going to make it, though. That was a real risky stunt you pulled, kid. That punk would have killed you without batting an eyelash."
He wasn't telling me anything I didn't already know, but hearing it made it scarier. "I would just as soon have witnesses," I said.
"Well, you're real brave, real stupid, or real lucky," said the cop.
"Yeah, I been hearing that all my life," I told him.
"Oh, geez," Mason groaned. He had straightened up and looked around, just as a couple of highway patrol guys moved away and you could see the hitchhiker laying there on the brown grass, not four feet away. There was a red stain on his Levi shirt and a bigger stain spreading on the grass under him.
I started toward him.
"Tex." Mason reached out to stop me. I shook him off and went on.
His sunglasses had fallen off but nobody had shut his eyes yet. He was staring up at the sky he couldn't see anymore with a bitter expression in his strange-colored eyes. I felt funny looking at him, almost like crying. He wouldn't be dead if it wasn't for me. Then I pictured Mason laying there, just like that. I didn't feel like crying anymore. I walked back to the truck.
Mason was talking to a policeman, but he broke off long enough to say, "Did you have to go take a gawk?"
"Yeah," I said, "I did."
I think we were there at least an hour more, telling the same thing over and over again, answering the same questions, talking to a dozen different people, including a couple of newscasters that showed up out of nowhere. Any other time I'd have been really excited about being on television, but it didn't seem important now. Mason stayed cool. But he had to work at it.
Somebody kept trying to get us to go to the hospital. I couldn't figure out why. Mason had a bad-looking bruise on his forehead--when I asked why he'd let go of the dashboard at the last minute, he said, "I'm not about to break my arm, going into the season." That was what I'd call basketball fanaticism.
I had a sore chest from getting thrown into the steering wheel; I'd probably be really sore tomorrow, but neither one of us was hospital cases. They seemed to think we should go because we'd had a bad scare. I never knew you could end up in a hospital from being scared.
The ambulance came for the body, and gradually the police started clearing away. The traffic that had been blocked up was moving again, slowing down as it went past like we were some kind of circus.
Mason had quit shaking except for a little shiver once in a while. I was beginning to think he'd be okay after all, when he asked one of the policemen if he knew what the hitchhiker had been in prison for.
"Assault, last time. He'd been in before. Hey, Ralph, you know what Jennings went into the can for the first time?"
"Yeah," the other cop came over. "A friend of mine busted him the first time. Drugs."
Mason went as white as a sheet, walked to the front of the truck, and threw up. The policeman told me it was delayed shock. I agreed with him, since the alternative would be telling him about Lem.
It was way after dark when we finally got headed home.
"I'm glad of one thing," I said. "They didn't ask to see my driver's license."
Mason half-laughed, and half-sighed. "Texas," he said, "why did you have to go look, after they'd killed him? It wasn't exactly a side show at the Fair."
I was shocked that he could think such a thing. What kind of a creep did he think I was, anyway?
"I had to," I said finally. "Mason, I killed that guy, as sure as if I'd pulled the trigger. I knew it when I ditched the truck. I couldn't just walk off like nothing had happened. I had to face what I did."
"You're not sorry?"
"Well, I ain't sorry I'm alive, or sorry you're alive, and I figure that was my choice. Mace, something really bad must have happened to that guy. I mean, he was really a terrible person."
Mason just nodded. It was a little bit later that he surprised me by saying, "You don't think you could ever turn out like that?"
I thought a little bit befor
e I answered--it sure was a time for thinking about things.
"Well, I don't think so. But then nothing really bad has ever happened to me."
"That's true," Mason said carefully. It was then I knew who it was that guy had reminded me of.
It was me.
I called Johnny as soon as we got home, to see if he could come over and watch the news with us. I wouldn't tell him why. He said he couldn't get out of the house, but he'd watch the news. I think he got the idea that I was going to be on it.
"I don't see what the big deal is," Mason said, as I turned on the TV and sat as close to it as possible. He was really working hard at staying cool. "It's not like you're starring in your own series or something."
He was just as excited as I was, but he was knocking himself out not to show it. I'm glad I'm not like that.
He sat down with me about one minute before ten. "I hope they didn't get too much of the crummy truck in the film." Suddenly he paused. "You think they're going to show that interview you did with that lady reporter? If they do, man, I'm going to kill you..."
I was hoping he'd forgotten about that. The lady reporter had asked me the same questions as the other ones, like, "Were you scared? How do you feel now? Did you think he would have killed you?" Stuff like that, then out of the clear blue sky she said, "Where on earth did you get those dimples?"
And I said seriously, "God gave me my face. But He let me pick my nose."
I thought Mason would have a fit! And if they put it on television...
The first of the news was just the usual foreign countries fighting. Then the newscaster said, "Here on the local scene an attempted kidnapping left an escaped convict dead and two area teenagers shaken..."
I couldn't hear the rest of it. We were on television! There was me and Mason and the truck half in the ditch and the police standing around and a quick shot of the body being loaded into the ambulance. Then the reporters asking us questions--I looked younger than I thought I did. Mason came off looking pretty cool, he sounded a lot calmer than he had been. My voice sounded funny. I didn't realize I had a drawl like that. There was a close-up of both of us, then it was over.
"Hey," I said, "that wasn't very long."
"It was long enough," Mason said.
"Yeah, but the reporters were out there a long time just to get a couple of minutes of film. You'd think they'd want it to be a little longer."
"Kidnappings are a dime a dozen," Mace said. I could tell he was relieved. We didn't look as awful as he thought we would.
"They didn't say anything about you bein' a basketball player," I said, "too bad."
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, the sportscaster came on and said, "One of the two teenagers involved in the kidnapping was Mason McCormick, the Garyville basketball star. Fans will be relieved to know Mason was uninjured and will be ready for the upcoming season."
"Huh," I said, looking at Mason. "I guess you liked that all right."
He did his best to look cool. "I guess so."
I threw a sofa pillow at him, but missed because he got up to answer the phone.
We were famous. Everybody we knew and a lot of people we didn't kept calling to ask us about being kidnapped. It took about five minutes of this to drive Mason up the wall. After that I answered the phone. After two hours I was so hoarse I couldn't talk anymore. So we took the phone off the hook for a while.
I felt real funny. I'd had a long day and it was after midnight and I could tell I was tired, but I was so wound up I could actually feel the nerves humming along in my body like charged electric wires. Mason, who would usually kill for his eight hours of sleep, sat around and drummed his fingers, or got up and paced around, like a chained dog.
"Tex," he "said finally. He looked kind of sheepish. "You still got that joint Lem gave you awhile back?"
"Yeah," I whispered. I went and got it out from under the mattress. I handed it to him. Mason looked at it a second, then went to light it on the kitchen burner. He came back in and sat next to me.
"Lem would love to see this," I croaked. I wondered if I was ever going to be able to talk again. Mace leaned back and closed his eyes. "Yeah, I just bet he would."
I inhaled, held it, and passed the joint back to Mason. Grass isn't my favorite high, but I'll say this for the stuff, it really puts me to sleep.
Mason choked a little on his next hit and wiped his eyes. "I'm going to have to smoke myself silly before I quit feeling that gun in my ribs."
"Well, that'll only take a couple of puffs," I said. We started laughing. It wasn't that funny, but you know how you get when you're doing dope. I think that's the first time me and Mace ever just sat down together and got stoned. It was a weird ending to a weird day.
I almost went to sleep on the couch. I watched Mace walk across the room and drop the phone back on the receiver. It looked like he was moving in slow motion.
"I'm going to bed," he said. I nodded, unable to get up. The phone started ringing again.
"Oh hell," Mason's voice was squeaky from the grass. "I could do without this famous stuff."
He answered the phone and even across the room I recognized the voice that said, "What have you been doing? It's two in the morning."
Mason looked at the phone in his hand for a second, like he couldn't believe what he was hearing. Then he said, "What have you been doing? It's the first of November!"
It was Pop! I stumbled across the room and tried to get the phone away from Mason, who kept brushing me off like a pestering fly. I was trying to shake the fuzz out of my ears. That damn grass had left my head so spacy it took a minute to hear what Mason was saying, trying to sound normal, "Well, gee wheez, if I'd known all it'd take to get you to come home was getting kidnapped and almost murdered and four-state news coverage I'd have arranged it a long time ago. I mean, wow, something as easy as that--"
His voice broke off. He was white and his hand was shaking till the phone was hammering against his ear. I grabbed the phone away.
"It's me now, Pop."
Mason dropped onto the sofa and sat there staring straight ahead, one hand clutching the other in a white-knuckled grip. I watched him while I kept on talking.
"Yeah, yeah, he's okay, he's just sh-shook up, you know we had a rough day. You saw us on the news? In Dallas? Wow. Yeah, we're okay, don't pay any attention to that, Pop, you know how Mace gets when he's nervous ... listen, we found out today that he's got an ulcer and--"
Mason made an angry gesture for me to shut up, but I kept on going. "Yeah, an ulcer, he's got to quit eating some stuff and calm down some--yeah, I think it'd help if you were here. Tomorrow? Great. Yeah, he's still here. Mace?" I held out the phone, but Mason shook his head.
"Well, Pop, he's kind of sick or something right now. I think his stomach is bothering him ... sure, I'll tell him. See you tomorrow. Bye." I danced around the room, whooping. Then I stopped.
"What's wrong with you? Aren't you glad he's coming home?"
"Who cares?" Mason said. "It's not any big deal."
His voice was shaking and if it'd been anybody else besides Mason, I'd have sworn he was about to start crying.
"We just happened to cross his mind because he saw us on the news. Just a little reminder--"
His voice broke off. I sat down next to him. He was really upset
"Hey," I said, "it's going to be okay now. Everything is going to be great."
He just shook his head. "It's not going to be the big deal you think it is. You'll see. You'll see."
I put my arm across his shoulder and patted him, and he was stoned enough to let me. Poor Mace had been through a lot that day, what with his ulcer and Lem and that hitchhiker and being on the news. So I didn't argue with him about Pop. He was wrong, though. I was pretty sure he was wrong.
"I hear a car coming." I went to the front door to look for about the two hundredth time that day.
"Even if he left at six in the morning, which isn't likely, he couldn't
be here this quick," Mason told me. He was making a big show out of being unconcerned. He was driving me nuts.
"You don't believe he's going to show up, do you?" I said, still watching the door.
"Maybe he will, maybe he won't. Who cares?"
"Man, you were on his case because he didn't come home, and now you don't care if he does. Make up your mind, willya?"
Mason didn't say anything.
"Mason," I said, "I thought you said it wasn't likely that he left at six this morning..."
Mason looked at me. I was laughing at him. He fought with himself for about two seconds before he jumped up and tried to beat me out the door.
Pop barely had time to get out of the station wagon before we were all over him. By the time we all got through hugging and dancing around and laughing, we were back in the house. Pop stood still for a second and looked us over.
"Boy, have you two grown!" he seemed slightly shocked. Mason was taller than he was by a couple of inches. Then he said, "Either that or I've shrunk."
We all laughed. But all of a sudden it hit me that Pop was a completely separate person from us. I don't know exactly how to explain it. He was just the same as he always was, but he was unconnected. Almost like he was a visitor.
We had barely got him unpacked and the major news rehashed when Mason asked, "How long you going to stay this time?"
It was like he was mad at himself for being glad Pop was home. I figured he'd start something like that, but wasn't expecting it so soon. I felt like slugging him.
"Mace, I don't blame you for bein' irritated with me. I was shocked myself when I realized how long I was gone. A month seems like a week used to. Time sure is getting screwy, the older I get ... anyway, I quit rodeoing. For good."
"No kiddin'?" I said. Mason said, "I'll believe it when I see it."
"Honest, kid, I quit last spring. Then a guy I knew talked me into going to New Mexico to mine for uranium--that was where I was this summer. I'm too old for rodeo--have been for years, but you know, I loved it. It's changed a lot, what with the team leagues and the rodeo schools. I never expected to make a fortune at it, but now even having a good time costs money."