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By: Wayne Brown
Earl carefully steered the Freightliner and the semi-trailer it was towing off the shoulder of the easbound Interstate highway. He waited for the lone hitch-hiker to walk up past his trailer and climb in on the passenger side of the cab. He watched him moving in a trot toward the tractor-trailer rig. He carried an old army pack easily over his right shoulder. He couldn’t be going far, he was traveling too light thought Earl as he watched the hitcher climb up to the passenger door and grab the latch to enter the truck.
“Where ya’ headin’, son?” Earl asked as the rider pulled himself up into the seat. He looked young, 18 maybe 20 years old. His hair was long and sun-bleached on those areas that hung from beneath the tired old Chicago Cubs baseball cap that he was wearing. His jeans were a bit stained and worn as was the plaid flannel shirt that he wore with the long sleeves rolled to the elbows. All in all, he looked to be an okay guy but one never knows.
The boy turned in the seat and quickly answered the driver, “I’m tryin’ to get to Midland”.
“Well, you still got a ways to go, son. We are only about an hour east of El Paso now. There’s another four hours of road ahead of ya’. But, you are in luck ‘cause I’m headin’ to Fort Worth and I will be goin’ right through Midland. You’re welcome to tag along if you can stand to ride a truck that far.”
The boy didn’t say anything as he turned toward the driver and nodded in agreement. Earl slipped the Freightliner in gear, lifted his foot lightly on the clutch and moved the 40-ton rig back into the eastbound lanes of the interstate highway. Silence filled the cab as he worked his way through the gears and got the speed back up to the posted limit.
After the getting the rig running at steady state speed, Earl turned to his passenger and said, “Name’s Earl, son. I live up in Fort Worth. I been truckin’ most of my life and run this piece of road ‘tween Ft.Worth and Phoenix for a lot of years now. I try to give folks a ride when I see ‘em out here. These is sparse parts and I hate to see folks stranded out here. I hope you’re not some kind of killer or somethin’”.
The boy just smiled and looked back at Earl. “No sir, I ain’t no killer. I’m just a boy tryin’ to get home to see his mama. I sure do appreciate you stoppin’ for me. I been walkin’ since I left El Paso and I am worn out. I’m much obliged to ya’. By the way, my name is Dean”.
Earl smiles, “Sure good to meet ya’, Dean. I will be glad to help ya’ get home and see your ma. Just make yourself at home and enjoy the ride. We’ll stop up here after while, stretch our legs, and grab some coffee. That will make the ride a bit more tolerable.” Dean smiles back nodding in agreement.
The sun was setting as the rig rolled eastbound passing quickly through the remote town of Pecos. Dean seemed lost in thought as he gazed out at the oncoming asphalt just barely visible now in the dimming light as night approached. Earl reached down and flipped the switches to get all the lights working on the tractor and trailer. The western sky was a brilliant mix of orange, pink and blue as the last rays of sunshine struggled against the horizon and gave way to the approaching night. Dean turned in his seat and looked behind him into the sleeper area of the cab. Lying on the bunk was an old Bible with a tattered well-used cover.
“Would you mind if I read a bit in your Bible?” Dean asked looking across at Earl. Earl nodded his approval.
“I read a little scripture out of that old book every time I bed down for a while," Earl stated. "When you are out here on the road, you need the Lord’s help more than you might know. I try to stay close to him and read the good book as much as I can.”
Dean reached back on the bunk and pulled the old Bible off the bunk and settled back into his seat to read. Earl drove on into the night happy to know that he was taking this boy home. Earl loved to help other folks. He could just imagine the look on the face of Dean's mama when her boy showed up at the doorsteps. If she was anything like Earl’s mama, it would be a happy time.
Dean moved between the pages of marked scripture. Sometimes, he would start reading aloud and surprise Earl a bit. He read the scripture with a lot of heart. Earl could tell he was familiar with it just by the ease with which he read the words and spoke them.
Earl asked, “You read the Bible a lot do ya’ son?”
“I guess you could say that”, replied Dean. “I use to read it real regular with my ma when I was livin’ back home. Now that I have been out here in El Paso, well, not so much anymore. I guess I would if I had a Bible.” Dean went on to say.
“Well, when you get tired of reading, you just put that one in your pack, there”, Earl says. “I can get me another soon as I get back home. I want you to have that one so you can read whenever you want.”
Dean started to object but Earl motioned quickly toward the backpack and Dean knew that it was futile to argue. He could tell by the grin on Earl’s face that he was so pleased to give Dean the Bible.
The truck cab was now wrapped in darkness on all sides. This was a stretch of road that made folks see things in the dark as they drove into the night. Earl thought it had to be a lot like driving on the moon…no trees, no lights…just the asphalt dimly reflecting the headlight beams of the truck. Earl thought of all the years that he had worked his way up and down this long slab of asphalt. He had been mighty lucky in that he had never once suffered a breakdown in these lonesome parts. He smiled as he thought that his regular Bible reading might have already paid off. He had to remember to get him a new Bible when he got back to Fort Worth. Earl didn’t want to let his good fortune lapse because he had neglected the Lord.
The lights of Monahans, Texas appeared in the distance just a few miles ahead. This was one of Earl’s regular jumpin’ off places where he would get some fuel, stretch his legs, and grab some coffee to ward off the sleep that came on so easily on these west Texas nights. As the signs for the approaching off-ramp appeared in the headlights, Earl says, “Dean, what say we pull in here at the truck stop, get a little fuel, stretch a bit and drink a cup of coffee. Are ya’ up for that?”
Dean shook his head and replied, “Sorry Earl, but I need to catch a few winks of sleep. Can I just stay here in the cab and let you bring back some coffee for me?”
“No problem”, Earl says, “Just grab ya’ some shuteye. I ‘ll be back with the coffee soon as I can get these tanks topped off.”
The diesel fumes permeated the crisp night air as Earl pumped the fuel into the tank. Earl had fueled here for years. He liked the folks that owned the place and tried to do as much business with them as he could. They were the last of a dying breed trying to hang on as the large chains took over the truck-stop fuel business. Sooner or later, they would get these folks too. Earl knew. They knew. It was just a matter of time. In the meantime, Earl was true-blue stopping in for fuel in both directions on his journey. The coffee was pretty good too. They always had a fresh pot on the burner.
With the tank topped off, Earl replaced the cap and headed inside to sign the fuel receipt. He grabbed some of the large coffee cups and poured two hot cups of black coffee. He topped both with a plastic lid and threw a few sugar packets and a creamer in his shirt pocket.
“Evenin’ Emily, you getting much business tonight?” Earl asked the heavy-set woman behind the counter.
“Been mighty slow, Earl. You know you are our best customer.” Earl smiled and signed the credit card receipt for the gas ticket. “Here’s a five to cover the coffee. If there’s anything left, buy yerself somethin’, Emily”.
“Okay, Earl, you have a good night now and we will see you next trip.”
Earl grabbed the coffee cups and headed for the truck. He could see Dean leaned against the seat snoozing away. He quietly climbed back into cab, set the coffee into the cup holders and fired the engine. Once the air pressure was built up enough, he released the air brakes, slipped the transmission into low and eased back out toward the interstate. Dean seemed to be sleeping peacefully totally undisturbed by the truck movement and noise. Earl worked the shifter in rhythm with the whine of the engine rpm and was soon cruising again at highway speed. He shifted in the seat a bit and reached down for his coffee. Earl was ready to stir his senses a bit and get this last leg into Midland out of the way before he shut down for the a rest. Dean was already way ahead of him in that department but that was all right. Earl was glad to see the boy get some rest and he was proud to help the boy get home.
The road sign read “10 miles to Midland” as the truck’s lights reflected off of it. Dean was awake again and stirring a bit. Earl says, “What is it you’re a doin’ out there in El Paso, Dean? That is, if you don’t mind me askin’”.
“Oh, I have been going to school there at the University. It’ll be a while before I can graduate but I am workin’ to make my way one of these days.”
Earl asked if Dean had grown up around Midland. Dean nodded indicating that he had.
Dean said, “Folks ‘round these parts know me pretty well, Earl. I played football for Midland High School. We won the state championship my senior year. I was a runnin’ back and had the privilege to score the winning touchdown in the game.”
“Man,” Earl says, “Are you playin’ out there at the University now?”
Dean shook his head, “No, Earl, there were some problems after high school and I just thought it best to stay away from it and work on my studies. You know, I needed to be serious about my education.”
Earl nodded to show that he understood.
“Say, Earl”, Dean said as he reached into the back pocket of his pack. I’ve got something here.” Dean pulls out a gold chain necklace with a turquoise arrowhead.
“What’s that?” Earl asked.
Dean replied that it was a necklace an old Indian tribal woman had once given him when he was playing football. She had told him that it would bring good luck and charm to his life as long as he kept it close. He held it out to Earl.
“I want you to have this, Earl. Earl quickly shook his head rejecting the idea. “No son, I can’t take your lucky charm. That wouldn’t be right,” Earl argued.
“Look Earl, you gave me a ride and your Bible that you have had for ages. I want you to have this. It needs to be yours and I need you to have it and I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Dean stated firmly but with a grin on his face.
Earl took the stone necklace into his right hand and hung it over the mirror post in the center of the windshield. “Look” He says to Dean, “I am gonna put it up here. If you change your mind when we get you home, just reach up here and get it. If not, I would be mighty proud to have it and I thank ya for it.”
Dean nodded in agreement watching as Earl slipped the necklace around the mirror. Earl thought to himself how proud he would be to have a son like this boy. Somebody had raised this kid in a proper way and he was followin’ the lead. His ma could be proud of this boy and Earl would love to tell her so.
“Five more miles to Midland”, Earl announced as they pass the highway marker. “Where we headed when we get there, son?” Earl asked.
Dean replied, “This will be real easy Earl. On down here a couple more miles, you will see exit 25, that’s Hayes – Johnson Road. My mama’s house is just up the road there a short distance. You don’t even have to get off the interstate. Just pull to the shoulder and I will get out and walk down. You can get back on the move. Besides, you don’t want to get this rig down there and have to try to get back out with this trailer, its way too much trouble. You just let me out up here on the road.”
Earl nods realizing he will lose his chance to talk with the boy’s mama. Seeing the marker for exit 25, Earl rolled the Freightliner passed the exit and moved carefully to the right shoulder lane. He pulled the rig to a stop and set the air brakes. Dean was sitting ready in the seat with his hand on the latch release.
Earl turned and said, “Dean, you’re a mighty fine young man and I’m proud to know ya’. You take care and tell ya mama hello for me.”
Dean reached across and extended his hand to Earl with a firm grip. “It’s you I have to thank, Earl. Without you pickin’ me up, I’d have been a couple more days gettin’ here at best. You have done me a great service, sir and I appreciate it.” He shook Earl’s hand, let go, grabbed the door release, and started working his way down to the ground.
Earl glanced over and said, “Now don’t be a stranger, Dean. I will look for you when I am back out this way. If you ever need a ride pardner, you can count on me to stop.”
Dean tipped his cap in a gesture of thanks and disappeared into the night down the embankment of the off-ramp. Earl sat for a second then put the truck into gear, released the brakes, and pulled back into the night working his way the short remaining distance to Midland.
The highway passed south of the major portion of Midland. There was a small café out on the eastern edge of town next to an off-ramp. It was an easy off and back on for Earl and he was a sucker for their breakfast. Some over-easy eggs laid over some crisp hash browns sounded mighty good right now. Maybe he would throw on a couple of biscuits and some sausage patties for good measure. He was hungry and it was time to eat.
Earl slipped through the front door of the Oil Rig Café and moved toward a seat at the empty counter. It was still way early and the morning breakfast crowd had not yet shown up. Mary, a waitress, who had worked here since Earl had been stopping in, was behind the counter. Hank’s head was visible through the serving slot in the kitchen. Earl gave him a wave. Mary quickly showed up with a cup of hot coffee and offered a menu. Earl waved it off and said, “Let me have that #7 over-easy with some patty sausage and biscuits. Mary nodded, made some notes, and slipped the ticket through to Hank. Hank immediately went to work on the order.
Watching Earl’s eggs cook, Hank yelled out to Earl and asked him if he had been watching any football. Earl shook his head and told Hank that he just had not had any time but that he really wanted to get into a good Monday night game soon.
“By the way”, Earl sais to Hank, “I gave a ride to a kid that played football here for Midland. Said he was a running back the year they won the state championship. He’s in college out in El Paso now. He was comin’ over here to see his mom. His name was Dean. You know him?”
Hank looked up a bit puzzled and quickly looked over in Mary’s direction. She was staring back at him in silence. Hank recovered and answered, “Guess not, Earl. I hadn’t been round here long enough, I suppose.”
Earl quickly replied, “Hell, Hank, the boy’s still in college, it couldn’t have been more than a couple of years back.” Hank just stared back through the slot at him and shook his head indicating that he did not know. Hank slid Earl’s order through the window to Mary. Mary set it in front of Earl, filled his coffee cup and walked back to the other end of the bar. Hank busied himself out of sight in the kitchen. Earl ate his breakfast in silence as he contemplated getting some nap time in the bunk.
Mopping the plate with the last piece of the biscuit, Earl finished his meal. He decided to leave the coffee and hoped that what he had drunk of it would not prevent him from sleeping. He tossed a few bills and some change on the bar to cover the tab and got up.
“See ya in about a week, Mary. Keep up with the football for me, Hank. Thanks, much”. He grabbed the doorknob and walked out into the early morning air heading toward his truck idling in the parking lot.
Mary quickly moves over to the kitchen slot and asked, “Hank, was he talkin’ about that Fischer boy?”
Hank nodded, “Yep, Dean Fischer is the only one I know who ever played running back when Midland won a state championship.”
“Jesus”, Mary said, “He is the third one this month”.
“I know,” Hank added, “That boy has been dead for over 20 years but folks still claim to see him. I just ain’t got the heart to say anything. They might think I was crazy. Hell, they might think they was crazy. One thing is for sure, somethin’ ain’t right”. Hank just shook his head in disbelief.
Mary reached out and touched Hank’s arm, “You need to tell, Earl. He’s been a good friend and a good customer all these years. You owe it to him.”
Back at the truck, Earl climbed the ladder back into the cab. He crossed over the driver’s seat and worked his way into the sleeper berth. As soon as he turned on the light, he saw the old Bible lying there in its place on the bed like it had never been touched since he left it the last time.
“That can’t be, I saw the boy put it into his pack. How did it get back here?” He quickly turned to look toward the mirror post on the windshield to see if the necklace was still hanging in its place. Earl sat back on the bunk holding the Bible and staring at the mirror slowly shaking his head in disbelief. The necklace was gone.
Hank tapped gently at the driver’s door on Earl’s truck. There were still lights in the cab so he must still be up. The door opened quickly and Earl gazed out at him looking a bit confused.
“Earl, I need to talk to ya’, Hank said, “I need to tell ya’ somethin’ ‘bout that boy you mentioned.”
Earl climbed down out of the cab wondering what was so urgent with Hank.
“Look, Earl, that boy you mentioned giving a ride to tonight, the one you called ‘Dean’, the football player. Well, Earl, that boy was a football star here in Midland at the high school but it was more than 20 years ago. The boy played his heart out for that team. Fact is, his old daddy died of a heart attack right there in the stands at one of his games. Some folks think that’s what made him play so hard. He was a star. After high school, he went out there to El Paso to play college ball. He was killed by somebody when he was hitch-hikin’ home to see his mama. They cut his throat and tossed his body out in the truck lot down there at the Monahans truck stop. It was awful. Just broke his mama’s heart. She died the next year. Fact is, Earl, you must be mistaken. That just couldn’t have been that boy.”
Earl listened to Hank in disbelief. All this seemed like a dream but he remembered the Bible and the necklace. He spun around and yanked open the cab door and looked at the cup holders. There it was. The cup of coffee he had bought for the boy. It still had the lid on it. No this was no dream and Earl was not inclined to grab on to ghost stories.
“Look, Hank, I hear what you’re sayin’ but I know that boy was in the cab of this truck with me for several hours. I didn’t just dream all that. I let him off down there at the exit by his house. He was goin’ to see his mama just up the road.”
“I hear ya’, Earl. But there ain’t no mama and there ain’t no house up there now. It burned and she burned in it. He ain’t got no home to go to, Earl.”
Earl looked at his watch. It was 3:00 AM. He should be sleeping. He had to be rolling for Fort Worth in another hour or he would be late with this load. But late or not, he had to head back down to exit 25 and see for himself. He couldn’t head home with things all confused this way. He’d never get straightened out. There had to be a logical explanation.
“Hank, I am gonna take a run back down to the exit and check things out. You wanna go along?”
“I can’t Earl, there’s only me and Mary here and the morning rush will be here a fore long. I think you ought to just head on home and forget all this.”
Earl shook his head. He couldn't do that. He needed to know.
The headlights of the old Freightliner reflected off the exit signs as Earl released the throttle pedal to begin slowing for the ramp. The highway sign read Exit 25, Hayes-Johnson Road with an arrow pointing to the right. Earl shifted the transmission to slow a bit more as he eased down the ramp and up to the road intersection. If what the boy said was true, the house should be just up there north of the interstate. He looked in the direction but saw no lights. Earl turned the steering wheel and moved the Freightliner into the northbound lane of the road and turned the headlights to bright. About 50 yards up he could see what looked like a drive turning off to the left. It ran off up a hill into the trees. He decided it would be a good idea to go down the road a ways, find a place to turn the rig around, and then park down here by the road and walk up. There was no sense getting his rig stuck in that little drive.
Earl soon spotted an old barn with a gravel drive wide enough to back the trailer into and turn around. He’d worked with worse situations so this was no challenge. He drove past the drive, stopped, selected reverse and put the trailer square into the drive on the first try. He was quickly back on the road and rolling south. The entry to the long drive came up quickly. Earl pulled the rig to the shoulder, turned on the flashers, set the brakes, and left the engine idling. He would lock the door for good measure. First he needed to get into the tool compartment under the sleeper and get his pistol and a flashlight. There was no sense in being stupid and unprepared.
The old drive was not much more than two ruts cut into the caliche soil. Tufts of grass and weed grew here and there. Earl kept the flashlight beam moving around. He didn’t want to surprise any sleeping rattlesnakes in the dark. Finally he came to the top of the hill and a clearing in the small stand of trees. He rolled the light around. No house here now but there had been one. There was the old brick portion of the foundation. He could see the concrete steps still there that must have led to the porch. There was still enough evidence around to confirm there had been a fire here. Earl walked closer thinking about what Hank had told him about the old woman burning up in the house. It was down right spooky out here. The flashlight beam reflected off something on the steps, something shiny. Earl walked closer and looked. He couldn’t believe his eyes. There was the gold necklace with the arrowhead lying on the steps. He quickly picked it up and shined the light all around to see if Dean was anywhere around. Nothing, no one was here. He was alone. But the necklace, Dean must have left it here.
Getting back into the truck, Earl shifted into gear and worked his way back down to the main highway. He pulled the rig through the underpass and took the eastbound on-ramp for Fort Worth. As he entered the highway, he glanced over at the mirror post and watched the gold necklace bobbing with the motion of the truck. It was a sign. The boy had left it for him. In that moment, Earl knew that he would see him again out here on this stretch of road. Earl smiled at the thought.
Back in the shadows by the overpass, a figure emerged with a backpack over his shoulder and watched as the taillights on Earl’s rig drove out of sight. He then turned and walked off to the north toward his mama’s house off Hayes-Johnson Road at Exit 25.