At the overnight stop in North Platte, Nebraska, Bill Wayne didn’t copy the other tourists in the party when they bought postcards to mail to friends. He was running a little low on friends these days. Once he had classed five guys as friends but they had picked up a habit of doing things behind his back, like shooting at it. The only wish-you-were-here postcard he wanted to send them was a picture of a cemetery.
Among the queer angles of the case was the fact that he didn’t know exactly why the shooting had started. He was on his way now to visit his former pals and ask how come. In case they didn’t feel like answering he had brought a .45 automatic to talk for him.
In his hotel room that night he unpacked the automatic so he could practice drawing it fast. He stuck the gun under his belt and walked over to the full-length door mirror. Once upon a time mirrors had shown him a happy-go-lucky face that grinned easily and foolishly at people. This was a very different face. Under rumpled black hair were eyebrows linked in a frown, eyes that looked around restlessly for trouble, a thin tight mouth, chin set in hard lines. Not a pretty face. It would only look good on a police wanted poster, and that was where it would end up if he wasn’t careful.
He stood there and practiced drawing the automatic. The results were disgusting. You might think he was trying to outfumble somebody in reaching for a night-club check. He would have to do better than that. He practiced for several hours and then went to bed and had one of those dreams in which you shoot and shoot at a guy but the bullets have no effect.
In the morning he climbed wearily into the bus and took his usual seat alone in the rear and tried to catch a nap. It didn’t work. As the bus skimmed westward, little jolts flipped up from the rear wheels and jarred his body. Now and then one of the jolts plucked an echo from his rib cage as if a bass viol string had been strummed. That would be where the slug had ripped through him a few years ago in China. Now and then he got another twinge on his left side, where a bullet had nicked him last month in Philadelphia. You could call it a homecoming present. Quite probably the same guy had shot him both times. They might all be in on it, though. There was Russ who now lived in Cheyenne, and Ken in Salt Lake City and Frankie in Reno and Cappy in San Francisco and Domenic in Los Angeles.
It was convenient that they had settled down in those places after returning from China. It meant he could cover up his trail perfectly, in going to visit them, by hanging a camera around his neck and an open-mouthed expression on his face and playing tourist. He could ask all kinds of questions without raising suspicions. He had even been able to shop around for a packaged vacation tour that hit all those spots, and to let a travel agency make all the reservations and supply him with a crowd to hide in. The agency that was carting him and his .45 tenderly across the country was called Treasure Trips, Inc., and he was on a tour called Treasure Trip of the Old West, $750 plus tax. Not counting the tax, that worked out to $150 per friend.
The bus whipped past a highway sign that said: Cheyenne 207 miles.
Hello, Russ, he thought. Here I come ready or not. Here—
He glanced up and saw that, ready or not, he was going to have a visitor. A girl was coming down the aisle with an easy flowing walk that made you think of a flag in a breeze. Treasure Trips, Inc., tried to keep its patrons happy. If you tired of looking at scenery outside the bus you could look at Holly Clark inside it. She was the hostess-courier. Unfortunately no provision was made for a guy who had no interest either in scenery or in Miss Clark. She would come back and probably ask if he was comfortable and was he enjoying the trip and would he like a pillow for the back of his head.
He wished people would let him alone. It used to be that he liked people. Not any more, though. It did something to you when you went through a war with five guys you trusted and afterward teamed up with them in starting a business and then suddenly collected a shot in the back. It made you look at everybody suspiciously. Of course there were plenty of people in the world who were okay, but he no longer had any confidence in his ability to pick them out. When anybody tried to get friendly with him now he kept trying to figure out their angle. Like this girl, for instance. Why did she try to give him so much attention when he had shown clearly that he didn’t want any? What was her angle?
She came back to him and instead of the usual smile gave him a frown. "You sit back here with the angriest look on your face," she said. "Do you know what you remind me of? Of a tornado getting ready to wreck something. Is something the matter?"
"Everything’s fine. You don’t have to worry about me."
"But it’s part of my job to worry, if somebody doesn’t seem to be enjoying the trip. Aren’t we taking good care of you? Don’t you like the other people in our party or the scenery or anything?"
Maybe if he was rude she would go away. "The trouble with the scenery in Nebraska," he said, "is that it doesn’t hide the landscape."
She said earnestly, "It may be a little fiat, but you ought to think how historic it is. Why, right along here was the Mormon Trail. And the Oregon Trail. And the route of the Pony Express. You’re riding through history!"
"I'll try to get in the spirit of things. Don’t be surprised if I start picking off redskins and yelling Californy er bust."
"Frankly," she said, "I think you’re more the type who would have picked on settlers. A few minutes ago I was watching you stare at the scenery and honestly, you looked as if you were choosing a spot to ambush the next stagecoach."
That knocked him off balance. He hadn’t broken so much as a traffic law but already this girl was tagging him as one of the James boys. In view of his future plans, he’d better do something about that. Perhaps if he made a quiet, gentlemanly pass at her, she would forget that ambush business. Or anyway translate it into more ordinary terms. He tried to remember how you made a pass at a girl like Holly Clark. He had been out of the country for a good many years and his technique was rusty.
He forced his face into a grin, and said, "You’ve got me wrong. I was probably choosing a spot to ambush the next blonde. By the way, you’re one, aren’t you? Quite a coincidence."
"This is the third day we’ve been on this bus. You’ve just discovered I’m a blonde. If it takes you that long merely to spot a blonde I don’t think you’ll ambush many."
"The way you do your hair fooled me. I mean, pulling it straight back and tying it in that horsetail effect. Makes you look more prim than I expect a blonde to be. Sort of like a schoolmarm."
"This is a very popular type of hairdo nowadays," she said indignantly. "And just by the way, I don’t like that word—schoolmarm. Because I happen to be a school teacher."
"I will be right over to take a course."
"You’ll fit in nicely. I teach first grade."
"Since there are only two people in this conversation," he said, "I think I am coming off no worse than second best. So you bully little children nine months of the year and push tourists like me around the rest of the time, do you?"
"Any time I can borrow a bulldozer, Mr. Wayne, I’ll try to push you around. May I sit down? I’d like to ask a couple of questions."
He shoved over against the window, and grumbled, "You’ve already asked a couple of questions and I seem to get zeros on the answers. However..."
She sat beside him and tilted her head to one side and studied him as if he were something small and wiggly on a slide under a microscope. She had wide gray eyes and a nice mouth and firm chin and a nose that was in remarkably good shape, considering the way it kept poking into other people’s business. She wasn’t very old and probably she ought to be attending classes instead of holding them. He reminded himself not to scowl at her; he was supposed to be making a pass at the girl.
"Exactly why," she said, "did you come on this trip?"
"I had seven hundred and fifty bucks, plus tax, and some time to waste. Why does anybody come on it?"
"Most people want to see the country. Do you?"
"Well, not right here, maybe. But I’m looking forward to some of the sights later on."
"What sights, Mr. Wayne?"
He wasn’t prepared for a cross-examination like this. He had assumed that people would let him alone and not ask pointed questions. He had maps and a lot of information about Cheyenne and Salt Lake City and Reno and San Francisco and L.A., but he didn’t want to show any special interest in those places. "I’m looking forward," he said, "to seeing Yosemite National Park."
"Wonderful! And what especially are you looking forward to seeing in Yosemite?"
Yosemite...Yosemite...what the devil was at Yosemite? He took a stab at it, and said, "I expect Old Faithful will be interesting."
She smiled sweetly at him, "It certainly will be, if it has managed to move there from Yellowstone National Park."
Nice work, Wayne. You just flunked first-year geography. "This is bad," he said. "You’d better keep me after school."
"I don’t want you to think I’m rude, asking all those questions," she said earnestly, "but I have a job to do. My job is to run the trip smoothly and make sure everybody enjoys it. One person who doesn’t like the trip can throw everything out of gear. So I worry when you sit alone with that grim look on your face. And you’re so different from everybody else in the party that I don’t quite know how to handle the problem."
"What makes me so different?"
"For one thing, you don’t happen to be middle-aged."
He looked around the bus. He had never realized before that it was a middle-aged crowd. There was just one young person in the bunch: a thin-faced girl of about twenty who wore glasses and a resigned look and was traveling with her mother. "Don’t let appearances fool you," he said. "Some days I feel eighty."
"What a ridiculous statement!" she cried. "You were just thirty years old last November and—"
His right hand moved before he could think. It grabbed her wrist, fingers biting into her flesh. He glared into her shocked eyes and said, "How did you find that out? What’s your angle?"
"Let my wrist go, please."
His fingers unclenched slowly. He had been out of the country for almost ten years. He had come back to a land where nearly everybody was a stranger except five guys who wanted to kill him. So it was quite a jolt to find somebody had collected a fact or two about his background. "Sorry," he muttered. "I’d still like to know what your game is."
"All right," she said. "My game is football. It used to be yours, too. And your coach was Rocky Clark."
"Clark...that’s your name, isn’t it? Where do you fit in?"
"Don’t you remember?"
He tried to look back into his memory. There were a few old snapshots tucked away in it. Gothic spires in the haze of Indian summer...the River Field on weekdays with footballs tumbling in the sky...the roaring stands on Saturdays...Rocky Clark’s red face in the locker room at the half, when they had been taking a pounding. No snapshot of Holly Clark, though. "I can’t get it," he said.
She sighed. "I shouldn’t have made that slip about your birthday. I was hoping you’d remember me all by yourself. I had it planned. You were going to look at me and say in the most delighted tone, ‘Why, you were that pretty little kid of Rocky Clark’s who used to tag around after me all the time.’"
He studied her face. If you gave her bangs and a Dutch bob, and plumped out her face and body, and put bands on her teeth and—"Oh, sure," he said. "You were only what, twelve or thirteen? And what do you mean, pretty little kid? You were a fat lump."
"That’s a fine reward. You were my hero and I was just a fat lump to you. I used to cheer everything you did on the field."
"Your father didn’t teach you much football, then. You should have booed."
"You were very good," she said indignantly. "After all, you were only a sophomore that last fall. You enlisted right after Pearl Harbor, didn’t you? I don’t suppose you ever knew that I put up a service flag in your honor in my room. You were going to come back covered with medals and I was going to marry you."
He wished he knew how to turn this off. He didn’t want to play Old Home Week with her or anyone. The less people knew about him, the better. "Kids get funny ideas," he said.
"Well, anyway, you see why I’ve been acting so interested in you. Bill, why did it upset you so much when I mentioned your birthday?"
When he was packing for the trip he should have included a spare head; the one he was using now didn’t seem to be much good. Quick, Wayne, what’s a good reason to explain why you’re acting like a hunted man? Ah! Nervous breakdown. That would explain why he was taking this trip, too.
He said, "I had sort of a nervous breakdown. That’s why I’m jumpy. The doctor told me to take a quiet trip somewhere. I don’t like boats so I picked a bus trip."
"Oh, I’m sorry! I suppose you’d been working too hard."
"You’re not married, of course, or you wouldn’t be taking a trip like this alone. Where do you live now, Bill? And what do you do?"
He had to cut this off, but fast. He wasn’t ready with the answers to her quiz program. "What I mainly do," he said, "is mind my own business. It’s a nice field to be in. Not many people know how to do it."
It was like kicking her in the teeth. She swallowed a couple of times, and then said brightly, "I asked for that, didn’t I? I’m a big girl now and ought to stop tagging around after you." She got up and left.
Copyright © 1953 by Richard Powell. All rights reserved.