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Igms issue 15, p.12

IGMS - Issue 15, page 12


IGMS - Issue 15

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  Deaver was plain embarrassed. "I didn't mean to say --"

  "You did right, lad," said the woman.

  The truck was a flatbed with high fencing staked around -- ancient, but so were most trucks. Detroit wasn't exactly churning them out anymore. Inside the fence panels, straining against them, was a crazy jumble of tarps, tents, and crates stacked up in a way that made no sense, not in the dark anyway. Somebody flung their arm over the top of one of the softer-looking bundles, and then a sleepy-looking, mussy-haired girl about maybe twelve years old stuck her head up and said, "What's going on?" It was a welcome sound, her voice -- none of that too-crisp talking from her.

  "Nothing, Janie," said the woman. She turned back to Deaver. "And as for you, young man, show some sense and get your shirt back on, it's cold out here."

  So it was. He started to put it on. As soon as she saw he was doing what she wanted, she climbed back into the cab.

  He could hear the man tossing his saddlebags onto the truck. Deaver put his foot on the saddle till he had his shirt on, so the man wouldn't come back and try to lift it. Not that he could tell for sure, but by the little light from a sliver of moon, he didn't look like a young man, exactly, and Deaver wouldn't have an old guy lift his saddle for him.

  Somebody else came around the front of the truck. A young man, with an easy walk and a smile so full of teeth it caught the moonlight brighter than a car bumper. He stuck out his hand and said, "I'm his son. My name's Ollie."

  Well, if Deaver thought the Voice of God was weird, his son was even weirder. Deaver'd picked up a lot of riders back in his salvage days, and he'd been picked up himself more times than he could remember. Only a couple of people ever gave or asked for a name, and that was only at the end of the ride, and only if you talked a lot and liked each other. Here was a guy expecting to shake hands, like he thought Deaver was famous -- or thought he was famous. When Deaver took his hand, Ollie squeezed hard. Like there was real feeling in it. There in the dark, people talking and acting strange, Deaver still half asleep, he felt like he was inside a dream, one that hadn't decided yet whether to be a nightmare.

  Ollie let go of Deaver's hand, bent over, and slid the saddle right out from under Deaver's foot. "Let me get this up onto the truck for you."

  It was plain that Ollie had never hoisted many saddles in his life. He was strong enough, but awkward. Deaver took hold of one end.

  "Do horses really wear these things?" asked Ollie.

  "Yep," said Deaver. Deaver knew the question was a joke, but he didn't know why it was funny, or who was supposed to laugh. At least Ollie didn't talk like the older man and woman -- he had a natural sound to his voice, an easy way of talking, like you'd already been friends for years. They got the saddle onto the truck. Then Ollie swung up onto the truck and slid the saddle back behind something covered with canvas.

  "Heading for Moab, right?" asked Ollie.

  "I guess," said Deaver.

  "We're heading to Hatchville," Ollie said. "We'll spend no more than two days there, and then it happens we'll be passing through Moab next." Ollie glanced over at his father, who was just coming back around the truck. Ollie was grinning his face off, and he spoke real loud now, as if to make sure his father heard him. "Unless you have a faster ride, how about you travel with us the whole way to Moab?"

  The Voice of God didn't say a word, and it was too dark to read much expression on his face. Still, as long as Deaver didn't hear him saying, "Yes, Ollie's right, come ride with us," the message was plain enough. The son might've shook his hand, but the father didn't hanker for his company past morning.

  Truth was Deaver didn't mind a bit. Seemed to him these people didn't have all their axles greased, and he wasn't thinking about their truck, either. He wasn't about to turn down a ride with them tonight -- who knew when the next vehicle would come through here? -- but he wasn't eager to hang around with them for two days, listening to them talk funny. "Hatchville's all I need," said Deaver.

  Only after Deaver had turned down the offer did the Voice of God speak again. "I assure you, it would have been no trouble to take you on to Moab."

  That's right, thought Deaver. It would've been no trouble, but you still didn't want to do it and that's fine with me.

  "Come on, get aboard," said Ollie. "You'll have to ride in the cab -- all the beds are occupied."

  As Deaver walked up to the cab, he saw two more people leaning over the railing of the truck to get a look at him -- a really old man and woman, white-haired, almost ghost-like. How many people were there? Ollie and the Voice of God, these two really old ones, the lady who was probably Ollie's mother, and that young girl named Janie. Six at least. At least they were trying to fit in with the government's request for folks to carry the most possible riders per vehicle.

  Ollie's father got up into the cab before Deaver, giving him the window. The woman was already in the middle, and when Ollie got into the driver's seat on the other side, it made for a tight fit all across. Deaver didn't mind, though. The cab was cold.

  "It'll warm up again when we get going," said the woman. "The heater works, but the fan doesn't."

  "Do you have a name, range rider?" asked the Voice of God.

  Deaver couldn't understand this curiosity about names. I'm not renting a room with you people, I'm just taking a ride.

  "Maybe he doesn't want to share his name, Father," said Ollie.

  Deaver could feel Ollie's father stiffen beside him. Why was it such a big deal? "Name's Deaver Teague."

  Now it was Ollie who seemed to tighten up. His smile got kind of set as he started the engine and put the truck in gear. Was this a bet? Whoever got Deaver to say his name won, and Ollie was mad because he had to pay off?

  "Do you hail from anywhere in particular?" asked Ollie's father.

  "I'm an immigrant," said Deaver.

  "In the long run, so are we all. Immigrant from where?"

  Am I applying for a job or something? "I don't remember."

  The father and mother glanced at each other. Of course they assumed he was lying, and now they were probably thinking he was a criminal or something. So like it or not, Deaver had to explain. "Outriders picked me up when I was maybe four. All my people was killed by mobbers on the prairie."

  Immediately the tension eased out of the parents. "Oh, I'm sorry," said the woman. Her voice was so thick with sympathy that Deaver had to look at her to make sure she wasn't making fun.

  "Doesn't matter," Deaver said. He didn't even remember them, so it wasn't like he missed his folks.

  "Listen to us," said the woman. "Prying at him, when we haven't so much as told him who we are."

  So at least she noticed they were prying.

  "I told him my name," said Ollie. There was a trace of nastiness in the way he said it, and suddenly Deaver knew why he got mad a minute ago. When Ollie introduced himself outside the truck, Deaver didn't give back his own name, but then when Ollie's father asked, Deaver told his name easy enough. It was about the stupidest thing to get mad over that Deaver ever heard of, but he was used to that. Deaver was always doing that, giving offense without meaning to, because people were all so prickly. Or maybe he just wasn't smart about dealing with strangers. You'd think he'd be better at it, since strangers was all he ever had to deal with.

  The Voice of God was talking like he didn't even know Ollie was mad. "We who travel in, on, and around this truck are minstrels of the open road. Madrigals and jesters, thespians and dramaturges, the second-rate Sophoclean substitute for NBC, CBS, ABC and, may the Lord forgive us, PBS."

  The only answer Deaver could think of was a kind of smile, knowing he looked like an idiot, but what could he say that wouldn't let the man know that Deaver didn't understand a word he said?

  Ollie grinned over at him. Deaver was glad to see he wasn't mad anymore, and so he smiled back. Ollie grinned even more. This is like a conversation between two people pretending not to be deaf, thought Deaver.

  Finally Ollie translated wha
t his father had said. "We're a pageant wagon."

  "Oh," said Deaver. He was a fool for not guessing it already. Show gypsies. It explained so many people on one truck and the strange-shaped objects under the canvas and most of all it explained the weird way Ollie's father and mother talked. "A pageant wagon."

  But apparently Deaver said it the wrong way or something, because Ollie's father winced and Ollie snapped off the inside light and the truck sped up, rattling more than ever. Maybe they were mad because they knew all the stories that got told about show gypsies, and they figured Deaver was being snide when he said "pageant wagon" like that. Fact was Deaver didn't much care whether pageant wagons left behind them a string of pregnant virgins and empty chicken coops. They weren't his daughters and they weren't his chickens.

  Deaver moved around so much that a traveling show never come to any town he was in, at least that he knew about. In Zarahemla he knew that they had an actual walk-in theatre, but for that you had to dress nicer than any clothes Deaver owned. And the pageant wagons only traveled out in the hick towns, where Deaver never hung around long enough to know if there was a show going on or not. Only thing he knew about pageant wagons was what he found out tonight -- they talked weird and got mad over nothing.

  But he didn't want them thinking he had a low opinion of pageant wagons. "You doing a show in Hatchville?" asked Deaver. He tried to sound favorable to the idea.

  "We have an appointment," said Ollie's father.

  "Deaver Teague," said the woman, obviously changing the subject. "Do you know why your parents gave you two last names?"

  Seemed like whenever these people ran out of stuff to talk about, they always got back to names. But it was better than having them mad. "The immigrants who found me, there was a guy named Deaver and a guy named Teague."

  "How awful, to take away your given name!" she said.

  What was Deaver supposed to say to that?

  "Maybe he likes his name," said Ollie.

  Immediately Ollie's mother got flustered. "Oh, I wasn't criticizing --"

  Ollie's father jumped right in to smooth things over. "I think Deaver Teague is a very distinguished-sounding name. The name of a future governor."

  Deaver smiled a little at that. Him, a governor. The chance of a non-Mormon governor in Deseret was about as likely as the fish electing a duck to be king of the pond. He may be in the water, but he sure ain't one of us.

  "But our manners," said the woman. "We still haven't introduced ourselves. I'm Scarlett Aal."

  "And I'm Marshall Aal," said the man. "Our driver is our second son, Laurence Olivier Aal."

  "Ollie," said the driver. "For the love of Mike."

  What Deaver mostly heard was the last name. "Aal like A-A-L?"

  "Yes," said Marshall. He looked off into the distance even though there was nothing to see in the dark.

  "Any relation to Royal Aal?"

  "Yes," said Marshall. He was very curt.

  Deaver couldn't figure out why Marshall was annoyed. Royal's Riders were the biggest heroes in Deseret.

  "My husband's brother," said Scarlett.

  "They're very close," said Ollie. Then he gave a single sharp hoot of laughter.

  Marshall just raised his chin a little, as if to say he was above such tomfoolery. So Marshall didn't like being related to Royal. But definitely they were brothers. Now that Deaver was looking for it, Marshall Aal even looked kind of like Royal's pictures in the paper. Not enough to mistake them for each other. Royal had that ragged, lean, hard-jawed look of a man who doesn't much care where he sleeps; his brother, here in the cab of the pageant wagon, his face was softer.

  No, not softer. Deaver couldn't call this sharp-featured man soft. Nor delicate. Elegant maybe. Your majesty.

  Their names were backward. It was Marshall here who looked like a king, and Royal who looked like a soldier. Like they got switched in the cradle.

  "Do you know my Uncle Roy?" asked Ollie. He sounded real interested.

  It was plain that Marshall didn't want another word about his brother, but that didn't seem to bother Ollie. Deaver didn't know much about brothers, or about fathers and sons, not having been any such himself, but why would Ollie want to make his father mad on purpose?

  "Just from the papers," said Deaver.

  Nobody said anything. Just the sound of the engine rumbling on, the feel of the cab vibrating from the road underneath them.

  Deaver had that sick feeling he always got when he knew he just didn't belong where he was. He'd already managed to offend everybody, and they'd offended him a few times, too. He just wished somebody else had picked him up. He twisted a little on the seat and leaned his head against the window. If he could go to sleep till they got to Hatchville, then he could get out and never have to face them again.

  "Here we've been talking all this time," said Scarlett, "and the poor boy is so tired he can hardly stay awake." Deaver felt her hand pat his knee. Her words, her voice, her touch -- they were just what he needed to hear. She was telling him he hadn't offended everybody after all. She was telling him he was still welcome.

  He could feel himself unclench inside. He eased down into the seat, breathed a little slower. He didn't open his eyes, but he could still picture the woman's face the way she looked before, smiling at him, her face showing so much sympathy it was like she thought he was her own son.

  But of course she could look like that whenever she wanted to -- she was an actress. She could make her face and voice seem any old way she chose. Wasn't no particular reason Deaver should believe her. Smarter if he didn't.

  What was her name? Scarlett. He wondered if her hair had once been red.

  The sky was just pinking up with dawn, clear and cold outside the heated cab, when they rattled over a rough patch in the road. Deaver wasn't awake and then he was awake. First words he said were from his dream even as it skittered away from him just out of reach. "It's your stuff," he said.

  "Don't get mad at me about it," said the woman sitting next to him. It took him a moment to realize that it wasn't Scarlett's voice.

  In the night sometime the pageant wagon people must have stopped and switched places. Now that he thought about it, Deaver had half-awake memories of Scarlett and other people talking soft and the seat bouncing. Marshall and Scarlett were gone, and so was Ollie. The man at the wheel wasn't one of the people Deaver saw last night. They had called Ollie their second son; this must be his older brother. The young girl he saw on the back of the truck last night -- Janie -- she was asleep leaning on the driver's shoulder. And next to Deaver was about the prettiest woman he could remember seeing in his life. Of course women got to looking nicer and nicer the more time you spent on the range, but it was sure she was the best-looking woman he ever woke up next to. Not that he'd ever say such a thing. He was plain embarrassed even to think it.

  She was smiling at him.

  "Sorry. I must have been --"

  "Oh, it was some dream," she said.

  I look at you and think maybe I'm still dreaming. The words were so clear in his mind that he moved his lips without meaning to.

  "What?" she asked.

  She looked at him like she'd never look at another soul until he answered. Deaver was plain embarrassed. He blurted out something like what he was thinking. "I said if you're part of the dream I don't want to wake up."

  The man at the wheel laughed. Pleasantly. Deaver liked his laugh. The woman didn't laugh, though. She just smiled and crinkled up her eyes, then looked down at her lap. It was the absolutely perfect thing for her to do. So perfect that Deaver felt like he was starting to float.

  "You've done it to this poor ranger man already, Katie," said the driver. "Pay no attention to her, my friend. She specializes in enchanting handsome strangers she discovers in the cab of her family's truck. If you kiss her she turns into a frog."

  "You wake up very sweetly," said Katie. "And you turn a compliment so a woman can almost believe it's true."

  Only now did D
eaver really come awake and realize he was talking to strangers and had no business saying what came to mind, or trying to make his jokes. In the roadside inns where he used to stop while he was driving a scavenger truck, he always talked to the waitresses like that, giving them the most elegant compliments that he thought they might believe. At first he was flirting, teasing them, which was the only way he knew to talk to a woman -- he couldn't bring himself to talk crude like the older drivers, so he talked pretty. Soon, though, he stopped making it a joke, because those women would always look at him sharp to see if he was mocking them, and if they saw he wasn't, why, it brightened them, like pulling the chain on a light inside their eyes.

  But that was back when he was seventeen, eighteen years old, lots younger than the women he met. They liked him, treated him like a sweet-talking little brother. This woman, though, she was younger than him, and sitting tight up against him in a cab so small it caught all her breath so he could breathe it after, and the sky outside was dim and the light made soft pink shadows on her face. He was wide awake now, and shy.

  You don't flirt with a woman in front of her brother.

  "I'm Deaver Teague," he said. "I didn't see you last night."

  "I didn't exist last night," she said. "You dreamed me up and here I am."

  She laughed and it wasn't a giggle or a cackle, it was a low-pitched sound in her throat, warm and inviting.

  "Deaver Teague," said the driver, "I urge you to remember that my sister Katie Hepburn Aal is the best actress in Deseret, and what you're seeing right now is Juliet."

  "Titania!" she said. In that one word she suddenly became elegant and dangerous, her voice even more precise than her mother's had been, like she was queen of the universe.

  "Medea," her brother retorted nastiliy.

  Deaver figured they were calling names, but didn't know what they meant.

  "I'm Toolie," said the driver.

  "Peter O'Toole Aal," said Katie. "After the great actor."

  Toolie grinned. "Daddy wasn't subtle about wanting us to go into the family business. Nice to meet you, Deaver."

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