Ellis already knew that, so he nodded and shook Jasper’s hand when he offered it. The zip ties had cut off the circulation to his hands and he could barely feel Jasper’s touch, but he could see it. Jasper’s hand swallowed his, and he was sure, quite sure, that Jasper’s grip was crushing his bones.
The knife Jasper had used to cut the zip ties was back in his pocket, but it too had been huge, sharp-bladed, the blade a dull, useful grey. As for Jasper, he was snarly and hard-eyed, and towered over Ellis like most of the prison guards did.
Jasper wore a rumpled dark t-shirt over his broad shoulders; his sunburned forearms showed a length of muscle that he probably wouldn’t be afraid to use on Ellis. Taut, hard-boned hips moved into long, hard legs.
Jasper also wore lace up work boots that looked to be the steel-toed kind that would hurt when Jasper kicked him. Which he most assuredly would once the newness wore off, and handshakes and greetings were a thing of the past. Ellis didn’t have a watch, but he could probably clock it to the minute when the current civility between them dispersed into regular and frequent harassment: definitely within the next twenty-four hours.
“That all you got?” Jasper pointed at the string around Ellis’ neck from which dangled the mesh bag with his few belongings in it. “And what’s that supposed to be? A mangled duck?”
Throat tightening, Ellis opened his mouth and scrambled to think what shape his tongue should be in, how much breath he needed. Whatever it took to answer this fierce, towering, dark-haired man so he wouldn’t take it in his head to clout Ellis for not answering him.
“Never mind,” said Jasper.
The shrug of Jasper’s shoulders, a broad rolling of muscle and bone, made Ellis want to step back and keep stepping back till he was out of reach. But he didn’t. He still needed whatever vehicle the ranch could supply. And he was tired and hot. The sun was beating down like it meant to melt him and wherever Jasper was taking him might have cool water, cool shade. A moment to get his bearings.
“We’re this way.”
Dutifully, like he was obeying an order from a prison guard, Ellis followed Jasper up the road, going back toward the green-metal gate, but turning down a narrow dirt road well before they got that far. After a few minutes of walking in mutual silence, without Jasper seeming to remember that Ellis was with him, they passed beneath the shade of a copse of cottonwood trees.
Ellis inhaled, grateful for the cool, dusty spice of the air, the dappled quiet. When they stepped out of the copse, the dirt road curved down a slope along a wide, slow-moving river, next to which was a small, jumbled cabin, a large outbuilding with its double doors wide open.
There was an old beige and white striped two-door pickup truck parked at the end of the road, where it rounded into a small parking lot. Beyond the lot and the cabin, the river curved through the grass before widening into a cool blue pond that circled around itself in a comfortable way, glinting silver at the edges, before spilling into a larger river below it.
Jasper was saying something, but Ellis could hardly hear him. His eyes were on the truck, his brain wondering if Jasper was foolish enough to keep gas in the tank and the keys in the ignition, like so many did when Ellis had been running drugs. You could always depend on people, not only to be honest, but to imagine that everyone else was like them and couldn’t possibly want to steal their car.
Ellis had never actually stolen a car, but he’d borrowed a few from time to time, usually rifling through the glovebox and truck for anything valuable like money before abandoning the car in a location far from the scene of the original crime.
“This is my shop,” said Jasper. Then he added, as if it was an afterthought to him, “And my forge.”
Ellis had no idea what a forge was, but he dutifully followed Jasper into the outbuilding, which turned out to be a workshop. When Ellis laid eyes on the chimney stack and the large leather and wood bellows and the heavy iron anvil in the middle of the room, that’s when he knew. He’d been given over to a blacksmith, which was not what he’d had in mind at all. No, he’d thought he’d be working in the barn with the horses, grooming and raking corrals and stuff like that. Not this.
He could open his mouth to protest, but nothing would come out. Even if it did, Jasper would mark Ellis for the troublemaker he was said to be, probably written in his report, which Jasper had no doubt read.
He needed to bide his time, so he kept his mouth shut and nodded at appropriate intervals as Jasper pointed out this tool and that thing over there, this wall of nails and horseshoes and shoeing supplies, that tool bench in the corner. Where the leather aprons were. Where the cloth aprons were. What clothes Ellis was to wear during the blacksmith demos Jasper did.
On and on he went, the words coming in short, clipped sentences, like Ellis was supposed to be taking notes and would be expected to remember where everything was located.
He had no desire to work with a blacksmith or a farrier, either, didn’t want to be surrounded by metal or that smell of hard burning that he couldn’t quite place. There was a sense of grease in the air, of grime, and of energy and hot fires.
What surprised him, though, was the fact that as Jasper talked, his compact gestures grew more generous, the words coming from his mouth slowed down, and his eyes brightened. Maybe Jasper was proud of all of this, though for the life of him Ellis could not figure out why. All he wanted was the keys to that truck and directions to Cheyenne and Iron Mountain Cemetery.
“We’ll go in the back way,” said Jasper. “Be sure to kick the dust off your feet before you enter the cabin.”
Rules already? Of course. It was to be expected.
Ellis followed Jasper through the shop and out a back door next to the tool bench to cross over to the back door of the cabin. There he dutifully kicked his sneakers against the mat, took the string bag from around his neck and stepped into the dim, cool air of the cabin, breathing a grateful sigh.
“That’s the bathroom there,” said Jasper, pointing to his left. “There’s plenty of hot water for baths each night but the water pressure is for shit, so I don’t have a dishwasher and have to take my dirty clothes to the laundromat.”
The cabin being so far off the grid, Ellis could understand the issue with the water pressure, but the idea of taking a bath instead of a shower was throwing him. In prison, the water was plenty hot, almost scalding, and one of his few pleasures had been to stand under the stream like he was in a rainstorm waiting for the water to wash him away. Then again, being submerged in equally hot water would permit him to live the dream so many prisoners talked about, that of being submerged up to their necks in water, floating, weightless.
“This here’s the main room,” said Jasper, waving his hand expansively to encompass the compact living room, which had a long, battered couch beneath the window along one wall, an easy chair at one end, and a fireplace at the other. Along the wall opposite the couch was a small square kitchen table and two old-looking wooden chairs.
Except for the braided rug in the center of the room, and a bookshelf full of books, a laptop, and other gear, that was it. There was no TV that Ellis could see. How was he supposed to entertain himself in the evening without a TV? Even the prison had a TV that worked, at least most of the time.
Jasper lived like this? It was nicer than prison, sure, and more colorful, with patched stucco walls and paint jobs that seemed to have started and stopped in different colors: pale blue on the window wall, sage green in the corner, a butter yellow elsewhere. But it was small and cramped, and Ellis couldn’t imagine spending any time there without wanting to run for the hills. At least it was sunny, as sunshine was coming through the tall windows above the couch.
“An’ here’s the deck.”
With a click and a shove, Jasper opened a sliding glass door that led out to a flat wooden deck with no railings. It looked as though the deck was suspended in air, though Ellis figured there were pylons beneath holding it up. The effect was that the deck jutted over the glassy blue, grass-banked river.
Beyond the river, the land sloped down and went on and on in a patchwork carpet of waving green tall grass, red speckles of some kind of flower dotting amidst that, and more open empty green-grassed land than Ellis could ever remember seeing, all of which ended in a wide ribbon of blue, blue sky.
All Ellis could do was blink. The view from the deck explained a whole lot as to why the cabin was so bare. Why be indoors when you had this to look at?
“That there’s the plateau where the ranch takes folks for trail rides, and beyond that—see that jut of rust and dark stone? That’s Iron Mountain. It’s what guides the cool winds our way.”
Jasper was standing way too close as he pointed. Ellis couldn’t care less about the mountain, though as he’d noticed there was no air conditioning unit, he might become grateful for any cool winds it sent.
“I like to sit out here, come sunset,” said Jasper. “There’re no trees to block the light for sunrise, either, if you’re up that early.”
The only thing Ellis was going to be up early for was to steal that truck.
“I’ll show you the kitchen, then the upstairs, where your room is, where you can put your stuff.” Jasper ushered Ellis back inside the cool dimness of the cabin, which grew bright as Ellis’ eyes adjusted to the different light. “You don’t have much, so I’ll get Maddy to order you clothes and gear and suchlike. I had no idea the prison would send you with so little.”
Ellis had no idea either, but what did he care? After he visited Mom’s grave, they could roll him in some battered old carpet and dump him in a landfill, and that would be the end of it.
“This here’s the kitchen. It’s small, but useful.”
The kitchen was a straight galley behind the brick backing of the fireplace, which kind of, now that he thought of it, echoed the layout of the workshop, where the fireplace there, the forge, as Jasper called it, was in the middle of the room, rather than at the edge.
It took Ellis a moment to realize it, but the walls of the kitchen were newer than the other walls, as if the cabin had been expanded from its original layout, and someone had decided that this was the best place for a kitchen.
It was a comfortable place, set off by itself, and was lined to the ceiling with plain wooden cupboards. There was a wrapped loaf of bread on the well-scrubbed counter, which made Ellis crave a sandwich, though he wouldn’t dare ask for it, a regular coffee maker with a glass beaker that had coffee stains around the bottom, and a gas stove. And more windows, the brightly patterned curtains pulled back by what looked like old red yarn.
“If you’re hungry, at all or ever,” said Jasper. “Just come get what you need. I expect that in prison you ate by the clock, and we do here, as well. But sometimes, if you get a hankering, there’s peanut butter and jelly or whatever. I do all my own cooking, except when Maddy forces me to eat with other folks at the dining hall—but anyhow, your room’s this way.”
Ellis followed Jasper back through the cabin to the stairs that led up from the front door. Maybe Jasper never went through it, for it was locked tight, and there was dust on the small curtains over the window in the door. The stairs along the wall were steep, and at the top was a small landing, off of which were two curtained doorways. Jasper slung back the curtain on the first room, the muscles in his upper arm flexing only inches away from Ellis’ face.
“This one’s mine,” he said. Then he let the curtain fall, and tugged on the other curtain. “This one’s yours.”
Curtains for doors? Ellis would have expected an actual door, at least. Even in prison, you were behind a door of sorts at night, and could tuck a t-shirt into the webbing of the bunk above you and block out some of the eternal lights that were always on in prison. But a curtain? Anybody could get in, could sneak in the darkness to where Ellis lay sleeping and do what they wanted with him.
The bedroom was narrow, with two windows along the wall. By the view, Ellis figured his room was above where the couch was on the floor below. Along the other wall was a single bed, covered with an old patchwork quilt. There was only one pillow, though Ellis couldn’t expect more.
Beyond the bed, on the far wall, was a tall narrow dresser and another curtain, which might be hiding a closet, though he wasn’t sure and didn’t want to start poking around to find out. Not when Jasper was watching him.
“I tried wallpapering the room, but that was for shit,” said Jasper unexpectedly. “I’m not good with delicate things. I’m good with hard things, so—”
Ellis was a hard thing. Hardened by prison, which was why, no doubt, he’d been given into Jasper’s care, which was sure to be less than tender. But, to keep the peace, he looked where Jasper was gesturing, which was the wall around the windows, where he could clearly see the remains of patterned wallpaper, the small pink rosebuds looking tattered and tired despite their sweetness.
“It’s early, but you might be hungry,” said Jasper.
He was still too close, his presence too near. Ellis could smell the day’s sweat on him, see the moisture on the curve of his mouth, see up close the dark blue of his eyes, the bit of black-brown hair stuck to his forehead. “You could wash up and have a lay-me-down while I cook us some dinner.”
At the moment, Ellis had no desire for any of these things. There was still plenty of daylight to be had. Enough daylight to steal—borrow—a truck and figure out how to get to where Mom was buried. He didn’t have a cell phone; the prison had confiscated it, and the contract that came with it had probably expired anyhow, so he didn’t have Waze or even Google Maps to help him out. He’d drive to Cheyenne, which was south, southwest from Farthing, and then stop at a gas station, first one he saw, to ask. It would be as simple as that.
But Jasper was still talking, saying something about baths and clothes and rules, there were always rules, and what he expected from Ellis by way of obedience. Only that’s not what he said. It was more like a stream of ideas that Ellis couldn’t follow, not when the air blackened around him, like his whole body had decided that now was the time to pass out. But he wasn’t a passing out kind of guy, so he tightened his legs and nodded at what he hoped were appropriate intervals and wished, real hard, that he could use his voice and tell Jasper to back the fuck off and give him some space.
He couldn’t do that, of course, though he was unbelievably grateful when Jasper did step back as he gestured vaguely at the bed in Ellis’ new room and said something about phone calls and meatloaf and rest.
Rest Ellis could do. Meatloaf he could manage, at least in a little while.
The second Jasper went down the stairs, thumping the whole way in his huge, thick soled, ass-kicking lace-up steel-toed boots, Ellis flung the bag on the floor and flung himself on the single bed, and closed his eyes as his head hit the pillow.
He was done for the day. Just done. Maybe he’d wait and get a hot meal and a bath and some rest. Then in the morning he’d not so much resemble an ex-con as a guy just driving a truck he’d borrowed, just wanting to find where his mom was buried. That’s all he wanted. That’s all.