Something was ringing. At first, Nate thought maybe it was Hank barking. They were camped out at a KOA campground, and his little tent wasn't quite big enough for the both of them to sleep in. Hell, Nate wasn't sure if there was enough room for him and his boots. He'd had to leave his hat in the pickup. Hank was tied to the bumper of the truck, where he could see and be with Nate, but not crowd the tent.
Gradually, though, it dawned on him that it was his new little phone. The tiny silver flip thingy had been forced on him by his cousin Henry in Tulsa, who'd told him that way his momma would be able to get a hold of him. He didn't have voice mail, just so it would keep ringing on nights like tonight.
Nate flipped it open once he found it, trying to talk like a human being and not a hibernating bear. "'Lo?"
"H ... H ... Hopalong?" Someone was crying on the other end, or trying damn hard not to, sniffling hard, that East Texas drawl just as familiar as breathing.
"Lacey?" Oh, shit. All of a sudden, he was wide-awake. "What is it, honey?"
"Yeah. I. Yeah. There. Oh, fuck, Hoppy. Your momma left a towel draped over a lamp to dry it and it caught all afire and ... She's okay. They just want to keep her in the hospital a couple days, but the house..." He could hear bustling and fussing all mixed in with Lacey's sobs. Damn it.
His heart set up to pounding something fierce. "Momma. Oh God, Lace. What? I mean. She's okay, you said. What. The house?"
Lacey Garrison was his best friend from high school, lived on down the road from Nate's momma, helped her out while he was on the road. His own personal Annie Oakley since he was knee-high to a grasshopper, Lace was solid as a rock, and to hear her cry was scarier than damn near anything.
"It's still standing, but it looked bad. I..." He heard Lacey take a deep breath, slow herself down. "I rode in with your momma, and I haven't seen Ben or Mikey yet to tell me how bad it is." There was a little cough, a rattle. "God damn it, Freddie. I said I was fine. Leave me be."
"You get checked out too, you hear?" If she'd been in that house, pulling his momma out, he was gonna beat her within an inch of her life. And maybe hug her tight. "I can be home in ... seven hours if I get on my pony and ride."
"You'll kill yourself, sure as shit. Just come on in the morning. Doc Fry says June's gotta stay two days, at least. I'll stay with her."
"Okay. Okay, you. I. Are you okay?" God, he just couldn't ... his house. His mother. "I'll come on. I'll be there."
"I'll be fine as frog hair." He heard somebody's voice, then Lacey snapped, "Goddamn it, Freddie Jackson. Leave it alone. Go fuck with somebody that needs it."
Well, if she could holler that hard she must be okay. Nate chuckled, reaching out to scratch Hank's ugly old ears as the dog whined and nuzzled up to him. "You hang in there, Lacey. I'll be home. We'll get it all taken care of. Call me on this line if you need me faster."
"Okay, Nate. You be real careful. I can't nurse you both."
"I know, Lace. See you soon." He started up to his knees, moving to get his sleeping bag rolling. "I ... give Momma a kiss for me. Thank you, Lace. For taking care."
Of Momma. Of the house. Of every damn thing he'd left behind. God bless her, she had his back, and he knew it.
"It's what friends do, Hoppy. You just come on to the hospital. If I'm not here, I'm out dealing with the critters."
That was Lacey for you. Always running and dealing with something, just like her momma, God rest her soul.
"Okay. Bye, Lace."
He waited for her to say goodbye. Nate hadn't once, and she'd read him the riot act the next time they'd talked.
He got a chuckle. "Well, I'll be damned. The cowboy can learn. Bye, Hopalong. Take care of you."
"I will," Nate said, clicking the little phone shut. Well, Hell, who knew it would have come in handy? It took him all of ten minutes to pack up camp and feed Hank, running to the outhouse before he hopped in the truck. He'd pull off long enough to get a sausage biscuit, but after that, it was stopping to pee and water only. He surely did need to get home, and wouldn't that be weird after all of this time?
Last thing he expected was to be heading to Wills Point, for fuck's sake. During the rainy season, too. Christ. What had Momma been thinking?
The windshield wipers slapped out a tune. It was the only noise in the truck with the radio off. Given all the thoughts bashing around in his noggin, Nate couldn't bear the cheerful tunes or cheatin' songs he usually listened to. He was on the way home.
He'd left for good once upon a time. Had made a big deal out of it, made a grand exit. He'd been on the circuit three, four years, had been wintering at home with his momma, when all of the neighbors and cousins had decided he needed an intervention.
"There ain't no life in rodeoin', son," one of them had said. "Just no sense in you actin' like a trashy drifter," had come from Cousin Ron, his daddy's only relative left in town.
Trashy. Drifter. When he'd made more in one season than he could at Wills Point in five years. When he'd come home two years in a row with state championship buckles, one from New Mexico, one from Wyoming. When he'd paid for Momma's new roof with a third place in bareback bronc riding at Las Vegas in December.
He'd packed his shit, kissed Momma on the cheek and said he'd call, then flipped them all the fucking bird, just rude as all hell, told them he'd just drift away like the fucking piece of trash he was, thank you. He could still remember his momma's pale cheeks and the tears ... Nate'd never meant to hurt her. Not her. He just wanted to shock the rest like they'd hurt him.
The only person he stopped to see on the way out of town'd been Lacey. Lacey, with her dark, messy ponytail and her bangs falling in her eyes, her men's Wranglers and her determined chin.
He pulled up to her momma and daddy's place in a cloud of dust, his '72 Chevy rattling like it was on its last legs, everything he owned sitting like a pile of nothing in the back. He had a little pup tent and a cooler, a backpack full of clothes and his bareback rope. That was pretty much it.
Lacey was out in the shed, working saddle soap into a harness.
"I'm leaving, Lace. Just thought I'd stop by and say so."
"Already?" Blue eyes flashed up at him, surprised and shocked. "Leaving to where, Hoppy?"
Nate stuck his hands in his pockets, looking at the toes of his boots. They were new, had little silver toecaps on them. His good boots. "I dunno, Annie. Maybe up to snow country. Bound to be someone needs a line shack man or a feeder."
"Oh." Lacey looked back down at the tack, fingers moving again, a little slower. "I. Things a little small here, huh?"
A loud snort escaped him before he could stop it. "You know damned well I was gonna winter here."
"So? Why're you running?"
"Well, if I stay I'll be getting the third degree the whole time, won't I?" Goddamn everyone and their nosy selves. "They all ... Cousin Ron. Edgar Rice from the feed store. Old Man McMurtry. Momma's cousin Elizabeth. They all came to the house today, Lace." His cheeks heated just thinking of how humiliating it was, to have them all staring at him like an angry jury.
"Ah, shit." Lacey sighed, ponytail swinging as she shook her head. "They wanting you home for good, I take it?"
His voice half broke. "They called me trashy. Said I'd amount to nothing."
"Fuck them and the horse they rode in on." The harness hit the ground with a thump as Lacey stood, damn near vibrating. "You do good on the circuit, Nate. You know it. Your momma knows it. I know it."
That had his face sliding into a smile. His Annie Oakley--always ready to take up for him. Nate grinned at her, his hands unclenching so he could actually get them out of his pockets to grab his cigarettes out of his shirt. "Yeah. I know. I guess ... I guess I'll just do it more full time, you know? I had planned to wait until almost April for my first event. But now I can go to Florida in February."
"You could ... you could stay here, if you want, 'til then. Daddy wouldn't mind." Right, like Mr. Garrison had minded anything since the missus passed away.
"Oh, thanks, Lace. But I. I got to go. I burned some bridges today." If his momma was gonna hold her head high, well, he had to stay away, to show them he could make a living, send good money home. He'd have to apologize, though. "Can you do me a favor, though?"
"I need to send Momma flowers." The unlit cigarette went back in the pack so he could get his wallet and get out a twenty, handing it over to Lacey. "Can you go to Mrs. Garcia's shop tomorrow when she's open, give her this and tell her to send Momma whatever that will buy, and just have the card say I'm sorry?"
"Sure." Lacey waved the money away, pushed a stray hair behind her ear and streaked her cheek with oil. "Put that back. Herschel paid me yesterday."
Nate wanted to argue, but he knew he was running on fumes and it would've sure been nice had he not spent the money on Momma's damn roof before everybody turned on his ass, wouldn't it? Sighing, he put the twenty away and reached out to rub the oil off her cheek. "You're the best. You'll keep an eye on Momma for me?"
She nodded against his hand, eyes closed for a second. She had a tiny beauty mark right near one eyebrow, sorta shaped like a heart. "I will. I promise."
Nate tapped her chin with his thumb before pulling back. "You're always as good as your word, honey. I'll call when I get settled for the next month or two. Then call from Florida. You know?"
"Yeah. I'll be here. I." Her lips twisted as she chewed on the bottom one, fretting a little. "You make sure you keep the oil changed in that truck, Hopalong. She's a good girl."
He wanted to say some more shit, but what good would it do? The only way he would is if they had all night and a twelve pack of beer, and they didn't. So he just nodded, grabbing her up real quick for a bone jarring hug. "You be good to yourself, Annie."
"Don't forget about us." She held on a second, cheek on his shoulder. "I ... I got some camping stuff. A little stove, a lantern, a good sleeping bag. It'll fit in your truck."
Nate let his lips ghost over her temple before he backed off. "Okay. Yeah, okay. I. Thanks. I'll pay you back, when I can. You know that."
"I know. Come on, I'll fix you up." She always did, just like that.
She was the best friend he'd ever had, and he knew it. They got everything settled in the truck, a tarp over, lashed down, two quarts of oil in the tool box. Nate kicked the dirt. Fuck, it was time to go. This was ... it was time. Firming his lips to keep from babbling, Nate put an arm around Lacey's shoulders, walked to the driver's side of the truck. "I'm not sure when I'll be back. If I will..."
Lacey had nodded, eyes on his boots. "Yeah. I know. Just go on, Hoppy, you're losing light."
So he'd gone. He'd given her another half hug and turned away, hopping up in the truck before he agreed to stay at her place and live in the barn or some shit. He could go find work until the season started. He could, damn it, no matter what folks said.
Nate had waved at Lacey as he drove off, looking at her in the rearview as he pulled out of the long track from her folks' place to the road. She'd watched him, hand pushing the hair away from her face, getting smaller and smaller until she got lost in the dust from his tires.
And now his tires were hydroplaning, the rain sudden and ugly, a real gullywhomper. Nate laughed, making Hank look up at him from the passenger seat. He'd left like a piece of trash on the wind and now he was washing in with the storm like so much mud.
Didn't that just figure?
Lacey's folks' house looked ... smaller somehow. Maybe it was the fact that he could only see what was illuminated by his headlights. Or maybe time just made everything seem like it had been bigger in his head. He hoped to God she was home now, not at the hospital. It had taken him nearly three hours longer than he'd wanted to get there, thanks to the weather. He'd called up to Presbyterian once he'd hit Lake Ray Hubbard, talking to Flora Krodle--who was still working the nurses' station, just like she'd been for twenty years. The old gal had told him that June was sleeping comfortably, and that if he showed up and woke her up, Cathy McMillan would put her size eight, ever-so-comfortable nursing shoe so far up his ass he'd be swallowing around her toes.
He'd taken the words as a sign.
The truck his headlights landed on was a '95 now, but it was the same old dirt track he pulled into, and it looked like the same damned old rooster that scattered out of his way when he slid to a stop and hopped out to knock on the back door.
"Coming." He knew that voice down in his bones. He'd put more time on the line with that girl in the last bunch of years.
The door swung open with a creak and a groan, and tired blue eyes blinked up at him. "Hoppy."
She had a burn on one cheek, a bandage on her arm, a pot of coffee in her hand, and Nate was fairly sure she'd had that t-shirt for ten years, and God knew that ponytail was just as dark and just as timeless as Heaven.
"Hey, Lace," Nate said, figuring he looked as pooped as she did. "You got room for a tired cowboy and an ugly dog?"
"Always. I made up the middle bedroom for you. I'll put your momma in the front one. Hank need feeding?" She pulled two mugs from the counter and poured. "You want a sandwich?"
"He probably does, yeah. You got a towel?" He had one hand on Hank's back as he went inside, keeping the silly mutt from shaking, but Nate needed to dry him off.
"Yeah. Chickie, get back." She caught the big rottie by the collar as the beast rounded the corner. Poor guy was getting on in years, took a bit to realize a stranger was in the house. "Come on in the bedroom with Tag, pup. We got company and I need the towels."
Lord, Lacey'd got Chicken Little as a graduation present. Hard to reckon that stump-tailed puppy had become a hundred pound, old beast. He wasn't sure he'd even gotten to meet Tag; she'd gotten that pup only a couple-three years ago. Hank was just wagging like crazy, wanting to go make friends, silly thing. His tail left a big old wet spot on Nate's jeans. Lacey eventually came back with a towel, and Nate made quick work of rubbing Hank down.
"I hope to hell it lets up out there," Nate said. "Hank's gonna go on a tear soon. He's been cooped up."
"Let him go. Tag and Chickie are in the bedroom." A measured can full of kibbles got plopped in a bowl, then Lacey looked over at him, gave him a half-smile. "I'm sorry, Hoppy. I told her to be careful, I did, but she gets confused."
"Lord, Lace. Why?" Well, he knew why. Nate cleared his throat. "How long has she been this bad?"
Hank wandered over, sniffed the food, then went to town, slobbering around his damned snaggle tooth.
"Six months. I take her to the doctor once a month for her meds and make sure she takes them. He says she just is slowing down some."
"She's not failing then? Just..." Just getting on up there, missing his daddy, needing Nate at home. Nate sighed, grabbing the coffee mug, and sat, staring at Lacey. "You're okay? That the worst of it?" he asked, nodding at her arm.
"I'm fine." She grabbed a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese, some ham and plopped them in front of him.
"Thanks," He said, starting to assemble a sandwich. "You want one?"
"Nah. I'm a little queasy from the pills they gave me." Lacey sighed, sat in the little shiny metal chairs they'd sat in for ... Christ, twenty years. "Me and the boys from the fire department moved a bunch of Miss June's stuff into the shed. The roof is still solid, but I didn't want ... I've got a load of her clothes in the washer and one in the dryer."
He reached out, grabbed her hand, getting a little smear of cheese on the back. "You're a good egg, Annie. And if you're queasy you should have toast." He let go, got up, went over where the toaster still was after all this time and popped in two pieces.
"I took the next two days off. I didn't know what I oughta do. I didn't know what you'd need." Lacey leaned down for a second, rested her head in her hands. "I still don't know, I guess. How was your drive, Hopalong? You shouldn't be doing for me. You gotta be wore clear through."
"Yeah, well, we both are." He needed to move after being in the truck all that time. Nate leaned against the counter, fingers drumming on the little strip of Formica that ran along the front. "The drive sucked. Almost got washed off the road. But Hank is good company."
The dog looked up from his almost empty bowl of kibble, burping delicately, and Nate snorted. "See?"
"Yeah. He's a good boy. Ugly as sin, but a sweetie." Lacey sighed, stood up and got the butter from the fridge. The thing was covered in drawings--trucks and dinosaurs, suns and flowers and dragons. Moving back, Nate reached for a paper towel for her to put the toast on. His sandwich was still sitting over there on the table, and Nate stared at it, trying to remember making it. Oh right. He meant to ask about the drawings.
"Nieces and nephews?"
She nodded, sorta smiled as she dug around for a butter knife, foot moving to slide one loose square of linoleum back in place. "Tommy's got five boys, Chris has two of each. Pete's ex-wife has the twins, but she lets me write to them. One day Benj's little one will be old enough, too, least when it gets here."
Christ, he'd always thought it was sort of a miracle Lacey'd survived four older brothers.
He knew it was a miracle they'd survived her.
"So how come you ain't married with a passel of kids?" Nate knew why, had talked to her about it once a week for at least five years, how neither of them could find someone permanent-like, but he always asked, and she always answered the same way.
"Oh, I'm waiting for my cowboy to come riding in on a white horse, you know."
"Yeah, you know those white horses are kinda hard to keep clean." The toast popped up, making him jump. He handed it to her on the little paper towel that had butterflies on it. "God, this is fucking weird, Lace."
"Yeah, it's been a long time." She put the toast down on the counter, then just came over and hugged him. "I'm sorry, Hoppy. I didn't want to have to call you, but ... I can't. I don't. I didn't. Fuck. I'm so sorry."
"No." Hugging her back just as tight, Nate let himself hold on this time. "No, it's okay. I needed to come home for her. And for you. You shouldn't have to deal with all this shit like you have been. God, Lacey. Thank God you did. And thank you, honey. Thank you."
He'd never wanted to come back, and he'd wished he could every day. Now he was home. He'd deal with it. He had to. And Lacey would make it easier. She always did. She just always did.