In town, the lights didn’t seem to shine nearly as bright or as big as they did from far away. The last line of pick-up trucks rushed off to the wreck, grinding gears, leaving the place a ghost town.
Everything was quiet. I saw the neon sign of a coffee shop ahead.
The diner stood on the corner of the main intersection. From inside, light shone like a soft halo welcoming a hardened stranger on an even harder night.
I walked in and turned toward the men’s room. I needed to wash off some of the wreck grit, patch up my leg as best I could from the makeshift first-aid kit I carried in my rucksack. I wanted to make a clean impression when I hit the counter. Friends come from some of the oddest places. Who knows how long the trains would be delayed, how long I’d be stuck here?
“Hey, pardner,” the guy behind the counter introduced himself. “Hank’s the name.”
“Nick,” I replied. “Nick Dade.”
“Just passin’ thru’?”
“Yeah. I lost my ride, I guess.”
“Hey. You weren’t in that wreck, were ya?” His eyes glimmered with hope. Tell me about it, he seemed to say. Was there any blood? Did ya see any bodies?
“Sure,” I answered his unspoken questions. “The engineer bought it. I barely made it alive myself. Cut my leg.” He stretched over the counter to see. My jeans were torn and bloodied. “Just a scratch,” I told him.
“Hey. You look like you could use a doctor,” he stared at me, his eyes wide with speculation. “You work for the railroad?”
“Nah. I was riding shotgun on the freight,” I smiled. “Banditos everywhere, ya know. Gotta help out where you can.”
“A hobo, eh?” From the far end of the counter someone called out. “Good thing the bulls didn’t get you!” He stood from his stool and lumbered toward me with the authority of an undercover cop. I waited for the worst.
“Ever been to Phoenix?” The words blurted from his mouth like a child asking if the moon was really made of green cheese.
He was sweating though the night was cool. His breath was short and deliberate. Bad heart, I supposed, and overweight. The smell of stale cigar whispered from his breath. “I hear it’s booming in Arizona. Ever been there?”
“No. I’m heading to California. I’ve got friends there. They tell me there’s work on the Coast.”
Hank turned to the man and grinned. “Not here in Claypool City! Only opportunity here was on that train. And now even it’s gone.” Both of the men laughed at the joke.
Looking around I noticed a couple sitting at a window booth watching us. The woman looked away as soon as our eyes met. Her boyfriend started to say something but she kicked at his leg. She whispered in his ear and they both slid from behind the stall. That raised my eyebrow.
“Don’t mind them.” Hank turned toward the sink and dried a coke glass with the towel hanging from his apron. He watched my reaction in a wall length mirror at the back of the galley, then turned and took the check from the young man.
“Thanks Bud. See ya later.”
“Yeah,” Bud replied.
The young woman spoke. “Goodnight!” she said with a flip of her long auburn hair. Though she looked at Hank, I felt she directed her words at me.
“So, what’ll ya have?” Hank turned his attention to his new customer.
“You got fresh coffee?”
“And a wedge of that pie,” I motioned towards a glass-covered dish on the counter.
By now the heavy breathing fellow had managed to struggle up on the stool next to me. “Give me a cup, too,” he wheezed. He reached his hand out to shake mine.
As he started to introduce himself, he stopped. His face turned blue. His eyes bugged out of their sockets as he collapsed to the floor.
“Oh, my god!” Hank was over the counter and kneeling next to the old guy before I realized what was happening.
“Get on the phone!” he shouted at me. “Dial the operator. Her name’s Juanita. Tell her to send the Doctor to the Main Street Diner, quick!”