It was Tuesday evening when Tom got off the bus at Rock Springs, Wyoming, almost 30 hours since its departure. The sunset cast long shadows in front of him as he walked to the shoulder of the highway with his luggage. Hopefully he would catch a ride from a friendly stranger before dark.
He avoided eye contact with the bus driver when the Greyhound drove by him on its way out of the station, continuing its epic route, leaving a black puff of exhaust in his face. He walked to the top of the highway on-ramp and dropped his bags. He pulled out a cardboard sign with the words "Big Piney" that flapped in his hands from the blustery air of traffic.
He stood there about 40 minutes before a 1980 station wagon with peeling brown paint pulled over. Tom ran to the passenger side, feeling lucky. He bent down slightly to see through the half-open window, smiling at a driver he couldn't quite see except for a rattlesnake belt buckle nestled between a black T-shirt and faded jeans.
"Hi!" Tom said, bending further down to glimpse a white face with a dark mustache, mirrored sunglasses and a straw cowboy hat. "Are you going to Big Piney?"
"Ya, man. I saw your sign. Hop in."
Thomas loaded his bags in the backseat and got in, kicking some fast-food trash out of his way on the floorboard.
"I'm Thomas," he said, holding out his hand, but the man was already pulling back into traffic.
"Tony." The man was checking his blind spot and tossed the name over his shoulder like something to be forgotten.
"Man, I was getting worried I'd have to camp under a bridge or something," Tom said. "Sure stoked you came by. Thanks."
"Ya, no problem, amigo. I can take you most of the way there."
Tom figured that meant the guy would drop him off at the junction of Highways 191 and 351, where he needed to head west on 351 to get to Big Piney. Maybe he would still be able to catch a ride the rest of the way that night. If not, it wouldn't be so bad to bivy in a field off the road until morning.
"You going to Big Piney?"
"Ya, that way," Tony said, fiddling with the radio. "Hey, I heard some lady won a big lotto jackpot around here. You hear about that? Man, that'd be crazy, huh?"
"Yeah," Tom said, shrinking back in his seat. Words suddenly escaped him. "That'd be crazy."
The car went silent. Tom looked away out the window, pretending to watch the rolling hills of sage, oil derricks and barbed wire fences.
"What kind of music do you like, amigo?" Tony said, not really asking as he tuned in a mariachi station. "Not that you can be too picky out here. Whatever doesn't have static, right?"
"Ay, Yai, Yai, Yai!" the radio crooned. Tony sang along half-heartedly, perhaps trying to dissolve the silence. "I hope you like mariachi," he said. "That's mostly what I've been able to find. Do you know this song?"
Tom shook his head, but Tony wasn't waiting for a response.
"I grew up with it," he continued. "It's an old classic my father loved. It's called 'Cielito Lindo.' Roughly translated, it means 'Lovely Sweet One.'"
The chorus kicked up again and he merged with the voices: "Ay, Yai, Yai, Yai!"
"I don't mind your music if you don't mind me dozing a bit," Tom said.
"Amigo, not at all," Tony said, humming with the song, tapping the wheel.
Tony's given name was Antonio Lopez Hernandez. Depending on who he was talking to, he went by Lopez or Tony. His driver's license read, "Tony Lopez Morales," but in spite of so many aliases, he was proud of his given names, especially Lopez, which meant "wolf." He liked to think of himself as a wolf, as well as inestimable and bold.
He was born 41 years earlier to an American mother and a Mexican father. His father had been a migrant worker until he knocked up a 19-year-old farmer's daughter in Kansas. His dad was 25 and took the pregnant teen on the lam with him when her red-faced father ran them out of town. The new family lived a transient life and got by on odd jobs until the young mother strayed with another man who almost died when Senior Lopez caught them in an ambush one night. Tony was 10 and waited in the truck while it happened.
Tony's parents never divorced, but Tony and his dad didn't see his mother again after that night. He'd watched from the cab of the truck when his dad went into the family's rented trailer to confront the new lover. Headlights shone on the metal screen door for long minutes, punctuated by muffled yells and screams. Senior Lopez dashed back into the truck with blood on his hands and shirt. Tony's mom ran outside in a nightgown as they pulled away. She was screaming words Tony never deciphered in his memory. He didn't care that much. Or at least he told himself that. He sided with his dad, who taught him how to survive in a hard world. Of particular importance were trades available to someone who knew how to take advantage of dual citizenship.
Tony did not love either of his countries. He did not love any country. He went where he pleased and did what he wanted. Mostly what he wanted was money. Actually, he was a slave to money, though he didn't see it that way. He never saw currency for the green tide that it was, pulling him this way and that, rambling over borders and deserts and mountains, selling his soul (he didn't believe in souls). He went where the money went, but his specialties lay outside the boundaries of conventional business. He smuggled drugs. He smuggled people, and sometimes robbed people, too. He was very good at these things, and he liked to think of himself as the predator his first surname implied – a wolf.
In fact, Mr. Lopez was headed to Big Piney specifically because of the lotto winner he'd read about days earlier, sitting in a Denny's restaurant booth in northern Las Vegas.
An old lady with lots of money in a little town, he thought, there must be a payoff to be had somewhere in that.
He was between prospects anyway. It was time to sniff around and see what he could turn up. Then he saw this healthy young man-child with a laptop bag and a pile of outdoor gear on the highway.
"So what's in Big Piney for you?" Lopez asked when Tom stirred from his nap against the window.
"Huh? Oh, just trying to get home. I wrecked my car in California."
"Bummer. You grow up there?"
"Yeah. Grew up on the same ranch my parents did."
"Me, too. Not the same place my parents grew up, but I was raised on farm work."
A moment passed.
"So ... where are you going?" Tom said in his most innocent voice.
"Just looking for work. I heard about some prospects out this way."
Lopez shrugged. "Hey, you got any money to throw in for gas? I could sure use the help if you have it. I been living out of this car a little bit lately to save on motels, you know."
"I don't have any money, actually," Tom said, shrinking into the seat again. "A friend helped me buy a ticket to get to Rock Springs. Sorry. I really appreciate the ride."
"No problem." Another moment of silence passed before Lopez spoke again. "So, yeah, you're from Big Piney – you don't know anything about this lotto winner I read about? It seems like such a small town, a guy like you would know something."
"Uh ... yeah, well ... I don't. I've, uh, been camping out in Yosemite National Park for quite a while. I barely heard anything about it until now."
"That's too bad," Lopez said. "When I picked you up I thought we might be able to help each other out better."
The station wagon decelerated and Lopez pulled into the gravel shoulder of the highway. It was ink black outside. Only a few other headlights and taillights flickered in the distance.
"What's wrong?" Tom asked, heart in his throat.
"It's time for you to get out," Lopez said.
"OK. I'm sorry if I said something." Tom's mind raced. He wanted to get out of the car, but this felt wrong, here in the middle of nowhere. "I ... uh ... Sorry! ... What can I do for you?"
"I told you – you can get out of the car, amigo."
"But ... why?"
Lopez pulled a.38 caliber snub-nose revolver from under the seat. He draped his arm across the back of the single long seat that stretched between them and let the pistol hang limply from his grip. It wasn't quite pointing it at Tom, yet, but the implication was obvious. Tom got out, closed the door and went to open the rear door to gather his bags, but the car took off.
"Sorry my friend. Today is not your day," were the last words resonating faintly in his ears as the door clicked shut and the wheels spun in the gravel. The dome light clicked off with the door closing. Soon even the taillights disappeared into the inky night.
Tom shivered. Panicked disbelief coursed through him. Cold, blowing highway dust wrapped around him in his hooded sweatshirt. This was unlike anything that had ever happened to him before. The lights of a semi came up behind him. He wanted to yell for help, but he couldn't move. The truck swept by at 70 mph. A new wave of stinky air and dust slammed into him and he realized his only option.
Moving at last, he walked along to keep warm until another truck approached in the distance. With nothing left to lose, he stepped over the white sideline and waved his arms into the orb of lights.
"Help!" he shouted, jumping up and down. "Help!"