They’d been digging holes up at Chuck’s all afternoon when they got fed up and dropped the shovel and made the decision to go get something cold to drink, and by the time they were ready, they were wound tight and hoping they wouldn’t have to go as far as Chester to find a good time, but the bar in Mineral was open and after a few pitchers and quarters for the pool table, they got the bartender to make a couple phone calls and get a girl to come down and meet them. They knew loggers kept women up in cabins back in the woods, and they’d heard the stories, and they didn’t really think it would be easy like that—a few pitchers of small talk with the bartender and a couple of calls—but even up here where they couldn’t get a decent steak dinner or rent a room with its own hot shower, they could still get a girl if they had the money or at least talked like they had it, and they did that, talked like they had it, and part of it was because they almost had the money, and they’d definitely have it by tomorrow, and they agreed that there was no reason why they couldn’t take a small advance from one of Chuck’s buried tin cans since it had cost a lot to come this far and they were spending the last of their money on beer.
It wasn’t Chuck’s fault that he had been on a string of bad luck, and they didn’t blame him, but the string stretched across a couple of states and at one point there had been a good idea that had rotted and gone bad like a tooth and now Chuck was sitting in county with a 24-hour window to make something happen, and he was missing his good ring and the finger that went with it, and his bail money was wadded and hidden in coffee cans he kept at his place off Highway 36, and according to his one phone call that he had made to them in the early hours of Sunday morning, he had over eleven thousand dollars buried up there and not a solid idea of how many cans, or just exactly where to find them because he’d hid them on a bender. They had left within the hour and driven the flat hours north, dry swallowing crosstops, until they disappeared into Douglas fir, Lodgepole pine, Western juniper, and they had brought a shovel and the directions to Chuck’s written on a Burger King napkin, and they had taken turns digging, burned the day away under the weak sun passing between the clouds and a steady wind tipping the tree tops until most of the loamy dirt surrounding Chuck’s trailer had been turned inside out, and still they had found nothing.
They had considered that Chuck might have been lying about the money and the cans, and they had laughed about it at one point, what if it was all a bunch of bullshit? and they had stopped digging then and stared up at the shifting sky they could see between the trees, and there was too much quiet up there to think in, and they held their breath a little bit, rolled up their shirt sleeves and tossed their suit jackets onto the backseat of the car, waited for the other person to say something else, but neither one did because Chuck was a lot of things, but they didn’t think a liar was one of them, and they both owed Chuck anyways for something that they couldn’t quite remember now, and if they dug the whole place up and walked away with nothing, then the three of them would be square and Chuck would still be sitting in county, but that conversation had happened hours ago, about whether or not Chuck was lying, and after the pitchers and the phone calls, and more drinking and conversation, they had forgotten about the doubt and had convinced themselves that it was still out there, that one can—had to be, they had dug up too much ground to not find anything yet—and as they turned off the highway with the hooker squeezed between them in the front seat of Chuck’s Scout, they had pretty much forgotten about looking for the money anymore because after all the talking they’d done about it, it was as if they had already found and divided it.
The girl didn’t say much at first, but they got a few drinks in her before they left the bar, and by the time the three of them were walking out, they knew her name was Bambi and she had planned on just doing it in the parking lot, but they told her they had a place that wasn’t more than a twenty-minute drive down a dirt road, and she thought about it for a minute, and then they offered her another hundred bucks, and she said that she hadn’t arranged to be gone all night, and if they weren’t planning on driving her back to the parking lot until morning then it was going to cost them, and when she threw out some numbers they just agreed with her because the money wasn’t an issue.
They had headed east on 36 until they hit forest service roads, and then they left the highway and followed the Scout’s headlights over washouts and gullies and narrow ruts as the trees closed in around them, and the ground was soft, and they were glad they had swapped the Lincoln they’d driven up the mountain for the Scout—Chuck had left the keys in the visor—since it had four-wheel drive, and the weather was uncertain and neither one of them figured they could get back to Chuck’s if they were at the bar and the rain came and all they had was the car. As it was, they had to ease the Scout over the uneven ground, and it was slow going, and they could smell the girl pressed between them, and when they came out of a tight turn between two fir trees, the front passenger tire slid out on some mud and the Scout high-centered for a second and in the jerk of the wheel to free it, they heard a bottle break loose under the seat and roll around, and one of them reached down and picked it up, split the seal and passed it, and they all settled into quiet drinking as the Scout fell in and out of the dips in the dirt road.
So you guys aren’t from around here, the girl said, and she shifted a little bit on the vinyl bench seat, and they could feel her between them, her shoulders pressed into their upper arms, one on each side of her, and she was wearing something that smelled sweet and a little bit exotic, like an Oriental bakery, and it filled the inside of the Scout and they all stared forward out the windshield and waited for the trailer to come into sight. Nothing looked familiar, and they couldn’t remember how long it took to get back to Chuck’s once they left the road, but it was just a matter of driving because there was only one way in or out.
We came up from down south, one of them said, and the bottle exchanged hands, and in the light from the dashboard she could read the label, but she didn’t need to in order to know it was the cheap stuff that burned like kerosene when it hit the throat, and she was craving a cigarette and she wanted to get one out of her purse, but there was no room to move and reach for it.
You been living up here long? the passenger asked her, and she shook her head and took a quick swallow from the bottle and passed it to her left and the driver took it, and she felt his hand on hers for a second as he got a better grip on the neck.
It’s my first season, she said, and by “season” they figured that she meant logging run, and they wanted to ask her more about it, about how she worked the camps up here and where she stayed when the crews were out, but when push came to shove, they didn’t really give a shit, and she looked new and young, and neither of them figured there was much she could say that would be worth listening to, and they weren’t paying her for her conversation skills anyways.
Something big and moving slow passed in front of the Scout, just beyond the lights, and the driver hit the brakes hard, and whatever had been walking flashed a pair of red eyes at them and the driver reached for something inside his jacket, and they were all thrown forward into the dashboard. Some of the booze sloshed out of the bottle and they could smell it fill the cab, and it mixed with her perfume and the smell of gas coming up through the floorboards, and the driver cracked his window and they could hear the Scout’s engine stumble.
What was it? she asked, and she could feel the men beside her, sitting up straighter, trying to get a better look out the windows, and the driver dropped his hand from inside his jacket and went back to grinding the transmission as he tried to get first gear to catch again.
You’re not holding the clutch in, she said. You have to go forward and up with the gear shift. There’s a trick to it.
For a second the Scout stopped rocking in place, caught in the crossfire between neutral and first, and the driver went still and rested his hand on the stick, and the only sound was the engine idling and night coming through the open driver’s side window, and she could feel the air tighten around her as they sat there with the engine idling, and finally the passenger said hey, don’t pay attention to her, forget about it, and she could feel the driver’s thigh against hers, the muscle flexing and relaxing as he held his foot above the gas pedal, and she could feel it, hanging in the air, waiting, and she said, my dad used to have one of these. It’s how I learned how to drive.
You wanna take over? the driver asked her, and his voice was loud suddenly, and the night sounds outside the window cut off and everything went quiet except for the Scout.
I was just trying to be helpful, she said, and the passenger took a drink from the bottle and rested it on his leg, and then the driver mashed the clutch and shoved the stick shift up and over and first gear hit and he let the clutch out too fast and they bucked over the soft ground until they got enough forward momentum again.
You boys are jumpy, and she laughed a little bit, but neither one of them said anything for a second and she loosened her shoulders from between them and turned in her seat so she could pull her purse out of the back, and she dug through it while the wind came through the driver’s side window and she could smell rain in the air, and wet dirt and sharp pine as the Scout’s worn front tires crushed the grass.
She found a soft pack of Merit’s at the bottom of her purse and she knocked a cigarette out, offered the pack to them, and they both shook their heads.
Long ways back in here, she said, and she was trying to find a book of matches in her purse without moving around too much, and she could feel both of them against her again, their bodies pressed thigh to shoulder, one to each side, squeezing her in place, holding her between them, and the Scout felt small inside and all she wanted was that first hit from her cigarette, but she couldn’t find anything to light it up with since the one in the dash didn’t work.
You boys have a lighter? she asked, and neither one said anything, and outside the windshield the headlights cut a narrow path between the trees and beyond the lights there was only darkness and it was like a solid wall that she could not see through.
We’re almost there, the passenger said, and she could feel the driver about to say something, too, but then he went quiet and she kept moving things around in her purse and pretended to keep looking, and there were noises outside the open window, and the air was full of sound again, and then they took a sharp corner, rolled down a short grade, crossed a thin spit of water, and came up the other embankment and there was the trailer, filling up the windshield, and the girl took a deep breath and said, wow, that’s a lot of holes, and the driver pulled to the edge of the clearing so that the headlights swept the entire dirt lot and washed the mounds with light, and the ground looked pockmarked and picked, and he let the Scout roll to a stop and he kept the lights on even after he had cut the engine.
Fucking gophers, the passenger said. Rats without tails.
The ground’s soft, the driver whispered, easy to dig in, and she could feel him laugh a little bit beside her.
They sat there for a minute, listening to the Scout’s motor tick, and their eyes adjusted to the light outside, and she could see things now—the trailer with the rotting steps and peeling siding, one window busted out, blue tarps covering drifts of firewood and rusted metal, car parts, entire frames, a stack of three tires, the front end of a pickup, the battered Lincoln parked at an angle, an empty refrigerator tipped on its side, the doors open, full of dirt, black plastic bags spilling old garbage that looked as if it had been dug through.
You boys staying here? she asked, and she thought she saw something small run across the trailer’s sagging roof.
We’re visiting, the passenger said, and then he pushed his door open and the night air came in and she could smell more rain and there was the sound of water running fast someplace close, like a creek, and she watched the passenger step out from the Scout and he smoothed down the front of his jacket, and she could feel the driver beside her, waiting, and she started to slide across the seat toward the open door and the air, and then she felt the driver’s hand on her arm and she stopped and waited, and he said, we go one at a time, and she nodded and smiled, and then the hand squeezed, and he said, I go first, and she held on to the smile and said of course, it’s your dime, and then she waited for a second before she added the next thing, and she thought she could hear the muffled sounds of raindrops as they hit the forested ground—I need the money up front, she said, and she could see the rain now, fat drops hitting the glass.
The hand on her arm was thick and warm and slightly damp, and she could feel it, his skin on her skin, and the fingers tightened a little bit, almost like a squeeze, but there was something more behind it and she realized that he was showing her that, that he was choosing how tightly to grip her, and she held still.
Let’s get inside, the passenger said, and he was leaning forward against the side of the Scout, pissing against the back tire, and he still had the bottle in his hand and a drink suddenly sounded good to her, so she waited for the driver to let go and finally he did.
Give us a minute, the driver said, and he pulled the keys from the ignition, swung his door wide, and the wind cut across her now with the cab opened up, and she could smell the rain in it and feel it, too, but there wasn’t a lot of commitment and she figured the storm wouldn’t last long enough to amount to much at all.
She watched them walk toward the trailer, and the driver had left the headlights on, and she sat there, with her purse in her lap, the waiting cigarette still in her hand, and she watched them, and they walked a few steps and turned and looked at her over their shoulders, and she could tell that they were talking together, and the rain was still coming down, a little bit harder now, and she could hear it outside the Scout, landing heavy on the leaves, and she watched them walking, the passenger still holding the bottle, and she could see the drops catch the light as the men crossed the churned up ground. They stopped walking for a second and the driver reached inside his jacket again and the passenger watched him, and then the driver brought his hand back empty and he jiggled the keys in his other hand and walked up the rotting steps to the front door of the trailer, worked the lock, and then they both went inside and she waited for lights, and then she saw one come on in a back room and she knew they were in there fixing things up.
She’d never been out here before, but she knew Chuck, and it was the Scout she had recognized first when she’d been dropped off in the parking lot—she had driven it before, from the bar back to her place—and for a minute she had thought that maybe it was Chuck that was looking for her, or that she had been mistaken, but once the three of them had climbed in, everything had been familiar and she had kept her mouth shut for the ride.
Inside the trailer she thought she heard something break, and she could see them in there, big shadows moving between the curtains and the light, and she remembered how the girls had liked Chuck, and he tipped well, and he had been particularly nice to her on the few times she’d seen him, and there had been a night when she was first getting started and thought that it was okay to still tell the truth, and she had told him why she’d run and where she was going and how she might still get there if only she had the money, and he had told her about getting in too deep and staying too long and that he couldn’t trust anybody anymore, and nobody was a friend, and they had finished off one bottle and opened another, and she had lit up a cigarette and even now the memory made her crave a smoke, and they had laid together in her narrow bed and drank and talked until she went off the clock, and Chuck had told her stories about things he’d done, and she listened carefully, and he told her about running and hiding and the kinds of people that can give chase, and he told her about how he almost shot a man, and he told her about thousands of dollars—probably more than she had ever seen all at once, he said—and how nobody would find it, how he’d made sure of that, and it was just a matter of landmarks, and she had listened carefully to that, too, and he had told her about buried treasure, and they had been really drunk then, laughing about his pirate philosophy, but she could see it all now, just beyond the circle of headlights, the three wood piles, the missing tarp, the skinny sugar pine tree, and in her mind she put her back against the thin bark and looked toward the sunset, and she marked the distance with her eyes, nine paces west—she could still hear Chuck counting them out loud in her bed, one, two, three—and she could see the spot out there, just beyond the reach of the headlights, where the ground was still unbroken and clean.
Jodi Angel's second collection of stories was You Only Get Letters From Jail. Her work has appeared in Esquire, Tin House, One Story, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Best American Mystery Stories 2014. She lives in Northern California with her wife and daughters.