We crossed the Panhandle at sundown, heading south toward Amarillo. Jim hadn't moved in over an hour, just staring out the window at crimson light bleeding up from the horizon.
"This reminds me of a picture show I seen once," he said.
He leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes.
"Don't remember much. A kid trying to make a name for his self shot an old gunfighter in the back. Left him for dead on the side of the road."
"Sheriff waylaid the kid and beat him senseless. Folks from town wanted to string him up. The dying gunfighter wouldn't have none of it. Turn him loose, he said. Let him feel what it’s like living the rest of his life in the sight of a gun."
"What's it mean?"
"Hell, I don't know."
Closing his eyes again, he stayed that way until I braked the Ford on the outskirts of town. Not knowing where to go, I nudged him, waiting until he shook away his bad dream.
"Teddy Jackson's place. Down the road a ways," he mumbled. "Next to a used car lot."
We passed miles of used cars, cattle pens, and wrecking yards. We found Teddy Jackson's trailer house behind a twelve-foot fence topped with barbwire. The sign said Teddy's Junk House. Jim reached across the seat, leaning on the horn until a woman with a thatch of thick red hair opened the trailer door. She came out and shined a flashlight through the windshield.
"Closed up. What the hell you want this time of night?"
"Here to see Teddy," Jim said.
"Well, he ain't here. Come back tomorrow."
"I'm Jim Droon, and this is my brother. Teddy's expecting us."
Muscles in the red-haired woman's face relaxed. "We won't see Teddy till the bars close down."
Swinging back the gate, she let us drive into the lot, smiling when Jim winked at her.
"Name's Darla. Proud to meet you, Jim. What's your brother's name?"
"Hell, Darla, I just call him Little Brother, but he answers to most anything."
"Don't mind the crap on the floor," Darla said, kicking an empty pizza box aside as we followed her into the trailer. "Wind blows so hard round here, it don't do a lick of good to try and clean."
"Makes no difference to me," Jim said, sprawling on a faded sofa.
"Teddy bought me a bottle of tequila before he left. Been working on it all night. Want a taste?"
"Why hell yes," he said.
Jim's eyes crossed as he swigged the tequila straight from the bottle. Darla's raspy laugh filled the trailer when he blew tequila out his nose.
"Jim, you're a hoot. I think I'm gonna like you."
"Want some of Darla's hooch, Little Brother?"
"Can't drink on an empty stomach," I said.
"Don't worry ’bout him," Jim said. "Little shit never could hold his liquor."
Leaving them in their own little world, I scoped out the kitchen for something to eat. All I found was an empty beer can and a dead mouse.
"How do you like our little corner of the world?” Darla asked when I returned.
"It's so . . ."
"You got it." Jim grinned when I said, "Reminds me of Kansas, all big and open. We had one ol’ stunted elm tree in our front yard."
Darla rubbed the dark bruise on her arm. "Only one?"
"Didn't last long. Mama was working and Daddy off playing pool. Jim siphoned gas from the tractor, poured it on the tree, and then set it afire. Said it bugged him the way its branches brushed against his window when the wind blew."
Leaning forward on the couch, Darla said, "Bet your old man was pissed when he come home."
"Let Little Brother tell you."
"Jim didn't want a strapping so he sneaked off to town, but not until he left the half-empty gas can beside my bed. Daddy come home all sotted up. Found the burned-up tree and can of gas. I didn't know what hit me when he yanked me out of bed by the hair, beating me with the buckle of his belt till I begged him to stop."
"You survived," Jim said. "Besides, that's why you're the little brother, Little Brother."
Just before midnight, Darla said, "Amarillo's a hell hole. Ain't enough life here worth embalming. Been thinking ’bout hitching back to Dallas. Where you boys headed?"
"South," Jim said.
"How far south?"
"Till the wheels burn off that ol' Galaxie."
"San Antone," I said. "Jim says it's pure paradise. Jobs for everybody. Nice weather all year round."
I didn’t miss the glance Darla shot him. "Well, don't take everything you hear too serious, kid. San Antone's okay. For my money Dallas is the place to be."
"Can't be like San Antone. Jim says they pave the streets with gold."
Darla laughed and she and Jim kept right on drinking till the bottle was almost empty. Around two, we heard brakes screech outside the fence. It was Teddy. He staggered out of his dented Biscayne, stumbling up the steps to the trailer. When he saw Jim, recognition flooded his ratty eyes.
"Jimmy," he said, latching his arms around his neck.
When he kissed him on the mouth, Jim didn't flinch. Darla did, though, a strange look flickering and then dying in her green eyes.
"Get in this house," Teddy said, steering Jim back toward the trailer door. "Who's this you brung with you?"
"Little Brother," Jim said.
"Looks bigger than you," Teddy said. "Darla, I'm starved. What the hell you got to eat in this place?"
Darla stalked off to the kitchen, returning with a bowl of stale rice soaked in red sauce I had somehow missed. She didn't bother heating it up and Teddy didn't seem to mind, eating it straight from the bowl without offering any to me or Jim.
"Jim and me spent time in McAlester," he said. "Hard time. Jim kicked the shit out of a guard." A wicked grin spread over his skinny face. "What a man your brother is. What a man."
"Shit, Teddy. You're the one," Jim said. "You always had a plan. The rest of us was just doing time."
"A plan is what I got right now," Teddy said, edging closer on the sofa.
He’d finished the red rice and filled a shot glass with tequila. Darla had passed out on the couch as he stared at Jim. "There's a bank in town, ready for the breaking. You boys interested?"
Jim said, "Maybe. Least in hearing what you got to say about it."
"End of the month payroll," Teddy said. "Forty thousand dollars, or so. Twenty each."
Teddy paused as Jim reflected on the amount he had mentioned. Leaning closer, he said, "I drive. You walk in, hand them the note, collect the money, and walk out. I'll pick you up on the corner. Easy as apple pie."
Not believing what I was hearing, I waited for Jim to laugh, or at least change the subject.
Instead, he said, "How many guards?"
"Just one," Teddy said. "That's the beauty. They got all the money in the world and almost no security. We'll waltz right in, take what they got, and then hit the road without a hitch."
I tried to catch Jim's eye but he glanced away.
"When?” Jim finally said.
"Tomorrow. Right after they open up."
"Won't give us much time to case the place."
"Already done it," Teddy said. After patting Jim's cheek, he said, "You think about it."
He sauntered off to bed in the next room. Darla rubbed her eyes, blinked herself awake, and followed him. Jim kicked me off the sofa, wrapped his hands behind his head, and grinned.
"You wouldn't rob another bank, would you Jim?"
"Not me, little brother. Us."
"If Teddy wants to rob a bank, let him do it. He don't need you."
"Teddy's a driver. He can't pull this job by himself. Besides, Teddy and me shared a cell in McAlester. He's smart and knows how to make things work. If he says this is a good bank to rob, then I believe him."
"If he's so smart, why did he wind up in McAlester?"
Jim ignored my question and said, "We need Teddy to drive and I need you to back me up."
"What about San Antone?"
Jim stared at the ceiling, smiling his crazy smile, and said, "This is San Antone, Little Brother."
"No way. You promised Mama no more prison. Remember?"
Jim's eyes had closed but I knew he was listening because of that grin on his face I'd seen all my life.
"Quit belly-aching, Little Brother," he finally said. "Neither of us is going to rob no bank. I was kidding."
Jim passed out on the couch, my only answer a coyote, somewhere down the road, howling at the moon. Propping my shoulders against a wall, I closed my eyes. It was dawn when Jim nudged me awake with his foot.
"Get up, Little Brother. We're going to town for something to eat."
My gut ached. So did my head. During the long night, I'd somehow convinced myself the bank robbery was just a joke.
Teddy, Darla, and Jim weren't quite ready so I chewed on a piece of cardboard till they’d killed the last of the tequila. Temperatures had dropped below freezing during the night and we had to push the Ford to start it. Jim and I sat in the backseat of the Galaxie, Darla riding shotgun as Teddy circled the block. They both looked strung out. So did Jim. Finally, Teddy stopped and let us out.
"I'll park this heap around the corner," he said. "Just come running."
Darla reached through the window, giving Jim a hug and frantic kiss. She waved when Teddy pulled away. Drawing me like a magnet, Jim started down the street.
"Why aren't they coming with us?"
"Teddy's lazy and looking for a closer place to park. Cafe's just around the corner. I ain't waiting."
When we rounded the corner, I looked in both directions for the pancake house. Instead, a bank door beckoned and I realized Jim had suckered me. Grabbing the front of my pea jacket, he shoved a big revolver under my belt and pushed me through the front door.
"Don't do this," I said.
He just grabbed my shoulder, cupped my ear, and whispered, "All you have to do is stand right here and wait on me. I'll do the dirty work and no one will even know you're involved."
"I'd follow you to hell. But robbing a bank. . ."
"You never robbed a bank before?"
"Jim, you know I ain't."
His eyes began to glaze. "It's like pure, unadulterated sex."
My knees began to shake, heart thumping so hard I thought it was gonna pop out of my chest. One fat guard propped up the far wall, drinking coffee from a plastic cup. Jim strolled past him, straight to the nearest cashier where he pulled his pistol and stuck it in the woman's face. Outside the bank, I'd felt I was about to puke. Now, time started passing in slow motion.
"You're too young to die, good looking," Jim said to the woman. "Put your money in this sack and signal your boss over here. Do it now."
The young woman's body stiffened. Color drained from her face and saliva drooled down the corner of her mouth. I wondered if she would piss her pants before I did.
"Don't shoot me," she said. "Please!"
"Put the money in the sack," Jim said, his words growing ever louder. "And call your boss."
The woman's voice was shaky when she motioned to a well-dressed man beside the open vault.
With a glance of disapproval, the young banker approached the booth. He had no chance to comment on her disrespect before Jim stuck the pistol in his face and eased the two of them down the row, into the vault.
The big clock on the wall seemed frozen. Though it seemed like forever, only five minutes passed before Jim walked out alone. Slung over his shoulder was a leather bag. For a moment, I thought we were home free. Didn't happen that way.
Sirens began wailing and people started screaming and dropping to the floor. The fat guard pulled his pistol, fanning the bank. Jim was almost to the front door when the man yelled for him to stop. Without waiting, hw opened up with the gun. My heart counted three explosions.
The first bullet caught Jim in the shoulder, spinning him around. The second took a hunk out of his right ear. The third struck him square in the belly. I watched him fall back against the wall, pluming blood painting a crushed rose across the front of his jacket.
It wasn't over. The guard rushed forward, jamming his pistol in Jim's face. Yanking the gun Jim had give me, I pointed it at the guard, closed my eyes and pulled the trigger.
All my luck had ebbed sometime the day before. Catching sight of the weapon in my hand, the fat guard squeezed off a round from his pistol at the exact instant. His bullet burned a hole through my leg, lighting a burning fire just below my right knee. My bullet lifted him off his feet, crushing him against the wall.
Steadying Jim before he collapsed to the floor, I swallowed hard to keep from vomiting. As blood gurgled from his mouth, I wondered what weird anomaly let his eyes remain clear as Amarillo's cold blue sky.
"Get me out of here, Little Brother."
Trembling bodies lay sprawled on the floor, blocking our path to the door. I stepped over, through and between them, hauling Jim to the front door, the bank's alarm still screaming and distant sirens blaring. Chill wind hit us in the face when we stepped outside.
Teddy and Darla waited in Jim's Galaxie. Teddy saw us first, slamming the car into reverse and burning rubber all the way up the street till he reached us. I heard a crow cawing, somewhere above us. For a moment, I thought we was back home in Kansas.
"Jim's shot. Help us."
The front door opened and Darla bolted out, rushing toward us like an excited chicken. She wrenched the moneybag off Jim's shoulder, the car door slamming behind her. Old tires screamed as they burned rubber around the corner and disappeared.
Jim's voice was weak when he said, "Bastard! Get me out of here. I swear I ain't doing no more hard time."
A crowd had gathered on the sidewalk and scurried out of our way. Then it appeared before us: a cross topping a church steeple. I dragged Jim through the gates.
"Inside," I said. "The priest will give us asylum."
"Dumb shit," Jim said. "We're bank robbers. Ain't no asylum for us."
I pulled him through the door, my right leg numb from the knee down. My head felt as if I’d taken two dozen fast circuits on a broken tilt-a-whirl. We made it to the third pew before I collapsed.
"They're coming," I said.
Jim's laugh surprised me. I had to lean closer to hear what he was trying to tell me.
"Last night I dreamed about that picture show again; the one where the kid shot the old gunfighter."
Blood soaked my jeans. I was about to throw up, but Jim's throaty voice swam inside my head. I could only nod.
"The gunfighter just lay there in the dirt," he said. "Half dead, but staring at me as if I was a cockroach he wanted to stomp."
"Just stay quiet. The priest will get you a doctor. You'll be okay."
Ignoring me, he said, "It was me, the dirty bastard who shot the gunfighter in the back." He laughed and coughed up blood that foamed down his chin and neck. "This morning when I woke up, I could still feel the noose around my neck."
Jim massaged his neck as more blood gurgled from his lips and a cold glaze crept over his blue eyes.
"Hang on. They're coming for us now."
"I'm gut shot. Maybe I'll see you back in Kansas. Gotta go now. Daddy's coming. Take care of him for me, Little Brother."
Jim’s body went slack in my arms as heavy oak doors swung open. I gazed up at angry men pointing their guns at me. Behind them, hazy clouds dulled the pink winter sky as a chill breeze gusted down the aisle. It whistled like Daddy's belt buckle. Hard and cold as it flailed long red whelps across my back.