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Part One Chapter 4
The greatest ride in my life was about to come up, a truck, with a flat- board at the back, with about six or seven boys sprawled out on it, and the drivers,  two young blond farmers from Minnesota, were picking up every single soul they found on that road--the most smiling, cheer- ful couple of  handsome bumpkins you could ever wish to see, both wearing cotton shirts and overalls, nothing else; both thick-wristed and earnest, with broad howareyou smiles for anybody and anything that came across their path. I ran up, said "Is there room?" They said, "Sure, hop on, 'sroom for everybody."
I wasn't on the flatboard before the truck roared off; I lurched, a rider grabbed me, and I sat down. Somebody passed a bottle of rotgut, the bottom of it. I took a big swig in the wild, lyrical, drizzling air of Nebraska.  "Whooee, here we go!" yelled a kid in a baseball cap, and they gunned up  the truck to seventy and passed everybody on the road. "We been riding this sonofabitch since Des Moines. These guys never stop. Every now and then you have to yell for pisscall, otherwise you have to piss off the air, and hang on, brother, hang on."
I looked at the company. There were two young farmer boys from North Dakota in red baseball caps, which is the standard North Dakota  farmer-boy hat, and they were headed for the harvests; their old men had given them leave to hit the road for a summer. There were two young city boys from Columbus, Ohio, high-school football play- ers, chewing gum, winking, singing in the breeze, and they said they were  hitchhiking  around  the  United  States  for the  summer.  "We're going to LA! "they yelled.
"What are you going to do there?" "Hell, we don't know. Who cares?"
Then  there  was  a  tall  slim  fellow  who  had  a  sneaky  look. "Where you from?" I asked. I was lying next to him on the platform; you  couldn't sit without bouncing off, it had no rails. And he turned slowly to me, opened his mouth, and said, "Mon-ta-na."
Finally there were Mississippi Gene and his charge. Mississippi Gene was a little dark guy who rode freight trains around the country, a  thirty-year-old hobo but with a youthful look so you couldn't tell exactly what age he was. And he sat on the boards crosslegged, look- ing out over the fields without saying anything for hundreds of miles, and finally at one  point he turned to me and said, "Where iyoui headed?"I said Denver.
"I got a sister there but I ain't seed her for several couple years." His language was melodious and slow. He was patient. His charge was a sixteen-year-old tall blond kid, also in hobo rags; that is to say, they wore  old  clothes that had been turned black by the soot of railroads and the dirt of boxcars and sleeping on the ground. The blond kid was also quiet and he seemed to be running away from something, and it figured to be the law the way he looked straight ahead and wet his lips in worried thought. Montana  Slim spoke to them occasionally with a sardonic and insinuating smile.  They  paid no attention to him. Slim was all insinuation. I was afraid of his long goofy grin that he opened up straight in your face and held there half-moronically.
"You got any money?" he said to me.
"Hell no, maybe enough for a pint of whisky till I get to Denver. What about you?"
"I know where I can get some." "Where?"you?"
 "Anywhere. You can always folly a man down an alley, can't
"Yeah, I guess you can."
"I ain't beyond doing it when I really need some dough. Headed up to Montana to see my father. I'll have to get off this rig at Cheyenne and move up some other way. These crazy boys are going to Los Angeles."
"All the way--if you want to go to LA you got a ride."
I mulled this over; the thought of zooming all night across Ne- braska, Wyoming, and the Utah desert in the morning, and then most likely the Nevada desert in the afternoon, and actually arriving in Los Angeles within a foreseeable space of time almost made me change my plans. But I had to go to Denver. I'd have to get off at Cheyenne too, and hitch south ninety miles to Denver.
I was glad when the two Minnesota farmboys who owned the truck decided to stop in North Platte and eat; I wanted to have a look at  them. They came out of the cab and smiled at all of us. "Pisscall!" said one. "Time to eat!" said the other. But they were the only ones in the party who had money to buy food. We all shambled after them to a restaurant run by a bunch of women, and sat around over hamburgers and coffee while they  wrapped away enormous meals just as if they were back in their mother's  kitchen. They were brothers; they were transporting farm machinery from Los Angeles to Minnesota and mak- ing good money at it. So on their trip to the Coast empty they picked up everybody on the road. They'd done this about five times now; they were  having  a  hell  of  a  time.  They  liked  everything.  They  never stopped smiling. I tried to talk to them--a kind of dumb attempt on my part to befriend the captains of our ship--and the only responses I got were two sunny smiles and large white corn-fed teeth.
Everybody had joined them in the restaurant except the two hobo kids, Gene and his boy. When we all got back they were still sitting in the truck, forlorn and disconsolate. Now the darkness was fall- ing. The drivers had a smoke; I jumped at the chance to go buy a bottle of whisky to keep warm in the rushing cold air of night. They smiled when I told them. "Go ahead, hurry up."
"You can have a couple shots!" I reassured them. "Oh no, we never drink, go ahead."
Montana  Slim  and  the  two  high-school  boys  wandered  the streets  of  North  Platte  with  me  till  I  found  a  whisky  store.  They chipped in some, and Slim some, and I bought a fifth. Tall, sullen men watched us go by from false-front buildings; the main street was lined with  square  box-houses.  There  were  immense  vistas  of  the  plains beyond every sad street. I felt something different in the air in North Platte, I didn't know what it was. In five minutes I did. We got back on the truck and roared  off. It got dark quickly. We all had a shot, and suddenly I looked, and the  verdant farmfields of the Platte began to disappear and in their stead, so  far  you couldn't see to the end, ap- peared long flat wastelands of sand and sagebrush. I was astounded.
"What in the hell is this?" I cried out to Slim.
"This is the beginning of the rangelands, boy. Hand me another drink."
 "Whoopee!" yelled the high-school boys. "Columbus, so long!
 What would Sparkie and the boys say if they was here. Yow!"
The drivers had switched up front; the fresh brother was gun- ning the truck to the limit. The road changed too: humpy in the mid- dle, with soft shoulders and a ditch on both sides about four feet deep, so that the truck bounced and teetered from one side of the road to the other--miraculously only when there were no cars coming the opposite way--and I thought we'd all take a somersault. But they were tremend- ous drivers. How that truck  disposed of the Nebraska nub--the nub that sticks out over Colorado! And soon I realized I was actually at last over Colorado, though not officially in  it,  but looking southwest to- ward Denver itself a few hundred miles  away.  I yelled for joy. We passed the bottle. The great blazing stars came out, the far-receding sand hills got dim. I felt like an arrow that could shoot out all the way.
And suddenly Mississippi Gene turned to me from his cros- slegged, patient reverie, and opened his mouth, and leaned close, and said, "These plains put me in the mind of Texas."
"Are you from Texas?"
"No sir, I'm from Green-veil Muzz-sippy." And that was the way he said it.
"Where's that kid from?"
"He got into some kind of trouble back in Mississippi, so I of- fered to help him out. Boy's never been out on his own. I take care of him best as  I  can, he's only a child." Although Gene was white there was something of the wise and tired old Negro in him, and something very much like Elmer Hassel, the New York dope addict, in him, but a railroad Hassel, a traveling  epic Hassel, crossing and recrossing the country every year, south in the winter and north in the summer, and only because he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars, generally the Western stars.
"I been to Ogden a couple times. If you want to ride on to Ogden I got some friends there we could hole up with." "I'm going to Denver from Cheyenne."
"Hell, go right straight thu, you don't get a ride like this every day."
 This too was a tempting offer. What was in Ogden? "What's  Ogden?" I said.
"It's the place where most of the boys pass thu and always meet there; you're liable to see anybody there."
In my earlier days I'd been to sea with a tall rawboned fellow from Louisiana called Big Slim Hazard, William Holmes Hazard, who was hobo by choice. As a little boy he'd seen a hobo come up to ask his mother for a piece of pie, and she had given it to him, and when the hobo went off down the road the little boy had said, "Ma, what is that fellow?" "Why, that's a ho-bo." "Ma, I want to be a ho-bo someday." "Shut your mouth, that's not for the like of the Hazards." But he never forgot that day, and when he grew up, after a short spell playing foot- ball at LSU, he did become a hobo. Big Slim and I spent many nights telling stories and spitting tobacco juice in paper containers. There was something so indubitably reminiscent of Big Slim Hazard in Mississip- pi Gene's demeanor that I said, "Do you happen to have met a fellow called Big Slim Hazard somewhere?"
And he said, "You mean the tall fellow with the big laugh?"
"Well, that sounds like him. He came from Ruston, Louisiana." "That's  right. Louisiana Slim he's sometimes called. Yes-sir, I shore have met Big Slim."
"And he used to work in the East Texas oil fields?" "East Texas is right. And now he's punching cows."
And that was exactly right; and still I couldn't believe Gene could have really known Slim, whom I'd been looking for, more or less, for years. "And he used to work in tugboats in New York?"
"Well now, I don't know about that."
"I guess you only knew him in the West." "I reckon. I ain't never been to New York."
"Well, damn me, I'm amazed you know him. This is a big country. Yet I knew you must have known him."
"Yessir, I know Big Slim pretty well. Always generous with his money when he's got some. Mean, tough fellow, too; I seen him flatten a policeman in the yards at Cheyenne, one punch." That sounded like Big Slim; he was always practicing that one punch in the air; he looked like Jack Dempsey, but a young Jack Dempsey who drank.
"Damn!" I yelled into the wind, and I had another shot, and by now  I  was feeling pretty good. Every shot was wiped away by the rushing wind of the open truck, wiped away of its bad effects, and the good effect sank  in  my  stomach.  "Cheyenne,  here I  come!"  I  sang. "Denver, look out for your boy."
Montana Slim turned to me, pointed at my shoes, and com- mented, "You reckon if you put them things in the ground something'll grow  up?"--without cracking a smile, of course, and the other boys heard him and laughed. And they were the silliest shoes in America; I brought them along specifically because I didn't want my feet to sweat in the hot road, and except for the rain in Bear Mountain they proved to be the best possible shoes for my journey. So I laughed with them. And the shoes were pretty ragged by now, the bits of colored leather sticking  up  like  pieces  of  a  fresh  pineapple  and  my  toes  showing through. Well, we had another shot  and laughed. As in a dream we zoomed through small crossroads towns  smack out of the darkness, and passed long lines of lounging harvest hands and cowboys in the night. They watched us pass in one motion of the head,  and we saw them slap their thighs from the continuing dark the other side of town--we were a funny-looking crew.
A lot of men were in this country at that time of the year; it was harvest time. The Dakota boys were fidgeting. "I think we'll get off at the next pisscall; seems like there's a lot of work around here."
"All you got to do is move north when it's over here," counseled Montana Slim, "and jes follow the harvest till you get to Canada." The boys nodded vaguely; they didn't take much stock in his advice.
Meanwhile the blond young fugitive sat the same way; every now and then Gene leaned out of his Buddhistic trance over the rush- ing dark plains and said something tenderly in the boy's ear. The boy nodded.  Gene was taking care of him, of his moods and his fears. I wondered  where  the hell they would go and what they would do. They had no cigarettes. I squandered my pack on them, I loved them so. They were grateful and gracious. They never asked, I kept offering. Montana Slim had  his own but never passed the pack. We zoomed through another crossroads town, passed another line of tall lanky men in jeans clustered in the dim light like moths on the desert, and re- turned to the tremendous darkness, and the stars overhead were pure and bright because of the increasingly thin air as we mounted the high hill of the western plateau, about a foot a mile, so they say, and no trees obstructing any low-leveled stars anywhere. And once I saw a moody whitefaced cow in the sage by the road as we flitted by. It was like rid- ing a railroad train, just as steady and just as straight.
By and by we came to a town, slowed down, and Montana Slim said, "Ah, pisscall," but the Minnesotans didn't stop and went right on through. "Damn, I gotta go," said Slim.
"Go over the side," said somebody.
"Well, I iwilli" he said, and slowly, as we all watched, he in- ched to the back of the platform on his haunch, holding on as best he could, till his legs dangled over. Somebody knocked on the window of the cab to bring this to the attention of the brothers. Their great smiles broke as they turned.  And just as Slim was ready to proceed, preca- rious as it was already, they  began zigzagging the truck at seventy miles an hour. He fell back a moment; we saw a whale's spout in the air;  he  struggled  back  to  a  sitting  position.  They  swung  the  truck. Wham, over he went on his side, watering all over himself. In the roar we could hear him faintly cursing, like the whine of a man far across the hills. "Damn ... damn ... " He never knew we were doing this deli- berately; he just struggled, as grim as Job. When he  was finished, as such, he was wringing wet, and now he had to edge and shimmy his way back, and with a most woebegone look, and everybody laughing, except the sad blond boy, and the Minnesotans roaring in the  cab.  I handed him the bottle to make up for it.
"What the hail," he said, "was they doing that on purpose?"
"They sure were."
"Well, damn me, I didn't know that. I know I tried it back in Nebraska and didn't have half so much trouble."
 We came suddenly into the town of Ogallala, and here the fel- lows in the cab called out, "iPisscalli!" and with great good delight. Slim stood sullenly by the truck, ruing a lost opportunity. The two Da- kota boys said good-by to everybody and figured they'd start harvest- ing here. We watched them disappear in the night toward the shacks at the end of town where  lights  were burning, where a watcher of the night in jeans said the employment men would be. I had to buy more cigarettes. Gene and the blond boy followed me to stretch their legs. I walked into the least likely place in the world, a kind of lonely Plains soda fountain for the local teenage girls and boys. They were dancing, a few of them, to the music on the jukebox. There was a lull when we came in. Gene and Blondey just stood there, looking at nobody; all they wanted was cigarettes. There were some pretty girls, too. And one of them made eyes at Blondey and he never saw  it, and if he had he wouldn't have cared, he was so sad and gone.
I bought a pack each for them; they thanked me. The truck was ready to go. It was getting on midnight now, and cold. Gene, who'd been around the country more times than he could count on his fingers and toes, said the best thing to do now was for all of us to bundle up under the big  tarpaulin or we'd freeze. In this manner, and with the rest of the bottle, we  kept warm as the air grew ice-cold and pinged our ears. The stars seemed  to get brighter the more we climbed the High Plains. We were in  Wyoming now. Flat on my back, I stared straight up at the magnificent  firmament, glorying in the time I was making, in how far I had come from sad Bear Mountain after all, and tingling with kicks at the thought of what lay ahead of me in Denver-- whatever, whatever it would be. And Mississippi Gene began to sing a song. He sang it in a melodious, quiet voice, with a river accent, and it was simple, just "I got a purty little girl, she's sweet six-teen, she's the purti-est thing you ever seen," repeating it with other lines thrown in, all concerning how far he'd been and how he wished he could go back to her but he done lost her.
 I said, "Gene, that's the prettiest song."
"It's the sweetest I know," he said with a smile.
"I hope you get where you're going, and be happy when you  "I always make out and move along one way or the other.", Montana Slim was asleep. He woke up and said to me,' "Hey, Blackie, how about you and me investigatin' Cheyenne together to- night before you go to Denver?"
"Sure thing." I was drunk enough to go for anything.
As the truck reached the outskirts of Cheyenne, we saw the high red lights of the local radio station, and suddenly we were buck- ing through a great crowd of people that poured along both sidewalks. "Hell's bells, it's Wild West Week," said Slim. Big crowds of business- men, fat businessmen  in boots and ten-gallon hats, with their hefty wives in cowgirl attire,  bustled and whoopeed on the wooden side- walks of old Cheyenne; farther down were the long stringy boulevard lights of new downtown Cheyenne,  but the celebration was focusing on Oldtown. Blank guns went off. The  saloons were crowded to the sidewalk. I was amazed, and at the same time I felt it was ridiculous: in my first shot at the West I was seeing to what absurd  devices it had fallen to keep its proud tradition. We had to jump off the truck and say good-by; the Minnesotans weren't interested in hanging around. It was sad to see them go, and I realized that I would never see any of them again, but  that's  the  way it was.  "You'll freeze  your ass  tonight,"  I warned. "Then you'll burn 'em in the desert tomorrow afternoon."
"That's all right with me long's as we get out of this cold night,"
said Gene. And the truck left, threading its way through the crowds, and nobody paying attention to the strangeness of the kids inside the tarpaulin, staring at the town like babes from a coverlet. I watched it disappear into the night.

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