Travis shoved the tails of his wrinkled shirt back into his jeans. Buttoned up the fly, looped the leather belt, then peered down at Ben with a strained expression on his bruised face, as though he suffered from physical pain rather than the satiation he should have been experiencing. His eyes were sharp, his breath short and raspy. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Ben’s big reveal regarding his phone call to Marty had been poorly timed. In hindsight, he should have waited for the post-fellatio euphoria to settle down before mentioning his conversation with the hotshot lawyer. Enthusiasm about his heroic deed had gotten the better of him, and now the one person in the world he didn’t want to aggravate stood before him, aggravated. Fucking great.
A trail of leftover spittle adorned his chin. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and shifted his position on the creaky porch swing. Ceiling chains rattled, and the binder of screenplay which he’d hastily deposited beside him slid off to the cement floor below. Hundreds of papers spilled out as the metal rings popped open upon impact. Ben hissed and hopped down to scoop them all back up. Travis joined him but grimaced while getting down on his haunches.
“Don’t be annoyed that I called Marty,” Ben said while pushing pages of Treading Water together. “I’m trying to get Eric off your back. Statutory rape is serious shit. If you threaten to expose what he did to Katy, and Katy’s willing to testify, he’ll likely drop the charges against you. Marty can help with that.”
A mere three minutes ago, he’d had the guy’s dick down his throat. Now, they were at odds. Again. A repeating pattern that seemed to be a byproduct of their complicated connection – or maybe the cause of it. “Look, I called Marty to discuss options and get his advice.” Ben felt committed now to explain his actions and prove his good intentions. “He’s brilliant at what he does. I want you to have the best representation you can get. Don’t you wanna bring some justice to Katy with this mess while you’re at it?”
Travis handed over the papers he’d gathered. Gingerly, he stood up and fought back a wince. Clearing something from his throat, he went to the screen door, cracked it open a fraction, and hawked the ball of mucous into the air like dip spit. “I appreciate your concern, babe,” he said. “And I’m glad you’re here. But this isn’t your deal, never was. Katy wouldn’t testify against that asshole if we paid her, you know that, and I wouldn’t ask her to, anyway. So, call off your lawyer and his bloodhounds, okay? I’ll handle it.” He settled the Stetson atop his head, pushed the door open wide, and stepped out into the fading daylight beyond.
Clearly, Travis considered the discussion over. Ben, however, did not. Chains rattled once more as he deposited the binder and papers into a pile on the swing, not giving a damn about the order of things. Swiftly, he followed Travis out across the yard, traipsing through puddles of snowmelt and mud. Within a few yards, he caught up with him. Landed a tight grip on his elbow. “Eric needs to see this kind of shit can’t go on, Travis. You know he’s hurting people. He’ll keep on doing it until somebody stops him.”
Travis snorted and pulled free from Ben’s grip. There was a hint of humor in his eyes, but the smirk was overshadowed by a darker, sinister force. “Why are you acting all high-n-mighty with me now? If you hadn’t held me back yesterday, I would’ve fucking stopped him, Benny. Right there on the fucking pavement. Did you ever consider that?”
A steady trickle of water which drained from the vacant bunkhouse gutter a few feet away permeated the silence that followed. It was as though the ranch had suddenly become abandoned, along with the high winds; not even the whinny of animal or caw of bird or rustle of leaves stirred in the stagnant, dry air. Ben crossed his arms and eyed the guy standing before him. Travis may have suffered from mild anger and aggression and PTSD issues, but, inherently, he was a good person – not a goddamn killer. This sudden declaration of lost opportunity to commit murder was ridiculous. “Give me a break. You know you wouldn’t have done… that...”
“No?” Travis released another cough. Chucked the wad of sputum to the ground.
Ben followed the trajectory of spit with his eyes and frowned at the crimson color he saw soaking into the brown grass. “Jesus, Coop, you’re coughing up blood…”
Despite his dark bruises, Travis’ face and mouth were unusually pale. In typical fashion, he ignored Ben’s observation and continued along the path of his original thought. “Ever had three guys on you at once?” he asked. It was a rhetorical question. Ben wasn’t expected to answer it, and that was just as well, because he wouldn’t have been able to respond with any semblance of empathy.
“I’m not gonna talk about Boston again,” he continued between staccato breaths. “Not to the police, not to your attorney, not to anyone ever again. Got it? I shouldn’t have even said anything to you. What happened in that basement stays in that basement, where it belongs. I brought justice to Katy by telling her my truth and then kicking the shit out of Eric. I’m not about to go beg him to drop the charges… Fuck that… This is where it ends.”
“But it won’t end. You’ll still have to go on trial. You’ll still have to defend yourself in front of a jury. Everyone will know the truth, anyway, whether you like or not, so why the hell risk it? You could go to prison, Travis. You could lose the ranch. Just think for a minute. Okay? Consider the reality of all this.”
Travis’ indignant expression contorted slightly. Ben figured he was formulating his retort and waited for the verbal slashing to commence, but instead of speaking, Travis rocked back and forth on his heels as though struggling with equilibrium. Several times, he opened and closed his mouth, like a fish out of water gasping from the painful shock of air. A garbled moan escaped his pale lips. Then, he coughed again, spit again, and pitched forward.
Instinctively, Ben jumped to catch him. Hooked his hands up under his armpits and held him close to keep him upright. “Shit, Coop, what the…?”
“I’m okay… I’m okay,” Travis insisted. But his labored breathing had turned into muculent wheezes. It sounded to Ben as though his lungs were full of liquid, as though he’d drowned and inhaled sea water and was now fighting for oxygen. Carefully, he released Travis into the grass. Got down on his knees and dug through his own pockets to locate his Blackberry while frantically searching the archives of his mind for instructions on how to administer CPR, should it be necessary. Fuck, I learned that when I was 15… Is it 20 or 30 compressions before two breaths…?
Travis’ lips were a disturbing shade of blue. Although he was still breathing, it was obvious that his lungs weren’t getting enough oxygen. Despite this alarming condition, he managed to sit up in a cross-legged position where his breathing pattern was less agitated. Still, another coughing spasm caught him, and he moaned. “Shit, I think something’s wrong…”
“Ya think?” Ben jumped up to his feet. Looked around the deserted ranch and wondered where the hell everyone was. Even Katy would have been a welcoming sight then. “Hey!” he yelled into the quiet air. “Hey! We need help here!” Not even a cricket responded. He sank down on his haunches in front of Travis and touched his shoulder. “Give me your keys, I’ll bring the truck over. We need to get you to a hospital or something…”
Travis fumbled inside his jeans pockets. Pulled out a few items and dumped them into the grass before finally producing his key fob. This he placed into Ben’s open palm with unsteady fingers. “Help me up… I can walk.”
“No. Stay here.”
“I can walk, dammit.”
Despite its gravel base, the path up to the house was wet and muddy from successive days of snowmelt. Ben experienced some difficulty as he made his way toward the parked Dodge – which, in his frantic mind, seemed to recede with each step he took instead of getting closer. How the hell…? The mire beneath his boots felt like quicksand trying to hold him back from accomplishing his task. The heavy dose of adrenaline pumping through his veins prohibited him from noticing Mrs. Cooper calling out to him until he bumped into the woman at the bottom of the front porch steps.
Surprised, he stepped back from her. “Travis, doctor,” were the only words he managed to articulate, feeling himself as breathless as the man he’d just left in the grass.
Elaine retrieved the fob from Ben’s hand and climbed up into the front seat of the pickup. Not waiting for Ben to join her, she started the engine, reversed a few feet, and headed straight down the incline to where her son sat in the grass. Ben quickly followed. Slipped only once while racing after her, falling and scraping the palms of his hands against the gravel. With a brief swipe of mud on thighs, he continued forth and was at Mrs. Cooper’s side the moment she descended from the cab.
“Hey, Ma,” Travis sputtered when he saw her. His breath came out in short, rapid successions that sounded murky and strained.
Gingerly, she touched his curly hair. “Not feeling so good, huh?” Her voice was soft and maternal, defying the fear and alarm on her slender face. She managed to keep her emotions in check as she helped Ben hoist Travis to his feet and lead him to the idling truck.
It took some careful maneuvering to plant the ailing patient up into the passenger seat. As Ben leaned in to fasten the seatbelt across his torso, he noticed immense heat emanating from his body. Elevated fever. Travis cursed at the discomfort of being buckled in. “My hat,” he moaned, holding the seatbelt off his chest, indicating he had pain there. “Get my hat…”
Although Ben didn’t give a rat’s ass about the hat, he obliged and retrieved the Stetson from the ground, along with the few items Travis had discarded from his pockets. All of these he tossed onto the front seat, then noticed that Elaine was already back behind the wheel, punching the truck into drive. Convinced that she wouldn’t hesitate to take off without him again, he slammed the passenger-side door shut and swooped himself into the backseat like a gymnast on a pommel horse.
The g-force from Mrs. Cooper’s takeoff toward the driveway knocked him backwards, and he fell against the bench like a ragdoll. Grabbing onto Travis’ headrest to hoist himself back up, he said, “Where’s the nearest hospital?”
Travis coughed a small splatter of blood out onto his shirt sleeve. Replied with a wheeze, “Salida…”
* * * *
Twenty-five fucking miles across a two-lane stretch of highway. In Ben’s impatient, irritated mind, the distance felt more like fifty miles, despite the direct route and the high speed they traveled at. Idyllic scenery whirring past of pinon pine, snow-capped mountain ranges, and open prairie scattered with horses and black Angus at dusk would normally have been appreciated, but Ben’s patience had abandoned him the moment they’d rumbled over the cattle grate and exited the ranch.
To him, the lack of proper medical facilities available in these small towns, and the distance required to reach a simple, goddamn emergency room, were vexing.
Luckily, such factors weren’t so vexing to Elaine Cooper. She heroically maneuvered the large truck with a combination of reckless vigor and dignified composure, effortlessly careening around semi-trailers and slower-moving vehicles which blocked her path, tossing out quiet curses to whomever she felt deserved the admonishment. Ben came to realize that this wasn’t the woman’s first rodeo; she knew how to handle the Dodge, and she knew how to take charge of the situation. His earlier perception of her as a docile homemaker incapable of reining in her children changed dramatically in those twenty-five miles. This woman had already lost a husband… She wasn’t about to lose a son, too.
Throughout the journey, Travis suffered minor coughing spasms, using his shirt sleeve as both a shield and a rag. He kept his discomforts to himself. Seemed more concerned with his mother’s erratic driving than with his own medical condition. “Slow down, Ma, take it easy, let’s not all die in a crash before we get there…” His breathing pattern remained stunted, gravelly. He rolled down his window several times to inhale more oxygen and eject more spit, but the fact that he was still talking was a positive sign that his health wasn’t further deteriorating.
Due to Mrs. Cooper’s tenacious driving, they reached the northeastern edge of Salida in record time. Pulled into the designated emergency area of the Heart of the Rockies Medical Center in just under twenty minutes. The front driveway of the ER facility was immaculate and deserted – void of activity, void of personnel, void of anything except for a few potted yucca plants and a Chaffee County EMS vehicle parked at the curb. Had this place not been a Critical Access Hospital, Ben would have assumed it was closed.
Travis unbuckled his seatbelt, pushed his door open, prepared to slide out. Ben had to act quickly and exit first to lend him a hand. Still pallid and breathless, Travis grimaced as he descended from the cab, but his determination to walk to the building was intact, and he shuffled off on his own. He only managed a few feet across the pavement before Ben joined him, brought him in close, hooked an arm across his collarbone to keep him steady. “Stick with me,” he said in a soothing whisper as they made their way to the building in unified steps.
The lobby was small, unostentatious, lined with commercial-grade carpeting and new, yet banal, furnishings. The smell of iodoform and illness was prevalent in the air – that unmistakable sickly scent which seemed ubiquitous to every hospital. Only two other people occupied the room: an elderly man and a middle-aged woman. Neither party paid notice to the newcomers. Their attention was focused on a small TV hanging from the ceiling in one corner, displaying tomorrow’s weather forecast.
Mrs. Cooper was already seated at the registration desk, filling out forms, trying to explain to the clerk why she didn’t have identification with her. “There was no time to grab my purse…”
Overhearing the conversation, Travis pulled out his wallet from his back pocket and tossed it across the desk, disrupting the papers, catching the clerk off-guard. “You’ll find what you need in there,” he said, then slumped down into a nearby chair and coughed into his arm.
Ben remained standing. Felt too anxious and fidgety to relax. His adrenaline had peaked. “Shouldn’t we be getting you into a wheelchair or something?” he said. Christ, maybe he’d starred in one too many tragic films, but none of this seemed like proper emergency room protocol to him. There should have been orderlies laying Travis on a gurney, sticking saline into his arm, sliding oxygen over his face, whisking him away to treatment. Why was it so quiet? Like a goddamn mausoleum – a metaphor he regretted using the moment it entered his mind.
As though responding to his question, a male nurse dressed in dark blue scrubs pushed through the automatic doors which led to the examination rooms. His stature was tall, husky. He looked capable of slinging Travis over his shoulder and carrying him off. Without pomp and circumstance, he rolled a wheelchair over to Travis, set the brake, and said, “Travis? I’m Paul. Let’s get you back.” To Ben, he gave only a perfunctory smile and a nod – a polite gesture to acknowledge his presence and nothing more. Ben accepted that; he had no desire to be the center of attention.
Without comment or complaint, Travis slid from the lobby chair to the wheelchair. His usual attitude of insisting that he could stand on his own two feet had vanquished. As his mother approached and handed him his wallet, he wrapped his fingers around her wrist and said, “Get Carin.”
“Make sure she comes.”
“I will, hon, if she’s on shift.”
The nurse released the brake of the wheelchair, turned it around, and rolled Travis across the carpet. As the automatic doors reopened, Ben caught a glimpse of sage-painted walls, linoleum floors, privacy curtains cordoning-off examination rooms down the hall. Unlike the barrenness of the lobby, there was activity within the trenches of the ER; he could hear the bleeps and chirps of monitoring equipment, see the doctors and orderlies milling about with clipboards and provisions. This view of the inner mechanisms of the hospital abated his anxiety a fraction. Made him less worried that Travis wouldn’t receive proper care.
The touch of Mrs. Cooper’s fingers on his elbow startled him. He glanced down at her and saw sympathy in her green eyes. “I’ll come out and tell you what’s going on as soon as I know something,” she said.
Ben nodded. Of course, he would wait in the lobby. He was of no relation to the Cooper clan and had no business following Travis through that doorway. Yet, this dismissal bothered him. In that moment, his insignificance was magnified, and he felt a slow burn rising in his chest, like heartburn… Or heartache. “Thank you,” he replied to her, mustering a smile.
As she started to walk toward the doors, which had begun to close, Ben called out, “Who’s Carin?”
With a brief turn, she replied, “Curtis’ wife.” Then disappeared inside the emergency room.