Twin Wells

Chapter One: “A Stranger Comes to Town”
Illustration by Mark Summers

If the old car had been a horse with a broken leg, he would have shot it. It clanked and clattered as if its guts were falling out onto the highway. He pulled off to the side and cut the ignition. Clay Baldwin knew the symptoms. It had blown a rod. It wasn’t going any farther except under tow. A sign a mile or so back had said it was ten miles to the next town.

Grumbling to himself, he lifted the hood and looked at the motor, though he knew he could not do a damned thing to fix it. He left the hood up as a signal of distress and sat back down behind the wheel, waiting for some kind soul to stop. He had not encountered much traffic. He resigned himself to a long wait.

Baldwin mentally calculated how much this might cost him and how much was left in his wallet from that oil-patch job at Odessa. After his last alimony payment he still had a few traveler’s checks and a credit card he could float a while to stall his creditors.

A sheriff’s department automobile slowed, made a U-turn in the highway, and drove up behind him. Baldwin thought, Oh, hell!, and wondered what infraction he was guilty of this time. He braced himself. It had long seemed to him that cops were eternally hunting for an excuse to roust a workingman.

Getting out of the car, the officer unfastened the snap that secured his pistol. He had the look of a young rookie trying to cover his insecurities with an exaggerated show of authority. In his Army days, Baldwin had seen the same look in shavetail second lieutenants.

He read the words “deputy sheriff” on the man’s shiny badge. “Trouble?” the deputy asked, though there was no other reason Baldwin would be stopped here with the hood up.

Rod,” Baldwin said. “They got a garage in the next town?”

Yes.” The deputy eyed the car suspiciously. “This wreck looks old enough to vote. You sure you’ve got the money to pay for fixin’ it?”

Baldwin took out his wallet and showed a quick flash of green without allowing the officer time to rough-count it.

The deputy nodded. “I’ll give you a lift to town. They’ll send out a tow truck.”

I’m obliged.” Baldwin locked his car and climbed into the other vehicle. He felt uneasy about sitting so close to a cop, no matter what kind. He had a feeling cops could read a man’s mind and sense not only his past sins but any future ones he might be contemplating. It was a foolish notion, and he chided himself for it. His conscience was clear. Well, not entirely, but time and distance had eased the weight of it.

Driving, the deputy kept glancing sideways at him. He probably did not like the scar on Baldwin’s left cheek. But that had come innocently from a mishap on a rotary rig, not from a fight.

Trying to remember if he’s seen my description, Baldwin thought.

The officer asked, “You got kin around here?”

No, just prospectin’ for a job.”

What do you do?”

About anything. Cowboyed a little, carpentered a little. Mainly I’ve roughnecked in the oil fields.” He started to explain the scar but stubbornly decided, Let him guess.

The officer said, “You won’t find anything around here, I’m afraid. Most of the fields are into water-floodin’. That comes just before the benediction and the burial. As for ranches, they’re runnin’ on the rim too. Nobody’s puttin’ up any new buildings. They’ve got too many vacant ones now.”

There’s a lot of that goin’ around,” Baldwin said, grimacing. “Jobs ain’t easy to come by.”

So you’ll be travelin’ on as soon as you’ve got your car fixed?” The deputy sounded hopeful.

I don’t see much choice.” Baldwin wondered how long the wait would be. Nothing was worse than to be stuck in a strange town without anything to do. “They got any beer joints here?”

A couple.” The deputy frowned. “My boss is a tough sheriff. Anybody drunk and rowdy gets a quick ride to the jailhouse. His idea of dinner for prisoners is a slice of bologna and a piece of light bread. You wouldn’t like it there.”

It appeared he had already made Baldwin out to

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