Sugarfoot

I have always loved and had a connection with the part of our country where this story takes place. It was fun to back and visit for a while in my mind and memory. By the way, I gave the young highway patrolman in the story the same name as the patrolman who gave me a speeding ticket out there in 1993. He was a nice guy. I think he’d get a kick out of it.

Colby Stackhouse crested the top of the hill and knew right away he was in trouble. The cop car was pointed right at him fifty yards away on the other side of the interstate. Colby was doing ninety-five miles an hour as he flew past. But that didn’t mean a thing. The cop hit the flashers, pulled a u-turn, bumped across the grassy median and came after him, tires burning rubber. Colby had about one second to decide if he was going to make a run for it or not. He decided to go for it.

Colby Stackhouse had been in and out of trouble ever since he was eleven when he and his best friend Wade Coggs took Wade’s dad’s old pickup for a spin north of town out County Road 22 to go swimming at the bend in Grass Creek where the local swimming hole was. Wade’s dad wasn’t happy at all, whipping the boy with a belt when he got him outside the police station a few hours later. Colby had taken off running for all he was worth only to get the same kind of beating two hours later when his old man pulled him out from under the roots of a dead cottonwood tree in a sandy gully a half mile from their house, laughing and taunting his son. “You’ll never get away from me, you little jerk.” Colby wore the bruises for over a week.

The local sheriff wasn’t happy either, since it was he, Gabe McDonald, who, following up on a tip, had to go to the swimming hole and get the boys and bring them back to town to face the consequences. “You guys are in a mess of trouble,” was all he could say, shaking his head, until he added, “What’s the matter with you two anyway? Are you nuts or crazy or both?”

They were probably both. For the next four years they were considered nothing but trouble-makers by everyone in and around the cattle ranching town of Rawlings, located on grassland plains of western North Dakota. Petty theft, shoplifting, vandalizing abandoned property, you name it, they did it. The older they got, though, and the more trouble they got into, the more their reputation grew. They liked being known as bad guys. Their parents couldn’t control them. Beatings didn’t help and as the boys grew older, they, of course, got bigger and stronger, more than able and willing to fight back. Soon, their parents just gave up on them.

Everyone in law enforcement in Cheyenne county knew about them, that was for sure. “Friggin’ juvenile delinquents,” was the most gracious term they used only to be replaced by “Friggin criminals,” by the time the boys got to be sixteen. Colby and Wade enjoyed it. They loved to consider themselves outlaws, guys on the edge of society who lived by their own rules. They shaved their hair, wore black clothing, got tattoos and commanded respect with their belligerent and hostile attitude.  Yeah, they were bad guys all right, but what they didn’t like was spending time in jail, which was starting to happen more and more often. When he was sixteen and drunk out of his mind Colby stole a car and was given ninety days in the county workhouse. When he was eighteen he stole another car, again while he was drunk, and the judge put him in jail for thirteen months. And do you think Colby got time off for good behavior? Not a chance. By then he was not a person given to playing by the rules at all, even in jail and even if it meant he’d get out a few weeks early. No sir, not him. Not Colby Stackhouse, the terror of Cheyenne county.

In the end it was drugs that did him and Wade in. They started dealing meth when they were in their late teens and soon moved on to making it themselves. They rented a single-wide out on the high flatland plains in the northern part of the county and built up a pretty good business. Good, that was, until one evening their lab blew up injuring Wade and causing a fire storm that could be seen for ten miles around. The police and firefighters showed up, and an ambulance eventually took Wade to the hospital in Dickenson. The cops put Colby in jail in Rawlings.  Two months later he was sentenced to the state prison in Bismarck, where he would spend the next eleven years of his life. The judge told him that now was the time to get his act together and turn his life around. “Yes, sir,” Colby said.  “I’ll do my best, sir.” Trying to sound contrite. The judge, who had watched Colby’s downhill slide for the last ten years could only reply, “See that you do, young man. I’m counting on you.” However, in the judge’s deepest heart of hearts he had zero faith in the ability of this particular repeat offender to do anything to help himself.

Colby didn’t disappoint. He was thirty two when he was released from prison. He was broke and with no prospects, so what was first thing he did? Do you think he learned anything during his time spent behind bars? Did he contemplate his loss of freedom? Did he turn over the preverbal ‘new leaf’ the judge had asked him to? After all, he had eleven years to think about changing his life. Nope. None of those things. Instead, he did the only thing he was good at. He stole a car from a guy in a neighborhood near the prison. And while he was at it, robbed the owner, tied him up and left him in the garage with the door closed. He was racing west on Interstate 94 heading for Montana where he heard Wade was living when he was sighted by the highway patrol near the North Dakota/Montana boarder. Statewide law enforcement had been looking for Colby all morning since the car owner’s wife had come home and found her husband trussed up and screaming for help. Now they almost had him.

Young Farley Shiffler, a three year officer with the North Dakota Highway Patrol, was just settling in on Colby’s tail and was about to radio headquarters when his rear tire blew and he had to pull over to the side of the interstate, watching Colby and the stolen black Honda Accord disappear over the next rise. “Geez it, man,” he said under his breath which was about as close to swearing as Farley ever got. He was mad as a bucket of rattlesnakes and, again, nearly cursed his bad luck, “Shoot,” he muttered, slamming his fist on the steering wheel of his squad car. Embarrassed, he called in and reported to his superior, Captain Shane Hutchinson. “Captain, we’ve got a problem,” he said when Hutchinson came on the radio. And Farley filled him in on what had taken place. Farley’s superior didn’t hold back in dressing down his young highway patrolman, liberally using words that made Farley’s ears turn red. When he was done and starting to calm down Hutchinson told Farley to get the tire fixed and he’d send Steven Lightfoot out to met him at the next exit. “We’ve got to find this guy,” Hutchinson said. “He’s a freaky SOB.” Farley signed off, fixed his tire and drove two miles west the Beach Springs Wayside Rest, where he met up with his fellow officer, Steven Lightfoot, a veteran of twenty one years with the highway  patrol.

Lightfoot walked over when the squad car pulled up. “Hey there, Farley,” Lightfoot said with a tight smile. “Rough day, huh?” It was just after nine in the morning.

“You can say that again.” Farley got out of his car and filled Lightfoot in on what had happened.

When he was done, all Lightfoot said was, “Hey, don’t beat yourself up over it, man. It could happen to anyone.”

Farley liked Lightfoot a lot. A three-quarter blood Cree whose ancestors were from Alberta, Lightfoot had taken a liking to Farley from day one on the force, taking time to show him how to be a good, conscientious patrolman. Farley was a quiet but attentive student, which probably helped. Lightfoot was a man a few words, and he and Farley could spend hours together with only a minimum of conversation between them. Farley told his wife, Emma, once that he figured if he talked too much, Lightfoot would probably just ignore him. Emma laughed and said, “Well, just shut up, then. Watch and listen and learn.” Which is what Farley did.

He was running the options of what they should do next through his mind when Lightfoot said, “I told Hutchinson we should probably call in Benson. You know how he gets. Huffing and puffing. He finally agreed. The guy is such a cheap mother, but if we can catch this Colby, it’ll make him look good.”

“Is he bringing Sugarfoot?”

“Yeah.” Lightfoot checked his watch. “Should be here in half an hour.” He paused and looked around. Let’s go sit over there in the shade.”

Farley and Lightfoot went over to a picnic table set up by a pair of beat up trashcans. The shade was provided by a covered wooden structure that was bare wood, the paint having been sand blasted off by the constant North Dakota winds.

“You know that wayside rest on the border?” Lightfoot asked, cupping a hand rolled cigarette and lighting it with a stick match, “McKenzie Unit?”

Farley nodded,”Yeah.”

“There was a patrol car there. Larry Winston. He never saw our guy Colby.” Lightfoot looked to the west, smoking. “It’s twelve miles to the border. Our guy probably turned off somewhere between here and there.”

“I go get my map.” Farley jogged to the car, grabbed his county map and came back, spreading it on the picnic table and holding it down as best he could, silently cursing. Flippin’ wind.

Lightfoot picked up a few rocks to weigh down the map and contemplated it for a moment. “Look, here’s where we are, and here’s when Wilson is.” Farley peered over Lightfoot’s shoulder. The county map showed the area in great detail. “There’s only a couple of roads our guy could have turned off on.” Lightfoot pointed and Farley looked closely. “Two to the north and one to the south.” He looked some more, thinking. “North goes up to the Badlands, south goes out onto the prairies. All three of those roads eventually peter out.” He paused again, and snubbed out his cigarette, crushing it under his boot heel. “No matter which direction he went, that’s rough country out there. It’s a good thing Benson and Sugarfoot will be with us.”

Just then a battered pickup pulled into the parking area, dust billowing up around it. It came to a stop near where the squad cars were parked. The driver’s door opened and out stepped Benson Beaudein, who tipped his sweat stained cowboy hat and said, “Hey cousin, looks like you need some help.” He smiled, his long dark hair blowing around his face. “You figured out a plan yet, or do you want me to do it for you.”

Lightfoot laughed. “Good to see you, too. Come over here and sit down. Bring Sugarfoot. I haven’t seen that old boy in a while.”

Sugarfoot was a dark, tawny colored bloodhound, named for the white ‘foot’ on the paw of his back left leg. He had helped out in searches before and was considered better than any human being when it came to tracking. Earlier that summer he and Benson had been called in on a search and rescue mission up north in the Theodore Roosevelt Badlands. A young couple with their five year old daughter had been camping and when they awoke in the morning the child was missing. The girl’s father had immediately let the park rangers know what had happened and help had been called in. After searching throughout the morning with no results a park ranger suggested they call in Benson and Sugarfoot. When they arrived Sugarfoot was shown the little girl’s favorite doll. Then the bloodhound put his nose to the ground and headed out into the rugged, unforgiving country of the badlands. It took about two hours, but eventually they found her safe and unharmed wedged behind a boulder. Benson gave the little girl her doll and comforted her while getting her to drink some water. Then she told him she’d climbed behind the boulder trying to stay warm during the night and then when she’d awoke in the morning she’d been too scared to move. All the while she told her story she kept a tight hold on her doll. But she also kept hugging Sugarfoot who soaked up the attention, tongue lolling and eyes rolling, panting happily and clearly appreciating the little girl’s attention.  Now a few months later both Lightfoot and Farley knew that with Benson with them Sugarfoot was the key to tracking down Colby .

All three of them went over the map again, Lightfoot and Farley taking occasional moments to scratch Sugarfoot and talk to him. Both the patrolmen had a fond affection for the bloodhound. Benson lived on a small ranch on the north side of Interstate 94, about ten miles from where they were now. It was entirely possible that Colby could be headed in that direction. “But I kind of doubt it,” Benson said, when they talked about it. “That’s bad country out there. Hard to get around unless you know what you’re doing. Which doesn’t sound like our guy.” He wiped a stream of sweat off his face. “Hot today,” he said and looked at the map some more. Like Lightfoot, Benson usually didn’t tend to elaborate too much.

Farley sat quietly, observing the interaction between the two cousins. Benson’s dad was Lightfoot’s mother’s brother. He had French/Canadian blood in him from a relative who was a trapper hundred and fifty years ago trading furs through the Boundary Waters canoe area on the border of Minnesota and Canada. He had on worn jeans, cowboy boots and a blue and white checked snap button shirt. On his left wrist he had on a tooled silver and turquoise bracelet. His sun worn face was lined and his teeth were a brilliant white when he smiled, which wasn’t often. Benson and Lightfoot got along well, Farley could tell. He knew that Benson had a wife, Charlotte, but they didn’t have any children. Benson and Lightfoot were nearly the same age, late forties, and they were both around five feet ten inches tall, with lean, muscular builds. Lightfoot wore his hair short. Other than that, they could be mistaken for twins.

A call came in to Lightfoot’s radio and he ran over to his squad car. He listened for a few minutes, turning serious. He signed off and came back. “Good and bad news, boys. First, the good news. A rancher called in reporting a black Honda heading south down County Road forty four. Said it almost hit one of his longhorns.”

“The Little Missouri Trail?” Farley asked.

“Yep. He’s heading for the river.”

“What’s the bad news?”

“He’s got a gun,” Lightfoot answered, frowning. “The guy he stole it from had his rifle in the trunk. Used it for deer and antelope hunting. A 30-06 with a box of twenty five shells.”

“Dang,” Farley said, to which Lightfoot smiled. He kind of got a kick out of the kid.

Benson was unfazed. He stood up and said, “Well, let’s go get him.” He scratched Sugarfoot behind the ears. “You all ready, boy?”

Sugarfoot looked up at his owner with what looked like love or at least affection in his eyes and Farley could have sworn he saw the dog blink, yes.

Farley went with Lightfoot in his squad car and Benson followed in his pickup with Sugarfoot. County Road forty four, also known as The Little Missouri River Trail was down the interstate about five miles. They were there in four minutes. They turned left and followed the road to the south, speeding by the turn off where the rancher that called in lived. The blacktop pavement eventually gave way to gravel, and then to sand, and then it just ended. They stopped and got out, looking around. The prairie stretched out ahead of them, rolling grassland and sage stretching all the way to the horizon. But it was deceiving because there were also gullies and ridges carved out by the constant, relentless action of the wind and the meager amount of rain that fell in the region. On the horizon to the west and south was Sentinel Butte, at 3,400 feet the highest point of land around. They could also see the meandering outline of cottonwood trees which showed the course of the Little Missouri River. They could see tire tracks heading off in the distance.

Lightfoot wanted to be cautious and get the lay of the land.”Let’s go on foot from here.”

Benson had brought supplies in three day packs containing food and water. They each shouldered one, taking a moment to drink. “We need to keep our fluids up,” Benson said, pouring some water into a bowl for Sugarfoot to drink. The other men nodded. The day was warming fast and the temperature was expected to reach over a hundred degrees later that afternoon.

Then they started off walking in the direction of the tire tracks figuring they were Colby’s. They were. A quarter mile ahead on the other side of a low ridge they saw the Honda, mired in sand at the bottom of a shallow depression in the land. It looked abandoned. They cautiously approached, Lightfoot and Farley with their revolvers drawn, but the car was empty. Lightfoot motioned that it was Ok for Benson to approach.

“Not the best car for out here,” Lightfoot pointed out.

Benson came up with Sugarfoot on his leash and showed him the Honda. The bloodhound sniffed around inside the car and then outside. He put his head up into the wind, sniffing some more. Then, after making a few false moves, he put his nose to the ground and headed west and south, toward the Little Missouri River, pulling Benson along, Lightfoot and Farley following close behind. The three men were all experienced when it came to being out on the plains, Farley less so than Lightfoot and Benson. He had the brief image in his mind of Sherlock Holms. The game is afoot. But he shook his head to get rid of it as he holstered his revolver. He needed to focus. He checked his watch. It read 10:47 am. It had been nearly two hours since he’d last seen Colby. He jogged to catch up to Lightfoot and Benson who were following Sugarfoot across the rolling grassland plains.

The area of North Dakota they were searching was part of the Dakota National Grasslands which comprised over a million acres in the western portion of the state. Within the boundaries were portions of state-owned and privately owned land, much of it leased by cattle ranchers for grazing. Out where they were there were no buildings or indications of any ranches. Wide open spaces was the term that came to Farley’s mind.

After about fifteen minutes of hiking they reached another rise. From there the land rolled downhill for about five miles to the Little Missouri River. Benson took out a pair of binoculars and scanned to the south and west. The rolling grasslands belied the fact that there were gullies, ravines and low ridges throughout the area. Colby could be hiding anywhere.

“If he makes it to the river, it’ll be almost impossible to find him,” Benson said, squinting into the sun. “I don’t see any movement out on the hills.”

“Let’s turn Sugarfoot loose, then,” Lightfoot said.

Benson shook his head in the negative. “I’m going to keep him on the leash. It’ll be safer than all of us running around like a herd of antelope. We’ll just take it slow and easy.” He looked through the binoculars again, thinking, he added, “We’ll get him.”

And with that they started off walking, Benson keeping a firm hand on Sugarfoot, who was staining on the lease and clearly on the trail. Lightfoot and Farley followed behind. Colby was out there somewhere. Farley hoped Benson was right. Hoped they’d get him soon. If they didn’t get him by nightfall…Well, he didn’t want to think about it. Colby had that rifle. It put a whole different spin on things.

Coby was out there, indeed, but unaware of the three men tracking him. When he’d jammed the car into the sand and gotten stuck he’d cursed his luck before getting out, yelling and kicking the front tire until his big toe started hurting. Finally he stopped and took stock of his situation. He had the rifle he’d found in the trunk when he’d made a pit stop in Dickenson. He had half a bag of Doritos and a nearly full quart bottle of coke he’d bought at a Quik Stop outside of Medora. That was about it. The prison had given him the clothes he was now wearing: a pair of running shoes, socks, blue jeans, long sleeve work shirt, white under shirt, jean jacket and a green John Deer baseball hat. While in prison he had bulked up to a muscular two hundred and twenty pounds. He was in pretty good shape. All in all not bad, he thought to himself. He looked to the west and south. God, what desolate country. He saw a line of trees that probably ran along the banks of a river out near the horizon. He rolled up his jean jacket and put it along with the chips, pop and box of rifle shells in the plastic bag from the Quik Stop. He kept six shells out of the box to load the rifle and then hung it over his right shoulder with its strap. All set. He took off toward the river at a slow jog until a few minutes later when he tripped over a partially hidden rock and fell. He ripped a hole in his jeans where his knee came up against the hard ground. Cursing to himself, he got up and collected his things, walking this time. More slowly, making his way out across the grasslands. In less than a quarter of a mile he found a gully and dropped into it. It seemed to slope toward the river in the distance. The going was slower, but he felt Ok about that. He was being safe and keeping out of sight, using the sun to direct him. He’d grown up in this country and knew as much about taking care of himself as the next person. At least that’s what he kept telling himself as the sun rose higher and higher and the day kept getting hotter and hotter.

Sugarfoot found the spot on the ground with Colby’s blood on it. The men gathered around while Benson examined it. Standing up he said, “It looks like our guy was running and fell.” Benson shook his head. “Not the smartest thing to do.”

“I don’t think our guy’s all that sharp,” Lightfoot commented, “Not the brightest bulb in the pack.” looking out over the sloping grasslands, he muttered, “Wonder where he is?”

Benson pulled up on Sugarfoot’s leash and knelt down looking the dog in its eyes. “Let’s go find him, big fella’.” Again, the dog seemed to understand perfectly what Benson was saying. He gave a quiet ‘woof’ and turned in the direction Colby was traveling, nose to the ground. “Let’s go,” Benson said, motioning for Lightfoot and Farley to follow. “He might be moving a little slower now.”

A quarter mile ahead they came to the gully that Colby had dropped into. They stopped and contemplated their next move, Lightfoot and Benson talking with their heads bent together. Farley just listened, keeping his mouth shut and paying attention. He was just fine being the third place guy on this trip. He could learn a lot from Lightfoot and Benson.

They decided that Benson and Sugarfoot would go into the gully to make sure they were on the right trail and that Colby didn’t climb out at some point. Lightfoot and Farley would follow up above along the edge. That way they could watch the land out ahead of them for any movement. Before they started off, though, they took a break and had some more water. Benson suggested they each have a granola bar from their pack. “Got to keep our energy up,” he said, ripping open the wrapper. He also pulled out a Tupperware container with dry dog food and gave Sugarfoot a handful. He gave him some more water, too. The three men sat on their heels, resting, drinking from their water bottles. Farley checked his watch. It was just about noon.

“Getting hotter and hotter,” he commented. Lightfoot and Benson nodded.

“Yeah, it is,” Lightfoot said, then was quiet looking out over the land, adjusting the brim of his hat. Man of few words. After a few minutes, he stood up. “Let’s get going.” He looked at Benson. “You ready?”

“Yep.” He gave Sugarfoot a tug on his lease. The dog stood up, ready to go. “Let’s do it.”

Benson and Sugarfoot dropped into the gully and started down it, Lightfoot and Farley following up above. It was slow going for Benson and his bloodhound. There were piles of rocks scattered along the floor that they had to step over or around. Up where Lightfoot and Farley walked the prairie continued slopping toward the river. The land was dry and mixed with sagebrush and prairie grasses that crunched under their boots. Farley noticed Little Blue Stem and Indian Grass growing among the rock and gravel. There weren’t a lot of areas of prairie left anymore in this part of the country, or anywhere else for that matter, and he was happy to see a few native grasses alive and thriving. It made him feel good, connected to the land.

None of the men complained about being out on the wide open prairie grasslands. In different ways the land was in their blood, in each of their DNA. Lightfoot and Benson tied to it through their native American roots. Farley was tied to it through his ancestors. His great great grandparents were from Germany and had settled in the 1870’s in eastern Nebraska. They were famers and were a part of the wave of immigrants that came to America and helped settle much of the west. Farley’s great grandfather had moved to North Dakota when he was a young man and had become a rancher. So had his son and so had Farley’s dad. Farley had grown up on his dad’s cattle ranch southwest of Bismarck. He and Emma owned forty acres but they didn’t run any cattle. They had a few horses that they kept for pleasure riding. He loved the land, though, and the vast spaces. It gave him a feeling of happiness he found hard to explain. A sense of connection and belonging. He knew that in their own ways Lightfoot and Benson shared that feeling too.

While they walked Farley asked Lightfoot some more about Benson.

“How long has he had Sugarfoot?”

“He got him eight or nine years ago from an animal shelter in Dickenson. Somehow Benson heard they were going to put him down so he went over there, took a liking to him and rescued him.” Lightfoot grinned at Farley. “Benson’s sort of one of those ‘Whisperer’ types you might have heard about.”

“Like that movie?”

“Sort of, but, way more than that.” Lightfoot walked along at a steady pace, watching Benson and Sugarfoot down in the gully. “Benson’s got a real connection with animals. The land, too. Almost spiritual, you might say.”

“Do they ever not find someone their looking for?” Farley asked, amazed at how much Lightfoot was talking.

He grimaced. “Yeah.” He thought for a few moments. Then said, “It’s not pretty. I think they have something like nine finds and four misses. At least that’s the way Benson refers to it as.”

“Finds and misses?” Farley thought he knew what a find was, but a ‘miss’? Didn’t quite get that.

“Usually they find who they’re looking for, you know, like that little girl earlier this year up in the Badlands.” Farley nodded, remembering. “But a few summers ago, they were called in to help out on a search in Glacier.” Farley knew of the park, located in the Rocky Mountains in the northwest corner of Montana. He’d been there once as a kid with his parents. He remembered it as spectacularly beautiful but with many areas that were rugged and forbidding. Some of the mountains reached nearly twelve thousand feet with pockets of snow on them all year long, even in the summer. Treacherous country. “Two hikers had got themselves lost off of the Going to the Sun Highway,” Lightfoot continued.  “An older married couple out celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary. They’d been missing for two days when our team,” he indicated Benson and Sugarfoot, “was called in. They searched for over a day straight before finding them both dead from a fall off a trail and down a steep embankment. Exposure probably helped do them in, too.” Lightfoot turned quiet, then added, “To Benson when he can’t find somebody he thinks of it as a miss. He believes he should have been able to find the person but ended up not being able to. He missed it, his chance or opportunity or whatever,” Lightfoot said and looked over at Farley. “He’s very committed to making all of his searches finds. He and Sugarfoot both. I heard that Sugarfoot was in bad shape for over a week afterward, not eating and moping around. Eventually they both came out of it, but they take it hard, almost personally, this tracking and searching.” Lightfoot kept walking before adding, “They’re different, Benson and Sugarfoot. They’re tied to each other somehow. They both care about who they’re looking for, and they both care about each other, too. A lot.”

“Even about someone like Colby?” Farley asked.

“Yeah, even about someone like him,” Lightfoot said, “To those two it’s all the same. Someone is out there and probably needs help, so that’s what they are trying to do. Help out. Even a nut case like Colby.” Lightfoot looked around as he walked, sweat beading up on his face. “To them, Colby needs help, and that’s what keeps them going. The chance to help.”

Farley wasn’t sure if he got all of it or not, but he was glad that they had Benson and Sugarfoot with them. They’d never be able to track Colby through this land on their own. He walked along with Lightfoot who was back to being his normal quiet self again. Farley had learned at least one main thing, Benson and Sugarfoot were pretty special. Unique. And even if they were a little different, being like they were could turn out to be a huge advantage, especially out here on the plains, where the land usually worked against you.

The next few hours their search party slowly and carefully made their way toward the Little Missouri. “We’ve got to keep a lookout for this guy,” Lightfoot kept saying. “He could be out here, anywhere. I don’t like that he has that 30-06.” Farley nodded in agreement and kept his eyes constantly moving, scanning for any movement ahead of them. But all was quiet. The only things moving were the waves of heat rising off the scorched, baking prairie and the windblown dust, swirling across the land.

The gully eventually came to an end into a dry wash riverbed that followed the natural landscape to the right. Who knew how many centuries it had been there? Sugarfoot wanted to keep following and stay on the trail but Benson had other ideas. They were a few miles from the Little Missouri. He started climbing out helping Sugarfoot scramble up the steep incline.

“Let’s take a breather,” he said, reaching the top. He took his pack off and pulled out some water. Lightfoot and Farley joined him, Sugarfoot resting nearby. Farley checked his watch. It was nearly three in the afternoon. He was thirsty and drank his water thankful that Benson had thought to bring it along for them. All three men where perspiring through their shirts, sweat staining their hats. Sugarfoot drank from the bowl that Benson filled for him. Farley estimated the temperature was over one hundred degrees. He looked out across the land, out toward the river. Wind kicked up loose soil and dust devils danced across the plains. Way in the distance it looked like a golden eagle was soaring. That was the only life he saw. Colby was out there somewhere. Sugarfoot was still on the trail, but to Farley it didn’t seem like they weren’t any closer to finding him.

“Do you think we’ll ever get him?” he asked, trying not to sound discouraged.

Lightfoot nodded, “Yeah, we’ll get him.” He indicated toward Benson. “What do you think?”

“No doubt in my mind,” Benson said, looking with affection at his dog. “This old boy still has a lot of get up and go in him, don’t you, fella’?” He was reaching over to scratch Sugarfoot’s ears when all of a sudden a shot ran out. Instantly they flattened themselves on the ground as best as they could, Benson pulling Sugarfoot up close to him. Farley had his face in the dirt, the sand hot on his cheek. He was shaking with a mixture of fear and excitement. Benson said, “Let’s everyone keep calm.” Probably as much for Farley’s sake as anyone else’s .

After about a minute, Lightfoot raised his head and peered in the direction of the shot. It had come from where they figured Colby was heading. He looked at Benson, “Give me those binoculars.” After scanning the plains for a few minutes he said, “I don’t see anything.”

“What do think that was all about?” Farley asked. “Do you think he was shooting at us?”

“I don’t know.” Lightfoot said, and turned to Benson. “What do you think?”

Benson considered the question for a few seconds. They he shrugged his shoulder and said, “You’ve got me. I have no idea. None at all.” They lay flat on the ground for a few more minutes, Lightfoot scanning the countryside. Finally he declared that the coast was clear. Standing up, he said, “Let’s head down that way,” he pointed to the dry river bed. It ran in the direction where the shot came from. “Find out what the heck’s going on.”

What was going on was that Colby had a run in with a prairie rattlesnake. And he lost.

When the gully he’d been following ended, Colby decided to follow the dry, sandy riverbed as it curved to the right. Over the centuries it had cut a path through the rock and gravel so that the banks were now nearly fifteen feet high. Colby walked along the sandy river bottom feeling safe and hidden from sight. By now he figured that someone would be following him. After all, that cop had tried to chase him back on the interstate. It was only a matter of time before they’d send a search party out looking for him. Colby had no plan. Instead he followed his instincts, and his instincts told him to stay in the river bed, so that’s what he did.

He soon found that it meandered in a serpentine manner following the contour of the land, and heading, Colby guessed, toward the river. The sun baked off the dry sand turning the river bed into an oven. It felt like the temperature was at least a hundred and ten degrees, maybe higher. Colby had long since choked down the last of the chips as well as the hot coke. Not a pleasant meal by any stretch of the imagination but at least it was some nourishment. He thought briefly about being back in prison. It was weird to think that he’d been there only yesterday. At least then he had been well fed and cool in the air-conditioning. Wait a minute. Man, what am I thinking about? He chastised himself, remembering all the times he’d almost gone stir crazy with being locked up. At least out here he had the blue sky overhead and a sense of freedom. He focused his attention on the task at hand and kept moving forward, pushing on through the heat, but the going was slow. The loose sand was hard to walk in. Finally he couldn’t take it any longer. He looked up ahead for a place to rest and saw a clump of bushes clinging to the side of the bank about fifty yards away. He slogged forward heading for the protection of the bushes. In five minutes he was there, collapsing in the shade, nearly delirious from heat exhaustion.

He probably passed out, but whatever happened was nothing compared to what happened next. He awoke to a buzzing, rattling sound. What the hell, he was wondering as he rolled to his left, unfortunately surprising not only himself but a reptile common to that part of the country. A big prairie rattler about three feet long had sought respite from the heat in the same shade as Colby. Startled, he rolled off the snake and as he did so, the rattler coiled and struck him in the fleshly muscle of the back of his left arm. He screamed and rolled down the bank waving his arm making sure the snake was off. It was and had slithered into the bushes for protection. Colby could hear it. The buzzing of its rattles was loud and it was freaking him out. He hated snakes almost beyond reason. That was why he grabbed his rifle, levered a shell into the chamber and fired a shot into the bushes. It was then that the venom of the snake bite hit him. Hit him hard. He collapsed on the sand, the snake still rattling away. Colby’s shot had missed and it was that missed shot that the three men heard back at the end of the gully where the dry wash started.

After Lightfoot had used the binoculars to convince himself that it was safe to proceed they dropped down into the river bed and started following it to the right in the direction of the rifle shot. Sugarfoot was straining on his lease in way that was different from before. It was as if he driven by a sense of urgency.

After a few minutes, Benson pulled him up short. “Something’s wrong,” he said, looking from the bloodhound to the next bend in the riverbed and back again. “He’s not normally like this.” Benson paused, contemplating. “I think something’s weird is going on up there,” he indicated the direction they were heading.

“Weird, as in what way?” Lightfoot asked. He had learned over the years to trust his cousin’s hunches.

“I’m not sure.” Benson crouched down and took Sugarfoot’s head gently in his hands and looked him straight in the eye. “If you could talk, fella’, what would you say?”

Sugarfoot gave a muffled ‘woof’ and in an instant suddenly pulled away out of Benson’s hands and took off at a dead run down the riverbed, trailing his leash, sand flying out behind him.

“Damn,” Benson said, getting to his feet and glancing toward Lightfoot and Farley. “Let’s hit it, men,” he said, starting to run, “That dog is definitely on to something.”

Their pace slowed to a jog and then to a fast walk by the time they made it to the first bend. Running in the sand was impossible, the footing non-existent. They did the best they could, however, sweat streaming down their faces, their shirts soaking wet. Up ahead Sugarfoot had started to cry, a long mournful howl. He kept it up. Benson, panting, said to Lightfoot and Farley, “He only does that when he’s in some sort of distress.”

“Like what?” Lightfoot asked, barley able to breathe. The heat was getting to them all.

“The last time, he was injured. A fight with a damn coyote.”

“He was Ok, though, right?” Farley spoke up, panting and winded.

“Oh, yeah,” Benson said, “But that coyote wasn’t.” His smile was grim. “Could be something like that.”

Farley could tell Benson was worried and that worried him. He looked at Lightfoot who just motioned him onward, like, just drop it. So he did.

The howling didn’t let up, but it did tell them where Sugarfoot was. They were getting closer, and Benson forged ahead. Lightfoot and Farley struggled to keep up only occasionally thinking to look out for Colby. And his rifle.

It turned out that they didn’t have to worry about the fugitive. Benson rounded a curve in the river bed and was the first one to see him, fifty yards ahead, lying in the sand, arms outstretched, baking in the sun. Sugarfoot was by his side, like he was guarding him. “Hurry up,” Benson motioned to Farley and Lightfoot. “I see him. He’s not moving.” Benson saw his bloodhound give Colby a lick on the face. What the hell’s going on, he thought to himself, and ran forward as fast as he could. In less than a minute he was at Colby’s side.

“What’s wrong with him?” Lightfoot asked as he joined his cousin.

Benson was examining the prone body. “I can’t tell. Wait,” he suddenly noticed something near the bushes. A dead snake. Mangled. “Geez, look at that,” he pointed it out to the other two. “A rattler.”

“What the hell?” Lightfoot carefully went over and examined it. “Looks like something really tore into it.” Then he stopped and looked at the dog. “Would Sugarfoot do something like this?”

“Yeah, he would,” Benson said, nodding and looking with affection at the panting dog. “What did you do, boy? You try and save this guy?” Sugarfoot just looked from Benson back to Colby and back to Benson, who smiled, “Yeah, maybe you did. Well let’s see what we can do.” Benson took off his pack. “I’ve got a snake bite kit here,” he said to Lightfoot. “Let’s get some anti-venom in him. See if we can stabilize him.”

While Benson worked on Colby, Lightfoot took Farley aside. “You get to some high ground and call Hutchinson. See if we can get some assistance down here.” Lightfoot placed hand on Farley’s shoulder. “Better hurry. Snake bite’s a tricky thing. Some people handle it better than others.” He looked at Colby. “Poor SOB. Let’s see if we can get him to pull through this.”

Farley nodded, adrenaline starting to kick in. He hurriedly climbed out of the dry wash and was soon gone from sight, jogging as best he could toward high ground.

Benson said, “Let’s see if we can get some water in him.” The two men did all they could to help keep Colby alive, Sugarfoot by their side the whole time, nuzzling the unconscious fugitive, occasionally licking him. Benson cut some brush and used the branches to try and provide some shade. Lightfoot soaked a bandana and bathed Colby’s face with it, trying to cool him off. Benson kept patting his dog. “Take it easy there, boy, we’re doing all we can.” Sugarfoot whined and kept close to the fugitive, now fighting for his life.

When Farley got back, Colby was barely breathing, but holding his own. “They’re sending a helicopter,” Farley panted, out of breath and sliding down the slope into the dry wash. “Can it land in here?”

“No chance,” Lightfoot said. “We’ll have to get him out of here.” He checked his watch. “How long will it take before the ‘chopper arrives.”

“It’s coming from Medora. Shouldn’t take but thirty minutes.”

“Let’s hurry up, then.”

The helicopter was there in twenty five minutes. The men were waiting for it along the rim of the dry wash. They helped load Colby inside. Along with the pilot was a paramedic who would administer additional first aid to Colby on the trip to the nearest hospital a hundred miles away in Dickenson. The helicopter took off leaving behind a cloud of dust that quickly disappeared in the wind. Lightfoot, Farley, Benson and Sugarfoot watched it fade in the distance, until it was just a spec. Then it was gone. Finally, stretching and relieving some of the day’s built up tension, Lightfoot said, “Well, boys, let’s head on out of here.” And that’s what they did, back tracking across the plains, making pretty good time since they knew exactly where they were going, getting to their vehicles about an hour before sunset. As Farley told Emma later that night after he’d showered and was on his third glass of iced tea, it had been one heck of a day.

Colby beat the odds and recovered. After a few days in the hospital he was sent back to jail in Bismarck to await trial for stealing the car. “Benson was impressed that the guy recovered,” Lightfoot told Farley when he’d heard the news. “Not everyone can survive a bite like that.”

Farley nodded his head, thinking back to the chase across the plains, then asked, “How’s Sugarfoot?”

“Fine, I guess. Those two are always happy when they can save someone, even if it’s a career criminal like our pal Colby.”

Farley laughed. “Got some problems, that one, don’t you think?”

“Oh, yeah,” Lightfoot said, and then changed the subject. “Let’s keep working on those reports. Hutchinson’s waiting for them.”

And that might have been it, as far the case regarding Colby was concerned, but it wasn’t.

Six months later Lightfoot and Farley were on a call that took them out to the rancher on the Little Missouri Trail who had reported the Black Honda that had turned out to be the car stolen by Colby. This time he had called in some sort of juvenile delinquent behavior which ended up being teenagers on his property tearing around on four-wheelers scaring his cattle. After assuring the rancher that they’d take care of it, Lightfoot asked Farley if he wanted to drive out to where the chase had started, out to where Colby had gotten the stolen car stuck in the sand. Farley, said, sure, so Lightfoot had driven them out to where they could look over the prairie grasslands leading down to the Little Missouri River. He parked the car and they got out. It was a bright day in February with the temperature hovering around ten degrees. Wind had scoured the land free of snow. They looked around, taking in the desolate view, squinting in the bright sun and stomping their feet to keep them warm before getting back in the car. Lightfoot started up the engine and turned the heater on. Being out where the chase had occurred got Farley wondering.

“Do you ever hear from Benson?” he asked

“I do, occasionally. Why?”

“I was just wondering how our buddy Sugarfoot was doing.”

Lightfoot smiled. “Just fine. Benson told me that they’re just hunkered in for the winter. Sugarfoot spends most of the time sleeping by the fireplace. For a dog, I guess means he’s pretty happy.” Lightfoot rolled up a cigarette and lit it, cracking the window to let the smoke out. “Here’s a funny thing, though.”

“What?”

“Benson told me that Sugarfoot has kind of taken to Colby. ”

Farley was confused. “How did Benson know that?”

“Well, you know those two.”

“Something unique between them, right?” Farley answered smiling. Benson and Sugarfoot really did seem pretty special together.

“Yeah. Well, get this. Benson has started taking Sugarfoot to Bismarck to visit Colby in prison on visiting days. They go once or twice a month. I guess Sugarfoot really likes it.” Lightfoot shook his head, smiling. “That’s quite the dog, I’ll tell you that.”

Farley nodded, thinking back to what it was like being with Benson and Sugarfoot on that burning hot day last summer tracking Colby across the plains. It was a day he’d never forget. They’d not only caught Colby but had saved his life. Couldn’t ask for a better outcome than that.

“Well, let’s get out of here,” Lightfoot said, looking to the north and west, crumbling out his cigarette and tossing it out the window into the wind, “Looks like snow is on the way.”

“Sounds good,” Farley said, sitting back while Lightfoot turned the car around to head back to the interstate.

“One other thing,” Lightfoot said, as he started off slowly, bumping along the rough gravel road, “Benson said you were welcome to come visit them at his ranch if you wanted.”

“He did? Why’s that?”

“He thought you might want to see Sugarfoot.”

Farley thought about it for a moment. “You know, I just might. I kind of miss him.”

Lightfoot smiled. “I thought you’d say that. Benson thought you might, too.”

“Next you’re going to tell me Sugarfoot thought that, also,” Farley said, grinning.

Lightfoot laughted, “Well, you just never know with that dog. You just really never know.”

And Farley felt he knew exactly what Lightfoot was taking about.

Colby Stackhouse had been sentenced to spend the next fifteen years of his life behind bars back in Bismarck. He was kept in a prison cell in the older section of the penitentiary with three other inmates, sharing two sets of bunk beds. He wouldn’t be free until he was forty seven years old. But something had happened to Colby that day when he was making his run across the grassland plains surrounding the Little Missouri River. He had almost died. That snake bite had almost done him in. If it hadn’t been for those two Indians and that young highway patrolman and the dog, he’d be gone from this world. At least that’s what he told anyone who’d listen to him.

“Man,” he’d say, “It was like I saw my life passing before my eyes. And that life wasn’t anything to be proud of.”

Most everyone would roll their eyes. Even the counselors he talked with had a tough time believing him. Colby was a lifelong criminal with a past that spoke for itself. Lying was ingrained in him. Part of his makeup.

Like one counselor said, “You never know. He might have changed, but I doubt it. I kind of think it’s in his genes. He’s just a bad guy. Not the most trustworthy human being out there.”

Which may have been right. Colby’s story is still being written. But the funny thing is,  when he gets those visits from Benson and Sugarfoot, everyone sees that there is a change happening. The dog is affectionate toward Colby and Benson talks with him like he’s just a regular guy. So who knows?

From Colby’s standpoint all he’ll tell you is this, “You know, when I was out there in the sand, dying from that rattler’s bite, that dog was right there with me. I remember coming to for just a few moments, and he licked me and kind of nuzzled my face. I know it sounds weird, but I got the feeling he didn’t want me to die. Just before I passed out again, I saw him looking at me. Something about those eyes, man. They just bore into me and gave me the strength to hang in there.”

When Colby talked like that most of the inmates either walked away shaking their heads or else kind of laughed, embarrassed for him. He’d been beaten up for it a few times, too. Others gave him a hard time and wrote him off as just plain nuts. But if Benson and Sugarfoot could overhear the way he talked, they’d get it. They understood that there was something special there between them and Colby. Even if they couldn’t put their finger on it, it was worth pursuing. Benson and Sugarfoot would be coming to visit Colby for a long, long time. To them it seemed like the right thing to do. There was something there that needed finding out.

The grassland plains in the southwest part of  North Dakota still roll off to the far distant horizon. The Little Missouri River still winds it path north to the larger Missouri. There are deeper truths out there that touch us through the spirit of the land and the voice of the wind. Benson and Sugarfoot understand that. Maybe, in time, Colby will too.

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Desolation Row

This is the 3rd story of a trilogy having to do with the power of music to positively affect a person’s life. By the way, the first song on ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ is not only Jerry’s dad’s favorite song of all time, it’s mine, too!

“Arlie, I’m home,” Jerry Sandquist called out. “Where are you?”

“Down here,” came his wife’s voice from the basement. “I’m doing laundry.”

“Need any help?” Jerry yelled down the stairway.

“I’m good. What don’t you check on that casserole in the oven? We’re going to have dinner in about fifteen minutes.”

The fragrant aroma suddenly came to him. Black bean and wild rice, a favorite. “I’m on it. The kids around?”

“Sly’s up in his room. The girls should be back from the Anderson’s any minute.”

Jerry walked through the kitchen of their two story 1920’s home, turned to the left, and yelled upstairs to remind Sly that he had a soccer game that evening. Wouldn’t do for the coach and one of his players to be late. Sly yelled back that he didn’t need to be reminded. Jerry smiled to himself, appreciating the security and familiar noisy activity that came with having a family. He and Arlie had purchased the house nearly thirteen years ago, a couple of years before Sly was born. They’d been slowly restoring it ever since. Jerry loved the strength and feel of the thick stucco walls, the warmth of the aged woodwork and the memories he and Arlie were building with their family, eleven year old Sly and the nine year old twins, Kari and Olive.  The word security floated through his brain again. He loved the life he had and wouldn’t have it any other way. He busied himself in the kitchen, putting the final touches on dinner and thinking back to how the day at work had gone.

Jerry was forty five years old and worked for Heartland Controls, a large corporation headquartered in downtown Minneapolis that manufactured and sold the controls used to heat and cool homes and commercial office buildings. He’d been a loyal employee for over nineteen years. At work he was on the team that developed courses and trained the company’s sales reps and installation technicians. Today, Monday, had been the first day of a five week long sales class that he was conducting. It was also the day that Heartland’s president had sent out an email letting his employees know that the company was going to be reorganized and that some people were going to be fired. Well, downsized was the way it was put. “We thank you for your years of service,” the memo had stated, “But due to these challenging times, we will be forced to downsize to better serve the interests of our shareholders. We are sure you will understand our need to take these drastic measures in order to stay profitable and competitive.” What the hell? Jerry thought as he read the memo, and right away started thinking that due to his seniority and higher salary he might be one of those who’d be laid off. The rumors had been circulating for months and now they appeared to be coming true. It had made for not the best day in Jerry’s life.

After reading the memo Jerry walked down the hall to the office of his manager, who happened to also be a friend. Steve McMillian put it this way, “Well, at least we’ll get a fairly decent severance package if either of us is let go. It could be worse.”

Jerry frowned, “Worse than losing your job?”

“Yeah, we could just get fired. Then we’d get a big fat zero.”

“Thanks for the positive spin, old buddy,” Jerry said, looking out of Steve’s office window, watching the cars on the freeway streaming by and suddenly wishing he hadn’t quit smoking two years ago. “Spoken like a true company man.”

Steve laughed, “Hey, that’s what I get paid for.”

Jerry stood up, smirking at his friend’s attempt to lighten the mood. “Yeah, really.” What more could he say? He headed toward the door, “Well, I’ve got to get over to the class room.”

“Entry level sales?”

“Yep. Five weeks.” He shook his head. “A long time.”

“His boss smiled at him. “You’ll do fine, man. Enjoy it. Who knows, it might be your last class with the company.”  Jerry left just shaking his head. Sometimes Steve could be a real jerk.

He headed down the hallway, through a set of swinging doors and into the area of the building where the training classes were held. A year ago Heartland Controls had spent a lot of money remodeling this part of their facility. The halls were wide and well lit. The classrooms were big and comfortable. He had set the room up in a U-type arrangement and twenty comfortable chairs were set at the tables for the students who were coming in from all across the country. The company put them up in a hotel in downtown Minneapolis and bused them out here to the corporate headquarters. Jerry checked his watch. 8:20 am. The bus would deliver the students in ten minutes. He sighed and busied himself, enjoying the last few moments of peace and quiet that he would have for the next eight hours.

The students arrived and the morning passed quickly. At lunch he called Arlie and told her about the memo. “Kind of sucks, doesn’t it?”

Arlie was philosophic, “Well, yes it does, but it’s not the end of the world you know.”

“Easy for you to say, you’re secure at Collier.”

Arlie laughed, “In this day and age, no one is secure.”

She was right and Jerry knew it. “Let’s talk more when I get home. After soccer, Ok?”

“Sounds good. I’ll see you. I’m off early so I’ll be there when you get there.”

Jerry smiled. His wife had a way about her that he still found becoming. “Ok, love you.”

“Love you, too.”

The afternoon portion of the class went by fine but at the end of the day Jerry was ready to go home. All his life he had been slightly introverted, and although he was good at his job, he found interacting with the students exhausting. He was looking forward to his evening with his family. Just being around his wife and kids helped him recharge his batteries. He left the office around 4:45 pm and drove west into the bright sun. He made his way to the parkway that wound around a couple of the lakes the city was known for. The day was warm and cloudless, with the sky a gleaming robin’s egg blue. It was the first week of October and the trees were in the midst of changing to their fall splendor of oranges and yellows and reds. Jerry rolled down the window of his little Ford Fiesta letting in the aroma of crushed leaves and freshly mown grass. The temperature was in the low sixties, he guessed, and it would be a perfect night for soccer. He felt himself relaxing. He punched the power button on the car’s radio and switched it to CD. Soon the sounds of Bob Dylan’s classic album, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ filled the car. He smiled, thinking of how much he loved the CD, one given to him by his dad on his twenty first birthday.

“I know it’s not the kind of music you usually listen to,” his dad had said. Jerry had been a Replacements and Beastie Boys fan, “But give it a chance. It’ll grow on you.”

And it did. Ironically, the album was recorded fifty years ago this past August and it still had the power to move people. There was something strangely satisfying about the audacity of the words of the songs and the driving force of the music. Jerry had liked it when he’d first listened to it, and he really liked it now. Especially in light of the morning’s memo about layoffs. The music gave him a kind of uplift to his spirits. By the time he got home, his mood was considerably lighter.

And now, during dinner, the tension of the pending layoff situation was overshadowed by the clamor of his family as the kids vied for their parent’s attention. His two daughters were going back and forth with their mom about having a sleepover the weekend after next. Jerry listened to the banter only adding that if they were allowed to have their friends spend the night there were going to have to be firm rules in place, which was met with much eye-rolling on the part of Kari and Olive. Arlie winked at Jerry and said, “Listen to your father. We aren’t going to have a situation like last time.” Which silenced everyone. The memory a late night phone call from one of the girl’s parents asking why on earth their daughter was calling them at 1:00 am because she had forgotten a favorite pillow…Well, that just couldn’t happen again.

Sly was quiet. He had just started sixth grade and was still getting used the new middle school which was much larger both in building size and student population than the grade school he’d previously attended. There were at least five hundred more kids to contend with, plus his grade was the youngest of the three grades in the school. The adjustment was looking like it was going to be difficult and take some time. He as at a stage in his life were his moods went up and down, and Arlie and Jerry were continually learning to deal with them.

After dinner, the kids cleared the table while Jerry and Arlie did the dishes. “Are you coming to the game?” Jerry asked his wife, who shook her head, no.

“I was planning on it but I’ve got some paperwork to go over.” She motioned toward Kari and Olive who were on their way back outside and over to their friend’s house next door. “Plus, I’ve got to talk over this sleepover situation with the girls.”

Arlie’s job often required extra hours spent in her home office or visiting with clients after hours out in the field but that was fine with both her and her husband. She was a case worker at Collier, a local non-profit that helped unwed mothers map out a future for themselves which often included adult education classes and work study programs. She was a hard worker and committed to helping her ‘girls’ as she called them, succeed.

Jerry understood. “That’s fine. I’ll cheer for both of us.” Then he asked, kiddingly, “You think the girls will want to go with me?”

“Ah…No,” Arlie laughed. “Not a chance.”

Jerry, again, was aware of how much he appreciated Arlie and his family. They made him feel grounded, focused, giving him a reason for living. He looked out the kitchen window and caught a glimpse of his daughters skipping down the sidewalk, their long dark haired ponytails bobbing. A year after they were born, Jerry had hit a rough patch. Things at work weren’t going well. He really wasn’t happy with his job and life, in general, was getting him down. He’d started having the occasional drink after work to ‘ease the stress’ as he called it but, over time, the drinking started getting out of control. Eventually one Saturday night he’d fallen down the stairs while drunk out of his mind. After getting her sister to come over and stay with the kids, Arlie loaded him in her car and drove him to the emergency room at the hospital. It  turned out he had a cracked a bone in his wrist and had dislocated the middle toe on his right foot. Even worse, while sliding down the steps he had broken one of Arlie’s prized Fiesta Ware pitchers. When she got him home, which about three in the morning, she said simply, “Either you stop drinking right now or you’re out of here, pal. You can find someplace else to live and act stupid for all I care. I don’t need this crap and neither do the kids.” And that had been enough for Jerry. The loss of his family would have been too much to bear. He’d been sober ever since.

“Alright, I’ll cheer for the home team.”

“You’d better. You’re the coach.”

“Coach Jerry, that’ me,” he laughed again, putting the dish towel away. “I’ll go get Sly and hit the road. We have to pick up Luke on the way.”

The way it worked in Minneapolis when it came to soccer was that there was a city wide series of tryouts over the course of a weekend the middle of September. The best players were chosen and put on teams that traveled around the area playing other ‘elite’ teams. The players that were left formed the ‘park board’ teams. These teams weren’t very skilled, but the kids just wanted to play soccer. Jerry had been coaching for three years, ever since Sly had ‘found his niche’ as Jerry liked to put it, in park board soccer.

Jerry called upstairs for his son. Sly bounded down the steps. “I’m all set, dad,” he said. “Who are we playing again?” For some reason the kids on his team had chosen the name Tortoise’s for their team’s name. Jerry thought it was great because it showed they had a good sense of humor. He got a real sense of joy being with his son and coaching him and his team. Sly was tall and thin and liked to keep his dark brown hair cut almost like a buzz cut. His choice of clothing was usually some variety of  baggy shorts and the closest athletic shirt he could grab out of his dresser drawer. He wore them as often as he could and would probably wear them throughout the winter if his parents gave him a chance, which they didn’t. Tonight he had on his team’s uniform of a red shirt and shorts with black and white strips around the edges. “We’re playing the Jaguars,” Jerry said. To which Sly replied, “Cool.” Jerry could tell his son was in a good mood when he offered, “Maybe we’ll finally win a game.” Jerry laughed, “Well you know what I always say…” Sly rolled his eye good naturedly, “It’s not whether you win or lose, he chanted, “but how  you play the game.” This last part they recited together. Laughing, Jerry grabbed a bag of soccer balls from the front hall closet and they headed out the door. Arlie watched them leave thinking how great it was that Jerry and Sly spent time together like they did. Then she sighed and focused her attention on getting some work done before the girls got home. There was always something, she thought to herself, work, kids or life in general, but, then again, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Jerry and Sly drove over to get Luke and from there went to the field where their game was to be played. Jerry really liked this particular soccer field. It less than a mile from their home and was next to the outdoor stadium where the local high school football team played. There was also a park nearby with a play ground and tennis and basketball courts. It was usually busy with kids playing and parents sitting on benches monitoring the younger ones and tonight was no exception. Jerry loved it. He loved the activity, the sense of joy on the faces of the kids and the overall atmosphere of fun and good times. He felt the cares of his work situation drain even further away. He got out of the car and headed toward the sideline calling out to kids on his team as he went. When they were all gathered together he sent them out to the field to warm up. He checked his watch. 6:15 pm. The game started in fifteen minutes. He looked around, staying hi to the few parents that usually showed up. Behind him the sun was getting low in the west, throwing shadows across the field. The warmth of the day was dissipating as the air cooled. It was going to be a great night for soccer. He called out to his players. “Ok, gang, come on over here. I’ll give you your positions.” A few minutes later the referee blew his whistle and the game began. And thirty minutes later Jerry was in an ambulance, speeding toward the nearest hospital. Sly had been inadvertently kicked in the head. He was unconscious and needed medical care. Fast.

SkyView Hospital was only three miles away, but the ride seemed to take an eternity. Jerry sat with Sly in the back while a paramedic worked on him, talking into a transmission device connected to the hospital. He told Jerry that his son’s vital signs looked good. “His blood pressure is within range and his heart rate is slightly elevated, which is to be expected.” He pulled back Sly’s eye lids. “You say he was kicked in the head.”

Jerry told him about the quirky accident out on the field where Sly had stumbled and fallen into the path of a player who was lined up a shot on the goal. Sly took the full force of the kick in his head. He collapsed to the ground, out cold. While Jerry comforted his son, another parent had called 911. The ambulance arrived quickly in less than ten minutes. Jerry was thankful for the help and skill of the paramedic working on Sly. “Is is going to be Ok?” Jerry asked, his voice choked with fear. The guy gave Jerry a grim smile. “We’re doing our best. We really need to get him into the emergency room.”

Jerry looked out the back window suddenly aware of the wailing siren. He knew right where they were going. It was the same hospital where all of his children had been born, about three miles from where they lived. In a minute they had raced into a receiving area and parked at the emergency entrance. A team of blue suited doctors and nurses was ready for them and Sly was quickly placed on a gurney and wheeled through a pair of swinging doors and down a short hallway into an emergency bay. A nurse took Jerry aside and lead him to a desk where he did his best to answer questions having to do with everything from insurance to Sly’s health history. Jerry glanced at his wrist watch. It had been less than a half hour since Sly’s accident. It seemed like a lifetime.

He had called Arlie from the field while waiting for the ambulance. When he was done filling out paper work, he called her again. She was on the way. “I called my sister and had to wait until she got here. She’s with the kids now. I’ll be there in less than five minutes. How’s he doing?”

“The doctors are working on him now.” Jerry glanced in the direction they had taken Sly. “Just hurry up. I think he’ll be Ok.” He was trying to calm his wife. He had no idea how his son was doing.

“I’m almost there.”

Jerry hung up and went to the desk. “Any word on my son?”

The nurse checked her computer screen. “He’s still in emergency. The doctor will be out shortly.” She gave him a look. “Are you alright?”

Unconsciously Jerry had started pacing back and forth, grinding on a thumb nail. He had all he could do to keep from losing it. “Of course I’m not alright. It’s my son in there.” He snapped at her.

The nurse seemed to sense that this guy was about to come unglued. “Is anyone coming to be with you?” she asked, her voice calm and in control.

That seemed to settle Jerry a little. “Yeah, my wife.”

“That’s good,” she said, soothingly. “Why don’t you go sit down and wait for her?” She indicated the chairs in the waiting area nearby. “The doctor should be with you shortly.”

“Ok, good.” Jerry said, paused and then added, kind of shrugging, “Sorry about that.”

She gave him a tight smile. “Your son will be fine. We are very good at what we do here.”

Jerry appreciated her tone. She was trying to be helpful. But as he turned away from her and walked almost in a daze toward the waiting area, he had the fleeting desire again, for the second time today, of wanting a cigarette. He took a deep breath and tried to get a grip on himself. Just then Arlie burst through the door and ran into his arms. He held her close. “He’s going to be alright,” he told his wife. “We’ll get through this together.”

After a moment she asked, “How did this happen?” Arlie was shaking with tension, but still had it under control.

“Let’s sit down over here. I’ll tell you about it.”

Jerry filled her in on how the accident happened and brought her up to speed with what the status was up until now. Just as he was finishing a doctor came through the door and came right over to them. He introduced himself as Doctor Patel. “Are you the boy’s parents?” He asked, indicating back toward the emergency room behind him.

“Yes. Sly. Our son.” Jerry answered.

“Is he going to be Ok?” Arlie asked, nearly breathless with worry.

The doctor took a moment to look them both in the eye, nodding his head in the affirmative. “We believe he’s going to be fine. He has what appears to be a severe concussion. We’ve done a scan and although there is slight trauma to the brain, we believe he will recover normally.” What’s this We believe non-sense? Jerry was thinking. He gave his head a shake to calm himself and tried to focus on what the doctor was saying. “Your son is under observation and resting in his room right now. You can go and see him as soon as you’d like.” It sounded like Sly was going to be fine. Jerry and Arlie almost wept with relief. The doctor took a moment to let it sink in and then added, “Let me fill you in on what needs to happen next.”

Ten minutes later, Jerry and Arlie were at Sly’s bedside. He was on the fourth floor in a single room with the drapes drawn even though the sun had set an hour ago. The lights were low. There was quiet, soothing music coming from some hidden speakers. The nurse who took them to the room explained that this area of the hospital was actually used for hospice care. “We just want the patients to be a comfortable as possible,” she explained. “It’s really quite peaceful.” She spoke with a hushed voice and smiled an encouraging smile. “Your son is going to be fine,” she said. “We’ll take good care of him.” She motioned for Jerry and Arlie to sit down.” Use this if you need me.” She showed them the call button.”I’ll be right down the hall.”

Jerry watched the nurse gently close the door as Arlie went to Sly’s bed. She bent over him, kissing his forehead, brushing her hand over the white wrapping around his head. Jerry moved next to her and put his arm around her shoulder. He didn’t know what to say. Together they stood next to Sly. He looked so peaceful. He was connected to wires monitoring his vital signs and tubes for nourishment and elimination of wastes. Jerry felt a tear forming. His poor son. He felt like lying down next to him to comfort him. Two hours ago all the poor kid had wanted to do was play some soccer and have some fun. Now this. He sighed. “Arlie, why don’t we sit down? Let’s talk about what we need to do.”

Jerry pulled a chair up for his wife and one for him. They sat and watched over Sly, each with a hand on him, trying to come to grips with what had happened. Trying to come up with a plan that would help them get through the time it would take for their son to regain consciousness and eventually come home. Would things ever return to normal? Jerry watched Sly’s rhythmic breathing, gently rubbing his hand on his son’s arm. He hoped so, but doubted it ever would. God, was he strong enough to help his family get through this? Was Arlie? I guess we’ll find out, he thought to himself and he reached over with his free hand to rub his wife’s back. Just then the nurse came back in to check on Sly. Giving Jerry and Arlie a glance she must have noticed something. “You two could probably use some rest,” she said. “If you want, we can make that up for a bed,” she indicated the couch up against the wall by the window. “One of you can spend the night.” Which seemed like a good idea. And that’s how it came about that Jerry spent that first night with Sly, resting on the couch, while Arlie went home to take care of the girls.

Much later, Jerry would reflect on how easily he and Arlie adjusted their lifestyle to fit the circumstances they now found themselves in. Maybe easily wasn’t the right word. They did what they had to do to get through the day to day ups and downs of having their son in the hospital recovery room, unconscious yet still for all intents and purposes looking like he was asleep, while all around him life went on. Went on as best as it could, as far as Jerry was concerned.

The commitment Jerry and Arlie made to each other that first night at the hospital was that one or the other of them would be with Sly every night until he regained consciousness. Which seemed like a reasonable idea initially. But Sly didn’t recover right away. He remained unconscious for that first week and then into the next. Finally, after the second week, the decision was made to spend their nights at home with Kari and Olive, who, of course, needed their presence and support. Arlie was adamant about making sure the girls lives remained as normal as possible. “We’ve got to help them through this,” she said to Jerry more than once. He agreed with her one-hundred percent.

One of the problems Jerry was challenged with was balancing his work schedule with making time to be with Sly. His manager was sympathetic to his circumstances, but still needed him to be at the office and teach the class. He put it to Jerry this way, when Jerry talked to him about it the day after the accident. “I can give you a few days off, but you’ve got to take care of business here.” He shook his head, indicating the tough position this put Jerry in. “With layoff’s eminent, you need to be aware that the more you act like a team player, the better your chances are of staying with us.”

Jerry had hoped for a better outcome, maybe a period of extended time off, but it didn’t work out that way. He wasn’t surprised. After all, it had become apparent to him over the years that the corporate bottom line was what mattered the most. The employees…well, they didn’t matter all that much. “Yeah, I hear you,” was all Jerry could say. “Don’t worry. I’ll cover the class.” And he did. He missed one day, that Tuesday, the first full day Sly was in the hospital, but he was at work teaching every day after that. Arlie’s company was more flexible. She could work from home, which she did as much as she could. Between them, they were able to adjust their work schedules, but underneath it all was the dull, sickening reality of their son’s situation. He remained unconscious. And as the days went by, even though the doctors were encouraged by Sly’s vital signs, and were encouraging in their conversations with Jerry and Arlie, the strain of the situation was sometimes hard to bear. A typical day centered around making time for one or the other of them to be at the hospital for at least a total of eight hours, usually, on the average, four hours for each of them. Then there were work commitments, taking care of the girls and the general time spent running the household. Arlie’s younger sister, Becky, was a god send. She was single and had the freedom to come over and help out with watching over the girls when needed. “Whatever I can do to help,” she said, whenever Jerry or Arlie tried to thank her, “You guys just do what you need to do to get through this.” Which was easier said than done.

Arlie used her love of exercise to help relieve stress and went out running once, sometimes even twice a day. She also used her network of friends to talk with. She was doing what she needed to do to stay strong. Jerry sometimes talked about how challenging the situation was to Steve at work, who was his closest friend, and occasionally he was on the phone with family members. But his brother and sister both lived in different states, so seeing them wasn’t an option. His parents were both dead, having been killed in a head on car accident on an icy highway out west of the city ten years earlier. He went for long walks when he could, usually through the neighborhood, or around one of the city’s lakes. During those times it felt good to be outside, freeing up his mind and breathing clean, fresh air. Although he didn’t want to, he decided to give up his coaching job and turned it over to one of the parents whose kid was on the team. He was committed to spending evenings with Sly, but tried in other ways to keep things as normal as possible. Maybe that was why he kept listening to that Bob Dylan CD whenever he was in the car. He liked the music. It was raucous and slightly crazy, and, in its own way, uplifting. Especially the last song, ‘Desolation Row’. The more he listened, the more he became attached to it. The music gave him strength. Made him feel hopeful. Helped him cope with dealing with the tragedy of his son’s accident.

Strangely, though, instead of drifting apart, which can happen in a situation like this when great pressure is put to bear on the core of the family, Jerry and Arlie and the girls came together. He and Arlie focused as much attention as they could on the girls, taking time to talk to them, answering any questions about Sly that they might have. They tried to have dinners at 6:00 pm, giving the family a sense of normalcy and a time to talk. Kari and Olive seemed to appreciate it.  Jerry and Arlie also took the girls to visit their brother as often as they wanted, which was usually every other day.

‘When is Sly coming home?’ was the question the twins asked most often. As the days turned to weeks, the question started to become rhetorical.

“Let’s just keep our thoughts positive,” Jerry told the girls. “The doctors said he could wake up anytime.” He used the sleep analogy with the girls a lot. But the reality was that Sly wasn’t sleeping. His unconscious state was perplexing to the doctors who were doing the monitoring but they remained positive when talking to Jerry and Arlie.

“Your son’s vital signs continue to be good,” Dr. Patel would say to them. “That’s all we can hope for right now.” Jerry and Arlie made a pact that they’d let the doctors worry about Sly while their responsibility would be to continue to visit him every day and do everything they could to keep the girls spirits up and to keep their family strong.

In some ways the time went by slowly, in others it went by fast. October ended and November began. Through those weeks Sly had lots of visitors. Friends from school, friends of Jerry and Arlie’s. One of the most poignant visits was when Joshua Alverez stopped by with his mom and dad. Josh was the kid who had inadvertently kicked Sly in the head and caused the injury. He’d come with his parents on the first Saturday in November when both Jerry and Arlie were spending the afternoon together with their son.  Josh came hesitantly into the room with a vase of brightly colored flowers. He seemed unsure of what to do.

“Hi Josh, good to see you,” Jerry said with a smile. He had coached Josh the year before and liked the boy. He was a good kid who worked hard and did the best he could. He never caused any problems and Jerry was sincerely glad to see him. “Come on over here.”

Arlie took the vase and put it the table next to Sly’s bed. She greeted Josh’s parents. “Thanks so much for coming,” she said. “The nurses say it’s good for Sly to have visitors, and have activity around him.” Arlie made small talk with Josh’s mom and dad while Jerry explained to the poor kid that what happened wasn’t his fault. It was just one of those things that sometimes just couldn’t be avoided. By the time the three of them left he hoped that Josh believed him. It would be a huge burden to carry around if he didn’t. Jerry made a mental note to contact the family later in the near future to see how Josh was doing.

But as the days passed there was still no change in Sly’s condition. Soon it was the middle of November. Jerry’s class ended at noon on a Friday and he was cleaning up the classroom when Steve came in.

“How’d the class go?”

“Fine,” Jerry said, packing up the laptop he used for presentations. “I think they got what they needed.” Jerry distractedly played with the dri-erase pens he used on the white board. “It’ll be nice to have a break.”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Steve said, causing Jerry to give him a questioning look. “Let me help you finish up here and then let’s go have a chat.”

Five minutes later they were walking back to Steve’s office. “Have a seat.” He motioned for Jerry to sit down. This can’t be good was what Jerry had been thinking ever since his manger had come into the classroom.

“What’s up?”

Steve looked Jerry straight in the eye. “First of all, why don’t you fill me in on how Sly’s doing?”

Jerry had only sporadically kept Steve appraised of Sly’s progress. “Well, his condition is still not changed.”

“He’s in a coma, right?”

“Yeah. Think of it as a deep unconscious state. He doesn’t appear to hear anything and is unresponsive. But his vital signs are good.

“How long can he stay like that?”

Jerry grimaced. “He could wake up tomorrow. He could out for years.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard about those kind of cases.” He paused, then asked, “You seem to be holding up Ok.”

Jerry gave him a slight smile. “We’re doing our best.” For some reason he really didn’t feel like getting too personal with Steve. “Arlie’s been a saint, and her sister is really helping out. The girls are doing as well as can be expected.” He didn’t really have anything else to say.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Steve replied, his eyes wandering toward the window.

Jerry felt the whole conversation was getting somewhat stilted. “What’s really going on? he asked, starting to get angry. “Am I going to get laid off or what? Is that what this is all about?”

Steve held up his hands in a surrender pose, “Hey, calm down, Ok? I’m just curious.” He stopped and looked at Jerry. “I do care you know.”

Jerry understood. It was hard for people to relate to what he and Arlie were going through. “Sorry. I’m just a bit on edge.”

“Yeah, I think I get it. I just wanted to touch base. You’ve been busy with the class and all.”

“So anything about the layoffs, then?” Jerry asked, wanting to move the conversation along.

“No. Nothing. We’re safe so far.”

“Well, that’s something.” Jerry said, getting up. “So, if that’s all, I’ve got to go over and sit with Sly for a while.”

“Yep, that’s it. I just wanted to touch base with you and see how things were going.”

“I know. Thanks, I appreciate it. I’ll see ya’ on Monday.”

Steve watched Jerry walk out the door and down the hall. He just hadn’t had it in him to tell his friend the chances of layoffs were getting stronger every day. He’d made a snap decision to wait on telling Jerry until maybe next week. His friend really had more than enough to worry about. He’d at least give him the weekend. Monday would be there soon enough.

Jerry left the office and by the time he’d got to his car he’d forgotten about the meeting with Steve. Instead, all of his thoughts were focused on going to see Sly. This afternoon he was going to the hospital with a plan. He’d talked to Arlie about it the day before and she didn’t think it was too crazy. “Yeah, do whatever, Jer. You never know.” His plan was to play some music for his son. Not just any music, either, but that Dylan CD he’d been listening to ever since Sly’s accident.

The room his son was recovering in was intentionally kept calm and quiet. Soft music usually was playing through speakers in the ceiling and the nurses had told Jerry that the sounds were supposed to be soothing to the patients. “You just never know with people in a deep unconscious state like Sly’s in,” a nurse once told him. “The music really can’t hurt.”

In fact, the nurses and doctors encouraged Jerry and Arlie to talk to Sly and read to him, anything to provide some stimulation that could jump start his brain into working again. Jerry and Arlie were all for it. Sly had been reading ‘Hardy Boy’ mysteries when he’d been injured, so Arlie read those to him when she visited. She also talked to him, telling Sly what was going on at home. Jerry would read the sports section of the local newspaper out loud as well as any other articles out that he felt Sly would like. The whole idea, really, was to provide some real life sounds that Sly might respond to. One evening a week ago Jerry brought in a little boom box and played some of the music that Sly liked to listen to but it didn’t cause any change. Sky just lay peacefully resting as if he were sleeping.

Jerry got the idea to play ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ a few days after that when he’d gone for an early morning walk around the neighborhood and had started thinking about his parents and how much he missed them. I wonder what mom and dad would do about Sly? He was asking himself, as he walked from street light to street light, shuffling through leaves blowing down the sidewalk. Sly was only two years old when his parents died, but Jerry felt he could see a bond forming between the three of them. They would have been super grandparents, he thought to himself. Neither his brother or sister had kids. He felt sure his mom and dad would have been very attentive to Sly and his sisters.

Jerry started smiling as he walked thinking about how the future could have played out differently. He remembered what it was like for him when his dad gave him Dylan’s CD for his twenty-first birthday. The sentiment from his father to him had been touching yet at the time hadn’t seemed all that dramatic. As the years had gone by, however, and as Jerry became a father with a family to care for, the sentiment had grown and become clearer. Maybe I’ll just play it for Sly. Kind of a gift from me and my dad to him, Jerry was thinking. Why not? Nothing so far seemed to be working so why not give it a try? And that’s what he decided to do.

Jerry was both nervous and excited as he drove to the hospital. The late fall afternoon sun felt warm against a steel blue sky. The temperature was in the mid thirties and the trees were bare of leaves. Thanksgiving was less than two weeks away. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like if Sly wasn’t with them to share such a quintessential family holiday. But the reality was that Sly’s condition still remained unchanged and Jerry was prepared for more of the same. Trying not to let his expectations get too high, he took the boom box and the CD up to Sly’s room and plugged it in. He talked to his son while he busied himself, getting things ready.

“Hey there, buddy,” he said, placing the boom box on the table next to Sly’s bed. “How’re you doing today?” Jerry told his son about his class finishing up and his talk with Steve. No response. He checked his watch. It was 5:00 pm. He had about 45 minutes before he would leave and go home for dinner. He and Arlie were going to come back later that night with the girls and spend more time with Sly. He told his son all of this. Again, no response. Finally Jerry was ready. He’d told the head nurse what he was going to do, and she said that it was fine as long as the door was closed, so he did that. Then he pushed in the CD, pulled up a chair and sat down next to Sly as a hard rim shot on the snare drum started off ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. Jerry’s mind suddenly was flooded with memories of his dad. “Here’s a CD that my dad gave me, buddy,” Jerry said to Sly. “I thought you might like it. This first song was his favorite song of all time. What do you think?” Jerry brushed his hand over his son’s forehead and then touched his shoulder. His son looked so peaceful. He had been unconscious for thirty two days. Jerry studied his son’s face. His cheek bones were more prominent since he’d been in the hospital, and his skin had lost the healthy look it’d had from all the time he’d spent outdoors in the sun. Jerry rubbed Sly’s shoulder gently. He felt a need to be close to his son. To have some sort of connection. The CD played on, ‘Tombstone Blues’ and ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’. Jerry was barely listening to the music. Instead he was remembering bits and pieces of times he and Sly had spent together: shooting baskets, carving pumpkins, riding their bikes around the cities lakes. All Jerry ever wanted was to be a good father to Sly and Kari and Olive. He loved his girls, but there was something special about his relationship with his son that he treasured. The closeness he felt with Sly. The connection to something greater than himself. He couldn’t believe that he may not have a chance to build a future with his son and to be his father and to be a part of helping Sly grow into an adult. ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ segued into ‘From A Buick Six’ and Jerry lightly tapped the fingers of his right hand to the up tempo music as he caressed his son’s arm with his left hand. Still no movement from Sly. Nothing. But Jerry wasn’t even watching his son right then. Instead his thoughts were turned inward, reliving a lifetime of memories that he had with his boy. Memories that were as strong and clear as if they had happened just yesterday.

“Do you remember the time we went to the Black Hill’s during the summer a few years ago?” Jerry started talking. “You and I went for that hike behind the cabin we rented and we came upon that buffalo?” Jerry laughed. “Boy were we ever startled.”

He kept talking, kept bringing up things he remembered doing with Sly. The first model airplane they’d built together. Times they’d gone ice skating at the local rink and Jerry had shown Sly how to shoot a hockey puck. More memories. More times, he now realized, that were among the most special in his life. ‘Just Like Queen Jane Approximately’ and ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ rocked through the little boom box. Behind him, out in the hall, one, then a few more nurses came and stood looking in on Jerry and his son.

“Sad, isn’t it?” one said, out loud to no one in particular. “It sure is,” came a response.

Through the door ‘Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues’ reached its conclusion. Inside, Jerry seemed like he was in a trance. He had talked quietly to Sly throughout almost the entire CD. Only one song remained. He became silent, just caressing his son’s face with a touch as gentle as the breath of a baby, sighing in the dreamless sleep of a new born. Jerry, too, sighed. This wasn’t going to work. He looked at his watch. He should get home and help Arlie get dinner ready.

The acoustic strains of the last song started up. A gentle, yet forceful riff that was the beginning of the last track on the CD, ‘Desolation Row’, Jerry’s favorite. He was looking toward the window, just about ready to stand up and get ready to leave when he felt, or sensed, rather, a movement. He looked to his left where his hand was lightly touching  Sly’s arm. His son’s eyes were moving under his eyelids. Jerry watched, holding his breath. Suddenly in his mind he had visions of Sly getting better. He saw a life ahead full of new experiences that the two of them would share together. Could it be true? Was Sly really coming back? Was it too much to hope for? And in that instant Sly opened his eyes and blinked, taking a moment to focus, and in that moment Jerry realized that whether it was the music that did it, or something else, it didn’t really matter. All that mattered was his son was awake. His son was back.

Then Sly said looked at him and gave a weak smile, “Hey dad. Where am I?” And Jerry leaned in and hugged his son, tears forming, and said, “You’re in the hospital, buddy, but  you’re going to fine. You’re going to be just fine.”

And he kept hugging his son until the nurses came in and pried him away to begin running tests. They’d been watching from outside, and really, as they told each other later, couldn’t believe what they had seen. Sly had woken up. He had recovered.

The first thing Jerry did was call Arlie. The second thing he did was hug his son again.

Well, as you might imagine, the next few days were pretty hectic. They were marked by visits from doctors who did tests and scheduled more tests, nurses monitoring Sly’s condition even more carefully than before (if that can be believed), and visits by family and friends. A reporter even showed up, since Sly’s unconscious state had made the news when it happened. It was all pretty crazy as far as Jerry and Arlie were concerned. All they wanted was for their son to come home and for the family to get back to a normal life.

“Well, I’m not sure how normal it’s going to be,” Dr. Patel said late Sunday afternoon. “Although he appears to have made a complete recovery, we are going to have to keep a careful eye on your son.” Jerry thought he detected a slight smile on the face of the normally taciturn doctor. All the people watching over Sly had become attached to him in their own special way.

“When can he come home?” Arlie asked.

“Well, his appetite seems to have returned,” Dr. Patal said, which caused Arlie to smile, “And he’s talkative and alert.” He checked his records. “If all goes well, he should be able to leave here in the next day or two. You live fairly close by, right?”

“Yes. Just about three miles,” Jerry said. “Takes about ten minutes to get here.”

Dr. Patel smiled, “Well, let’s hope it doesn’t ever have to come to that.”

Jerry and Arlie went home that Sunday night encouraged. If all went well they’d have their son home by mid-week. That night, for the first time since the accident, Jerry and Arlie were able to fall into bed and sleep together, safe in each other’s arms, knowing that despite the odds, their son would soon becoming home.

In the morning they awoke refreshed. Jerry left for work and played the ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ CD, turning the volume up high. He was in a great mood and humming to himself when he got to Heartland and headed up to his office. He didn’t have a class, all he had to do was write reviews of the students whose class had just finished. He stepped into his cubicle, slipped off his jacket and turned to sit down at his desk. He then noticed the message light on his phone blinking. Frowning, he picked up the receiver. The only message was from his manager. ‘Hey old buddy, Steve here. Sorry to lay this on you, but could you come into my office when you get this? I’ve got some bad news.’

Well, at least he didn’t try to sugar coat it, Jerry thought to himself has he walked down the hall. That maybe counted for something.

The long and the short of it was that Jerry was going to be laid off. The decision had been made over the weekend. The company was downsizing and he was one of about twenty five employees that were chosen to be let go. “It’s the first wave, Jerry,” Steve told him. “I’m sure there will be lots more.” Which really didn’t make Jerry feel any better.

The first thing he did when he got back to his cubicle was to call Arlie and fill her in on what had happened. She took it surprisingly well. “Just a sec, I’m here with Sly. I’m moving out to the hall.” Jerry heard her get up and say to Sly, ‘Be right back, buddy.’ After a few moments she came back on, sounding thoughtful,”You know this might work out for us.”

“What do you mean?” It was the last thing Jerry figured she’d say.

“Well, the doctor was just here. You know that Sly’s recovery is going to take a long time. Even though he’ll be home, he’ll have to go back for checkups and go to physical therapy. There’s going to be a hundred things to coordinate. It’s going to take up a lot of time.”

“And you think maybe I could take over and be house-husband or something like that for a while,” Jerry filled in.

Arlie laughed. “Well, yeah. Something like that. What do you think?”

Jerry thought for a few moments. A lot was happening right how. He was out of work but the company had him covered for half a year’s worth of salary. He could take the time to get his feet on the ground and consider his options. But mainly, though, he could be with Sly and help him with his recovery. In a way getting laid off was kind of a gift. At least it was one way of looking at his. Finally he said, “Not a bad idea. I’ve got almost six months of severance coming.”

“Beside, it’ll give you a chance to think about what you may want to do next.”

Jerry paused, thinking, then asked, “It wouldn’t bother you? Me not working?”

Arlie barked a laugh, “Not so fast, pal. You’ll be working. A lot. Taking care of Sly won’t be easy. You’ll have your hands full. It’ll be a full time job, and then some.”

Even though he’d had only a few minutes to think about it, Jerry was beginning to like the idea. “It’s got strong possibilities. Let’s talk later tonight.” He paused, thinking, then added, “We still set to bring him home on Wednesday?”

“Yep. Looks good.”

“Look, I’ve still got a few things to take care of here. You going to be there for a while?”

“Yeah.”

“Ok. I can get out of here in a little while. Met you at Sly’s room?”

“Sounds good.” Arlie paused, then said. “Hey, Jer, don’t worry. We’ll get through this. Look what we just went through.”

“I know.” Jerry smiled into the receiver. “See you in a bit. I’ll call when I’m on the way.”

“Ok. Love ya'”

“Love you, too.”

Jerry had a ton of paperwork to get started on. His layoff quickly spread through the office so he had people stopping in and out wishing him well. Jerry took their overtures with a grain of salt. Most of them were just happy it was him and not them that was getting let go. But that’s the way the corporate world worked. He didn’t hold it against them. In fact, after the shock had worn off, he was actually starting to accept his new situation. He’d been with the company for nearly twenty years. That was a long time. In the back of his mind he’d considered the possibility he’d be among those let go ever since that first memo had come out. Maybe, like Arlie said, he should take some time to consider his options. Sounded like a plan. Besides, the best thing was for he and his family to get back together and to build back the family structure that had been tested by Sly’s accident. Spending time helping Sly get better and his family heal? Well sure, that was something he could see himself doing.

After about an hour he left work. His last day was scheduled to be in two weeks but Steve told him he could leave whenever he wanted. Right now he was thinking that tomorrow would be it, his final day. That way he could be all set to bring Sly home from the hospital on Wednesday and get started on helping with his son’s recovery.

He got in his car and headed for the hospital. He decided to take the parkway around the lakes. He’d be there in twenty minutes. Just enough time to listen to that special song again. Jerry smiled. He punched ‘play’ and set the tuner to song number nine. Desolation Row’s driving guitar and arcane lyrics came on and filled the car with music. Jerry happily sang along. The song was still playing when he pulled into the parking lot of the hospital. Jerry was humming it as he walked into Sly’s room where Arlie was sitting next to him on his bed. They were both smiling. “Hey gang,” Jerry said, his voice upbeat. “Let’s figure out what we need to do to get ready to leave here on Wednesday and go home.”

Sly laughed as Arlie answered, “We already have.”

Jerry laughed, too, then, with a sense of relief, believing that maybe things really would work out for the best. He’d do everything he could to make sure they did. “Great,” he said, sitting on the bed next to his wife and son, “What’s the plan?”