The boys walked into the truck stop looking like four terra cotta warriors because of the river mud and clay they had been submerged in. Tex’s dreads had hardened, looking like the limbs of an oak tree and not a tattoo on any of the boys was visible.
“Sign says ya’ll have showers,” George said to the bearded trucker behind the counter.
“Yep. Seven bucks a piece, but if ya’ll don’t mind, could ya’ll hose off first out back? And ya’ll can’t bring that cat in here. Where did ya’ll get all that mud?”
“We were in the tornado.”
“That Cat five out by Greenville?? Ya’ll should be lucky to be alive. How come the cat’s so clean?”
“You know cats, Sir.” Nikki sat at Buddha’s feet and licked her paw. “Thank you, Sir. We’ll hose off out back first,” replied George with hardening clay falling in his wake as he pulled the muddy money out of his wallet.
They walked out back to another strange sight. A man in a very nice tailored suit and tie was watering a finely groomed, cherry red chestnut filly out of the water hose. She had been brushed and slicked to a fine sheen and her mane was expertly braided that ended at her withers. Her tail, which despite its distance from it, was braided all the way to the ground.
“From the looks of you four, I think you’re waiting for the water hose,” he said with a smile.
“Whenever she’s done,” George said.
The boys hosed each other off and then headed for the showers after asking the man if he minded the cat staying out here. Tex was the first one outside, and because of his new equestrian belle, he decided to go outside and talk to the horse owner and check on Nikki. He found him sitting out behind the truck stop where they had left him.
“She is a pretty horse, Sir.”
The man looked more like a businessman than a horse owner. He had been carrying on a conversation with the filly while he unwrapped peppermints and fed them to her and Nikki. Upon hearing Tex’s compliment, she flicked her head at him and returned her attention to the sweets.
“She said thanks,” he laughed. “Hey, you wouldn’t have a cigarette, would you?”
“As a matter of fact…” Tex dug through his pack and pulled out a full pack and a lighter that had been waterproofed in a zip lock bag.
The equine enthusiast pulled out one, lit it, and said, “Thanks,” then held out the pack.
“You can keep it. I’m quitting.” The man cocked an inquisitive eyebrow, so Tex explained. “Oh, it’s not a health thing. Well, it’s a long story.”
“Go ahead, I got time. I’m waiting for my ride.”
Tex sat down next to him on the grass and explained how a few days ago in Arkansas they had stayed with a friend named Mike Green.
“You mean the barrel racer, Mike Green? Millionaire Mike?”
“That’s the one.”
“You mean you rode bicycles from Arkansas!? With a cat?!”
“No, Sir, from Grenada Mississippi. And she actually saved our bacon once, but that’s another story.”
“Well, Mike had asked us not to smoke at his place.”
“Because of barn fires?”
“Yes, Sir. But we did. He didn’t really get mad, but I could tell it disappointed him. It wasn’t like I knew the guy real well, but that look has been bugging me.”
“It’s funny what we’ll compromise our integrity for and in the end it’s all that defines who we are.”
“Exactly. That’s what I’ve been feeling. I like how you said that… So last night we rode out that big tornado in a concrete truckwash.”
“What?! The one on the news? You’re lucky to be alive!”
“People keep saying that. Well, all the time I was more scared than I have ever been, but I kept thinking about that look on Mike’s face. So I swore that if I survived I’d quit smoking. So keep it. I don’t need ‘em.”
Halfway through the story, the other boys had come out behind Tex and stood still, listening. Four packs of cigarettes were soon in the man’s possession. Tex told the man he thought their bikes were probably scrap metal, but after they left the truckwash, they found four bikes stuck in the side of a two-ton hay bale of alfalfa. Three miles down the road hanging in an overturned pecan tree they found Buddha’s backpack miraculously unharmed, camera intact, and a perfectly groomed cat clawing at it.