The Kansas Flint Hills stretched out, the miles of yellow prairie broken only by the miles of highway. Johnson thought calling them “hills” was generous since you could walk up them without breaking a sweat. Here, the earth wanted to be flat and was willing to do violence to stay that way. Small swells of earth had been hacked away, ugly brown gashes amid the grass; the prairie floor grabbing the hill, pulling it back down. On a distant rise, there was a tree, bent by the pounding wind, the only other living thing out here. Johnson looked out his window and thought he could see himself wandering those distant hills, alone and reckless. He stared, feeling the wind, seeing the miles of brown prairie in every direction. He tried to shake off the image, tried thinking of the cattle he had bought in McAlester, Oklahoma or the price of gas or any other damn thing. But, that image kept coming back to him like a scab that had to be picked or the drink he always wanted. He laid his right foot against the floor of the truck.
Night was coming soon and all that vast openness would disappear. Johnson heard himself sigh. The trade-off would be that the sun that warmed his old truck would be gone too. The wind found every crack in the cab and his heater could not keep up. There was an old quilt on the floor of the passenger side in case the cold got to be too much.
Maybe it was time to give up on the old Ford. He could see himself behind the wheel of a new heavy-duty truck with the seat warmer and cruise control on, but he just kept finding himself where he’d been for the last 19 years. The truck had molded itself to him and he guessed that maybe he had molded himself to it too. On nights like this, the seat fitting the shape of his ass didn’t mean as much when it was so cold that he couldn’t feel it or his feet anymore.
Johnson saw a man in the distance; he blinked a couple of times but could still see him. The hitchhiker had on a backpack and his thumb up to the sky. There was a car about a mile ahead that whizzed past him. Folks were probably afraid, and he figured they had a right to be. A guy traveling out in this country with nothing but the open land and bitter wind was most likely desperate, and desperate usually meant a problem knowing right from wrong. But, with night coming on, the guy could die of exposure. Johnson pulled his .38 from under his seat and set it next to his right hip, covering it with his coat. He pulled over.
The hitcher stood there for a moment, studying Johnson in the cab. He took in the rifle rack in the window, the graying beard and weathered hands on the wheel. When he finally opened the door, the wind brought in his sour smell. Johnson’s eyes watered a little and he almost took off again.
“Where you headed?”
“Wherever you’re willing to take me.” He started to throw his backpack onto the floor of the truck.
“Why don’t you stow your gear in the back?” said Johnson. The hitchhiker paused, eyes darting around the truck’s cab, Johnson’s face. After a long moment, he put his bag in the truck’s bed and started to get in.
“In fact, go ahead and put your coat back there too.”
The young man paused, his arms by his side, right hand curled into a fist. “Man, it’s pretty cold. Do I have to?” the hitcher said. Johnson held his gaze.