"I locked eyes with that bartender—him screaming something at me but nothing I could hear—and I told him, in a voice much younger than my own: 'You woke up the wrong fucking passenger, mister.'”
Chapter 4: Independence Rock and The Devil's Gate, Wyoming
It was already early in the afternoon and we wanted to try and hit Independence Rock and get back down to I-80 before dinner. So with that old blue hair saying some passive-aggressive old-lady shit under her breath about “kids these days” and us having “no respect for history,” we piled back in the Honda and slid out of Casper. Emphasis on the slid, cause the ice was wet now in the high plain sun. And all the while Scott drove, I searched around and checked the mirrors for that creepy white pickup. Was it the same one I’d seen on the road out of Cheyenne? It wouldn’t be the first time some redneck followed me, confusing stalking with flirting before I returned the favor by confusing a kick in nuts for some action.
I felt myself pressing down deep in the passenger seat, trying to hide, I guess. Just hunched down, turning the disc over and over again in my cold hands, the sky and the roof upholstery and my slitted eyes jumbled and kaleidoscoped in the facets of that weird alien thing. This didn’t feel like those horny boys following me home from the honkeytonks at all. This was worse. Like the night that police officer woke me—in this very same seat, even—and told me Momma was gone.
I was so shaken by the damn truck and that batty old lady that we were twenty minutes out of Casper before I thought to tell Scott about that moment of the bridge. That moment when I’d closed my eyes and felt transported back to that battle and saw the gray alien from Gram’s story. And saw Calamity Jane. Scott was driving but the roads were clear enough he was able to throw me some sideways glances.
But it had something to do with the disc, I told him. It never got cold and when I was on that bridge, I’d been holding it tight. Maybe that’s what it did for Gram? Scott asked if the disc ever did that for Jane in Gram’s stories or in that journal and I had to admit, no, it didn’t. But if it was alien, then who was I to say what it could do or even that it had to do the same for me that it had for Gram or Jane or anyone else? For Jane it played music. For me, YouTube?
We breezed through Alcova—traveling further back in time with every mile, or so it seemed—and before long I could see Independence Rock ahead, down a long stretch of highway. It wasn’t quite what I expected. The bare-rock hills behind and all around it made that stony dome seem so much smaller than Gram’s stories had painted it. But it stood apart all the same, more notable for not being a part of any stretch of rippling hills. A smooth blister of granite punched right out of the dirt.
And just beyond, much clearer that I expected it would be, I saw a clear cut in the rolling hills that could only be The Devil’s Gate. I sat so far forward in my excitement that I was fogging the windshield and Scott had to beg me to sit back. But I didn’t care. This was the site of one of my favorite parts of those stories. Where Calamity Jane and her alien gunslinger first really started to understand each other. First started to really joke with each other and trust one another. And if there was any place in all of Wyoming where proof of their passing might be found, it was here. Carved into the face of that dome or inside that rough pass.
There was this rest-stop style parking lot just shy of the rock and barbed wire and a cattle gate inviting tourists to explore one the Oregon Trail’s great landmarks. But I skipped all that noise. I stuffed some Hot Hands into my boots and gloves and just about ran through that lot and gate, down a path of crunching gravel and ice, to the foot of that huge stone. And as I slid to a stop in the grass at the base of the monument, bunnies scattered in every direction. Like they just blinked into existence by my being there. Little rabbits even shot straight up the face of the rock, gravity more of a suggestion than a rule.
I heaved great clouds of steam into the air around me as I took it all in. I was an ant next to a stone. But the late day sun threw my shadow large upon the face of the rock. And I started hopping in place, laughing as I did, because this wasn’t any fucking reconstruction. No historical interpretation or blue-haired old bitches to tell me I was disrespecting history. This was the real deal, cut from the Earth by time and weather. And all across it, faint in some places but clear as if they were new in others, the initials and messages and etchings of thousands of people were cut into the stone. Men and women, immigrants all, who camped here on their way to Oregon or California or Washington. And somewhere among, the scratches of a girl headed the other direction, and of an alien watching over her as she mingled and laughed with the pilgrims.
“Woo!” I shouted. And I thrilled to hear my call echo off that smooth rock, like Jane calling back to me from the past.
Some tourist wandering around the bend of that giant stone aimed a distinctly Midwestern frown at me. But I didn’t care. I was already jogging around the rock, leaning in to scan every etching I found. On the north face, I climbed up on the wrought-iron cages protecting the oldest and most precious markings. And on the back of the rock I hurried through a shadow that was already stretching a hundred yards into the neighboring pasture.
I flew through another cattle gate on the south side of the rock and scattered a hundred rabbits in every direction. I stretched out my arms and flew through them, my black cape become magpie wings as I swooped. And all across the face of the mountain—half-shrouded in dirt and grass down low or blinding against the blue sky and low sun up high—were the hard-carved messages of thousands watching me.
When I came back around the front of the rock, I saw Scott shivering right where I left him half-a-hour before. I took him by the hand and drew him close to the granite. I told him how Jane and her Green Man came across this giant rock and a train of settlers camped there. And how, like those settlers, Jane has left her mark in the rock—JCGM, I think it was. Initials etched into stone that, thanks to the dry weather on these high plains, might’ve survived more than a century and a half until now. It was one of Gram’s sweeter stories. Jane and her Green Man had really bonded, here. After some bloodshed, of course. Because, westerns.
He smiled and made some dick comment about needles and haystacks. So I just left him there to pout. I ran my hands across the smooth stone. Cold as ice. Quiet and untouched like time never tread here.
He was right, though. The chances of us finding Jane’s marks were slim. I didn’t even know where on the rock to start looking. And rushing around the monument as I was, I wouldn’t see but a fraction of the carvings. But with the light starting to fade—we maybe had 30 minutes of daylight left—I started moving more slowly across the face of the thing, skipping the bigger, more ostentatious markings, hunting for smaller, more intimate signs. I knew it was here. If there was any truth in Gram’s stories or that interview, then…
Jane Canary. Green Man. Four simple initials. The J almost an I it was so poorly shaped. The M with a chip taken out of it. But there it was. Low on this bulge of rock right where the monument folded in on itself toward the south, maybe two feet off the dirt. Faint, too. But unmistakable.
Scott was almost out of sight around the rock when I looked back toward him. I didn’t have any words. Just my fingers against my lips, holding in tears and laughter and screaming out.
Jane was here. Right here.
I screamed! Some kind of whoop I don’t think I’ve ever made before. And I clutched my fists so tight I just about popped those Hot Hands. I leaned in and put my face against that stone, my forehead right on the rock.
“Jane,” I whispered.
Scott ran over and I reached out a hand for him, my eyes still closed and my forehead still on that cold-ass stone. He took it. And we said nothing for a long time.
There wasn’t any magic or weird scifi shit, here. I took a deep breath of the cold air, filled my lungs with the scents of stone and dust and rabbit crap and sweat. The scents of a place unchanged.
I crouched down in the snow and just admired the letters, tracing them with an outstretched finger. Smooth as the granite around, they were. But charged. And damn if my finger didn’t seem to sparkle when I took it away—like I’d reached right into the hourglass of time itself. Or maybe it was the tiniest bits of the chisel Jane used to make these marks. Either way, I’d touched someplace she’d touched. Someplace she’d shaped. Was almost like touching her.
Scott snapped a lot of pictures, too. And for all the cold around me, I felt so warm inside. Was like that torn up postcard in Momma’s Honda was come to life, except younger and with an alien cowboy at her side. I laughed and watched those letters redden in the sinking light. This was no silent vision on a bridge. No warrior-girl from a story, acted out by Gram in the near-dark of my bedroom. These marks were real. They were true. And I found them.
Scott suggested any number of folks heading west might’ve had that combination of initials. I evil-eyed him with all my womanly powers and he didn’t say another word about it.
The sun was near setting and Scott finally convinced me it was time to go. We didn’t have a hotel or anything planned for the night, but we also didn’t have any signal out here, either, and he was nervous about the rest of the drive down to Rawlins in the dark. But as we walked away, my eyes kept fixed on that bulge of rock and those initials, so faint after just a few yards it was like they weren’t there at all. Like how any of us might fade on the leaving. But distance didn’t make them not so. And with the rock lit up in warm tones and the high plains all around streaked in long shadows, that lonely spot might’ve been the loveliest place in the world.
When I fell back into the car, everything was so much lighter. I felt perched on those shitty springs—buoyed. The setting sun flooded the car like it does in those movies where it always seems dawn or dusk and as I held that disc to the light it bounced around the car like off a disco ball. A disco disc! Was the first time Scott laughed about the whole thing, right then.
Maps or no, we left Independence Rock behind us—still lit up like a beacon even as we drove into shadow—and we hunted down the next few miles for the turn off to The Devil’s Gate. But in all the snow and fading light, wasn’t shit to be seen. Finally, I convinced Scott to pull into an overlook—the only exit we could pick out—and we slid through snow and gravel and ice toward a wooden fence and some collection of weird deer.
Beyond, some miles off and all dim and beautiful in the fading light, that slice though the rocks seemed more menacing and lovely than I’d imagined. It was easy to imagine Jane and her Green Man perched up in there, picking off their enemies, far off.
I got out of the car and leaned against the fence, scanning that distant pass, when all of a sudden the deer took flight. Bolting, like a flock of birds, away from the road and toward that distant cut through the stony hills.
I started to say something to Scott about it when I heard the crunch of tires through snow and gravel, the rev of an outsized engine.
I turned in time to see the white pickup slide to a shuddering stop across the drive leading back to the highway. And to see the doors fly open, the bartender from Boone’s dropping to the icy gravel with a rifle held in one hand.
“You folks need any help,” He asked, smiling like the devil, crunching ice as he started walking slowly toward me.
Scott looked back and forth between us but that bartender—what was his name? Wasn’t Boone. Crown, maybe?—he only looked at me. And that smile? Wasn’t like anything I’ve ever seen before. Not even the worst smile a man ever shone my way stunk like his.
“We’re ok, mister. Thanks,” Scott said.
The bartender nodded. “Who the fuck is talking to you?”
Scott started to step between the bartender and me when the driver of that truck came around the huge hood and cracked him across the jaw with the butt of a shotgun. Blood sprayed and froze and fell tinkling to the ice. He screamed and in the enormity of Wyoming it seemed to hardly make a sound.
“Scott!” I hollered. But I only heard him groan in response, fallen out of sight on the far side of the Honda. And that man that hit him, he just laughed.
“No, I reckon you need some help,” that bartender said, keeping on toward me.
“I think you might have us confused with someone else,” I said, quieter than I care to admit.
“No, no, no.” he said. “You’re just who we’re looking for. I’m certain of it.” And his smile cracked to show a darkness deeper than that gate behind me. “I’m damn certain. Ain’t no way I could forget a sight pretty as you.”
Scott started to say something but that driver cracked him again. I couldn’t see the hit but I could hear it. The sound of wood and brass on bone. The sound of air pushing through wetness.
The bartender stopped a few feet from me.
“Give me the disc.”
“What?” I said, genuinely confused.
“I ain’t going to ask twice,” he said. And with that he took the rifle up in both hands, close against his chest.
I backed up and bumped against the fence—gasping a little when I did—and looked around in a panic. I could hear Scott scratching against the ice, though I could only see the giant redneck standing over him, and I could hear a truck passing on the road south, hidden over a small hill. And I could see hundreds of miles of the high plains all around me, red in the light reflected down off the clouds by a sun that already quit the day.
I just shook my head—
Before I knew what was happening, the bartender was on me. He swung his rifle across my chest, hammering my arm and ribs with the body of it so hard I went down, scrapping against the rough wood of the fence before slamming into the frozen gravel and rock of the parking lot. He punched me in the gut and put all his weight onto me, crushing the wind right out of me.
Then that bartender pressed down the ice-cold barrel of his rifle against my throat, choking me. Was like having my neck crushed under some vice. The world spun. The purple sky overhead narrowed like some vignette. I turned my face against the gravel and tried to fight away, but I couldn’t move under his weight. And under the belly of the Honda, I could see Scott being beaten by the driver, too. Despite the thunder of blood in my ears and the crunch of gravel as I fought, I could hear him screaming.
Was something warm in my pocket, then. Not warm. Hot. Hot like the burners of an oven. Scalding, through my jeans. Burning deep into my bones.
The bartender flinched, lifting his bulk off my waist, the barrel off my neck.
“Fuck! What the fuck is that?” he hollered, clutching at his thigh, a circle burnt into the denim near his crotch.
I reached up and grabbed the fence, pulling myself back just enough to thrust my hand into the pocket where that alien disc was burning a hole through my clothes. Except it didn’t hurt to touch. Instead, all the sound fell away, like back on that bridge. All the pain in my leg, too. And I locked eyes with that bartender—him screaming something at me but nothing I could hear—and I told him, in a voice much younger than my own:
“You woke up the wrong fucking passenger, mister.”
A screech filled all the world. A screech so high and so loud the gravel around us shook off its ice. The truck’s headlights flashed in silent alarm until they exploded into glitter. Its windshield and windows split by rivulets before crumbling to powder. It was a screech so painful the bartender just about crushed his own head trying to muffle it. Finally, he arched backward in agony—his head and boots almost closing a circle—and blood and little bits of meat blew out of his ears and he crumpled to the ground.
The screech died as quickly as it began. Just the wind sounded in the West.
I scrambled to my feet and grabbed up the bartender’s gun off the ground, screaming in terror and rage all the while. Trying to fill up the world with my noise same as that disc had done. And I went wild, losing track of myself as I beat that bartender with his own rifle, with my fist, with my boots, with my own fingernails digging into his throat.
Scott pulled me away.
I kicked and fought him but he took the gun from me. He stopped me. He beat out the fire simmering around the hole in my jeans and my cape. And he hugged me. He hugged me tighter than even Gram did that night when Momma left us. So tight I couldn’t fight back.
He brought me back to myself.
He held me close. I turned my head against his coat and saw the white pickup truck in ruins. The men in pools of blood draining from their ears.
The Honda stood untouched.
I looked up and touched the sides of Scott’s face. There was no blood running from his ears. From his nose and cheeks, there was plenty, but not from his ears.
“What was that?” He asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t know. I just—”
I reached into my pocket, the disc’s shining facets visible through the hole it burnt through my clothes. And when I plucked it out, the cold air hit my unburnt skin like a damn knife.
“The Green Man,” I told him.