At six a.m., full dark, Lucius killed the nagging alarm clock with several badly aimed swats. We hastily dressed, took brief turns in the bathroom for essentials but no showers, and got checked out.
Gullivar drove. The last night’s fog had laid down a blanket of frost that shone under the headlights. Clouds hid the stars. We made a brief stop at a Burger King a few blocks away to get Lucius a thirty-two-ounce Diet Pepsi, found 197 south, and then wound up out of the Gorge and onto the high rangeland. After half an hour we’d left the sleeping hamlet of Dufur well behind and the sky began to lighten, revealing brown scrubland populated with sagebrush and a few lonely juniper.
“Uh oh,” Gullivar said. I pulled forward from the back seat to see him glancing frantically from the speedometer to the road. “We never filled up last night, did we?” The needle hovered just above empty. “What’s the next town?”
I got out a National Geographic map and determined it was Maupin, about fifteen miles away.
Lucius heaved forward to peer at the gauge, then settled back with a sigh. “We won’t make it.”
“We’ll make it,” I said. He grunted and looked away, scowling.
A sign loomed: “Maupin, 26 Miles.”
And then the countdown began. The length of a marathon lay between us and a gas stop. We had no cell phone and hadn’t seen anyone else on the road. Twenty-two miles. Twenty. Eighteen. Lucius drummed the backs of his knuckles on the window with his head cocked next to them as if to judge the tone. He strained to look as high into the dark sky as he could. Gullivar’s blank face shone green-tinged from the dash lights. Fifteen miles. The gauge needle tapped rock bottom, quivering. Twelve. The low fuel light came on. Eight. The needle lay slack.
In the distance, a street light appeared and then reappeared as we topped each rise. The tightness in my guts relaxed. We passed a sign advertising a motel.
Gullivar pulled us into a dirt lot beside a two-story house, a sodium arc lamp shining to one side. The porch sat in an island of white light from a small bulb. Beyond the house, a low dark building comprised the units, barely visible against the predawn gray. I volunteered to ask the questions. As I got out, I could see through the house’s curtained window that another light had come on far inside. A big dog woofed.
At my approach, a middle-aged woman cracked the door, holding aloft a coffee mug as a Doberman tried to push out against the chain latch. She was already dressed, but the coffee evidently hadn’t kicked in. Her eyes were bleary.
“Sorry to bother you, but we’ve almost run out of gas.” She nodded. I waited. “Do you have any you could sell us?”
“No, I don’t.”
“How far is it to Maupin?”
“About four miles.”
“When does their gas station open?”
“I don’t know.” She yelled for the dog to get down; it retreated into the house while she lingered.
I waited some more. She waited back.
“Okay, thanks. Sorry for the trouble.”
* * *
Back in the car, I gave my report. Lucius waved a hand in resignation. The sky began to lighten. Thin clouds had rolled over. At least we weren’t a day’s hike from civilization now. The car made a faint stutter as Gullivar drove, which triggered a growl from Lucius. Gullivar’s hands knotted on the wheel as if he might push the car by force of will.
At last we hit the gentle, curving downgrade through Maupin. Saved. After we passed several small ramblers alternating with shops, the dark gas station loomed on the right and we saw that it was closed. I got out and went to the door and found that we had another hour till opening time, provided they’d open at all on New Year’s Day.
Maybe not so saved.
A block further, in a row of single-story shops, the town diner was open, and we went and had breakfast. The waitress opined that the gas station might open soon and then again, it might not. Lucius remained surly; after eating my eggs and bacon, I got up and walked outside. A little fog hung on the street. I glanced over at the gas station: still closed.
I came back and sat down.
“How much longer?” Lucius asked. I told him forty minutes. He asked again at thirty and at fifteen and ten.
At last, with five minutes to go, we left and drove back to the station and waited in the lot.
“We’re fucked,” Lucius said.
Ten more minutes passed. Fifteen. A battered old red Chevy pickup eased into the lot and pulled beside the office entrance. A guy in coveralls got out and carried a wad of keys to the door. Gullivar started up the Blazer and drove us over to a pump. The attendant took his time going inside. He didn’t turn on any lights.
“Jeez, is he going to help us, or what?” said Lucius, nearly in a whine.
I got out, went and dithered by the pickup. After half a minute, the guy emerged with a toolbox. “Are you open?” I asked.
He hefted the toolbox over the tailgate, and shot me an amused look. “I wasn’t coming in this morning, but I had to get something. You’re pretty optimistic looking for gas on New Year’s Day.” I waited. He grinned. “All right, give me a minute and I’ll set you up.” He went back into the store.
I heaved a sigh and walked back to stand by the car. Gullivar rolled the window down. Lucius, irate, leaned over him toward me. “What the fuck?”
“He’s turning on the pump,” I said. Lucius subsided with a grunt.
“Say, can you drive the next leg?” asked Gullivar. He got out, and took the back seat.
The attendant came back, took my twenty in cash. He gripped the handle while the display ticked off the pennies like seconds. It’s Oregon law that you don’t pump your own gas. Lucius leaned over onto the now-empty front seat and stared at us, a caged zoo bear watching the keepers. I turned away from him to the attendant. “How’s the chukar hunting?” I asked, referring to a partridge imported from Asia to the local high desert. My dad used to hunt from the Gorge to Maupin with our headstrong Brittany Spaniel, Max.
“Not too good,” he said. “Rains killed most of the chicks this year…. Okay, you’re all set.”
I thanked him, and got in the Blazer. Lucius now wore a shitty grin: “’How’s the chu-CKER huntin’, Jim Bob?’ Seriously?”
We had just over half a tank now, which was plenty to reach Madras or Bend, where there’d be no question of getting more and getting it cheaper.
I drove us off, and as we approached the Deschutes River just below town, we passed the high school. “Go Redsides!” said the marquee.
“What’s a redside?” asked Lucius.
“It’s a trout.”
“What kind of trout?”
“A rainbow.” And then I lied: “One that’s spawned out and moribund.”
“Really? That’s perfect.” He fished out his notebook and pen from the door pocket. Then he settled the notebook on his stomach as he leaned back and began to scribble.