Adventures of Cookie the Stray, Chapter 15
The wind was picking up speed swirling the leaves into uneasy circles along the tracks ahead of Rusty. His mind lingered on the news report he’d seen while at the convenience store. News of Connie’s disappearance weighed heavily on his mind while other thoughts drifted to the weather report. By late afternoon the storm might drop several inches of snow into the area.
He knew he should be taking cover in a safe place for the night. “But I’m so close to the camp,” he thought. Then he wondered about the dogs and how they would manage in the upcoming storm. It made him remember another night long ago, a different storm that made him seek shelter.
A Different Time - A Different Place
The temperatures had been dropping steadily as the train passed through Nebraska and into Omaha where word had it, a solid day’s work awaited. He’d spent a long eighteen hour day loading pallets out of a closed up warehouse onto semi-tractor trailers headed elsewhere. The pay would take his secret fund to a sizeable level where he had set his goal before winter set in. When the work finished up, he planned to spend little time in the frigid climate before heading to a warmer place. It would be the next day before a train heading south would roll through. Visibility was minimal as he hiked near the highway leading to his favorite valley where he could hop aboard. He knew that his chances were slim for thumbing down a ride in the blizzard that was brewing.
The neon lights of an off-brand motel called to him and as he approached the two-story structure he spotted a figure huddling beside the soda machine, just out of sight of the motel office. At first glance, it looked like an errant pile of laundry, collecting a dusting of featherweight snow. Then the pile moved and a hand reached out, beckoning to him.
“Say, fella,” the lump spoke. “Could you spare a few bucks? I haven’t eaten in days.” Rusty looked into the man’s bleary eyes and compassion drove him to help a fellow traveler down on his luck..
“I have a better idea,” he said. “Give me a minute to check in here and we’ll share a meal.”
“Bless you, friend,” the voice told him. Rusty pulled open the door against pellets of ice driving into his face and hands.
Before you can eat...
“How much for a room?” he asked the clerk who looked up from a novel propped against the counter. He pushed his thick glasses up the bridge of his nose and consulted a chart.
“Forty-seven dollars for a single,” his stubby index finger held a place on the page.
“Do you have a double?”
“Just one left,” the clerk said. “You know, with the weather like it is.” Rusty looked at the pegboard behind the desk where two room keys hung side by side. “But it’s a nice cozy room with two twin beds and the mattresses are nearly new.” The clerk had found some selling skills.
“How much for that one?”
“Those run fifty-nine dollars.” He thought about the man outside shivering in the cold and about the many times he had been down on his luck between jobs. It would cost him only twelve dollars to help out a stranger and a restless night of guilt-ridden sleeplessness if he didn’t. He’d worked several days, off-loading crates of produce and groceries out of a tractor-trailer behind a store before the pallet job. The usual store clerk had broken his arm and was on light duty for a while. Between the jobs, Rusty had a nice stash of bills from the last several weeks of effort. On his way south, he would add them to his lock box under the tree. Rusty pulled three twenties out of the zippered compartment on his backpack and handed them to the clerk.
“I’ll take it.” The clerk turned an open ledger book around for Rusty to sign his name.
“How’s the food at the diner?” He pointed to a rounded trailer on the opposite side of the parking lot.
“The meatloaf special is the best deal,” the clerk said. “It comes with soup and fresh rolls and it’s real good.” The clerk reached into a drawer. “In fact, I have this coupon for a two-for-one dinner with the motel stay.” Rusty took the dollar change and stuffed it in his pants pocket and headed back out to where the homeless guy was still sitting on the sidewalk.
“Let’s get something to eat,” Rusty told him. The guy hopped up and gathered his few possessions before following his new companion across the parking lot.
Over meatloaf and several helpings of the family style meal, Rusty learned that the guy was between what he called jobs. In reality, he wasn’t far removed from a party crasher, making his way across the country to any dog show that was being held. He pulled out a worn brochure from his jacket that listed all the regional events. Lines were drawn through the ones he’d already attended.
“Of course, I manage to clean up my act before I make my way in the auditorium,” he confided. “I spring for a haircut and a razor to take care of this.” He rubbed his stubbly chin and went on to explain his creative way of getting past the ticket takers at the door. “Then, I just mingle with the crowd and act like I belong.” He shoveled another mouthful of roll into his open mouth. “You should see some of the lookers who bring their mutts to these things,” he told his new friend, gravy trickling down his chin. “Oooh, la, la,” he said with an exaggerated wink. “These women book rooms in fancy hotels with all the amenities like free breakfast and fluffy robes. Most of the shows have buffet dinners after the event.” He smiled slyly and added, “I manage to get myself invited every time.”
“So you like dogs, Jeb?” Rusty asked while the other guy sluiced gravy over a fresh slab of meat loaf.
“Oh, hell no,” he answered wrinkling his nose. “Those flea bags stink and get hair all over the place.” The front doors of the diner clanked as if an invisible guest had opened them a few inches, then, changed their mind about coming in.
Rusty’s opinion was already changing toward the guy whose predatory nature was clear in his words. As the wind picked up and the snow clouds thickened, he was already beginning to regret his decision to help. But the room was reserved and he figured for one night he could manage to help out a fellow human being.
Daylight streamed in through a gap in the blackout curtains across the front window. Rusty immediately looked across the room to the other bed. It was rumpled, messy and empty. A trail of used towels led from the bathroom where the moisture from a hot shower lingered in the warm air. Rusty’s concern shifted to his backpack. He’d put it alongside the bed on his side of the room, placing it in a certain way. From the way it tilted, he knew it had been moved.
He quickly unzipped the side pouch where the money from his last few weeks of work was hidden in his shaving kit. Both the kit and its contents were missing. Between the heavy meal, the soft bed and the unusually warm temperatures of the controlled air, he’d slept like a rock.
“I should’ve known better,” he scolded himself. Then he gathered his things, locked the bolt on the motel room door and headed for the shower.
© 2017 Peg Cole