Just outside of James Town, Wyoming
The Hi-Way Café
Winters were bitterly cold this far north and this particular season had seen its share of sub-zero days. The Hi-Way Café, situated along a major east-west corridor through Southern Wyoming, seemed to invite a good deal of frozen truck drivers and weary travelers.
The building was old, immune to the cold with its thick, masonry walls because it had once been a stage stop back in the days of the cowboys when outlaws and lawmen would roam the barren hills in search of both prey and shelter. The structure had a vibe about it that was simultaneously inviting and foreboding; it looked like it was off of a studio back lot where the only people who entered it were those who were taken by mutants in the hills, never to be seen again.
It had been a bitterly cold night that had translated into a bitterly cold morning. Close to noon, the temperature was still flirting in the teens and the café had seen a lot of cold truck drivers crammed into its small dining room that morning, now cleared out because they all had some place to be. All that was left was some old hobo seated at the counter, a half-filled cup of coffee in front of him as his distant gaze stared off into nothingness. It was the face of defeat.
But the employees didn’t pay much attention to the tired old man as they went about their chores. Two cooks in the kitchen were prepping for the noon meal while the busboy, a local kid who worked more than forty hours a week to support his alcoholic mother, swept up the old, linoleum floor. The owner, a former truck driver with the smell of smoke about him, sat in the tiny and cluttered office talking on the phone to his shrew of a wife while the two waitresses wiped off tables and tidied up the dining room.
The older waitress was a brunette with eyes that went in different directions while the younger waitress, in her mid-thirties, looked sorely out of place. She was a beautiful woman in the midst of worn out and colorless surroundings. A few inches over five feet, she had a spectacular figure concealed beneath her plain white blouse and faded black work pants, and her long honey-colored hair was pulled back in a tight bun against the back of her head. She didn’t wear much make-up and she usually had circles around her green eyes, but neither detracted from her stunning beauty.
No one knew much about her, however. She had shown up six months earlier and spent twelve hours sitting in one of the booths, drinking cup after cup of dark coffee, before the owner approached her and they struck up a conversation. Next thing he realized, he’d hired this mysterious and beautiful woman who went by the name of Clover. He paid her cash under the table and she seemed fine with that. She worked seventy hours a week for her five hundred dollars a week pay envelope, no questions asked.
The owner had never seen a more diligent worker; she was smart and knew how to deal appropriately with any customer. In fact, she had a lot of regulars who came around just to chat with her, but no one knew much more than her name. She never gave out any more information than that and when pressed, she would joke her way out of it. This elegant, sweet, intelligent and beautiful woman was a complete enigma to the employees and customers of The Hi-Way Café.
With her portion of the restaurant cleaned up, Clover made her way back to the counter and began wiping it down. The old hobo, still staring off into space, lifted his cup when she passed by as if remembering to drink. It was too cold to go outside so he needed to pretend that he was still working on his coffee so they wouldn’t kick him out. Clover, a rag in hand, finally glanced over at the old guy with the torn coat and heavy bag. Casually, she picked up the coffee pot and filled his cup back up to the rim. When he looked at her, she winked.
“Don’t worry,” she said softly. “You’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Just relax.”
The old man smiled, displaying the only two teeth he had in his head. “It’s sure cold out there.”
Clover set the coffee pot back down on the warmer. “Yes, it is,” she agreed, looking out of the windows at the snow covered landscape beyond. “I’ve never seen a winter like this.”
The old man sipped at his hot coffee. “I don’t know what made me come to Wyoming,” he said, looking over his shoulder at the same landscape she was looking at. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Clover grinned, showing off a spectacular smile. “That’s what I thought when I came here. Now I’m not so sure.”
The hobo turned to look at her. “Where are you from?”
Clover’s smile faded. “Far away,” she said. “Very far away. We don’t have snow where I come from.”
“Where’s that?” the old man pressed, purely for the sake of conversation. “South?”
Clover nodded. “South,” she said. “How about you? Where are you from?”
The hobo threw a thumb back over his shoulder, indicating one of a million directions. “Texas,” he said. “Van Horn. Have you heard of it?”
Clover nodded, noticing that a sheriff’s unit was pulling in to their parking lot outside. “I’ve driven through it,” she told him. “I used to take road trips with my folks when I was a kid. My parents had an old tent trailer they used to pull around behind my dad’s 1971 Ford Pinto. We camped in Van Horn once. There’s not much there.”
The old man lifted his bushy eyebrows as if to agree. “That’s why I left.”
He went back to sipping his coffee and Clover put her cleaning rag under the counter, moving to start another pot of coffee as a sheriff’s deputy came inside. Bitter wind howled in after him, lifting the old vertical blinds on the windows nearest the door as he shut the panel behind him. Clover looked up from measuring coffee.
“Sit anywhere,” she told the deputy.
The man nodded in thanks and lumbered towards the counter. He was bundled up in a regulation uniform and duty-issued cold weather jacket, fur-lined. He had heavy gloves on his hands, pulling them off as he approached the counter. The regulation cowboy hat came off next and he sat that, and the gloves, down on the white Formica counter. Clover alternately poured the water into the coffee machine and watched the deputy as he unzipped his coat.
“Coffee?” she asked him.
He nodded as he pulled off the jacket. “Please.”
Clover finished pouring the water and flipped on the machine. Picking up a mug and a half-filled coffee pot that had been on a warmer, she went to the deputy and poured him a full cup as he slung his jacket over the back of the chair next to him.
As she poured, she began to notice just how big he was; he had enormous hands and, once the jacket came off, enormous arms and very broad shoulders. He was at least four or five inches over six feet and when she happened to glance at his face, she could see an extremely square jaw on his cold-pinched face. His dark hair was neatly cut and she was seriously checking him out as his bright blue eyes fixed on her.
“Thanks,” he said as he sat heavily and picked up the coffee cup.
“You’re welcome,” she said, tearing her gaze off of him as she set the coffee pot back on the warmer. “Do you want to see a menu or do you know what you want?”
He sipped at his very hot coffee. “Do you have a BLT sandwich?”
Clover nodded. “On white or wheat?”
“French fries or fruit?”
“Fruit. Can I also get a salad with that?”
“Ranch, Italian, honey-mustard, or bleu cheese?”
“You got it.”
Clover turned around and picked up her ticket book, writing the order down and posting it for the cook. Then she went to go fill up a glass of water for the deputy and a second one for the hobo. She set the glass down in front of the old man first and then two chairs down the counter, set the second glass in front of the deputy.
“Busy out there today?” she asked the man pleasantly.
He pulled a couple of Advil out of his pocket, giving her a half-grin. “A little,” he said. “Hopefully the rest of the day will be calm.” He thumped on the counter in a “knock on wood” gesture.
Clover grinned at him. “Then I wish you luck,” she said, her gaze lingering on him for a moment. “We haven’t seen you around here. Are you new?”
He tossed back the Advil and drank the entire glass of water to chase it. “No,” he said, shaking his head and wiping his mouth. “I’m not from Sweetwater County. I’m from up north in Fremont County.”
She cocked her head. “You’re a ways from home.”
He nodded and collected his coffee cup. His blue eyes were fixed on her, perhaps studying her as if he just realized how truly beautiful she really was. In fact, his entire manner softened a little as his piercing gaze seemed to study every contour of her face.
“A little ways,” he concurred quietly. “I’m just heading back from some business in Salt Lake City.”
“I see,” Clover said, noticing over his shoulder that another car was pulling in to the parking lot. It was a beat-up four door sedan but she didn’t pay any more attention than that. “Well, drive safe, deputy. The roads are icy right now.”
He sighed wearily. “No kidding,” he said. “I’ve already come across two accidents this morning. I’ve spent the past hour helping clear one a couple of miles west of here.”
“Then I’ll keep the coffee coming. You must be half- frozen.”
“You could probably light me on fire right now and I wouldn’t feel it.”
Clover laughed softly, not really having too much more to say, but her smile was warm. He returned the smile. She turned away, still grinning, thinking that the man made her feel the least bit giddy. He was damn good looking and that baritone voice bubbling up from his toes had her heart racing just a little.
In the cook’s window, his sandwich and salad were waiting so she collected them both and placed them carefully in front of him just as three young men entered the restaurant. They were all bundled up against the cold, which was normal, so Clover didn’t give them a second look as she picked up some extra napkins for the deputy and put them by his coffee cup. She was moving to refill his water glass when one young man threw off his heavy coat and produced a gun.
“Everybody stay put,” he ordered, the gun pointing right at the deputy’s back. “Sheriff, if you turn around, I’m gonna blow your head off. Understand?”
The deputy froze, as did Clover and the hobo. The other waitress, who had been coming to the front of the restaurant from the kitchen door, shrieked when she saw the gun, causing one of the young men to run over and grab her. He forced her into a chair as she screamed and he brought out another gun from his belt and pointed it right at her.
“Shut up!” he yelled at her.
The waitress buried her face in her hands and wept. The third young man, tall and skinny and nervous, rushed at the cash register. He had a grocery bag in his hand.
“You!” he threw a finger at Clover. “Open this!”
Clover did as she was told. She was surprisingly cool as she moved to the register, entered a “no sale”, and the drawer popped open. The skinny kid waved a sharp hand at her.
“Back off,” he ordered.
She did, going back to her original position in front of the deputy. Meanwhile, the deputy calmly set his sandwich down and put his hands on the counter where they were in plain sight. He kept his gaze focused on Clover. She met his gaze with little fear in her face; she mostly looked concerned. She was a cool woman, not one to go crazy with fright. As the deputy gazed at her, he could see that innate control and it impressed him. There was something about her that was magnetic and calm, even under fire. Had he not been so concerned for what was going on behind him, he would have found her demeanor utterly fascinating.
“Sorry we gotta do this,” the first young man with the gun said. “Times are tough for everybody. Nobody move and you’ll all live through this.”
The employees and patrons of the grill didn’t say a word. The first young man moved closer, keeping the gun trained on the deputy’s broad back. His nervous gaze moved over the restaurant, seeking out anything else he could steal. He passed over the hobo and went straight to Clover.
“You gotta safe in the back?” he asked.
Clover nodded steadily. “There’s one in the office,” she said. “But it was emptied last night. There won’t be any more money in it until the end of the work day.”
The young man looked at her as if he didn’t believe her. Then he looked at the deputy. “Stand up, Sheriff,” he commanded.
Slowly, the deputy stood up, still facing Clover. His gaze never left her and Clover gazed back at him, silently imparting her encouragement to him. But he didn’t seem to need it; there was more than calmness in his gaze - there was utter control, concern for his situation, and perhaps some scheming going on, as if he were planning his big move to see them all safely out of this predicament. Clover could see his determination in his face; he was going to make it out of there alive. He kept his hands where they could be seen as the young man with the gun came to within a few feet of him, the barrel of the gun pointing at the middle of his back.
“Take your gun belt off,” the young man told him. “Let it fall to the ground.”
The deputy unhooked his Sam Browne and the entire belt fell to the ground, service weapon included. Once that was done, the young man with the gun walked up behind him and pistol-whipped him on the back of the head. The deputy fell like a stone.
The waitress with her face in her hands screamed at the violent action. Even Clover jumped, horrified at the sight of the deputy now motionless on the floor. The robber who had been watching the waitress ran into the kitchen and emerged a few moments later with the cooks, the busboy, and the owner, everyone with their hands up. He grouped them all near the weeping waitress.
“Hurry up,” he told the skinny kid collecting the last of the money from the register. “We need to get out of here.”
The skinny kid had his money, or at least all that was in the register. He began rifling through the candy at the counter, throwing that in the bag as well, as the first robber with the gun stood over the unconscious deputy. He reached down and unsnapped the man’s service holster, pulling forth the service revolver. He looked it over.
“This is nice,” he said. “I may have to keep this.”
At his feet, the deputy stirred, and he pointed the service weapon at the man’s head as he came around.
“Don’t get up,” he told the man. Then, he sighed heavily. “See, now? I told you not to look at me and you did. Now you know my face.”
Clover, still rooted to the spot, could see the deputy’s groggy expression as he gazed up at the robber. Even so, there was no fear there whatsoever, but Clover was feeling a good deal of apprehension. She didn’t like what the robber said or the way he said it. It led her to believe that the deputy was in danger, much more than the rest of them. The robber was zeroed in on the man’s badge and what he represented. She could already see it wasn’t going to go well for him.
At her feet at the base of the counter, tucked in under the lip of the bottom shelf, was a loaded rifle. The owner always kept it there for times such as this. In fact, he’d been robbed three times in the past year alone. Being a lonely stop on a lonely highway, they got their share of shifty characters. Clover had always known the gun was there but she’d never had to get near it much less use it. Still, she couldn’t let the robber shoot the deputy in cold blood. She knew that was where it was headed simply by the way the robber was speaking; her training, in her past life, told her as much. Once, very long ago, she had dealt with people like this on a daily basis. She knew she had to gain the upper hand and she had to get that deputy off the ground. If she didn’t, things were going to be very bad, indeed.
“What am I supposed to do now?” the first robber said, bent over the supine deputy. “If you saw my face, then you can identify me and I don’t want to go to jail. So what am I supposed to do?”
He pointed the service revolver at the deputy’s face. The deputy didn’t flinch as he looked down the barrel of his own gun.
“Right now, you’d just be held for armed robbery,” he said evenly. “If you kill me, it’ll be murder and Wyoming is a capital punishment state. Robbery will get you ten years, maybe less. It’s really your choice if you want to die by lethal injection or just spend the next ten years in prison.”
The robber shook his head sadly. “If you aren’t around to identify me, then I can’t get caught,” he said, a ludicrous statement considering everyone in the restaurant had seen him. “I’m gonna have to kill you.”
“You need to reconsider that action.”
He said it so calmly, as if discussing the weather. Meanwhile, the skinny kid who had stolen all the money and candy was now rifling through the gift shop items they had on a shelf, stealing little knick-knacks. The second robber with a gun was holding the weapon on the cooks, owner, and the other waitress. His attention was diverted by the owner, who was trying to talk him out of robbing him. Only Clover and the hobo weren’t being closely watched and she knew she had to move. It was now or never while everyone was diverted. She wouldn’t have a second chance.
Under the radar, she reached out and collected the deputy’s empty water glass on the counter in front of her. Making sure that the robbers’ attention was still elsewhere, she threw the glass as hard as she could at the front door. As it exploded against the doorframe, she hit the floor and grabbed the rifle behind the counter. She rolled to her knees, using the counter as a shield, and fired off a well-aimed shot at the first robber, hitting him squarely in the torso.
The first robber launched backwards with the force of the blow, hitting the old linoleum floor in an explosion of blood as the deputy’s service revolver flew out of his hand and landed not too far from where the deputy was still on his back. But before the deputy could get to his weapon, Clover expended the used shell and turned the rifle on the second robber with the gun. He was running towards her and managed to peel off a shot that ruptured the coffee machine behind her. Clover deftly ducked it, cocked the rifle, and got off a second well-aimed blast that hit the second robber in the head.
His skull exploded, sending blood and tissue everywhere. Meanwhile, the deputy was up with his revolver in his hand, pointing it at the third robber, who was, by now, screaming that he didn’t want to die. He threw the money bag on the ground and lifted his hands into the air, begging the deputy not to shoot him. Behind him, the deputy could hear Clover cocking the rifle again and he threw up a hand to stop her.
“No more,” he told her, his focus on the quivering robber, now down on his knees. “It’s all over.”
Clover held the rifle with a rock-steady grip, the sites on the sobbing robber. She just stood there, holding it, her finger on the trigger as if waiting for the man to make a wrong move so she could take his head off, too.
So many thoughts and memories suddenly flashed before her eyes at that moment, things she hadn’t thought of in six months; her husband, her two young children, a boy and a girl giggling at her, calling her “mommy”. Then there was her job, a badge on her chest, her assignment to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Gang Taskforce that took six years of her life.
Commendations. Arrests. Trials. A man with the gang moniker of Mickey Mouse with a teardrop tattooed on his face telling her that she would live to regret the day she was born. She didn’t believe him, of course, until her husband was driving the children to school in her car one day and Mickey Mouse and his friends were lying in wait a block from the school.
Ambush. Blood. Death.
The rifle fell out of her hands. She was whirling blindly for the kitchen door, bolting through it as the deputy called after her. She had her car keys in her pocket because she always kept them with her and her car was parked back behind the grill. She jumped in the car without her purse or any of her identification and tore off in the direction of Green River, a little town where she rented a little one bedroom trailer for two hundred dollars a month, month to month.
She cleaned out the little home in twenty-seven minutes and then she was back on the road again, leaving everything behind just as she had done before. She didn’t care about the possessions; she only cared about getting away. Her fragile heart and fragile mind couldn’t handle anything else. She knew if she had remained with the deputy and gave a police report about the incident at the Hi-Way, that they would need her real name and once she gave that, it would all come out. The truth. Then she couldn’t hide from it anymore.
She couldn’t face the truth. She had to keep running.