A Cool Breeze in August by Rick Stein



John Simmons sat quietly on that stinking hot August day, listening to the wheels grind over the seams in the railroad track. Like a rapid-fire machine gun, the persistent “rat-a-tat-tat” ticked off the miles through the Oklahoma flatlands. The train was old, even for 1953. Wooden floors exposed the path countless passengers had worn over the two decades the train had commuted through the Midwest. The air conditioner, in a desperate attempt to work, whimpered a pathetic moan like a wounded animal and was, as usual, useless. They called the plastic seats “faux leather,” giving them a sense of undeserved quality. Faux or real, when it’s that hot, sweat runs down your back, your shirt sticks to your skin, and together they attach to the plastic. The fan, the woman opposite John was waving gave her no relief, nor did her cranky son. The boy raised everyone’s misery quotient with his whining.

“Stop fussin’, Nathan, and sit still,” Fan Lady barked at the boy.

“But, it’s hot, mama. When we gonna be there?”

“In about an hour if the train don’t stop again.”

It was not unusual in this flat, featureless prairie for a stray cow to find comfort on the tracks necessitating a pause in the journey long enough to remove the interloper.

“Listen to your radio, Nathan. It will help to pass the time and stop fussin’ so much!”

The boy adjusted his uncooperative suspenders and sat back to the strains of Hank Williams twanging through “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The song ended and the announcer revealed the obvious: “This is 96.1 KXY radio from Oklahoma City. It is a steamy 84 degrees at 10 am, going up to a high of 95 with 90 percent humidity. Yes, folks, it’s going to be another hot one!”

John Simmons was 6’2”. His frame did not fit well in his seat, which angled slightly, too upright for him to sit back and stretch his legs. Even if he could, there was little room between himself and Fan Lady. Migrant workers were here too, going to Texas to pick avocados and other fruits. The Spanish tongue and midwest English drawl competed against each other like two violins playing a soulful country ballad and The Mexican hat dance simultaneously, completely unaware of the other. Its staccato and legato phrases were a counterpoint to the groan of the air conditioner. The dissonance added to the passenger’s overall wretchedness. Fan Lady was anxious to move so her son would not stare at John Simmons. The reason was painfully obvious. It was his shackles.

Simmons was oblivious to all but the oppressive heat. Sweat ran off his forehead onto his wire-rimmed glasses, which he could not wipe, as the handcuffs connected to the chain around his waist were attached to the shackles. These iron restraints, resembling a poorly designed highway system running over his body, kept him immobile, exactly what a man accused of murder should be as he is transported by the bounty hunter who caught him. He was on his way to Wichita, Kansas, for trial. There was no doubt as to his guilt. He already confessed and had no regrets. When Lucas Sanchez, bounty hunter extraordinaire, burst into his hotel room Simmons merely sighed and shot his hands in front of him, ready for the cuffs.

“John Simmons, I am bringing you to Kansas to stand trial for the murder of your brother-in-law, Steven Perkins. And I, sir, am going to collect my $25,000 bounty.”

Simmons was silent. He knew he could not run forever and that this day was inevitable. He merely nodded his head, resigned to his fate. Ironically, he felt relieved. The year-long run from the law was over. Maybe if he would have stayed, a jury would have been more sympathetic to his story. He would now have to tell it after being a fugitive.

Lucas Sanchez was tall, as well. But whereas Simmons was slight of build, Sanchez was burly and muscular, the same gritty stock as the workers he chatted with. Given a choice between slaving in the heat ten to twelve hours a day for pennies or chasing fugitives for dollars and being his own man, Sanchez chose the latter.

“We got time, Simmons. And you ain’t goin’ nowhere. So, tell me, why’d ya kill him? You don’t have to tell me, but like I said, we got time.”

The captive turned towards the window. The last thing he wanted was to give explanations to this man who saw him only as a winning lottery ticket. The train slowed around a curve. He watched as a bird flew up, lingered, and fluttered away. He wished he could do the same.

Simmons turned towards the Mexican and, in a soft, measured voice, asked, “Can I impose upon you to wipe the sweat off my glasses?” He rattled his chains.

“Sure. Why not? You know Simmons, I ain’t heartless and this ain’t personal. I just look at it as doing the public a favor by bringing a criminal to justice and making a living at the same time. I got family, ya’ know!”

With that, the bounty hunter removed the wire rims from his neighbor’s face, took a wet, stained, red plaid handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped the lenses. Seeing that he merely smeared perspiration and dirt over the glass, he put each one near his mouth, exhaled forcefully, adding to the humidity, and wiped even more vigorously. Convinced the lenses were better, he returned them to their owner with unexpected care.

“So, Simmons, I did you a favor. Now, it’s your turn. Why’d ya do it?”

The fugitive once again turned towards the window. His winged companion had flown. Miles of wheat and corn rushed by with only a few farmhouses dotting the landscape. In the distance, perhaps over Kansas, a few dark clouds were forming.

“Yeah, I see them too,” his captor offered. “Maybe it will rain and cool us off a bit.”

“That would be most welcome.”

“You talk funny, Simmons,” the Mexican revealed a broad smile with an uneven array of stained yellow teeth.

The train would stop briefly in Elk City. The passengers could get off but stay on the platform.

“Let’s go, Simmons. I need to stretch my legs. Better wait for the rest to go first. You ain’t gonna be movin’ too fast.”

As passengers walked by, they gave a short but curious stare at Simmons. Fan Lady’s son, unable to hold back, blurted, “Why is that man in chains, mama?”

“Oh, hush up and keep movin!”

The two men, one walking and one shuffling, made their way onto the platform. As the train belched steam, the bounty hunter took a pack of Camels from his pocket. He pulled one out and tapped it on the side of the pack. Cupping his hands around the flame as a whisper of a breeze wafted through the stifling humidity, he lit the stick. The rush of smoke stung his eyes and made him squint. He looked at his captive. Simmons stood motionless, pathetic and helpless.

“You want a smoke, Simmons?”

Simmons looked at the Camel and said nothing. He just nodded. The Mexican lit it with his own and placed it between his lips.

The larger man took a drag and gazed north. “Looks like rain is heading this way.”

Simmons looked towards the darkening and the endless expanse of wheat. A man could get lost here, he thought.

He had tried and failed. His thoughts strayed to his younger sister, Lily, now a widow and living with an aunt because she couldn’t live alone. “Lily” fit her well. A fragile flower. A loving, good-natured child. She was, as they said in hushed whispers, “a bit slow in the head.”

“Something just ain’t quite right with that girl,” they’d say, pointing at their temples.

Their parents always cautioned John to “keep an eye out for your little sister,” and he did. She was precious to him. Sitting on the veranda at night, she’d say, “Tell me a story, Johnny,” and her brother would explain the constellations, fabricating stories about Orion the Bear and The Little Dipper. She’d put her head on his shoulder and listen. He could look into her eyes, behind that sweet smile, beyond that childlike naivety, and see something missing, a clarity that just wasn’t there. A pretty girl who grew into a beautiful young woman with a fine figure, she would have been a fine catch for a young man if only she were, well… normal.

She met Steven Perkins at a Saturday night dance. He was twelve years her senior, drank heavily, swore often, and couldn’t keep a job. But, he could be charming. He certainly charmed Lily, who, being too naïve, did not realize his intentions. Lily was just happy to have a man pay attention to her and thrilled at his proposal after only a two-month courtship. Both John and their parents pleaded with her not to marry Perkins, but one night they eloped. Lily and Perkins showed up one week later, Perkins with no job and Lily not knowing what to do. John’s reflection was interrupted by the conductor.

“All aboard!”

The two men dropped their cigarettes, stomped them out, and lumbered back to their plastic seats.

“You know, I read the paper,” Sanchez said, wiping his forehead. “You claimed self-defense. You claimed you caught your brother-in-law beating your sister. You pulled him off and he rushed at you. You pushed him away, and he fell backward and hit his head on the table.”

“Tell me, Sanchez, do you have a younger sibling?”

Sanchez looked at him quizzically.

“I mean a younger brother or sister. Do you have one?”

Sanchez’s face suddenly clouded. He did not answer immediately. He looked away and blinked quickly.

“I’m sorry if my question was painful. I meant no harm.” Simmons waited.

The Mexican again looked forward, sighed deeply, and said, “Yeah, I do. Or, at least, I did. A brother, Carlos. He was five years younger than me.”

He pulled a tattered wallet from his back pocket, removed the rubber band holding it together, and thumbed through small scraps of paper. He found an old black and white photo and placed it in front of the smaller man’s face. Simmons squinted and studied the photo. It was Sanchez, probably around twelve years old, with his arm around a younger boy.

“That was my little Carlito. The sweetest kid you’d ever meet. Always laughing and joking around.”

“Did something happen to your brother?”

“None of your damn business, Simmons!”

“I obviously touched a nerve. I apologize.”

Sanchez turned away and once again pulled the worn plaid handkerchief from his pocket.

Turning back to Simmons, “We went swimming in a pond and were playing hide n’ seek. His foot caught under a branch. I saw his head only a few inches from the top, but I thought he was just hiding, so I didn’t pull him up. ‘Let him have his fun,’ I said to myself. By the time I realized what happened, it was too late. I had to carry him home to Mom. I could have easily saved him. I can’t stop the nightmares.”

Simmons shook his head slowly.” I am so sorry. Obviously, you two were very close.”

Simmons looked down at his cuffs. The train whistled as it approached a turn.

“Sanchez, what would you have done if someone tried to hurt your little brother?”

The Mexican shot back angrily, “I would have killed the bastard!”

“That’s exactly what I would have done and that’s what I did!” Simmons stared expectantly at Sanchez.

“You claimed self-defense, but he had no weapon. You said he hit his head on the table. The medical examiner said his skull was fractured with something like the vase they found on the floor. It even had blood on it.”

“He rushed at me!”

“But, he was hit in the back of the head. That’s not self-defense! I have the newspaper article right here.” Sanchez pulled it from his sack and pointed.

“I know what it says. But, to call it a ‘murder’ implies that I committed a sin. I did the world a favor. The bastard did not deserve to breathe the same air as my sweet Lily.” Simmons again turned towards the window and watched the storm clouds move closer.

Lily and Perkins lived in a small shack about five miles from town. John and his father tried to make it livable. Perkins was no help. When he was home (which was rare), he was useless. He’d sit on his rear and brag about how he was going to get rich. He did nothing besides talk.

Perkins was a mean drunk and he was drunk often. Lily would appear black and blue saying she fell or give some other excuse, but John knew better. After one nasty swollen eye, Simmons grabbed Perkins by the collar, threw him against the wall, furious, “I don’t know why my Lily stays with you, you miserable son of a bitch, but if you ever lay a finger on her again, I will kill you!” Looking into Simmons’ eyes, Perkins knew he meant it.

Another whistle and the train made another stop as, once again, a cow decided that of all the places in the eternal vastness of the prairie, the track would be a fine place, too.

“May as well stretch our legs and have a smoke. Let’s go, Simmons.”

The pair trudged off the train amidst a line of fan-waving humanity. Standing on the open prairie, Sanchez said, “You know, I am a sympathetic guy. I’m gonna remove one of those handcuffs so you can hold your own smoke. You right or left-handed?”

“Right-handed,” Simmons responded.

The Mexican picked a small key from his collection and released the manacle. Simmons shook his arm vigorously to get the circulation going and said quietly, “Thank you.”

Sanchez took a long drag from his cigarette. “Looks like it’s a-gonna pour pretty good. Them clouds are mighty angry.”

Intermittent dark clouds offered momentary relief from the unforgiving sun. A whisper of a breeze hinted at the coming storm.

“You never know. August can be sunny as heck one minute and stormin’ the next. But, a cool breeze would be mighty nice.”

“Yes. A cool breeze would be a great relief.”

The engineer and the conductor did their best to implore the cow to move. The cow just stared and chewed its cud. After twenty minutes, the bovine decided it was time to move on.

“Well, time to get back on. I may as well leave your hand free. It don’t look like you are goin’ anywhere.”

“I appreciate that, Mr. Sanchez. I truly do.”