From his perch atop his rebuilt 1958 Indian motorcycle, Brian Flagg stared glumly at the scene around him. How the hell did I ever end up in a dump like this? he wondered. Morgan City, USA.

He listened for a moment to the distant cheers rising from the high school football field. Then he leaned over and pulled the cold Coors from the Morgan High book bag. Popped it. Sipped it. Ah. Cold and clear. Hell of a lot better than the piss that Morgan City produced. Mountain Chill beer. Flagg hated Mountain Chill beer. Mountain Chill beer was what had brought him here, to Morgan City. Brought his old man, anyway, and along with the old man in need of work came Mom and little baby Brian. But that was a long time ago. The old man had left. Mom had stayed, however, to take care of her son, eking out a tenuous, seasonal existence, just as Morgan City, USA, did.

Morgan City was a small community, formed in the misty past before the Great Depression around some reasonably decent ski slopes. Unfortunately the initial investors ended up as Wall Street casualties in 1929, and Morgan City ski slopes never quite recovered, never gained the recognition and pizzazz or classiness of a Vale or a Sun Valley. Part of its economic-recovery hopes clung to the location of a new brewery in the surge of growth after World War II. But now, after the nineteen seventies, with the giant breweries such as Anheuser-Busch either swallowing or putting the independents out of business, Mountain Chill Brewery of Colorado was a dwindling proposition.

What they need to try, Brian Flagg reflected as he took a pull of his Coors, is to learn how to make some good brew. That would be a start, anyway.

It was really a pretty amazing town, when you thought about it, Brian mused. It was as if it were frozen in the fifties. Like this whole football business. Pure fifties. The buildings all had the square, boxy look of the fifties, and the people—well, they were just as square and boxy. The place even had an old-time diner and an old-time movie theater. Maybe what Morgan City should become, thought Brian Flagg, is a life-size museum, a tourist haven for all those children of the seventies who were nostalgic for their parents’ own youth.

He looked down at his clothes and his bike and smiled grimly to himself. Yeah. And I’ll be the hoody teenager who loses in the end.

The fact that Flagg was a teenager was something he tried hard to hide. You had to look past that quiet, adult, dark intensity; you needed to peer through the shades that always hid his eyes. Only then might you guess that he was actually a hair short of eighteen.

His outfit surely offered no clues to his age. Certainly not the two-tone forties thrift jacket over the white T-shirt, and not the worn blue jeans, the crepe-soled rockabilly shoes, and the tiny metal stud in one ear. No, these things made Brian Flagg look as if he’d been through a lot more living than one can experience in eighteen years, which, of course, was just the effect he wanted.

He wondered idly now if all that cheering back at his alma mater meant that the Hawks had scored a touchdown. Not that he cared much. That was behind him. No, mostly what he was concerned about now was what lay before him.

This riverbed.

He was going to try and jump the mother.

It was dry now, more like a ravine than a riverbed. When it actually had been a river, there also had been a bridge. But all that remained of the bridge now was a short section of rotted timbers extending out into midair.

Flagg started the motorcycle and maneuvered to the edge of the gully, one hand still holding the beer. He drove in a lazy loop for a moment or two, contemplating the bridge. Then he drove halfway up the thing, stopped, and kicked the wooden supports with his foot.

Yeah, he thought. This should do. The timbers should make an okay ramp. A quick dart up the ramp, then over that thirty feet to the other side. Sure, no sweat.

Decided finally, he drove the motorbike back the fifty yards or so he needed for a good takeoff. As he listened to the revving sounds of the engine and steeled himself for the jump, he noticed peripherally a figure emerge from the woods nearby, followed closely by another, smaller figure.

He turned to check them out, then laughed to himself. Shit. Just the “Can Man” and his mangy mutt.

The scruffy old dude, the Can Man, was a codger who looked as if he’d fallen off the rails in the thirties and decided to stick around. He lived in an old shack up aways, and made his living collecting bottles and cans and whatnot, which he turned in for nickels and dimes. The Can Man was a figure of popular local mythology, wearing all sorts of identities to the minds of youngsters growing up in Morgan City. Brian’s own mother had warned him to stay away from the guy, but when he was only nine, Flagg had actually ventured to the shack one day, where he’d quickly ascertained that the Can Man was just a harmless fellow who didn’t have much to say. Certainly he wasn’t any kind of bogeyman. In fact, Flagg rather identified with him. He was an outcast too. Their bond ended there, however. The Can Man had little to do with anyone or anything except the business of being a hermit and collecting stuff to sell. Brian understood. In fact, he respected that. But his dog—now, there was another matter. That scruffy mutt had already tried to bite him a couple times, so Brian gave the creature a wide berth.

Now they were his audience. So, fine, he’d show the Can Man and his dog how to jump a gully.

Flagg took another swallow of beer, then crumpled the half-empty can and threw it toward the Can Man.

“There ya go, guy!” he snarled. “For your collection.”

The dog barked and Brian Flagg chuckled. He could still hear the cheering from Morgan City High, and he pretended that they were yelling for him.

Yeah. Here’s Brian Flagg, Colorado’s answer to Evel Knievel, about to show his stuff to the world. What? A twenty-five-foot jump? With a machine like this one under his butt, why, it would be child’s play!

“Yo!” he called. “Here goes!”

He gunned the throttle of the Indian, jammed the bike into gear, and spun out, spraying dirt behind him. The engine roared loud and hard, and the thrill of acceleration added excitement to Flagg’s determination. The wind whipped through his hair, whistling louder and louder as he went faster and faster. He bent his head forward to decrease the drag and yanked the throttle down all the way.

The field flashed by; the bridge approached. Man, oh, man, this was going to be a rush… He was really going to do it…

But then the Indian coughed! It sputtered and it coughed again, just yards from the bridge ramp! Flag gunned it again. What the hell was this… ?

Damn, he wasn’t going to have the speed to make the jump.

Instantly he jammed on the brakes, but it was too late. The bike skidded, kicking up dust as it veered to one side. Desperately he dug his heel into the ground, fighting his momentum as he reached the lip of the gully.

For an endless moment he hung, teetering at the very edge of the busted bridge. Brian desperately shifted his weight, lurching back away from the precipice. His muscles strained as the machine tottered beneath him. And then the bike dropped, dragging him along with it.

It really wasn’t too deep a fall till he hit the side of the gully, maybe five or six feet, and Flagg managed to land without the bike falling on his head. But the jolt was too strong and the pull of gravity too great. Both he and the Indian tumbled and slid ass over elbows, handlebars over axles, to the bottom of the gulch, collecting a goodly amount of dirt and dents along the way.

For Flagg the world twirled around, away, and then, with an abrupt lurch and a splash, he found himself at the bottom, lying in a thin trickle of water, the motorbike on top, pinning him to the muddy clay. Wetness spread through his trousers, sopping them, and he struggled to get up.

“You not only let me down,” he said to the Indian, “you rub my nose in it. What kind of faithful companion are you?”

The cheers from the high school football game seemed to mock him.

Then closer applause came from above. Flagg looked up. The Can Man was peering over the edge above, a big grin on his stubbly face. He started to wheeze with laughter.

Flagg shot him a glare, then began to wiggle out from beneath the bike.

The Can Man chuckled a little more as he polished Flagg’s discarded Coors can and chucked it with a clank into his plastic sack. The mutt whimpered away.

Flagg sighed and finally pulled himself free.

The Can Man turned and followed his dog.

Flagg shook his head morosely. God, the humiliation! He couldn’t have suffered this failure alone, he had to have Jimmy Nick the Can Man witness it. Like that saying, If a tree falls in the forest with no one to hear it, does it really make a sound? If Brian Flagg gets chucked into the mud by his bike, does he feel embarrassed unless someone sees it?

Well, he felt damned embarrassed. Maybe that meant he had just proved something, though hell if he knew what. It wasn’t as if the old Can Man was going to go and blab his story all over town. The Can Man didn’t say diddly to most people, and he didn’t exactly hang out with the boys on the general-store porch. So why did it bother him?

Flagg knew why.

The Can Man didn’t use his mouth much, but sure as hell he used his ears. He knew Brian Flagg, and sure as shit he knew the boy’s troubled history. Trouble, trouble, trouble, was the theme here, with no happy endings, just a couple of stretches in juvie hall, getting “reformed.”

The old Can Man was probably thinking: Typical. Typical Flagg move. Trouble. He thinks he’s so cool, and he ends up wallowing in a ditch.

Brian stood and brushed his pants off. He pulled the bike up and pushed it toward a dry area so it wouldn’t get messed up worse. He loved his bike. It was cheap transportation, cheap freedom, and Brian Flagg cherished freedom deeply. Now more than ever, since he’d been deprived of it a few times. He just had to work out the kinks, that was all. He’d get it running right again; he was a pretty good mechanic, used to his machine.

Still, as he parked the bike, the memory of the Can Man’s derisive clapping and the cheering in the distance lingered in Flagg’s mind. A low heat of anger simmered deep as he knocked some of the mud off the bike.

People could be real jerks, all right. They peg you for something, and then that’s what they stick you with. He remembered when he was just a kid, he’d hear the whispers behind his back. “Hey… that’s Josh Flagg’s boy, isn’t it? Like father like son. Blood will out. Following in his daddy’s footsteps.”

God, that had hurt. All his memories of Joshua Flagg had been good ones. At least up until Joshua Flagg had embezzled that money and skipped town, abandoning son and wife. That was a pain that Flagg didn’t think about much, but, of course, it never really went away. And ever since his dad ran off, the whole town had been waiting for him to turn bad too. All Brian had ever wanted was to be somebody, to be different. He’d made a few mistakes, sure. And the way he acted, the way he dressed—yeah, maybe it wasn’t exactly in the regular social mode of Morgan City, USA. But it was him, it was Brian Flagg, and to hell with them all if they couldn’t take a joke. Right?

Damned right.

He’d show them all. Soon as he could get some money together, get some prospects someplace else. He’d be outta here, leave this stupid little nowhere town, dumb old Morgan City with its cheesy ski resort and its watery, gassy beer.

He tried to start the bike, but it didn’t even sputter.

Yeah, he’d be outta here, all right. But not right now on this bike. He’d have to get the bike fixed and working right before he could even think about such a thing. He’d have to get the tools.

Reluctantly Brian left his bike and began the walk to town.


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