Watch Me

A Jack Reacher - Walt Longmire Crossover Story

Reacher

Hours had passed since the sun dropped in an eye-watering orange blaze behind the jagged, black horizon. I was on a lonely back road, winding through the low, dry ranges of northwest Colorado. At least I thought it was still Colorado. High desert, nearly. The headlights from my car cut through the night, showing thin crusts of snow drifted along the skeletal ridges and anorexic flanks of the terrain.

An hour had passed since I'd seen any sign of a house or ranch. No towns coming up for at least another hour. The only traffic was somebody miles ahead, and the only way I knew that was because, every once in a while, I'd see his tail lights winking at me as he negotiated the same undulating roadway I was following. And it was cold. The defroster blasted away on nearly maximum just to keep the windshield clear. In spite of that, thin graceful patterns of ice were crystalizing on the inside of the windows above the door panels.

I had a blues station out of Hot Springs, Arkansas, playing on the radio, beamed across nine hundred miles by that ionospheric skip you sometimes get with late night AM radio. Can't get it listening to FM. Something about the signal frequencies.

I'd already passed through several little towns with motel signs showing VACANCY in red neon letters, but I was enjoying the music too much to stop. The winding road, the glimpses of tawny, scrub-covered hillsides, and the dashed line down the center, combined with the darkness and the music, had worked some kind of spell, something perfect, something I'd only experienced a few times in my life. A magic kind of extended moment, like it might never end, and that was fine with me. The guy playing the records was one of those guys who's been around radio practically since it was invented, and he knew the history of every song and every artist he played, tossing in bits and pieces of it in between songs. Real esoteric stuff about early blues artists like Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy, or Ma Rainey. I ate it up.

I was driving a forest green 1972 Buick Riviera boat tail coupe, the one with the big back window that looks like the cowl of a fighter jet. A huge pimp mobile in any other color, but the green gave it a classy look. The short story was I was doing a favor for an elderly little woman for whom I'd held open a door. The long story got more complicated.

But the Riviera was a fantastic old car. Not old old, not like the blues on the radio, but old enough. Old enough not to have a CD or cassette player. Old enough that power features were an uncommon luxury option-little chrome tabs in little chrome frames set in the cushioned arm on the wood-grain door panel. Wide, wrap-around instrument cluster in the dash, chrome-accented radio and heater/AC controls. Cream-colored leather seats with miles of leg room.

It was nearly two in the morning when I saw the dog.

The Buick's headlights picked it up as the Riv swept through a curve on the deserted two lane road. Some kind of big, russet-colored hound, limping along the shoulder, holding its rear right leg off the ground.

I slowed down to a crawl as I drew even with him. He was a huge, raw-boned old bloodhound. No collar. Past his prime by more than a few years, his lean muscle all gone to loose, sagging hide. He didn't so much as turn his head to look at the car as he hobbled along through dead, dried weeds and patches of dirty snow on the shoulder of the road.

I'd never had much to do with dogs. The Marines moved our family too often when I was a kid to ever make having a pet any kind of practical. I'd eaten dog in the Philippines, but aside from that, most of my experience with them had been through the K9 officers I worked with in the Army. Those were always big wolfish German Shepherds, trained to sniff out drugs and other contraband hidden by soldiers in their quarters, their duty areas, and their vehicles. They were highly trained animals who lived to please their handlers and rip limbs off of anybody else. So I left them alone.

But I couldn't bring myself to leave this dog alone. The temperature had to be hovering around zero, and he didn't look like he had an ounce of insulating fat on his entire gangly body.

Ten yards in front of the dog, I pulled over. Two wheels in the hard-packed frozen dirt of the shoulder. Two wheels still on the equally cold asphalt. I reached across and opened the passenger side door. It was like opening the door to a big industrial freezer. Bone chilling air piled into the car. The dog approached the Riviera at the same slow, shambling pace, until he came even with the open door. It was a long door, long enough to block his progress. He patiently shifted his path to detour around it, still not bothering to look anywhere but straight ahead.

I leaned over and pulled the door almost closed, and let the car move forward another five yards by lifting my foot off the gas, then stopped again. I let go of the door and the dampened momentum of the car pulled it open. The dog drew even again and this time he stopped. He looked in at me, his dark eyes unreadable, his drooping jowls quivering in the cold.

"I'm going the same way you are," I said. "It's a lot warmer in here."

The dog looked at me for a long moment, then turned his big knobby head and looked on down the road, as if trying to make up his mind. Then he moved closer to the open door. He reached out with a tentative, testing paw, almost losing his balance. He tried but he couldn't make it into the car. Just looked at me and shivered.

I opened my door and climbed out into the frigid air. The car was in a bubble of light made by the headlights blazing into the night and the dome light spilling through the open door. I circled around the rear of the Riv to the passenger side where the dog stood, waiting.

He was bigger than he looked from inside the car. No way I'd fit him in the front passenger foot well, or on the seat next to me for that matter.

I reached into the car and nudged the little chrome tab in the little chrome frame that operated the passenger power seat to move the seat forward as far as it would go. I folded the seatback toward the glove box.

The dog stood there, waiting.

I realized I'd never put a dog in a back seat before. I'd put plenty of people in back seats. Lined them up next to the door and put one hand on top of their head and pushed down at the same time I used my other hand to stuff them through the car door. Sometimes they cooperated and sometimes they didn't, but they always went in. That's a downward procedure though. It wouldn't work here. This needed to be a kind of lateral process.

I straddled his body and reached down with both hands under his bony ribcage and lifted and sort of walked his front end into the rear foot well. So far, so good. I wasn't sure how badly his right leg was injured. I didn't know if he'd let me touch it. I thought about lifting him by his tail. He'd been pretty cooperative so far, but I seemed to remember some dogs hate having their tails grabbed. There was a patch of raw skin, an oozing scrape the size of my palm, on his right hip. Thin and not-so-thin white scars crisscrossed the short hair on the rest of the dog's hindquarters and shoulders. There were fresher scars too.

In the end, I used a combination technique. I grabbed his rear left leg with one hand and his tail with the other and hoisted him in the rest of the way. It didn't go as smoothly as all that. As I pushed his rear into the car, he lifted his front legs one at a time and sort of army-crawled onto the seat while I guided his haunches into the car. There were some awkward grunts on both our parts and he let out one sharp whimper when he pulled his injured leg up onto the seat. I got him settled and pull the seatback down and closed the door.

I crunched back around the rear of the car to the driver's side and climbed in. Closed the door. Now that he was in the car, the dog was shivering violently. His teeth actually chattered. I didn't know dogs did that. My own face was stiff from the cold and I had no feeling in my fingers. I fumbled the heat up a notch and the fan up two notches. Pushed down on the lever that diverted the air to blow on my feet, figuring a lot of that warm air would go under the front seats and up to where the dog stretched out along the entire length of the rear bench.

I pulled the chrome column-mounted shift lever out of "P", eased the car back onto the road, and was on my way again.

I didn't know what to do about the dog beyond some vague kind of idea about stopping in the next town. How long did a veterinary office stay open? Unclear. If they were anything like a regular doctor's office, they'd probably be closed. Maybe there would be an after-hours emergency number to call.

"Where do you live?" I asked over my shoulder.

The dog said nothing.