This Story is not a Western

This story is not a Western. Even if it has cowboys and Indians. No, it's a road trip across the plains with a pretty Mustang and nobody wears a black hat - or a white one. (Jasper's is brown.)

It begins, of course, with a quarrel. It ends at a graveside in Texas. But it's not in order, because that's not always the best way to tell a story. In between, we have existential philosophy, a stray tornado, Achilles and Pocahontas, a pow-wow, a few history lessons and a kidnapped, brooding groom. Oh, and a thrown punch that starts a bar brawl. (Because even if it's not a Western, every good story needs at least one bar brawl.)

That it involves two vampires and two werewolves is somewhat less important.

1. But It's Not in Order

They are headed south on I-29, half an hour outside St. Joseph on the Missouri side of the river. "A stop on the Historical Lewis and Clark Highway" says a brown sign. "Founded in 1843" says another, and he blinks. The city is as old as he is.

But Jasper isn't really thinking about Lewis and Clark, or his age. He's thinking about stopping at this St. Joe Boot Company he keeps seeing advertised on billboards, because he wants a new pair of Tony Lamas. His old ones are looking a tad beat-up. Then again - and whatever Alice thinks - no self-respecting boots bear no scuff marks. "I need me some new boots," he says abruptly. In the rearview mirror, he can see Edward grimace. Only Italian leather loafers grace Edward's toes, unless he's hiking or playing baseball. Jasper is sure Edward considers boots "uncouth," which is all the more reason to drag him into a boot shop.

Leah looks over from where she rides shotgun. The window is down, blowing her hair, although most of it is caught up in a ponytail. She says nothing, just lifts one leg to prop her booted foot against the wing glass. She grins. He grins back. In the seat behind, her brother has his head out the window, looking for all the world like an over-excited puppy, which has more to do with the fact he's 14 than with his unexpected genetic mutation. Or maybe he's just trying to get away from the scent of vampire, which is why the windows are down in the first place. Jasper and Edward are no more pleased by the hot, wet-dog smell of two werewolves than Leah and Seth are by the sweet, overripe perfume of vampires.

"You don't need boots," Edward says.

"You just don't wanna stop," Jasper tells him.

"Not for boots you don't need."

"I need the restroom, one way or the other," Leah breaks in.

"Pea-bladder," Seth says. She throws a wadded-up napkin at him without looking; it's almost whipped out the window by the wind. "I'm hungry," he adds.

Knowing his wish to keep going will be overruled, Edward sighs. It is a long-suffering sound. "It's about the journey, little brother," Jasper tells him, smiling slightly. "Not the destination."

"Please don't quote Jack Kerouac to me."

"That wasn't Jack Kerouac. It's Chinese philosophy."

"It sounds like Kerouac."

"Not if you'd actually read anything he's written. On the Road is iconic, Edward."

"The Beats were high or dunk most of the time - including Kerouac; that's not art."

"My mom like the Beatles," Seth blurts out. "She says they're classic."

The rest of them laugh. "Beat poetry, not the Beatles," Edward explains, patiently. "Although the Beatles credited Kerouac for inspiration. So did Bob Dylan."

"'The only people for me are the mad ones,'" Jasper quotes, "'the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle, you see the blue center-light pop, and everybody goes ahh . . . '"

His voice is sad, however. Could vampires be called 'mad to live,' or just plain mad from living too long?

"You gonna add that to my reading list, Old Man?" Leah asks him, glancing over.

"Consider it added," Jasper tells her. "Along with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Tao of Pooh, too."

"Please tell me they're easier than Machiavelli. Or Homer."

"They are."

"Hallelujah." She turns back to stare out the window, her eyes scrunched up against the blaze of a setting sun. She wears no sunglasses. Jasper sees another sign for the St. Joe Boot Company, and wonders if there will be shadow enough around the store for him to sneak in, or if he should take a rain check.

"So," he says after a minute, "we talked about my reading list for you, but we never talked about the books you had me read."

Leah doesn't answer immediately, just continues to stare out the window. Seth listens with his chin resting on the back of the front seat while Edward ignores them, staring out his own window at the rolling prairie. He's smiling, expression a bit dopey, and from the emotions radiating off him, Jasper doesn't have to ask what he's thinking about. He's on this trip under duress.

Finally, Leah asks only, "What did you think of them?"

He considers it. A mile or two passes. "They were angry books - not unfairly. I learned things I hadn't known, and it made me angry. The non-fiction was easier in some ways than the fiction, though."

Her curiosity sparks in oranges and pinks and she turns to look at him. "Why? I'd think the fiction would be easier."

"Stories bring it home better," Jasper explains. "They reach the gut, not just the head - touch the capacity of the heart. They make it real because you feel it." This is something he understands all too well, the power of emotion. It's why he struggles for a stoical equilibrium. Ataraxia. "But the stories didn't always go in order. That took me a mite to get used to."

"They went in order," Leah corrects. "They just didn't go chronologically. Sometimes that's not the best way to tell the story."