“What is it?” Ellen asked, startled awake as I pulled on my robe.
“Somebody coming up the driveway,” I said. In the pre-dawn half-light I could see it then, crawling up the hill. It had, in addition to regular headlights, a couple of smaller bright lights up high and wide, like an extra set of insect eyes.
“Is it Zjak and Marty?” Ellen asked, still half asleep, thinking about friends we expected in a couple of days.
I fumbled with slippers as the vehicle pulled up to the front door. It let loose a strange half-honk, half-siren sound, then the red and blue lights started flashing. “I think it’s the cops,” I said from half way down the stairs.
“Sheriff’s department,” the guy on the stoop announced when I opened the door. “We’re looking for two men on foot. Have you got your doors all locked? Left any keys in your vehicles? If you see anything, give us a call.”
Two men on foot? In the dark? Lock your doors?
I started the coffee water and pulled the shade part way up on the window above the sink. I watched the sheriffs’ Jeep poke along east of us then turn around. Slowly, they came back down our way.
Something moved at the edge of my view. It was a big doe heading toward the creek from her bed beneath the junipers. With each step she broke the surface crust and went in up to her knees. A man on foot would struggle in all this new snow. Who could the cops be looking for? Where and what were they running from?
I thought first of escaped prisoners, Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. A heel in the front and a heel behind. I thought about the highway sign north of the prison in Delta: “Notice. Correctional Facility. Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.” I thought about the chain gang Ellen and I saw working a fenceline beside the road. But that was two days ago. In Utah.
The groggy brain, jolted awake but still needing coffee, was not making sense. A hit-and-run on the highway? Somebody panicked and bolted? Illegal immigrants fleeing an untimely traffic stop? We’re two miles from Highway 550. You wouldn’t have to come this far to hide. You could just squat down in the willows by the river, and in the darkness nobody’d find you.
Should I get the gun, I wondered. I’ve got a little .22 caliber varmint rifle down in the basement. But that led to memories of Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs and his manic, bloody, terrifying defense of his family in that old English house. That’s crazy thinking, I told myself. But what if?
As I set my coffee in its usual place beside the couch and moved to lift the shade on that window, I realized I was probably also reacting subconsciously to The Hurt Locker, which we had just watched. American soldiers in Iraq spend most of two hours peering around corners expecting to be blown away.
I pulled the cord and there, bigger, closer than it seemed possible, was the full moon, startling against the dark blue sky, its yellow face about to sink behind the plateau.
Ellen poured herself a cup and joined me. By 7:30 the sun was up, and the day turned sparkling and beautiful, as it does. We would learn later that the fugitives had been involved in a burglary, or attempted burglary, around the other side of Colona Hill. Neighbors had seen flashlights near a storage trailer that had been robbed before and called the cops. The suspects fled on foot and were eventually caught.
But before we knew this, sitting together on the couch, Ellen recalled the final escape scene in La Grande Illusion, Jean Renoir’s classic World War I movie and E’s all-time favorite film. The French prisoners, Maréchal and Rosenthal, leave the safety of the trees and make a dash for the Swiss border across an open meadow, stumbling and struggling in the deep snow. The chasing Germans see them in the open at last and one soldier yells, “Fire!” But before they can, their sergeant calls out, “Don’t shoot, they’re in Switzerland.”
“The better for them,” another soldier says (their war is over), as we watch the two figures make their way, smaller and smaller, through the snow to freedom.
Peter Shelton’s blog is peterhshelton.wordpress.com