Hard Road Home

Clayton plodded over like a kid expecting a scolding. He hadn’t mentioned Amanda to anyone. He wasn’t sure he wanted to, espe­cially now, when he was trying to figure out his next move.

“Talk to me, man.” O’Bryan saw himself as something of a love expert, having been married several times. He had expertise in divorce as well and would sometimes provide counseling in that area.

Clayton decided he’d just mention her. That was all. She’d been on his mind enough. He might as well say her name. “You know Mark Swenson? That tall welder? I’ve been seeing some of his sister.”

“How much?” O’Bryan threw back his head and roared. “Sorry, brother. I couldn’t help it. Seriously, what’s her name?”

“You’re something of an oaf, O’Bryan. Anyone ever tell you that?”

“That and a whole lot worse.”

“Amanda. Her name’s Amanda.” He kept his voice down, looking out across the room, avoiding the driller’s eyes.

“You got yourself a girl named Amanda. Boy, that’s a pretty name.” The older man grinned, his gold eye tooth complementing the heavy burnished chain around his neck.

“She’s in Bismarck, but we’ve been talking some.”

“Yeah?” O’Bryan waited for more.

“She’s…she likes me.”

“Well, now, that’s always a good starting place. Plenty of women over the years have hated my guts, but that always came later, after they got to know me.”

Clayton watched his friend, uncertain if he was joking. “Anyway, she’s been real nice to talk to.”

O’Bryan waited for his friend to say more. Around them the room clanked and dinged like a bucket of nickels. “You make it sound like you’re done talking.”

“I don’t know.”

“You two do anything besides talk?” Apparently O’Bryan didn’t have all the information he needed.

“Maybe.”

O’Bryan nodded. “So what’s the problem?”

“Who said there was a problem? Hell, I don’t go bugging you about your love life.”

“So you love her then.”

“I didn’t say that. She’s young, that’s all. She’s—”

“She’s out of high school, isn’t she?”

“Of course she’s out of high school.” Clayton was wishing they’d played another game of pool. “It’s just, I’m the first guy she’s…I’m the first guy to stir her up, if you know what I mean. Maybe I was just the guy standing there when she came awake. Or lying there, to be precise.”

“Like a duckling?” O’Bryan asked, his beady eyes sharp on his friend.

“A duckling?” Clayton stared back, shaking his head. “What the hell are you even talking about?”

“No. Really. I seen a show about it. The duck hatches. She don’t see her mom. But there’s a big, ugly dog standing there. She starts following him around, thinking she’s a dog too. If he don’t eat her first. Now, this girl of yours, you think maybe she’s the duckling and you’re the dog.

“God, O’Bryan, you are so full of shit.”

“No, hear me out.” He raised a beefy hand. “It’s the real deal. Imprinting. That’s what they call it. You think she imprinted on you, but maybe she should be seeing other dogs. That’s it, ain’t it?”

Clayton shook his head. “I don’t know, man. Maybe something like that.”

“What does she say about it?”

He answered with a rueful smile. “She doesn’t like any other dog.”

“Well, there you have it. End of story. Lead her where you want to go, if you know what I mean.” O’Bryan winked at the younger man.

“It’s not that easy.”

“Why’s that, Old Yeller?”