Illusration by Griffen Eckstein.
“A chuckwagon belongs in Texas,” Chuck Hayes whispers to himself. It is a quiet affirmation more than a statement of fact. Though, as it happens, he is in fact rolling through a vast expanse of Texas scrubland.
It had been a couple weeks since he was released by the Rockets, and Chuck Hayes had seen all manner of hardship. He was so naïve, he thought, his busted axle bumping along behind him; the once clean canvas covering of the wagon bleached bone yellow by the sun and torn through in parts, sagging where it was once taut. He’d forged a river and flooded out his supplies, run over a dozen rattlers, all for a treasure he was no longer sure even existed.
He’d found the map tucked into the sleeve of his old Raptors warm-up jacket, the one he brought with him even to away games, much to the chagrin and squinting suspicion of Boss McHale. It had fluttered down to the floor, pushed out by his arm, just after that last game. No stranger to locker room pranks, Chuck looked around to see if anyone was waiting in the wings ready to pounce—Beverley? It seemed like something he’d do—but no, most of the guys were busy trying to restrain Dwight Howard from diving into the promotional box of Ritter Sport chocolate bars that had shown up in the locker room. Weird flavors, too. Pfefferminz? Knusperflakes? No thanks.
Chuck carefully unrolled the thin paper to find a map, “This must be old as hell,” he murmured, judging by the paper’s stained brown hue and the patches where it’d been burned through. “Wayward embers”, Chuck whispered, tracing a finger around one of the holes.
“Will you coach, Chuck?”
He spun around, startled, to find Sam Dekker waiting tentatively behind him, a cartoonish and very unrealistically proportioned fake spider dangling from the ceiling above them in the visiting locker room at the Staples Center. The moment already seemed to have happened in another era, long ago; the patina of the younger man’s skin was already fading out in memory.
“Who are you, man?” Chuck responded.
But damn did he think about it now, along with all the other questions that plagued him at night, circling and diving and buzzing with the unrelenting clouds of striped Texas mosquitos. Where did he go from here, and where was here, and who was that lanky white guy, seriously?
With a grunt, Chuck pushed on, all four wooden wheels groaning in unison. Near as he could tell he was moving due east, and with a little luck the endless canyon he found himself in would open soon into greener valleys and then the slow southern slope leading down to the Gulf of Mexico. He felt a little foolish, sure, when all he’d done was try to head out to Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen for shrimp scampi, like he’d done every time he’d returned to Houston. It was nothing like his own secret recipe, which he’d only shared with FoodReference.com, but it came with a complimentary bun basket and they did not skimp on the garlic.
He’d wanted to have one last meal before setting out for the treasure the map promised, but when it had been two hours into the usual twenty minute trip across town to Pappadeaux and he heard what he guessed was a coyote, he suddenly realized the thing he’d been waiting at to change for twenty minutes wasn’t a streetlight but an overgrown prickly pear cactus. He was lost. More than lost. “Coulda used that scampi,” he grumbled, and his stomach answered forlornly.
Something shimmered up ahead in the dozing midday heat. Chuck squinted, it couldn’t be—was this the gleaming blonde head of his once compatriot, Greg Stiemsma? Guiding him to what looked like a break in this dagnabbed canyon? As he rolled closer the mirage, and his excitement, dissipated. Emerging on horseback from a hidden cave came an all too familiar figure.
“Howdy, friend,” Matt Barnes smirked, tipping his Stetson.
Instinctively, Chuck moved to tip his headband but quickly caught himself. It was Barnes. It was a trap.
“Say, you’re a long way from home, ain’t you?” Barnes sneered. “But hell, where is home for you anyway these days, Hayes?”
With a flick of the reins Chuck moved the wagon on. Everyone knew Barnes was a liability, and Chuck knew better than to engage him.
“Not so fast,” Barnes said. He let out a long, high whistle, and from the cave came a scrambling Big Baby Davis atop a donkey. The Baby let out a wild yip and from another rocky outcropping stepped a Zorro masked Mason Plumlee.
“The bad twin,” Hayes gasped. Though he wasn’t sure why he needed the mask as Mason had neglected to remove his uniform. Chuck was getting impatient, “What do you want, Barnes?”
“That’s the Barnes Gang, Chuck. And what we want is that there map,” Matt Barnes spurred his horse to block the break in the canyon wall, barricading the way out. Inexplicably, Plumlee flanked him on a Hovertrax. Big Baby crowded in on his donkey, ostentatiously taking Vines of himself lip-synching to Adele’s “Hello.”
“I’ve got no map, and I’ll be getting along now,” Chuck Hayes, with all the determination he brought to his free throws—always falling forward from standing still, somehow—nudged his team forward.
With a nod from Barnes, Plumlee swung up onto the back of the wagon, scuffing the hell out of the wood finish and startling Chuck’s horse, Orlando, who was named after his favourite contemporary actor and mid-sized metropolis and tethered to the back.
“Now you knock that off, y’hear?” Hayes shouts, voice rising slightly, “I won’t have you fussing with my wagon and I sure won’t have you scarin’ my horse. McHale won’t be pleased about this one bit, and you’re a free agent next year. What if this gets back to the Badgal, Matt?” His wheels are muddied but lord if he wasn’t proud. He would fight, he knew then.
Barnes howls, or maybe hoots, but it’s a terrible sound because he doesn’t know how to actually laugh, “That’s rich. McHale’s been fired! And I’ve met her!”
“He’s met her,” Baby mumbles, poking his head out of the wagon’s canvas.
“We know you found it in that old jacket,” Barnes leered. “You’re pathetic, Chuck, now hand it over and save yourself whatever dignity you’ve got left.” A glint in Barnes’ hand, then, and Chuck sees he’s taken out a knife that looks as mean as he does. “Or we can do this my way.”
TO BE CONTINUED