Illustration by Griffen Eckstein
For Part One Of Chuck Hayes’ Adventure Along The Oregon Trail, Click Here.
Chuck knew, as his gentle oxen team spooked at the tinny sound of ‘Timber’ by Pitbull ft. Ke$ha blaring from Big Baby’s phone, that this did not look good.
The wagon lurched forward and picked up speed as his team took off, veering sharply away from Barnes and the distinctly-era-inappropriate cutlass he was waving around. Baby Davis and Mason Plumlee were bucked off the wagon in the commotion but still Pitbull faintly played on.
Try as he might, Chuck couldn’t get his team under control to right the wagon. Without hesitation he carefully shimmied up the wagon tongue to the animals’ yoke, ignoring the screeching sound of Barnes’ laughter and humming along to the chorus of what could very well be one of the greatest pop hits of all time as he expertly moved his pocket knife against the leather straps that kept his team tethered. The canyon wall loomed closer but Chuck worked diligently against the odds, as in all things; with fifteen seconds to impact he moved back down to the driver’s seat, through the interior, and to the back of the wagon, where Orlando eyed him knowingly and swung his lean body sideways so Chuck could hop on. He slipped the reins from the hook and the horse pivoted lightly at the same time the oxen jerked their own bodies to the right, away from the cliff face. The last thread Chuck had left in their harness leathers snapped so that they could run free from the wagon as it smashed into the red canyon wall and splintered.
From the back of Orlando, Chuck gave a solemn nod to say goodbye. “She was a damn fine wagon,” he said. “Now let’s see what’s to be done ‘bout these varmints back here.” Orlando snorted and spun on his hind legs to charge back toward the Barnes Gang.
As he approached Barnes sneered, “You never did know when to call it quits, Hayes!” He turned his attention to his two lackeys still rolling in the dirt from their spill. “Get up!” he spat, then booted his own horse with his spurs and charged toward the solemn Chuck Hayes.
Chuck leaned down over the neck of Orlando and repeated the words that had been said to him so many times, by so many a coaching staff, except for Westphal, who he never listened to, “Come on now, you know what to do. Don’t matter it’s not where we’re used to, it’s just like we practiced.” The horse nickered and lengthened his stride, making directly for Barnes and that strange, seafaring cutlass—where did he even get that?—now glinting in the overhead sun.
Barnes first mistake was that he couldn’t keep his eras straight for costume appropriation, but his second was taking Chuck for a fool. At the last moment before impact Chuck Hayes threw open his black duster to reveal his prized Raptors warm-up jacket. Its once triumphant red and royal purple colors took on a new sheen under the high noon sun, and the glare momentarily blinded Barnes and made him yank back hard on his reins as he moved to cover his eyes. Barnes’ horse pulled a hard stop, sending the villain flying forward to the ground, where he lay wreathed in Hayes’ dust.
With Barnes dispatched for the time being, Chuck circled the cowering Plumlee and Davis. “Now I aim to give you both a chance to put this behind you,” Hayes told them, “so long as you clear out back to your respective locker rooms and you don’t come bothering me or my horse again.”
The pair nodded, Mason didn’t even move to fix his askew eyepiece, which Chuck now noticed was an old Hamburglar mask.
“And furthermore have some respect for yourselves and quit hangin’ ‘round Matt Barnes, you boys know damn well all he’s good for is draining your minutes, and I mean from the shot clock of your lives.”
With a tip of his headband Hayes turned Orlando and started to trot toward the mouth of the canyon, but the sharp sound of rattlers stopped him. He looked around, eyeing the scrub and boulders to no avail. Something momentarily blocked the sun and he looked up to find on the outcropping above him Miles and Marshall Plumlee, feverishly rewinding egg timers to imitate the sound of angry snakes.
“What in the—“
The widely considered “good twin” and the Blue Devil center dove from the ledge at the same time, their poorly considered and probably self-appointed nicknames echoing off the walls of the canyons.
The brothers ripped at his warm-up jacket, desperate to tear it off and take this talisman from him. The scene was reaching a fevered pitch—Barnes approached on foot with his pirate sword in his teeth and Mason had recovered his hovertrax, Big Baby was cuing up another Pitbull song on YouTube. Chuck wasn’t sure he’d walk away from this one, when all at once everybody was knocked on their asses by a helicopter descending out of nowhere.
Pinned to the ground they all remained motionless as the enormous chopper landed and the tinted door slid open to reveal the crowned head of Vince Carter.
“Vince the prince,” they all gasped at once.
Vince Carter strode immediately to Chuck and helped him to his feet, dusting him off, “Man, when I left you that map I definitely did not expect this.”
Chuck stared, “It’s yours? But it’s so old.”
“C’mon man, didn’t your kid ever do that thing in school with the teabags to make a paper look old?”
“The wayward embers,” Chuck shook his head. He’d smelled them.
“You do it on your stovetop element,” Vince Carter side-eyed the Barnes Gang to make sure they were still too stupefied to move, they were. “Anyway let’s get out of here.”
“Where?” Chuck Hayes, never one to let naysayers get to him, finally considered the earlier words of Barnes, “I don’t belong anywhere anymore.”
Vince sincerely pshawed, “Why do you think I gave you that map! I want you to come work for me, Chuck. I want you to be my General Manager,” a beautiful horse trailer had come out of the gap and a crew was gently loading up Orlando and the two oxen, “we’re going to set you all up with a place in Daytona Beach and a place in—“
“Orlando,” Chuck nodded, heaving a weary sigh and removing his headband.
Vince moved to the waiting helicopter where Big Baby and the Plumlees were also given seats and cellphones to take angry calls from their coaches. He looked back to find Chuck still standing a few paces behind, headband in hand at his side.
“What is it, Chuck? Is there another job you wanted?”
“It ain’t that, and I want you to know how grateful I am,” Chuck said. “But it’s time for me to make my own way. Maybe a chuckwagon belongs in Texas, maybe it belongs back in California, maybe it doesn’t belong any of those places at all, I aim to sort it out on my own terms. But do me a favor, see to it that my hitch team gets put out to pasture.”
Vince Carter shrugged, “Do you buddy, I’ll take care of your cows.”
With a soft cluck to Orlando, Chuck headed out in the direction he sincerely hoped was south, sliding on some promotional Klipsch headphones and hitting play on his discman. The setting sun was going crazy on his tattered warm-up jersey, bathing him in a glow of purple, gold and red, like a 6’4” phoenix rising. He had nothing but time now. Hell, he’d love to start it off with that hot plate of scampi.