Deer in the Headlights

| June 01, 2005

About the Author
Raised in the Old West, Barbara White traveled the world before meeting her husband Bill, then explored the United States from the passenger seat of his truck. A 1992 Mark Twain Essay Contest honorable mention winner, Barb entered this year’s contest in competition with her husband Bill, who drives a 2001 Freightliner for TSI Kansas, out of Clay Center, Kan. Barb teaches near the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation and makes her home in Herrick, S.D., with their two children, Samantha and Will, and her husband Bill (watch for his honorable mention story later this year).

Jimmy was tired. It was dusk on a Saturday, and he had been driving this same two-lane highway since lunch. He was tired of squinting, tired of watching for deer on the road and tired of sipping on cool, stale coffee. Most of all, he was tired of worrying. The radio in his truck was terrible. For the past hour it had only picked up the local religious station. He had listened to radio dramas of David and Goliath and Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors. When the story of The Good Samaritan finished, the singing began. Jimmy turned off the radio. The little town of Mud Butte was 10 miles ahead, and he decided to make a pit stop there.

His headlights picked out another dead deer along the shoulder of the road. This year was crazy for deer. Twenty miles back he’d had to stop to let a whole herd cross the road. And tame! They hadn’t even spooked when he fired his air horn at them. The lump at the side of the road was past before Jimmy realized what he had seen. His foot made sense of it first and came off the accelerator. Jimmy dropped a gear. He wasn’t sure what, but something was wrong.

He argued with his conscience for the next mile. It was just a deer, and the flash of color was a Game, Fish and Parks road-kill tag. Jimmy looked in his mirrors and saw nothing. The sun had gone down, and there were no headlights ahead or behind. Why should he go back? It wasn’t his job to check out every lump along the road. He was in the middle of the freaking South Dakota prairie. Of course it was a deer. Or a cow. What else would it be? He was just tired and needed a break.

And he was a day behind where his dispatcher wanted him, but weather and logbook rules had conspired, and there was nothing he could do about it. Tonight he needed to make some miles, not jump at every ghost his brain invented.

But Jimmy was a million-mile driver. He had seen his share of death shoved onto the shoulder of the road, and something about this niggled. The highway widened for a historic landmark pullout. “Aw, what the heck.” He turned his rig around.

He drove slowly on his way back. The roadside was empty. Time and distance could play ticks, so he drove another mile but still saw nothing. Jimmy shook his head sheepishly. “Jimmy, old boy,” he said to the eyes in the mirror, “you are a sorry son of a gun!” He kicked himself for playing heroics. Now here he was on a two-lane highway headed the wrong direction. At the next section line road he was going to have to pull in and back out across traffic. It was against safety rules, but his mirrors stayed black and he hoped this stretch of South Dakota would live up to its reputation and stay empty a few mintues more.

Back on track, Jimmy let his eyes scan the ditch. He had already lost a good 10 minutes, but he planned to make that up by driving right past the next town. His break could wait. Jimmy thought of his dispatcher who was angry, his son who was sick and his wife who had taken off work to be at the hospital, and he wondered what on earth had made him turn around. “At the historic marker, this is over,” he decided. But he had to see that deer again to satisfy his curiosity, and maybe to convince himself he wasn’t losing his marbles.

Suddenly the lump appeared on the side of the road. He wasn’t crazy after all. He slowed to a crawl. “Oh, my holy Lord!” Jimmy pulled his air brakes and flipped his flashers. He hit the pavement in one jump and ran around the front of the truck. “Hey, are you OK?”

The man in the ditch was definitely not OK. His shirt was torn and bloodstained, and he moaned through swollen lips. Jimmy knelt by him only long enough to reassure the man. “I’m going to call for help,” he said. “I’m coming right back.” He raced for his cell phone. Please have service, please have service. There was one bar on the phone’s LCD window. Please have 911. He dialed. “Go through,” he muttered. Mud Butte was as rural as you could get.

The phone clicked and finally connected. “Sheriff’s office, what is your emergency?”

“There’s a man, he’s beat up bad.” He gave their location and was advised to “please stay on the line until emergency personnel have arrived.”

Phone to his ear, Jimmy sat next to the tangle of a man. “They’re on their way,” he said. “You’re going to be OK.” It was hard to tell how badly he was hurt. Bad enough, Jimmy decided.

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