Deer in the Headlights

| June 01, 2005

“You’re OK now,” Jimmy repeated, and then, because he couldn’t think of anything else to fill the silence, he told the man about his son and his wife who sat by the hospital bed each day and kept the family from falling apart. He told him about tomorrow’s surgery and how he could never drive enough to pay for it. Jimmy didn’t know if the man could even hear him, but he filled the night with soft tones. The man was only partly conscious, and his ear had cauliflowered against the bloody scalp. His cheekbone was caved in, and one arm looked broken. His clothes were ragged and seemed dirty under the blood. Jimmy wondered if he really would be OK.

“I think I hear the ambulance,” he said into the phone. He looked at his watch and listened to the siren approach.

It was all flashing lights and noise. Highway Patrolman Clark was polite and professional. He took Jimmy’s name, and the EMTs took the man away on a stretcher. As fast as it had begun, it was over. The sirens dimmed in the distance.

“Follow me into town,” Officer Clark said. “You can wash up at the Muddy Mart.” He flashed a brief tight smile. “And I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”

Jimmy looked down and saw blood on his hands and shirt. He must look as shaken as he felt.

A day later, Jimmy was still shaken as he stood in his dispatcher’s office explaining his logbook. “I never did find out who the guy was.” He flexed and unflexed his hands. “Nobody on the ambulance knew him, and the lady at the mini mart couldn’t think who it could be. Of course I couldn’t give you a very good description, he was all banged up.” Jimmy paused. “What could you do to make somebody that mad?” he wondered for the thousandth time. The man’s bloody face had haunted his sleep. “I figure he was just some bum in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe it was drugs. Or gangs.” Jimmy stopped himself. “I guess I’ll never know,” he said softly, then shook his head. He turned to business. “So my log shows two hours off duty there at Mud Butte. I missed the delivery time in Sioux Falls, and I’m out of hours now. I need a day to catch up with myself, then you can send me back out.” Jimmy left his paperwork and headed for the hospital. At least he could see his son in the recovery room.

Jimmy’s wife picked up the mail every day on her way to the hospital. Their son was getting better, but their finances were not. She dialed Jimmy’s number, and they faced their declining bank account together. “Today we got the gas bill, a credit card bill and another letter from the hospital. I told them to send that to the insurance company.” Her voice was tight with stress. “I’ll look at it later.”

“I wish I could help you with that.” Here he sat looking at Georgia asphalt, and she had to deal with all of this. He glanced up in the mirror and saw the familiar, helpless deer-in-the-headlights look on his face.

“Don’t worry, Jimmy. You’re getting us through this. I’ll talk to their office again. We’ll be all right somehow.” There was another pause and a shuffle of paper. “Here’s something. It’s a real letter. Do you know a Jenson from South Dakota?”

“Open it.” His hand shook on the steering wheel. “What does it say?”

“Dear James Butler,”she began. “Well, I guess he knows you. Just a minute, something fell out. It’s newspaper clippings – about you and that guy you saved.” She began to read again:

“Dear James Butler,

My name is David Jenson and I would like to thank you for my life. Last month you rescued me from the side of the road near Mud Butte, S.D. My doctor assures me that if I had stayed out there even an hour longer, I would now be dead. I’m doing fine, but they tell me I will remain their guest a while longer.

The irony of my situation is that I got into this mess by stopping to help someone, and I was saved by someone who was willing to stop and help me. You have saved my faith in humanity as well as my life.

You must have wondered who I am and how I came to be where you found me. I work for a securities firm on Wall Street, but confess to having loved the Old West since childhood. My wife and sons humored me this year, and we spent two weeks together in the Black Hills. I sent them home on United and called in sick to work (another irony, considering my current lodgings). I stayed a few days by myself, camping along Rapid Creek.

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