Luther said, "No. To them I think it was just about munitions."
"Hell," Cully said with a hearty laugh, "maybe that's what it was about for all of us. Maybe that's all indeed. Wouldn't that be something?" He laughed again and nudged Luther's thigh with his fist and Luther smiled in agreement because if the whole world were that stupid then it truly was something indeed.
"Yes, suh," he said.
"I read a bunch," Cully said. "I hear at Versailles that they're going to make Germany surrender something like fifteen percent of her coal production and near fifty percent of her steel. Fifty percent. Now how's that dumb country supposed to ever get back on its feet? You wonder that, Jessie?"
"I'm wondering it now," he said, and Cully chuckled.
"They supposed to give up, like, another fifteen percent of their territory. And all this for backing the play of a friend. All that. And the thing is, who amongst us picks our friends?"
Luther thought of Jessie and wondered who Cully was thinking of as he stared at the window, his eyes gone wistful or rueful, Luther couldn't tell.
"No one," Luther said.
"Exactly. You don't pick friends. You fi nd each other. And any man don't back a friend gives up the right to call himself a man in my opinion. And I understand, you gots to pay if you back a bad play by your friend, but do you have to be ground into the dirt? I don't think so. World apparently thinks different, though."
He settled back in his seat, his arm loose against the wheel, and Luther wondered if he was expected to say something.
"When I was in the war," Cully said, "a plane flies over this fi eld one day, starts dropping grenades? Whew. That's a sight I try to forget. Grenades start hitting the trenches and everyone's jumping out and the Germans start firing from their trenches and I'll tell you, Jessie, wasn't no way to tell hell from hell that day. What would you do?"
Cully's fingers rested lightly on the wheel. He looked over. "Stay in the trench with grenades falling on you or jump out into a field where boys were shooting at you?"
"I can't imagine, suh."
"I suspect you can't. Hideous really, the cries boys make when they're dying. Just hideous." Cully shuddered and yawned at the same time. "Yes, sir. Sometimes life don't give you a choice but between the hard thing and the harder thing. Times like that, man can't afford to lose much time thinking. Just got to get doing."
Cully yawned again and went silent and they drove that way for another ten miles, the plains spread out around them, frozen stiff under a hard white sky. The cold gave everything the look of metal that had been rubbed with steel wool. Gray wisps of frost swirled along the edges of the road and kicked up in front of the grille. They reached a railroad crossing and Cully stopped the truck in the middle of the tracks, the engine giving off a low chug as he turned in his seat and looked over at Luther. He smelled of tobacco, though Luther had yet to see him smoke, and small pink veins sprouted from the corners of his eyes.
"They string coloreds up here, Jessie, for doing a lot less than stealing a car."
"I didn't steal it," Luther said and immediately thought about the gun in his suitcase.
"They string 'em up just for driving cars. You in Missouri, son." His voice was soft and kind. He shifted and placed an arm up on the seat back. "Now it's like a lot of things have to do with the law, Jessie. I might not like it. Then again maybe I do. But even if I don't, it ain't for me to say. I just go along to get along. You understand?"
Luther said nothing.
"You see that tower?"
Luther followed the jut of Cully's chin, saw a water tower about two hundred yards down the track.
"Dropping the 'suh' again," Cully said with a small lift of his eyebrows. "I like that. Well, boy, in about three minutes, a freight train is going to come down these tracks. It'll stop and take on water for a couple minutes and then head toward St. Louis. I recommend you get on it."
Luther felt the same coldness he'd felt when he'd pressed the gun under Deacon Broscious's chin. He felt ready to die in Cully's truck if he could take the man with him.
"That's my car," Luther said. "I own it."
Cully chuckled. "Not in Missouri you don't. Maybe in Columbus or wherever bullshit place you claim to come from. But not in Missouri, boy. You know what Bernard started doing soon as I pulled out of my station?"
Luther had the suitcase on his lap and his thumbs found the latches.
"He got on the horn, started calling around, telling folks about this here colored fella we met. Man driving a car he can't afford. Man wearing a nice coat too big for him. Ol' Bernard, he killed him some darkies in his time and he'd like to kill more, and right about now, he's organiz ing a party. Not a party you'd cotton to much, Jessie. Now I ain't Bernard. I got no fight with you and lynching a man ain't something I've ever seen and not something I ever want to see. Stains the heart, I suspect."
"It's my car," Luther said. "Mine."
Cully went on like Luther hadn't spoken. "So you can avail yourself of my kindness or you can get plumb stupid and stick around. But what you--"
"--can't do, Jessie," Cully said, his voice suddenly loud in the truck. "What you can't do is stay in my truck one more second."
Luther met his eyes. They were bland and unblinking.
"So get out, boy."
Luther smiled. "You just a good man who steals cars, that it, Mr. Cully, suh?"
Cully smiled, too. "Ain't going to be a second train today, Jessie. You try the third box car from the back. Hear?"
He reached across Luther and opened the door.
"You got a family?" Luther asked. "Kids?"
Cully leaned his head back and chuckled. "Oh ho. Don't push it, boy." He waved his hand. "Just get out my truck."
Luther sat there for a bit and Cully turned his head and stared out the windshield and a crow cawed from somewhere above them. Luther reached for the door handle.
He climbed out and stepped onto the gravel and his eyes fell on a stand of dark trees on the other side of the tracks, thinned by winter, the pale morning light passing between the trunks. Cully reached across and pulled the door shut and Luther looked back at him as he spun the truck around, crunching the gravel. He waved out the window and drove back the way he'd come.
The train went beyond St. Louis, crossing over the Mississippi and into Illinois. It turned out to be the first stroke of good luck Luther'd had in some time--he'd been heading for East St. Louis in the first place. It was where his father's brother, Hollis, lived, and Luther had hoped to sell the car here and maybe lie low for a while.