|The storm raged. Rain fell hard. Thunder roared. Ahead of the rumbling, lightning flashed, giving a glow to bent weeds in the red-clay ditch, the babbling stream of water, and stones washed bare.
Hank “Cowboy” Tillman—shot and bleeding in the gully—tried to move. Later he remembered his efforts to crawl. Not because he could crawl. He could not. But if he managed somehow to do so, maybe that might get him out of his predicament. As if any movement could help on the remote stretch of rural road.
Cowboy, shocked and muddled by his painful wound, recalled a foggy memory about a freakish July hurricane somebody mentioned in the bar last night. This must be the one. Rain pelted Hank’s head. Muddy water flowed in a rivulet around his right ear. Georgia clay smudged part of his face and much of his clothing.
His hat. Did I leave it at the bar? Oh yeah. Some asshole knocked it off his head before plowing a fist into his gut.
And my guitar? Shit.
Worrisome as those quandaries ordained, memories of Nashville came to haunt Hank as rain drenched him down in the ditch.
A similar night, he told Red Farlow later.
He’d creased his Texas straw hat perfectly. Grease spots stained it here and there. His 1951 Martin 000-21 guitar, ragged, rugged, and chipped, with the rosewood split a few inches. Still, its glorious sound resonated in his memory. Priceless both.
These things he contemplated in nightmarish images as he kept his face above water. Then the shock of reality hit. Will I live? Or am I dying? Any chance I can get out of this wet hellhole?
Those two thugs in the bar. He heard people talking about the hurricane. It was right then the pair—one named Bugger, the other Swansy—accosted him. That led to the gunshot wound.
Why’d they do it? Why’d they hurt me?
Thinking about their assault on him and feeling the pain, Hank Tillman tried to cry, but no tears came. He’d desperately looked around the back room of the bar for Red Farlow but didn’t see him. His protector. Nowhere around.
Now, here was Hank, soaked completely through his clothes, muddied to the core, and hurting. He had to pee, so he went in his pants. Who would notice?
Right then, he couldn’t think anything mattered. Not playing. Not singing. Not making his next gig.
His hat and guitar. The only things he could contemplate, along with life itself—the important stuff.
Will I play again?
He passed out and dreamed an angel hulk bent down and cradled his head. A shock of lightning lit up the familiar face.
Thunder roared. Rain fell.
* * *
Two years previous, Cowboy walked into a seedy bar near the Alabama line. With his guitar case and gig bag in hand, he moved across the room. His boot toe hit a snag in the floor. Hank nearly tripped. He looked down at the cracked, uneven concrete littered with peanut shells and cigarette butts. He took in the acrid smoke from cigarettes, cheap cigars, and weed that filled the room. People coughed a lot as they puffed away. The older ones looked unhealthy, and the younger ones not much better off.
He went over to a corner where an amp stood and prepared his equipment.
A waitress named Wanda strolled past. Hank asked her for a bottle of water. She dominated the place, a big soulless wench who cursed anything and often. She got into an argument with a millwright as Cowboy adjusted his mic and tuned his guitar for the first set. Wanda won; the mill worker left.
He played to pipefitters and other workers from a nearby paper mill, along with farm laborers, auto mechanics, and veterans. A lot of the male patrons had nothing else to do but shoot pool, drink a lot, and tease the three waitresses for a chance, slight as the odds might be, for a night in the sack with one of them. A few women patrons sat among the crowd drinking hard liquor or cheap wine or both.
Hank belted out one of his best, his namesake’s “Hey Good Lookin’.” He let it rip in a loud voice and heavy beat that elicited from the crowd romping ’n’ stomping two-stepping, extravagant toe-tapping, and booming laughter. The locals loved it. Hell, everybody loved it.