The school bus roared in down-gear, gleaming yellow in morning sunlight with great roiling clouds of dust around it.
It came down the curve from the plateau of big open pastures above the tree-studded chasm that broke to the creek.
The cottonwoods, bur oaks and walnuts grew right out to the narrow road shoulder, so like most drivers, Dan Dillingham steered the bus to the middle of the road. It was just in time to avoid the small man in gray overalls wearing a gray-striped engineer's cap who stood there looking at a crack in the road.
At sight of him, the high school girls in the back of the bus broke into song, clapping hands in rhythm like a cheer at a game, "Baw, baw, baw, baw-bawb along, baw baw baw-bawb along. We sing your so-o-ong, baw-bawb along."
Then the grade school kids and the pair of older boys joined in, half of them sticking their heads through the tops of the windows where the balmy air flowed in, singing, "baw, baw, baw, baw-bawb along."
Dillingham slowed the bus, glaring back at the children from the rear-view mirror. "Alright, you kids, pipe down. Stop the singing. Get down in your seats. I know you saw Bob Longfellow there, but control yourselves. He's OK, just different, wounded as a veteran and all that, you know. You kids should be showing him some respect instead of singing at him."
"Ah, he didn't even notice us," said Peggy from the back of the bus. "Old Bob-a-Long was just bob-a-longing around, and he don't know any world went by. Baw, baw, baw-bawb along," she sang, and the rows of young people broke into smiles and singing as they joined her.
Peggy was right. Robert Wallace Longfellow had barely noticed the bus go around him despite it flinging dust and gravel. He was comfortable in the still, cool air of a late fall day, and concentrating on a trail of ants that disappeared into the crack in the road. He hadn't been concious of Dan Dillingham steering further to the middle of the road to avoid his own four-wheel drive Subaru wagon.
For the next two hours, Bob Longfellow would change position only to sit alongside the ants while he dragged a finger back and forth in the shoulder road dust letting the tactile sensation remind him that he was living. Only when he became aware that he might have to go to the bathroom, and that his stomach was growling for food did he finally get up to go to his car. Even then, he paused for 15 minutes with his face tilted up, sniffing from widened nostrils on his long nose in the soft wind that was shifting to northerly, heralding a great, moist cold front.
When he got to the car, Bob dug through an assortment of tools on the floor, from wrenches to nylon come-alongs with toothed jack handles attached, to get to a pile of notebooks where he pulled out a yellow one to record ant travel data in it along with a drawing of a particularly nice oak leaf.
After eating a sandwich in town, Bob Longfellow spent time on his hands and knees on Main Street with a tape measure appearing to carefully measure the street while recording information in a red notebook he had dug from the floor of his car.
Deputy Owen Reuben, who had just eaten a steak at the Deerhead, stood working a toothpick in his teeth for a while watching Longfellow work. Pedestrians along the sidewalk only looked briefly at Bob Longfellow with his gray hair sticking out raggedly from the engineer's flat-topped cap. They were used to seeing him.
Cars carefully steered around the thin, little man who occasionally looked up at them from a still youthful, but lined and wizened face, as though half surprised to see them there, but still not fully aware they were even there.
Satisfied that the entire town was taking care of Robert Wallace Longfellow, as usual, and that he wasn't risking getting hurt, Owen Reuben sauntered away in a cocky cop's walk to the county jail.
Bob Longfellow noticed another crack, this time in the sidewalk in front of the Deerhead. He stood there in the early afternoon as the breeze picked up into a soft moan, and gray clouds came scudding across the sky. When customers began coming into the Deerhead for afternoon coffee with half-frozen spits of rain coming from the sky, Bob was standing stock-still with the red notebook under his arm watching the crack.
"Ain't that Bob Longfellow a piece of work," said black-haired Johnny Beauregard looking out the window of the Deerhead from where he sat at the long table sipping his steaming coffee. "Looks like he'd be getting cold standin' there like that. Guess you got to work hard stayin' crazy for everybody, keepin' your veteran's benefits and disability and all that."
"Lordy, lordy, watch your tongue, Johnny Beauregard," said Charmin' Carmen the horse trader. "His mama over there in the corner will hear you. I knowed most of the people around here all my life including Bob Longfellow, and I can tell you. That kid ain't fakin' anything. He's nuttier than a fruitcake, got a steel plate in his head. Done got shot in the head, I hear. Look at that the rain's changin' to ice, gettin' heavier."
"I figure," said Johnny Beauregard, "that he was nuts anyway, and saw a good chance to get a pension out of being nuts. He's nuts like a fox."
"No use you just talkin' about a fellow," said Charmin'. "It ain't becomin' to anybody who makes deals or has a life just to gossip about poor shot guys who are nuts. Go ask his mama. Go ask Martha Longfellow over there if Bob was nuts before he went to the army, and if he's more nuts now. Martha's a straight shooter, she'll tell you, then you can shut your mouth about it."
Johnny Beauregard stood rubbing his palms on his hips, and smiling. "I'll just do that, Charmin' Carmen. I'll ask her." Then he walked to the women's smoking table in the far corner where the puffy-faced Martha Longfellow with long jowls sat with a cigarette dangling from her lip while empty-headed Mary chatted at her.
"Martha Longfellow," said Johnny Beauregard. "Me and Charmin' Carmen were talkin' over there, and I was wonderin'. Was your boy, Bob, nuts before he went to the army, or just nuts afterwards? Matter of fact, no offense, I even wonder if he could have been certifiably crazy without ever gettin' shot in the head?"
Martha Longfellow sat with her forehead wrinkled looking at Johnny Beauregard for the longest time. Most of the room full of tables across the great expanse of the Deerhead's main room had gone silent as people realized the woman had the perfect right to slug Johnny Beauregard for the inappropriateness of his remarks.
Finally Martha Longfellow puffed a great plume of smoke into Johnny Beauregard's face making him choke a little. Then she spoke, "Naah, Bobby was always nuts. Always claimed he heard voices. There you have it straight from his mama. But the army took him just like they'll take most warm bodies if the time is right. And it was them that got him shot in the head. So he's entitled.
"Now is he any more crazy than he used to be? I can't say for sure. He was nuts when he was a baby staring up at me with those big eyes. But, I'll tell you a couple of things. He's entitled to anything he can get, and he's actually smarter than the whole bunch in here put together. Bobby is a genius. Now, do you feel satisfied, or do you still feel a great need to show everybody here what a butt you can be, Johnny Beuregard."
"No, I'm satisfied, Mam."
Johnny Beauregard walked back to the table trying to show composure just as Doc Frenchie the veterinarian walked through the front doors with his arm around Bob Longfellow listening to him read from the red notebook. "Here, you sit right down here, and have a cup of coffee with me, Bob," said Doc. "No sense you just freezing out there."
Bob Longfellow drank his coffee slowly looking at Johnny Beauregard and Charmin' Carmen across the table. Then he announced in a high voice, "I have the final figure. The area of our Main Street is 158,363 square feet, which does not include, of course, parking spaces and turn-in spaces for side streets."
"And, who cares if it is 158,363 square feet besides maybe some planning engineer somewhere," said Johnny Beauregard.
"Why, I didn't think we knew, so I found out," replied Bob Longfellow looking puzzled. "I think we have to know."
"Know what, Bob?" asked Doc.
"Why, everything we don't know yet."
"Look here," said Johnny Beauregard winking at the others. "I see in your future six feet on a side. It's important for you to know."
"What is it? A square?"
"Naah, it's something else, like a force."
Bob Longfellow jumped to his feet, "Isosceles triangle then, all sides equal pull with the triangle leg a vector of force. It's for me to find out what it means?"
"Yeah, something like that is what I see, like a riddle," said Johnny. "I think it's important for you."
"What kind of nonsense are you talking?" asked Doc as Bob Longfellow rushed out the door.
"I just thought I'd say something with numbers like I knew what I was talking about to see what he did. Got him excited didn't I?"
"You hadn't ought to bait poor Bob-a-Long with anything. Every body ought to just help take a little care of someone like him," said Charmin' Carmen.
"Even meaningless garbage can get him to going. Look at that ice out there. It's really covering everything. Can't hardly believe it started out a nice day."
Bob Longfellow headed up the creek road to where it broke out of the prairie pastures all excited. Something about being told six feet was destiny had gotten into his mind like a real intellectual breakthrough. He had measured the trees near the curve, and there were three big trees exactly six feet apart. A coffee bean tree and a cottonwood tree across the road also were six feet apart. Some of his nylon come-alongs were six feet long when fully extended in double loop. What was important about this?
The big yellow school bus, encrusted now with a coat of ice over the top and most of the windows came slowly down the curve. Dan Dillingham was nearly alone on the bus now with most of the children returned to their homes leaving him bending over the steering wheel to see through the ice that accumulated a little faster than defroster and windshield wipers could work. He geared down to a crawl as he came with the bus still trying to fishtail on the incline. He was just hoping to have it made when the last high school girl in the back, staring out the window began to sing by herself very softly, "baw, baw, baw, ba-bawb along."
The bus was trying to slide, and one wheel dropped barely over the side of the timbered chasm, skinning softly up against an oak before coming to a stop. Dan Dillingham sighed tiredly. Better see how bad it is, and radio in for a wrecker. Thank god there was only himself and the girl still on board. The wrecker could take her home if need be.
He opened the door to climb out when a face turned ruddy red by the cold under an engineering cap covered with ice came through the mist in front of him.
"I knew it was important if I could connect it. I knew if I would build it, someone would come to need it. They told me to listen to Johnny." said Bob Longfellow. "Sit still now so you don't upset the balance, and I'll have you right out. Still, you hear me, sit still."
Dan Dillingham paused at the sound of straps being winched around the bus, and metal hooks on come-alongs being shoved into place. Then he could see Bob Longfellow hurrying to where his come-alongs were hooked to trees in triangular patterns to work jack handles here and there, then running across the road to do the same. Slowly the bus moved in sideways small jerks, its weight offset by the lack of resistance sliding on the ice, until it was pulled over the road shoulder back into place.
Nobody's going to believe this even when I tell them, thought Dan Dillingham.
There came the sound of clips coming loose, and straps pulled away. Bob Longfellow stuck his head in the door. "You better get to town now. Sorry I can't visit, but I want to try to see what the ants did in this weather.
"That Bob-a-Long is nuts," Dan Dillingham later told Doc Frenchie.
"Yeah, but he's a nice boy, probably nicer than his mama if the truth be known," said Doc. "Sometimes I wonder if it's us that lives in the real world, or if it's him."