“What can I get you gentlemen?” Marge asked pulling a pencil from her beehive hairdo and smacking her chewing gum. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
The man on the right side of the booth stroked his long white beard as he studied the menu. Marge noticed a light puff of dust. She admired his shoulder-length white hair.
“I’ll take a Frank’s Special skillet.”
“And for you?” Marge turned her attention to the tall, white-haired man with skin as brown and tough-looking as slickrock sitting opposite. He was wearing jeans tucked into boots made from the hide of some animal. His expression remained stoic as he stared out the window.
“He would like a full order of biscuits and gravy, please,” his companion answered for him.
“Coming right up.” Marge refilled their cups with steaming-hot, fresh coffee. She walked behind the counter, slapped the order down and watched as Art, the cook, picked it up. His unlit cigarette moved in a circle in the corner of his mouth as he quickly read the order. Marge turned her attention to the three men sitting at the counter. “Any of you ever seen those strangers at table six?” she queried.
Bob Lee Colwell, Dennis T. Hernandez and Tom Behren Jr glanced discreetly over their shoulders.
“They look familiar,” Colwell said while sipping his coffee. “The coffee tastes different.”
“I made a fresh pot,” Marge answered. “You’re used to the old stuff.”
Hernandez stared openly at the newcomers. “They remind me of someone I either saw on the news or read about, but I can’t think of who right now.”
“They need haircuts,” Behren said, crunching on his day-old wheat toast.
Someone rushed through the door, looked around, high-fived four men he knew then made his way to the empty stool next to Colwell.
“What’s up?” Colwell asked. “You appear flustered.”
Spencer Jessie, who ran the Center Of Hope mission next door to the diner, watched as Marge filled a cup with coffee and handed it to him. He took a sip, frowned and set it down.
“It’s fresh,” Marge informed him.
“I’m supposed to meet Professor Hirschfield at ten.”
Hernandez checked the time. “You’re twenty minutes early. Why?”
“It’s important to be punctual…”
Colwell, Hernandez and Behren spit out their coffee and stared at Jessie.
Jessie laughed and replied, “I forgot you guys belong to that procrastination club. The Professor is doing a series of lectures at the university, and I am supposed to show him around the campus.”
“What does he look like?” Marge asked.
Spencer Jessie described the professor and Marge pointed to table six. “Might it be that guy? He definitely looks like a retired college professor.”
“No, the professor’s not a Native American.”
“Not the Indian!” Marge exclaimed. “The other guy reading the Shawnee Ferry Gazette.”
Wendell Blasingame sat next to Behren and eyed the last piece of dewberry pie in the case. “The usual, please, Marge.”
Jessie slapped his knee. “That must be him. He looks exactly like his description in the book.”
“What book?” Blasingame asked, waiting for Marge to fill his coffee cup.
“The one about purple skies and a canyon full of lost gold. What was it called?” Jessie ran a hand through his wiry, gray hair.
“Purple Skies Over Sage Canyon,” Marge answered, pulling her battered copy of the book out from under the counter.
“That’s the one!” Jessie shouted then laughed. “My Buttercup enjoyed it.”
“Wait a second,” Colwell said, nearly spilling his coffee. “Ben McGee said his grandfather wrote that book fifty years ago. I thought it was a fictional story.”
“The characters aren’t real,” Hernandez said.
“They look real to me,” Marge said.
“Order up!” Art hollered, hitting the bell.
Marge took the order to table six.
“Anything else I can get you?”
The man with the white beard set down his newspaper and replied, “We’re good. Smells delicious.”
His companion didn’t speak as he added pepper to his biscuits and gravy.
“Are you Professor Hirschfield by any chance?” Marge asked.
“Yes, and this is Chief Joseph Paledeer,” he answered. “We are supposed to meet an old friend.” The professor glanced toward the counter. “Ah! There he is.”
Marge waved to Jessie and hollered, “Get over here!”
Spencer Jessie jumped off his stool and bounded around the tables to number six. “Hiram! It’s so good to see you. Did you have any trouble finding the diner?”
“We got lost because Ol’ Joe couldn’t read the map, but I asked the guy at the gas station, and he gave us directions. We were only a block away.”
The professor stood and the old friends hugged for at least two minutes as they jabbered excitedly catching up on family news. The professor sat and Jessie scooted in next to him.
“How are you, Ol’ Joe?” Jessie asked.
Ol’ Joe’s face remained expressionless, but he nodded briefly.