Editor’s note: This story is based on a conversation I had with Ron Schneider at his gas station in Cody, Neb., on June 12, 2013. My feeble memory was aided immeasurably by Schneider’s first-person account, which I stumbled upon while wandering the Internet.
The day began in ordinary fashion. The sun came up on schedule and suffused Nebraska’s Sandhills with a bewitching glow.
Ron Schneider got dressed, ate breakfast and went to work. He arrived at his gas station a little before 7. He’s sold gas and repaired cars in Cody since 1970.
The day dawned cool and clear and unremarkable, like thousands of other days Schneider has seen around here. Not that he didn’t have anything on his mind.
Mostly, he thought about his heart. He had returned from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., the previous day.
The news wasn’t good. His heart was a shambles. He had just three chambers, and the septum between the upper chambers was about gone. It was, in his words, “hanging there in rags.”
He hoped to qualify for a transplant but wouldn’t find out for months.
It was Saturday, March 24, 2007. The usual gang gathered at the back table in Schneider’s shop to play cribbage and talk trash. Schneider had a luckless morning, losing three times in three games.
Things were about to change, so much so that probably the most remarkable thing thing about the day was that Schneider was still alive to eat lunch.
Cody, a windswept relic of about 150 people, sits a few miles from the South Dakota border. It seems like it has been bypassed by time. The economy might be on the ropes, but trust in your fellow man’s decency is alive and well.
Homes are left unlocked, unless you’re going out of town for an extended trip. Cars are unlocked, too, with the keys left inside.
At Schneider’s Sinclair station at 420 W. U.S. 20, you needn’t pay prior to pumping gas. Simply fill up and pay when you’re done.
It might seem quaint, but that’s how they roll out here.
Shortly after 8, a stranger drove up in a big, white pickup truck, a 2005 Chevy crew cab. Schneider was in the back helping repair a tire.
Cashier Lody Krick activated the pump. The stranger filled up, then got back in the truck and onto 20, heading east with $62.93 worth of stolen gas.
Krick found Schneider and told him the news.
It’s important here to know a little about Ron Schneider. He is a creature of his environment. He is matter-of-fact to a fault, even-keeled even if it kills him.
He lives by a simple code of ethics.
You gas up your car, you pay for the gas.
He wasn’t angry.
He figured the offender had simply forgotten to pay. It happens from time to time.
So he did what he always does in such situations. Without a word to Krick or anyone else, he climbed into his 1989 Buick Park Avenue and took off in search of the white pickup.
There was accounting to be done. The ledger had to be corrected. When the day is done, debits and credits must agree.
He was going to get his money. Simple as that.
There were no hard feelings.
He had given his weather-beaten Buick a nickname: Old Blue. At the time, Old Blue had 260,000 miles on the odometer.
Schneider got in Old Blue, accelerated onto U.S. 20 east and drove like, well, he drove like a madman with a healthy heart.
“Well, he had a couple minutes head-start on me, so I figured I better get the hell down the road,” he said. “I kicked the old Buick into top end. It governored out at 110.”
I mistook that for colorful local parlance. He said it again, noting his chase slowed when he found himself “up against the governor.” The governor, it turns out, is a technical term for a device used to limit an engine’s speed.
Schneider roared out of Cody in a scene fit for a movie: a 63-year-old man with a failing heart tearing up Highway 20 in Cherry County at 110 mph in an 18-year-old Buick named Old Blue.
If you’re going to stage a high-speed car chase, Cherry County is a fine setting. A sprawling expanse of rolling, grass-covered dunes, Cherry County is larger in area than three states. It has more square miles (6,010) than people (5,713).
About eight miles down the road, Schneider caught a glimpse of the pickup as Old Blue flew over a hill east of Nenzel. He was gaining ground fast. In another mile, he pulled alongside the truck and motioned for the driver to pull over.
The tumblers of the universe were about to click back into place. Or so it seemed.
The man in the truck had other ideas. The longer the chase dragged on, the more he seemed like a desperado.
“Boy, he just accelerated and took off down the road and straddled the white line so I couldn’t get alongside him again,” Schneider said.
The game of cat and mouse continued as the miles disappeared below Old Blue’s tires. The pickup straddled the line until Kilgore, where the driver made an abrupt left and sped toward South Dakota and the Rosebud Reservation.
“I just sucked in behind him, and when we were five, six miles north of Kilgore, I passed him,” Schneider said. “He couldn’t outrun me; he was driving a two-cab pickup. His could only go about 98. I knew that. I could go 110.”
Two times Schneider got in front of his quarry, and two times the driver swerved the pickup into a ditch and evaded his pursuer.
By this time, Schneider’s dander was up. This was a matter of principle, and the man in the pickup was flouting principle at every turn. He was determined to confront his nemesis and get some answers. By now he figured the scofflaw was a resident of the Rosebud Nation, addled by drugs or booze.
“It just pissed me off that he was driving a pretty new pickup and he couldn’t pay a damn gas bill,” Schneider said. “I was going to follow him home and find out where he lives.”
About 16 miles north of Kilgore, the driver panicked. He pulled off the road at St. Francis and turned onto a gravel path that dead-ended a small creek in the midst of a prairie dog town. He had run out of room to run.
“I saw he was gonna try to cross that creek and go up the other side,” Schneider said. “He disappeared over the ridge. I drove up the ridge, and he was sitting right down below me, stuck in the sand.”
Schneider got out of Old Blue. He looked over the ravine where the chase had ended and asked the driver why he had driven off without paying for his gas.
“And he says he didn’t have any money,” he said. “I said, ‘I suppose you mean that the pickup’s stolen, too?’ And he said, ‘yeah.'”
He tried to persuade the man to turn himself in. He gave him a choice: Face justice in Nebraska or deal with reservation authorities.