“His beard and chest were splattered with blood, his shoulders gray with ash, his coat sleeves, hands and knees blood soaked...He had no idea who he was.”
When he came to, he shut his eyes to alleviate the nausea. The stillness of his retreat was ruptured by a horn blast. He opened his eyes and saw the white, fluted columns of a courthouse. Pedestrians on the sidewalk.
His head was ponderous and difficult to turn.
A man in a black suit–a brief case in his lap–was sitting beside him. The vehicle they were in was at a stoplight in heavy traffic. The tip of his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He sucked his teeth but could not swallow.
The mass of people huddled at the street corner began to cross the intersection. A dark-skinned man in a leather coat stayed behind. They made eye contact. He thought Saudi and didn’t know why. The left side of his head pulsed so violently from the drug the vision in that eye went white.
The car accelerated. He noticed the driver for the first time, the Ford Oval on the steering wheel. Then he bent forward and vomited between his knees. The man beside him in the back seat didn’t respond.
There was another Saudi at the next intersection. This time he saw the man through the crowd: he was talking on a cell phone and disappeared into a storefront.
He tried to press his palm against the side of his head, but couldn’t.
A white van slowed to a stop beside him. The driver held a phone to his ear. Beads of sweat percolated through the driver’s skin, slid down the side of his forehead, dripped from his nose; his neck and jaw muscles were knotted and clenched.
Compelled by instinct, he shouted, “Bomb.” The warning resonated with an unemotional authority he did not anticipate or comprehend.
The Ford jumped forward, accelerating at full throttle into the cross traffic. Tires screeched in the intersection. A white Civic swerved. He heard metal smashing metal. The Ford kept accelerating and punched the rear quarter panel of a blue Camry, pushed through the lanes and T-boned a silver Tahoe.
He was coughing and tried to sit up–but couldn’t. He couldn’t move his arms, hit his head on the steering wheel and lay his cheek on the leather-trimmed door panel, in too much pain to curse.
He kept his eyes shut to stop the skewer of light from plunging into his brain.
Bursts of automatic rifle fire punctuated the wailing and screams of terror.
Squinting, he saw pieces of shattered glass above him in the door’s widow frame. He closed his eyes. Slowly turned his head. Opened his eyes again and looked at the black asphalt beneath him.
The Ford was on its side.
He put one knee in the broken glass, pressed his back against the roof and stooped. No one else appeared to be in the vehicle.
His hands were bound behind his back.
Eight rapid, semi-automatic pistol shots fired from close by were followed by the metallic clink of a magazine clip hitting the pavement. He heard the familiar snap of supersonic projectiles passing nearby and saw in the roof three pinholes of light.
He dropped, curled up on the broken glass. Still coughing.
When the automatic rifle fire ceased, he kicked out what remained of the windshield.
He remembered the briefcase and squeezed into the back seat. The pistol shots were slower and more controlled than before. The combination briefcase was lying in broken glass on the door. He used the sides of his feet to stand it upright between his ankles, dug his elbow into the leather-trimmed seat for balance, squatted–his hands behind his back–and pick it up.
He threw himself into the front seat and stepped out the windshield.
People were calling for help. Others were crouched or lying with their hands over their heads. From every direction came howls of pain. The air was black with smoke. Vehicles on fire.
The driver of the Ford Expedition lay dead–bullet holes in his face, neck and chest. Gray ashes speckled his cheek and black suit.
The Camry was upside down, on top of another sedan. The windows shattered, paint blackened, three of its tires ablaze like torches over the carnage.
A man thrashed his arms: his head, back and sleeves on fire. A teenage girl ran out from behind the barricade of an overturned Prius, knocked him down and beat the flames with her cotton trench coat. Another rifle burst drove her to her belly. She lay smothering him in the street.
He heard sirens. Everyone was coughing.
By the time he located the source of the rifle fire through the black plumes of soot and smoke, the rifleman was dead, splayed over the yellow hood of a Dodge Charger. It was the Saudi who disappeared into the storefront.
He searched–his left eye shut against the pain–for the man who was beside him in the Expedition. An old woman, face covered in blood, sat rocking on the curb, hugging her chest. Gray ash fell from the smoke. A man crawled toward the sidewalk, coughing, dragging his right arm, a splintered, white bone protruding from his pant leg.
He stepped forward to help the man then remembered the handcuffs on his wrists and looked around.
The keys, he was certain, were in the locked briefcase he was holding behind his back.
A fire truck, bellowing its air horn, pressed through the clogged street.
He saw the man from the back seat, a Colt Commander in his hands, laying? prone in a pool of blood beside the burning Tahoe. The pistol’s safety was off, the hammer cocked, the man’s index finger still on the trigger.
He set the briefcase in the street, about a yard away. Sat in his blood, gripped the Colt by the stainless-steel slide and eased it out of the man’s fingers. Stepped toward the briefcase–gripping the weapon with both hands on his left side where he could see the barrel–held his breath to suppress the coughing and shot the brass lock.
He sat down–his back to the briefcase–opened the latch, twisted his neck and squeezed his eyes against a pulse of white pain. The key hung against the interior wall.
He rolled the man over, unbuttoned the suit jacket, seized the bloody, silk shirt in both fists and pulled it apart. Buttons sprung from their threads. He pressed his bare hands against the wounds.
The man gasped and opened his eyes.
Sirens and howls filled the street. The inconsolable wail of a mother.
He tucked his nose into his armpit to filter the black smoke. The man in the black suit coughed sprays of blood. But the life–no matter how hard he pressed–seeped through his fingers.
The cries for help grew more insistent with the arrival of the first emergency crews.
The man in the suit was dead for minutes before he took his hands from the wounds. He stood and pushed his sticky palm into his temple.
Barely visible through the sooty smoke, a uniformed officer, his weapon drawn, was making his way toward the Expedition.
He crouched, picked up the Colt, ejected the magazine and counted the two remaining .45 ACP cartridges, a third in the chamber. Four spent magazines lay in the blood. He slammed the nearly empty magazine home, put the pistol in his waistband, searched the dead man for spare magazines, for identification, and found nothing. He closed the briefcase, grabbed it by the handle and stood up.
Nausea nearly overwhelmed him.
Hiding the briefcase with his torso, he staggered away from the approaching officer, past the yellow Charger: a bullet hole in the rear driver’s-side window and another in the roof, near the passenger-side windshield pillar. The Saudi had a red hole above his ear. An M4 carbine lay at his feet.
He looked back.
Whoever the man in the black suit was, he knew what he was doing: lying prone in a pool of his own blood, he shot through the Charger’s rear window and roof to hit the rifleman’s head, which was not in his field of vision.
The uniformed officer, a handkerchief over his mouth and nose, was standing in the blood looking at the spent magazines.
He staggered past the burning vehicles in which sat corpses–charred arms and grimacing faces–past emergency crews delivering aid to the shocked and bleeding, past ambulances and fire trucks, past approaching squad cars and turned down the first street he came to.
Dizzy, his vision blurred, he stopped to catch his balance and saw himself in the glass door of a storefront. People rushed around him toward the intersection. He was wearing black slacks and a green parka. His beard and chest were splattered with blood, his shoulders gray with ash, his coat sleeves, hands and knees blood soaked.
He had no idea who he was.
His earliest memory was of the nausea. He remembered the traffic, the pedestrians on the sidewalk. He was searching his pockets for an ID when he realized a woman wearing suede boots and a crimson, cashmere cardigan was asking if he needed help. He looked around, unsure how to answer.
The Saudi he saw at the intersection turned the corner, pulled a black mask over his face and drew a machine pistol from his leather coat.
He looked for an escape. The civilians rushing toward the scene of the blast would provide cover. But given the indiscriminate slaughter of the bombing, the Saudi was likely to fire into the throng.
He opened the glass door before him and stepped into a bank, noticed the cameras and immediately regretted his choice. That the Saudis were involved he knew was significant. What else did he know?
There were no customers in the bank. The receptionist, tellers and loan officers were standing at the windows, their mouths agape.
A woman in a blue blouse told the others, “He’s been hurt.”
“Oh my God!”
He crossed the lobby looking for another exit. That the gunman was following him confirmed he had been the target at the intersection.
“He doesn’t know where he is.”
“Does anyone know first aid?”
“He’s in shock. We need a blanket. Get him to lie down.”
That he had been handcuffed in the back seat of a leather-trimmed Ford Expedition wasn’t an encouraging piece of information.
If he killed the gunman when he opened the door, he might have time to take the CPU with the camera footage, but he wasn’t sure that would help: the bank employees could ID him, and without knowing which side the gunman, or for that matter, he, was on, he couldn’t know whether the elimination of the threat would make things better or worse.
He passed the open vault, saw the green sign identifying the emergency exit and bolted for the corridor.
He held the briefcase in his left hand, slammed his right palm into the bar on the door and thought his skull might splinter from the force of the alarm. He turned for the nearest corner and coerced his legs to sprint down the alley, keeping a pair of green dumpsters between him and the door of the bank.
He heard the bullets ricocheting off the brick, but did not look back. Turned the corner, crossed to the far lane of traffic, broke the driver’s window of a red 1968 Ford Mustang with the butt of the pistol grip, unlocked and opened the door, pulled out the driver and commanded him at gunpoint, “Lie down! Now!”
Nine millimeter bullets shattered the rear window and pierced the sheet metal of the Fastback. Without shutting the door, he jammed the accelerator into the floorboard and skidded around the corner.
Billy sat the horse and glassed Keigwin’s pasture, empty but for the windmill. He glassed the dirt road separating the two properties, turned the horse and glassed the meadow beneath the aspens on the low shoulder of the mountain. He could see snow high in the lodgepoles, the mountain white above timberline. He glassed the southern spur to the ridge then rode the fence until he came to where it had been trampled by Moses. A steel post slanted like grass in the wind.
That they weren’t in Keigwin’s pasture bled the urgency from the morning’s work, but not the exasperation. The fence wasn’t adequate for sheep, let alone bison. And there was no capital to do anything about it.
He heard his mom’s voice, held the binoculars in his left hand, turned the mustang and rode toward the house.
Last Spring, when Mary passed, Keigwin sold out to a banker from New York City and moved to West Texas to live with his daughter. The banker didn’t know the first thing about anything. Over the summer, he pumped the well dry at the main house watering a new lawn, lost a score of Keigwin’s prized sheep to a lion and ignorance, and called the sheriff the first time Moses led the herd over the fence for the alfalfa in Keigwin’s pasture. The sheriff phoned Billy at the house to let him know the bison were out. But as Billy was driving them back, the banker from New York City appeared out of nowhere, stood directly in the path of the herd holding a .300 Weatherby Magnum across his chest and shouted the word trespasser; he didn’t know how to close the bolt, and a rifle cartridge fell out of the chamber. As the banker stooped to pick it up, he was swallowed by the dark mass of the slow moving bison. All Billy could see when the banker stood was his white Stetson hat, and there was not a thing he could do to change the predicament he and his new neighbor were in. The herd passed the man on all sides. Billy followed and noticed, by the smell, that the banker’s underwear were soiled. He tried to look the man in the eyes, but the banker, his face paler than his new Stetson hat, was studying the alfalfa between his feet. Billy apologized with a solemn commitment to repair the banker’s fence that evening.
Billy could see his mom now, standing beside the flagpole. Using a pic and shovel, he dug the hole himself a few years after his father disappeared, added sand, poured Quikrete, made the sleeve plumb and erected the flagpole he purchased with money from his monthly allowance. In good weather, Billy raised the American flag over the ranch every morning.
When his mom saw him, she stopped calling and stood watching–his boots in her hand. He rode past the east water tank; it was covered with a thin layer of ice. Billy glassed the aspens at the base of the mountain then turned the horse to glass the other side of the valley. He glassed along the road, following it to the ranch. The black SUV was parked outside the gate. Billy looked at his mom. Then raised the binoculars and glassed the SUV. Despite the darkened windows, the rising sun flooded the cab with light.
The driver was glassing him back.
She handed him the coffee first. Billy drank it in a gulp. She took the cup and gave him a burrito wrapped in tinfoil. He put it in his coat pocket.
“They weren’t in Keigwin’s pasture.”
“What about the aspens?”
“I’m gonna check the BLM land next.”
“You’re gonna go to school.”
Billy looked away. He sat bareback on the buckskin mare, listening to the flag above him in the wind.
“From now until the end of May, you’re gonna go to school. Graduate, and you can do as you please.” She held up his boots and socks. “It can’t be more than thirty degrees, Billy. I never did claim to understand you.”
Billy took the white socks and, without getting off the mare, pulled them over his bare feet. Then he took the boots and pulled them over the cotton socks.
“You’re gonna be late for school.” She slapped the mare’s flank and the mare stepped forward. “I’ll get the herd. And we’ll take Moses to the butcher this afternoon.”
Billy turned the horse, rode past his mom and said, “The black SUV is back.”
The mare took the Ridge Trail through the budding aspens, and Billy did nothing to change her mind. The path was deeply troughed, and the shaded aspects were covered in mud and snow.
Billy was nine years old the last time he saw his father, ten the day he discovered his career path. He was going to join the Marine Corps JROTC in high school–after that, the United States Marine Corps and apply as a candidate to the Navy SEALs.
Before he and Sally got together, college seemed like a fool’s errand. He had no idea what he would study, but if she had her mind set on the university in Gunnision, he wasn’t about to go somewhere else and lose her to a more ambitious suitor. It took him about a week to figure that out. The Monday after she sent her college application, he downloaded the paper work and followed hers with his own.
Billy stopped the horse in the ponderosas across the parking lot from the high school–where she liked the forage. Then slipped off the horsehair rope he used for reins and bridle as he dismounted and hobbled her, all in one motion. The five gallon bucket was spilt on its side in the grass. He picked it up and walked down the hill to Roger’s Creek.
When he crested the hill, he saw Sally shut the door to her steel blue 2007 Jeep Wrangler and start toward the ponderosas. Billy put down the bucket of water and stroked the mare along the withers.
“Hey, Maiden.” The horse turned her head to Sally. And Sally fed her a carrot. “There’s a bonfire up at Miner’s Creek Saturday night.”
They held hands as they walked through the new cars in the parking lot, then through an assortment of older, well maintained Subarus in the staff designated spaces.
“The herd got out again,” Billy told her.
“I know. Your mom texted me.”
“She told me to tell you they were over by the beaver ponds.”
“What were they doin’ by the beaver ponds?”
“She thought they were spooked.”
Billy didn’t respond. He didn’t want to tell Sally about the return of the black SUV.
Sally opened her phone and read the display. “She’s herdin’ them with the truck now.”
“If Moses wasn’t so goddamn physically perfect...”
“What are you gonna do with him?”
A McDonald's bag blew past their feet, onto the patio and stopped against the flagpole. Billy picked it up then looked at the flag.
“I suppose we’ll have to barbecue some Moses burgers at the bonfire.”
Billy opened the door for Sally and followed her into the school hall. Most of the other boys walked in a wide, impractical and shuffling gate, the crotches of their jeans at their knees, their round asses, in brightly colored boxer shorts, hanging out over the tops of their belts. Besides his boots and white, cotton socks, Billy wore tight, bootcut Wranglers and a leather belt; he tucked his denim shirt into his jeans, wore a Cabelas baseball hat and an unzipped, brown Carhartt coat. Some of the boys were wearing lipstick and mascara. They died their hair unnatural colors and wore bangs in their faces. The jocks wore sandals and varsity jackets. Billy wrestled, swam, ran track, played baseball, basketball and football. He was friends with them all, but understood none of it, least of all the punks and anarchists.
Sally had a level head and avoided the drama of what so-and-so was wearing, she didn’t forward pictures of other kids’ tits and cocks on her phone, or worry about who was fucking and cheating on whom. Sally had good grades, good friends, ambition, and from the eleven months Billy had been with her, he had learned everything he liked in a woman.
The human traffic was flowing to first period. Kids texting while they walked, while they talked, while they drank out of Starbucks’ cups. iPods in their hands, book bags slung on their shoulders. And the boys, Billy never got used to it, looked like waddling geese, one hand on their belt buckles to hold up their jeans.
Dan and Eric occupied the Senior Bench.
“Some old guy was looking for you,” Dan spat tobacco juice into a Mountain Dew can.
“Some old guy?” Billy dropped the McDonald’s bag in the trash.
“Yeah, fuckin’ weird as hell, too.”
“I don’t know.”
The five minute bell rang.
Billy pulled on Sally’s hand, “Come on.”
Eric reeked of weed, his face barely visible beneath a hoodie. Green wires indicated earbuds in his ears.
Billy and Sally were a dozen steps away.
He turned and walked backwards.
Dan moved his chaw to his other cheek and spat in the pop can, “Somethin’ wasn’t right about it.”
Sally opened her phone. “She wants to know what time you can be home.”
“Three o'clock if I miss practice.”
She texted the response and hugged Billy outside her physics class, “See you at lunch.”
He kissed her on the lips and turned down the hall. Eric nodded from the senior bench when he passed.
“Good morning, Billy.” Principal Miller was walking toward him with a volleyball in his hands. He was a decorated Navy SEAL who fought on the oil platforms in the Gulf War, and that was reason enough to command Billy’s respect.
“Mornin’, Mr. Miller.”
“How’s your mother?”
“Moses led the herd over the east fence. She’s out herdin’ ’em now.”
“They didn’t get in Keigwin’s pasture, did they?”
“No, sir. They went up to the beaver ponds.”
“The beaver ponds?”
“What would it take to fix the east fence?”
“More than it would take to fix Moses.”
Mr. Miller smiled.
“At his age he ain’t good for nothin’ but fightin’, sirin’ and grind.”
“Robin and I could use two hundred pounds. Tell your mother to have the butcher mix him with a little beef fat.”
“Thank you, Mr. Miller. Can I ask you somethin’?”
“What is it?
“You don’t use the main entrance, do you?”
“No. Is there something wrong with the main entrance?”
“It’s the flag, sir. It’s no longer fit for display. I was gonna to talk to Nate about it but saw you first.”
English wasn’t a subject Billy ever cared for, not until his senior year. Nobody knew how old Mr. Stathopoulos was. He looked eighty, maybe ninety, and had no intention to retire. The old man wore the same pair of wool slacks every day since September, the same pair of bluchers and changed his shirt and tie on Monday and Wednesday. In the morning, he smelled like a tobacco pipe and coffee.
The classroom walls were lined with books. Mr. Stathopoulos never used the florescent, overhead lights, but ornate lamps he placed on top of the bookshelves. Green sheers covered the windows. Piles of books, over three feet high, smothered his desk.
Billy stepped through the doorway as the tardy bell rang and sat in the front of the classroom, next to the window, where he could see Maiden in the trees.
“To be or not to be may, in fact, not be the question.” Mr. Stathopoulos opened his copy of Hamlet, “Act One, Scene Five, line fifteen. ‘I am thy father’s spirit.’” He looked at the class. “Well, is he?”
Billy was still searching for the line.
Mr. Stathopoulos shut his book. “That is the question.”
A girl sitting in the middle of the classroom admitted, “I don’t get it.”
Mr. Stathopoulos nodded. He stroked his chin, shuffled in his slow, unsteady gate to her desk and placed his gnarled index finger on line 15 of her text, “Is this ghost Hamlet’s father’s spirit?”
“Who else would he be?”
“Who indeed?” He stood in the center of the classroom, holding his copy of Hamlet to his chest. “Who else would he be?”
“He could be a trick,” Mr. Stathopoulos’ eyes lit up. “Deceit.”
“But what for?”
He shuffled to the back of the room, leaned his left shoulder against the bookshelf and stroked his chin. Students twisted in their desks to look at the old man. He never gave grades. Never took attendance. But he assigned more reading, more papers than any teacher anybody had ever heard of.
“Yes, that’s it.” He searched his text. “What for?”
“To get Hamlet to kill his uncle.”
“Could be.” He made eye contact with most of the students. “Who wouldn’t avenge his father’s ‘foul and most unnatural murder’?”
Billy’s face wrinkled.
Mr. Stathopoulos spoke softly, almost to himself as he shuffled to the front of the classroom, keeping his balance with his hand on the shoulders of the male students. “And if Hamlet is being tricked...if the spirit is not his father’s spirit.”
Every eye in the room followed him.
“It was asked, ‘What for?’” He stood in front of the whiteboard. “Perhaps so Hamlet would kill his uncle. Perhaps. But what more? To what end? Say this apparition was not his father’s spirit, not a ghost at all. But something more sinister...”
“You mean like the devil?”
“What would the devil want of Hamlet?” He balanced himself on Billy’s shoulder.
“Yes,” he parted the sheers and looked out the window. “What if the spirit Hamlet saw was the devil, and out of Hamlet’s weakness, his melancholy, Hamlet is deceived and commits murder? Would he not, by so doing, imperil his soul?”
Billy followed his teacher’s gaze. A man was moving through the trees toward his horse.
As he crossed the parking lot, Billy looked at the bearded man. He seemed bewildered–wore a green parka, wool slacks and muddy shoes. But Billy focused his attention, as his mom had taught him, on the mare. Her head and tail were raised, her ears forward. She nickered and walked toward the man, who was no more than three or four yards from her. As Billy stepped over the curb and into the ponderosas, he could see that her nostrils and eyes were relaxed. Although he couldn’t yet hear the man’s voice, he could see that he was talking to the horse.
“Is there somethin’ I can do for you?” Billy’s tone offered no threat, but it contained an authority that seemed to put the man ill at ease. He closed all but the five yards between them. “She’s a good horse by any measure I concern myself with...”
The mare lowered her neck, and the man stroked her forehead.
Billy looked back, saw Dan and Eric coming out the main entrance of the high school and felt emboldened, “...but she’s never been known to take so well to strangers.”
The man looked at Billy and stepped back from the horse, suddenly aware of his transgression.
She followed him and nuzzled his chest.
“Now if there’s somethin’ I can do for you, mister, I’d be happy to hear about it.” It confused Billy to see the mare acting so familiar.
The man raised his hands to keep them off the horse and smiled helplessly as she pushed him on his heels. “I apologize for any trespass.”
When Billy heard the man’s voice, he felt dizzy and thought his legs might fold. The only reference he had for the disorientation was that of cracking helmets with a two hundred and forty-five pound fullback in the third quarter of the Homecoming game. His vision tapered. It grew dark.
He thought he would next find himself face down in the grass and pine needles.
Billy balled his fists. He carried a folding knife on his belt and opened the button to the leather sheath with his thumb.
“I’ve had memory spells lately, and to be frank, I don’t know where we are or how it is I came to this mare.”
The bell rang. Dan and Eric were strutting across the near side of the parking lot. Dan puffed his chest.
Billy felt an inexplicable fury. That and urgency.
“She reminds me of a horse from a long time ago.”
Other students poured from the main entrance. Billy’s thoughts had not yet caught up to his body.
“Maiden. Her name was Maiden, a buckskin mustang foaled in a spring snowstorm. It was something to see. We had to shovel our way to the barn in the dark. Nobody thought she would make it, not even me.”
If ire kept Billy on his feet, confusion kept them planted. His mind was stalled on one word: hurry.
The man’s clothes were badly stained and looked and smelled as if they’d been a long time on his body.
“Do you know where I might find a library?”
Billy’s paralysis also seized his tongue. The shock would have been no different if a stone had raised itself in the forest and begun to prophecy.
That it wasn’t happening was a worthless explanation.
Billy heard the beeping of cars unlocking behind him. He knew he was out of time, but for what? He had to avoid being seen with this man. That was the whole answer.
Avoid being seen.
Dan called his name as he and Eric stepped over the curb.
His father, Billy was convinced, did not know who he was. He had seen the condition in other vagabonds and tramps. For all his charm, the man before him was witless.
A black Lincoln Town Car turned into the parking lot.
Billy unhobbled the horse, “I can take you to the library,” and led his father down the hill, into the trees.
Billy wanted to keep to the forest, but to get him to the house they had to cross Mainstreet, either in town or out on the highway. If they walked the creek a few miles, they might be able to cross the road outside the city limits without being seen.
His father wanted to know the names of the mountains.
Standing in water up to his waste, Billy asked himself what he was doing. He thought about taking him to the sheriff. But he needed time. Time to think. He led the mare to the stony bank. His father followed. They crouched in the spruce trees and waited for a window in the traffic.
The man reminded him of a small child.
Billy waited for a northbound Ford F-150 to get around the hill then ran. Maiden followed. His father was on the left side of the horse.
They weren’t yet to the asphalt when Billy heard a vehicle approaching from the South. He was in the nearest lane, sprinting for the trees; he turned his head.
A black car–the front end seemed to rear, the grill lifting into the air. The eight cylinders leaping to life had the same effect on Billy’s nervous system as a lunging beast would on its prey.
He was surprised by how quiet the pops of subsonic pistol fire sounded. Maiden galloped up the steep hill. Billy lunged past the first trees and began to climb.
He tripped and was on all fours.
Billy’s father was holding his calf. He could hear bullets buzzing in the air. Dirt and pine needles leapt up from the forest floor. Billy flipped over and kicked him off.
The man’s face was transformed. There was a presence about him Billy remembered from when he was a child. It was a presence communicating authority, self-assurance born of competence–something Billy had not seen in anybody but the sheriff for a very long time.
Smoke poured from the parked wheels of the Lincoln Town Car. Both the driver and passenger doors were open.
His father was on his belly. He let go of Billy’s leg, flipped over and drew a stainless steel Colt Commander.
The driver of the Town Car was wearing a leather coat and firing a semi-automatic pistol–his black shoes still falling toward the pavement beneath the car door.
Billy saw the muzzle leap in his father’s hands: heard him fire two shots that sounded like one long shot, then a third. All three ejected cases simultaneously in the air.
The passenger of the Town Car was crouched and shooting over the black and polished hood.
They weren’t law enforcement. Billy was certain of that.
He saw the muzzle leap again in his father’s hands, two shots.
His ears ringing, he started crawling for a tree.
He lifted his head and looked at the highway, dumbfounded. Smoke still rose from the wheels of the Town Car. The driver was slumped on the asphalt under the door. The passenger no longer visible. Billy had heard tales of gunfights and knew that they were decided quickly, but he hadn’t even had a chance to move.
Through the spruce trees, he saw a black SUV slowing to a stop.
“Come on.” His father was climbing the hill above him, the Colt in his right hand, his index finger outstretched along the frame.
He didn’t think the gunmen would’ve come up the hill, and he certainly wouldn’t have killed them if it weren’t for the terror-stricken kid, running up the widest shooting lane in the trees. The kid was fast. If he didn’t catch him, it would’ve been an ugly scene.
He could remember nothing from before the bombing and little since. He didn’t know where he was or why he came to these mountains. Worst of all, he didn’t know what the consequences of the two corpses on the highway might be.
What did he remember? The men in black suits. That it was important not to kill the Saudi in the bank. He must have done something stupid. How else did they find him?
He put a fresh magazine in the Colt, secured the weapon in a leather shoulder holster and the partially spent magazine in its pouch.
Let the green parka slide down his arms to the grass. Both sleeves of his brown shirt were stained black.
He heard the kid, out of breath, before he saw him. The kid came over the top of the hill and stooped, both hands on his knees, raised his head and gaped.
He tore off the shirtsleeve, and twisted his arm to examine the entrance and exit wounds in his triceps.
He unbuttoned his shirt.
“You don’t know who I am do you?”
“What about those two guys on the highway?” Billy noticed another wound on his torso, under his arm. The cotton fabric clung to the fresh blood.
“I’ve met the driver before.”
Whatever Billy’s life was before he looked out his classroom window, it wasn’t that anymore. Any ideas he had about his past, his father, his future–were gone. With nothing to replace them. He opened his folding knife, cut the sundered shirtsleeve into a bandage and tied it to his father’s torso.
Maiden was nowhere to be seen.
Rachel pushed the accelerator to the floor board, and the two-tone, tan and buckskin, 1978 Chevy Scottsdale leapt forward and swallowed a three foot high sagebrush under the front bumper.
Moses trotted for the aspens beneath the beaver ponds.
“Oh, no you don’t!”
Grass slapped the chromed grille. Rachel bounced on the bench seat, cranked the steering wheel, ran over willow shrubs, an aspen sapling and smashed her foot into the brake pedal.
The pickup barred his path.
Next to the bull the vehicle seemed small. Moses was taller than the cab. From nose to tail, he was several feet longer than the bed of the truck. He grunted, swung his massive head and trotted to get around the pickup.
Rachel threw the transmission into reverse, watched Moses through the driver’s-side mirror, playing the accelerator and the brake to keep the truck between the two thousand pound animal and the trees. She turned Moses in a semicircle.
He broke into a bounding gait.
Through the side mirror, Rachel saw the back end of the truck smash through a shrub of wax currant. The wheel behind her jumped, the cab rocked and her head nearly hit the triangular vent window.
She stopped, put the transmission in drive and turned the truck so she could better steer the terrain.
Dust obscured her view of the other forty-three bison following Moses at a bound toward the south gate. She kept her distance, slowly bouncing over badger holes.
Rachel was eight years old when her father was routed from the house by a fusillade of words. She hadn’t had time to unwrap her present: a wooden doll house, empty and about as tall as she was in 1975.
When she was twelve she knew she’d have to leave like he did. Got a job as a waitress, moved into an apartment when she was sixteen, graduated from high school early then spent the next five years trying to survive.
She had paid cash for the Scottsdale on her twenty-first birthday, a present to her from her–the only gift since 1975 she had received. As she drove the truck home from the dealer’s lot, it occurred to her, without any taint of self-pity, that nobody else was going to give her anything.
With each passing year, she became more and more generous with herself.
Moses saw the open gate and turned, trotting parallel to the fence. The herd followed.
She gunned the V8 engine, smashed into an antelope brittlebrush. The front end popped up. She rocked over sage and junipers, bracing herself with the steering wheel to keep her skull from breaking the back window. She cranked the wheel, skidded to a stop and cut the animal off.
Moses pawed the ground. Dust rose and drifted through his hindlegs. He raised his head, opened his mouth and bellowed; his tail stood erect. Then he lowered his head and charged.
Rachel moved away from the door.
The bull bounded, three or four feet between him and the earth, and landed on all four hooves, his sharp horns inches from the door. He looked Rachel in the eye and snorted.
Rachel aimed Billy’s .44 magnum revolver at Moses’ head and cocked the hammer. “You put a scratch on that door, and I’ll put this bullet in your brain, come back with the skid steer to pick you out of the grass, load your prodigious carcass in the bed of this old truck and drive you straight to the butcher.”
Moses grunted, nostrils flaring. His wooly face huge between his brown eyes.
She could smell the grass on his breath. “Now git!”
Moses blinked, swung his mountainous neck and trotted back toward the herd. He charged the first bull he saw, Hippie’s Son. Their craniums collided with a crack Rachel heard from the truck.
Moses was pushing him steadily backwards when she drove around them and pushed the herd into the south gate.
The day Jack vanished, taking nothing but the clothes on his back and the cash in the safe, two government men came in a black SUV. They had her look at pictures of foreign women she didn’t know. When she denied that Jack knew those women, the government men showed her a stack of emails.
At that, she broke and was never whole again.
Rachel unloaded the revolver and put it away in Billy’s room. She took off her denim coat, pulled the phone from her jeans’ pocket and called the butcher as she walked the hall to the front of the house.
“Todd, it’s Rachel.” She stopped at the living room window to look at Moses. He was fighting another bull. “Can I bring Moses over this afternoon?” Rachel walked to the kitchen, laid her coat over the back of a wooden chair, took a stainless-steel colander from the pot rack and set it in the sink. “Thanks, Todd.”
She poured the red beans she had been soaking into the colander, rinsed the beans, poured them back into the stock pot then filled the pot with cold water. She struck a match, lit two gas burners and set the beans on the nearest fire.
She partially filled a sauce pan with water, lidded it and set it over the other fire.
Pulled out a square baking pan and two glass mixing bowls from the oak cabinet. Corn meal, flour, baking powder, salt and sugar from the pantry; she stacked the mixing bowls inside the baking pan and arrayed the ingredients on the granite countertop.
She opened the fridge and checked for milk, eggs and butter then lined the spices by the stove: green chili powder, ground cumin, oregano, dried cilantro, black pepper, celery salt. Took a package of ground bison from the freezer and set it in the sink to thaw.
She piled onions, garlic, red bell peppers, green chiles, jalapeños and roma tomatoes near the cutting board. Then cored the tomatoes with a paring knife, sliced off the bottom tips, scored the skins and peeked through the glass lid into the sauce pan.
The water was boiling.
She filled a bowl with cold water, set it by the stove and added ice from the freezer. Scooped the tomatoes from the cutting board–three at a time–with a slotted ladle, placed them in the boiling water and turned off the gas to the burner.
Rachel ladled the blanched tomatoes into the ice water. Then took them out with her fingers, pulled their skins off, quartered them into wedges on the cutting board and pushed out the seeds with her thumbs.
“Goddamnit,” she wiped her eyes with her knuckles. Rachel turned around, looked across the empty house and began to cry.
She pressed her tomato-stained palms together around her nose, straightened her spine, pulled her shoulders back and flung off the tears. “Shit!”
Jack taught her to make green chili on a wood-burning stove when they were living in the yurt. Each night the chili froze, and each afternoon they put the huge pot back on the stove. They ate it for near a week before they had to ski down the Milestone Valley and resupply.
By spring, she was pregnant.
She had never known anybody like Jack. By the way he stood in a room, she could tell he was different.
Before they met, Jack had lived in Central America, Africa and the Middle East; he spoke Spanish and Arabic on the telephone; and was always explaining how different life was for people in other countries. He talked of the generosity of the people he met, the exotic foods they ate, their contentment, and entertained her with bizarre stories about their religious beliefs.
She was twenty-three years old and thought he was eccentric.
Rachel drew a bath, pulled off her white t-shirt, spun her bra around, unfastened it, put her cell phone on the counter by the sink, sat on the toilet to take off her boots and socks, stood up and dropped her jeans and panties to the ceramic tile floor.
She colored the clay to look like water, rolled the tiles on the kitchen table, fired them and laid the ocean in her bathroom on her fortieth birthday. When she turned forty-one, she installed a bronze bust of herself beneath the window–head tossed back, arms at her side, hands still beneath the surface.
Rachel tied up her hair and slipped into the steaming water.
She would load Moses in the trailer when Billy came home.
She heard car doors shutting, reached for a towel and stepped into the hall. Two men were approaching the front door.
Her jeans stuck to her wet thighs. She hopped to yanked them up. Threw on her t-shirt, zipped up her jeans and looked in the mirror. She could see the color of her skin where the wet cotton clung to the tops of her breasts.
Rachel opened her phone as she stepped, barefoot, into the hall. There was a text she didn’t read. The men were on the porch. She turned into the kitchen and grabbed her denim coat.