Desert Standby Richard C. Rogers (Fall 2016)
Be strong. Be quick and alive, or be dead...
Out here in the white sky and heat and dust, in the endless crush of days killed with booze, tobacco, and troubled sleep, a man can flatten in a hurry. When Death comes calling he’ll simply hold out his hands and say “Cuff me, Death. I’m tired.”
For six months I’ve been hiding out here in the big nowhere. Twice I’d made my stand in brighter places--places with fine hotels, fine women, and fine liquor. But Mallory’s got long arms, and eyes in many cities. The first time his men came after me, I spotted them before they saw me and lit out. The second time they surprised me at night. I nearly bought it then--it led to a horse-doctor carving two slugs from my arm without anesthetic. The scars on my sunburned flesh are white as teeth.
That was the end of the bright lights for me. I fled south and rented a shack at the end of a dirt road, half a dozen miles from the nearest village. The first month I just sat around and smoked, watched buzzards whirl in the flat sky until sundown, then drank myself to sleep. When I woke up one morning and felt exhausted putting on my shoes, I knew I was going soft fast. Same as I knew Mallory wasn’t done with me.
I’m a stubborn fool. I was sick of running, sick of hiding, sick of living, but I still didn’t want to make it easy for him, so I resolved that morning to get back in shape.
Two miles from my shack a mesa rises from the plain. A steep climb brings you to a vista where you can see for miles in every direction. Far to the north is the American border. Off to the west the blue Pacific gleams. East, a trail leads down to a desert studded with dust devils and cacti.
I’ve been making this hike every day for five months. East is always the direction I end up looking. East to nothing. It has a hold on me I can’t explain. Once I’d followed that downward trail--I don’t know why. Curiosity, maybe. A mile in I felt as lost and alone as a man can be. The bleached white deadliness of it fascinated me. It was like being on another planet. Each step became harder. The hot air seared my lungs. There was nothing out there for me. Nothing to go back to. My canteen was empty and it occurred to me to keep walking--to go out into the emptiness and die. You can’t get more lost than that. And the running would be over.
But I finally turned around and headed back...
The thought came again. Be strong. Be quick and alive, or be dead...
Not much choice really. I threw my cigarette onto the rocks, watched it burn away, then started towards home. As I crossed the ridge overlooking my shack I spotted a flash of chrome by the side of the road, and dropped down between the rocks.
Three at least, I figured. It had been three last time.
They’d have come up on the house en masse at first. But what was their move when they found it empty? If it was me, I’d place one man inside, one back at the car in case the quarry snuck in behind and tried to jack it, and one on high ground, covering the other two.
That was the man I needed to take care of first.
I searched every crevice with my eyes, every place a man with a rifle might hide. He was easy to spot. Mallory had sent city men, and the idiot in the rocks was wearing a blue shirt.
Belly to the ground, I started crawling.
One wrong move, that’s all it takes. Where had I made mine?
Then I knew...
Three days ago, late in the morning when I was sleeping one off, a racket outside woke me up. I grabbed my gun from under the pillow and went to the door. The dirt road outside my shack ends in a cul-de-sac, and I saw some fool kid circling around out there on a rusty old bike with a bell on it. He wore a stupid lopsided grin and was banging that bell like it was Christmas.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Shut up!” The little twerp smiled at me and kept hitting the bell.
As I crossed the yard I could tell there was something wrong with him, something off in his head. He was a good-looking kid, too, with shiny black eyes and a mop of black hair. It was sad. At the same time, his loopy smile was infectious, and I smiled back.
That made him giggle and bang the bell even harder.
“You want to maybe stop doing that?” I said. Stupid question. I said it in English, for one thing, but even if I used Spanish I doubt he’d have understood me. He stopped banging the bell, though, when he saw the nickel-plated automatic sticking from the waistband of my pants. Laughing up a storm, he reached out and practically fell off his bike. I caught him just in time. He looked at me with wide eyes and grabbed for my gun again.
“Hold on,” I said, catching his hand. “That’s not a toy.”
Man, that kid could laugh. That’s about all he did.
“Go home now, fella,” I said as gently as I could. Something in my tone must have reached him, because his face went dark and sad. He hit the bell again, dispiritedly this time. It made me feel awful.
Hell. Sleep was gone anyway. I went inside, brewed coffee, and pulled a coke from the icebox. When I returned, the boy was staring off across the road at a yellow butterfly. I handed him the coke and he drank it in three gulps, spilling most of it over his chin and down his shirtfront. He watched me every second as I sipped my coffee, like he was fascinated. I was the morning show.
When my coffee was gone he yanked a baseball from his pocket and held it out. It was a sad affair. It looked like a dog had been chewing on it. The kid dropped his bike to the ground and ran off a short distance, then stuck out his hands.
Shoot. I soft-tossed him the ball. The kid lit up when he caught it, and threw it back. Well, halfway back. It rolled in the dust.
The weirdest game of catch followed. He could catch all right, but his throws were way off. I could see him straining each time to concentrate, but when he released there was no telling where the ball would go. I tired out before he did, and called the game off.
“We oughta be getting you home, son. I imagine your folks are worried about you.” He stared at me, so I walked back up the road a bit, then waved for him to follow. He wobbled onto his bike and set off beside me.
It was a mile to the nearest house. There was a shade tree out front, and cultivated fields behind. I saw a Mexican working out there.
“Hello!” I called.
The man raised his head, no doubt wondering what a gringo was doing in his front yard. He walked towards me, his scythe gripped in one fist. With his face hidden under a sombrero, I could just see his chin jutting out, and the slash of his mouth.
“This your boy?” I said, when he was twenty yards away.
He removed his hat and wiped his forehead. “Ah. Sí, sí. Gracias.”
I saw his face then, saw weariness and sadness in his eyes as he moved up to the boy and tousled his hair. The kid giggled. What a surprise.
“All right then,” I said. “Adiós.” I turned on my heel.
“Señor,” the man said, gesturing me to wait. He disappeared inside, returning with two cold Tecates, and handed me one. “Por favor.”
“Thanks,” I said. I pulled out my cigarettes, took one for myself, then held out the pack.
We squatted under the shade tree, smoking and drinking without saying anything. At one point I noticed we were both watching the boy, off running in the pepper field. He was the liveliest thing going.
“Nice kid,” I said.
Despite his sad eyes, the man smiled and nodded.
When our cigarettes were finished I thanked him for the beer, then set out for home. As I walked down the road I felt eyes on my back. I glanced behind and saw the boy, standing stock still, watching me go.
That night I sat up, thinking. When dawn rolled out I walked into town. The shops there were pretty basic. I couldn’t find what I wanted so I caught the bus into Acapulco. Man, it felt good to feel that cool ocean breeze again, to see fine women in sleek dresses.
I found what I needed in a big tourist shop, then checked into a beachfront hotel, asking for their best suite. After showering I went downstairs for dinner and drinks. The liquor did what it does. I got that jumpy feeling, of things out in the night waiting to be discovered. After eating I found a casino and played blackjack for a couple hours, dropping a few hundred. I didn’t care--I liked the action. And the women. I didn’t have time to do the wining and dining bullshit, so after cashing out I found a helpful cabbie who drove me to a place where I could buy one.
That night I slept like a lord on clean sheets. In the morning I felt so good I thought about staying on another night, but I didn’t want to press my luck, so after breakfast I took the bus back to nowhere.
Walking home, I passed the boy’s house. Nobody was around. I dropped two brand new baseball gloves and three shiny baseballs on the porch. Maybe they’d make the kid happy. I mean, he seemed happy, in his lost way. But who knows what it’s really like to live inside such a mind?
Back home my place seemed more desolate than usual. After a dinner of corned beef hash I took a bottle of Irish to the porch and sat drinking as night came on.
The next day I couldn’t shake a feeling of unease. The silence felt heavy. The sound of wind got on my nerves. That night I drank myself blind, and when I staggered to bed I fell into a swift nightmare of Diablo’s face moving towards me in the dark. In the morning I felt half-dead, but still jittery, so I hoofed it to the mesa, trying to walk off my unease...
All this went through my mind as I worked down the slope. They must have spotted me in Acapulco. Mallory moved fast, and now his men waited below while my piece was back home.
As I squirmed along, I worked loose a rock the size of my fist. About twenty yards away I began to smell the man in the rocks. Cheap aftershave. Tobacco. Fear.
At the last second, too late, he turned and saw me. My first blow broke his skull. Shit exploded from his ass as he died. Christ.
I grabbed the dead man’s carbine and rolled away, spitting bile from my mouth, then moved on to the second man. He died chomping a cigar in the front seat of a Buick, shot through the head at fifty yards.
Armed with carbine and pistol, I hurried down the side of the road, moving from cover to cover. Fifty yards from the shack I pulled up behind a boulder. “You inside!” I shouted. “We can make this easy or make it hard. Your partners are dead. You can walk out of here with your life and we’ll call it a day. Your move!”
“You really want to die for Mallory?” I yelled.
A fusillade followed. Bullets pinged off the boulder. I had my answer--only one gunman remained. I flung a shot his way, shattering a window, then ducked down at his answering volley. Go on, I thought. Waste your bullets.
The sun beat down on my face from the white sky. High above, buzzards circled, coming for the feast. It was a waiting game now. Waiting in the wind and silence...
The faint sound of a bell reached me. Back along the road, the kid rode into view, peddling his bike like a fiend. I couldn’t make out his face at the distance, but I knew he was smiling and giggling.
“Go on back!” I yelled.
At the sound of my voice the kid redoubled his efforts. I looked across the road, spotting my next cover. When the kid was just about on me I jumped up, fired two shots at the house, then sprinted for him, planning to snatch him up and make a dive for the opposite side. As I grabbed him a bullet tugged my shirt. I spun and emptied a full magazine at the dim figure in the doorway. My shots kicked the fool back into the dark. I ran up, carbine out, but it was over. He’d already bled out on the floor.
I rushed back to the kid.
He was gone, lying in the dusty road like something thrown away. A shiny new ball stuck from his shirt pocket. The two baseball gloves hung from the back of his bike.
I carried him to the shade of the porch and washed the blood from his face, trying not to look at the bullet hole, but it grew and grew until it felt like it was swallowing me. My eyes went wet. I looked up at the white sky, saw Diablo rearing high on his bloody steed, roaring with laughter at this death and waste.
I thought about the Buick up the road. I could take it and head south, find a new place to hide. Sure...
But who’d die next time?
Inside the house I worked loose the floorboards in the corner and pulled out the suitcase. Something like two hundred grand remained. Not enough. Nothing could be enough.
I picked the boy up. He weighed hardly anything.
Back at his house I spied his father out in the fields. Keeping low, I carried the boy to the foot of the shade tree and laid him there with the suitcase beside him. I moved a strand of hair from his eyes, then hurried away.
Atop the mesa I can see for miles in every direction. Behind me a trail leads back to the world--before me a trail leads down to the desert. My mistake last time had been in turning back. I won’t make that mistake again.
I open my canteen and throw it to the ground. As the sand drinks its water, I move forward…
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