Saturday, September 24, 2011

Anasazi Strip - Chapter 36 - Part IV

The bullet entered through B.T.’s right nipple right and exited cleanly, just below his right shoulder blade. The jolt of the impact sent him flying sideways like a rag doll. As he hit the ground, he heard the echoing reverberation of a high-powered rifle. The only thing that registered was utter amazement. Blood flowed freely from the wound and a numbness began to spread across his upper body like an icy chill.

B.T. summoned all of his remaining strength and rolled over onto his back. He could hear the sound of a truck coming down the road, but he could not lift his head to look. He put his right hand over the seeping hole in his chest, and a sense of deja vu engulfed him like a wave. He saw himself back inside the dark Laotian cave, holding his guts in with his bare hands and listening to the old magician telling him about spirit-catching. Death had been so close that time he could taste it, and by all rights he should have died. But he hadn’t. And not only had B.T. miraculously survived, but he had gone on to become a master soul-provider for the gods. Was this how they rewarded his many sacrifices?

The truck stopped nearby and the engine went silent. B.T. listened as a door opened and closed. Someone began walking down the road toward him, but he still couldn’t see who it was. B.T. swallowed a bitter trickle of blood and blinked his green eyes furiously as he tried desperately to hang onto life.

A face came into view as a rifle barrel prodded his chest. It was the weather-beaten face of an old man, sporting several days growth of grey stubble. A non-filtered Camel cigarette hung from his chapped lips. B.T. had never seen the man before.

“If you were a goddamn deer, you’d be dead, Red,” chuckled the old man. “That’s a clean shoulder shot. Bet you didn’t even feel a thing, did ya?”

B.T. struggled to focus, his mind spinning in confusion. “Who the hell are you?”

“Billy Mangum’s the name. I run a couple hunnerd head of cattle out this way. And I promised a friend of mine that I was gonna blast the piss out of the next person I caught messing with my fences. Looks like you picked the wrong goddamn time to go shooting off locks, don’t it?”

“I was locked in,” said B.T. as he licked his lips, leaving a sheen of blood like lipstick. I was just trying to get out. I’m a – ”

Billy cut him off. “You’re a lying sack of shit is what you are. You’re the pothunting sonofabitch that killed those two Paiutes last week. I’ve heard a lot about you already, Mister, and I been praying I’d get a chance to meet up with you like this. And even though I aint what you might call a church-going man, I guess God don’t forget who his best shots are. When I saw you fly over my camp in that fancy helicopter of yours a little while back, I said to myself, ‘Billy-boy, there goes that red-haired asshole that Dwayne Johnson’s been trailing.’ So I high-tailed it down the road after you just as fast as I could, but hell’s bells, when the chopper took off and left, the last thing I thought I’d see was your sorry ass coming up the road toward me on that chopper.”

“Dwayne? The Forest Service cop?” asked B.T. as he coughed roughly and struggled for breath.

“Yep. The same. You know him?”

B.T. started to laugh-cough uncontrollably. “I sure feel like it, old timer. I tell you what. That boy sure as hell gets around.”

Billy scratched his chin and chuckled along with the dying man. “He does at that – even if he does work for the goddamn gov’ment.”

As B.T. lay helplessly in the dirt, feeling his life drain into the earth, the sound of heavenly laughter filled his ears. The gods had finally come to pay their last respects. But this time they were laughing at him, not with him; as if he were the butt of some elaborate practical joke. B.T. felt foolish and pitifully alone.

“You got any kin, or anybody you want me to get in touch with?” asked Billy as he stared intently at B.T.’s sucking chest wound.

B.T. shook his head. “No.” His heart began to flutter like a sputtering motor. “But you tell Dwayne that I would have made him immortal.”

Billy Mangum spit in the dirt. “Folks ‘round these parts call that murder.”

B.T. felt himself slipping away into cold darkness, and there was no one to catch him this time around. “I never killed a soul. They all lived forever.”

“That a fact?” chuckled Billy as he spit in the dirt. Sounds like a good trick, if you can get away with it. Too bad you didn’t, eh?”

“Yeah. Too bad,” agreed B.T. as his eyes rolled back in his head. 

The last thing B.T. Saunders saw was the lone golden eagle silhouetted against a sky so blue it seemed unreal.

The eagle had been watching the scene unfold a thousand feet below; even from such a great distance he could smell death on the wind. He dropped lower toward the ground and confirmed with his eyes what his beak had already told him. He soared back and forth over the body and watched as the living man returned to his truck. The eagle scanned the earth below for any signs of a hidden trap as the pickup turned around and headed slowly away from the dead man in the road.

The eagle waited until the truck was out of sight before he made his move. He descended from the sky in lazy circles, like he was dangling from an unseen rope, and landed squarely on B.T.’s bloody chest. He stared into the green eyes of the dead man and cried out triumphantly. Dinner was served.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Anasazi Strip - Chapter 36 - Part III

The Judge beamed. “The situation is not as bad as I had first envisioned. We are still in an excellent position to accomplish all of the objectives of the mission, including several we had not intended. We no longer have any partners to worry about. The authorities have no one to question – with Linda Joyce out of the way, any evidence is circumstantial, at best.”

“As soon as I waste Joyce, I’m heading straight to Vegas, cutting the hair and beard, buying a nice silk suit, and catching a plane to Belize. I’ve got some friends down there in pirate country where I can hide out. And I’d recommend that you do the same. Leave the country and lay low until the goddamn dust settles. I don’t want to be seen anywhere near the Arizona Strip for the next couple of months – maybe longer. Fuck, I may never come back to the ol’ U.S. of A. It’s a big world out there, my friend.”

The Judge mulled over plans. “That sounds like a very good idea, Mr. Saunders. And extended trip to the Bahamas would allow me to deposit the money from Saturday’s auction in untraceable offshore bank accounts, while also avoiding the probing questions of the law. Yes indeed, I believe such a vacation is just what the doctor ordered.”

B.T. opened the passenger door and climbed out of the helicopter. “You better get going now. I’ll handle Joyce. You fence the artifacts. And we’ll meet in two weeks down at the Hilton, in Nassau, and get the money situation straightened-out.”

The Judge saluted his comrade. “I will have my secretary make the arrangements, Mr. Saunders. There will be a suite reserved in your name two weeks hence.”

“The first round’s on me, Judge,” replied B.T. as he returned his commander’s salute.  “Hey, it’s not like we’re dealing with the Viet Cong here. These people are fucking Mormons.”

The Judge laughed as he started up the engines on the Ranger. Good point, Mr. Saunders.”

“Wait until I make sure my bike is still there and starts, before you take off, Judge.”

The Judge raised his right thumb as B.T. jogged over to a thick clump of gambel oak and retrieved his Harley. A thin sheen of brown dust and yellowish oak pollen coated the chopper but the bike seemed untouched. B.T. climbed aboard the motorcycle and tried to kick-start the engine. The shotgun wound in his leg rebelled and brought tears of pain to his eyes. B.T. gritted his teeth and pumped the foot pedal again. On the fifth try, the roadster’s engine came alive in a blast of hot noise, so loud that it drowned out the sound of the helicopter. B.T. goosed the hand-throttle as black smoke poured out of the Harley’s chrome-plated exhaust pipe, and he waved to the Judge. 

The chopper rose effortlessly from the ground and flew off toward Kanab.

One of B.T.’s favorite pastimes was riding his Roadster on deserted forest roads.  Sometimes the dirt tracks got a little dusty, especially in the early fall, but it was still a great way to unwind. The roads seemed to go on forever. He had once heard that there were more miles of dirt road on the North Kaibab Forest than there were in the entire nationwide interstate highway system. That seemed a little hard to believe, but there was no denying that a man could ride for days and never see another human being, which was exactly what B.T. was hoping for today – smooth sailing and a trouble-free ride. His extensive knowledge of the forest’s transportation network was going to come in handy. He intended to stick to back roads all the way to Fredonia.

He cruised slowly up the bumpy road and did his best to avoid hitting the rocks and potholes. His wounded leg throbbed in agony every time he hit a rough spot. He could see the smoke rising from the lumber mill on the outskirts of Fredonia, perhaps fifty miles away. On a crystal clear day like this, it was easy to imagine that the Arizona Strip was the very center of the universe. B.T. chuckled at the thought. Only the Indians and local Mormons could really be at home with such a silly-ass notion.

Several hundred feet ahead was a cattle gate blocking the road. B.T. was surprised to see it closed; on his past trips, the gate had always been hanging open. Cattle gates were rarely, if ever locked on the forest.

B.T. gingerly climbed off the Harley, flipped down the kick-stand with the toe of his boot, and approached the rickety gate comprised of four strands of barbed wire strung across a rectangular frame of one-by-fours. A large brass padlock attached the flimsy fence to a metal post that had been driven deeply into the ground. The brown lock had a Forest Service insignia on its side. Why would the Forest Service close off Buckhorn Point? And how the hell was he going to get around the locked gate?

B.T. scanned right and left down the fence line, looking for a breach in the wire trap. Some sections looked like they had recently been re-strung. Lately, bad luck seemed to follow him wherever he went; it was hard for him to escape the thought that, for some inexplicable reason, the gods had turned against him.

The Mac-10 would make short work of the government padlock. B.T. fired a quick burst at the lock and watched it blow apart into small pieces of twisted metal. The gate slowly swung open. So much for government interference on the open range.

B.T. holstered his gun and glanced up at the turquoise sky. Above him soared a solitary golden eagle, gliding on the high-noon thermals that rose off the Grand Canyon. B.T. gazed admiringly at the great bird of prey and longed to soar above his worldly problems, to be rid of locked gates and nosey cops. Soon – by tomorrow at the latesthe would be flying high in a jumbo jet on his way to the islands. No one would be able to touch him there.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Anasazi Strip - Chapter 36 - Part II

The Judge brushed a piece of the front windshield away from the console. “I have always prided myself on being an equitable man. And in light of the fact that we have lost all of our former partners, it may, in fact, be appropriate to re-evaluate our previous arrangements. What did you have in mind, Mr. Saunders?”

B.T. lightly fingered the trigger of his machine pistol. “I like the ring of fifty-fifty – at least with this mission. Shit, I’ve left bodies scattered all over the Arizona Strip for you – six of ‘em as of today. Seems to me like I’ve done all the dirty work; I’ve taken all the risks; and I’m getting all the goddamn blame. I mean, neither one of us ever thought this operation would get so out of hand – and Christ kill me – the killing still aint over yet. I still have to settle the score with our old friend Linda Joyce.”

The Judge’s bushy eyebrows raised with interest. “You have made several valid points.”

“You bet your ass I have, Judge. Six of ‘em.”

A smile formed around the edges of the Judge’s mouth. “Ah yes, but it is the seventh point which I find the most intriguing, Mr. Saunders. Assuming that you can eliminate the troublesome Miss Joyce, I see no reason why we can not have an equal split of the profits. The question in my mind is: can you fulfill your end of the bargain?”

“No sweat, Judge. The cops gotta think that we’re in the next state by now. It’ll be hours before they get back to Fredonia. Shit, it’ll be hours before anybody gets organized enough to really start looking for us; and when they do, they’ll be looking for two guys in a helicopter. They’ll contact the Kanab Airport and find out that a chopper that fits the general description left from there this morning and was returned in the early afternoon. By then, you’ll be on your merry way with the shipment to Denver in your private plane. So, who gives a shit? All they got is a whole lot of nothing.”

B.T. began fishing around on the metal floor of the helicopter while the Judge weighed the evidence. “The broken windshield ties this helicopter to the Paria Plateau and the rest.”

“Not without this, it doesn’t,” countered B.T. as he held the crumpled piece of lead from Dwayne’s 44-magnum between his thumb and forefinger. “Without this slug, they have a broken windshield – a curious coincidence, for sure – but nothing more. In the meantime, you’ve already cleaned out the chopper, loaded everything onto your jet, and have split for parts unknown. And on the way to Denver, you give that little jerk-off engineer Krieter at the mine a call and get him to say that you visited the ASN mine today, like you were supposed to. That way you have an airtight alibi.”

The Judge straightened his jacket and smiled. “I have already put the fear of God into Mr. Krieter, so he should present no problems. He will do as he is told.”

B.T. pocketed the slug and grinned confidently. “So the pigs give you a call sometime soon, and they ask you to explain what happened, because by that time they have heard from the folks at the airport that the windshield of the ASN chopper you were using was broken. You tell them you smacked into a bird. What can they say? That you didn’t? Any way you slice it, they’re gonna be way behind us, and that means they won’t have any hard evidence. As long as you get out of Kanab ahead of the local cops, you’re home free.

The Judge’s face began to glow with good humor. “Which leaves only you, Mr. Saunders.”

“That’s right, Judge.” B.T. licked at his lips. “And the last thing those cowboy cops are going to be looking for is a guy on a motorcycle. I’ll just tuck my hair up under my hat, stay off the main highway and drive into town on one of the Forest Service dirt roads, ditch the bike somewhere convenient in Fredonia, and then hang low until the Joyce woman shows up. The pigs will be expecting us to cut and run, not come looking for their star witness right where they live. I’m telling you, Judge, this is going to be the easiest hit of the bunch, ‘cause it’s you they’re going to be searching for, not me.”

“And what if they arrive at the Kanab Airport before I have loaded the jet and departed?”

B.T. shrugged. “Then just play your best role: Judge Keating, decorated war hero, retired federal judge, jet-set businessman, and all-around pillar of Arizona society. I don’t need to tell you how to browbeat people; you’ve been doing that for over thirty years. None of these shitkicker yokels will have the balls to stand up to you, Judge. Shit, I’ve seen generals call you sir. Remember that sorry-ass Major General – what was his mane? Masterson, or Kesterson, or some such horseshit – the one who ran the hospital at Can Tho? We had just come off a real hairy ops down in the Delta, and ol’ Hanibal Jones was shot up real bad; but the base hospital staff left him waiting out in the hall. You told the General to operate on Jonesy, or you were going to start shooting his surgeons. You walked right into the operating room and aimed your piece at the fucking doctors performing surgery. Christ, I thought that General was going to go cardiac red. Not only did he end up pulling his two best doctors away to work on Jonesy, but he fixed you up with one of his nurses later on that night. I remember because she had red hair.”

B.T. winked at the Judge, who nodded his head and squirmed in his seat. “She was a sweet thing. Her name was Claire.”

“Yeah. They all knew her as Cherry Eclaire.”

The Judge laughed in spite of himself. “Those were the days, Mr. Saunders.”

B.T pointed his index finger at the Judge. “You’re still the most intimidating sonofabitch in the whole world when you get going, Judge. So, if the cops show up in Kanab, you just read ‘em the riot act and warn ‘em to back off. You already have the papers to document that all these artifacts came off your ranches in Arizona and Utah, right?”

“Of course. I prepared the certificates myself, and I have listed my ranch in Tropic, Utah as the origin of each piece. Only a firsthand observer could prove otherwise.”

B.T. clapped his hands together. “Well, that’s what you tell them if they ask. And once you take off from Kanab, you take their whole fucking case with you. By tomorrow, the loot will have been sold to people from all over the goddamn planet. The pigs won’t even know what the hell they’re looking for.”

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Anasazi Strip - Chapter 36 - Part I

The helicopter sailed over Saddle mountain and banked north toward Buckhorn Point.  The deep gorges of the Grand Canyon fanned out below like bright knife wounds in the earth’s crust. The colors swirled together to create a divine painting of seemingly infinite proportions. To stare into its shimmering depths was to look into the face of God Almighty.

B.T. Saunders and Judge Keating were not interested in spectacular views. The Judge had spent the last twenty minutes haranguing B.T. about the horrendous state of their affairs. 

B.T. sat back and weathered the verbal storm without saying a word. He could not change what had already happened. Eventually, the Judge grew tired of beating the dead horse, and flew the chopper in icy silence.

B.T. was left to ponder his precarious future, and one thing kept haunting his thoughts.  He hadn’t been able to get the hair from John and Billy Ray. The Ritual could not be performed. The spirits of the slain had been carelessly lost by the wayside. And the gods would be displeased. How could he satisfy them? How could he make things right again?

“We are at Buckhorn Point, Mr. Saunders. Where do you want me to put down?”

B.T. stared vacantly at the baked-brown landscape dotted with green pinyon and junipers, and struggled to focus. “Over there,” he pointed at a weathered old corral. “I stashed the motorcycle in the brush behind the corral.”

“Are you sure it’s still there?” the Judge asked skeptically.

“Well, it was there a couple of weeks ago when I was out here scouting for Indian ruins.   And it’s too damn big to do much with, unless you’ve got the key. I had a helluva time getting it in and out of my damn truck by myself. I’m sure it’s where I left it, Judge.”

“It better be,” concluded the Judge as he landed the helicopter on the sagebrush flat.

“The only sign of life I’ve ever seen out here before was a couple of cows. It’s the fucking middle of nowhere, Judge. Nobody in their right mind would come out here.”

“We did, Mr. Saunders.” replied the Judge.

“Well, there you go,” laughed B.T., trying to add a little levity to an unpleasantly tense situation.

The Judge smiled disdainfully as he turned off the Ranger’s engines. “I can assure you that I am firmly in control of all my faculties, Mr. Saunders, although I must admit that I am forced to question my own judgement in this unfortunate matter. It has become painfully obvious to me that I delegated far too much authority to you.”

B.T. blew up.  “Why don’t you climb down off that high horse of yours, Judge. You put up some of your easy money and you get to fly around in your helicopter, while the grunts down on the ground bust their balls for you, and then you piss and moan when things turn sour. I think you’ve forgotten what it’s like to put your ass on the line. Remember how it went in “Nam?  Sometimes a mission would click like clockwork, and other times it would blow up in your goddamn face. And not necessarily because you didn’t plan it right, either. Remember that time we went into Laos to blow those VC command bunkers. The Land Sat photos said the place was guarded by a company of light infantry. But remember what we found waiting for us? Tanks. A whole shitload of Russian tanks, and we lost half the unit. Whose fault was that, colonel?  Yours? It was your mission. You were in charge.”

The Judge’s face turned crimson. “ I had no way of knowing those tanks would be there.”

“No. And I had no way of knowing that everybody and their goddamn grandmother would suddenly show up on the Paria Plateau this week. It just happened. So you try your best to deal with it, and then you cut your losses. Three good men are dead, and we’re sitting on the considerable fruits of their labor. So, stop your goddamn bellyaching; you’ve got blood on your hands, just like me.”

The Judge toyed with his mustache. “I suppose you’re right, Mr. Saunders. Perhaps I have been a bit too harsh in my judgement.”

“Yeah, and I’m not forgetting that you tried to leave me back there on the Paria, either.  That was pretty cold-blooded, even for you, Judge.”

The Judge flashed an embarrassed smile. “I was just cutting my losses, Mr. Saunders.”

B.T. laughed loudly and aimed the muzzle of his Mac-10 at the middle of the Judge’s chest. Well now, if I can’t trust you, Judge, who can I trust? After all we’ve been through, it seems a damn shame to have to call it quits like this. But maybe it’s for the best.”

The Judge didn’t bat an eye at the deadly threat. “If you kill me, you will never be able to sell any of the priceless artifacts in this shipment. I am the only person with the necessary contacts to accomplish such a, shall we say, delicate transaction. I am the only person who can supply the proper authentication papers – McCracken would never deal with you. Surely, you must realize that.”

“All I know is that you were ready to shitcan me back there. That being the case, I think we should re-examine our partnership. What do you say to that?”