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.