short story 5.3

guns company 3
Alice was a communicative lover in the sense that she made known what she wanted in a detailed if discreet manner, whispering to Gerald in her room, directing his body with her hands, scolding when he focused on his own desire instead of her fulfillment. They were quiet for the benefit of Christy, whose room was on the other side of the wall. The parents, she told him, were vacationing in Tucson. “They’re birders,” she explained. “When they go birding, I get laid.”
           He began realizing that Alice was a bit more experienced skin-to-skin than himself. His own exploits were more or less limited to his grandmother’s funeral a year and a half earlier when he’d been riding from Bozeman to the family property on Flathead Lake in a Suburban with the other grandchildren. He’d been sitting on the backbench with a relative newcomer, Charlene, the stepdaughter of his father’s sister. She put his fingers down her panties. It had been a singularly transformative experience, and after helping scatter his grandmother’s ashes off the dock, he stole a bottle of peach schnapps, grandma’s nightcap of choice, and rowed Charlene out in a johnboat. They finished each other off on the lake for better or worse with the sun on their backs and waterskiers racing by a quarter mile off the bow. It was all a rather sad and boozy affair. He’d never found a way to explain the incident to any one, even Will, and was grateful that his aunt lived in Topeka and that in all likelihood he would never have to see Charlene again as they were both due to hit college or what adults called the real world and occasionally the marketplace, which in Gerald’s estimation was either a euphemism or simply a terrible label for a shitty capitalist stopover en route to the grave.
A gunshot woke him to the dawn of the New Year, a crack that came from an uncomfortably close distance and that seemed to throb within his head as his eyes adjusted to the light. For a moment he thought it was a lightning strike but that would be fabulously rare on a winter morning. He’d heard of thundersnows but doubted very much he was in one. He was naked in Alice’s bed and quite alone.
            When he got himself dressed and got outside, Alice was standing over the dead calf with a synthetic-stocked Ruger in her hands. The snow, which had yet to subside, was building on the animal’s flanks.
            “Sylvester’s gone,” she said.
            Gerald found it odd that the calf had a name. He puzzled over it silently before saying, “You shot him?”
            “Jesus, Gerald.” She knelt in the snow. “Sylvester’s my horse. This is just a five-hundred dollar calf.” She stood and began pacing up the hill toward the mountains before stopping and kneeling again thirty yards out. He thought she was rather beautiful bundled up in layers and obscured in a veil of falling snow. Here was a Western woman. Here was a Western bride-to-be. Maybe not for him but somebody.
            She waved to Gerald to come up. He was empty and cold but didn’t realize it. Death and adrenaline were keeping him strong.
            She was pointing to another spot of blood in an enormous hoof print. Then she started explaining how she’d seen a mountain lion attacking Sylvester, her roan, and had shot it but the bullet went through and must have deflected because the calf was now quite dead. “The calf was not in the line of fire,” she said. “I saw to that. My dad’s gonna skin me. But I hit the sonofabitch, didn’t I? Look there. I smacked that cat. Didn’t think I did for a minute because he never gave up killing my horse. Strangling my poor horse.”
            Why a mountain lion would attack a horse when it had a perfectly tasty calf on the menu was baffling to Gerald, but then animals seemed to get unpredictable whenever you started thinking you understood them. Gerald had once found a bull moose that, best he could tell, had fallen to feline teeth and claws in a cottonwood bottom in the Gallatin River of all places, so certainly the size of the horse was not exactly a deterrent. Maybe this cat had an appetite. Maybe it liked horsemeat. He harrumphed and said he figured that if the cat was nicked then the blood trail would peter out and if it was hit well it’d eventually fall off or die holding on and either way they should probably get moving to recover the horse unless Alice wanted to wait an hour for the cat to bleed out.
            “Really, we should call Fish & Game,” he added.
            “We should be find my horse,” she said. She was starting to have a hard time talking with tears coming and pumping up the redness of a face already bright red from the cold. “It’s my damned horse.”
            “Then we should get on with it.”
            “I gotta tell Christy. Someone should know what we’re up to and where we’re at.”
            She ran off and made a fuss over having Gerald wait for her. His stomach was growling and he asked her to bring him something to eat because he knew he’d need it hiking through the drifts. The request sounded a bit crass but he felt it was reasonable and she didn’t argue with him. He was glad he was wearing his good winter boots. When she returned, she had a water bottle and a big end slice of banana bread smeared with cream cheese. They took turns eating and drinking and he wanted badly to kiss her and make her happy again but nothing about the situation was real inviting.
The horse prints looked like post holes and were easy enough to follow. Alice said she had another horse but it was too old to carry them and besides they’d stay warmer on foot. The blood spoor was brighter as the storm ebbed and the going was steady until they hit the treeline. They were scrambling up a field of scree when Gerald had a sick feeling as he looked at the tracks and realized how little blood was in the snow for a horse dragging a wounded mountain lion.
            “Sylvester should be bleeding, too,” he said.
            “I’m hoping for a miracle,” she said.
            “Maybe I should carry the rifle a stretch.”
            She frowned but handed over the gun. “You miss that cat, I’ll kill for you it.”
            This did little to reassure him and as they climbed into thick timber, he thought, I have gotten myself into a different world. And I’m lost in it. It occurred to him that in some ways this was exactly the sensation he’d been hoping for when he decided to leave Bozeman the day before only out here he was a bit colder than he would have been in say Reno.
            In a little hollow protected from the wind, they spotted the horse. It was remarkably healthy looking though streaks of red were on its belly and legs. Gerald searched for any sign of the cat and was increasingly less surprised when the only tracks he saw were human. Smallish boot prints. Probably a woman’s. He turned from the ground to the horse. The blood on its hide was not its own.
            “Alice?” he said. He kept closely abreast of the horse. He didn’t want to expose himself anymore in the hollow.
            “I really didn’t mean to kill the calf,” she said. “I was unloading the rifle. Guess I wasn’t real careful. You can put it down. It’s empty.”
            He checked the chamber and magazine but stopped short of tossing the gun. She might have the bullets in her pockets. The day had quickly become a nightmare and thoughts of New Year’s and of her body were becoming paradoxically clearer and more distant. In the trees, a figure moved black against the snow toward them. The figure broke-up in subtler and subtler shades as it neared. He knew it must be Christy. He knew that the gun slung over her shoulder was surely loaded. He figured she was sixty yards off and he had a choice between trying to ride the horse the hell out of there or doing the best he could on foot.
            “You don’t want to die a horse thief,” Alice said.
            “I don’t want to die,” he said. “I don’t know what I ever did to you.”
            “You and Jack pushed my brother off a bridge.”
            “That didn’t have a damn thing to do with me. I didn’t touch him.”
            “Maybe you didn’t hear he died month later. Brain aneurism. I been thinking for a long time on that. Only time he ever hit his head was in that fall. No way to prove it in court.”
            “I didn’t know and I didn’t push him and I’m sure as hell sorry to hear it so maybe you can tell your sister to put that rifle down.”
            “Jack knew. Jack sent us flowers.”
            “He never told me.” Gerald was hedging around toward the front of the horse to keep out of line with Christy. He was thinking about getting to the scree field. A running horse might struggle in the scree. Then, thinking finally in a semi-coherent manner, he swung the stock of the empty Ruger hard into the front leg of the horse. It reared and barked and he dropped the rifle and ran, trying to move in a zigzag through the pines. The blasts of Christy’s rifle echoed through the hollow and deafened him and he continued to run, to clamber up the hill. He was nearly out of sight of the girls when a bullet ripped through the side of his gut and sent him stumbling along the ridge. He regained his balance but now he knew that the run was becoming futile, that he was wounded, and that the girls could play with him at their leisure. He tripped as he hobbled through the scree and another bullet smashed into the rock at his side and shards ripped into his thigh. He crawled down through the scree and began to hobble out through the last pines and into the field. There was an odd sort of symmetry when he thought of the girls following his bloody steps just as he had followed the horse’s track out. He realized in horror that the blood had been Jack’s blood. He wondered how long Jack had been dead. Perhaps not long. Perhaps the girls had invited him to a New Year’s party, killed him, and had been celebrating their success at Sweet Street when he himself stumbled into them. And what did that make him? A sacrifice plopped in their laps? Christy must have been taking Jack out on the horse to bury him or leave him for the eagles and crows and coyotes to tear apart.
            At the edge of the field were the ranch house and cars, some three hundred yards distant. He had to make a choice between trying to get to a vehicle or cresting the near ridge and crossing the barbed wire and getting onto another property. Christy still had his keys. He didn’t know what to think. His world had become too dazzlingly bright and cold and he tried not to look at his side or his feet. The pain was starting to arc through his body as the shock of the gunshots wore off. He kept on toward the house. Maybe Christy had run out of bullets. Maybe he would find his keys or the keys to the truck and get down to the Madison Valley, to the highway. He could race into Ennis and die in the ambulance to Bozeman or die trying to get there. He wouldn’t mind dying, he decided, as much as dying at the hands of the sisters.
            How strange that they should be so full of hatred toward him. He remembered Jack calling them sluts when his car had broken down and he’d hopped a ride with them. Hadn’t he told Jack to be less conservative? What in hell did they want him dead for?
            Something was strange about the incident. Even with the brother, the silly tragic brother, and he couldn’t weight the brother. He’d only seen the kid once. No, the brother was an abstraction, to him and maybe to them, too. The brother was an excuse. Perhaps not even a real one. Had the girls killed their brother? Were the parents even in Tucson, as Alice had said, or was the entire ranch a cemetery? Here we slaughter the animals. And there the men.
            As he reached for the backdoor, he envisioned a bullet traveling 2,200 feet per second, smacking him in the spine, a soft whump followed by the echo of the shot. He would fall to his knees and would see the world blank before him. And he would die painting it with his blood.
– the end
– Lionel Harrington
– to read part II, click here
– to read part I, click here
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