It's four oclock in the mornin. Do you know where your darlin boy is at?
I'll tell you what. Why dont you just get in your truck and go on out there and take the son of a bitch a drink of water?
The moon was high and small. He kept his eye on the plain below as he climbed along the slope. How motivated are you? he said.
Pretty damn motivated.
You better be.
He could hear the truck. It came around the foreland head of the ridge with the lights off and started down the edge of the floodplain in the moonlight. He flattened himself in the rocks. In addition to the other bad news his thoughts ran to scorpions and rattlesnakes. The spotlight kept rowing back and forth across the face of the ridge. Methodically. Bright shuttle, dark loom. He didnt move.
The truck crossed to the other side and came back. Tooling along in second gear, stopping, the motor loping. He pushed himself forward to where he could see it better. Blood kept running into his eye from a cut in his forehead. He didnt even know where he'd gotten it. He wiped his eye with the heel of his hand and wiped his hand on his jeans. He took out his kerchief and pressed it to his head.
You could head south to the river.
Yeah. You could.
Less open ground.
Less aint none.
He turned, still holding the handkerchief to his forehead. No cloud cover in sight.
You need to be somewhere come daylight.
Home in bed would be good.
He studied the blue floodplain out there in the silence. A vast and breathless amphitheatre. Waiting. He'd had this feeling before. In another country. He never thought he'd have it again.
He waited a long time. The truck didnt come back. He made his way south along the ridge. He stood and listened. Not a coyote, nothing.
By the time he'd descended onto the river plain the sky to the east carried the first faint wash of light. It was the darkest this night was going to get. The plain ran to the breaks of the river and he listened one last time and then set out at a trot.
It was a long trek and he was still some two hundred yards from the river when he heard the truck. A raw gray light was breaking over the hills. When he looked back he could see the dust against the new skyline. Still the better part of a mile away. In the dawn quiet the sound of it no more sinister than a boat on a lake. Then he heard it downshift. He pulled the .45 from his belt so that he wouldnt lose it and set out at a dead run.
When he looked back again it had closed a good part of the distance. He was still a hundred yards from the river and he didnt know what he'd find when he got there. A sheer rock gorge. The first long panes of light were standing through a gap in the mountains to the east and fanning over the country before him. The truck was ablaze with lights, roof rack and bumper spots. The engine kept racing away into a howl where the wheels left the ground.
They wont shoot you, he said. They cant afford to do that.
The long crack of a rifle went caroming out over the pan. What he'd heard whisper overhead he realized was the round passing and vanishing toward the river. He looked back and there was a man standing up out of the sunroof, one hand on top of the cab, the other cradling a rifle upright.
Where he reached the river it made a broad sweep out of a canyon and carried down past great stands of carrizo cane. Downriver it washed up against a rock bluff and then bore away to the south. Darkness deep in the canyon. The water dark. He dropped into the cut and fell and rolled and rose and began to make his way down a long sandy ridge toward the river. He hadnt gone twenty feet before he realized that he had no time to do that. He glanced back once at the rim and then squatted and shoved himself off down the side of the slope, holding the .45 before him in both hands.
He rolled and slid a good ways, his eyes almost shut against the dust and sand he was plowing up, the pistol clutched to his chest. Then all that stopped and he was simply falling. He opened his eyes. The fresh world of morning above him, turning slowly.
He slammed into a gravel bank and gave out a groan. Then he was rolling through some sort of rough grass. He came to a stop and lay there on his stomach gasping for air.
He knew he didnt have time to crawl to the river and he just rose and made a run for it, splashing across the braided gravel flats and down a long sandbar until he came to the main channel. He got out his keys and his billfold and buttoned them into his shirtpocket. The cold wind blowing off the water smelled of iron. He could taste it. He threw away the flashlight and lowered the hammer on the .45 and shoved it into the crotch of his jeans. Then he shucked off his boots and pulled them inside his belt upside down at either side and tightened the belt as far as he could pull it and turned and dove into the river.
The cold took his breath. He turned and looked back toward the rim, blowing and backpedaling through the slate-blue water. Nothing there. He turned and swam.
The current carried him down into the bend of the river and hard up against the rocks. He pushed himself off. The bluff above him rose dark and deeply cupped and the water in the shadows was black and choppy. When he finally spilled out into the tailwater and looked back he could see the truck parked at the top of the bluff but he couldnt see anyone. He checked to see that he still had his boots and the gun and then turned and began to stroke for the far shore.
By the time he dragged himself shivering out of the river he was the better part of a mile from where he'd gone in. His socks were gone and he set out at a jog barefoot toward the standing cane. Round cups in the shelving rock where the ancients had ground their meal. When he looked back again the truck was gone. Two men were trotting along the high bluff silhouetted against the sky. He was almost to the cane when it rattled all about him and there was a heavy whump and then the echo of it from across the river.
He was hit in the upper arm by a buckshot and it stung like a hornet. He put his hand over it and dove into the cane, the lead ball half buried in the back of his arm. His left leg kept wanting to give out beneath him and he was having trouble breathing.
Deep in the brake he dropped to his knees and knelt there sucking air. He undid his belt and let the boots drop into the sand and reached down and got the .45 and laid it to one side and felt the back of his arm. The buckshot was gone. He unbuttoned his shirt and took it off and pulled his arm around to see the wound. It was just the shape of the buckshot, bleeding slightly, pieces of shirtfiber packed into it. The whole back of his arm was already becoming an ugly purple bruise. He wrung the water out of his shirt and put it on again and buttoned it and pulled on the boots and stood and buckled his belt. He picked up the pistol and took the clip out of it and ejected the round from the chamber and then shook the gun and blew through the barrel and reassembled it. He didnt know if it would fire or not but he thought it probably would.
When he came out of the cane on the far side he stopped to look back but the cane was thirty feet high and he couldnt see anything. Downriver was a broad bench of land and a stand of cottonwoods. By the time he got there his feet were already beginning to blister from walking barefoot in the wet boots. His arm was swollen and throbbing but the bleeding seemed to have stopped and he walked out into the sun on a gravel bar and sat there and pulled off the boots and looked at the raw red sores on his heels. As soon as he sat down his leg began to hurt again.
He unsnapped the small leather holster at his belt and got out his knife and then stood up and took off his shirt again. He cut off the sleeves at the elbow and sat and wrapped his feet in them and pulled on the boots. He put the knife back in the holster and fastened it and picked up the pistol and stood and listened. A redwing blackbird. Nothing.
As he turned to go he heard the truck very faintly on the far side of the river. He looked for it but he couldnt see it. He thought that by now probably the two men had crossed the river and were somewhere behind him.
He went on through the trees. The trunks silted up from the high water and the roots tangled among the rocks. He took off his boots again to try to cross the gravel without leaving any tracks and he climbed a long and rocky rincon toward the south rim of the river canyon carrying the boots and the wrappings and the pistol and keeping an eye on the terrain below. The sun was in the canyon and the rocks he'd crossed would dry in minutes. At a bench near the rim he stopped and lay on his belly with his boots in the grass beside him. It was only another ten minutes to the top but he didnt think he had ten minutes. On the far side of the river a hawk set forth from the cliffs whistling thinly. He waited. After a while a man came out of the cane upriver and paused and stood. He was carrying a machinegun. A second man emerged below him. They glanced at one another and then came on.
They passed below him and he watched them out of sight down the river. He wasnt really even thinking about them. He was thinking about his truck. When the courthouse opened at nine oclock Monday morning someone was going to be calling in the vehicle number and getting his name and address. This was some twenty-four hours away. By then they would know who he was and they would never stop looking for him. Never, as in never.
He had a brother in California he was supposed to tell what? Arthur there's some old boys on their way down there to see you who propose to lower your balls between the jaws of a six-inch machinist's vise and commence crankin on the handle a quarter turn at a time whether you know where I'm at or not. You might want to think about movin to China.
He sat up and wrapped his feet and pulled the boots on and stood and started up the last stretch of canyon to the rim. Where he crested out the country lay dead flat, stretching away to the south and to the east. Red dirt and creosote. Mountains in the far and middle distance. Nothing out there. Heatshimmer. He stuck the pistol in his belt and looked down at the river one more time and then set out east. Langtry Texas was thirty miles as the crow flies. Maybe less. Ten hours. Twelve. His feet were already hurting. His leg hurt. His chest. His arm. The river dropped away behind him. He hadnt even taken a drink.
I dont know if law enforcement work is more dangerous now than what it used to be or not. I know when I first took office you'd have a fistfight somewheres and you'd go to break it up and they'd offer to fight you. And sometimes you had to accommodate em. They wouldnt have it no other way. And you'd better not lose, neither. You dont see that so much no more, but maybe you see worse. I had a man pull a gun on me one time and it happened that I grabbed it just as he went to fire and the plunger on the hammer went right through the fleshy part of my thumb. You can see the mark of it there. But that man had ever intention of killin me. A few years ago and it wasnt that many neither I was goin out one of these little two lane blacktop roads of a night and I come up on a pickup truck that they was two old boys settin in the bed of it. They kindly blinked in the lights and I backed off some but the truck had Coahuila plates on it and I thought, well, I need to stop these old boys and take a look. So I hit the lights and whenever I done that I seen the slider window in the back of the cab open and here come somebody passin a shotgun out the window to the old boy settin in the bed of the truck. I'll tell you right now I hit them brakes with both feet. It skidded the unit sideways to where the lights was goin out into the brush but the last thing I seen in the bed of the truck was the old boy puttin that shotgun to his shoulder. I hit the seat and I just had hit it when here come the windshield all over me in them little bitty pieces they break up into. I still had one foot on the brake and I could feel the cruiser slidin down into the bar ditch and I thought it was goin to roll but it didnt. It filled the car just full of dirt. The old boy he opened up on me twice more and shot all the glass out of one side of the cruiser and by then I'd come to a stop and I laid there in the seat, had my pistol out, and I heard that pickup leave out and I raised up and fired several shots at the taillights but they was long gone.
Point bein you dont know what all you're stoppin when you do stop somebody. You take out on the highway. You walk up to a car and you dont know what you're liable to find. I set there in that cruiser for a long time. The motor had died but the lights was still on. Cab full of glass and dirt. I got out and kindly shook myself off and got back in and just set there. Just kindly collectin my thoughts. Windshield wipers hangin in on the dashboard. I turned off the lights and I just set there. You take somebody that will actually throw down on a law enforcement officer and open fire, you have got some very serious people. I never saw that truck again. Nobody else did neither. Or not them plates noways. Maybe I should of took out after it. Or tried to. I dont know. I drove back to Sanderson and pulled in at the cafe and I'll tell you they come from all over to see that cruiser. It was shot just full of holes. Looked like the Bonnie and Clyde car. I didnt have a mark on me. Not even from all that glass. I was criticized for that too. Parkin there like I done. They said I was showin out. Well, maybe I was. But I needed that cup of coffee too, I'll tell you.
I read the papers ever mornin. Mostly I suppose just to try and figure out what might be headed this way. Not that I've done all that good a job at headin it off. It keeps gettin harder. Here a while back they was two boys run into one another and one of em was from California and one from Florida. And they met somewheres or other in between. And then they set out together travelin around the country killin people. I forget how many they did kill. Now what are the chances of a thing like that? Them two had never laid eyes on one another. There cant be that many of em. I dont think. Well, we dont know. Here the other day they was a woman put her baby in a trash compactor. Who would think of such a thing? My wife wont read the papers no more. She's probably right. She generally is.
Bell climbed the rear steps of the courthouse and went down the hall to his office. He swiveled his chair around and sat and looked at the telephone. Go ahead, he said. I'm here.
The phone rang. He reached and picked it up. Sheriff Bell, he said.
He listened. He nodded.
Mrs Downie I believe he'll come down directly. Why dont you call me back here in a little bit. Yes mam.
He took off his hat and put it on the desk and sat with his eyes closed, pinching the bridge of his nose. Yes mam, he said. Yes mam.
Mrs Downie I havent seen that many dead cats in trees. I think he'll come down directly if you'll just leave him be. You call me back in a little bit, you hear?
He hung the phone up and sat looking at it. It's money, he said. You have enough money you dont have to talk to people about cats in trees.
Well. Maybe you do.
The radio squawked. He picked up the receiver and pushed the button and put his feet up on the desk. Bell, he said.
He sat listening. He lowered his feet to the floor and sat up.
Get the keys and look in the turtle. That's all right. I'm right here.
He drummed his fingers on the desk.
All right. Keep your lights on. I'll be there in fifty minutes. And Torbert? Shut the trunk.
He and Wendell pulled onto the paved shoulder in front of the unit and parked and got out. Torbert got out and was standing by the door of his car. The sheriff nodded. He walked along the edge of the roadway studying the tire tracks. You seen this, I reckon, he said.
Well let's take a look.
Torbert opened the trunk and they stood looking at the body. The front of the man's shirt was covered with blood, partly dried. His whole face was bloody. Bell leaned and reached into the trunk and took something from the man's shirtpocket and unfolded it. It was a bloodstained receipt for gas from a service station in Junction Texas. Well, he said. This was the end of the road for Bill Wyrick.
I didnt look to see if he had a billfold on him.
That's all right. He
dont. This here was just dumb luck.
He studied the hole in the man's forehead. Looks like a.45. Clean. Almost like a wadcutter.
What's a wadcutter?
It's a target round. You got the keys?
Bell shut the trunklid. He looked around. Passing trucks on the interstate were downshifting as they approached. I've already talked to Lamar. Told him he can have his unit back in about three days. I called Austin and they're lookin for you first thing in the mornin. I aint loadin him into one of our units and he damn sure dont need a helicopter. You take Lamar's unit back to Sonora when you get done and call and me or Wendell one will come and get you. You got any money?
Fill out the report same as any report.
White male, late thirties, medium build.
How do you spell Wyrick?
He might have a family someplace.
What do we have on the perpetrator?
We dont. Give Wendell your keys fore you forget it.
They're in the unit.
Well let's not be leavin keys in the units.
I'll see you in two days' time.
I hope that son of a bitch is in California.
Yessir. I know what you mean.
I got a feelin he aint.
Yessir. I do too.
Wendell, you ready?
Wendell leaned and spat. Yessir, he said. I'm ready. He looked at Torbert. You get stopped with that old boy in the turtle just tell em you dont know nothin about it. Tell em somebody must of put him in there while you was havin coffee.
Torbert nodded. You and the sheriff goin to come down and get me off of death row?
If we cant get you out we'll get in there with you.
You all dont be makin light of the dead thataway, Bell said.
Wendell nodded. Yessir, he said. You're right. I might be one myself some day.