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November 11, 2015 | Fiction

Relics

Jeff Snowbarger

Relics photo

Late one night I found him, my long-lost uncle, Duane.

Sheila and me had reached the brink and our lives could never be the same. Earlier that evening she’d come home and moaned when she found me on the couch. “That’s it,” she said. “I’m done with you.” Months of me being out of work had finally split her patience. She stomped toward the TV and ripped my Nintendo from the wall.

“C’mon, baby.”

“Don’t baby me. Don’t even come near me.”

The extra hours Sheila pulled at the hospital had only made her mean. Her aqua nursing scrubs were all wrinkled and stained. The fast food bag in her hands was ripped down the side which told me she’d devoured her dinner on the drive home.

“I’m sick of living with a loser. You’re going to end up like your uncle Duane.”

She slammed the bedroom door and our white-walled condominium never felt so small. Left alone to patch my pride, I wondered whatever happened to Duane. What kind of man had prison made him? I got online and googled his name.

A picture of Duane popped right up. He’d grown a biker goatee and packed on some pounds. He wore a shiny black bomber jacket embroidered with his name. The jacket, with its stitched white letters, made me think Duane was doing okay. He had himself a website, which was classier than his old blaze-orange jumper and lock-down cell in Leavenworth. He’d also produced a series of DVDs. Critical Defense: Shoot to Kill. Critical Defense: Weakside Strength. Critical Defense: Understand Your Aggressor

From the testimonials posted on his webpage it seemed Duane had become a guru of sorts. He was a staunch 2nd Amendment advocate and a figurehead in the movement that encouraged all Americans to exercise their right to shoot bad guys. A video clip showed him tussling in the dirt, wrestling a masked man. Duane was on his stomach sucking wind as the guy in the ski mask sucker-punched his kidneys. The unathletic way Duane twisted and jerked made me think he’d pulled a muscle. I feared the masked man might prevail. Out of nowhere Duane thrashed onto his side and rolled to his knees. He drew a small silver revolver from an ankle holster. Pop. Pop. Pop. The assailant reeled back. He clutched his chest and toppled. Duane staggered to his feet and wiggled his little revolver as if to shake it dry. Panting for air, his shiny black bomber all covered in dust, Duane barked at the camera: 

“Critical Defense! Now he has the right to remain silent!"

We had both split ways with our family, Duane and me, and I imagined that fact linked us. Blood runs deeper than water, they say, and I believed the same was true even between misfits. Duane’s website listed him as sole proprietor of Wyatt Earp Arms, a gun shop in Dodge City. It was an easy overnight drive from the sleepy Kansas City suburb where Sheila and I played house. So I grabbed her keys from the giant oyster shell on our fake-marble breakfast bar. Come morning, I figured, she’d be happy to wake and find this loser gone.

 

I got an hour of sleep in the parking lot of the Thunderbird Inn. My palm throbbed. I had gouged myself with a screwdriver while swapping plates at a truck stop in Emporia. I slid from Sheila’s car, stretched my arms in the beautiful November morning, and decided not to be so hard on myself. It takes two to ruin a couple. And the sky was so blue, so cloudless and peaceful, I couldn’t help but think, no matter my flaws, that God himself had offered me this pretty day, this clean slate, and this chance to reunite with my uncle Duane. The orange and yellow thunderbird, painted Indian-style on the motel sign, had a hooked beak and bent wings. Those Indians really had a way of capturing things. Their bird of rebirth sure looked awful crippled.

Duane’s gun shop sat a block off the main drag, next to the railroad tracks that split town. Wyatt Earp Arms was stenciled in black on a white placard posted above the gravel lot. I could tell the shop had once been a fill-up station because of the rusted gas pumps bolted out front. A six-foot chain link fence topped with a coil of razor wire enclosed the facility. On a half sheet of plywood that leaned against the main signpost someone had spray-painted as best they could: Department of Homeland Security. 

Two pickups were parked out front and I wedged Sheila’s turquoise Grand Am between them. Lights glowed inside the shop, so I pushed the door open and startled two men who wheeled to face me. They were grouped in front of a glass counter at the far end of the shop. Their boots were wrinkled and dusty, their bluejeans more gray than blue. I judged them to be in their fifties. Both wore black nylon bomber jackets and touched the holsters on their hips. 

“I’m looking for Duane.”

The shortest man also happened to be the fattest. “Sign says appointment only.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m not from around here.”

He gripped his pistol firmly as if I had said something cutting. Like I had called him short or fat, which he was.

“We’re family,” I said.

The fattie scrutinized my face. He let go of his gun. “Duane’s tied up.” 

On a shelf behind the counter a bank of police scanner radios hissed and sputtered gobbledygook. Going off the names stitched on their bombers, the fat one’s name was Bud, the lanky man went by Vernon.

I heard a toilet flush.

Bud, the one who’d nearly shot me, hollered down a narrow hallway that appeared to lead out back. “Duane! Code Seven.”

I heard boot heels tapping the tile, coming closer with every step. Duane was fingering the zipper on his pants. He was long-legged and the cut of his bomber allowed ample room for his belly to protrude. In his jowly face I saw the ghost of my father.

He appraised me for a good half-minute. “Billy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you want?” He didn’t say it mean.

“Oh—you know—it’s been six years since I saw you last.”

“Did your mother send you?”

“No, sir.”

Duane swept his hand down his goatee. “Well then?”

“Guess you could say I hit a rough patch.”

Uncle Duane nodded like a man weighing deep thoughts. The other guys held their breath. I could tell they awaited his words like disciples. 

“People still picking on you?” he asked.

My thoughts flocked back to Sheila. “I’m afraid so.”

Blood rushed to Duane’s face. He walked up to me and seized my shoulders. “I understand, compadre.”

Bud banged his fist on the counter. “That’s un-American!” 

“Whoa, pardner,” Duane said to Bud. “It’s perfectly constitutional for everyone to pick on Billy. Look at him. What’s un-American is Billy’s incompetence. He got it from his father, god bless him. I don’t know what good school done him, Billy never learned his rights.” Duane’s eyes were glassy and pink, like they had seen a lot of good people who’d done bad things. Like he had seen that inkling in himself. “Billy,” he said. “You have the right to defend your person.”

“Thank you, Duane.”

“Don’t thank me, Billy. Thank all those men who died defending freedom.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Stop that sir crap. This ain’t no monarchy.”

“Okay, Duane.”

“The boys and I have some business to wrap up. Feel free to mill about. Don’t touch nothing. The place is booby-trapped to the nipples.”

The guys at the counter grinned and snickered in a way that told me it was true. Bud offered his two cents. “Keep to the main aisles, you’ll be fine.”

The glass counter where they conducted business held two shelves of handguns bedded on blue astroturf—Glocks, 1911’s, Smith and Wesson revolvers, large and small. On the bottom shelf sat a row of chipped arrowheads and a pile of rusty mesh with an index card that read: Chain Mail 1541. These items looked misplaced, fragile and weak, beside the guns. Along one wall stretched a bank of refrigerators with long chrome handles and plexiglass doors. I imagined the shelves once held six-packs and cellophane-wrapped sandwiches. They were crammed with ammo now, tiny boxes of hollow points, 50-count sleeves of full-metal-jacket target rounds, and a hoard of army-green ammo cans full of .223. The posters tacked to the opposite wall showed busty babes in American-flag bikinis clutching machine guns. The captions said things like—Nice guns!, or, Packing Heat, or, I’ll Rack Your Bolt. Beside the babes hung a poster of Osama Bin Laden. Concentric rings expanded from the bullseye on his chest. His beard covered the space where his heart would be. There were bumper stickers for sale, too: 

Of the People, For the People, By the People

Have you killed a terrorist today?

My Smith and Wesson is smarter than your honor student

Up front, right next to the door, sat a banquet table stocked with pamphlets and DVDs. It was like a shrine to my uncle Duane. Before me spread a full array of his Critical Defense paraphernalia. There were safety manuals, xeroxed and stapled, and quick-reference flashcards of what to say under duress. One for the FBI, one for the ATF, one for state and local deputies. Duane’s picture adorned each item. He may have been telling the truth when he said Wyatt Earp Arms wasn’t a monarchy, but any fool beholding this spread would rightly know who was king.

Back at the counter Duane was leading calisthenics. The men stretched their hands to the ceiling. The handguns holstered on their belts gleamed and the shop filled with huffs and grunts. Arms slack, the men twisted their spines, rolled their shoulders beneath their glossy bombers, popped their knuckles, and bent to touch their boots. Because of their paunches, none could prolong the jackknife pose.

Duane stood tall and pointed to his physique, “This is what we’re defending.”

“Got to be prepared,” said Bud, whom I noticed had broken a sweat.

“The boys and I have decided to give you a lesson.” Duane nodded down the dark hall. “C’mon, we’re going out back.”

His stature was such you just did what he said. He walked with stooped shoulders like rooms were too small to cage him. He punched a code keypad beside the door. Each button beeped. Alarm disarmed, the heavy steel door swung wide. Exiting the shop, I saw, awash in the crisp light, a graveled space roughly the size of a city lot. 

“Welcome to the Viper Pit,” said Duane.

An eight-foot privacy fence enclosed an obstacle course. In the middle of the yard was parked a rusted white Pontiac Fiero. The car sported one of those black brassieres that kept bugs and gravel from pelting the grill. Three of its tires had given up. Not far from the Fiero stood a barricade of 50-gallon drums. Other stations included a small patch of loose sand with deep boot depressions, a large wooden spool on end, and a chain-link dog kennel, six-foot-square, with a padlock fastening the gate. I felt a wave of power overwhelm me—I had seen this set before. The video clip posted on Duane’s website had been shot right here. 

Duane pointed at the kennel. “That’s Independence Hall. Once a month we take turns closing ourselves in. A twenty-four hour stint. To test our mental stamina.” 

“Like a fast,” I said.

“You get one pistol, one blade, and a cooler of provisions.”

Behind me, Vernon, the tall one, was slipping on a black ski mask. I instantly recognized him as the assailant from Duane’s video. Beside him Bud unfolded a tripod and locked a video camera in place. 

Duane wind milled his arms. “Billy?”

“Yes, Duane?”

“We are blood. As such, it is my sacred obligation to defend you. You are my warrant. It burns me to think folks pick on you like they do.”

“Don’t like it myself,” I said.

“Today we’re filming a segment for out next DVD, Critical Defense: Bad Man Down. I hope it strikes a chord.”

Duane stretched his back and folded himself into the low Fiero. Tall as he was, his knees pinched the steering wheel. Bud shot Vernon a look to see his mask was set. Vernon had wiggled from his bomber and stood there wearing a wife-beater. He jiggled his bare arms, pumping himself up. Bud stepped to the Fiero, smacked the hood, and called, “Action!”

Crouched like an animal, Vernon prowled up to the driver side. “Hey you! Gimme that car!”

Duane cast him the stink-eye. “Sir, step away from the vehicle.”

“No! Gimme that car!”

Duane let his face go slack. In a pathetic tone he begged, “Don’t hurt me, Mister.” He cowered in the seat as if Vernon had convinced him to relinquish the Fiero. The jabbering, the aura of submission, the sense of utter helplessness: it was all part of Duane’s act. 

Vernon straightened, assuming he’d overpowered Duane and the car would soon be his. But this merely triggered Duane’s fury. He flung the door into Vernon’s midsection. As Vernon flopped to the gravel, Duane drew his nickel-plated revolver. The weapon caught the sun and sparkled. He rolled from the Fiero, took a knee behind the door, and leveled his piece. Vernon had got to his knees and tried to pull a tiny pistol from his sock. Pop. Pop. Pop. Vernon twitched as if the blank rounds stung. Triumphant, Duane stared into the camera. “Critical Defense! Now he’s a bad man down.”

“Cut!” Bud scurried to help Vernon pat the dust off his clothes. “Nice work, guys. That’s a keeper.”

“Good,” said Duane. “Felt real good.”

“You got him all right,” I said.

“Do you feel empowered, Billy? Did you notice how I let the assailant think I was scared?”

“You sure looked scared.”

Duane tapped his revolver to his chest. “This here is the first line of defense.”

“Your bomber jacket?”

“Your heart, Billy. That’s where fear lives.”

Duane spun and gave the boys handshakes. Their smiles were full of pride. While he and Bud watched a replay in the camera display, Vernon picked the spent brass off the ground and raked the gravel smooth. The lesson had taught me a lot about my uncle Duane. I had witnessed him overcome his weakness and burst into full strength. He had repelled Vernon’s attack, but more importantly he had located fear as something inside him, something deep. The heart, I learned, waged the true battle. And courage, for Duane, was a thing you carried in your hand.

 

After the boys split ways, Duane drove us toward his place for lunch. His Silverado smelled like the mud and cattle dung caked to the floor mats. Stray sprigs of buffalo grass whistled in the vents. Duane crossed the train tracks and swung by Boot Hill, the cemetery shoveled in the cattle train days. Sadness weighed his words as he spoke of the lawmen who once buried firebrands and gamblers, shitkickers intact.

“The world behooves me, Billy,” he said most wistfully. “Time was, you sniffed a man’s woman you died.” Boot Hill was a parking lot now, a slope of buckled pavement. “Where’s the consequences? Life’s eternal compass? Diabetes ain’t no way to die.”

At the flat edge of town I saw white steam ushering from the slaughterhouse stacks. A quadrant of pipe and wire fencing marked the factory’s vast feedlot. In the muck they’d made, black and brown cattle waddled about the yards, oblivious to the saws inside, happy perhaps to be so fat. 

“You’ve really whittled life down to the bone,” I said.

“Complexity,” Duane said, “is for cowards.”

Having made such of mess of my life, I admired my uncle’s simple strength. Beyond the feedlot spread nothing but a plain of dormant grass. 

“Is that why you live out here?”

“Ten-four. This landscape makes a man feel small. Every cloud contains the eyes of God. It’s just you, the earth, and the judge.”

“Do you miss being close to your family?” 

“My turn to ask the questions,” said Duane.

“Fire.”

“A bad man invades your space. He goes for his weapon. Where do you aim? Where do you set your sights?”

“How do I know he’s a bad man?”

“Self-defense, Billy. This ain’t a philosophy thing.”

“The head, I guess.”

“Wrong, Billy. Bang, you’re dead.”

“The heart?”

“The torso.” Duane raised his hand off the wheel, balled his fingers into a fist, and held it aloft in the cab. “The torso is crammed with organs, every inch. A hole in any one of them will neutralize your aggressor.”

“You mean it will kill them.”

“Sure as hell won’t tickle.”

“My life’s a little crazy,” I said. “But I don’t think I want to neutralize anyone.”

“You’re defending your person.”

“I guess, but . . .”

“Bang, Billy, you’re dead.”

A few miles from Dodge we came to a low bump in the land. A couple dozen mobile homes had bivouacked here. This was a tornado target if I’d ever seen one—a cluster of dull beige trailers, dented pickups with kid seats, bright plastic trikes, kinked hula hoops snagged in the shrubs. 

Duane’s place was tidy. The narrow rooms smelled like lemons and a big picture window drew the beautiful crisp light indoors. He set himself to whipping up some tuna melts. 

“Whatever happened to aunt Lydia?” I asked.

Duane was licking a tuna can clean. “Caught her humping the twerp who runs the credit union. He drives a little Honda, has a tiny mustache that makes you want to puke. ”

“So you left her.”

“I went to jail, Billy. I wrote some bad checks.”

“That’s why my father hated you,” I said. 

“My brother had every right to hate me.” Duane was buttering some bread and set the smudged knife on the counter. “After your grandfather died I behaved like a maniac. Lydia and me were separated at the time and I was swimming in bills. When dad died I reckoned he had no use for the money he’d stockpiled in savings.”

“But it wasn’t yours to spend.”

“Trust me, I felt the consequences. I lost my woman. My family. My freedom.”

Duane spat on the griddle to test its heat. Our sandwiches sizzled. He tore into a red bag of potato chips he’d grabbed off the fudge brown fridge.

“So,” he said. “What ruined your life?

“A woman.”

“She a big girl?”

“A little big,” I said.

Duane’s eyes got all glossy. In a memory tainted tone, he said, “Your aunt Lydia was a chesty one. Kind of melted across the mattress.”

He seemed to know my pain. I didn’t want to ruin our tuna melts, so I just told him, “My girl—Sheila—really set me off last night.”

He plated my sandwich. “Sometimes lovers push all the wrong buttons.”

We ate standing at the counter. Duane gobbled his melt. Warm mayonnaise trickled through his goatee and he wiped the slime with his hanky. “Look here,” he said. He crossed into the den and began to unlock his TV cabinet. 

I thought it strange to need a key. “There much crime?”

He nodded, thinking. “The packing plant added third shift. Mexicans flocked in like flies to a meadow muffin.”

“Are they dangerous?”

“Hell yes.”

“Because they work at night?”

“That’s right. Who does that?”

“Janitors,” I said

“And thieves,” said Duane. “Rapists and buggers of all kinds. Don’t get me wrong. They work hard, slice a fine ribeye.”

“But they’re criminals.”

“That’s right,” he said. “They hold to their own. Too close if you ask me.”

Duane opened the cabinet doors and inside I saw a couple dozen long guns standing upright. Shotguns, rifles, some automatic-looking guns. The TV cabinet had no TV.

Duane glanced out the window as if someone might be prying.

“These are for the federales if they ever come to snatch me. Figure I can pluck off seven agents before they knock me down.”

“Are you still a wanted man?”

“I am a free man, Billy. I paid my dues. The government don’t like my type.” 

I must have had a look in my eyes, because Duane knew I wanted to touch the guns. He grabbed two stacks of banded bills from the bottom of the cabinet and closed the doors with a kind of reverence I had seen in church. On Christmas. Or Easter. 

It was hard to tell how the gun shop made so much cash when Duane seemed to be his own best customer. 

“Listen,” he said. He stuffed the money into his underwear. “I got some business to attend. Might be better if you hold tight.”

“I’m going with you. I mean I want to go with you.”

He gave me a long squinty stare. “Can I trust you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“All right, then. I’m going to blindfold you. It’s best you don’t know the way.”

 

We drove the highway for several miles and turned onto a bumpy gravel track. Duane had knotted a clean blue bandana around my noggin, so I had the vaguest notion of where we’d traveled. When the gravel quit pelting the undercarriage I knew we’d gone off road. 

“Roscoe will want to size you up,” said Duane. “Don’t be scared, just let him sniff you.”

“Roscoe a dog?”

“He’s the treasurer for Wyatt Earp Arms.” The truck slowed. Duane tapped his horn four times in a beat that sounded like code. “Wait here,” he said. “Don’t touch the bandana. I need to vouch for your character.”

He slammed his door. The windows muffled his voice. Vision impaired, I managed to feel the prairie’s immensity. We were miles off the map.

My door creaked open and Duane said, “You’re clear.” 

I pulled the bandanna down around my throat and saw Roscoe toeing the earth. He wore knee-high moccasins and a dingy buckskin coat. Long leather frills dangled from his sleeves. His beard dripped to his belly and had the wavy yellow texture of the buffalo grass blanketing the ground. I offered a handshake, Roscoe returned a grunt. His bony little terrier burned laps around our legs.

"Watch your pecker ‘round the dog,” Duane warned. “He’s a snake mangler. Tore up twenty-six rattlers this year.”

Roscoe’s skyblue eyes cast an icy spell. He had the wrinkled brown skin of a baked potato. Nose twitching, I sensed him inhale my essence. 

“Roscoe is our chief fundraiser,” Duane said. He reached down into his pants to retrieve the cash from his underwear. He gave the bills to Roscoe, who held them up to his nose. “He protects our investments. He also plans our expeditions.”

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“Precious things.”

“Like jewels?”

“Show him, Roscoe.”

But Roscoe tensed like a jackrabbit about to run. 

“Go on,” said Duane, “trust him. Billy is my warrant.”

Roscoe warily obeyed. His spread boasted three small teepees sided with corrugated tin. Hailstones had dimpled the metal and the structures rattled in the wind. The middle teepee bore a blackened stovepipe and a window with dirt brown curtains. I figured Roscoe called that hut home. It was better than a hole in the ground. He led us to another of the dented cones and jostled its padlock loose. I followed Duane inside and saw shelves stacked to the peak. Prehistoric stone tools cluttered the rows, shapes of rusted iron, and limestone slabs etched with fossilized fish. There was an old buffalo skull with cracked black horns. Roscoe handed me a vertebrae the size of a soccer ball. An arrowhead was lodged squarely into the bleached bone.

“That’s as old as America,” Duane said. “Can’t make this stuff in China.”

“H—Here,” Roscoe stammered. He exchanged the vertebrae in my hands with a heavy polished dome I took to be a helmet. 

Duane played the part of curator. “Yelmo de conquistador. Spaniards lost that along the river.”

“Those Mexicans you’re afraid of?”

“Coronado, Billy. Sixteenth century. That helmet’s two hundred years older than the Constitution.”

I gave Duane the helmet. “What brought them here? To Kansas?”

“Searching for Quivira, the fabled city of gold. Last year we sold a similar helmet online to a big-wig pitcher on the White Sox. Fetched enough to fund three Critical Defense DVD’s. What Coronado didn’t know was that he was the gold.”

“So you guys just dig stuff up?”

Reclamation is how we word it. We’re reclaiming America.”

“Sounds better than a wage.”

Hell’s bells.” Re-shelving the helmet, Duane nicked his thumb on a flint spearhead. “It’s a gritty business. Roscoe spent three months shoveling up a Pawnee burial ground. Got himself a pickup out of the deal, but fears some Indian spirit is tacking his soul.” 

I admit, I didn’t understand this whole operation, the swapping of relics for guns and cash. But Duane’s words struck something deep inside me. Out here on the windblown prairie, I felt I’d met something larger than myself, a duty, a way of life more vital than any I’d ever faced in the listless, humdrum suburbs. Perhaps some of Duane’s confidence had rubbed off. “Let me help,” I said. “I want to reclaim America.” 

Duane and Roscoe traded looks. I could tell Roscoe didn’t quite trust me, his eyes got all jumpy. His terrier burst into the teepee and sniffed our shins. I cupped my parts.

“Billy is a recovering coward,” Duane explained. “Remember what that was like?”

Roscoe snorted dust from his nostrils. 

Duane read the gesture as an affirmation. “All right, then.”

“You’ll let me help?”

Fatherly approval shined in his eyes. “Roscoe located a whole trove of armor. That helmet is one cherry from the pie. Tomorrow night we’re going after the rest.”

 

By the time we left, the sunset painted the teepees pink, their shadows spread long across the grass. Roscoe was smoking a cigarillo. His terrier lay at his feet gnawing a dusty prairie dog carcass. It felt right that this pair survived on silver smoke and carrion. 

Duane helped me re-knot the bandanna. Halfway home I thanked him: “You’ve really opened my eyes, Uncle Duane.”

He stayed quiet for a mile. “The world is full of small men.”

I imagined his words spilling out over the prairie. I could not see the flat land, the porch lights twinkling at little farmsteads, the fat black cows, that bold line marking the horizon, where the white evening shined on all the small things readying for night. Somehow, among it all, I no longer felt so small.

“Home sweet home,” he said. 

After I heard him work the shifter into park I untied my blinders. He’d bypassed the trailer court and driven to the gun shop instead. Our presence tripped the security lights. Sheila’s turquoise Grand Am was parked in the lot, bathed in halogen, its windows beginning to frost. I’d nearly forgotten my past life. But here it was, smack in the middle of Dodge, still haunting me.

Duane opened the locks and disarmed the alarm. The sweet smell of gun oil welcomed us inside. He did not fire the lights and in the grayness police scanners crackled and spit. Some cattle had torn down a fence and wandered onto the highway. Dispatchers and deputies were bickering about how to corral them. Duane disappeared into the breakroom he called his office and returned carrying a small red cooler. I thought it might be time to drink, but Duane did not look giddy or ready to let loose. He had a mindfulness about him, like he was prepping for our expedition.

“C’mon, Billy. It’s time.”

We went out the back. The Viper Pit was vacant, almost peaceful feeling. Night had settled overhead and the prairie stars sparkled in the cold sky. Crossing the pit, Duane’s boots stirred up the smell of damp gravel. He paused in front of the chain-link entrance to Independence Hall. The six-by-six dog kennel was wrapped in camping tarps. You could hear the sheets crinkle in the breeze.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“Aw, pretty good. I can’t wait for tomorrow night.”

His eyes were black as flint. “Pretty good ain’t good enough.”

“Sleep will make me better,” I said.

“How do you feel about your person?”

“Are you asking if I’m still a coward?”

I heard Duane fiddle with his keys. A length of chain slinked across a hollow pipe, and I heard the kennel door creak open. “I can’t let you run with the big dogs ‘till I know you’re not afraid.”

“Independence Hall?”

I heard him slide the red cooler into the kennel. “Jail taught me some things, Billy. The big house makes a man feel real small.”

“I don’t want to feel smaller,” I said.

“Jail made me answer the question: is my person was worth defending? Can you answer that question?”

“I’ll freeze in here.”

“Teeth might chatter some, but that’s a good thing. It’s your person keeping itself alive.” 

Duane handed me his black bomber jacket. The slick nylon felt as cold as metal. I wormed my arms inside and felt my bodyheat balloon the sleeves. My hands fit perfect in the pockets.

“What’s this,” I said, handling a hard thing in the dark.

“A pistol,” said Duane. “It’s a powerful tool. Let your fingers get the feel of it.”

I ducked into the kennel. Duane worked the chain through the pipes and I heard the padlock click.

“In the cooler you’ll find a flashlight. There’s water in there and a brick of cheese. Bud whipped up two pounds of summer sausage. Hope you like antelope.”

“Uncle Duane?” I asked.

“What, Billy?”

“You know my dad didn’t like you.”

“Yes,” he said. “I know.”

“Well, between you and me, I don’t feel that way at all.”

His boots scuffed the gravel like he was turning to leave. “All right then.” His voice sounded somber. “I’ll go find you a sleeping bag.”

A minute later he returned and lobbed a soft bundle over the fence. “If you have to piddle squeeze it through the mesh. I’ll come get you when it’s time.”

The concrete floor was colder than the night air, so I sat on the cooler and draped the down bag over my shoulders. Around front Duane’s pickup roared. I heard it rumble down the streets of Dodge and fade into the evening calm. The square of milky stars above made the kennel feel larger than it was. The tarp walls billowed and shrank and I came to the awareness that I was marooned inside a living thing. 

Growing up my father told me stories about how Uncle Duane had lost it all. They were meant to guide me to a better life, to uphold the straight and narrow as a goal, a virtue. Suffering sprang from bad decisions, like his brother Duane’s choice to empty their father’s vault after the codger slammed his Lincoln into the side of a train. My dad’s cancer was in remission at the time. He viewed his brother’s arrest and conviction as a confirmation of his right thinking. Once Duane was in the slammer, my father’s cancer roared back and attacked his bones. I never thought to ask him how that played into the equation. What had he done to deserve his suffering? The nausea. The emaciation. The cottonmouth. The hands of all the fat nurses sponging his broken parts.

A cop car rolled to a stop in the alley beside the Viper Pit and snapped me from my thoughts. I could see its white fenders through the gaps in the tarp and the slits in the wooden privacy fence that blocked the obstacle course from public view. The driver’s side window was open to the night. Its dispatch radio squelched. I heard the driver say—“Vehicle fits the description. Plates are registered to a red Ranger in Lyon County. This Grand Am don’t look like a pickup to me.” 

A day had passed since I’d stolen Sheila’s car. The Do-Right Patrol had finally tracked me down. I thought of shouting out to the cop to save Duane a critical confrontation, but held my tongue. Finding me penned in the kennel would only complicate things. This was my reckoning with the law, not Duane’s.  

I fumbled with the kennel gate but Duane had locked it shut. I stood on the cooler and tried to scramble up the chain-link walls of Independence Hall. I pulled with all my strength but my shoes could not find a hold. The wire sliced my hands. I kicked and slipped. Weakness overcame me and I collapsed to the concrete floor.

Eventually the squad car slipped away. I was still too puny to defend myself. I yanked the down bag over my body. The pistol in my pocket jabbed my ribs. I drew it from the bomber and in the night air its stainless finish twinkled like a fallen star. Duane had said I was a recovering coward, but I felt as scrawny and helpless as ever. The pistol’s courage was something I had not earned—my person was not yet worthy of its power. I reached for the cooler and popped the lid. I let the pistol fall and heard it smack the sausage Bud had made for the benefit of my survival.

 

Later that same night a bird-whistle woke me. There was a rattle at the gate. The kennel hinges creaked and Duane whispered my name. 

“It’s go-time, little buddy.”

I sat up and shivered. “Let me talk to the cops.”

“What cops?”

“I stole my girlfriend’s car.”

“There’s no cops out here.”

“They know where I am,” I said. 

“They always know where you are.” Duane was standing star-lit above me eating the tube of summer sausage. 

“I should turn myself in.”

“You could do that, I guess. Or you could stop being a nancy and stand up for yourself.”

“Shouldn’t I face my crime?”

“Cops don’t care about wrongdoing. They just care that you’re afraid. Now, are you ready to change that?”

“Do I have to shoot somebody?”

“Probably. Eventually. Roscoe got one of his visions. He says tonight’s the night. The moon is set to rise in half an hour.”

“The expedition?”

“Hells bells. Grab the cooler, let’s go.”

The streets of Dodge were empty, not a cop, a cow, another pickup to be seen. Duane cranked the heater and the warmth filled my bones. We swung by Bud’s and he crammed his round body into the cab. Vernon hopped in back and covered himself with a canvas tarp. We drove the highway and made some turns. The last mile or so we drove off-road and bounced across the hard prairie. A bright fingernail moon poked the sky, and I realized Duane trusted me enough not to blindfold me. 

Up ahead, the lights caught Roscoe. He was leaning against a shovel smoking a cigarillo. We piled out. The boys were quiet and I got the sense they’d done this enough times that each man understood his role. Bud stretched his arms and legs. Vernon drew a small black revolver and spun the cylinder to make sure each chamber was full. Duane killed the headlights. The world went black save for the rising moon and the red tip of Roscoe’s cigarillo. 

Duane grabbed my shoulder. “I want my coat back.”

“What will I wear?” 

He handed me another black bomber. In the faint moon glow I read my name stitched in clean white letters. “Sinoritas opened an all-night stitch shop.”

“I don’t deserve this.”

“Tonight you will.” 

He left to pull some tools from the truck bed, a pick axe and two shovels. Roscoe gave a grunt. We grouped behind him and followed his lead. The hovering moon cast a vague outline of the flat terrain. We walked a hundred yards or so and stopped. Roscoe jumped into a gulley. Once inside the depression he fired a flashlight and shined it on the bank so we could see our footing. Bud slid down on his butt. A sheet of ice covered the shallow water running in the trench. Our boots and shoes broke through. 

Fifty yards down we came to a bend. Roscoe shined the flashlight up and down a brown cutbank that towered several feet above our heads. He focused the beam on what seemed to be a red rock suspended in the soil. Setting the flashlight between his teeth, he pulled a fixed blade from his belt and scraped tiny clods from around the rock. He stabbed the bank and bigger chunks fell. Like a midwife he thrust his hands into the cavity and wiggled loose a dirty thing the size of a pumpkin. 

Duane took a wire brush to the object. A few quick sweeps turned its earthen shell to dust. “Roscoe, you done it again.” 

Roscoe’s filthy hands held the definite shape of a yelmo de conquistador. He raised the helmet reverently toward the moon like a man who believed in sacred rights and haunting spirits. He gave Duane the helmet when another speck in the cutbank caught his eye. He set to scraping and Duane said energetically, “Go to it, boys.”

Vernon worked a shovel down the slope while Bud rubbed a hand trowel around a promising stone. Upon the steep wall their shadows danced.

“Spanish treasure,” Duane said, letting me handle the find. The low light could not hide his smile.

The metal was cold and rough and heavier than I expected. A rush of energy surged into my fingertips. “Why would a soldier leave his armor behind?”

Duane watched the men dig. Their tool sounds trickled down the gulley. “He died,” said Duane. “Or maybe he knew he’d discovered America and that was armor enough. Think of the courage that would bestow.”

What Duane said was true. I could feel the courage seeping from the helmet, entering my hands. It angered me to think that I’d ever felt ashamed. Sheila’s scolding hadn’t destroyed my happy future, it had released me into an older, deeper world. A wild world. A world where courage mattered. A world where self-defense was all there was.

Roscoe hitched. He jerked his nose to the wind and cupped a hand to his ear. Duane registered the alertness and hissed at the boys to stop. Vernon grabbed his revolver. Bud reached inside his bomber, his little pistol fumbled to the ground. Flashlights clicked. The world went black. The moon appeared on fire.

I heard Roscoe scuttle up the bank. He slid back down and whispered something to Duane. 

“Vern, you go west. Bud, head east. Roscoe and me will hold down the middle.” 

I heard boots punch ice and splash away.

“What about me?”

Hands seized my shoulders. Duane leaned in. “See that star?”

“Which star?”

“The big one. Polaris. The north star.”

“The bright one?”

“Go. Don’t stop running. We’ll regroup in a year.”

“A year?”

“Don’t make contact.”

“What about the helmet?”

“It’s yours to guard.”

I tucked the helmet under my arm and fought my way up the bank. Thistles cut my hand. I hit level ground and broke into a dash. My feet raced over the uneven earth, not knowing why I’d been told to run. The cold air burned my lungs so bad I had to rest. I turned behind me and saw beams of bright light sweeping the prairie. Red lights flashed. Blues flashed too. Cops had angled their squad cars behind the pickups. Voices shouted in the blackness but the wide night muffled the yells. I heard a pop. Another quick pop, then another. The gunfire sounded like hail. I shoved the helmet beneath my bomber and turned to chase the big star. Across the empty land that spread between us, I carried this ancient courage, so heavy in my hands.

 

image: Anita Olivia Koester


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