[Editor’s note: “Agua” is an exclusive excerpt from Cormac McCarthy’s new novel No Country for Old Men, to be published by Knopf in July 2005.]
Moss sat with the heels of his boots dug into the volcanic gravel of the ridge and glassed the desert below him with a pair of twelve power german binoculars. His hat pushed back on his head. Elbows propped on his knees. The rifle strapped over his shoulder with a harnessleather sling was a heavybarreled .270 on a ‘98 Mauser action with a laminated stock of maple and walnut. It carried a Unertl telescopic sight of the same power as the binoculars. The antelope were a little under a mile away. The sun was up less than an hour and the shadow of the ridge and the datilla and the rocks fell far out across the floodplain below him. Somewhere out there was the shadow of Moss himself. He lowered the binoculars and sat studying the land. Far to the south the raw mountains of Mexico. The breaks of the river. To the west the baked terracotta terrain of the running borderlands. He spat dryly and wiped his mouth on the shoulder of his cotton workshirt.
The rifle would shoot half minute of angle groups. Five inch groups at one thousand yards. The spot he’d picked to shoot from lay just below a long talus of lava scree and it would put him well within that distance. Except that it would take the better part of an hour to get there and the antelope were grazing away from him. The best he could say about any of it was that there was no wind.
When he got to the foot of the talus he raised himself slowly and looked for the antelope. They’d not moved far from where he last saw them but the shot was still a good seven hundred yards. He studied the animals through the binoculars. In the compressed air motes and heat distortion. A low haze of shimmering dust and pollen. There was no other cover and there wasnt going to be any other shot.
He wallowed down in the scree and pulled off one boot and laid it over the rocks and lowered the forearm of the rifle down into the leather and pushed off the safety with his thumb and sighted through the scope.
They stood with their heads up, all of them, looking at him.
Damn, he whispered. The sun was behind him so they couldnt very well have seen light reflect off the glass of the scope. They had just flat seen him.
The rifle had a Canjar trigger set to nine ounces and he pulled the rifle and the boot toward him with great care and sighted again and jacked the crosshair slightly up the back of the animal standing most broadly to him. He knew the exact drop of the bullet in 100 yard increments. It was the distance that was uncertain. He laid his finger in the curve of the trigger. The boar’s tooth he wore on a gold chain spooled onto the rocks inside his elbow.
Even with the heavy barrel and the muzzlebrake the rifle bucked up off the rest. When he pulled the animals back into the scope he could see them all standing as before. It took the 150 grain bullet the better part of a second to get there but it took the sound twice that. They were standing looking at the plume of dust where the bullet had hit. Then they bolted. Running almost immediately at top speed out upon the barrial with the long whaang of the rifleshot rolling after them and caroming off the rocks and yawing back across the open country in the early morning solitude.
He stood and watched them go. He raised the glasses. One of the animals had dropped back and was packing one leg and he thought that the round had probably skipped off the pan and caught him in the left hindquarters. He leaned and spat. Damn, he said.
He watched them out of sight beyond the rocky headlands to the south. The pale orange dust that hung in the windless morning light grew faint and then it too was gone. The barrial stood silent and empty in the sun. As if nothing had occured there at all. He sat and pulled on his boot and picked up the rifle and ejected the spent casing and put it in his shirtpocket and closed the bolt. Then he slung the rifle over his shoulder and set out.
It took him some forty minutes to cross the barrial. From there he made his way up a long volcanic slope and followed the crest of the ridge southeast to an overlook above the country into which the animals had vanished. He glassed the terrain slowly. Crossing that ground was a large tailless dog, black in color. He watched it. It had a huge head and cropped ears and it was limping badly. It paused and stood. It looked back. Then it went on. He lowered the glasses and stood watching it go.
He hiked on along the ridge with his thumb hooked in the shoulderstrap of the rifle, his hat pushed back on his head. The back of his shirt was already wet with sweat. The rocks there were etched with pictographs perhaps a thousand years old. The men who drew them hunters like himself. Of them there was no other trace.
At the end of the ridge was a rockslide, a rough trail leading down. He sat in the rocks and steadied his elbows on his knees and scanned the country with the binoculars. A mile away on the floodplain sat three vehicles.
He lowered the binoculars and looked over the country at large. Then he raised them again. There looked to be men lying on the ground. He jacked his boots into the rocks and adjusted the focus. The vehicles were four wheel drive trucks or Broncos with big all-terrain tires and winches and racks of rooflights. The men appeared to be dead. He lowered the glasses. Then he raised them again. Then he lowered them and just sat there. Nothing moved. He sat there for a long time.
When he approached the trucks he had the rifle unslung and cradled at his waist with the safety off. He stopped. He studied the country and then he studied the trucks. They were all shot up. Some of the tracks of holes that ran across the sheetmetal were spaced and linear and he knew they’d been put there with automatic weapons. Most of the glass was shot out and the tires flat. He stood there. Listening.
In the first vehicle there was a man slumped dead over the wheel. Beyond were two more bodies lying in the gaunt yellow grass. Dried blood black on the ground. He stopped and listened. Nothing. The drone of flies. He walked around the end of the truck. There was a large dead dog there of the kind he’d seen crossing the floodplain. The dog was gutshot. Beyond that was a third body lying face down. He looked through the window at the man in the truck. He was shot through the head. Blood everywhere. He walked on to the second vehicle but it was empty. He walked out to where the third body lay. There was a shotgun in the grass. The shotgun had a short barrel and it was fitted with a pistol stock and a twenty round drum magazine. He nudged the man’s boot with his toe and studied the low surrounding hills.
The third vehicle was a Bronco with a lifted suspension and dark smoked windows. He reached up and opened the driver side door. There was a man sitting in the seat looking at him.
Moss stumbled back, leveling the rifle. The man’s face was bloody. He moved his lips dryly. Agua, cuate, he said. Agua, por dios.
He had a shortbarreled H&K machinepistol with a black nylon shoulderstrap lying in his lap and Moss reached and got it and stepped back. Agua, the man said. Por dios.
I aint got no water.
Moss left the door open and slung the H&K over his shoulder and stepped away. The man followed him with his eyes. Moss walked around the front of the truck and opened the door on the other side. He lifted the latch and folded the seat forward. The cargo space in the rear was covered with a metallic silver tarp. He pulled it back. A load of bricksized parcels each wrapped in plastic. He kept one eye on the man and got out his knife and cut a slit in one of the parcels. A loose brown powder dribbled out. He wet his forefinger and dipped it in the powder and smelled it. Then he wiped his finger on his jeans and pulled the tarp back over the parcels and stepped back and looked over the country again. Nothing. He walked away from the truck and stood and glassed the low hills. The lava ridge. The flat country to the south. He got out his handkerchief and walked back and wiped clean everything he’d touched. The doorhandle and the seatlatch and the tarp and the plastic package. He crossed around to the other side of the truck and wiped everything down there too. He tried to think what else he might have touched. He went back to the first truck and opened the door with his kerchief and looked in. He opened the glovebox and closed it again. He studied the dead man at the wheel. He left the door open and walked around to the driver’s side. The door was full of bulletholes. The windshield. Small caliber. Six millimeter. Maybe number four buckshot. The pattern of them. He opened the door and pushed the windowbutton but the ignition was not on. He shut the door and stood there, studying the low hills.
He squatted and unslung the rifle from off of his shoulder and laid it in the grass and took the H&K and pushed back the follower with the heel of his hand. There was a live round in the chamber but the magazine held only two more rounds. He sniffed at the muzzle of the piece. He ejected the clip and slung the rifle over one shoulder and the machinepistol over the other and walked back to the Bronco and held the clip up for the man to see. Otra, he said. Otra.
The man nodded. En mi bolsa.
You speak english?
He didnt answer. He was trying to gesture with his chin. Moss could see two clips sticking out of the canvas pocket of the jacket he was wearing. He reached into the cab and got them and stepped back. Smell of blood and fecal matter. He put one of the full clips into the machinepistol and the other two in his pocket. Agua, cuate, the man said.
Moss scanned the surrounding country. I told you, he said. I aint got no water.
La puerta, the man said.
Moss looked at him.
La puerta. Hay lobos.
There aint no lobos.
Sí, sí. Lobos. Leones.
Moss shut the door with his elbow.
He went back to the first truck and stood looking at the open door on the passenger side. There were no bulletholes in the door but there was blood on the seat. The key was still in the ignition and he reached in and turned it and then pushed the window button. The glass ratcheted slowly up out of the channel. There were two bulletholes in it and a fine spray of dried blood on the inside of the glass. He stood there thinking about that. He looked at the ground. Stains of blood in the clay. Blood in the grass. He looked out down the track south across the caldera back the way the truck had come. There had to be a last man standing. And it wasnt the cuate in the Bronco begging for water.
He walked out on the floodplain and cut a wide circle to see where the track of the tires in the thin grass would show in the sun. He cut for sign a hundred feet to the south. He picked up the man’s trail and followed it until he came to blood in the grass. Then more blood.
You aint goin far, he said. You may think you are. But you aint.
He quit the track altogether and walked out to the highest ground visible holding the H&K under his arm with the safety off. He glassed the country to the south. Nothing. He stood fingering the boar’s tusk at his throat. About now, he said, you’re shaded up somewheres watchin your backtrack. And the chances of me seein you fore you see me are about as close to nothin as you can get without fallin in.
He squatted and steadied his elbows on his knees and with the binoculars swept the rocks at the head of the valley. He sat and crossed his legs and went over the terrain more slowly and then lowered the glasses and just sat. Do not, he said, get your dumb ass shot out here. Do not do that.
He turned and looked at the sun. It was about eleven oclock. We dont even know that all of this went down last night. It could of been two nights ago. It might even could of been three.
Or it could of been last night.
A light wind had come up. He pushed back his hat and wiped his forehead with his bandana and put the bandana back in the hip pocket of his jeans. He looked across the caldera toward the low range of rock on the eastern perimeter.
Nothin wounded goes uphill, he said. It just dont happen.
It was a good hard climb to the top of the ridge and it was close to noon by the time he got there. Far off to the north he could see the shape of a tractor-trailer moving across the shimmering landscape. Ten miles. Maybe fifteen. Highway 90. He sat and swept the new country with the glasses. Then he stopped.
At the foot of a rockslide on the edge of the bajada was a small piece of something blue. He watched it for a long time through the binoculars. Nothing moved. He studied the country about. Then he watched it some more. It was the better part of an hour before he rose and started down.
The dead man was lying against a rock with a nickleplated government .45 automatic lying cocked in the grass between his legs. He’d been sitting up and had slid over sideways. His eyes were open. He looked like he was studying something small in the grass. There was blood on the ground and blood on the rock behind him. The blood was still a dark red but then it was still shaded from the sun. Moss picked up the pistol and pressed the grip safety with his thumb and lowered the hammer. He squatted and tried to wipe the blood off the grips on the leg of the man’s trousers but the blood was too well congealed. He stood and stuck the gun in his belt at the small of his back and pushed back his hat and blotted the sweat from his forehead with his shirtsleeve. He turned and stood studying the countryside. There was a heavy leather document case standing upright alongside the dead man’s knee and Moss absolutely knew what was in the case and he was scared in a way that he didnt even understand.
When he finally picked it up he just walked out a little ways and sat down in the grass and slid the rifle off his shoulder and laid it aside. He sat with his legs spaced and the H&K in his lap and the case standing between his knees. Then he reached and unbuckled the two straps and unsnapped the brass latch and lifted the flap and folded it back.
It was level full of hundred dollar banknotes. They were in packets fastened with banktape stamped each with the denomination $10,000. He didnt know what it added up to but he had a pretty good idea. He sat there looking at it and then he closed the flap and sat with his head down. His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel.
He raised his head and looked out across the bajada. A light wind from the north. Cool. Sunny. One oclock in the afternoon. He looked at the man lying dead in the grass. His good crocodile boots that were filled with blood and turning black. The end of his life. Here in this place. The distant mountains to the south. The wind in the grass. The quiet. He latched the case and fastened the straps and buckled them and rose and shouldered the rifle and then picked up the case and the machinepistol and took his bearings by his shadow and set out.
He thought he knew how to get to his truck and he also thought about wandering through the desert in the dark. There were Mojave rattlesnakes in that country and if he got bit out here at night he would in all likelihood be joining the other members of the party and the document case and its contents would then pass on to some other owner. Weighed against these considerations was the problem of crossing open ground in broad daylight on foot with a fully automatic weapon slung across one shoulder and carrying a satchel containing several million dollars. Beyond all this was the dead certainty that someone was going to come looking for the money. Maybe several someones.
He thought about going back and getting the shotgun with the drum magazine. He was a strong believer in the shotgun. He even thought about leaving the machinepistol behind. It was a penitentiary offence to own one.
He didnt leave anything behind and he didnt go back to the trucks. He set out across country, cutting through the gaps in the volcanic ridges and crossing the flat or rolling country between. Until late in the day he reached the ranch road he’d come down that morning in the dark so long ago. Then in about a mile he came to the truck.
He opened the door and stood the rifle in the floor. He went around and opened the driver door and pushed the lever and slid the seat forward and set the case and the machinepistol behind it. He laid the .45 and the binoculars in the seat and climbed in and pushed the seat back as far as it would go and put the key in the ignition. Then he took off his hat and leaned back and just rested his head against the cold glass behind him and closed his eyes.
When he got to the highway he slowed and rattled over the bars of the cattleguard and then pulled out onto the blacktop and turned on the headlights. He drove wast toward Sanderson and he kept to the speed limit every mile of the way. He stopped at the gas station on the east end of town for cigarettes and a long drink of water and then drove on to the Desert Aire and pulled up in front of the trailer and shut off the motor. The lights were on inside. You live to be a hundred, he said, and there wont be another day like this one. As soon as he said it he was sorry.
He got his flashlight from the glovebox and climbed out and took the machinepistol and the case from behind the seat and crawled up under the trailer. He lay there in the dirt looking up at the underside of it. Cheap plastic pipe and plywood. Bits of insulation. He wedged the H&K up into a corner and pulled the insulation down over it and lay there thinking. Then he crawled back out with the case and dusted himself off and climbed the steps and went in.
She was sprawled across the sofa watching TV and drinking a coke. She didnt even look up. Three oclock, she said.
I can come back later.
She looked at him over the back of the sofa and looked at the television again. What have you got in that satchel?
It’s full of money.
Yeah. That’ll be the day.
He went into the kitchen and got a beer out of the refrigerator.
Can I have the keys? she said.
Where you goin.
Get some cigarettes.
Yes, Llewelyn. Cigarettes. I been settin here all day.
What about cyanide? How are we fixed for that?
Just let me have the keys. I’ll set out in the damn yard and smoke.
He took a sip of the beer and went on back into the bedroom and dropped to one knee and shoved the case under the bed. Then he came back. I got you some cigarettes, he said. Let me get em.
He left the beer on the counter and went out and got the two packs of cigarettes and the binoculars and the pistol and slung the .270 over his shoulder and shut the truck door and came back in. He handed her the cigarettes and went on back to the bedroom.
Where’d you get that pistol? she called.
At the gettin place.
Did you buy that thing?
No. I found it.
She sat up on the sofa. Llewelyn?
He came back in. What? he said. Quit hollerin.
What did you give for that thing?
You dont need to know everthing.
I told you. I found it.
No you never done no such a thing.
He sat on the sofa and put his legs up on the coffeetable and sipped the beer. It dont belong to me, he said. I didnt buy no pistol.
You better not of.
She opened one of the packs of cigarettes and took one out and lit it with a lighter. Where have you been all day?
Went to get you some cigarettes.
I dont even want to know. I dont even want to know what all you been up to.
He sipped the beer and nodded. That’ll work, he said.
I think it’s better just to not even know even.
You keep runnin that mouth and I’m goin to take you back there and screw you.
Just keep it up.
That’s what she said.
Just let me finish this beer. We’ll see what she said and what she didnt say.
* * * *
When he woke it was 1:06 by the digital clock on the bedside table. He lay there looking at the ceiling, the raw glare of the vaporlamp outside bathing the bedroom in a cold and bluish light. Like a winter moon. Or some other kind of moon. Something stellar and alien in its light that he’d come to feel comfortable with. Anything but sleep in the dark.
He swung his feet from under the covers and sat up. He looked at her naked back. Her hair on the pillow. He reached and pulled the sheet up over her shoulder and got up and went into the kitchen.
He took the jar of water from the refrigerator and unscrewed the cap and stood there drinking in the light of the open refrigerator door. Then he just stood there holding the jar with the water beading cold on the glass, looking out the window and down the highway toward the lights. He stood there for a long time.
When he went back to the bedroom he got his shorts off the floor and _put them on and went into the bathroom and shut the door. The he went through into the second bedroom and pulled the case from under the bed and opened it.
He sat in the floor with the case between his legs and delved down into the bills and dredged them up. The packets were twenty deep. He shoved them back down into the case and jostled the case on the floor to level the money. Times twelve. He could do the math in his head. Two point four million. All used bills. He sat looking at it. You have to take this seriously, he said. You cant treat it like luck.
He closed the bag and redid the fasteners and shoved it under the bed and rose and stood looking out the window at the stars over the rocky escarpment to the north of the town. Dead quiet. Not even a dog. But it wasnt the money that he woke up about. Are you dead out there? he said. Hell no, you aint dead.
She woke while he was getting dressed and turned in the bed to watch him.
What are you doin?
Where are you goin?
Where are you goin, baby?
Somethin I forgot to do. I’ll be back.
What are you goin to do?
He opened the drawer and took the .45 out and ejected the clip and checked it and put it back and put the pistol in his belt. He turned and looked at her.
I’m fixin to go do somethin dumbern hell but I’m goin anyways. If I dont come back tell Mother I love her.
Your mother’s dead Llewelyn.
Well I’ll tell her myself then.
She sat up in the bed. You’re scarin the hell out of me, Llewelyn. Are you in some kind of trouble?
No. Go to sleep.
Go to sleep?
I’ll be back in a bit.
Damn you, Llewelyn.
He stepped back into the doorway and looked at her. What if I was to not come back? Is them your last words?
She followed him down the hallway to the kitchen pulling on her robe. He took an empty gallon jug from under the sink and stood filling it at the tap.
Do you know what time it is? she said.
Yeah. I know what time it is.
Baby I dont want you to go. Where are you goin? I dont want you to go.
Well darlin we’re eye to eye on that cause I dont want to go either. I’ll be back. Dont wait up on me.
He pulled in at the filling station under the lights and shut off the motor and got the surveymap from the glovebox and unfolded it across the seat and sat there studying it. He finally marked where he thought the trucks should be and then he traced a route cross country back to the Harkle’s cattlegate. He had a good set of all-terrain tires on the truck and two spares in the bed but this was some hard country. He sat looking at the line he’d drawn. Then he bent and studied the terrain and drew another one. Then he just sat there looking at the map. When he started the engine and pulled out onto the highway it was two-fifteen in the morning, the road deserted, the truck radio in this outland country dead even of static from one end of the band to the other.
He parked at the gate and got out and opened it and drove through and got out and closed it again and stood listening to the silence. Then he got back in the truck and drove south on the ranch road.
He kept the truck in two wheel drive and drove in second gear. The light of the unrisen moon before him spread out along the dark placard hills like scrimlights in a theatre. Turning below where he’d parked that morning onto what may have been an old wagonroad that bore eastward across Harkle’s land. When the moon did rise it sat swollen and pale and illformed among the hills to light up all the land about and he turned off the headlights of the truck.
A half hour on he parked and walked out along the crest of a rise and stood looking over the country to the east and to the south. The moon up. A blue world. Visible shadows of clouds crossing the floodplain. Hurrying on the slopes. He sat in the scabrock with his boots crossed before him. No coyotes. Nothing. For a Mexican dopedealer. Yeah. Well. Everbody is somethin.
When he got back to the truck he left the trace and steered by the moon. He crossed under a volcanic headland at the upper end of the valley and turned south again. He had a good memory for country. He was crossing terrain he’d scouted from the ridge earlier that day and he stopped again and got out to listen. When he came back to the truck he pried the plastic cover from the domelight and took the bulb out and put it in the ashtray. He sat with the flashlight and studied the map again. When next he stopped he just shut off the engine and sat with the window down. He sat there for a long time.
He parked the truck a half mile above the upper end of the caldera and got the plastic jug of water out of the floor and put the flashlight in his hip pocket. Then he took the .45 off the seat and shut the door quietly with his thumb on the latchbutton and turned and set off toward the trucks.
They were as he’d left them, hunkered down on their shot-out tires. He approached with the .45 cocked in his hand. Dead quiet. Could be because of the moon. His own shadow was more company than he would have liked. Ugly feeling out here. A trespasser. Among the dead. Dont get weird on me, he said. You aint one of em. Not yet.
The door of the Bronco was open. When he saw that he dropped to one knee. He set the waterjug on the ground. You dumb ass, he said. Here you are. Too dumb to live.
He turned slowly, skylighting the country. The only thing he could hear was his heart. He made his way to the truck and squatted by the open door. The man had fallen sideways over the console. Still trussed in the shoulderbelt. Fresh blood everywhere. Moss took the flashlight from his pocket and shrouded the lens in his fist and turned it on. He’d been shot through the head. No lobos. No leones. He shone the hooded light into the cargo space behind the seats. Everything gone. He switched off the light and stood. He walked out slowly to where the other bodies lay. The shotgun was gone. The moon was already a quarter ways up. All but day bright. He felt like something in a jar.
He was half way back up the caldera to his truck when something made him stop. He crouched, holding the cocked pistol across his knee. He could see the truck in the moonlight at the top of the rise. He looked off to one side of it to see it the better. There was someone standing beside it. Then they were gone. There is no description of a fool, he said, that you fail to satisfy. Now you’re goin to die.
He shoved the .45 into the back of his belt and set off at a trot for the lava ridge. In the distance he heard a truck start. Lights came on at the top of the rise. He began to run.
By the time he got to the rocks the truck was half way down the caldera, the lights bobbing over the bad ground. He looked for something to hide behind. No time. He lay face down with his head between his forearms in the grass and waited. Either they’d seen him or they hadnt. He waited. The truck went by. When it was gone he rose and began to clamber up the slope.
Half way up he stopped and stood sucking air and trying to listen. The lights were somewhere below him, he couldnt see them. He climbed on. After a while he could see the dark shapes of the vehicles down there. Then the truck came back up the caldera with the lights off.
He lay flattened against the rocks. A spotlight went skittering over the lava and back again. The truck slowed. He could hear the engine idling. The slow lope of the cam. Big block engine. The spotlight swept over the rocks again. It’s all right, he said. You need to be put out of your misery. Be the best thing for everbody.
The engine revved slightly and idled down again. Deep guttural tone to the exhaust. Cam and headers and God knows what else. After a while it moved on in the dark.
When he got to the crest of the ridge he crouched and took the .45 out of his belt and uncocked it and put it back again and looked out to the north and to the east. No sign of the truck.
How would you like to be out there in your old pickup tryin to outrun that thing? he said. Then he realized that he would never see his truck again. Well, he said. There’s lots of things you aint goin to see again.
The spotlight came on again at the head of the caldera and moved across the ridge. Moss lay on his stomach watching. It came back again.
If you knew there was somebody out here afoot that had two million dollars of your money, at what point would you quit lookin for em?
That’s right. There aint no such a point.
He lay listening. He couldnt hear the truck. After a while he rose and made his way down the far side of the ridge. Studying the country. The floodplain out there broad and quiet in the moonlight. No way to cross it and nowhere else to go. Well Bubba, what are your plans now?
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. 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 crest of 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 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.
The pistol was gone. He crawled back through the flattened grass until he found it and he picked it up and turned to scan the rim of the river breaks above him, whacking the pistolbarrel across his forearm to shake out the dirt. His mouth was full of sand. His eyes. He saw two men appear against the sky and he cocked the pistol and fired at them and they went away again.
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 stripped out of his jacket and threw it down and buttoned his keys and his billfold 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 slateblue 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 through the sand and the rocks toward the standing cane. 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 shirtfibre packed into it. The whole back of his arm was 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 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 rocks 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 off the inspection plate riveted to the inside of the door 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 eight-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 and the west. 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. His feet were already hurting. His leg hurt. His chest. His arm. The river dropped away behind him. He hadn’t even taken a drink.