The Opportunity of a Lifetime

The canyon was broken and hilly, with shallow arroyos cutting north to south and green agave plants and small stands of Joshua trees providing the only color there was against the relentless grey of the desert and the dirty white snow that clung at the peaks of the mountains on either side. The Funeral Mountains, they were called on the map.

But I wasn’t looking at the scenery. Instead my focus was fixed on a beat Ford pickup parked about 15 yards in front of me. Through the filthy windshield, I could see the old man, skin and bones, naked from the waist up and gesturing wildly with his hands, sitting in the back under a windowed truck cap. Ten minutes ago, he’d been eating his dinner. Now I waited for him to make a sudden move for the gun he had stashed back there. No one would live alone in the back of a pickup out in the middle of the Mojave Desert like that without a gun.

A person could get away with killing a guy out here, I thought. Some of those mine shafts were hundreds of feet deep. Nobody would have missed either of them. It would have been easy.

Not that I would have minded seeing Kenny get shot. He was a major league asshole who’d fled Buffalo for Vegas one step ahead of the creditors and bill collectors and leg breakers he owed money to. In Nevada, he parlayed a few hundred dollars he’d stolen from his mother into a tiny patch of desert with an ancient mine shaft sunk into it, and was currently attempting to extract a hundred grand from Frankie Donatelle, promising untold riches in return once the mine was reopened.

Now he was screaming and threatening, calling the guy every name in the book. He thought he was a tough guy and the fact that he was 100 pounds heavier and 25 years younger than the old man only encouraged him.

No, I wouldn’t have minded seeing Kenny get shot at all. In fact, if he’d have started beating on that old man, and it looked like he was getting ready to, I might have shot him myself.

But Frankie had gone to the back of the truck as well, trying to settle Kenny down and defuse the situation. And since I was there specifically to look out for Frankie, it wouldn’t have looked right if he went home in a box.

I motioned to his girlfriend Anna to get back to a little ruined shack that was behind us and picked my spot, a shallow depression in the earth fronted by a small growth of sagebrush in case I needed to drop down. I had the old Army Special .41 on my hip and I unsnapped the safety strap and tucked it back between the holster and my belt and I waited.

On the ground around me, there was a shovel and a geologist’s rock pick and a couple five-gallon Army surplus fuel cans filled with water. Nearby there was a pile of empty cans the old guy had eaten out of already and a burned area, about five feet across, where he made his fires.


Salvation, photograph by Ted Barron
Salvation, photograph by Ted Barron

He’d been prospecting and, from the looks of it, he’d been there a week or more. From what I could hear, the angry debate centered on whether that particular patch of desert belonged to Kenny or to the federal government, which controls most of the land out there and allows prospecting.

The sun was beginning to set, and the two of them were perfectly silhouetted against the windshield right there in front of me. A person could get away with killing a guy out here, I thought. Some of those mine shafts were hundreds of feet deep. Nobody would have missed either of them. It would have been easy.

Finally Frankie broke away from the argument and walked back toward me.

“What do you think, Tom?” he said.

“Get Kenny the hell away from there before it gets out of hand,” I said. “I’ll kill the guy, but I don’t want to kill the guy, you know?”

“Yeah.”

Frank walked back to where he’d been and after awhile Kenny came away from the truck.

“Let me have the gun,” he said as he walked up.

“No,” I said, not even looking at him, and he kept walking.

Before he returned, Frank had calmed the old guy down and convinced him that he should gather up his gear and move on. Maybe he even gave him a couple bucks, I didn’t ask. The guy got out of his truck and began picking up his stuff and I relaxed a little. Anna came out from behind the ruined cabin and walked over. We were standing downwind, and the stench of the old man’s body and clothes wafted over us.

“Dude needs a fucking shower,” I said. Anna laughed a little.

“Yeah,” Frank said.

“I’d have shot Kenny, you know.”

“Yeah,” he said again.

They began walking toward the Land Rover, parked back up by the road. When the old guy approached, he looked at me.

“The guy’s an asshole,” I told him quietly. “Just do me a favor and get the fuck out of here, OK?”

I snapped the safety strap back over the big Colt and let my jacket fall back over it. The old man nodded, then looked away.

When I got back to the vehicle, I took the holster off the belt and slid it underneath the front seat before climbing in the back. It was almost dark as Frank pulled out onto the road, and Kenny launched into a long soliloquy about what he would have done to that old man, how terrified the guy was and how he’d have been well within his rights no matter what he did. I should have put a couple rounds through the radiator on the guy’s truck just to fuck him up, he told me.

Finally, Kenny remembered what we were all doing out there in the desert in the first place and he forgot about the guy and switched back to his stupid con so quickly it was difficult to follow.

“I’m just doing the brotherly thing here,” he told us. “I figured I could give my bro Frank a caaaut because there’s more than enough millions to go around. This is the opportunity of a lifetime here, for sure.”

The night air brought a chill and the stars began to shine above.

I thought briefly about shooting him again, but when I reached under the front seat, my hand found the bottle of bourbon Frankie had bought earlier in the day. The Land Rover was a rental and it was in Frank’s name and doing it in the car would have caused a lot of trouble, so I took a long pull from the bottle and sat back in the seat and closed my eyes.


Stories Writing

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