A poem by Trumbull Stickney, American poet (1874 – 1904)
A poem by Trumbull Stickney, American poet (1874 – 1904)
The shot hit Steve’s left shoulder, spinning him around and throwing the rifle six feet away. Steve staggered, fell, got to his knees and lunged for the rifle. Boone fired again into the sand near where the rifle lay.
The next one goes in your heart, fuck head, he shouted.
Steve slumped down and sat with a leg folded under him trying to stop the bleeding with his right hand.
You always were a shit-hot sniper, dude. You win, said Steve. Just finish it. I’m not spending the rest of my life in prison. Finish it or I’ll make you finish it.
First tell me why you are trying to kill me, said Boone. Then I’ll decide if your sorry ass is worth killing. Maybe you don’t deserve the easy way out. Maybe you need to spend a few years as a quad in a VA hospital first.
Steve sat down fully, gasping at the pain in his shoulder.
Do remember that shithole position about thirty clicks outside of Kabul? Remember the girl in the village below us, asked Steve.
The worst scene of his whole tour was never far from Boone’s mind. He woke reliving it constantly. A Pashtun girl had apparently broken tribal law–probably by having an affair–and was to be subjected to an honor killing. They watched through binoculars from their camoflaged position in the mountains as the village men below stood in a circle around a wood chipper. The girl had her head covered and was kneeling on the ground in the middle of the circle while an angry village elder excoriated her. Steve and Boone had called Centcom and asked, begged, pleaded to intervene. A few well placed shots or a nearby air strike would have broken up the party. Centcom said no. This was tribal justice. Local custom. Do not reveal your position and do not intervene.
The next scene was burned into the synapses of Boone’s brain. Nothing could dislodge it. No amount of alcohol or blind rage took away the slightest detail.
Yea, of course I remember. So what, said Boone.
The girl. I–I knew her, said Steve, his voice on the edge of furious tears.
Boone let that statement sink in for a long minute. What do you mean you knew her, he asked.
She came to our camp with some friends when we were getting ready to deploy, Steve said. We had some laughs and then things took a turn, you know? She was going to meet me when we rotated back. Steve’s voice trailed off. His body shook with silent sobs that had turned the gears of his soul backwards on himself grinding everything in his life to dust.
You were senior officer, Boone. You could have done something and no one would have known. We could have moved our position later. Remember, I begged you but you were fucking regular Army. When I tried to stop them you threatened to shoot me.
We were going to get married, said Steve.
Boone put the Ruger down. He pulled himself to a sitting position, eased himself down onto the hillside and hobbled over to Steve. He picked up the rifle, pulled the firing pin out and threw it as far as he could. He sat down beside Steve.
Steve, I am sorry. I am so fucking sorry, said Boone. I am so fucking sorry. Why didn’t you say something.
I couldn’t. The words weren’t there.
Here. Boone handed Steve the Ruger. You always were better with a pistol, he said. Last chance.
Boone had calculated his odds and believed he knew Steve better than he knew himself. But he would not blame him if he took the opportunity. If he didn’t, maybe there was hope for both of them. Maybe the VA hospital in White City could help them both.
Steve took the Ruger and aimed it at Boone’s forehead. You fucking asshole, he said, taking the Ruger and throwing it as hard as he could down the hill. Help me up.
Boone and Steve helped each other up and stood until both were steady enough on their feet to walk by holding onto each other.
They hobbled to the top of the hill. Boone took out his cell phone, found a weak but steady signal and called 911. The operator in Bend told them it would take two hours to get an emergency vehicle to them. Keep the cell phone on so they could triangulate.
They found shade behind a boulder, sat down saying little, and watched in silence as heat as dazzling waves shimmered across the desert.
Steve, why the dead coyote?
Steve shifted his back against the rock to try and find a position that eased the pain in his shoulder.
When I was out of my mind, everything I saw that was a good hunter reminded me of you. That one came around our place a lot outside of Medford–taking house cats, mainly. After a while it became you, I guess, or at least your stand in until I found you. I put it there to distract you–like the Hajis used to put stuff out to distract us, even for a minute. I regret it now. Worked though, didn’t it?
Yea, I guess it did.
Maybe 15 minutes, maybe 45 had gone by since the last shot was swallowed by the indifferent stillness of the desert–Boone could not gauge it. The desert sun, crawling up the pale bowl of sky, began it’s days work in earnest. Boone shielded his eyes from the light with his hand and scanned the section of desert visible from the rock shelf. His heart rate had slowed but the blood still pounded in his ears. He couldn’t risk exposing himself so he listened with the intensity that only came when death was near as his own skin. He collected every slight rustle of air, forming a picture in his mind of how he would approach the situation if the roles were reversed. With a probable, but not a visual kill against a trained, wounded sniper, he would probably flank in a wide circle looking for any evidence of an escape. He estimated it would take about a hour to move the jeep to a place out of sight and start working his way around and up the hillside behind the notch, scanning with the scope the whole way. Boone’s position wasn’t visible except from straight up the hillside so that was in his favor.
A lizard skittered from a crack in the rock and stared at him at eye level. The lizard lifted one front leg and the opposite back leg periodically to prevent overheating on the skillet slab where Boone lay. Something floated up in Boone’s mind as he watched the lizard. The vision of the dead coyote stuffed into the ranch toilet roiled up and began to merge with the lizard forming a flick-tongued desert dybbuk that stared at him across the rock. He decided it was a friendly. Any advice for me, pal? The lizard with the coyote face said nothing and eventually disappeared in the small, barren world of rock, sand and heat that now made up his whole existence.
Focus. Just focus. The heat and the leg that had started to throb again robbed him of the thoughts he knew were there, just over the rim of awareness, the thoughts that might save him.
Then a small rock slide tumbled down the hillside sixty feet to his left.
He raised the Ruger and aimed at a spot to the left of a low rock where he guessed Steve would appear. There would be no visible evidence that Boone had escaped the notch so Steve was apparently feeling confident enough of his kill to move somewhat carelessly now.
Boone’s mouth felt like charcoal and his tongue had started to swell from the dehydration. He held the Ruger with both hands steadying it on the rock. Then another small rockslide. A minute later Steve emerged wearing desert camo, carrying his rifle in his left hand, working his way slowly down a shallow gully.
Boone waited while every muscle fiber and nerve raged. Steve, fifty feet from him and slightly below, stopped. He cocked his head at a slight angle, turned and looked in Boone’s direction.
Boone squeezed the trigger with infinite slowness and fired between the heartbeats that still pounded in his ears.
One hundred poems
one sings loudest, soaring
high–like a child in church
Boone’s watched the red Jeep drive slowly to the margin of the playa where the sage grew in dry clumps against the low hillside. The Jeep stopped below him about quarter mile away. He watched Steve get out on the far side of the vehicle. Boone ducked down behind the duffle. He knew Steve would search for him with a spotting scope. It wouldn’t take him long to spot his trail leading to the rock notch and set up for a long range shot. The air was calm and warm. It was a relatively easy shot. They had often hit targets a half a mile away and once they killed an Taliban leader while he sat low against a wall drinking tea at slightly under a mile. A shot like that was a work of art. There was three feet of arc at that distance, plus the wind correction, and the target needed to be still for 3-4 seconds. This shot was like a day at the office.
There was only one way he could think of to get out of this cluster fuck and the chances of pulling it off weren’t great. Boone unzipped his duffle and looked frantically for a bottle of Gatorade he had picked up at a 7-11 in Elko, hoping he hadn’t left it in the truck. There it was. Unopened. Red Gatorade too. A tiny bit of fool’s luck, he thought. He opened it, took one long drink and placed the bottle in the center inside the duffle, cap off, and packed his clothes around it. Then he reached over and quickly brushed some of the sand off the outside of the duffle to make it a bit more visible. He turned and crawled back from the entrance of the rock notch looking for a back door from the death hole. The only exit was over a car sized boulder. At least it was out of direct sight of the Jeep. Boone’s vision narrowed to a tunnel and his ears buzzed as he struggled to hoist himself up and over the boulder to a slabby shelf above and behind the notch.
He lay down–heart pounding almost outside his chest. He steadied his breathing and pulled himself on his elbows, Ruger in his right hand, to where he could peer around the edge of the boulder.
He saw the muzzle flash from beneath the Jeep at almost the same time his duffle and the rock below him exploded in a shower of rock chips, dust and Gatorade. Two seconds later a second round ricocheted around the small stone canyon beneath him looking for flesh to tear into. Steve had put that round high into the side wall of the notch looking for the ricochet. The charry acrid smell of shattered rock floated up into Boone’s nostrils.
Nice shooting, asshole. It’s still your move, but I just got my queen back.
For many years, when the “November in the soul” became too heavy to bear during the often wet Oregon spring, I drove east of the mountains to find sunshine. It was a reliable way to jump ahead a few weeks, hike velvety hillsides before they turned brown, and soak up some of what I knew was headed our way. Now I look on my iPhone weather app to find rain and thunderstorms in Hood River, the Dalles, and farther — as far east as I can drive in a day. I drove last weekend to Maryhill– a normally dry oasis in the Columbia gorge– and ended up scurrying back a few hours like a drowned rat in a drenching thunderstorm.
Some say this extra wet weather is due to La Nina in the Pacific. Perhaps.
The best explanation I’ve heard about the effects of climate change was this: “look, if you raise the average global temperature you are putting a whole lot more energy into the jet stream. The job of the jet stream is to dissipate energy and all that new energy has to go somewhere.”
May God comfort the people who lost family in the Joplin storm. I have no burden compared to theirs. I will find my spring solace in a glass of single malt scotch, a good book and in looking for a new motorcycle. Maybe it can take me someplace where the spring looks like it used to.
"La poesia non finira col mundo," (Poetry will not end with the world)
Boone’s ears started to buzz. His kneecaps started an odd twitching as they sometimes had in combat when a situation started to spin out of control. His body was realizing his situation just went over a cliff before his brain got the message.
Still there buddy boy?
Steve, what the fuck?
Sucks to be on the other end doesn’t it?
Steve, I don’t get it, said Boone, still playing for time and trying to find some mental landscape that could accommodate him being hunted by the one guy he thought he knew better than anyone else, someone who had saved his life.
It ain’t personal, dude. Let’s just call it business and leave it at that. Now I clock you at a slow walk for maybe three or four hours since you left your vehicle. You left a nice trail of blood for me to follow and your shaky voice tells me you haven’t found treatment. That about size it up?
Yeah, so now what.
I’ll come finish it. Like we used to say, don’t run, you’ll just die tired, right? See you, dude.
Steve flipped the cell phone shut, then opened it and tried calling 911. He had between one and no bars of service and the signal had just dropped out completely. He turned it off to save battery. His best chance at getting help was to find a place with a stronger signal, but then he remembered where he was. Any sort of help was probably six or eight hours away.
He knew he was a better sniper than Steve. The Army had sorted that out. Spotters had the same skills though, just not as consistent. And Steve had the long range rifle. The Ruger was accurate to at best 30 yards.
Any time he spent now figuring out why Steve wanted him dead was less time he could devote to staying alive. If Steve was tracking his trail he would come from the west and have to cover the ground in the open, probably in a vehicle moving slowly if the trail was that obvious. That meant he had minutes, maybe a half an hour at best.
Boone looked up the hill and saw a notch between two boulders that was in full shadow with a good view of the playa and large enough to fit into. It took him ten minutes to crawl up the hill and maneuver into it. His leg had stopped bleeding but would no longer support him. The notch was low, on sandy soil and just big enough for him. He put the duffle across the entrance and scooped dirt against the outer side as camouflage. He set the Ruger on top of the duffle. He had one clip. Ten rounds. He wished he had a banana clip or two but it probably wouldn’t make much difference. If Steve had a snipers rifle the game was nearly over anyway.
He took a few swallows of the warm water in his bottle and squinted across the desert now heating up fast and beginning to shimmer. There, dissolving and then reappearing and dissolving again in the heat waves and slowly getting larger was some sort of vehicle. Shimmer. Smudge. Shimmer. Bigger smudge. Red. It was the red Jeep his friend Steve had bought when he got back from Afghanistan.
Fuck. Here we go.
I had a sister lovely in my sight:
Her hair was dark; her eyes were very sombre;
We sang together in the woods at night.
It’s lonely in the country I remember.
What Bob Dylan and Aaron Copeland know:
“The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral and originality as an ideal emerged in Europe only in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic movement, while in the previous centuries authors and artists were encouraged to “copy the masters as closely as possible” and avoid “unnecessary invention.”
writing for hours and hours
hmm, instant success.
a violinist wonders–
twenty years gone by
From the deep pool behind Bonneville dam
Where the vestigal sturgeon
Throng in a writhing mass
Comes a radio frequency that wakes
The slumping mental patients
As they circle my neighborhood block smoking,
Followed by their handlers.
One patient rants about the signal from the fish but he they humor him until he takes his nightly pills and the shift changes and the handlers go home.
Inside the river is where the message is strongest and strangest.
Onshore you have to be as wild as a feral cat to hear it.
I heard it once in a river canyon when my boat flipped and I nearly drowned in a foam sea of bright water, but i didn’t believe it.
I do now.
The playa quickly gave up it’s heat to the aching night and Boone pushed the pace to keep from shivering. There was enough starlight to make out a low line of hills against the rim of the blue black bowl of desert sky. His leg hurt badly and it was getting harder to walk on. He heard someone walking behind him. He whirled but there was nothing but the ashen playa for miles around. Sometimes he heard familiar voices. He saw his old unit, Gil, Freak Martin, Kevin, Sullivan. Their dead walked with them too. Davis. Killed by a an RPG while he was taking a shit twenty feet from the Hummer. Martinez. Dead from a tiny shrapnel wound to the brain a day later. Weapons, gear clinking, trash talking, then nothing. Several times he stooped to check his wound but lowering his head almost made him fall over. Once he thought he heard the Jeep again. Far enough back to keep him in sight and in maybe in range.
Finally the playa became threaded with greasewood bushes and rock outcroppings. He found one big enough to shelter him from the rising night breeze and sat down to wait for daylight. Maybe at the top of the hill in the morning he could get a cell phone signal. He got the Ruger and a water bottle out of the duffle and eased his back down against a rock. The bleeding appeared to have stopped but he still felt dizzy when he leaned over and his thirst was fierce. The pain would keep him awake until morning, he thought.
He woke up a few hours later. He had been dreaming of Rachel, his wife and their five year old son Mica. Rachel was trying to tell him something but he could not understand her. They were in their back yard in Reno. It was before things got bad. Before he got so far out on point that he couldn’t come all the way back. It was just them and Mica and the tiny house with the peeling paint and the lawn that wouldn’t grow grass. Mica was trying to do headstands in the yard.
Something was vibrating. It was the cell phone in his jacket. He fumbled for it and opened it. Anonymous caller.
Dude. What happened to your truck?
What? Who the fuck is this?
Oh you know who it is dude. Who else could hit a truck tire going fifty at range, miss you by a gnats ass, and then hit the other tire while you were wobbling all over the desert like a fucking haji with a laser sight up his ass?
No getting cancer, OK Dad?
Boone started to feel a buzzing in his ears. He looked at his left pant leg with the flashlight and saw it was soaked in back and sticky with blood. He went back to his truck, leaned against the cab and pulled down his jeans. He had what looked like a flesh wound his upper thigh. Not spurting but bad enough. At least the bullet missed his femoral artery. The buzzing in his ears increased. He sat on the ground, took off his shirt and tied it tight around his leg. He folded his right foot under the leg to apply pressure and turned off the flashlight.
It would totally suck to survive two tours in Afghanistan and then die in the middle of nowhere in southeastern Oregon, he thought. Then he realized it didn’t matter where he was. Life wasn’t fair. Suddenly he had an enemy. Right here. Right now It didn’t matter who. He was back in the shit. Survive now. Figure out why later.
Then he started to get angry. OK, asshole. Whoever you are, round one goes to you. The adrenaline rush was starting to wear off and his leg began to hurt. He got up to see if he could walk on it. It was stiff but would support him. He grabbed his duffle from the truck which had some clothes, food and a bottle of water, put the Ruger in it, and looked at the sky to get his bearings. He needed to to get off this fucking target range before daylight. He started limping towards the low range of hills to the east, figuring it would take him several hours to get there if he could control the bleeding.
The truck was bouncing so hard Boone kept hitting his head on the dashboard as he tried to stay below the level of the windows. He didn’t hear the other front tire blow but he felt the front of the truck drop and he could smell the rubber tires heating up as they ground against the wheel rims.
If the shooter was in a vehicle he would have no trouble overtaking the truck. Boone started to swerve the truck but realized that a shooter this good would just laugh at that. He remembered the long nights in a snipers hole in Afghanistan with Steve, his spotter. They used to joke about telling targets not to run away because they would just die tired.
The spotting flare drifted slowly down over the playa casting a pale silver orange light beneath it. It would last another minute or so, Boone thought as he tried to push harder in the accelerator while holding the lurching steering wheel. Why doesn’t he just get it over with, he wondered. I don’t know who you are or what you want but you are holding all the cards. He shifted his truck into neutral and let it coast. What the fuck. Let’s see what you’ve got. As the truck rolled to a near stop he kicked open the passenger side door and threw himself out firing his Ruger twice in the direction he thought the shots came from while he rolled under the truck.
The flare drifted down and fizzled out. He waited for his pulse pounding in his ears to quiet down. Forcing his breathing to slow, he waited fifteen minutes until his eyes fully adjusted to the darkness. He heard what sounded like a jeep in the distance start up and then then fainter as it drove south towards the highway. Ten minutes later he eased out from under the truck and walked thirty feet away to empty his bladder that he had been holding for what now seemed like forever. Standing there, wondering what to do next, he turned and walked back towards the truck. The stars overhead were mute in their nights journey.
Who the fuck was putting this much effort into trying to kill an ex Army Ranger on his way to check into a VA hospital to get help for the post traumatic stress that had turned him into even more of an anti-social loner than he was before he volunteered to go to Afghanistan? Then he felt the warm trickle down the back of his left leg and smelled the familiar coppery scent of blood. He’d been hit.