Rain pelted my thin tee shirt. It chilled me through in five heartbeats. No sense in trying the fancy Leica field glasses. Water dripped from my eyes and obscured the lenses. The storm surprised me. Nothing to do except hunker down and pull my hat over my ears.
I could make out my rancho without binoculars. The arroyo behind the barn roared with runoff. Twenty-six acres looked small from here, marked off by the barbed wire and coyote fences that crisscrossed the property. Someone ran from the casita to the main house with an umbrella.
The rain stopped after fifteen minutes. I took off my tee shirt, wrung it out, worked my arm and shoulder muscles, and put it back on. The dampness would feel good once the sun came out.
Movement to the west made m3333e look up. Too awkward for a coyote or stray dog. I wiped the lenses and adjusted them to the new distance. I focused on a shadowy figure in a poncho. Short and skinny, he looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. I stretched out on the level rock I’d selected for an observation post and hoped no rattlers wanted to come out and take the sun.
The man carried a battered leather satchel over his shoulder and what looked like a scoped .223 rifle in his right hand. A bush hat shaded his eyes, and a pair of binoculars hung around his neck. He placed his paraphernalia on a rock and stripped off his rain gear. He spread the poncho on a flat shelf and disappeared. What the fuck? I stared through my Leica’s for a full five minutes before I picked up an outline. His clothes made him blend into the landscape. The storm had caused him to move, otherwise, I wouldn’t have spotted him. Once detected, his image became sharper. He’d assumed the position, flat on his belly, propped on his elbows, field glasses trained on the main house.
I checked the load in my Glock, shoved it into my shoulder holster and crab-walked to a boulder twenty feet back from my position and out of his line of sight. Once I felt safe, I stood and stretched. Way too old for this kind of shit. I peeked over the rock, shaded the binoculars with my hat, and checked to make sure my man hadn’t moved. I wouldn’t feel so alone if Mike, my old collie, were with me. Bile rose in my throat when I thought of the moron who ran him down.
The familiar terrain belonged to me. I worked my way several hundred yards downwind and around the backside of the slope until I judged I stood behind his position. My running shoes may not have been official western wear, but they didn’t make noise on the rough surface. If he spotted me from a distance, the rifle would give him a huge advantage, but close quarters would give the edge to my pistol and knife. I patted the handle of the worn Ka Bar blade strapped on my thigh. Five inches of hell—that’s what my old platoon sergeant called it.
Sweat poured from my hat band and ran into my eyes. The hill hadn’t looked this steep from a distance. A rock gave way and started a small slide, but the wind muted the sound. The breeze helped cool me while my shirt dried on my back—good thing, because the backside of the incline lay exposed to the sun’s full blast. Hell’s furnace. I slipped and banged my knee on a small, sharp stone, and blood seeped through the tear in my Levi’s. Goddamn it.
The only other time I’d stalked a man, I’d had my rifle squad around me. Flying solo this time. What if he sees me coming? What if he’s better?
When I reached the top of the rise, I took off my hat, wiped my face with the old red bandana I carried, and peered over the precipice. The sun glared off the sand-colored rocks and into my face. It made me dizzy, and I had to squint to see anything. The watcher’s chosen spot lay no more than fifty yards down and away from where I stood. The hair on the nape of my neck rose when I realized my visitor had vamoosed.
I scrunched down beside the rock barrier and curled into a ball. If he knew I’d spotted him, he could perch anywhere and take me out at his pleasure. The fetal position offered some comfort. At least I’d die the same way I’d been born.
I don’t know how long I stayed like that. My back, arms and legs cramped in agony. Parboiled in my own perspiration, salt stung my eyes. I remembered George C. Scott in Patton. He told somebody that he dreamt about a bullet hitting him in the middle of his forehead. I squirmed around and hoped I could see it before it found me.
After an hour, or a day, I don’t know which, I heard a car door slam in the opposite direction of the house. A pickup truck engine rumbled. Whoever had been here had pulled up stakes, or so I told myself. I stood and yanked the small plastic bottle from the pouch on my belt, sipped the tepid liquid, and longed for an ice-cold beer.
I stumbled from the lee of the rocks and moved in a crouch toward the area where I’d seen the watcher. The sunburn on the back of my neck and hands tingled, and my jeans itched like third-degree mange. Had a tarantula crawled up my pant leg? I jumped up and down and jiggled, but nothing came out. Nerves.
Cigarette butts lay scattered across the ground, and a crumpled plastic water bottle had lodged in a fault in the rocks.
Maybe the trash could tell me something. I’d always known that somebody would come looking. Cops would have walked into my house and busted me, so it had to be someone else.
I scanned the area one more time for anything that might provide clues. A white flash in the sand at the end of the small arroyo got my attention. The envelope could have fallen from his haversack. My sweat turned cold when I pulled out the black and white photograph of Darlene and me, taken from a distance. My arm hung over her shoulder and we laughed at something. A familiar buzz roused me, chips flew from the rock above my head, and I hit the ground hard.
Once you’ve been under fire and know the sound, you don’t forget it. Someone had just thrown a round my way. The rifle’s crack followed a millisecond later. A thousand-yard shot based on the time lapse. A warning? A poacher who mistook me for a big cat? Then I heard the same truck engine start and grind away somewhere to the east. I felt the small trickle of blood from a stone cut on my cheek. He’d gone, but left his calling card.