Sarah woke in the morning with a fuzzy feeling like there was something she needed to remember. Something about Ma .... Was she really keeping guard out side my door? She got out of bed and walked over to the door, opened it slightly and looked out into the corridor. It was empty. No sign of anyone out there - or having been there. Except ... there was a fresh scrape on the wall opposite her door. Where something fell against it. Like a rifle, perhaps.
She remembered. And she remembered the dream that came after.
She got dressed and headed for the front counter, picked up the key to her 'new' jeep, and walked out the front door to see where it was parked. Right in front. A freshly painted Willys. She jumped in, put in the key, hit the starter and drove across the dusty parking lot to the Diner.
There were a couple of semis parked near the road and a nondescript sedan parked in front of the double doors, but other than that, 5 o'clock in the morning didn't seem to generate a lot of traffic that found its way to the Diner.
She walked in and looked around. A couple of truckers sat at the counter, head down and eating like there was no tomorrow. A sleepy looking waitress sat on a stool at the far end of the counter. She waved to her in a motion that said she could sit wherever she wanted.
In a booth in the far corner sat Jake Bertrett.
She walked back to his booth and sat down across from him.
"Hi, Jake. You're up early."
"Yeah, well, I didn't get much sleep last night. That your jeep I saw you pull up front in?"
"Yeah. Jose from the gas station across the highway had it. I was afraid someone might recognize my car so Ma traded my car for the jeep."
"I never would have recognized that jeep as the one Jose had. Who did the paint job?"
"I don't know - some cousin, I guess."
"Nice job. That tan color is good for the desert."
"So. Are you having breakfast?"
"No. I was waiting for you."
"How'd you know I'd come in here?"
"I figured you'd come in here for coffee."
"Okay. So why are you waiting for me?"
"I need to tell you not to go to the shop this morning. There was trouble last night and I have to figure out what to do next."
"Somebody's is trying to kill you. Or they tried already."
"How the fuck did you know that?"
"I had a dream last night. It was weird. The Kid was trying to warn me your life was in danger."
"Shit. I wish he would have warned ME!"
"So what happened?"
"I've got a small group of troublemakers in 'The Sons' and last night things kind of came to a head. One of 'em tried to shoot me, but he loaded his weapon with those blanks I made for Giamatti. I threw the stupid fucker out but these guys won't give up now that they've made a move. I got a guy I know from the Reservation, Billy Two Feathers, who'll run the place for me, but I'm gonna hafta stay out of sight for a while."
"Where are you gonna stay?"
"Out at that line shack at the base of the ridge."
"What about me? We have a lot of stuff to do yet."
"No problem. I've got a good store of supplies out there, the Sons don't know about that place, and you have a jeep now so it will be easy for you to get back and forth. We can set up a range and we can do the rest of the work out there just as easily as we can at the shop. I have your weapons packed in my car and there's enough ammo to last for a while. I can have Two Feathers make more loads as we go along."
The waitress walked up to their booth, order pad and pen in hand. She looked down at Sarah.
"What'll ya have, Honey?"
"I guess I'm going to need breakfast - and a Danish won't do. Does that cook do a good Denver Omlette?"
"Yeah, he does okay, I guess. What about you, Jake?"
"Yeah. I guess I better eat, too. Nuthin' like some good chow to make a guy feel like he can take on the world."
"Oh, yeah? Come by after I get off - I'll bet I can think of sumthin'."
Sarah shot the waitress a dirty look. She didn't notice.
"I'll have the Shit on a Shingle and a cup of coffee."
The waitress wrote their orders as she walked away from the booth. Sarah thought there seemed to be an extra bit of sway in her hips.
She turned to Jake.
"What're you having?"
"Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast. The Marine Corps favorite breakfast food. I can never get enough o' that stuff."
"I've never heard it called that before. My Mom used to make that when I was a kid."
"Well, that's what we called it in The Crotch - uh, I'm sorry, The Corps."
The waitress came back with Jake's coffee.
"What'll ya have ta drink, Honey?"
"I'll have coffee, thanks."
Jake looked up from his coffee.
"Do you like milk?"
"Yeah, I do. Why?"
He looked at the waitress.
"Bring her a large milk and an orange juice, too."
The waitress turned and walked away again.
"What was that about, Jake?"
"When the coffee comes just don't drink it. From now on you don't drink coffee, or dark sodas and no alcohol. All those things are natural diuretics and that makes you pee - and they'll dehydrate you. The caffeine in the dark sodas and coffee will wreck your nerves. And no chocolate. There are stimulants in chocolate that will do the same thing."
"You're drinking coffee."
"Yeah, but I'm not learning to be a sniper."
"I still don't understand why I can't have coffee - and NO CHOCOLATE? C'mon, Jake!"
"Hold your hand out, palm down, fingers spread."
Sarah held her hand out, as instructed.
"Hold it still."
Sarah tried, but try as she might, she didn't seem to be able to quiet the little twinges and movements in her fingers.
"In a week or two, your hand will be as steady as a rock."
The waitress returned with a tray, and on the tray were the coffee, milk and orange juice and a heavy ceramic bowl. She placed them all on the table in front of Sarah.
"Here ya go, Honey. Sugar's in the bowl. I'll be right back with your order."
She turned and walked away.
"So why didn't you just tell her to not bring me coffee?"
"Training. Never do anything, ANYTHING, to create suspicion or draw attention to yourself in the mind of others. There was no good reason for you to change your mind about coffee. So you didn't. When she comes to clean up this table, all she will see is that you didn't drink your coffee. No big deal. Because we didn't make a big deal about it. Get it?"
"Yeah, Jake. I think so. Even simple things matter. Blend in. Don't make unexpected moves. That kind of thing?"
"Yeah. You got it. Don't give 'em a reason to remember you were there."
They got up from their booth and headed for the register.
"I'll say one thing, Jake. The food around here is as good as any I've ever had."
"Yeah, Donnie trained up his day cook real good. We never had chow like this in the Corps. He makes S.O.S. better than anybody."
"S.O.S.? Oh, nevermind. I get it."
Jake paid the bill and they walked out the door.
"That Jeep looks real nice. It never looked that good when Manuel had it. I see he threw in a couple of five gallon cans, too. We can hang those on the side of the jeep - we'll fill one with water and one with gas. In fact, fill the red one with gas, okay?"
Jake started to move toward his car.
"Sure, Jake. How do I get there from here? Do I just go across country?"
"Actually, you'll probably get there before I do. I have to go up the road here about 7 miles or so before I can catch the gravel road that runs past that line shack. You, on the other hand, have a four wheel drive. You remember the bridge over the dry wash about a half mile South of here?"
While they talked, Jake got two big duffel bags out of his car and put them carefully in the back of the Jeep.
"I remember the bridge. I thought it was a waste of time. They should have just filled that gully in, instead of building a bridge."
"Believe me, Sister, you don't want to be anywhere near that gully when it rains up on that ridge. Certainly not in it. Anyway - just before you get to that bridge there's a track that leads off to the right and down into the gully. It's pretty wide down here so you don't really see how deep it is, but you can drive up that gully almost all the way to the ridge and no one would even know you were there. You just got to drive slow enough not to kick up too much dust. There's a track up outta there that goes to your left just past the spot where there's three big boulders, all in a row, on the top of the gully to your right. You should see the line shack as you come up out of the gully. You got all that?"
"Yeah, I think so. Down the road almost to the bridge, follow the track on the right down into the gully, follow the gully until I see three boulders sitting at the top of the gully, on the right, then follow the track up to the left and out of the gully. When I get that far I should be able to see the shack."
"Good. Now go buy your gas and fill up with water. There isn't any other water out there, so any time you're here, and headed out there, fill the five gallon with water. I'll meetcha out there. And watch how you drive. You don't want to bounce those bags out of the vehicle."
"Why, what's in 'em, Jake?"
"Guns and ammo, baby. Just be careful."
Jake got in his car and pulled out onto the highway headed North, away from the gunshop and toward the gravel track. She watched him go until his car was just a shimmer on the road.
She got her gas, got her water, strapped the cans down and headed for the cutoff just this side of the bridge. She almost missed it; it really wasn't more than a couple of shallow ruts that lead away from the highway. But she found it and felt pretty good about herself for doing so.
She drove down into the gully and headed 'upstream', toward the ridge and the lineshack, and whatever it was that was waiting for her in that direction.
He called me 'Baby'. Now what do you suppose he meant by that?
"Go, go, go!" yelled Skinny, as he jumped into the car. "Let's get outta here!"
He slammed the door closed. The car accelerated onto the highway.
"What's the matter Skinny?" It was Stafford. He was driving the car. It was he who had sent Skinny in to take care of Bertrett.
"We heard the shot. What's the matter?"
"I didn't get him."
"Waddya mean you didn't get him? How could you fucking MISS? Skinny, you fuck ... if you chickened out ..."
"No. No. Didn't chicken out. Blanks. No bullets. Blanks. The box had blanks. No hole. No hole in the floor. Blanks."
"SKINNY!! Calm down. Take a breath and calm down. Now what the fuck are you talking about?"
"I told him ... to turn around ... he wouldn't do it ... thought I wouldn't shoot ... I put a round into the floor ... show him I'm serious ... only ..."
"Only WHAT, Skinny?"
"Only there was no hole. In the floor. The bullets were blanks. He took my gun. Took my gun and the next thing, I'm staring at his .45 and he don't look none to happy with me, I'll tell ya, and he GIVES ME THE GUN BACK and then he tells me ta run before he puts a hole in me and I better get new bullets before I try ta shoot somebody else and I come here and now we gotta get outta here because Jake knows. He KNOWS!!"
"That's not good. Now we're gonna hafta find a way ta kill 'im. And he knows we're gonna be gunnin' fer 'im. He's gonna go to ground somewheres. We gotta figure out where. Who know where he lives?"
One of the three men in the back seat spoke up.
"I do. He got a trailer about a quarter mile off this road to the left. 'Bout a mile or so up. Ya can't miss the turnoff - there's a mailbox there with a bullseye painted on the side."
"I know the one. Shit. Bullseye, huh? Well, that's downright prophetic."
The car came to a stop across the road from the mailbox.
Stafford turned to the three men in the back seat.
"You guys get your weapons out of the trunk. And some of the TNT. I want to you take up positions outside that trailer. If he comes back tonight, kill him. If he doesn't come back by morning, I want one of you to go through that trailer and look for anything you can find that might tell us where he would hole up. In either case, I want you to blow that trailer to kingdom come. With or without his body in it. I'll be back here at 0700 to pick you guys up. Any questions?"
There were no questions and the three of them got out of the car, opened the trunk, took out their weapons and the TNT.
"Don't forget to take some canteens. It's gonna be a long night."
The three of them crossed the road and disappeared into the deep desert night.
"I'm sorry, Staff."
"Don't worry 'bout it Skinny. When ya stop and think about it, it's really not a bad idea to have to hunt somebody down out here. It'll be good training for the men. I kinda hope he don't come home. If he goes to ground out here then we have to find him. And that'll be a good thing. It's just too bad it has to be Jake. He's a good man. But more than that, he's a very dangerous man. This won't be easy."
"No, it won't."
The car eased onto the road again and started down the highway.
"Now tell me about blanks, Skinny. How the hell did that happen?"
"Well, I had my gun. Empty, like always. Everybody was outside and I looked for some bullets. There was a box on the shelf. I opened the box and loaded my gun and then I stood behind the door waitin' for Jake. They jus' looked like reg'lar bullets. How was I s'posed ta know?"
"You're right Skinny. You had no way to know. I'm glad, really. Because if I thought for one minute, that you chickened out .. that you turned tail and ran like a gutless COWARD ... well you didn't, that's the important thing. Right, Skinny?"
"Yah, Staff. Right."
And it began to dawn on Skinny, in the deep dark recesses of his rather dim mind, that there might be a threat there, in those words, somewhere.
That he had dodged a bullet. This time.