"Fitness course, eh? Just what makes you think I'm not fit now?"
"Do you remember what I said about doing what I said without question? Apparently not. Since you're still a civilian, I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt. This one time and one time only I am going to SHOW you what I mean. Take this M1 Garand rifle and hold it straight out in front of you, shoulder high."
"This is heavy!!"
"Just hold it out there. Just like that, good girl. Now keep it out there. If you're in shape, you'll be able to keep it up for, oh, let's say 10 minutes. That seem right to you?"
"Sure, Jake. Whatever you say. How long can you hold this?"
"Last time I had to do that I stopped at eight hours. Because my Drill Sergeant fell asleep."
"Jake, this thing is heavy ... really heavy ... "
"It's a little over 13 pounds. Not quite as heavy as a bowling ball. Keep it up .. keep it up."
"I can't. Ouch, my shoulders hurt now."
"Yeah, that's usually what happens when you're out of shape. A minute and a half. Not bad for a broad. I figured you for about 30 seconds."
"Jake, I used to load up carts full of money and push and pull those carts all over the casino. It was hard and heavy work. I'm not as out of shape as you seem to think."
"Granted. I'll give you that, sister .... Sarah, but when I'm done with you you'll be able to hold that gun out there indefinitely. INDEFINITELY. Now let's get to work. First we'll learn the BSR. Open the case..."
By 8:30 or so, Sarah had learned how to field strip the BSR and assemble it in less than a minute. Her last run was 45 seconds.
"That's good, Sarah, that's real good. Now lay down on the floor and do it."
And Sarah got down on the floor and, after a few awkward and unsuccessful attempts at reassembly, Jake got down on the floor and showed her how.
"There. That's how you do it."
"You didn't tell me I could roll onto my back."
"I shouldn't have to. You have to be able to think your way through problems. You have to be creative. You have to think outside of the box. Nothing you're doing here is anything you've ever prepared for. Nothing you're going to be doing going forward is anything you've ever prepared for. Get used to it. Or you're gonna get dead in a hurry. Okay, let's put this shit up and get back upstairs. It's getting close to time to open the store."
Jake pulled the rug over the trap door in the floor. He kept thinking about Sarah. About how she was stronger than he thought. About how she learned to field strip the BSR so quickly. About how she held that M1 out for a minute and a half. 30 seconds longer than when he did it the first time, back when he was a raw recruit in boot camp. Back before the war. Just before Hitler marched into Poland in the Fall of 1939. He was 21 and broke. He saw a war coming and figured he'd go in now and be ready when the war came. He joined the Marines because he had heard the Marines were tough and he wanted tough. Jake Bertrett had never run from a fight, but if he was going to get into what was coming, he wanted tough people around him. Because that's just the way he went. Tough.
"You can't be in the store while it's open. I never know when those guys are gonna show up here and I can't take a chance on someone recognizing you or taking stories back to Sully. So you'll do your gun work downstairs until we start doing range work out back here, but in any instance, come 9 o'clock in the mornin', you're gone somewhere else. Clear?"
"We'll be doin' some night work out here, too, but that won't be for a while yet. Now. This next exercise is going to be the start of your physical training. You will be working on wind and stamina and recognizing hazards in your environment."
"Just how am I going to do that?"
"C'mon out back."
They went out the rear door of the store. There was a small range shack there with four firing positions and several targets visible in the distance.
"You see the cut in that ridgeline there?"
"There's a gully that comes all the way down the slope of that ridge to the basin floor. There's an old trail that runs parallel to the ridge and an old line shack on that trail just off to one side of the gully. There's a single bullet sitting on the table in that line shack. Bring it here. The shack is exactly eight miles from here. A two hour walk. I expect you back at 12:45. That's 15 minutes shy of 4 hours. Which means you're gonna hafta hustle. Oh. And watch out for the cactus, snakes and scorpions. There's a lot of stuff out there that can hurt you if you're not careful and not aware of where you're stepping. Here's a utility belt and a canteen. That canteen is the only water you're going to have - there isn't any between here and there. Ready?"
"I guess ... yes .. Yes, I am ready."
"Go. And don't dawdle."
He watched as Sarah headed out for the line shack. She looks good in those jeans. I kinda like the way that canteen bounces on her hip. Nice hip. Nice lookin' woman all over. But you better forget that, Jake. Just forget it. It ain't gonna do you no good to go droolin' over no split. You can't do nuthin' anyway.
"Damn, girl, what did he do to you?"
"It's okay, Ma. I did this to myself. Went for a hike across the desert and it was a little tougher than I thought it would be."
"A little tougher? Damn, girl, you look like you've been in a cat fight. And lost."
"Yeah, well, I fell a few times and tore a few things. Sorry about the jeans and the shirt, Ma."
"Oh don't worry about the clothes. I can mend those. What about you? Are you O.K.?"
"A few scratches and some bruises, I guess. Nothing to worry about, really, though I think I'm gonna be pretty sore in the morning."
"Did Jake have anything to do with this?"
"Yeah, he did. But that's between him and me. He's just doin' what I asked him to do."
"Okay. As long as you know what you're doin'. Go on to your room and get out of those clothes. You take a shower and I'll take care of those things - get 'em sewed up and stuff. You sure you don't need no sewin' on yerself? I can do it, ya know?"
"Oh, I'm sure you could, Ma. But I'm fine. They're just scratches. But I'll tell you what. There is one thing you can help me with, maybe. You got any ideas what I can do with that car? I need to be rid of it, I think. There are people that know that car - people I would rather not see right now, if you know what I mean."
"Sure, honey. You got anything in that car you need?"
"No. Not anymore."
"Good. You give me the keys and you go take your shower. When you get done, if I'm not around, just watch the front desk 'til I get back. If anybody comes in, just tell 'em the desk clerk will be back shortly. 'Kay?"
"Sure, Ma. But what ..."
But Ma was already out the door.
Sarah stood in the middle of the room, naked, and looked at herself in the full length mirror on the outside of the bathroom door. She turned profile. Flat tummy. Boobs aren't too bad, but they gave up perky after Jerry was born. No bad stretchmarks on her tummy or hips or butt. That bruise coming up on her hip is gonna be sore. The scratches on the outside of her thigh where that cactus got her won't be too bad once she gets some Mercurochrome on 'em. All in all, not too bad. But already she was starting to stiffen up. That was a hard trek across the desert. She didn't see any snakes or scorpions, but she kept catching furtive movement out of the corner of her eye and when she'd turn to look, whatever it had been would be gone. She had to be quicker. She knew that. She knew she would be.
She had made it to the line shack and back with a minute and a half to spare. The look on Jake's face made the whole thing worth it. She had had to run for the last half mile. She had run out of water and she was near exhaustion, but she was determined to make it under his time allotment. And she did. And he clearly didn't expect that. And that was good. She knew she needed to earn his respect as quickly as possible if all of this was going to work. She knew she needed to establish, in his mind, that she was capable and determined, even if in her own mind she had her own and serious doubts about her ability to absorb what was necessary in what needed to be a short amount of time. She had money, but not unlimited resources. And she had a son she needed to care for and Mom was getting a little forgetful now and again and she really didn't want to impose on Janet any longer or more than was necessary. She could not afford a leisurely pace. She could not afford to allow Jake to become dismissive or lazy in his training of her. Push. She had to push. And push she will.
She froze. Every muscle in her body tensed and she couldn't breathe.
"Sarah. It's Ma."
She let out her breathe, grabbed a towel and wrapped it around her and opened the door enough to make sure it was Ma and then let her in the room.
"What's the matter, girl? You're white as a ghost!!"
"You startled me, that's all."
"Look, I know I'm not supposed to ask no questions and if you don't want to tell me, that's fine, but it might just turn out to be helpful if I knew who it was you didn't want to see."
"I guess you're right ... you know a guy named Sully?"
"Big burly fucker with a busted nose?"
"Yeah, that's him."
"I'm the one that busted his nose!! I threw an ash tray at him and hit 'im in the puss. I told him if he came at me one more time for protection money I'd fill his ass with buckshot. He don't come here - nor do his people. But I'll tell you what. When Manuel, the handyman, comes tomorrow, I'll have him put a peephole in that door - and a heavy chain on the inside. I want you to feel safe here. Besides, we can't have you answerin' the door with that pasty white ass hanging out o' the back of that towel - cute as it is - no, that won't do, darlin', that won't do. At least, not until you know who's outside that door."
"Thanks, Ma. I'm sorry, I guess I kinda over-reacted."
"Don't worry 'bout it, Darlin'. Now gimme those ripped up jeans and that blouse so I can fix 'em up. Oh, and here. You find it parked out front."
She threw a set of keys on the bed.
"What is it?"
"Jose Mendoza used to be the mechanic across the road. He pumps gas now. He bought a surplus jeep a few years back he can't use no more. Seems he got himself a bad bottle of bootleg Tequila and went blind. I swapped him your car."
"I thought you said he was blind. How's he gonna use my car?"
"He won't. His sister, Maria, drives him where he needs to go. She hates that jeep. Your car is much more to her liking. She said so. Maria works here as the maid. And don't worry, the car will stay parked across the road so nobody will come here lookin' for you."
"Yeah, but still, if somebody recognizes the car, they may come snoopin' around."
"In two days, even your own mother wouldn't recognize that car. Have you seen the way the Mexicans around here decorate the shit they drive? Oh! Yeah, I almost forgot, Jose's cousin is gonna paint the jeep tonight. It looks a little gaudy right now."
"I don't know what to say, Ma."
"Don't say nuthin'. Just get your butt in the shower. When you get done, we can go over to the diner and get some supper. Donnie's got fried chicken on for special tonight. That shit's good. Ain't nobody does fried chicken like Donnie does. And he'll have homemade biscuits and corn on the cob and mashed 'taters. Damn woman. Hurry up!!"
"Okay, Ma. Okay."
Ma's fork clattered down on her empty plate.
"Damn that was good. Donnie sure does a good chicken, don't he? And that pie? I'll bet you never had nuthin' like that before!"
"No, you're right, Ma. That was the best apple pie I've ever had. And that cinnamon ice cream on top just was perfect, that's all. Perfect."
"Yeah, the Donnie's a good one alright. Learned to cook at some high class hotel down in Mexico City. What I don't understand is why he never learned to cook Mexican."
"Why would he?"
"The fucker's Mexican, ain't he?"
"Yeah, he is. I'll bet you never knew there were blonde haired, blue eyed Mexicans did ya?"
"No, Ma, I don't guess I ever did."
"Yeah, he's got hisself a long-ass, high falutin' name, too. Don Diego de Mendoza del Guadalupe. That's why I call him Donnie. If I had to say all that shit all the time, I'd hafta shoot him. I think that's why Maria just calls herself Maria Mendoza. She knows that high falutin' shit just pisses me off."
"Why would ..."
"Maria?? She's Donnie's daughter. I'm sorry .. I guess I'm just used to dealin' with people that know all this shit. Donnie is a 'criollo', that's Spanish blood but born in Mexico, and Donnie married a dark-skinned 'Indio' named Juanita who gave birth to our 'mestizo' friends Juan and Maria. Got all that?"
"Yeah, I think so. So, where's Juanita?"
"Juanita was takin' some food across the road to Juan, right after he went blind from that bad Tequila, and she got nailed by a semi running through at 70 miles an hour. Poor woman never knew what hit her."
"Ouch. Poor Donnie, losing his wife like that."
"Oh, Donnie took that in his stride, don't you worry. Those two hated each other. All they ever did was fight. Donnie doesn't know how to keep his dick in his pants. He is one horny bastard. I think the only reason he isn't chasin' after Maria is he knows I'll kill him if he does. He swears Maria isn't his, but I think he'd try even if he knew for sure that she was. It don't make me no mind nohow - she's his daughter, goddammit, and he's gonna respect that or he's gonna be wearin' a new hole in his fuckin' head."
"Damn, Ma. Take it easy."
"I'm sorry. I guess I get carried away, sometimes. Just makes me mad, is all. Donnie may be a real good cook, but it has nothing to do with the kind of man he is. Don't trust him, ya hear? Not at all."
"Okay, Ma, okay. No problem. Look, I'd better get to bed. I gotta be down at Jake's pretty early."
"Gimme the keys I gave you. He's gotta paint that Jeep tonight. I'll leave 'em up front, under the counter. You can get 'em in the morning."
"Okay, Ma. Good night."
Jake sat on a wooden milk crate in the moonlight, dragging on a Camel, watching the last of the Sons of Nevada drive off into the night, the cars leaving a heavy cloud of dust which the moon made look like a smothering pall. The air was still and electric with the tensions that had built up during the evening - his hands shook with suppressed emotion.
The meeting had not gone well. Some of the men wanted to move now. Some of them wanted to take over the state capitol building and make a statement NOW. Keeping that faction under control had been problematic for some time and they weren't getting any quieter in their demands. Jake thought sure things were going to come to blows, tonight, but at the last minute one of the men showed up drunk. He had a hooker with him and a couple of cases of Coors icing in the back of his pickup truck and suddenly everybody's interest took off in a new direction and, for the moment, the issue was forgotten. By them. Not by Jake. And he knew the whole thing was going to come back, again, at the next meeting.
"If there IS a next meeting", Jake muttered to himself. "Them fuckers are nuts."
Jake walked back into his store, closing the door just before the slow roll of dust could follow him in and coat everything with a thin film of yellow-brown grime. He hated the dust out here. It got into everything and he was constantly cleaning it up.
He heard a gun cock, behind him, near the door.
"How many times have I told you fuckers to keep your hands off the weapons in here?" He turned around to see Skinny Wilkins standing next to the door with a .38 Police Special pointed right at his chest.
"What the fuck, Skinny. What're you doin'?'
"Put yer hands up, Jake. Where I can see 'em. C'mon! Up! Up! I ain't foolin' here."
Jake raised his hands.
"I can see that, Skinny. What's this all about? You holdin' me up or somethin'?"
"No! No! Not that, Not that. Don't want no money. No. No money."
"Then what, Skinny? What do you want? And point that thing somewhere else, okay? The way your hand is shakin', you're gonna shoot somebody."
"Yeah, Jake. Gotta shoot. Gotta shoot YOU. We decided. Yeah. Decided. You gotta go, Jake. Takin' too long, Jake. Been talkin' 'bout all this stuff way too long. You gotta go!"
"Who put you up to this, Skinny? Who told you to shoot me?"
"Nobody. Nobody told me. We decided. All of us. Me and ... and ... We decided, that's all. Now turn around."
"What .. so you can shoot me in the back? Not on your life, Skinny. If you're gonna shoot me, your gonna do it lookin' me right square in the eye."
"Turn around I said!!" Skinny pointed the gun toward the floor, squeezed the trigger, and it went off with a sharp, thunderous smack to the ears.
"Skinny, you shitbird fucker! Look what you ... Skinny, where did you get the bullets for that gun?"
Skinny was standing there, peering down the barrel of the gun with a puzzled look on his face. Jake walked over and took the gun from his hand.
"Over there. I got the bullets over there. The box that's on the counter."
"These? You loaded your gun with bullets you stole from me? THESE bullets?"
Skinny nodded his head.
Jake reached across the counter and got his Colt .45 from the holster that held it just out of sight, under the lip of the counter.
"Run, Skinny. Before I change my mind and put a hole in you. And here. Take your gun with you. And Skinny ... don't try shootin' nobody with it. Not til you get some new loads. Now get out."
He was out the door like a shot. Jake watched Skinny disappear into the dust and the red glow of taillights that were waiting for him a little way down the road. There was trouble now. Trouble and it was going to get worse before it got any better.
"Goddammit!!!", Jake shouted. He kicked the door shut with a bang.
"I shoulda shot that fucker", Jake muttered to himself. He picked up the box of bullets off the counter, closed the top and put them back on the shelf.
"Thanks, Vito. You saved my life. Asshole."
While Jake stood and watched Skinny disappear into the dusty night, Sarah slept, and as she slept she dreamed. A dream she had had before. Only this time, it felt different. She and Michael stood together, in each other's arms, on the pier, next to the ship that was going to take him away. Take him to war. She could feel his heart beating in his chest. And suddenly he was pulled away from her and she looked up and he was high above where she stood, standing at the rail of the ship, leaning over and waving to her. And she waved back but then she couldn't find his face in the sea of faces at the rail. And then, in an instant, all of the faces were his face and they were all waving to her and then she saw something different. Something she had never seen before, in this dream she had had so many, many times. She saw a shock of white blond hair among the faces at the rail. She could see the face. It was The Kid. She could see his eyes, and she felt herself pulled into those eyes and his hand came up in a little mock salute and there was a knife in that hand and he was making stabbing motions at the neck of the man standing next to him and why would he do that? Why would he be trying to stab the guy next to him and she looked more closely at the face next to him and it was JAKE! She woke up with a start and sat up in her bed, her heart pounding and sweat on her forehead.
She heard a bunch of clatter and bang and something thumped as it hit her door and she pulled the blankets up to her chin and yelled "Who's there?" at the door.
"It's just me. Sorry." It was Ma's voice.
She jumped out of bed and opened her door only to find Ma getting up off the floor, with a fallen chair next to her and a rifle laying along the wall on the other side of the corridor.
"What are you doing, Ma?"
"Nuthin'. Go back to sleep. You startled me, is all. I guess I musta closed my eyes for a second and you screamed and the next thing ya know I wuz on the floor."
"No, Ma. What are you DOing? And what do you mean, 'I screamed?'"
"Nuthin' I tell ya. Jus' keepin' an eye out, is all. Jus' makin' sure you're safe. And yeah - you screamed. You hollered 'NO!' like you wuz scared to death. You gonna help an old lady get to her feet or what? It's hard to get up off my knee."
She reached down and helped Ma to her feet, picked up the rifle and handed it to her and grabbed the chair before Ma could get her hands on it.
"This isn't necessary, you know? Tell you what - I'll just take this chair and stick it under the doorknob. Nobody's going to get into my room and you can get some sleep."
She reached out and pulled Ma in, wrapped her arms around her and held her close.
"Thank you, Ma. You are a sweetheart. Now go to bed, please?"
"Okay. I'll go to bed. But you make sure you use that chair. You want my rifle?"
"No, Ma! I'll be fine. Now go to bed."
"Alright, alright. I'm goin'. Just don't say nuthin' ta Jake, okay?"
"You just get your sleep. And don't worry 'bout Jake. I'm not gonna say anything. Good night, Ma."
"Good Night, Sarah."
Sarah watched as Ma moved down the corridor toward the front desk and the door to her rooms. She closed her door and wedged the chair under the doorknob, just as she had promised Ma she would do. She climbed into bed and there was a smile on her face.
She heard a little scuffling in the hall.
"Go to BED, Ma!"
"Alright, I'm goin'. I'm goin'. Can't sleep, ya know?. Got insomnia or sumthin' I guess ..."
Her voice slowly faded to a mumble as she distanced herself from the door. And Sarah slowly settled back in the bed, under the covers, and into the fluffy pillow. She felt comforted. Reassured. Grateful that this cantankerous old woman would do what she did. For her. She gently fell back into a dreamless and deep sleep. Her last conscious thought was how lucky she had been to find such people out here, in the desert, out in the middle of nowhere. And this bed is REALLY comfortable .....