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Wed July 18, 2012
Exclusive First Read: 'The Dog Stars'
Originally published on Wed July 18, 2012 8:28 am
Set in the Rocky Mountains after an epidemic has killed off most of society, The Dog Stars, by outdoor-adventure writer Peter Heller, casts an unusual mood as it alternates between elegiac reflection, lyrical nature writing and intense, high-caliber action. In a world where isolated survivors must fend off attacks from marauding bands, our heroes are an odd couple whose complementary skills have, so far, kept them alive. Hig, an amateur pilot, maintains the perimeter, flying patrols in his Cessna with Jasper, his dog, as co-pilot. Bangley, Hig's neighbor, is a survivalist and weapons expert. As this exclusive selection begins, Hig is preparing to make one of his periodic retreats into the mountains. The Dog Stars will be published Aug. 7.
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language that some readers may find offensive.
It warmed fast. Spring gave way without resistance. Two weeks earlier than last by the calendar I had scrawled onto a board in the hangar. I judged the threat of night frost over and furrowed and strung the rows of the garden, and drilled and planted under a benign sun which warmed the back of my neck and turned the fur of Jasper's back pleasantly hot under my hands.
I planted the same crop I planted every year: string beans, potatoes, corn. Also had spinach which I grew in a cold frame along with the little tomato plants I'd started.
In the final days when I decided I would have to bail out of the city fast, those are what I took out of my own cold shed in the backyard. A dirt crusted basket of seed packets and a bucket of seed potatoes. The same five, this now our tenth planting. I'd need to trade seeds with the families soon to keep the plants strong, why I hadn't done it already I'm not sure. A couple of years I used the warm conservatory room of one of the mansions to start seedlings but they died in a hard frost each time when the cold overcame the stored heat in the brick floor. I couldn't be bothered to put in a woodstove and keep them warm. Then I made the cold frame for the spinach so we could have it all year and for tomato starts in the spring. It worked usually. I planted the potatoes later than normal so that we would get a late harvest and have them all winter. With what we had, and with just me and Bangley, I canned more than we could use and stored the jars and a heap of potatoes in a cold room in the basement of my house, the one with the bulb. I never told Bangley but I dropped off fresh vegetables in the summer, and jars too later in the year, to the families who also had a garden but were hapless in their efforts due to the disease.
On this afternoon in late April I worked slowly, enjoying the warmth of the day and letting the sun soak into my winter bones. I talked to Jasper the whole time.
We need a hill, I called, picking up the spade. We need two rows built up nice for the potatoes.
Jasper furrowed his brow and agreed, happy just to lie on a pile of sunwarmed dirt and supervise.
Hey where are the old stakes for the beans? Where did we put em?
Jasper's ears came up and his mouth opened in his version of a smile. He didn't know. He didn't give a fuck.
Were life that simple, I thought, as I had many times before. Simple as a dog's life.
I spaded up the hills for the potatoes and buried the pieces, each with its eye. I found the split lumber we'd used as bean poles and dug them in and guyed them out with string and strung three lines laddered for the climbing vines over six feet high. There was almost nothing on earth as satisfying as a wall of beans, leaves fluttering taller than you are.
I was in no hurry. What we didn't plant today we'd plant tomorrow. Probably warm enough even to plant the corn. Our shadows puddled to the north at midday and lengthened over the furrows as the spring sun made its transit into the northwest. I hummed almost tunelessly. Melissa always ribbed me for the unconscious near melody I repeated day after day when I worked. Always the same non-song. The comfort. I made a little trough for the beans, sprinkled them along it, covered them firmly. Dirt from shoveling furred the hairs on my arm and smudged my face when I rubbed my nose with the back of a fist. From the dammed-up pond in the creek, I siphoned into the shallow ditch at the head of the garden and broke it in four places with the tip of the spade to run water into the furrows. The silver runnels in the turned earth went ruddy and molten with the low sun. Staining the dirt to either side. By the middle of the night the whole planting would be wet.
I was tired. Tomorrow I'd plant the rest, the tomatoes and corn. The next day if the weather was good Jasper and I would take the sled, and this time the fly rod, and go up to the mountains for a spring buck.
The deer wandered the plains but they knew somehow to stay away from the airport and I hadn't had much luck stalking them on the open prairie. I was a mountain hunter and anyway I wanted to go up there before the creeks got too high.
Bangley sometimes set up on the second floor of his house with a sandbag in an open window and made sport long-shooting what he could. He killed two gray wolves at great distance but then they too steered clear. He sewed the fur of a ruff onto the hood of his winter fatigue coat and wore it like a trophy.
I stood back of the new garden watching the sun touch the mountains and ruddle the turned dirt and the threads of water and I can say there was something moving inside that resembled a kind of happiness.
I would never have named it. Not then. For fear. But I name it now.
I speared the spade into the loose earth for tomorrow and turned for the hangar and heard the muffled clapping as Jasper shook himself and came trotting behind me.
Couple days, I said. Maybe three.
I pushed two gallon Ziplocs of Jasper's jerky into the bottom of my pack. Long since over the nausea. My Uncle Pete told me, You can get used to stepping over a dead goat on the doorstep. How about a dead person?
Why three? Bangley said.
I stuffed in my down sweater, the bulky stained brown one I had ordered from Cabela's in my late twenties and taken with me to the woods every trip since. On top of it I lay the bags of my own jerky, the venison, and the folded nylon tarp I used for shelter, and a roll of parachute cord.
Why a couple, three? Plenty snow Hig. The deer should be down low.
I couldn't think of a reason so I said: That last trip in November I saw elk sign. I swear. I know you think it's crazy talk but I saw it. Tracks of a big cow. I want to look some more. Christ, if we could get an elk.
I didn't look at him. Silence.
We were like a married couple unable anymore to speak the truth about the most important things. I had never lied to Melissa about anything except the conviction that she would pull through the flu. She knew it was a lie and did not hold it against me. She was too sick anyway to worry about whether she might survive. She had dysentery-like nausea and diarrhea and her lungs were filling up like pneumonia which was terrifying. In the end she just wanted it to be over. Pillow, she whispered to me. Her eyes were glassy and unfocused, her hair wet with sweat, her hand terribly light, almost desiccated on mine. And cold. Pillow. I'd been crying. I tried with every ounce not to, not to weep as I saw my world, everything in it of any importance, vanishing from my grip. In almost a panic, I can say now, I adjusted her one pillow behind her head on the cot, not sure what she wanted adjusted, so that it bunched a little and raised her head.
No, she breathed. Barely breathed. Her hand scratched the back of mine like a claw, like she was trying to grasp it and couldn't.
I stared at her.
Hig. Two, three breaths short, unable to get enough oxygen. Please.
Her eyes glassy, still blue gray, I always thought like a clear sea on a cloudy day, now deepening in color, struggling to focus on mine.
I looked around the hall filled with cots for a doctor or orderly, in some desperate hope to forestall, but they were almost all sick anyway, or starting to throw up and cough, this was like some ring of hell, there was no one. A stench, the clamor of coughing and sickness.
Her hand scratched at mine her eyes would not leave my face.
I gently lifted the back of her head off the pillow and laid it back down on the stained sheet and brought the pillow around and said I love you. More than anything in God's universe. And her eyes were on mine and she didn't say a word and I covered her face and used it. On my own wife.
She heaved twice, struggled, clawed lightly, went still. The clamor in the hall did not stop the moans and coughing. Did not stop.
I loved her.
This is what I live with.
I lift my head off the pillow
I see the frosted moon.
I lower it down I think of home.
Bangley said, What's wrong with you Hig? You look kind of fucked up.
I shook myself. The way Jasper does.
Maybe you need a vacation Hig. You been working too hard in the garden. Men weren't meant to be farmers the way I see it. Beginning of everything fucked up.
He meant take a vacation lying in the hammock I strung in the shade of the house. Between two ornamental trees, a Norway spruce and an aspen that always looked to me a little lost down here, and like they were shaking their limbs longingly at the mountains where they belonged.
I breathed. Yeah, maybe you're right. But listen I want to go up there. If there are elk. Jesus. We'd be like kings.
We are like kings Hig. It took the end of the world.
He began to laugh. Gravelly, a little like a cough. Unpleasant.
Took the end of the world to make us kings for a day. Huh Hig? Captains of our fate. Ha!
Then he really did cough. A short fit. When he came out of it he said, Well you go up there. Do a little fishing. Recreating. Unwind. Get us a goddamn ghost elk. But get a deer, too, why don't you Hig. Something we can eat.
He smiled straight across, stared at me with his eyes that sparked like gravel in a streambed.
Not more than three days. I mean it. Every day you're gone fucking around we are vulnerable.
I cocked my head and looked at him. It was the very first time he had admitted to my usefulness.
I don't sleep that good he said. To tell the truth.
He coughed once more and spat out the hangar door. Well, good luck, he said, and walked off.
He didn't sleep well when I was gone. Like a wife. Fucking Bangley. Just when I thought I wished him really gone.
We would leave the next morning in the dark. I could cover the eight miles under cold stars and make the trees with the air getting gray and grainy. I packed the pack for three days though I thought if we got on an elk it could be longer. Bangley would have to deal. I could tie the pack into the sled and drag it, but I kept it light and I preferred it on my body with the sled almost weightless behind on the way out. I knew the creeks and I moved from drainage to drainage so I packed two quarts of water only.
I decided to make one more flight. Both to scout the hunt and to give Bangley one more day of security in three directions. The afternoon was fine with just a light breeze stirring off the mountains, warm in the sun but almost winter cold in the shadow of the hangar. I had the woodstove going and the kettle on, steaming. I made tea from the jar of summer flowers, leaves that I dried: wild strawberry, black raspberry, mint, and sat in Valdez, the recliner I had pulled out of the home entertainment room of one of the mansions. It was named after the Exxon tanker that had wrecked and spilled in Alaska.
It was a split double recliner for husband and wife presumably, but now for me and Jasper, with a lever on each side and covered in the finest calfskin. It was very soft. I put an heirloom quilt on his side, patched with prints in blues and yellows, and with a repeating pattern of a log cabin made from squares and triangles in printed cloth, every piece different but with the same twist of smoke coming out of each chimney, paisley or polka dot or ribbed with color, so it gave an impression of a fanciful village evenly spread over a country of geometric fields and flowering crops, and at a retiring hour when everyone was indoors enjoying the warmth of a fire. As we were. It was comforting to look at and comfortable sitting in the deep chair in the waves of heat from the stove, levered halfway back and drinking tea.
I could almost imagine that it was before, that Jasper and I were off somewhere on an extended sojourn and would come back one day soon, that all would come back to me, that we were not living in the wake of disaster. Had not lost everything but our lives. Same as yesterday standing in the garden. It caught me sometimes: that this was okay. Just this. That simple beauty was still bearable barely, and that if I lived moment to moment, garden to stove to the simple act of flying, I could have peace.
It was like I was living in a doubleness, and the doubleness was the virulent insistence of life in its blues and greens laid over the scaling grays of death, and I could toggle one to the other, step into and out of as easily as I might step into and out of the cold shadow of the hangar just outside. Or that I didn't step, but the shadow passed over like the shadow of a cloud that covered my arms with goosebumps, and passed.
Life and death lived inside each other. That's what occurred to me. Death was inside all of us, waiting for warmer nights, a compromised system, a beetle, as in the now dying black timber on the mountains. And life was inside death, virulent and insistent as a strain of flu. How it should be.
It was memory that threw me. I tried hard not to remember and I remembered all the time.
Spencer was his name. Going to be. Sophie if a girl. Very English. In the second trimester we decided we wanted to know. Melissa's family was Scottish. Came over from Melrose when she was seven, enrolled in a West Denver primary school and was made to stand in front of the class and repeat words like arithmetic while all the kids giggled and the teachers died of cuteness assault. She said she lost the accent completely in two months. Adaptable as only a seven year old can be.
Her father's name.
Not sick, not once, the whole time. Never nauseous. Never craved avocados and ice cream.
She didn't like to hunt at all but she loved to fish. She fished with me when she could. In some ways she was better than me. She didn't have the distance and accuracy in her cast but she could think more like a trout than probably anyone alive. She would stand on the bank of a creek and just breathe and watch the bugs flying in and out of the sunlight.
The guides, the freaks, did stuff like pump out the stomach of their first fish with a rubber bulb to see what they were eating right now. As if being caught, netted, held in the scalding air wasn't traumatic enough. They put the fish back, but did they live after that operation? They claimed they did, I doubted it. She didn't do anything like that. She snugged the halves of her rod together, strung it, pulled the line straight down from the top guide with a whizz of the reel and let her slender fingers slide down the length of the leader, the tippet, and pushed back the brim of her Yankees cap, and then she asked me.
Hig what should I put on?
I studied the hatch flitting in the sunlight or swarming the surface, turned over a few rocks to look at the larvae.
Eighteen Copper John on the bottom, a Rio Grand King, pretty big, on top.
She'd move her lips around looking at me like I was putting her on. Then she'd tie on a bead head prince and an elk hair caddis. Big and small just the reverse. Or she'd go with a purple wooly bugger, the one with the brass conehead, which is like a swimming minnow mimic and an entirely different strategy.
Why do you ask me? I said. I think you ask and then do just the opposite.
Her smile, bright and sudden, was one of my favorite things on the planet.
I'm not disrespecting you Hig. I'm doing a survey. Kind of calibrating what I'm thinking against the finest fisherman I know.
Flattery now. Jeez. Fish on.
She usually outcaught me. Except on the big rivers, the Gunnison, the Green, the Snake, where a long cast was helpful. The last time we went fishing we had a terrible fight.
I drank the tea. It occurred to me that Jasper owned more special quilts than any dog in history. He had his Valdez recliner log cabin quilt, his flying hunting dog quilt, his outside sleeping quilt covered in Whos from Whoville. He was lying flat on his side with his butt against me and his legs sticking off the cushion and he was snoring.
Is it possible to love so desperately that life is unbearable? I don't mean unrequited, I mean being in the love. In the midst of it and desperate. Because knowing it will end, because everything does. End.
I drank in the beginning. Every kind of food, even the horses, were all consumed in the first year, but the booze was still tucked in cabinets and closets, in basements. Bangley and I used it for treating cuts. Bangley never drank because it was part of his Code. I'm not sure if he thought of himself as a soldier or even a warrior, but he was a Survivor with a capital S. All the other, what he had been in the rigors of his youth, I think he thought of as training for something more elemental and more pure. He had been waiting for the End all his life. If he drank before he didn't drink now. He didn't do anything that wasn't aimed at surviving. I think if he somehow died of something that he didn't deem a legitimate Natural Cause, and if he had a moment of reflection before the dark, he would be less disappointed with his life being over than with losing the game. With not taking care of the details. With being outsmarted by death, or worse, some other holocaust hardened mendicant.
Sometimes I think the only reason he kept me around was so he had someone to witness his prowess in the winning of each day. I wonder if the stunt the other night was just to let me know that it was him. That he vouchsafed our survival every day. Remember that, Hig.
I heard a joke once about a shipwreck. I heard it way back when a model named Trippa Sands was the woman in the posters on the walls of teenage boys. The cover girl of cover girls, the paragon of sexiness. She is on vacation on a big cruise ship that hits a reef in the Caribbean and sinks. She washes up on a desert island with my buddy Jed. The only survivors. They wash up onto the beach, the waves christen them with foam, they are in tatters, mostly naked, and they look into each other's eyes with the dawning apprehension of their unique solitude, and love hits them like a falling coconut. They fall hopelessly. Luckily, the island is replete with low hanging fruit and sweet fresh water, and oysters and fish that jump into their woven baskets, so that sustaining themselves is a breeze and they have a lot of leisure time just to gaze into each other's eyes and make the kind of fierce love I imagine an apocalypse affords. About a week into it Jed says, Tripp?
Ahh. Hmmm. Yes, my fragrant studliness.
I have a favor to ask you.
Of course, my sandbrushed power drill. Anything. For you.
Can you wear my cowboy hat for a few days?
Oh sure, why not!
Next day he says, Trippa?
I have a favor to ask you.
Anything my little mango.
Can you use a bit of this charcoal and draw on a moustache?
Hmm. Well for you, you big Cumquat, anything.
Next day they've just made love nonstop for an entire tide cycle. They are sitting on a tortoiseshell bench watching a thunderstorm sweep over the azure water, Trippa in her hat and moustache, and Jed says, Hun?
Um, can I call you Joe?
Well, ah sure, you plunging hammerhead shark you.
Jed grabs her and shakes her shoulders.
Joe! he cries. Joe! Joe! I'm fucking Trippa Sands!
Still makes me laugh. Can't help but think of me and Bangley which isn't so funny. That he wants me to be Joe so he can show someone how well he is surviving. I'm fucking the shit out of this survival stuff aren't I, Hig? He never told me another thing about his upbringing except that it wasn't what you think, but I imagine that his mother, if he had one, was pretty hard to impress.
Well. I guess. I say it to Jasper who has shifted so his head is hanging down off of Valdez but is still snoring. I put my hand on his ribs in the short fur and rub.
Let's go flying.
It's late afternoon, my favorite time after dawn. I fuel up. The pump runs off its own solar panel. Used to use a battery and inverter but the battery died so I wired it directly to the inverter and now can only fuel up if the sun is shining which it is. I have a hand pump if I need it, but it's a pain. I fill the tanks from a stepladder, through capped intakes at the top of each wing, and it's a real pain to be on the ground and pump and keep track of the fuel level which is checked by climbing up and looking straight down into the bladder through the fill hole. I can estimate and get it close, but it's way easier just to stand up there and pull the trigger on the pump hose and hear the reassuring electric hum and the clicking of the numbers rolling on the meter like filling up a car used to be.
Used to. Plenty of gas still out in the world but problem is the auto gas went stale and bad a year or two after. 100 low lead, which I burn, is stable something like ten years. So I expect to lose it one of these days. I can add PRI and nurse it along for ten more years probably. Then I'll have to look for jet fuel which is kerosene and lasts for basically ever. I know where it is, the closest. I know that right now I'm the only one alive who knows, or at least knows how to get it out. But every time I land at Rocky Mountain Airport I feel vulnerable in a way I never do at my other stops. It's too big. A big old jetport with scores of buildings, hangars, sheds and the pumps and the steel fill plates out in the open.
When I have to, me and Bangley will pow wow. Maybe we'll have to break camp. Can't imagine. Or maybe I'll just have to take him with me to cover my back every time I fill up which would be a kind of party for him but would leave Erie wide open for at least half an hour.
Jasper is sitting up in his seat and I taxi past the rows of private aircraft still tied down. All have flat and rotted tires, many cracked windshields from hail. Some, the ropes frayed and wore and broke in big winds, and the planes upended or rolled into others across the ramp, or further. Last spring we had a gale and a Super Cub broke loose and ended up in the second story plate window of a fancy house across the runway, on Piper Lane, which was fitting. The green street sign like a pre-printed headstone.
Why don't I fly one of the Super Cubs or Huskies? Some narrow tandem (one seat in front, one in back), something more agile, that can swoop down and land short, can basically land and take off on a tennis court? Why do I fly my eighty year old Cessna four seater?
Because the seats are side by side. So Jasper can be my copilot. The real reason. The whole time I fly I talk to him, and it amuses me no end that the whole time he pretends not to listen.
We taxi between the rows. There are some beautiful old planes. The colored stripes, the blues and golds and reds are fading. The numbers. One I used to fly, a little home-built plane with a pull down bubble cockpit, stands nose down to the tarmac like a forlorn bird, the U.S. Air Force stars painted on the fuselage burned to washed splashes. It was built by a longtime friend of mine, Mike Gagler. An Alaska bush pilot who ended up flying jets for the airlines and built planes as a hobby. Never did anything like anyone else almost as a matter of principle. He died early with his family in a yellow house I can see from the open door of the hangar. He refused to go to the hospital, said they were just a way for the government to get the dead in one place. He was the last in his family to die, by force of will, so his wife and two daughters would have someone to hold them. I buried the four of them with the airport's backhoe when it still ran.
In the early days I took it out, Mike's RV-8, and wasted gas. Left Jasper sitting anxious and alone by the gas pumps and climbed straight into the sun and kept pulling the stick until the sky rolled down beneath me and the horizon came down over my head like the visor of a helmet. Big, slow, sickening backward loops and fast barrel rolls. I did it because I didn't know what else to do.
Then I'd buzz the runway at ten feet and see Jasper rooted on his haunches following me with his eyes, and even at that speed I knew he was worried, and grieving that I might leave him like everything else had done, so I stopped.
The wind sock midfield swings northward, puffing without urgency, so we turn south onto the taxiway, and I jam the throttle and we take off. One thing about everybody dying is that you don't have to use the designated runway.
Nothing is designated anymore. If it weren't for Bangley I'd forget my name.
I figure we'll fly the big circle then stop for a Coke. Scout the meadows below Nederland, below the peaks of the Divide, fly the spiral inward, check the roads and the two trails while there's good light, make sure Bangley is clear of visitors at least a day in the three directions, then land at the soda fountain and bring back a couple cases. Only eight minutes out to the northeast toward Greeley. A peace offering. Of bloated cans and plastic bottles. There's a stack of Dr. Pepper I can see with the headlamp in back of the semi, maybe now's the time to spring it on him like Christmas. Bangley seems like a Dr. Pepper man. One of Sprite for the families, land there one time, it's been a few weeks. As we bank left, north, the lowering sun spills through the glass like something molten.
Look straight down, the tract development north of the airport patterns itself in the head to toe lollipops of feeder and cul de sac, and if I squint, to blur the ones burned, I can imagine a normal late spring evening.
Continue the climbing bank west and level out at eight hundred feet and begin my scan.
Nothing. Nothing the whole way. Roads empty. Blessedly. Usually are. Had there been wanderers it would have fucked up everything, delayed our hunt. Then I would have swooped, cut the engine, played the tape. I have four songs on the CD rigged to the amp and the speakers: they are titled
Turn Back North or Die
Turn Back South or Die
Turn Back East or Die
Turn Back West or Die
The words are easy to remember: just the title over and over. Followed by the exhortative: We know you are here. You will become dog food like many before you.
Bangley made me add that.
Fuck no, I said. That's unnecessary and disgusting.
Bangley just stared at me, his grin half formed.
It's true ain't it? Ain't it Hig?
Hit me like a punch.
Add it, he said. This isn't some debutante ball.
Mostly it works. Enough unknowns, enough survived that visitors can't be sure there isn't some phalanx of Mongols at the airport waiting to tear them apart. Which I guess we are. A phalanx of two. No, three. And they must think: These guys have an air force, a loudspeaker, a recording, what else have they got? We have Bangley, I think. You have no idea what that means. You better fucking turn back.
If they need more convincing I've gotten pretty good at shooting Bangley's Uzi machine pistol out my window on a left bank. I try not to hit anybody but sometimes I do.
I have been shot at fourteen times. Three went through the fuselage. Most people don't know how to shoot at airplanes. They never lead us enough.
Nobody now. Highway 7 is clear, 287, the interstate. Our trail west. Sun is pouring down Boulder Canyon brushing the tops of the Flatirons. Used to be our favorite day hike, the trail along the base of the slabs, when the when. To the north Mount Evans flushes with blood snow. Misjudged the time, no time to scout the hills if I am going on a beverage run. In truth I don't need to scout them anyway. I do it because it's beautiful to fly low over the foothills but we know where the deer are. If we are going to cut elk sign it will be on the ground. I bank east and beeline straight for the power plant on the St. Vrain SW of Greeley. It's a jackknifed double trailer semi half off the county road, half into a long farm driveway. I can see it five miles out. The dirty red and white sides catch the sun like a billboard. Hijacked for the potable water, I guess, the bottled water inside and all the pop. First time I saw the truck it probably wouldn't have occurred to me to land, but for the five bodies strewn around it. And one doubled out the driver's window. Tableaux of gunplay made me throttle back and circle.
I am not as quick as I once was, I am sure. Sometimes it is fog and shaggy horses. But the bodies spoke from the ground and the truck blazoned. Think, Hig. A gun battle around a Coke truck.
Which led to our monthly treat.
That first time, the farm pond east of the semi was slicked black in a crescent along the north bank, and wrinkled over the rest so I circled and landed on the yellow dotted line to the north, into the wind. I climbed down and turned for Jasper who waited bunched and excited on my seat, and I carried him to the ground. I dragged the men off into the grassy ditch by their boots so Jasper could — Discovered early on that it is easier that way than by the arms.
The doors of the rear trailer were padlocked, a simple brass U lock. I walked to the farmhouse and across a muddy yard and found the bolt cutters in the tractor shed.
Didn't occur to me til some months later that I could fly Bangley out there and he could drive the truck right to the airport. By then I enjoyed bringing back a few cases at a time. By then I figured to make it last the years of our lives. Little enough in our lives to celebrate.
Didn't occur to me either until much later that by then, by then if it were years, the cans might be utterly ruined by freeze and thaw. No matter. It was a good system now.
That first time I loaded three cases into the Beast and closed and latched the doors. I had the key turned in the mags to start the plane when I climbed out again and tied the strip of a man's red shirt to a mile marker for a wind indicator. Mile 4. I remember.
Riddled with three .22 bullet holes in a three inch group. Pretty good. Probably the farm boy practicing for prairie dogs.
Today it is again from the north. The wind. Shifted one eighty in less than an hour which is typical this time of year. This time of year I have seen the wind socks at either end of the runway at Erie facing in opposite directions, which makes for an interesting landing.
A line of telephone poles runs along the east edge of the road. Doesn't matter, they were set back far enough. The small reflector poles and mile markers easily pass under the wings. My first instructor told me that in an emergency landing a paved road was almost always wide enough if you landed dead center, almost always enough setback on any kind of pole or sign. What got dicey was a nice wide looking dirt road. The signpost you don't see could be the one that grabs a wing and cartwheels you.
Still, I bank left for a final approach into the wind, very high, and float down on full flaps, down the middle of the left lane sighting a spot on the road just short of a tall cottonwood, then at the horizon ahead, the road rising to meet me, floating downward, and then I smoothly pull the yoke, back back back to my chest and flare and settle one light bump while the stall horn blares. Still, after all these years, the thrill of a good landing. Have done it many times before from this direction and know I don't even need to lean on the brakes, just hold the nose up and let the plane roll out to the driveway and the truck.
One tap of the brakes, Jasper sitting his seat on his haunches on the thick quilt in copilot position, jerked forward just a little, resetting his front feet. Pull the red mixture knob and cut the engine. A prolonged sputter, the whirring prop becoming visible, slowing then silence.
Wind shudders the windscreen, shakes the plane. Windier than I thought. Gusty. Flattening the short grass in the field, intermittent like a breeze through a crew cut. Purple asters in the ditch nodding. The side window is open, I rest my elbow. Smell of damp earth rich with rot and newness. Heady with memory as only smell can be. Still a tang of ancient manure from the mud feedlot back of the sheds. Everything unstable this time of year.
Turn to Jasper.
Welcome to Old Coke City. Another On Time Arrival and perfect landing brought to you by the flight crew at Mongrel Air. Please remain seated until the aircraft has come to a complete stop. Careful opening the overhead bin.
Jasper deigns one glance, disapproving, and continues staring straight ahead through the windshield, brow furrowed like any good copilot. He doesn't appreciate joking while on the job. He knows we're going to the truck so he watches the truck twenty yards ahead.
Then he growls. Short. A low huff that puffs the loose skin over his upper teeth.
Okay we are at a complete stop. There is no overhead bin. Don't be a stickler. Jeez.
His growl lower now, continuous. Hackles standing, hair on the rough behind smoothed flat over tight skin. Eyes fixed on the back of the Coke trailer. My hair, the small hairs on the back of my own neck, prickle and stand. Follow his eyes. The white painted latch back of the trailer angles out from the faded red door. A strip of black shadow between the two. Doors. The right one ajar. Barely. The smell coming north to south down the road. To us.
Without taking eyes off the truck I reach across for the AR. It's racked vertically, muzzle upwards in a bracket fixed to the front left side of Jasper's seat. Next to it the machine pistol. Thumb the latch of the chrome strapping and lift out the rifle. Courtesy of Bangley.
Okay, boy. Good one.
Whispering now, no reason.
No use to tell him to stay in the plane. He never will. Not in these gigs. Don't want him to sprain something jumping out. I unlatch my door. Two steps, wing strut to ground, half turn and gather him in one arm, the right, and lower him to the tarmac, his claws scrabbling for pavement.
He knows. Has been through this before. Too many times.
We are sixty feet maybe fifty five. I fly with the rifle racked because it is too difficult to do in the air. Pull out the collapsable stock Bangley made me. Thumb the safety. Push the lever over, full auto to semi. The wind is light for a minute, warm in our faces, and rounded a little to the west carrying complex scents, earth, flower, even maybe salt. Of the sea. How far? Nine hundred miles at least. I listen. Just breeze catching in the whorl of my left ear. Jasper's growl has not ceased. I step. Wait. Step again. A kestrel flies over right to left, not high, a stooping, cantered flight. Step again. We cover half the distance and stop. Crouch and then go to one knee. Low as possible without going prone. Prone is best but prone is hard to move fast. Like this, if they fire out of the trailer, I am confident they will shoot high.
Bark of my own voice startles me.
You are dead men.
You are dead men. You try to shoot your way out you are definitely dead men.
Jasper's growl. Sun warm on my left brow and cheek.
You are fish in a barrel. You hear me! You try to fight and this is your last minute on earth. Throw out your weapons come out. COME OUT! Hands where I can see them. If you do, do what I say I will not harm you. My word.
Wind. Sun. Bird. I am thinking, Do I mean that? No harm. I am not even sure. Whatever happens here I plan to live.
Three two one — OKAY YOU DIE!
I sight the iron sights. I know the last cases in the back are stacked to the roof. A third of the trailer emptied. Gives me enough angle not to shoot up the bottles and cans, probably. Two shots high --
No wait. A clank of steel, a scrape. Hand holding a crowbar snakes through the gap.
Steel bar, hand, forearm.
Drop it! Drop it! Drop it!
It drops. Hits the road with a clang.
STEP OUT, hands where I can see them.
They are big hands. Hair on the back dirty. Stuck through the gap they look like a thug trying to do a hand puppet show. Forearms in a blue ski jacket too short for his arms, greasy but new. Door pushed wider. Mallet head, wide blonde dreds, camo bush hat. Tangled beard. A huge man stepping down off the bumper, unwilling to turn his back.
There are two more.
Hoarse shout, the voice rolling through a half ton of gravel. Blinking back the sun.
A plane that runs. Where'd you get a plane that runs? Goddamn.
Shut the fuck up. Tell them. The same. Hands first.
Baseball bat, hands, arms in an oiled Australian duster, another Mongo stepping down. Long hair in a thick braid, eyes jittery: my face, the gun, the dog, the ditch. Wants to bolt. Jasper's growl a step lower.
You ain't got no bullets in that thing. World ran out of fucking bullets. Hear that Curtis? Calling back. Edging west. One step two.
Captain Pilot thinks he's gonna shoot us. Eyes skittered: the gun to the ditch.
Woulda done it already. Yes he would. Likes to talk this one.
Me thinking: So far he's been doing all the talking.
C'mon out Curtis. This is copasetic. Man's kneeling at thirty feet, got a gun but no bullets.
Him the closest one now three feet from the partly open door. I sight with both eyes open. Always have. Advantages. I can see the door. I can feel the evening pulling taut like a twisting wire. Dreds calling my coordinates like a mortar man. Heat. The heat of pure anger climbing into my neck, pure and clean like a white gas. My finger on the smooth cold curve of the trigger.
Door swings. Open. A shadow. Edge pulling back like a curtain, light following, lighting, lit the man in motion, swinging the bow across and down. I fire. Twice. Arrow like a hole torn in air, angry thwip of a vacuum high and wide, the man blown back, bow clattering, the front wall of Cokes toppling and spilling. Silence. One Dr. Pepper rolls out hits the road.
The two on the road half crouched and frozen, arms in reflex covering their heads. Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.
The can of Dr. Pepper has rolled over, rested against Pony Tail's boot. A string of blood drips from trailer edge to the pavement where the can fell.
Look what you did. I am yelling. You fucking bonehead scum. Ruined it. Probably twenty cases of pop.
My chest, breath, vibrate with adrenalin and fury.
Killed your buddy too. Nice fucking try.
The men frozen, arms covering, crouched. This the last pathetic gesture before death. Fully expecting now to die. The gun already sighted on Dreds, finger already pressed on the trigger. Breathing hard. I hold there breathe. I will kill them.
Fuckers tried to kill me. For Coke. Well. For a not quite daily Coke. Twenty four in a case, once a month, I bring it back. The week going without — a contrived measure of want to make the next run a treat. For me and. To up my value with Bangley. Face it. Landing at the families' place with the Sprite like a god.
One is whimpering, the blonde one. Not bothering to beg.
Have to kill them. Leave them and they will empty the truck, hide it all in the ditches, windbreaks, no more monthly treat. These few things. Few enough things to look forward to. Plus they tried to kill me.
Dreds kneels, covers his eyes with his huge hands just like a kid playing peekaboo and crying. Pony Tail squeezing his head with forearms watching me in naked terror, half wincing, quivers, bracing for the shot.
Get it over with! Dreds screams.
Get up. I'm not going to kill you.
The words like liquid nitrogen. A moment of complete freeze.
What you're gonna do is drag your buddy to the ditch and not say a word, not one fucking word while my dog has dinner.
The images colliding, conflicting in their terror shorn minds. Their own lives, the relief not even digested or believed, the horror of the feeding dog. Creates a vortex, a crosscurrent like the two flags at the airport facing each other in contrary winds. They both start to tremble. Hard.
I mean it. Not gonna shoot you. Like you said I would have already. Certainly would.
Hands down watching me. Kill them for a Coke. Not a staple, a luxury. The way before we killed for diamonds, for oil. Not. Not today.
You're gonna drag your buddy to the ditch and then you're gonna load twenty cases, fifteen of Coke, five of Sprite, and oh yeah two extra of Dr. Pepper, you're gonna load them in the back of the plane nice and neat and then I'm gonna climb in and fly away. And you can have the rest. Because I can't prevent it. Once I take off. Unless I kill you. Which I won't. Done too much of that. Go on.
The kestrel is over the field. The wind is in the short grass, the sun is almost on the Divide. He will hover and hunt until past dusk. Hover and swoop, hover and swoop. In his little helmet, hovering tireless, treading air. Hunting mice and voles.
I feel sick. Want to throw up on the road but won't. Sick of defending whatever it is I'm supposed to defend.
They loaded the cans. They dragged their compa to the ditch and I whistled once, turned my back. They carried four cases stacked at once, it went fast. I told them to load in the bow and quiver. Pony Tail swung a long necklace of shriveled leather pieces when he bent over. Both of them smelled like death.
You're a dead man anyway, Pony Tail grumbled, passing me with a load.
What'd you say?
Nothin. Grunting the cases through the jump door.
What the fuck did you say?
He turned, passed. I stopped him with the barrel of the AR.
What was that about being a dead man?
Shoved the barrel into his ribs hard. His grunt.
The A-rabs. You can kill us but the A-rabs will kill you.
What d'you mean the A-rabs?
We heard it. In Pueblo. Ham radio. The A-rabs. They're here. Or coming. Kill us all.
He spat. Inches from my boot.
What is that? Shove.
What is what?
That. Your necklace.
He stood straight, swallowed. His eyes gold green in the last full sun. Mocking.
Them are cunts. Dried cunts.
I pulled the trigger. Tore him open. Without thought. Left him sprawled back on the road, guts spilled. The other, the Dreds dropped his load of cases and ran. South. South between two green fields. Beneath a reef of clouds flushed rose an antic figure diminishing to a dot.
Try to do the right thing. Circumstance intervenes. What am I going to do with twenty cases of Coke? Dole them out to Bangley?
When I told Bangley about the encounter at the Coke truck he took a can of snuff out of his vest pocket, a new can, and slid his sharp thumbnail around the coping of the lid and pried it off. I could smell it from the workbench, strong salty must like a shovelful of turned peat. He tucked it into his lower jaw, backed up two steps and spit out the hangar door, this one success in the domestic training of the man.
Hell Hig, once I learned this was going to be your kitchen and formal parlor, hell.
He leaned back against the high stool I put there for him near the door. So he could talk and twist and spit. He leaned, half standing, legs straight, arms crossed, never truly sat.
So you gave em a chance to live.
You were a Boy Scout.
Watching me. I imagined his mineral eyes when they shift make a dry sound like stirring gravel.
Ready to compromise an important source of caffeine. Not to mention carbonation. Not much carbonation in our lives, Hig. Effervescent we are not.
Couldn't help but smile at him. He turned, spat.
You were willing to sacrifice your own life too. Twice. No, thrice. What's thrice for four? I can't even keep track.
He loosed a hand from under his crossed arms and winced down his eyes, scrunched his mouth, made to count. He had a three day beard, gray stubble like wire. Gave up.
Let's see: first mistake not working around to the side where you could shoot wide of the cargo and clear the back. You told me the trailer is two thirds full. Well. Plenty of room. And chances are the combatants are huddled up by the door. Got plenty of ammo. Anyway it would've flushed em. The guy with the bow could never have got set up.
Shook his head. Not amused.
Second time: when the guy called back to his buddy behind the door and basically gave your coordinates. Sighted you in, Hig. Gave his shooter angle and distance. Only thing I can figure for a move that bold is they knew they were dead anyway and thought to give this one desperate effort a chance. I mean, they knew they were dead with anyone else in the hemisphere but old Hig. They didn't count on that. Hig who must be trying to get to heaven.
So they call out, Here's how to shoot this fucker, and you said you had them sighted. Now that would have been the time to pull off a shot or two. At least three. Kill the outside man first, that fast, the one closest to the shoulder where he could turn the corner of the trailer, then the inside man, then the man who was obviously in the back of the trailer about to try to kill you. Bang bang bang.
Nope. Not old Hig. Never fails to astound me. You wait til the door swings open and you see the guy with the drawn bow, and you wait til he looses off a shot just in case maybe he was hunting pheasant or something and didn't have your ass in mind --
Not like that.
He got off a shot or didn't he?
No use arguing. I leaned back against the workbench, crossed my own arms. I was embarrassed. I can say that.
Okay so you plug him. First right move all morning. But how many cases were ruined? If we had set up to the side like a good tactician, well. But okay. He's terminated. Threat neutralized. The other two are big pussies and freeze, stead of taking that opportunity to attack or retreat.
Shook his head.
They give the Hig one last golden opportunity. Far as you know. Present themselves as perfect targets. Practically begging you to end it.
Spat. Uncrossed arms, lifted the brim of the sweat stained camo cap and scratched his thinning scalp. Replaced the cap. Grin straight across.
But no. We are going to put ourselves in mortal danger again. Fact we are going to give them the whole trailer of soda pop for their troubles. Which, by the way, Hig, you never told me it was a semi. Which we coulda drove over here anytime. I always figured a warehouse or something. Never even thought to ask.
Twisted, spat. Stayed half turned looking out into the sun across the ramp and the runway.
Well, your call. You found it. Stared at me.
Where were we? Oh yeah. I mean they tried their best to kill us, it's the best we can do. Give them all the Coke. Consolation prize. I guess. So we're gonna give it to em, but we'll give em another chance to kill us first. We'll get them to load us up with our own tiny consolation prize, and give them proximity while we're at it, you close enough you can touch em with the gun, them big and fast, perfect opportunity for another attack. One of you, two of them, the situation not controlled, not in the least, loading, unloading, the two at constantly moving spots, constantly changing angles, no restraints, not even tied together. Just like a work party, huh, Hig? Well.
Well, might have been the best break you got all day. Because maybe it wasn't the smartest fucking move, but you are lucky Hig. That's one goddamn thing I'll say. Because then they gave you intel. Totally out of the blue. Un fucking prompted. Not even under duress. Not from Hig. We get the beta about the A-rabs.
Now he cursed for real. Under his breath. Now he didn't turn, he spat on the floor of the hangar.
We get the beta about A-rabs and what do you do? You plug the fucker. NOW you plug him. Finally realize he's not a Boy Scout like you, and you off him in cold blood. Before they could tell you what the fuck they meant. First intel about a possible real visitor, I mean a visitor with some fucking muscle, a possible goddamn invasion, and you terminate the conversation. Because you discover, oh surprise surprise, that the man is a rapist and a killer like every other survivor walking around this goddamn country. Holy shit. What a goddamn shock. Goddamn.
He was officially steamed. His neck, face were red. That one vein throbbing in his forehead. I felt the heat in my own face. He's right. That's what I thought. If I get caught short and killed one day it's because I'm too soft. Right? Is it worth living the other way? Bangley's way? Well, I'm an apprentice. Still. An acolyte in the School of Bangley. Just by living here. And not too great at it. Still.
Good job, he said. Happy hunting.
Stood up, unkinked his back, walked off.
Well, that didn't work out so well. I stopped at the truck to bring Bangley back a treat. Was thinking of him. Hunh. He didn't even take a Coke not a single one. He wouldn't take one while we were gone either. I knew the man. He might watch us in our sleep through a night scope but he would never touch a thing inside the hangar. Part of his Code. Anyway the Coke is tainted now. Tainted with incompetence. Here at what cost. Because even though I survived the encounter there is a cost. Statistical if nothing else. For Bangley, we only get so many fuckups before the jaws close, so the fight at the truck puts one more in my column which for better or worse is now his column. That's what steams him the most. He doesn't want to lose because he suffered some fool.
I blew the air out of my cheeks. Thought: The mountains will be good. Good to get up there. Breathe some fresh air. Thought: Strange. One other person but the families in a hundred square miles and I still need fresh air.
Excerpted from The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. Copyright 2012 by Peter Heller. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Audio production copyright 2012, Random House Inc.