Colorado, Southern Ute Reservation
Without a thought of mentioning the passing apparition to her nephew, the Ute shaman watched the dreamer's phantom dissolve into a shadowy mist, evaporate into nothingness. It was unusual to encounter one of them out and about at this time of day, but during those wee hours just beyond midnight, one might see dozens of these tethered-to-the-body phantasms flitting about like nervous yucca moths. Daisy Perika believed that dreams prepared mortals for that time when the cord between body and soul shall be severed--and some must begin to serve their sentences as lonely, wandering ghosts. The aged Catholic fervently hoped (with God's help) to bypass this dismal interval, and proceed directly to that mansion her blessed Savior had prepared for her in Upper World.
Charlie Moon could not have imagined the thoughts percolating through the old woman's singular mind. Nor would he have wished for such a privilege.
The tribal policeman and his aged aunt stood on a curled-up ridge called the Cougar's Tail. A little more than a stone's throw away, the mouth of Cañón del Espíritu gaped as if it might swallow the entire valley whole, including Daisy's little trailer home. Neither Moon nor his closest living relative was concerned about such an improbable outcome. These sensible folk were peaceably watching the scarlet smear of sunset.
Moon pushed his black Stetson back a notch to a jaunty position, looped an arm around the old woman's shoulders. "You should move into town."
Daisy snorted. "Why should I do a thing like that?"
"I worry about you." The tall man looked down at the top of her head. "In Ignacio, you'd have neighbors to look in on you."
"Neighbors--hah! I'd sooner have a family of skunks nesting under my floor." Her lips crinkled into an enigmatic smile. And it's not like I'm all by myself. The shaman gazed into Cañón del Espíritu, far past where her eyes could see, way up there where the dwarf made his home in the abandoned badger hole, even into those dark crooks and crannies where a multitude of spirits mumbled and muttered while they waited for Middle World to end and Judgment to begin. From time to time, one of them would come to talk to her. It might be the Little Man wanting something sweet to eat, or a gaunt old haunt starving for some conversation. Daisy's dark eyes sparkled in the fading light. I have all the company I need.
The honeyed sun vanished behind Three Sisters Mesa. Before slipping into an unseen sea to bathe away the heat of day, she would pull a dark, star-sprinkled curtain down behind her.
The quiet in this remote place was more than the absence of sound. It was a peaceful river, flowing slowly out of the canyon. For a few heartbeats, it seemed as if Moon and Daisy were the only human beings in the world.
They were not, of course.
The planet was bustling and crackling with billions of busy people. All over the globe, on a multitude of stages, small and large dramas were being played out.
For example: About four hundred miles south of the Southern Ute reservation, something very big and bad and noisy was about to happen--an event that would, in time, unsettle the lives of Charlie Moon and his aunt Daisy.
A few yards above Luna County
A few minutes below midnight
The warning kept hammering in the pilot's skull--This is just plain nuts.
William "Pappy" Hitchcock squinted at a tar-black sky that he imagined to be the root cellar of heaven. Or maybe not. It could be the penthouse of that other place. Whatever it was or wasn't, he had the most peculiar sensation--that curious spirits of earlier aviators were watching him, wishing him good fortune, a happy landing. He grinned, tipped his baseball cap at the ghostly audience. Hey, Lucky Lindy . . . Halloo, Antoine-Marie-Roger de Saint-Exupery . . . Howdy there, Gus Grissom! Take a gander at Mrs. Hitchcock's favorite son. Ain't this a big, hairy horse-laugh? Me with this rickety old crate strapped to my butt, bumping along barely above the treetops, can't see the ground half the time, can't see the stars at all. And don't forget this humungous summer thunderstorm, lightning flashing, thunder booming--winds shifting and twisting all over the place! It's like everything and everybody is out to shoot me down--why, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised at antiaircraft fire!
A heavy barrage of hail rat-tatted on the windshield, dimpled the aircraft's thin skin.
A caustic grin. Well thank you for that.
He estimated the odds of a fatal crash as somewhere in the neighborhood of even money. That was a bad neighborhood. And on top of that, the internal vicinity was distinctly unfriendly--every one of his surly passengers was airsick, wanted by Interpol, and packing. As if all this were not enough to make the trip sufficiently interesting, he was about to spring a highly unpleasant surprise on these outlaws. One might reasonably conclude that the captain of the 1940s-vintage aircraft was worried, or at least mildly concerned about the situation. If One did, One would be mistaken.
At least for the moment, Mr. Hitchcock was in fine fettle and form--particularly for a man of his years. He was also that rarest of all mortals--a genuinely happy person. This was because he had made a firm decision to put all of his troubles behind him. Most of them already were. Literally. A couple of hundred miles behind him was the Wings of War Military Aircraft Museum, from whose hangar--just hours ago--he had stolen the antique U.S. Army Air Force DC-3. As has already been alluded to, some of his troubles were more closely behind him. Back there in the cargo bay, the half-dozen heavily armed cartel soldiers watched over a big pile of laundry bags that were stuffed tight as ticks with twenty-dollar bills.
Hitchcock gave little thought to his disgruntled passengers; his professional duties required all of his concentration. His instructions had been straightforward:
1. Stay under the FAA radar.
2. Land on the makeshift strip exactly six miles south of the Mexican border, where the cartel's Humvee and laundry truck and troops would be waiting.
Carrying out Instruction Number One was enormous fun--snaking through serpentine canyons, surfing across rippling seas of silver grass, skimming over the crests of rugged mesas. Hitchcock figured he was flying about as low as he could get without clipping off treetops and colliding with high-jumping jackrabbits.
Executing Instruction Number Two might have been mere routine--a yawn. Except for the fact that he intended to add a dash of spice to the stew. Hitchcock planned to land the DC-3 at a makeshift strip just six miles north of the Mexican border, where his Humvee and his laundry truck and his troops would be waiting. Yes sirree--Pablo Feliciano and "Doc" Blinkoe would be there and they'd be loaded for bear. Oh, this switch-and-run was just too sweet. What a fine way to cap off a long career!
Alas, as it would come to pass--the worst of Mr. Hitchcock's troubles were still out there in front of him. And coming up fast.
On the Ground
Partly because he was the man with inside connections to the cartel, mostly because he had come up with the hijacking plan, but also because it would have taken both of his partners to outwit a bright twelve-year-old--Pablo Feliciano was the brains of the three-man outfit. The pump-action shotgun propped on his shoulder, the Colombian was busy doing what he did best. He paced back and forth, worried about what might go wrong. He could imagine all sorts of catastrophes. The DC-3 would crash or the sacks would be stuffed with newspaper instead of cash or the DEA would spot the airplane from a dirigible-mounted radar or the makeshift landing-strip lights would fail or they'd all end up in jail--something would surely go wrong. Maybe everything.
Dr. Manfred Wilhelm Blinkoe didn't have a worry in his head. What, exactly, he did have between his ears was something of a mystery. On account of the fact that he was sometimes heard having a conversation with someone who wasn't there, the orthodontist was considered by his two partners-in-crime to be mildly eccentric seven days a week--and on occasion, a borderline lunatic. He had, in fact, been diagnosed by various professionals as schizophrenic, manic-depressive, bipolar, possibly even the possessor of a multiple-personality disorder. These modest shortcomings had not disqualified him from participating in the current project, which no completely sane person would have considered for a millisecond. Blissfully unaware that he harbored even the slightest flaw, Blinkoe considered himself a genius with a flair for the romantic. And having inherited a considerable fortune from his mother, he was not doing this for the cash. Like virtue, adventure was its own reward.
At the moment, the wealthy eccentric-lunatic-genius-romantic was perched in the sooty-black Humvee, immediately behind a tripod-mounted M2 .50-caliber Browning machine gun. The deadly apparatus was fitted with a superb night-vision scope. Having checked and aligned the metal-link ammunition belt, he adjusted the focus on the Starlite optics, watched a lime-tinted coyote lope along a rocky outcropping 160 yards away. What an easy shot that would be. To resist the absurd temptation, Blinkoe elevated the air-cooled barrel, squinted at a clearing in the cloudy sky. Countless points of green light winked and blinked at him. Nothing but stars and silence. It must be a lot like this on the dark side of the moon.
The stillness was cut by a sharp click-clack as Feliciano pumped a 12-gauge buckshot load into the chamber of his favorite shotgun. This mechanical statement was followed by the soft sound of his voice. "If Pappy took off on time, the DC-3 should be about ten minutes away."
This produced a grunt from Blinkoe.
In the starlight, Feliciano could barely make out the clumps of creosote bush, smoke tree, and snakeweed, but their piquant scents wafted past his nose. He didn't care for the smells. Feliciano had never liked the desert or anything that came with it. Imagining the sands to be crawling with sidewinders, scorpions, and tarantulas, he mused about which he loathed the most. Decided on the hairy spiders. There was something eerie in the deliberate, arrogant way they walked. He looked at the Humvee, blinked at the crazy Anglo's thick profile. "If these hombres figure out Pappy Hitchcock's landed 'em on the wrong side of that Mexican border, there's going to be serious hell to pay."
"You said it." About ten times you said it, just in the last hour. "But don't fret, my melodramatic friend." Blinkoe took a grip on the Browning, made a wide turn on the tripod. "I can chop down big trees with this bad machine, and I'll make bloody hamburger out of those--"
"Shhhh!" The Colombian turncoat was holding a finger to his lips.
Off to the north, there was an uneven thrumming of engines, the whir of propellers whacking off dark slices of midnight.
Feliciano pointed his shotgun in the general direction of the approaching aircraft, went through the drill for the gringo's benefit. "Soon as he's over Apache Butte, I'll switch on the runway lights. After that old crate rolls to a stop, I'll give the dot-dash signal with my flashlight. There'll be five, maybe six of my countrymen on board, and I'm the contact they'll expect to see. After most of 'em have their boots on the ground, I'll hit the dirt and take the first shot. That's your signal to spray 'em with the machine gun. Pappy'll take out any that're still on the plane. But don't you stop firing till the last of those banditos are dead." The soldier of misfortune checked his sidearm. And just to make sure, I'll see that every one of 'em gets a shot to the head.
Blinkoe felt a sharp pain in his lower back, a sudden surge of fear. Take it easy. It's not what you think it is--probably just a muscle spasm. Buoyed by these self-reassuring assertions, he squinted through the scope. "Pablo, this is going to be too easy--a real turkey shoot."
Maybe he's right. Worrier though he was, Feliciano's favorite superstition had to do with how merely saying something could make it happen. He took a deep breath, nodded in the darkness. "Everything'll work out just fine."
It would be gratifying to report that the bold trio's optimism was justified by the subsequent course of events--one prefers to see the habitual losers win one now and then. And things did get off to a fairly good start.
As the DC-3 approached, the jury-rigged landing lights switched on without a hitch.
The venerable World War II aircraft touched down, bumped along the desert hardpan to a lurching halt.
The prearranged flashlight signal was given, accepted as genuine.
The Colombians evacuated the airplane with no more than normal caution.
After shouting an enthusiastic greeting to his betrayed comrades, Feliciano hit the ground, Blinkoe laid into them with Mr. Browning's supremely efficient killing machine. Two of the cartel soldiers managed to return fire, but the .50-caliber scythe cut them all down like noxious weeds.
The noisy part was over in less time than it takes to tell about it.
But the barbarous business was far from finished.
It was, in fact, just getting started.
Having been smited hip and thigh with lumps of lead, Mr. Hitchcock would be denied what he wanted most of all. Before the flood of dawn had washed away the last smudge of night, the pilot's blood-soaked body would be rolled into a remote arroyo, left there to rot.
Only weeks later--having slit a farmer's throat for stealing his girlfriend's spotted billy goat--Señor Feliciano would end up in a Mexican jail. But not for long.
Having taken himself a remarkably pretty young wife, Dr. Blinkoe would live in constant fear for his life.
Copyright © 2005 by James D. Doss. All rights reserved. James D. Doss is the author of the Charlie Moon mysteries, including A Dead Man’s Tale and The Widow’s Revenge. Two of the Moon books were named one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly. Originally from Kentucky, he divides his time between Los Alamos and Taos, New Mexico.