Rats scurried around the perimeter of the room; huge, gray rats. Larry Winscott thought they resembled furry footballs with small pointed heads, short legs, and long tails. Rats had never frightened him. He’d seen plenty of them around the base camp in Viet Nam. He and lots of the other guys had used them for target practice. Take the bullet off a .223 cartridge and stick the brass case into a bar of soap. Wiggle it a little then pull it out with the soap plug in the end of the cartridge. In just a few minutes a guy could make several of the little varmint gitters the guys had called them. Load them into a magazine, jam it into the well of the M-16 and just wait for Mister Rat. At close range, the soap bullets were lethal. They were particularly effective at night, using a starlight scope to spot the pesky critters. Larry enjoyed killing rats.
Winscott took another deep slug of raw whiskey and followed it with a swallow of beer. Damned if he wasn’t feeling good!
He was fifty-six years old. Viet Nam had been a long, long time ago. But it hadn’t been all bad. He still had dozens of fond, even pleasant memories. He’d been a radio-telephone operator in an infantry company of the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles. The PRC-25 had added fifteen pounds to his already heavy rucksack, but it was weight he didn’t mind carrying. An RTO was always just a step away from the platoon leader, and always one of the first to know what was really going on. He got along real well with his platoon leader, call sign Grizzly 36, or just Grizzly. Everybody had a nickname, something that could be used over the radio without compromising secure information to enemy listeners. His own was Badger, after the viscous little carnivore that was state animal of his Wisconsin home.
Grizzlywas what the men called a retread. He was a tough little guy with a no-nonsense attitude. He’d been a cracker-jack sergeant so somebody in this fucked up Army had made him an officer. He shouldered his load, and stood his watch, just like the rest of the grunts. He laughed and cried just as easily as his men.
There had been the time they were leading the company through thick jungle. Third platoon had been point, fourth was slack, then second, with first being drag. The old man and his CP group were between the third and fourth. A full-up infantry company was supposed to number one hundred and eighty officers and men. Company B had just short of ninety. Companies were never up to full strength, there were always a few guys off on R&R, a few in hospital and a few in the rear area. Then, too, were the ghosts. They were people from Division or Corps who were technically assigned to Company B, but were detached for duty with higher headquarters. The regulations said you were not eligible to be awarded a Combat Infantryman’s Badge unless you were assigned as an infantryman at brigade or lower level. The ghosts were carried on Company B’s roster, but pulled all their duty back in some rear area with hot chow and soft bunks.
As it was, Company B had eighty-eight men in the jungle, and the company commander, Scorpion, had told Grizzly to take the point. It was afternoon, daylight was going fast, and they had at least two more klicks to go before they set up for the night. They humped. That’s what infantrymen do. Hump. Up hill, down hill, around the hill, through the mud and across the rivers.
The point squad signaled for a halt. Grizzly moved up to confer with his squad leader and learn what the holdup was. Sergeant Rasmussen whispered in his ear. “There’s a big snake in the middle of the trail. No way to go around. We need to fire’em up.”
“Show me,” Grizzly said. The sergeant led him forward another few meters to where a fallen log, as thick as a man’s waist, crossed a shallow ditch. The ditch ran at right angles to the faint trail the men had been following. The log laid the length of the trail. It was the trail over the small ditch.
Underneath the log was a huge snake. It was impossible to tell how long it was for it was tightly curled, resting in the drowsy afternoon. Its forked tongue occasionally flicked in and out as it tasted the air. Its head was twice the size of a man’s fist. A large mans fist. Its body was at least five or six inches thick. Grizzly looked left and right for a way to go around this obstacle. He saw nothing but thick brush and wait-a-minute vines. His troops could use their machetes and hack their way through in just a few minutes, but they were executing a movement-to-contact and silence was the order of the day. He saw no way to go around the snake but before he allowed his point man to open fire he would have to first call for permission from the CO.
Winscott drank more of the cheap whiskey. He remembered handing the radio handset to the lieutenant who keyed the mike.
“Six, this is three-six, over,” the lieutenant said softly.
The reply came back immediately for the company commander had been expecting it, “This is six. What’s the holdup?”
“There’s a large snake in the middle of the trail here. He’s nesting under a log. There’s thick brush to the left and right of the trail. I don’t see anyway to bypass the obstacle. Over.”
“Well, what do you want me to do about it?” was the reply.
“I’m requesting permission to open fire and destroy the snake.”
“No, no, keep things as quiet as possible. What’s the snake doing?”
Grizzly threw his hands up in the air and rolled his eyes in exasperation. He keyed the mike again. “He’s just laying there, under a large log. He’s flicking his tongue in and out.”
“Okay, have someone keep him covered and see if you can keep moving. But don’t open fire unless the snake looks threatening.”
Christ, Grizzly thought to himself, how am I supposed to interpret the body language of a snake? He motioned to Sergeant Rasmussen to follow him and prepared to step onto the log and move on down the trail. The sergeant grabbed his arm, stopping him, and asking what to do.
“Cover the snake. If he makes a suspicious move, fire’em up. Follow me when I get across.”
He looked aghast at the lieutenant. Clearly Rasmussen was no friend of snakes. But, the lieutenant was the lieutenant. He pointed his rifle at the snake, making sure the selector switch was in the full-auto position, as the platoon leader led his RTO across the log. Then he motioned for the man behind him to cover the snake, silly as it seemed. Then, he was across, then two more men. He caught up to the lieutenant who had hunkered down to look at his map.
“There’s a river ahead, not far,” Grizzly said. “When you get there, send two men to the right, two to the left, and hold up. I’ll catch up to you.”
Rasmussen moved off through the jungle, happy to be putting space between himself and that huge snake.
Five minutes later the lieutenant was looking across the river into the tree line twenty yards away. It didn’t look deep. It wasn’t running dangerously fast. No problem. He sent a squad across to secure the tree line while Rasmussen’s squad secured this side and gave them cover. When they had made it across and motioned they were okay, the lieutenant waded into the water. They were halfway across with the river at mid-thigh, when Badger handed him the handset. “Sir, the old man wants you.”
“This is three-six,” he radioed.
“Why didn’t you tell me that snake was that fuckin’ big?” came the shouted reply.
Larry Winscott had to laugh every time he remembered that story. He could hear the old man’s words plain as day even though the lieutenant was holding the handset almost three feet away. It was true that he held an irrational fear of the slithering creatures, but he would never have let Grizzly know that. Wherever the man led, Badger would follow.
Winscott took another pull at his bottle. The liquor was raw and bitter at first, but the more he drank, the easier it went down. There was a pounding in his ears; a pounding in his temples. It brought to mind the sights and sounds of an old western movie in black and white. Dozens of breech-clouted Indians with shuffling feet gathered around a roaring ceremonial fire with the soundtrack coming up on drums in the background. Relentless chanting as the camera panned from one wrinkled and toothless face to the next. “Hey-yanh-yanh-yanh-yanh-hey-yanh-yanh-yanh-yanh!” Redskins getting liquored up and making medicine before attacking the wagon train or wiping out the settler’s post. Boom-boom-boom-boompity-boom-boom-boom-boompity, went the drums and tom-toms as the Indians danced.
Winscott knew he was alone in his shack. Where could the noise be coming from? It filled him with a grave sense of apprehension. Boom-boom-boom-boompity-boom-boom-boom-boompity! A feeling of dread invaded his thoughts and soul. “Hey-yanh-yanh-yanh-yanh-hey-yanh-yanh-yanh-yanh!”
Christ! Now there was a snake coiled over in the corner. Not a four or five foot rattle snake so common in the hills nearby. This one was huge, with a bullet shaped head. It reminded him of the snake that ate John Voight in Anaconda, but that was stupid. That hadn’t even been a real snake, just computer animation.
Winscott ran the fingers of his right hand through his graying hair and then rubbed and blinked his eyes. That huge snake was still there! It was tightly coiled, its tongue flicking in and out while the beady little eyes locked on a rat six feet to the right. With lightening quickness the snake struck and swallowed up the rat and quickly struck again, swallowing a second rat.
Oh, God! Winscott screamed to himself. Please let me be dreaming this and let me wake up. He rolled off the couch where he’d been watching an old Andy Griffith rerun on one of the satellite channels. Lurching across the front porch of his trailer he swept the TV off the table and climbed up there himself. There was a three-legged stool in front of the table. He’d been sitting on it while he overhauled the carburetor of his chain saw this morning. The chain saw was still sitting next to where the TV had been.
Boom-boom-boom-boompity-boom-boom-boom-boompity! The drums were beating fiercely, almost painfully, within his head.
Larry grabbed the stool by its flat seat and swung it at the snake but struck only a glancing blow. One of the stool’s legs cracked and splintered while the other two fell off and slid away on the floor. Larry dropped the stool and it landed at his feet. He grabbed the chain saw and flipped its ignition switch to run then depressed the choke and squeezed the trigger type throttle while pulling the starter rope with his left hand.
The freshly tuned motor caught and roared to life, only to sputter and nearly stop before Larry lifted the choke lever. He pulled the trigger again and listened to the motor’s sharp roar. He waved the saw at the snake and saw its eyes follow the wickedly spinning chain as a cobra will follow the movement of a snake charmer’s flute while being unable to hear the sound of the music.
“Hey-yanh-yanh-yanh-yanh-hey-yanh-yanh-yanh-yanh!” the phantom Indians chanted in Larry’s head. Louder and louder, the movie was building to a dramatic segue. In the next scene he expected the director to cut to an interior shot of a settler’s cabin as ma, never a frail and worn plains woman, always a pert and attractive starlet in B westerns, set her kitchen table with blue tin plates and serving platters of foods unlikely to be found at that time and place in the west. Such were the dreams of Hollywood.
Winscott was facing a dream of his own. Nightmare would be a more appropriate description. The huge snake kept its eyes on the chain saw as Larry waved it over his head. Roar! Roar! Roar! The noise was deafening within the porch with the doors and windows closed. Larry wondered what more he could do to frighten this huge monster. How could he scare it away?
Then it was too late. The snake struck faster than anything Larry had ever seen. Its mouth closed over both of Larry’s legs, nearly up to the knees. Small but deadly teeth pierced his skin. The pain was white hot. The horror was overwhelming! He was being consumed alive!
Larry swung the chain saw at the snake’s skull and struck hard. The deadly teeth of the chain saw easily bit through the snake’s thin skin and struck bony plate. The saw skittered sideways and Larry nearly lost his grasp. He lifted the saw overhead and swung again with similar, useless results.
Larry knew there was only one way to keep this creature from eating him alive. A snake’s teeth are angled to the rear; there is no way the snake could spit out something once it had begun to swallow. The snake could not stop eating Larry.
“Hey-yanh-yanh-yanh-yanh-hey-yanh-yanh-yanh-yanh!” the Indians sang while their leather moccasins stirred the dust.
Unless… He raised the saw again and brought it down once more. This time he brought it down across both his legs, just above the knee. The pain was unimaginable but it was the only way to save his life. He held the trigger tightly pressed in his right hand while his jaw and teeth were no less tightly clenched. He wanted to scream but if he opened his mouth let the air rush out he knew he wouldn’t have the resolve to hold the saw.
Blood, flesh and bone squirted from the saw. It struck the floor. It struck the walls. It spurted to the roof. Finally, Larry’s legs were severed and the snake’s head fell to the floor with them. Greedily it swallowed Larry’s legs. Winscott found the weight of the chain saw pulling him forward, threatening to topple him to the floor, onto the dreadful snake. He let go of the heavy motor and it crashed on top of the huge snake, the chain still spinning and throwing the saw half way across the room.
He stretched his arms straight out to the edge of the table and managed to hold himself upright, just barely. Larry’s reflexes were trying to hold him self erect with legs that were no longer there. He fought to hold himself upright in spite of the pain. His vision was beginning to dim and he felt cold. He knew what was happening to him, he was suffering the effects of losing a huge quantity of blood. The more he strained to hold himself upright, the faster his heart pumped the blood from the arteries of his severed legs. He grew colder, steadily colder.
His vision began losing color, changing from gray to black, and then an even deeper black. His ears were ringing, as though he could hear the thump-thump-thumpity-thump of his heart. Finally, he blacked out. He didn’t even feel it when his unconscious body toppled forward, falling from the precarious perch upon the table. His chest hit the splintered leg of the broken stool. The broken spear jutted straight up from the floor and it was sharp enough to pierce right through Larry’s torso. He ended lying flat on the floor with the bloody splinter protruding from his back.
When the drunken man’s brain was no longer functioning, when it was no longer capable of conjuring up fantasy demons, the huge snake and fat gray rats left the room. The old man was alone. Larry Winscott died alone.
The sound track of the B-western rose to a crescendo. “Hey-yanh-yanh-yanh-yanh-hey-yanh-yanh-yanh-yanh!” Boom-boom-boom-boompity-boom-boom-boom-boompity!
Lane Mauler eased off the gas pedal and the two-and-a-half ton rental truck began slowing in spite of the downhill grade. The green and white sign to the right of the road read Valley Forks, Pop. 254, Elev. 5466. “Looks as though this is the big city, Tutu,” he said to the fifteen-year-old girl sitting across from him.
The girl had earphones over her head, the wire leading to a CD player sitting between them on the front seat. Her head was bobbing in time with music only she could hear. Her eyes were nearly shut, pointedly ignoring the last hundred miles of desert they had driven through. As she felt the truck slow she lifted her head and glanced around. They were approaching a small town. Correction: a wide spot in the road with a combination gas station and restaurant, she told herself.
“What’s this?” she asked her dad.
“Home,” he said, “almost.”
“Ughh, how gross, Dad.” She made a face as if to visibly show signs of her disgust and disappointment. “This burg is so far out in the sticks they probably don't even get Monday until Wednesday. I’ll bet the nearest shopping mall is a hundred miles behind us in Las Vegas.” She scanned both sides of the road getting an idea of the new town her father had chosen for them to live in. She was dismally depressed.
“You’re half right,” her dad said. “The nearest shopping mall is behind us, in Las Vegas. But it’s nearer two hundred miles than one hundred. Fallon is northwest, about a hundred and forty miles, and Ely (he pronounced it Eelee) is about the same distance to the east. But Tonopah is only about eighty miles south of us, just past Belmont.”
“Christ Dad! Where do people shop around here?”
“Around here? Mostly they don’t. You make a list and go into town, two, maybe three times a month, to pick up what you need. And watch your mouth, Cheryl Ann. You’re supposed to be a young lady, you know.”
“Yeah, as if anybody around here would care.” With her hand she made a broad sweep of the view around them. “They don’t even have a McDonald’s or Dairy Queen. No Taco Bell and no Burger King. What do people eat around here?”
“I guess they make do at Art’s Exxon and Eats.” He pointed to the building just twenty yards in front of them and pulled onto the gravel, his tires making a crunchy sound as he stopped the rental truck and shifted into park. “Let’s see what kind of burgers Art makes. It’s after lunch already, and I’m beginning to get hungry. I could also do with a coffee. How about yourself?” He killed the ignition and stepped out of the truck. Tutu lazily slipped out on the passenger's side.
Cheryl surveyed the gas station/coffee shop and made a face. “Any port in a storm, I guess the saying goes. Where do you suppose our house will be, dad?”
“Somewhere close, Tutu.” He gave his daughter a smack across her shorts. “Let’s get something to eat and ask inside.”
“Daddy!” the girl said. “People might see. I’m not a six-year-old anymore.” A flush came to her cheeks.
“Keep reminding me,” he said playfully. “The way you act sometimes, I have a tendency to forget.”
“Okay. So I pout sometimes. You know that I’m not real happy about moving to this no-where place. I can’t hide the fact. You have to see my side of things. I mean, this is quite a change from Long Beach. I’m not even sure we’re still in the same century up here.” They had been walking as they talked, now the girl reached the door of the coffee shop and held it open for her dad.
“Thanks, dear,” he said, “but this time we’ll let beauty go before age.” Inside they found a small counter with candies, mints, and cigarettes. A cash register set upon the counter. Next to the cash register was a pasteboard card with small cellophane bags of Granny Titus’s Paiute Potpourri for a dollar each. A freckled redhead of about fifteen stood behind the counter. She wore blue-jeans, a long sleeved knit pull-over and a nametag which read Ruth. Behind her were digital readouts and on/off switches for the three gas pumps out front.
“Hi,” she said, genuinely cheerful. “Welcome to Valley Forks. Find yourselves a seat and I’ll be right with you.”
Along the left-hand wall Lane saw a lunch counter with eight or nine stools in front of it. In the center of the room were eight booths in two rows of four, separated only by a corrugated fiberglass partition that was easy to see over when you were standing, but gave privacy when seated. To the right of the booths were six short grocery aisles. The aisles stuck out into the room with plenty of space for customers to pass down them or between them and the lunch booths. Above each aisle, a convex mirror attached to the ceiling allowed the person at the check out counter to keep an eye on what was happening between the rows.
Between the grocery shelves and booths, moving toward the rear of the building was a wide, clear area about twenty feet by forty. The back wall of the building was made of built-in cold storage boxes. Through their glass fronts, Lane could see milk, beer, soda, a few lunch-meats, packaged cheese items, eggs, and other odds and ends. It looked as though Art was providing for some of the needs of the residents of Valley Forks.
Father and daughter settled into the nearest booth with Cheryl sitting across from her dad. Ruth showed up and placed two glasses of water in front of them. The table was all ready set with service for four and the girl picked up the extra silverware, holding it in one hand as she set down two menus. “Can I get you folks something to drink while you’re deciding?” The girl had a pleasant smile and a cheerful voice. She obviously didn’t feel that her job was sheer drudgery, or perhaps Art paid well enough to make it interesting for her.
“Yes, please,” Lane said. “Coffee for me, and Cheryl...?” he let the question hang while motioning to her with his empty right hand. The waitress followed his lead and turned her attention to the girl in the booth.
“A diet Pepsi, please.” Cheryl gave the girl a fairly sincere smile. Maybe they would be friends. They might be the only teenage girls within a hundred miles. Ruth left to fetch the beverages.
Surveying the menu Lane muttered, “I think I’ll have the chili in a sourdough bowl.”
“Dad, you always order chili, even when you could have chicken or a steak. Boy! Our new house is gonna smell tonight!”
“Cheryl!” her dad cautioned in a voice hardly above a whisper.
“Well, excuse me,” Cheryl said. “I mean, it’s not like this place is so crowded I’d be shouting it to the world.”
“Behave, Cheryl Ann,” her father said firmly. The girl knew he meant business when he called her Cheryl Ann. Any other time he called her Tutu, a nickname she’d picked up when just a small child and still young enough for dad to collect kisses from his number one girl, his wife, and his number two girl, his daughter. She’d been Number Two, or just Tutu, as long as she could remember, except when she displeased him.
Then his wife died two years ago. Twenty-six months, two weeks, and three days. But who was keeping track? She’d been the victim of an unsolved carjacking. Neither Lane nor his daughter felt any one could ever be the number one girl again. But Cheryl Ann remained Tutu.
Lane seldom thought about his wife being dragged from behind the wheel of her dark blue Nissan. He couldn’t. He couldn’t allow the picture to form in his mind of her laying on the asphalt while a bullet smashed into her uncomprehending face, shattering her Pepsodent smile into broken chunks of dental material. The three-eighty bullet ripped past her teeth and left chunks of bone, flesh, and blood on the pavement where it ended as a crumpled mass of lead and copper. The first bullet hadn’t been enough to kill her instantly, but the second one, fired by the young killer, without so much as a second’s thought, had penetrated Anne’s chest, fired at a downward angle as she lay prone on the street, driving under her left breast and exploding into her heart.
Lane shook his head and pushed the flash of memory away from his consciousness. Because of departmental policy, he hadn’t even been allowed to get close to the case, but he heard things. He knew things. He grieved until he could grieve no more. He cried until his eyes were red and raw, his cheeks covered with the salty warmth of his tears.
He wouldn’t drink, knowing you can’t find answers at the bottom of a bottle. Besides, he still had a daughter who needed him. The only thing he could do was to hide the memory of his dead wife in the deepest and darkest drawers of the filing cabinet that held his dreams and fears. And he could get Tutu out of the sewer called a city. Lane Mauler dealt with his loss, with the end of his marriage, the end of his world as it had been to that day, by hiding from it. He closed the book and tried to pretend that part of his life had never happened, that it was just an empty void where there should have been eighteen years of memories. Eighteen years of whispered affection. Eighteen years of shared responsibilities. Eighteen years of trips to the supermarket, vacations at Tahoe, at the beach, a cruise to Hawaii on their fifth anniversary. Lane couldn’t hide from all the memories, but he could try….