Settin’ The Woods On Fire The old pickup rattled and chirped as it pounded down the dim green corridor of the abandoned logging road. The real rains had held off so far and the mud wasn’t too deep. Matt was one of those people who only thought one thought at a time, and the road had his full attention. You could have shot him and he wouldn’t have blinked. Polly popped a Hank Williams tape into the battered, cheap stereo that Matt had gotten hot from some rockhead in the parking lot at the bar. Tired of the scenery, an unbroken wall of firs left and right, a canopy of firs overhanging the road, she entertained herself by pushing back her cuticles with the rounded end of a long steel nail file. She nudged his knee with hers. “You know what I’m going to do with my half Matt? I’m going to buy me a brand new Jeep Wrangler, bright red with a nice stereo and great big mudders on it so it’ll go anywhere.” He looked at her with a snort. “Your half? What the fuck do you mean, your half. You must be out of your fucking mind. I’ll give you what I give you and it’ll just have to be enough.” She flopped back against the door in a huff, giving him her best evil eye. He reached over and stroked her leg. She pulled it away as if bitten. “Aw c’mon, Pol, don’t be a bitch. I’ll take care of you, don’t worry.” Unable to elicit any response from her he blew her off, and gave all his attention to the task at hand. She’d shut up about it when this was all over and she could go buy herself a few new dresses. She was usually easily appeased. Matt wasn’t really bad. Well, maybe he was, but he wasn’t usually too bad to her. He liked his sex a little rough and he cussed at her a bit too much but the only time he ever hit her was one time when she was drunk and got to flirting with Jeffo. Sure he came off like a badass but boys (and they’ll always be boys) just do that, trying to stop it is like pissing up a rope. Matt wasn’t much for telling stories but his sister Candace was, especially when she’d had a few. Matt was the only one of the kids old enough to remember their dad so he was the only one who got all messesd up when he died. His mom had, to this day, an unbroken string of criminal loser boyfriends. The ones that didn’t beat him were worse than the ones who did, buddying up to him and teaching him to drink and steal and do dope. Matt joined the army to see the world but mostly saw the inside of a cell stateside, doing time for breaking a lieutenant’s cheekbone with a barstool in some cheesy titty bar just off base. He just bummed around after his discharge, drinking, going to jail for fighting and smashing up bars, stealing cars, until he met up with Mohlke. Mohlke had literally picked him up off the street, finding him passed out in front of Bad Dog’s Tavern, a place mostly patronized by bikers and vets. Mohlke had known Matt when he was a kid, had dated his mother a few times but the leg thing and the shrapnel scars turned her off too much. Mohlke made Matt his gopher and kick-down boy, teaching him all about outdoor marijuana cultivation in the process. He learned how to sex the plants, how to hand pollinate, how to set up reservoirs and dripline, how to tell soil composition by its flavor, and how to set up a scent barrier around the patch using carnivore shit. As his skill and
usefulness increased Matt came to believe that he was entitled to a bigger slice of the profits. This was the seed of the vine that would come to strangle their partnership. Any attempt he made to bring up the subject would be ignored or deflected. Mohlke thought Matt was getting greedy but that was not the case. Matt was a man of simple tastes, he had his rent and his meals for free, all the dope, booze, and pocket change he needed. This wasn’t about money. This was about love. Matt felt that the one person in the world whose opinion of him he cared about was refusing to recognize the progress he’d made and the effort he’d put in. Matt hadn’t ever wanted to be rich, he just wanted a Daddy to pat him on the head and say, “Good job, Tiger.” Matt pulled the truck over and killed the engine. “We walk from here.” He handed Polly the machete and the economy-sized box of 33 gallon plastic garbage bags, taking for himself the rifle and a half-pint of Southern Comfort, to keep off the morning’s chill. He thought about taking the little .380 automatic he kept as a backup under the seat of the truck, but the load was so light as to be useless in brush like this; the smallest vine or twig could deflect it. They walked up the trail a hundred yards or so and stopped at what seemed to Polly an indistinguishable point on the track. Matt squatted by the side of the trail, pointed to a broken chunk of mossy stick and a few bent blades of grass. “We go in here.” he whispered, though there wasn’t anyone to overhear them for miles around, “Walk alongside of the path. Who knows what kinds of shit Mohlke’s got rigged up here.” She couldn’t even see the path they were following so she followed close behind him, stepping in his footprints. She watched the muscles of his ass bunch and flex under tight denim. That was what had first attracted her to him, that cute little butt sticking out when he leaned over the pool table at the Brickyard. She’d flipped a coin with Ara to see who got to pick him up. Those were the days. Right now she wished she was back there, a silly little girl with a silly little life. A life of her own. The sun was barely peeking over the hills so the grass was still jeweled with dew. Soon their jeans were soaked to their thighs. About a hundred yards in he pulled up short. “Look.” he said, pointing into the air. It took her a moment to find it but there it was, knobbed with dew like the spiderwebs, a thin piece of monofilament fishing line, studded with tiny hooks, strung at approximately eye level between the trees. “That Mohlke,” Matt laughed, taking the machete and chopping it down, “he’s one funny motherfucker.” Mohlke was one of the originals. A real straight arrow when he volunteered for his first tour in Nam, a burned-out doper by the time he cut his third tour short, stepping on a mine when he walked out to take a piss. He came back home to nothing, his folks moved to Tempe, his dog dead, his girl moved in with in with an old fishing buddy of his. He didn’t blame her, he wouldn’t have waited either. Faced with having to pay 100 percent of his bills on a 25 percent disability check he skipped out on his creditors and moved out to northern California, where an old high school buddy of his was making a fortune growing this new seedless green pot. Mohlke founnd he had a knack for gardening and a love of the outdoors which made him perfectly suited for the work.
Having had enough of military choppers to last him a few lifetimes he packed up and split Humboldt at the first whup-whup of Operation Greensweep’s birds, taking his savings and his seeds and moving up to Oregon. Oregon had been good to Mohlke. He’d bought a little farm, just a house and a barn on 36 acres, half of it gone back to woods. He had a little apple orchard out back that, with some careful pruning, he managed to reclaim from its wild state. It yielded enough to keep him in hard cider all year, with plenty left over to give his friends, few as they were. He kept a few hogs, a few chickens, and had a little vegetable garden right out in front of the house. He lived so simply and grew so much dope that, the occasional ounce of coke notwithstanding, he had to be piling a bunch of money up somewhere, but in all the years Matt had known him Mohlke had never shown any obvious sign of wealth. He didn’t buy flash cars, preferring the anonymity of a rusty Chevy station wagon and a battered Land Rover for getting around in the woods. He didn’t travel because someone had to be home to feed the animals. He sure didn’t spend it on clothes, his most usual outfit being a greasy old mechanic’s jumpsuit. Somewhere, in a safe-deposit box or in a hole in the ground or in a hollow fucking tree, who knows, he had a serious wad of cash stashed. But he knew Mohlke and there would be no way to get it out of him short of torture. Even then there was a good chance that, as you snipped off his fingers, the only thing he would tell you was what you could do with your mother. Mohlke always broke his crops up into several patches, both to be less obvious from the air and in the hope that, should one patch get ripped off or busted, the rest might be missed. The first patch on the trail was small so as to give lazy cops or thieves as little as possible. Six plants, each as tall as a man, stood in a small man made clearing. Drip irrigation tubing ran from the base of the plants to a bigger feeder hose which ran off into the brush. Matt smelled it before he saw it, that unmistakeable winy smell of mature bud with an undertone of steer shit. He could tell blindfolded which of Mohlke’s strains it was, B17, a squat, bushy variety with dark orange hairs and purple streaks on the calyx. It didn’t produce the weight that some of his other strains might, but the product was unsurpassed. Leaning the rifle against one of the Himalayan blackberries that Mohlke had planted around the patch as a sort of natural fence, Matt took the machete and began lopping the side branches off of the trunks of the plants. He tossed them to Polly who stuffed them into garbage sacks, stacking the bags by the entrance to the trail. She was having fun. This kind of gig was usually a guy thing, the girls left home to fret and worry. She would have been somewhat less pleased if she had known that she was chosen for the ease with which she could be forced into a subordinate role; she was trusted because she could be controlled. She finished stuffing and stacking the bags and wiped the dew from her hands, the resin from the weed making her hands stick to her jeans. “We’ve got to get this shit hung up pretty quick before it starts to rot.” Matt said, poking around for the trail to the real patches. She knew that. From sitting around listening to him and his buddies bullshitting she probably knew as much about growing weed as he did; maybe more since she actually listened instead of arguing like he did.
“Pick up that shit,” he pointed to the rifle and the box of bags, “and follow me.” He took them through a gap in the briars that she hadn’t even noticed. Even on the trail she couldn’t see it. The brush was so thick here that there was no way to walk beside the path so they inched along down it, Matt poking in the bushes and the ground for any booby traps. Once he flushed a deer which crashed off through the brush, tail in the air, leaping over the ferns and blackberry canes to vanish back into the forest. As they rounded a bend in the track a clearing appeared before them. Matt pulled up short, stopping her with a less than gentle hand. He stuck the machete in the ground and flipped up a two foot square cover of woven twigs, disguised with moss. In the shallow pit underneath was an array of long, sharp steel spikes, driven through heavy planks and turned points-up. Matt laughed. “Mohlke’s getting old. He’s too lazy to carve his own punji sticks.” Mohlke and Matt’s relationship had come to this through the agency of a number of common poisons; resentment, cocaine, money and alcohol. Matt had tired of hinting about his growing dissatisfaction with his position in the family business. He chose to bring the matter up at the tail end of a quarter ounce of cocaine and the bottom of the second bottle of Cuervo Gold. The chemicals that had emboldened him to speak had made them both unfit for negotiations; aggressive and paranoid from the coke, dumb and mean from the tequila. Mohlke may have been burned out and wasted but his forte in the service had been hand-to-hand combat. The ensuing discussion cost Matt a tooth and a half and five stitches in his eyebrow. That was the last time they spoke to one another. He’d been talking about ripping off Mohlke ever since. What inspired him to make the jump from talking trash to armed raids at dawn was a practical matter. Ariana, the fat little slut, had welshed on the deal she had made with him; that as long as he didn’t show his face she wouldn’t come after him for child support. Matt was much surprised when he got a letter demanding nine grand and offering to garnish his wages to help him pay it. He’d sold his bike for enough money to make the payments for a while, but that money was gone and the collection agency didn’t take excuses. The second patch was far bigger, twenty plants in all. As they stepped into the clearing the civet-and-pine stink of weed took their breath away. The sun, now just cresting the hills, slipped in under the trees and lit the plants with sequins of dew, but wasn’t strong enough yet to warm them. Matt was faster with the machete than she was with the bags and she quickly fell behind, Matt leaving the branches in stacks at the base of each trunk. “Hurry the fuck up,” he hissed, though she couldn’t imagine why they’d need to whisper all the way out here, “I want to be off this hill before Mohlke even gets out of bed.” She stuffed the colas, some of them as long and thick as a baseball bat, into the sacks as fast as she could, her hands sticking to the resin on the stems. Matt finished stripping the plants and began poking around the perimeter of the clearing, searching for the trail to the next patch. It had taken him weeks of searching, by eye and by smell, to find the trail to Mohlke’s patches. He knew how Mohlke laid out his patches; in a line uphill from a stream, every time. Mohlke always grew on the south facing slopes of the hills behind his property, state
land, no way to connect it with him. He moved his patches every few years so Matt knew a bunch of places he didn’t need to look in. Matt had managed to find the trailhead but there was no way to walk back in to the patches without leaving sign that Mohlke could read, so he was navigating without a map once he left the logging road. “Will you move your fat ass?” he snapped, motioning her over to an almost imperceptible break in the wall of briars. He hadn’t always been so harsh with her. She could make excuses for individual instances of cruelty but she couldn’t deny what the pattern added up to. When they first started going out he was sort of sweet and clumsy. Never the flowers-and-champagne type, he at least made her feel sexy and wanted. She used to find his mad jealousy romantic until he stabbed that poor kid in the belly at Wiley’s just for talking to her. Now she just felt flinchy and uncomfortable around guys. It wasn’t as if his fears were baseless, sooner or later every guy she knew got around to hitting on her, even Matt’s closest friends. She didn’t know whether this indicated that she came off as loose, that she really was desirable, or just that guys are all dogs, so she just took it as a compliment and turned them down quickly before Matt could notice her talking to them. After running down two dead ends, one a track which led to the spot Mohlke had chosen to use as a toilet when he was working out here, one the path which led to the stream where the pumps were, Matt was beginning to fear that Mohlke had moved the rest of his patches far down the valley. Those ram pumps were an innovation Matt had helped set up the last year he and Mohlke worked together. Small, light, and almost silent, they could be built with standard parts from the plumbing section of the home improvement store in town. They drew their power from the water pressure of the stream. Mohlke was more than glad not to have to haul his old gas pump and its cans of fuel out to the patches every week or so. It was amazing what that old bastard could do with one leg, pins in his hip, and a shredded rotator cuff in his shoulder. For a moment Matt felt nostalgia for the days when he worked out in the woods, the smell of pine needles baking in the sun, the warning cries of the scrub jays, Mohlke’s silent company. A firm believer that to live in the past or the future was to be dead in the present, Matt shoved these thoughts aside to concentrate on the task at hand. He poked around the edge of the clearing. “Maybe the trail comes off the last patch, Matt.” “Not a chance. He grows them in a straight line above a stream, at the limits of his pump’s ability to lift water.” Polly lit a smoke while Matt kept looking. The sun was beginning to warm the air but her wet legs and sleeves were still cold. “Bingo!” said Matt, pushing aside a screen of blackberry canes, revealing an opening that a man could barely crouch through. They bumbled through along through the vines and fallen trees, Polly tripping and stumbling trying to keep up. If she had learned nothing else in the last two years she had learned that Matt waits for no one. He led them to a tangled wall of blackberries which seemed monolithic to Polly but eventually gave up its secret, a switchback tunnel of briars you had to stoop to get through, and opened onto a patch. Matt stopped short, Polly colliding with his back. “The dogs.” he said in a croaking whisper.
She looked around him across the clearing. There were dogs, lots of them. These were nobody’s pampered and flabby mutts but a carefully bred and trained platoon of canine soldiers. Mohlke had always had dogs but in the years since Matt had left he’d begun a little side project of breeding Akitas, the quiet and fearsome Japanese hunting and guard dogs. Eleven of them now confronted Matt and Polly across the clearing. While the dogs stood silently at attention Matt weighed his options, which were few. His rifle held five rounds of ammunition, nowhere near enough. Even if every shot were a kill it wouldn’t stop the others. Mohlke would euthanize a gun shy dog. If he could take out the pack’s leader it might give him a moment’s head start. Or not. What shooting would definitely do would be to alert Mohlke, who probably wasn’t too far from his dogs. If Mohlke kept to his old habits he’d be carrying his AK with the thirty round clip, just the thing for a deer or a thief found poaching on his turf. Mohlke was used to killing people. In Vietnam his nickname had been “B.C.” for “body count”. The question was whether Mohlke was waiting for him down at the truck or if he’d come up whatever back way the dogs had. Fighting it out with the dogs was impossible. At least with Mohlke he stood a chance of talking or shooting his way out of it. “Polly, real slow, give me the rifle and take this.” he handed her the machete. “Now I’m going to back up slow and you guide me out the way we came in.” They made it back to the second patch , no rush from the dogs but no distance gained either. No sign of Mohlke yet. As the path opened out into the patch the dogs fanned out to try to outflank them. Polly felt Matt’s back against hers, pushing her. She stumbled, almost fell. “Get your ass in gear, bitch. Find the fucking trail.” “I’m trying. I can’t see anything.” she said, almost in tears. He turned his head for just a second. The dogs noticed and began to move in. He found their footprints and shoved her through the hole, briars raking her face, tangling in her hair. The dogs had to form a column again to get through the hole but they had gained ground, they were patient, they could do this by inches. Once Matt tripped over a root and fell to his knees. The alpha dog poised to spring at him but he came up with his sights right on the son of a bitch’s heart. His outward calmness gave the dogs pause. They could tell when an adversary was weak, scared or distracted, they could tell when he thought he was strong. But they could wait as long as it took. Polly was as scared of Matt’s disapproval of her trailbreaking abilities as she was of any dog or future possible Mohlke. Had she known Mohlke she might have felt differently. She wasn’t afraid of dogs at all, having worked as a groomer back in Michigan. Once you’ve clipped the toenails of a few strange and unfriendly pit bulls you become hard to impress. More than anything she was afraid that she was going to screw up somehow and Matt was going to make this out to be her fault. She didn’t care that much if they made any money, she just wanted not to be held responsible. She picked and stomped her way through the ferns, the vines, and the berry canes, guiding Matt by pulling on his shirt. Desperately hoping that she hadn’t somehow managed to steer them off the trail. She bent to walk under a berry cane and forgot to tell Matt to duck. The thorns raked his scalp and drew blood but he hardly noticed. They passed through a wall of
vegetation into the sun. They had made the first patch, one more leg of the trail and they’d be back at the truck. As Matt backed across the clearing the top dog matched him step for step, never taking its eyes from his. From the corner of his eye he saw the pile of plastic bags; all that money, gone, wasted. The head dog sensed his distraction and gained two steps on him, panting with its mouth open in the now warm morning sun. Matt kept the muzzle pointed right at his chest. Polly let go of Matt’s shirt for a second to hitch up her heavy, sodden jeans and got a few steps ahead of him. He reached around behind him and she was gone. “Polly,” he aked, still backing up,”where are you?” She stopped short and turned to answer but before she could speak he backed into her, catching a heel on her ankle, tripping him flat on his ass. He had just enough time to yell “RUN!” before the dogs rushed him. Polly started down the main trail to the truck. Matt had dropped the rifle but, in the time it took the lead dog to close the gap he had time enough to grab it by the barrel and swing it like a club. The walnut stock of the gun shattered as it broke bone, the butt plate slicing through the soft skin of the Akita’s ear. The dog stood two feet from him, stunned, blood raining all around as it shook its head, trying to dislodge the pain from the side of its skull. Half of an ear hung by a thread. The pack stood their ground behind him, waiting for orders. Matt took this opportunity to turn and run like hell. He found himself moving in the slow-motion time that one may experience in the middle of a car wreck or a long fall. He was so amped up on adrenaline that he found himself with time to think, though his thinking was rather scattered and incongruous. He wondered how he was going to pay his child support now and how much it was going to cost to get his gunstock fixed. He tought about how cute Polly’s ass was as she pounded down the path before him in her tight, wet jeans. Not that he was completely oblivious to the situation at hand, he was simultaneously wondering how long it would be before the alpha dog recovered or was replaced, whether a pack of domesticated dogs would actually tear a human being apart, and where the hell Mohlke was in all this. In a few seconds he had caught up with Polly. Polly was doing some thinking of her own. She knew she was going to pay, for being a lousy guide, for tripping Matt, for just being generally slow on the uptake. She just didn’t know how much. Matt could never remember your birthday or your anniversary or that he promised to change the oil in your car but he would remember for years any time someone had crossed him or failed him or blew him off. He didn’t beat her or anything, that would have been a relief; over quickly and you get to keep more of your self esteem. When Matt figured that she had done him wrong the punishment could be as little as a short chewing out to a weeks-long program of guilt trips, verbal abuse, humiliating sex, and being ordered around like a dog or a child. He had this sixth sense for her breaking point though and always seemed to lay off just as she was preparing to leave. Matt could be really sweet with his back up against the wall. He overtook Polly easily with his long legs and good hiking boots. Polly wore sneakers which was a big mistake, their shallow treads sliding around on mud or moss or rotted wood. Matt recognized the big fallen tree they’d had to climb over on the way in. That meant they
were about three hundred yards from the logging road another few hundred feet to the truck. The branches of saplings and tendrils of vines overhung the path, seemingly all at eye-level. Matt whacked them back with what was left of his rifle, Polly just enough behind him that the vegetation which he batted away from his face swung back into hers. She ran with her hands in front of her face, tried to duck beneath them but crouching slowed her down too much. Matt turned and looked over his shoulder. No visible dogs, only Polly, puffing to keep up with him. He heard a little crack, like a knuckle popping or a nut being shelled, and felt a strange sense of weightlessness. Polly crashed into his back, blinded by leaves. The ground broke with a crackle and a groan and the world went black. It wasn’t the pain which brought him out of his blackout, it wasn’t the dirt in his eyes, but the pressure on his chest. He couldn’t move. He pushed at the thing on his chest and, to his surprise, it not only got up off him but apologized. When he tried to stand up the pain almost knocked him out again. He sat down hard. If he kept perfectly still he could just barely stand it. He didn’t even have to look around to know where he was; Mohlke had set a tiger trap and Matt had spurned his own good advice about keeping off the main trail to walk right into it. When he looked down from the circle of sky above him all went black. As his eyes got used to the light Polly faded in, sitting with her knees pulled up to her chin, arms wrapped around them. “I told you to keep off the fucking trail.” Fully prepared to take what she had coming (deserved or not) she sat with her eyes cast down and waited for the rest of it. “I know. I just couldn’t find where we’d come through and the dogs were coming and I had to make a decision. I’m sorry.” “Well...fuck it. Come here and look at my ankle.” Polly pulled his pantsleg up to see a sock black with blood, too much blood to be a surface wound. She tried to gently roll the sock down but it hooked on something which made Matt gasp. Pulling the sock away from the leg she slid it down to the top of his boots. “There’s a piece of bone sticking out.” “Shit. Here,” he said, handing her the bottle, “sterilize it with this. Leave a few shots for me though, okay?” Matt needed time to think and there probably wasn’t much of that left. Mohlke was going to show up sometime soon or, possibly even worse, he wasn’t going to show up for a week or two. He wasn’t going to be doing any climbing any time soon so their best hope was to get Polly out and have her come up with some way to get him out. Maybe she could get the truck back in here far enough to haul him out with the rope he kept behind the seat. He had a few long extension cords in the toolbox which would give him an extra hundred feet. The trail was pretty rough though, definitely not designed with auto traffic in mind. Hell, if that didn’t work she could go back to town for help or a ladder if she could remember the way on all these unmarked backroads. They’d figure out something. The first thing was to get her out. He stood on his good leg, back against the wall of the pit, and Polly stepped into the cup of his interlaced fingers. The first time he lost it and dropped her, cursed her for throwing him off balance. The second time she made the step up to his shoulders. She could just barely reach the rim, its crumbly soil falling away in her hands when she tried to pull herself up. Dirt rained down on Matt’s head but he was too busy with keeping balance to complain.
As they sat on the damp and chilly floor of the pit, out of ideas for the moment, a shape broke the sunlight at the edge of the pit, the maned neck and shoulders and, now single, triangular ear of an exceptionally large Akita. Another one appeared, then another, and another, until they were ringed with silent, toothy guards. Matt was beginning to get discouraged. They had three legs between them, five rounds of ammunition, supposing that the gun still worked, two shots of Southern Comfort, and no place to run to. Their only reasonable hope was to be found by someone. He thought of firing his gun into the air, the supposed hunter’s distress call, but he’d done an awful lot of shooting in these woods and nobody had ever come running to anybody’s rescue before. Even if someone did go looking for them the chances of being found were slim. He pitched a rock at one of the heads above him, connecting for a satisfying yelp. “Ain’t you done enough already? Now you got to go chucking rocks at my dogs too.” It was Mohlke. Good. This gave them an even chance of being rescued or being shot. Mohlke stood at the edge of the pit, flicking cigarette ashes over the edge. “That is you, ain’t it Matt?” “Yeah it’s me.” “Decided to come and help me with my harvest, huh? The motherfucking birds come home to roost.” “Look, Mohlke I...” “Don’t bother. Who you got in there with you?” “My girlfriend.” Mohlke tossed his butt in the pit. “Well that’s too bad. Now you know, Matt, that I’m going to have to kill you. Nothing personal, you’ve just become a bad risk is all. I will be sorry to have to kill your little witness here though. You know how it is, Matt, no loose ends.” Matt saw Mohlke slide his AK around on its sling. Figuring he might as well die with a gun in his hand rather than just stand there and get shot Matt made the three steps, two of them extremely painful, to his rifle and raised it in the time it took Mohlke to rack a shell into the chamber and get the AK to his shoulder. Holding the weapon away from himself so the kick didn’t drive the sharply splintered stock into his shoulder, Matt, having no time to take proper aim, pointed in the general direction of Mohlke and fired. The explosion blew Matt onto his ass, dazed, ears ringing, too shocked to feel pain. It took Mohlke a few seconds to figure out what had happened but when he did he cracked up laughing, big deep guttural laughs which boomed all down the valley. Matt was the last to know what happened but it didn’t take him long to figure it out either. He must have dropped the gun muzzle-first when he fell into the pit, plugging the barrel with dirt. It lay next to him in the dirt, shattered at both ends, little bits of its steel embedded in his scalp, his forearm, and one chunk in Polly’s thigh. He thought he was blind in one eye until he wiped the blood from it. Matt could take a lot of things. He could take a punch, he could take bad luck and physical pain. He could take the loss of family and friends. He could take being deprived of food, water, or sleep. He could take being locked up in a cell, but he couldn’t take being
laughed at. Enraged beyond sensibility he threw himself at the scarp beneath Mohlke’s feet, driving the sharp end of the busted gunstock into the soft dirt wall. He levered down hard and broke away a halfmoon shaped chunk from the edge of the pit. Soil and Mohlke rained down on him. “Grab the gun!” he yelled to Polly as he grappled with Mohlke. Mohlke had a good grip, finally letting go only when Polly came close to biting off a finger. The two men wrestled in the dirt, rolling around, gouging and biting and trying to rub dirt in each other’s eyes. Matt cried out every time his ankle got knocked. “Hold the gun on him, you stupid bitch!” Matt shouted in a voice garbled by Mohlke’s grip on his throat. Mohlke had good ears. The click of the AK’s safety coming off cut right through the grunting and the cussing and stopped him cold. He quickly raised his hands, slowly got up off of Matt, clumsy with the leg. Using what was left of his rifle as a cane Matt hop-staggered over to Mohlke, taking care not to block Polly’s line of fire. “Jesus Mohlke, what the fuck were you thinking? A tiger trap? Were you just going to let someone starve to death in here?” Mohlke looked him in the eye with that creepy little smirk he passed off as a smile. “Well, I just figure that when some little shit-assed punk comes to rip off my stuff he sort of forfeits his human rights, you know?” “Yeah? Well I’m starting to feel the same way about motherfuckers who try to trap me like an animal.” “So we’re not asshole buddies no more. That ain’t news.” “What’s news is that I can do anything I want to to you now.” Without telegraphing the move Matt brought the gunstock down hard across the bridge of Mohlke’ nose, breaking it loose where it connected with the eyebrow. Mohlke didn’t finch. The blood ran in one dark line over his lip, into and out of his mouth, and dripped off the underside of his chin, forming a spreading pool on his chest. “That was for this goddamn pit.” The gunstock came down again, this time across Mohlke’s instep. A series of small snaps, like somebody breaking a handful of twigs, let Matt know he’d accomplished his goal. “And that was for my fucking ankle.” Mohlke blinked and drew a quick breath but he didn’t flinch. “This motherfucker ain’t even human. Let’s just cap him right now.” Polly didn’t know if she had it in her to kill another human being, didn’t know if she could carry that stain on her karma. She didn’t know if anything really mattered anymore because she was probably going to die in this pit. She didn’t know why she’d allowed her self to get caught up in this. But she did know that if, by some outrageous fluke, she managed to get out of here she was never going to have anything to do with Matt Lynam again. His cruelty had showed itself before but only in limited engagements. It made sense that if he allowed Mohlke to live he would be looking over his shoulder for the rest of either of their lives, but he shouldn’t be enjoying this the way he did. They were once closer than either of them had been to their families. She handed Matt the rifle, “Here, you do it. I won’t.” “You mean you can’t.” “Whatever, Matt.”
“Hey look, don’t fuck with me right now. I’ve got enough trouble without you giving me shit. Useless cunt.” He knew how she hated that word. He only used it when he wanted to fan the flames, but this time she wasn’t buying. She went and sat down as far away from him as she could get, knees drawn up to her chin, hiding her face in her hair. Mohlke’s words bubbled up through blood. “C’mon Matt, you owe me one. I took you in off the street. I taught you the trade. Look, you can take the goddamn weed. You need me. With the three of us working we can dig ourselves out in a day or two.’ Matt looked at the ground. “I’m sorry, man, but I just can’t have a motherfucker like you looking for me for the rest of my life. No loose ends. Sorry.” Matt raised the rifle, sighted in on the center of Mohlke’s forehead. Once, in better times, he’d asked Mohlke what it felt like to kill someone. Mohlke was right, it didn’t feel like much at all. Maybe it was different if it was a jealous husband kind of thing, but to kill in cold blood, for a measured reason, was a lot like shutting off the engine of your car. As Matt squeezed the trigger Mohlke, desperate for just one second more, anticipated the shot and dodged to the side but he wasn’t quite quick enough. Mohlke always used soft-point ammunition for the extra stopping power the mushrooming bullet gave. This one entered his cheek little and came out big, taking away a cheekbone and the whole ear behind it. Polly caught her breath with an audible gasp, horrified but unable to look away. Mohlke fell to his knees. The second round made a dime-sized entrance wound over Mohlke’s left eye and blew out half the back of his skull. He pitched forward onto what was left of his face and lay very still in the dirt. Gunpowder smoke, tasting like burning salt, hung in a flat strata in the sill air of the pit. The shots had scared off all the birds and the woods were dead silent until Polly found her voice. “Oh, Matt...what have you done?” He hobbled over to her, using the AK as a cane. He tried to touch her, to reassure her, but she jerked away from his hand as if burned. “I had to, Polly, he would have spent the rest of his life trying to track me down and kill me. It was a question of whether, not when.” He tried to touch her again but she just turned her head and slapped away his hand. Matt was a bit of a strange case. He often had trouble with what the school shrink called “inappropriate emotional response”. He would become murderously angry at the smallest imagined slight or just laugh and shrug it off when someone punched him in the face. He’d cried for days (Candace had said) when Ivan, his german shepherd had to be put down, but when his aunt called to tell him his mom died he just hung up and went back to watching the game. It was of so little importance to him that he’d neglected to tell Polly about it until three hours before the service. He was in one of his numb moods right now, he hadn’t been angry when he shot Mohlke, that was a calculated move. He wasn’t scared now, he was thinking; you could see it in that concentrating squint. With the AK as a cane he backed up against the wall, sliding down it until he sat on the ground. He could feel the bones in his ankle grinding against each other when he moved but putting the leg up made the throbbing subside a little. A centipede crawled in front of him and he crushed it with his good foot.
He sat there for about twenty minutes without saying anything. “What’s the matter Matt, all out of good ideas?” “Shut up, I’m thinking.” “Well it’s about time.” “I SAID SHUT THE FUCK UP, okay?” “What are you going to do, beat me? Who cares, we’re dead already.” “What I’m going to do is get us out of here, okay? Just give me a little while to think.” He leaned back and closed his eyes, trying to free his mind of all distractions, her goddamn yapping, the pain in his leg, his scalp, his arm. He tried to make a list of all the possible useful pieces there were to this puzzle, all the resources that he had at hand. He had the AK with a thirty round clip, two shots gone. He had what was left of his own rifle, which could be used as a sort of half-assed digging tool. He had two human bodies, one lame and one whole, which just reached the edge of the pit when stacked. He had a couple of days or so before dehydration got to be a serious problem. He had plenty of dirt to work with. He had a smooth-walled cylindrical hole, devoid of features, root or rock, with a semicircular bite out of the edge of the lip. That was it. The place where he’d undermined Mohlke, the bite out of the rim, was just about narrow enough to be bridged by the AK, shifting the weight of anyone hanging onto it onto more solid ground. Someone light like Polly might just be able to haul herself up on it without collapsing the edge. Polly briefed on the plan, he hobbled to his station under the breach, slowly and painfully and with much cussing. The leg had begun to swell terribly and was turning a frightening shade of purple. Polly climbed up him to his shoulders, his single leg trembling but holding. He cleared the chamber, safety first, and handed her up the AK. “I can’t quite reach.” “Well I can’t get any fucking taller. Can you stand on my head?” “Can you hold me?” “How the hell would I know? Try it.” Matt could only hold her for a second but it was enough time for her to throw the rifle up and across the gap before falling off of him to go sprawling in the dirt. After Matt took a short breather they tried again, but now the rifle was too far back from the lip to reach even when she momentarily stepped up on his head. She jumped down from Matt’s shoulders, landing uncomfortably close to what was left of Mohlke. “Can’t we do something with him?” That was the resource he hadn’t counted. It took a while to convince Polly that it was the only way, but with Matt reasoning, begging, threatening and cussing, she was finally convinced. It had to be her, Matt being useless for any kind of stoop labor. The sight and smell of brains made her retch as she hauled the body over to where it was needed and folded it over at the waist for maximum thickness. Matt stood in the middle of Mohlke’s back, a little squishy but stable enough, and Polly, carefully stepping over the body, stepped into his interlaced hands. Stepping onto his shoulders she steadied her self with her hands on the wall, dislodging small showers of dirt. Matt didn’t even complain. She stepped up on his head but she was still a bit too short. “I can just barely touch it.”
“Well jump for it, you stupid bitch!” With a pointed disregard for any discomfort she might cause Polly launched off his head with all her strength. “I got it!” Polly had been mocked in her high school gym class for her inability to do even one chin-up but she did one now. Feet pedaling furiously, raining clods of dirt on Matt’s head, she pulled herself up and over the rifle and clawed her way onto solid ground. Shaking and lightheaded as the adrenaline wore off she sat in the moss and tried to collect herself. She picked the dirt from the hole in her thigh. It had stopped bleeding but when she turned her leg it opened up, showing meat. There was no exit wound so she was going to have to get the chunk of metal taken out. She wondered how she was going to explain to the E.R. doc that she’d picked up some shrapnel in the woods. “What the fuck are you doing up there, jerking off?” Looking down on him from the edge of the pit Matt looked very small indeed. She liked that. “Go see if you can drive the truck back in here close enough to haul me out. There’s rope in the toolbox of the truck.” “I need the keys.” He tossed them up. Polly turned to head back down the path. That’s when she spotted them, all of Mohlke’s dozen or so guard dogs lying in the brush around and in the entrance to the path. Having no other option she decided to just brazen it out using some of the tactics she had learned as a groomer. The trick was to assume command without showing aggression; show no teeth, make no eye contact, any hand movements slow and purposeful. Carefully but deliberately picking her way between them, head held high, she watched them watch her, their heads swiveling like radar dishes to follow her. Without warning the smallest of them charged at her out of the brush, stopping directly in front of her, blocking the path. It held in its mouth a drool-soaked balding tennis ball, which it dropped at her feet. Suppressing a smile to keep from showing teeth she picked up the mangy toy and pitched it down the path. They played this game all the way out to the truck where the dog, really just a pup still, found a spot of shade and lay down on the cool earth, panting. Mohlke’s battered Land Rover was parked behind the truck, painted flat black, obviously by amateurs, its grille was mashed and bent and the bumper proclaimed “POW/MIA bring them home” and “Semper Fi”. Sitting in the truck with the door open, her leg throbbing, her nerves shot, Polly lit a cigarette and tried not to think. There was a half finished Pepsi on the seat, a little flat and warm, but wet. She finished her smoke, curled up on the seat and had herself a good cry, short but deep. She cried for Mohlke, for herself, for poor fucked up Matt. She cried for everything that had happened that day and everything that was going to. When she was done she put her face back together somewhat, wiping the dirt off with napkins and spit, putting on new mascara in the hopes that her eyes wouldn’t look so teary. She laughed at herself for caring. She looked a little better but there was nothing she could do for her nerves or her gut. All she wanted to do was go home and forget all this, but she didn’t have a home to go to any more. She sure wasn’t going to go back to living with Matt. She wondered if he would let her go or if he would figure that she was one
loose end that he had to take care of. She thought that she knew him but after today she wasn’t sure. She had no place to go, no money; she was backed into a corner. So she did what any cornered animal will do. She stepped up to the lip of the pit right near where Mohlke had fallen in. “Jesus Pol, I was wondering where the fuck you were. Where’s the truck?” She bent and picked up the AK. It was cool and heavy in her hands. “What the fuck are you doing you crazy bitch? Get the goddamn rope and get me out of here.” Silence. “Polly, what are you doing? Don’t flake out on me now.” She turned the gun over in her hands. “Hey Matt, do you think a dumb cunt can figure out how to use one of these things? It’s this little thing that loads it, right?” She slid the bolt back and let it snap back on its spring, chambering a round. “C’mon Polly, that’s not funny. Stop fucking around and get me out of here.” She stood for a moment and watched him go from orders to threats to begging, feeling nothing for him or against him. It was a calculated move. She shouldered the rifle, aimed and, just as Matt taught her, held her breath and gently squeezed. Jimmy Oberhaus had been standing on the ramp to I-5 south for more than nine hours. He’d had plenty of traffic but all the wrong kind; moms with kids, teenagers, old ladies. The sun would be down in a couple of hours and that would be the end of hitching for the day. The kind of people who’ll pick you up at night you don’t want to ride with. There was a little ledge under the overpass that he could crash on and he’d try again in the morning. The temperature was dropping with the sun. As he was rummaging in his pack for a sweater a vehicle passed by behind him. He didn’t even look until the driver hit the horn. He grabbed his bag and ran, sweater half on, to catch this ride before the driver changed his mind. He turned out to be a she, a woman in her thirties with an open smile and a black vinyl miniskirt, pulling a small U-Haul trailer behind a new red Jeep. As Jim reached for the door the coffee colored akita that was dozing on the backseat jumped forward to meet him with a growl. She grabbed it by the collar and hauled it back. “Mohlke! Bad dog! Go lie down!” She looked at Jimmy apologetically. “He’s just a little protective.” They rode in silence, Jimmy stealing looks at her when he knew she wasn’t looking. She was definitely over thirty, but in good shape; she hadn’t yet begun to develop the stringy neck or the flabby arms that are the signs of encroaching middle age. She had firm, small breasts and shapely legs, a bit thin maybe but toned. Just below the hemline on her left thigh was an angry fresh scar about an inch long with the marks of stitches on either side of it. She turned on the radio but she couldn’t find anything she liked so she shut it off. Jimmy broke the silence. “I’m really surprised that you picked me up.” “Why?”
“Well, you know, a woman alone. I don’t get too many rides from women.” “You looked like the kind of guy that knows how to treat a lady.” She lit a cigarette. ”You do, don’t you?” “Me? Sure I do.” She felt the reassuring weight of the little .380 automatic in the belt pouch which rested in her lap. “Well, I sure hope so.”