The tragic episode began when Carl’s wife said that Jim’s barbeque was better than his. “A damn site better than yours,” he remembered her yelling at him.
Jill had said it, and he couldn’t forget it. After her loud and slightly drunken pronouncement, she had flounced off across their new, Mexican-tile patio leaving him standing alone in front of his friends in his backyard. They had been crowding around his fancy new gas grill and admiring the chrome and stainless steel smoker accessory. They were guzzling his beer, talking about prospects for rain in Texas, and generally milling around with good feelings like Texans always do when there’s free ribs, fancy potato salad, and plenty of iced beer in the cooler. Carl was absolutely certain that until that very moment, Jim was going to give him the contract to clean the large rack of oil field pipe in the local storage yard.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if Jim had been more properly apologetic about his grill being rated superior to his host’s, or if Iris, Jim’s wife, hadn’t had a smirk on her face. God damn it, anyway, he needed that cleaning job so he could replace his battered flatbed Ford. Cleaning a thousand joints of casing and drill pipe amounted to a lot of beer and ribs, not to mention mortgage payments on their new house. What the Hell was Jill doing, anyway?
And now, just look at the mess he was in!
He stretched back against the worn cushions on the bench seat of his battered service truck and ran the palms of his hands over the scarred steering wheel. He needed to get his mind around the events of the last few hours. He closed his eyes and tried to remember every painful detail. This was going to be mighty important. The scene where Jill finished yelling at him and walked away with her Bud Light splashed vividly into his consciousness.
“Well, Jim,” he heard himself fill the silence left by Jill’s declaration, “your barbeque may be better than mine, but I bet I can hit that piece of pipe sitting over there on the fence with my pistol with my first shot. He slapped the old single action Colt that he liked to strap around his waist for show. You want to try your luck?” He was trying to make it sound like a joke. He wanted people to see that he was just fooling around with Jim, giving him a chance to make it right. Just shut the fuck up a voice in his head was telling him all the while.
The crowd, sensing a good, clean Texas kind of challenge, parted like magic, leaving a broad, open lane to the piece of fence in question. Why not, there was no one for miles out in that direction? Only this one piece of heavy drill pipe that Carl had bolted to the top of a fence post so he could put up the special Texas flag that his friends had given him–one of those that was certified to have been flown over the Capitol, itself. It was his contribution to the new Texas political machine.
He pulled the antique revolver out of its holster, the one that his Daddy was reported to have used to chase off some stubborn cattle thieves at the rail head. First he spun the cylinder and made a show of inspecting the cartridges, then pulled the hammer back, sighted carefully, allowing for the slightly crooked barrel and how much he was going to pull off line when he squeezed the trigger, and took the shot.
The satisfying explosion, the hefty recoil that knocked his hand up, was followed by a whizzing sound as the bullet ricocheted off of the piece of pipe and spun back at an angle. Everybody was ducking down except for Jill, who was still sauntering across the patio on the other side of the yard with her back turned towards him. He heard a little “Oh” that was breath driven out of her. She collapsed like a rag doll, overdone pasta wrapped in jeans and a plaid shirt.
And Jim had run to Jill screaming something Carl couldn’t quite make out, but which made Iris suddenly go white with anger, some kind of knowledge that Carl couldn’t even let himself imagine. And then Carl was running towards the limp bit of flesh that had once, only moments before, been his wife. Now she was cradled in another man’s arms, and Carl couldn’t seem to get his mind around that, either.
She should be in my arms, he was thinking. I should have been there first. Why wasn’t I there first, he kept going around and around in his mind with this thought, seeing Jill in Jim’s arms, Iris with a growing sense of anger and frustration, and he himself standing around feeling helpless as a child, letting someone else dial the hospital for an emergency team while he stood motionless in shock.
And then, for some inexplicable reason, he had run off. He had run to the black flatbed, jumped in, and roared off into the back roads of the county. It was a big county, and he kept going around until he had taken off down a trail alongside a ravine known, for Christ’s sake, as Dead Man’s Gulch after a sheep herder that had been found dead of a rattler bite a hundred years ago.
And now he had bumped down the sandy trail between cane and scrub oak until it was dark and the only thing he could see was the huge September moon, rising red over the ridge to the east. He listened to the trill of crickets, the flutter of a few wild dove down by the water in the gulch, and the ticking of the diesel engine as it cooled off beneath the hood. All alone, and now, really alone, he thought. It was a forlorn thought, and he felt a few tears gather to blur his vision.
The old Colt was punching him in the side, pushed up against him because the holster was made for riding horses, not sitting in trucks. A spasm of anger spit his guts wide open. He jerked the weapon free and threw it through the open window as far as he could. His Daddy’s gun disappeared into the Texas night, crackling through some low mesquite and scrub oak as it made it’s way down into Dead Man’s Gulch. The night went silent and he heard the hissing in his ears that comes when there’s really no sound around to block out the nerve noise. It sounded like air coming out of a tire. Then things went on again, like a switch thrown, and a little breeze sprang up out of the west.
“Gonna go back soon,” he promised. He said it loudly, so he could hear himself. His voice was raspy and dry. His throat hurt. He slid down out of the truck and rummaged through the tool box bolted to the driver’s side. He came up with a partial bottle of Jack Daniels that wasn’t supposed to be there. He took one good swig and screwed the cap back down tightly. This wasn’t going to help, at all, he thought. He eased the cab door against the switch so the light would go out. A velvet darkness closed in around him. Shadows of the rising moon dancing with the gentle rustle of cane tops bending in the wind. Down in the canyon an owl hooted. Another ripple of silence brought the hiss back into his awareness.
Thoughts spun out of control through his head. Third quarter taxes were going to be due, employees had to be paid, suppliers would be screaming for their money, and Jill always knew how to stretch a buck. She’d gotten them through the hard times.
I’m one sorry bastard, he thought. I’ve accidently killed my wife and I’m thinking how I’m going to pay next week’s bills. Guilt was buzzing around in the back of his mind like a an irritated rattlesnake. I should not have thrown Father’s gun away, he thought. There will be questions and surely it will look strange that I threw it away. I can tell them where it is and maybe they can find it.
In fact, Carl was thinking how that pistol had been unlucky for him all along. I always thought I loved that old gun. It was my Daddy’s pride, and he gave it to me just before he died. He said it was from his wife’s father, a kind of inheritance that went along with the fifteen hundred acres he received when he married Ella. Fifteen hundred acres, some of it bottom land that would take a lot of grazing. Unlike a lot of ranchers, he didn’t have to put out so much money for feed during the winter. And that old gun had seen a lot of action, too. There were still wolf bones, coyote skulls, and snake skins hanging about on fence posts, sun bleached wash house walls, and the old tool shed that was behind the ruins of the old homestead. But that old pistol had betrayed him before, like the time he was gored by the wild hog while riding the fence in the east pasture. The pistol had misfired and Carl had stumbled backwards over the new fence post he was putting in. Just lucky the pig got tangled up in the barbed wire before he finished me, he thought.
I never did fix the roof on the tool shed, he thought. I should have restored the old house. There was a lot of good timber in that house, some of it hauled all the way from Fredericksburg. It was a list of regrets so long that his mind shied away from it, like Jill. Everything was just too painful.