“You got a pay phone?”
The old man behind the counter was one of the few white people Jeremy had ever seen work at a gas station. He wore a wife beater, and his chest sagged. His face was a sagging frown, as if it froze that way after a lifetime of practice. His eyes drooped, too. The old man regarded him without changing his expression, though by the way he tilted his head back a quarter inch Jeremy could tell he was skeptical. Maybe he had learned to conserve energy in the desert heat by not moving much. Without visible motion, he gestured to the back corner of the shop, over by the bathrooms.
“Thanks. Um,” Jeremy reached into his front pocket and fished out a crumpled dollar bill. “Change?”
The old man took the bill slowly, eyes never leaving Jeremy, and hit the No Sale button on his yellowing plastic cash register. He grabbed four quarters without counting them and dropped them in a stack on the edge of the counter. Jeremy swept them into his palm and looked up for a second at the old man. He had had enough of old men. And he never wanted to become one.
He swallowed hard before dialing. The number was one everyone knows. He’d dialed it before even, as a prank. Now he was going to dial for real. He wished he had someone to consult with, to make sure he was doing the right thing. He picked up the receiver, then looked back over his shoulder. The old man had gone on to other business. Outside the store window, he saw the hood of the red Mustang, parked alongside one of the gas pumps. He panicked: where was Don? He lowered the receiver on its hook and walked around the corner, sticking his head out to see out the window behind the counter. The old man was reading a newspaper. He felt Jeremy’s eyes on him, and lowered the paper to give him a cloudy stare.
Jeremy persisted—squinting to look past the grimy window—and then made out the other old man. The one who kidnapped him.
Jeremy retreated back around the corner, where the smell of urine and toilet odorizer bricks mixed with the sweaty smell of the phone receiver. He had never used a pay phone before—he got his first cell phone at age thirteen—but he knew about them from movies and TV, same way you learn about things like the Beatles and Gunsmoke. He wasn’t dumb. He took a breath, put his quarters in, and dialed 9-1-1.
It wasn’t fair, he supposed: Don hadn’t really kidnapped him—he had gone willingly. It was even his idea. Would that be held against him? Whatever, Jeremy thought, I’m a kid. He’s a creepy old homeless guy. Who thinks he’s a cowboy. My story against his.
“9-1-1 Emergency—can I have your name and location, please?”
Jeremy turned his body so he could see outside, in case Don came in. He’d have to come in, Jeremy suddenly realized. He’ll need to pay…
He cleared his throat. “Uh. Um. Jeremy. Lerner. Jeremy Lerner. And I’m—“ Where was he? Barstow? Bakersfield? Palm Desert? He didn’t know this area. He had seldom left El Empresa, even to go the short distance to Los Angeles or San Diego. Life behind the Orange Curtain, he thought to himself sardonically. He knew the directions to Disneyland and Laguna Beach by heart. He bit his upper lip. “Hold on a sec.” He poked his head around the corner.
“Sir? Excuse me?” The old man lowered his paper again. The droopy frown conveyed mild confusion. “Can you tell me where I am?”
“Al’s Market and Truck Stop.”
“No—the , uh—the city? The town name?”
“Thanks.” Then back into the receiver: “I’m in Newberry Springs. At Al’s Market and Truck Stop.”
“California,” the old man’s voice called from around the corner.
“No shit,” Jeremy yelled back. “No, I didn’t mean you. Listen,” Jeremy took another breath to clear his head. It didn’t help. “I’m being kidnapped by a crazy old homeless guy who thinks he’s a cowboy. He calls himself Coyote Don…
“No, I don’t think he’s armed.” Was he? “He has a lasso.”
“Yes, ma’am, L-E-R-N-E-R. I’m sixteen.”
“No ma’am, my parents don’t know where I am. I told you I was—“
“No, I don’t know where. He said Clementine’s in danger and we had to rescue her. But I think he’s going after Van Kleeven.”
“Clementine’s his girlfriend. Sorta. She’s a stripper. Her real name’s Sally Clemens, she’s my neighbor, but I don’t think he’s after her, it’s Van Kleeven…that’s his archnemesis. He’s like…he’s an evil rancher or something. I don’t know…”
Jeremy heard the jangle of the bells strapped to the door jamb. He saw the tall cowboy hat over the aisle of dried noodle packages and laundry detergent. He lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper.
“Look, I have to go. It’s Newberry Springs. We’re heading east, I think. Just send someone, OK?” Jeremy hung up the phone quietly. He was having a hard time breathing. He unbuttoned another button on his blue short-sleeve shirt. He wiped his forehead free of condensing sweat, squared his shoulders and walked out into the store.
“There he is! Where ye been, pardner?” Coyote Don tipped his hat to Jeremy, and gathered up a brown paper grocery bag of donuts and tall boys. “Here, catch!” He lobbed a bottle of water to Jeremy, who caught it reflexively. He was thankful for the distraction. He played along. As he’d been doing. He was always just playing along. That’s all.
“Thanks,” Jeremy unscrewed the cap and took a gulp, noting from the corner of his eyes the old man behind the counter watching him. Same drooping frown: this time, there was disbelief, and a shade of concern. “Let’s go.”
Once they were back in the car and moving again, Jeremy felt more relaxed. It was just like before, but now there was an end to all this. He felt better. He had done the sensible thing. And Coyote Don—well, he was going to get some top-rate care, three squares and a roof over his head, all on taxpayers’ dime. It was a win-win. He even got a great story out of it that he’d be able to tell his children and grandchildren.
He rolled down his window. The hot wind felt good now on his face.
Coyote Don looked over at him. “The mighty Jeremiah, baskin’ in the breeze.” He cocked his head and smiled. “Don’t cool yer heels too much, we’ll come to the scratch ill-prepared. Looky,” here he leaned over, keeping one hand on the wheel and one eye on the road, and reached for the glove box. Jeremy suddenly felt sick. Coyote puffed out his long white mustache as he groped. Jeremy didn’t think fear could feel clammy, but there it was. Glum and clammy. Glummy. Glammy. Moist, but not wet. His stomach felt neither full nor empty, but both. Maybe sour.
Coyote Don pulled out a revolver and popped the chamber, giving it a spin with his thumb. Satisfied that it was full, he smiled and handed the gun, butt first, to Jeremy, whistling a bar of another of his mariachi tunes.
Jeremy accepted the revolver, and instantly dropped it in his lap.
“Ho-ho! Careful there, buckaroo! She’s a live cuss!” Jeremy looked at Coyote Don, who looked at him and nodded. “Go on, the snake won’t bite if you know the trick to handlin’ her.” He reached over, then stopped. Jeremy was watching his hand approach his lap, his nostrils flared like he was about to sneeze. Coyote Don put both his hands firmly on the wheel. His knuckles were white and he stared straight ahead, tipping his hat forward. “Just pick’er up by the handle there and make sure you don’t pinch the trigger, until the moment’s right. Best just avoid the trigger altogether ‘till then.”
It was like holding a black hole. So much gravity, it was sucking everything towards it. Jeremy couldn’t let go. He found the grip conformed to his hand very naturally. He felt his bicep tighten as he tried to heft it a couple of times. So heavy, he remembered reading, that not even light could escape. Only certain cosmic rays. And therein was the answer. On the back of those cosmic rays rode a dim idea—information communicated quietly to Jeremy as he lifted the gun and aimed it out the window. Ptchew, ptchew. Hold it right there.
“Where’d you git off to back there?” Coyote Don asked. Still pretending to shoot at the blurring sage and creosote bushes, Jeremy let the words tumble around in his head for a moment, then tumble out. Then he looked over at Coyote Don, who was still purposely staring at the road.
“Where are we going again?” Jeremy asked, trying to sound as though all he needed were a simple reminder.
Coyote Don looked down at his sidekick from the corner of his eyes. He rubbed his chin through his long, soft white goatee. “Clementine needs our help.” Jeremy felt a momentary slug of pity. All the adventures they’d been through together—part of him wanted to go help Don save Clementine.
“Her name is Sally. She’s my neighbor. You know that.”
“Trust me, buckaroo, I know she needs us.” He looked in the rearview, over at Jeremy, then settled his gaze on the road and the passing scenery. “The whole world needs us right now, kid. We’re the only ones who know about Van Kleeven.”
“Van Kleeven.” Jeremy said, tossing the word back at Coyote Don like a challenge.
“Yes, Van Kleeven. I’ve told you about him.”
Jeremy leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes, letting his hands—with the gun—drop to his lap. Both hands on it protectively. “That’s the guy who’s behind the nameless evil you keep going on about.” He knew the answer. He knew what he had to do. But his heart pounded and suddenly his muscles wouldn’t work.
“Faceless,” Coyote Don said. “Tha’s about right.” He looked directly at Jeremy for the first time since getting back in the car. “But it has a name.”
Jeremy didn’t say anything. His vocal cords weren’t working.
“Van Kleeven’s plannin’ to launch his revolt, and declare hisself king o’ California. That’s why he’s been buying up all the land, buyin’ out the townsfolk and killin’ off the ranchers. That’s what them shifty fake towns are all about, poppin’ outta orange groves like a revival. He’s building an army with Officer Callahan in charge, and he’s gonna strike soon. Unless we strike first.”
“So why the desert?” Jeremy found his voice. It was deeper, rounder, and more hollow than he’d ever heard it.
“Why, the desert’s his hideout. You think he’d be dad-foolish enough to get caught wanderin’ around his own ranks? Trottin’ out on the battlefield ‘afore he lays waste to ‘em? Nah, he keeps a back seat in these parts—always has. He’s a prissy ol’ fool, but he ain’t a dunderhead. He uses the ranches of them what he’s chased out. Spends a diff’rent night at each. Like as not he’ll be holed up for an ambush, so keep yer wits about. We’re pointin’ for a tight scratch. Just remember to keep yer eyes up and yer head down. And don’t forget that thumb-buster’s a single-action—Oh.”
Jeremy had the gun pointed right at Coyote Don. His elbows were bent awkwardly as he sat half-pivoted in his car seat, but his fingers knew what to do.
“Chrissake, kid, don’t get yer dander up so soon. We ain’t there just yet.”
“Stop the car and let me out.” He had to shout to be heard over the roar of the wind, which took made the words sound like cotton. He weighed them in his mind. “Let me out,” he repeated. “Now.”
Coyote Don stared hard at Jeremy. What got into him? The kid’s eyes had darkened measurably. And that gun was still pointed right at his face.
Coyote Don had been in many of these scrapes before. More times than he could count. Getting into scrapes was second nature to him.
Like that time when the English cattle rustler, hiding behind his genteel manners, managed to turn the townsfolk against their hero, Coyote Don. When Coyote Don went to confront him, the townsfolk stood up for the English rustler. Coyote was held captive. Until his sidekick Sanchez snook up at night with his trusted steed Rosie, and Coyote leaped through the second-story window onto Rosie’s back.
Or that time when he arrived in a town that was being terrorized by a false sheriff, who was really a bandit who had hijacked the train that the real sheriff was riding into town on after being away on business at the county seat. The real sheriff had only recently been elected and his face wasn’t wholly familiar just yet on account of him having come up from Cheyenne, and so it was fairly easy for the bandit to don a disguise and assume his identity. It was ol’ Coyote who picked through that one right quick, and after a short gunfight, Coyote Don was victorious, the bandit was in jail, and a new sheriff was elected. The handsome young sheriff’s deputy, no less, who had proven his mettle in the shoot-out with the bandit.
It wasn’t even the first time Coyote Don had to deal with a sidekick whose faith was in question. There was the time Sanchez refused to come with Coyote Don to investigate the murder of an Indian chief at the request of his daughter, and there was the time Sanchez complained that after all this time the land and riches Coyote Don had promised had never materialized, and he would even just settle for a small cottage and a beautiful woman to cook for him. Both times Coyote Don set him straight—or circumstances did. At such times, whenever danger threatened, the lazy Sanchez could always be relied on to spring into action at the last minute.
But this—this was new and unfamiliar terrain.
“I said now.” Jeremy cocked the hammer.
“Cool yer horses, buckaroo…cool yer horses.” Coyote Don slowed down and pulled over to the dusty shoulder.
With the car at a stop, the heat filled up the space just seemed to push everything else away: it muffled sound, created a thick gauzy curtain between them. Jeremy’s eyes teared up. He wanted a sip of water badly but would not be distracted. Coyote Don sat there a moment before turning to face the young accomplice now betraying him.
“You wanna pecker up and tell me what this is all about?”
“First, stop talking like that.” Jeremy held the gun with both hands. He became aware of the very short distance between them. “If you make the slightest move—if you try to grab me—I’ll blow your fucking brains out.”
Coyote Don exhaled slowly. “I ain’t movin’ anywhere.” Jeremy bobbed the nozzle of the gun and tightened his lips. “What are you—this is how I speak.” Then: “I’m not moving anywhere.” He puffed out his mustache.
After a long pause, he added. “Are you going to talk?”
“First of all, you’re not Coyote Don.”
This was met with some surprise. But Jeremy continued evenly. “I did some research. I looked you up online. You’re not Coyote Don. Coyote Don is a TV character from an old Western.”
This information didn’t seem to faze the old man, who either was or was not Coyote Don.
“But the actor who played him,” Jeremy went on, “was Marion Slye. He hadn’t been in much else, as far as I can tell. He was arrested and went to jail for killing his girlfriend.”
Coyote Don puffed out his mustache and his chest simultaneously.
Jeremy was mostly right. In five seasons on the air, the Adventures of Coyote Don (1973-77) was a reliable source of weekend morning adventure. The show ended mid-season when its square-jawed and wide-eyed star, Marion B. Slye, was sent to prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Mabel Hanly, a childhood friend. Whether or not this was the same man that was sitting beside him now was the limb Jeremy was crawling out on.
A car passed by, creating a side-breeze. The sound rushed in and then passed. A big rig truck then passed. The sound was louder but wind only slightly stronger. When the silence returned, the old man ventured a response.
“Son, there’s a time for philosophizin’ and there’s a time for heroism. I’ll grant you, Clementine’s in no mortal danger this minute, but there is an evil sweeping this land. I’ve seen it. Van Kleeven bought up all the orange groves and built himself strange factories where he’s raisin’ an army. I don’t know how long it’s been going on, but he’s planning a war the size of which’ll make any general weep.
“That land you live in ain’t natural.
“Now, mebbe, jest mebbe, a young feller like you, who was born into it, and was shaped by the lies, well, mebbe you can’t see it too good. And mebbe, jest mebbe, your one o’ Van Kleeven’s men. Though my gut’s gotten through a lotta pickles, and it’s tellin’ me now you ain’t one o’ his. You jest been played the fool. You and yer parents.
“But there’s a way a place is supposed to be, and a way it ain’t. Van Kleeven’s fixin’ to put an end to the land the way God intended us to use it. I know this is the truth because I consulted the oracle of Santa Ana and he tol’ me it was so. And you came along! Because you believed it, too. I know it. And I plan to stop it. And I need yer help.”
Jeremy remembered the visit they paid to the statue of the Duke at John Wayne Airport. This man was definitely nuts. But whose fault was it if no one had ever told him the truth?
“You’re name is Marion. You’re an actor. You were in prison for—I dunno, thirty years. I have no idea how long you’ve been out, but you are now a homeless man.” Jeremy didn’t mean to put an emphasis on the word homeless, but there it was. The old man’s eyes were glazed, though Jeremy couldn’t tell if it was because the truth was getting to him, or if it was just the heat.
“You need help,” Jeremy offered. “My parents can help you get it.”
“You’re the one needs help, son.”
“Get off it. You’re sick. Nobody believes your stories, you crazy old fuck.”
“Crazy old what?” Coyote Don straightened his back while being careful not to move suddenly. “Lissen here: I’m Coyote Don. You’re my sidekick, Jeremiah. Or you were. There’s an evil, evil man who’s planning to wage war on us. Clementine, your parents—you name it. They’re all goners, if we don’t lickety-split right now. Now—you in?”
“If you’re a real cowboy, how’d you know how to hotwire a car?”
Coyote Don blinked.
“If you’re Coyote Don, then why are there reruns of a television show called the Adventures of Coyote Don?”
“Musta been named after me, I reckon. I’m famous in these parts.”
“Where were you for the last thirty-five years, then? Huh? How come you don’t remember any of the shit that went on in the real world during that time?”
“Lissen, buckaroo, I don’t know what you’re gettin’ at, but—“
“You listen. If you were a real cowboy, then why do you wear cheap costume shop clothes? You don’t even have real cowboy boots! Those are, are…pilgrim shoes!”
Coyote Don stole a glance at his feet. The square-toed black shoes with the square buckle sure looked enough like gen-yu-wine leather boots when he bought ‘em…
“How come you stole a car in the first place? Doesn’t a cowboy ride a horse? This is a joke; you hotwired a Mustang. I mean, are you fucking serious?”
The old man’s whole chest seemed to cave in. He was a deflated balloon. He looked “old” before. Now he seemed old.
But Jeremy was on a role. And he was scared. And he was feeling vindictive. He felt alive. “You got outta prison, you didn’t know anyone anymore, and you probably hadn’t been given your meds in years. You’re batshit crazy. You, you think you are the character that you played. You keep calling Sally Clementine, you call me Jeremiah Johnson… my name’s Jeremy Lerner. Jeremiah Johnson is a movie. I googled it.
“I live in El Empresa, I go to El Empresa High School. I’m not a sidekick. I mean, I drove a crappy old Isuzu Sidekick—until you totaled it charging at those backhoes, so maybe that’s where you got that idea, but shit, you think I’m your trusty sidekick? Always backing you up? Do you ever listen to yourself?
“There’s no Van Kleeven. Orange County’s not part of some big evil plot to take over the country.” Jeremy paused for a second. “Okay, maybe it is. But not because some imaginary archnemesis is hiding away somewhere, pulling the strings.”
“He’s here,” Coyote Don interrupted. “I know it. I can smell the evil.”
“Listen to you. You can ‘smell the evil?’ You can’t smell shit. Van Kleeven’s not real. There is no evil. You got the name from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. From the bad guy, Van Cleef. There is no Van Kleeven.”
“IMDB, motherfucker. The internet. Look it up.”
Jeremy felt something he hadn’t felt in a long time. He was having fun. He had his captor cornered. He would be a hero. EMPRESA YOUTH FOILS KIDNAPPING ATTEMPT. He could just picture showing up back at school the next day, like Clark Kent at the end of Superman, and show Isaac Mendoza and the rest of his goons how it’s done.
They both heard the sound of crunching gravel. A tan Toyota station wagon had pulled up behind them. A blonde man in his mid-thirties was getting out. Jeremy looked over his shoulder out the back window. He grabbed the door latch. “Stay here,” he said, getting out.
“Everything okay here?” the man asked. His voice was girlish. Jeremy raised the gun at him.
“Get back in the car. We don’t need your help.”
“Take it easy,” the man said, arms out, palms forward. “Take it easy, I didn’t mean anything. I have a wife and kid in the car. He’s four.”
Jeremy’s eyes momentarily flicked to the Toyota. There was an attractive woman in the front seat, her mouth a big round “O”, her eyes two littler “o’s.” There was a small shaggy head of hair in the bag seat. Shit. What was he doing?
“It’s okay, just—just move along.”
“Yes, sir. I’m moving—I’m moving.” The man stumbled a bit as he backed up into the open car door, causing it to slam shut with a bang. He jumped. Jeremy lowered his gun. The man grabbed the door handle and yanked it open, jumping inside and slamming his foot on the gas. A shower of pebbles and dust sprayed out, obscuring the backdrop of brown mountains and buff hills.
Jeremy looked inside the Mustang, where the old man still sat like a statue, like he was meditating. He could still hear the grumbling sound of the Toyota even as it disappeared into the shimmer of radiant heat coming off the highway. First the image split in two, one on top and one on bottom as though riding across a lake, then disappearing altogether. But he could still hear it. Is this what adrenaline does? The pulsing sound was getting louder.
Jeremy looked up. A helicopter. Heading toward them from the vicinity of Barstow.
The police. He fought back a choke of panic. Shit, they’re here already. Think. Think.
Wait. I’m the good guy. This man tried to kidnap me. I was protecting myself.
But the man in the Toyota?
I was scared.
You were scared?
I didn’t want him to get hurt. The old man is dangerous.
You had a gun…
I’m the victim. I’m the victim.
Jeremy stuck his head inside the still-open door of the Mustang and waved his gun at the old man, who was sitting calm as a Hindu cow, eyes open in a distant trance.
The old man made no move. Was he dead?
With a slow drawn, doleful look, the old man turned his head to regard the teenager. He gave an imperceptible nod, and then opened his door, stepping out into the arid, windless desert.
“Hands on your head,” Jeremy instructed tightly. The old man complied slowly and without argument.
On the horizon, Jeremy could now make out the blurry red and blue lights of police cars. He couldn’t count them, but there were at least three of them, he thought.
The old man looked awful. His pink polyester shirt was stained with sweat and now fast food grease. The fringe of his brown suede vest jangled without so much as a breeze. His twisted red bandana, tied around his neck, looked more like a noose. The brown naugahyde pants were cracked and peeling at the joints, revealing white mesh fabric beneath. Hanging off his wide leather belt at his right hip was an empty holster, and on his left hip, hanging from a leather loop around his belt, was the lasso of yellow vinyl rope. And the pilgrim shoes…Jeremy could see how they might look like cowboy boots. To a delusional indigent.
The red Mustang that Coyote Don had named Rosie stood between them. Jeremy was starting to feel the weight of the gun, and he bent his arms to ease his muscles. He wasn’t sure what happened next. So long as he kept the gun trained on the old man, with the real threat of shooting, he’d be fine until the police arrived. Which should be just another minute. He found himself looking down the road, wondering how fast the police cars were going. They seemed motionless at this distance.
Coyote Don was looking, too. Then he ran.
“Stop!” Jeremy screamed. “Freeze!” Coyote Don bolted across the interstate, and was sprinting across the thirty-yard wide no-man’s land separating the east- and west-bound lanes. “I said freeze you bastard! I’m going to shoot!”
He kept running. Faced with having his bluff called, Jeremy bit down on his lower lip, clenched his eyes shut and squeezed the trigger. The recoil shoved him back, nearly knocking him off-balance. The revolver clattered heavily to the ground, and Jeremy instinctively jumped. It didn’t go off again. Right. Single-action.
He massaged his throbbing palm, and was about to pick the revolver up again, but now he could hear the wail of the police sirens. They were much closer now. And coming at him fast.
He stood up tall and put his hands in the air. But that was dumb, he realized, so he started waving them. Realizing they were still coming toward him—him, and not the old man, who was on the west-bound side of the freeway now—he waved more frantically and pointed in the old man’s direction.
“He’s there! He’s over there!”
Coyote Don was panting, but the adrenaline dumping into his bloodstream was doing its job. He ran. Like a thirty-year old. Like a wild colt. Gallopin’ like a greased hog on Christmas Eve. A new sensation rose in his chest. A lightness. No—an actual light. Buoyancy, yes, but light too. The square tip of his boots pinched and his toes bled, but he was flying, his feet barely touched the ground. The desert was all around him now.
One of the police cars came to a stop at the red Mustang and two officers got out to check on Jeremy, but the two other cars went after Coyote Don, bouncing across the low depression of the no-man’s land and over the highway, pausing for an oncoming car that had suddenly appeared, its driver confused and slowing at the sight of police. The officers through their windows waved the motorist on before they resumed their pursuit.
Coyote Don was almost a hundred yards out into the desert.
The cars were having a hard time in the terrain, jouncing and rocking over the uneven landscape, the hard and spiny brush scraping the underside of each chassis.
Coyote Don looked over his shoulder. The cars were still getting closer. And his muscles were burning. He couldn’t go any faster, and couldn’t keep up even this pace much longer.
One of them hit a dishwasher-sized half-buried volcanic boulder. No explosion, but there was a hiss from where the radiator was hit from beneath. The car was stuck. The two officers inside leapt out and started running on foot.
They were maybe fifty yards away—Coyote Don pretended not to hear their shouts. Let them shoot. They won’t hit jack-diddly at this range.
There was still another car coming at him. Coyote Don took a fast glance at his surroundings. The car was at maybe twenty yards and closing in. Fifteen. Ten. Over their loudspeaker he could hear them clearly now.
“Freeze! Stop where you are. There is nowhere to go. I repeat, stop where you are and lie down, on your stomach, hands on your head.”
The cars were not built for this kind of chase, and neither were the officers inside. Coyote Don kept running. An idea hit him.
Without another thought, he lunged forward, hands out, and tucked his body into a somersault. Inside the tumble, his right hand reached and swept the desert floor as he rolled. His hand closed around a small rock. He pulled out of the tuck, launched himself to his left side, and in the same motion he lobbed the stone by dead reckoning and it cracked the driver’s side window.
The car swerved away. As the driver lost control and veered to the right, the car hit an obstruction that forced the wheels to jackknife all the way to the right. The left side of the car lifted and it rolled on its two right wheels before slamming into another squat boulder and launching trunk over hood into the air. It flipped twice long-side. The other two police who were chasing on foot stopped short and watched, mouths agape. The car landed on its roof.
A quick decision was made: the perp wasn’t going too far in the desert. Two of their buddies were trapped inside an upside-down car. They gave up the chase and ran toward their fellow officers.
The cars were not built for this kind of chase.
But the helicopter was.
The throbbing rattle of the blades was loud now, and coming up on Coyote Don. It was comical, the sight of a lone man trying to outrun a helicopter. But there it was.
Coyote Don didn’t glance up once. He just kept running—he saw the arroyo same time the pilot did. His keen eyes, accustomed to the desert, to making out shapes and patterns and reading the land better than anyone, picked out the drop quickly and guided the rest of him towards the nearest ledge. It wasn’t steep, but the fall could break an unprepared man who hadn’t experience with such things.
The pilot and the two officers riding in the back were counting on the perp stopping himself short at the edge of the arroyo, or turning east or west to run alongside it. It was a sudden drop, but not that sudden—the slope wasn’t too steep and the bottom of the wash was visible from above at eye-level—the instinct for self-preservation would do most of the work for him. The pilot eased the helicopter in low, so it was hovering just ten feet off the ground and inching gently closer to the perp.
That’s when the perp fell. He just kept running. But instead of stopping or turning, he just went right for the edge of the cliff. Just like that.
It was over.
The pilot cursed under his breath. It was lamentable, but the details he knew made it a clear-cut enough case for him. A kidnapper, former convict who served time for murder in the first degree, probably a pedophile. Obviously psychotic. The world would not mourn the loss. A three-day suspension, tops. Have to answer to a judge, not just the chief.
The pilot pursed his lips and pulled the helicopter up and forward gently, to give her some elevation and survey the scene. One of the men in back tapped his shoulder as he spoke over the transmitter. “You lose him?” The pilot gestured pointing down. “He fell,” he shouted back. “Into the ravine. We got him.”
As the helicopter pulled up and away, a yellow vinyl rope shot out. Its loop caught the rear left rail and, with an unseen tug, cinched tight.
The helicopter rose over the arroyo, carrying with it one Coyote Don, howling gleefully and hanging on to his lariat with his bare, blistery hands.
The aircraft swung, and Coyote Don swung. It jerked in the other direction, and the rope made a snakelike S-shape in the air, rather like an angler’s cast, before jerking taut and pulling Coyote Don with it. Still he held fast.
“AwWOOO! AWOOO!! AI-AI-aiwoo! AWOOOooo! WOOOOOooooOOoo!”
There he was now, a little speck bobbing and dangling from another speck, vanishing off westward, swinging into that glorious orange sunset the southland claims to be known for. That was the last anybody ever seen of the cowboy Coyote Don.
Jeremy Lerner? He was all right. Shaken, but not hurt.
When it came out that he had gone along with the homeless man from the start, people stopped pitying him so much. Didn’t get the homecoming he had expected at school. Isaac Mendoza and his goons still beat him up after class.
He turned out all right, in the manner of his time. He grew up, became a real estate developer in El Empresa. Built strip malls throughout the hills east of Empresa, right up to the edge of the canyon where Coyote Don spent his first night after meeting the young Mr. Lerner. He displaced an awful lot of woodland critters, and a few unhappy human residents who nonetheless settled for the more than adequate payment Jeremy had offered them.
Jeremy got married, had kids. He told himself for all of his adult life that he had done the right thing, turning Marion Slye in—for that was in fact Coyote Don’s given name.
But the critters knew better. They didn’t take a payment. They bid their time. And when Jeremy finally paved over the old biker joint at Cook’s Corner in Silverado Canyon, the woodland critters rallied. They marched down the hills. Raccoons. Chipmunks. Squirrels. Bats. Mountain lions. Beavers. Ants. Crows. Blue jays. They swarmed the gated community where Jeremy Lerner and his family lived. They found him where he slept, and they carried him away.
And up on a hillside, watching as they carried the sleeping developer off into the wilderness, a lone coyote howled at the moon.