Hungry Coyote

Illustration for "Hungry Coyote" Copyright (c) 2016 by Luke Spooner used under license

Story By Judi Calhoun / Illustration by L.A.Spooner

“Redhorse? What kind of a name is Redhorse? Ain’t you an Injun?” said the package store clerk, reading the embroidered tag on my navy blue work jacket. “You’re not from around here.” He pushed his glasses up on his face. “What tribe are you from?”

My chin jutted out as my eyes locked onto his, and I fought the urge to pound the mutton- head into next week. I opened my wallet and set my money on the counter.

“Sorry, um, Injun, um, Redhorse,” he said, the pale skin under his freckles turning red. He lifted the fin from the counter next to the two brown bottles of Narragansett beer and turned to his register to ring up the sale.

A wind gust slammed into the sign-covered storefront windows and forced the wooden door open enough for some snow to rush inside, along with a strident, high-pitched wail.

“This is a really bad storm,” he said, turning knobs on the Watterson Farm radio sitting on top of the shelf behind the large cash register, until the crackling sound tuned in the graveled-voiced broadcaster, and in his Boston accent, he was predicting doom and gloom.

“If this keeps up all night, they just might shut down the main roads. They did last week.” The kid was busy tongue-wagging non-stop like we were in cahoots together while he bagged the beer. “You traveling into Bean Town, Injun Redhorse?”

“The name’s Jake––Jake Redhorse.” I stared him down as I moved my jacket aside to slide my wallet into the back pocket of my trousers, watching him catch a glimpse of my .38 revolver.

He gulped hard. “Are you a cop, Mr. Redhorse?” he asked, his eyes still on the gun.

I grabbed my beers from the counter, and I felt his eyes following me out the door. The thick, wet snow struck my face with a raw wind gust. I held onto my Stetson, cursing this east coast misery. I climbed swiftly into my black sedan. I used the church key, I kept in the ashtray to open the beer before starting the engine.

Nosey, son-of-a-bitch, snot-nosed kid! Maybe I should have plugged the squirrel. Nah, he wasn’t worth the ammo. What the hell was wrong with me? I was used to dealing with wise guys. Yellow-hided land grabbers were all the same no matter where you went––except maybe Flagstaff. Suddenly, I was feeling homesick. Thinking about star trails on the Reservation with old friends, beer, and war stories. Damn government housing; I’d never live there.

I glanced down at the manila file on the seat next to me. I flipped it open and stared at the photo of Chris Stonecryer. He was a company man, with chrome-dome head, unshaven round cheeks, and beady eyes. He wasn’t like most of us, fresh out of the war trenches and trying to make some easy dough. Chris was originally a mobster hired out of a crime family––the Bugs and Meyer mob.

He was thirty-five, born in Somerville, moved to Cambridge. Last year, his wife went off to California with a booze runner. For all he knew she could have joined the Communist Party.

None of that mattered because his number was up. He was my next target. I was ten miles outside of Boston, in the boonies, wishing this job was done. Wishing I was sitting at home in front of my fireplace, listening to a ball game on my radio, slugging down a few beers, and trying to forget the looks on my victims’ faces when they knew their number was up.

Some days I wondered how many of those suckers would still be alive if I’d just given up this stinkin’ job and gone into another line of work. Maybe I’d even have a wife or a family––yeah, maybe not.

Either way, it didn’t matter much. I couldn’t quit. I knew the score. Just like my target, Chris. He’d made too many mistakes. He was sloppy. If I got sloppy or I tried to run, I’d have my ring cut off my finger––terminated the same way.

I glanced down at my gold ring with the ruby-red stone, a ‘gift’ from the Company––and a way to identify the brotherhood of hit man. It was how the rats kept track of us. Inside my gold, band were the numbers 144, and my last name.

The wind slammed against the side of the black Ford sedan, rocking and strong-arming the fenders, trying to lift the heavy, steel-body as if it were a worthy opponent.

I closed my eyes for a moment, enjoying the taste of my Narragansett. The Navajo drumbeats started pounding a tense rhythm in my brain. A vision was coming. Sure enough, I saw my Shaman grandfather puffing on that old broken pipe, sitting in the lodge on a Vision Quest. He always shared his prophecies about my dangerous future.

“Foolish Grandson, why must you live and die another man’s life? In youth, you are so old, wrinkled before your time.”

Shit! He was right. I was ancient. Only thirty-years-old, but I looked forty-nine. The business of death makes you an old man. I knew that was true, and yet I would harden my thoughts and do the job. I was the best. That’s why the Company called on me.

 “Jacob, Every new moon death calls your name…soon Jacob will be dead. Come home Little Mule. The spirits will protect you.”

Tap, tap, tap!

I opened my eyes seeing that store clerk––squirrel––knocking on the glass. My hand went immediately for my .38. I didn’t trust anyone, no matter how harmless they looked. I rolled down the window, and I raised the .38, pointing the barrel in his face. “What do you want, squirrel?”

His hands flew up with a gesture of surrender, and he started to tremble.

“I…I saw your eyes closed. I…I thought you were dead.”

“Do I look dead?”

“Geez mister, I didn’t mean to make you snap your top. Look, you forgot your change,” he said, judiciously reaching into his wool jacket to draw out several one-dollar bills and some silver coins.

“Keep it!” I said, rolling up the window fast. I watched the snot-nosed kid disappear into the heavy snow, glancing backward way too many times.

I can’t even enjoy a beer in peace.

I was about to start the engine when a small coupe pulled in, a few parking spots away. A beautiful, damned gorgeous, redhead, in her mid-twenties, got out. Beneath her camelhair coat, I could see her white stockings and nurse’s shoes.

I couldn’t stop looking at her. I did something I never do. I daydreamed about what it might be like to marry that woman.

Jackass! She’s probably already hitched.

I glanced at my wristwatch––three thirty-five a.m. I drained the last of my beer and started the engine.

The main road was nearly deserted as I maneuvered the sedan onto the slick pavement. I thought about that woman, out so late on a night like this and wondered if she was starting her shift, or heading home––possibly to a husband, and her family.

What the hell was wrong with me? Going dolly-dizzy over a dame. Snap out of it, Redhorse!

I drew myself up taller in the seat, drove onto the main road, and ponied-up behind a state snowplow. We were going slow enough to keep the cops off my back.

I took the turnoff, onto the access road. The snow had let up a little, but the roads were a mess. I slid once, when I turned onto River Street, before making another left onto Franklin.

The lights from a coffee shop, Anna’s Place, warmed up the cold, falling snow. The full-color images of blueberry cakes made my mouth water just thinking about the smell and taste.

Not now. Business first, that was the Redhorse way. I found Stonecryer’s apartment, did a U-turn, and pulled up in front of the building across the street.

Something just didn’t feel right…

Those Navajo drums…wood on leather. My grandfather wanted to talk to me again…to show me a vision. This was not the time to close my eyes and go into a trance, but his voice broke through my stubborn ignorance. “Jacob, Coyote is out there waiting, and Coyote is always hungry.”

Sure, that ancient proverb served me well all my life, but I told Grandfather, Just let me do my job.

The moment I got out of the sedan, another blast of wind tried to steal my breath as well as my hat. I struggled with the gale-force squall that fought me as I opened the car’s back door. I leaned inside and tossed my hat onto the seat. I unzipped my bag and found my Luger. I made sure it had a full magazine, before I screwed on the silencer, then shoved it down in front of my pants. I glanced around the snowy streets, before shutting and locking the doors of the sedan.

The job always came with keys. It was better than the old days when you could get arrested for breaking into a place, never mind the murder charge.

I glanced at my wristwatch. It was 4:01 a.m. I shoved the key into the lock and felt the doorknob turn in my hand. I was grateful to be out of that shitty storm.

I wiped my wet hair away from my face and studied the bank of metal mailboxes in the foyer, confirming Stonecryer’s apartment number, C3. I pushed open the inside door and looked around the dark hallway before I started climbing the stairs.

The plan was simple. I’d find him sleeping. I’d put two rounds into his head, and yank off his Company-issued identification ring. Then I’d be off to a Western Union Office to mail the ring as proof of the hit––lay low awhile, and wait for my next job assignment.

Even before I reached the top step I knew there was a problem. His apartment door was open part way.

I swiftly grabbed my Luger and held it snug against my leg as I moved stealth-like toward the open door, glancing into the darkness. Become invisible I told myself. Holding my breath, I leaned against the wall, cursing my luck. This was a trap.

There were no noises coming from any of the apartments. A child’s baseball and bat were carelessly left in the hallway in front of apartment C5. I moved silently, snatching them and tucking the gun under my armpit. I used the bat to push open the apartment door, hearing it creak as is opened further. Nothing happened.

I held my breath and tossed the ball inside.

A ripple of explosions started, from string-tripped grenades, obviously attached to the door. The percussion sent me flying. I grabbed for the railing and jumped––my Luger slipped from my fingers as my feet landed hard on the stairs below. I heard my ankle snap. I felt the pain shoot up my leg. But it wasn’t my leg that hurt the most––it was my burned right hand. It felt as if the fire had taken my bones with it, rendering my now-charred hand useless.

Damned Coyote bad luck! I should have known better.

Eyes watering from the pain, I rushed down the remaining two flights of stairs. One more explosion ripped through the upstairs apartment. Finally, I was out the door, and able to breathe. I shoved my hand into a snow bank, and screamed low from the agony shooting up my arm.

My sedan was gone.

Probably stolen.

I knew then––Chris wasn’t the target––I was. The tables were turned.

I hobbled down the dimly lit street, snow and wind slamming into me. I was heading for that coffee shop when a dark figure stepped out from the shadows of a tall apartment building.

Immediately, I reached for my revolver. The pain in my hand nearly brought me to my knees. My fingers refused to bend.

“Redhorse,” said Chris, holding a gun on me. “I guess you ain’t as smart as I thought you were.”

Ignoring the throbbing pain, I faced him down, warrior to warrior. “Why does the Company want me dead?”

His maniacal loud laughter seemed to flatter the deranged look on his fat face. “The Company don’t want you dead––I do. I want to make the big dough, like you. I figured if I rub out the notorious, cowboy killer, Jake Redhorse, those knucklehead stiffs would finally take me serious. My name was at the top of their stinkin’ list. I knew you were gunning for me.”

“You’ve botched too many jobs, Chris,” I said. “They’re never going to give you more money. You kill me, and there’ll be a bounty on your head.”

“You’re wrong, Redhorse.” He nervously wiped the sweat from his face with his coat sleeve. “I’m gonna prove it to you, and to them.”

Chris raised his arm, and I watched his finger begin to squeeze the trigger. That’s when I rushed him. I might have knocked a smaller man on his ass, but his girth kept him standing.

The gun went off. Blood exploded from my arm.

Son-of-a-bitch! It burned like hell. My Navajo Spirit Guide kicked me in the ass. An awesome rush of adrenaline spiked through me, along with a great deal of anger. I struck him several times in the nose. Blood gushed––he cried out––but didn’t go down. I struggled with him, trying to get the gun from his hand. It went off again, this time hitting me in the chest.

The pain felt as if my heart was being sliced from my chest cavity with a machete. I must have been already dead––and yet, I was still fighting with a fat man on the snowy streets of Boston.

“What the hell are you made of?” asked Chris. “Normal folks would be dead right now.”

“Give me the gun, you asshole.” My voice was slurred, my head growing dizzy.

The gun went off again. This time, the force knocked me backward onto the snow-covered sidewalk. I lay still, feeling the cold flakes as they melted on my face.

— ♦♦♦ —

I was eight years old and standing in the woods with a bead drawn on a large elk doe. Grandfather was holding my elbows to steady my aim, but I lowered the barrel of my gun.

“I can’t do it, Grandfather,” I said. “I can’t kill.”

“Jacob, a brave man must die but once, a coward many times. Do you understand?”

I nodded yes, but I didn’t understand––and yet I wanted to, badly, because I wanted to make him proud of me. I took a deep breath and swung my rifle up, and I pulled the trigger. When the round struck her upper shoulder, she staggered. The pain in her eyes branded a fire rod into my soul. Then in a wild panic, fear forced her to run, as if she could somehow outrun death. I wondered if in that moment, on the threshold of eternity, did she feel more alive––was there a spark of brilliant clarity right before her light was fully extinguished?

On that warm autumn morning, something died inside of me, too. I have died a thousand times since, and now here I was, bleeding out on a snowy sidewalk a million miles away from that day in woods.

My eyes opened when Chris nudged me with his boot. I could see the jackass smiling as he bent over and yanked off my Company ring. My breath scurried off with the demon wind into the snow-filled night sky.

— ♦♦♦ —

“Sir,” said a firm female voice. “Can you hear me?”

“Where am I?” I asked, opening my eyes. My chest felt heavy as if a coyote had been sitting on top of me all night. My hand felt stiff. I looked down and saw it was heavily bandaged, going halfway up my arm.

My beautiful nurse looked familiar, and then I knew why. She was the dame from the package store parking lot. Well, well, how ironic.

“Welcome back, sir,” she said, hanging my chart on the hook at the foot of my bed. “You’re in Boston General.” Gently taking hold of my wrist, she glanced down at her watch.

“The fire department found you. They were on a call for an explosion a block away. You had no identification on you when they brought you in. Can you remember your name, sir?”

“I’m Jake––Jake Redhorse.”

“Well, Mr. Redhorse, you’re a very lucky man––a half inch closer to your heart, and you’d be dead. Do you know who did this to you?”

“No.” I lied.

“The police want me to ask you if you know anything about the explosion.”

“I wish I could answer your questions,” I said. “But I don’t know anything.”

I half wondered if she knew I was feeding her lies, but she didn’t ask me any more questions. Nobody did. I waited for the cops to come, but they never came. I didn’t think they would. The Company always cleaned up every loose end.

Seven days later, when I was strong enough to walk, assisted by a cane, I found my clothes in the closet, along with my wristwatch and Spirit amulet. My Company ring was not there.

A brave man must die but once…Grandfather’s words spoke in my head. The Company thought I was dead. When Chris took my ring and sent it back to them, they would have officially terminated me.

I could clear the matter up. All I needed to do was to send one telegram––Chris would be dead––and I’d be back in business.

“Jacob,” said Grandfather. “A warrior recognizes the end of seasons and knows when to lay down his weapon. Remember what I have said to you many times––your first teacher is your own heart.”

My heart asked me the same question: Should I return to my old bloody profession? Or could I hang it up, forever?

I leaned heavily on my cane, as I hobbled toward the bathroom. I glanced at my reflection, and smiled. My heart was my teacher. Now, I knew what I wanted––Grandfather, I’m coming home.

END


Next Week:

“Seducing the Angel” by Garry Kilworth
Illustration by Toe Keen