THE BULLET MADE A HOLLOW THUD, COUPLED WITH THE
high-pitched whinnying noise of sheet metal shearing and rolling back along the left rear quarter panel. The crashing calliope ended abruptly against the interior of the steel back bumper. E.J. felt the sharp bite of a flake of chrome break off close to his forehead. His ears were ringing like a handbel banging out a Christmas carol. He reached to his forehead, half expecting a torrent of blood, only to discover the bright leafy metal shard.
He yelled upwards, above his head toward where the bullet originated, “Mr. Copeland, I need you to put the gun down so we can talk about this before someone gets hurt.”
“My land. Always been my peoples’ land. I got to pass it to my sons the way I found it. Not ‘bout to have no store-bought lawman from some oil company tell me they get to go in and out at all hours of the night shaking the foundation of my house. Never ends. Man can’t even hear his-self think.”
Just wait until they dril , thought E.J. He barely had a moment’s sarcastic chuckle when the big diver’s side mirror, specially made for trailer hauling, splintered into an infinite number of pieces. He felt the percussion of the round whiz above and instinctively jerked his head back from the edge of the rear bumper.
E.J. appreciated the danger in his current tactical position. When he first saw old man Copeland on the porch with the rifle, E.J. stopped his three-quarter-ton truck in the driveway and took cover, figuring the old man would have to fire through the engine block and the length of the truck to hit him.
The wisdom of the decision now seemed suspect. Penned down behind the corner of his pickup, Copeland could out-flank him in either direction without leaving the big sweeping porch of his home. Worse, E.J. hadn’t had time to reach for his own rifle. A forty-five caliber 1911 pistol made a poor choice at seventy-five yards, even in the hands of a marksman.
E.J. chided himself for being so stupid. In thirty years of law enforcement, had he equaled this level of ignorance? His mind spun with images landing like a marble on a roulette wheel with the image of a young officer killed on his watch. For a moment, E.J. thought he could smell the lavender perfume the boy’s mother wore at the funeral.
He broke away from the image, finding no consolation in the litany of appal ing errors in judgment committed over the course of his career, nor did he settle on a strategy to improve his position. In fact, he surmised his tactical situation was hopeless. The glassless side mirror revealed an enormous hole through the center of its chrome housing, 4
bearing witness to the debacle.
A dog’s muffled howl emanated from the cab of the truck. E.J. had forgotten Yak amidst the excitement of the firefight. “Hit my dog and I’ll kill you.”
A loud, raspy tone projected from the house. “Not aiming at no dog.”
The truth of the statement chilled E.J.’s shoulders, then ran down his spine. This guy hit exactly where he aimed.
Shooting the mirror was an attention-getter. The earlier round, which came to rest against the bumper, was likely intentional y fired above E.J.’s head.
The coldness had permeated E.J.’s entire body. He wiped his forehead with his hand, then pressed on his head in a vain effort to stop the ringing in his ears. Copeland could kill him anytime the old-timer chose. The only option was to establish a rapport, come to some common ground.
Copeland was letting him live for a reason. He quickly reviewed his mental file on Copeland. The man was a widower, a retired lineman from the electric cooperative. He was a cowman with two sons.
E.J. hol ered across the recently mowed pasture separating him from the white frame house with the sweeping porches. “What you shooting. Cannon you rolled out on wheels?”
Copeland yelled back in the same scratchy, deep sound.
“444 Marlin. Hot, ain’t they? My hand loads.”
E.J. lifted and turned his head, spitting out sandy loam, gravel, and the Redland dirt native to East Texas. His back ached, tired of lying flat, and beyond the point of trying to make a smaller target to a shooter of Copeland’s obvious skill. Shooters load their own ammunition to achieve maximum consistency. Some developed an affinity for odd 5
calibers, even if they had to endure powerful recoil like his own 45.70.
The grit slid deeper between his gums and teeth when he spoke. “I knew it was some kind of buffalo cartridge.
Impressive for open sights on a lever action. Where’d you learn to shoot?”
“Camp Pendleton, California, but I got my advanced certification in Vietnam, City of Hue.” Despite a limp, the old man appeared to straighten, and his chest bulged under a weather-beaten face.
“I appreciate your service. Never served myself, but my son was a marine.”
Copeland had taken a rest against one of the porch posts. He lowered the big carbine, keeping it close to his shoulder. “Semper Fidelis, marine’s a marine, can’t be ‘was a marine’.”
“My boy would have agreed with you. He was so proud.
Came back from Afghanistan in a coffin.” E.J.’s voice crack-led and snapped like expensive china crashing across a tile floor.
“Then I appreciate your sacrifice. Can’t imagine. I got two boys, both meth junkies. Neither one has enough teeth left to gnaw grits. Already dreading the phone call I know will come, maybe today, maybe tomorrow,” Copland said.
“I thought you had to leave this place to your sons the same way your folks left to you.”
“Yeah, they can’t even hold jobs, much less give me a grandchild. After Effie died, this place is sort of my family.”
The distance made Copeland’s loud words sound even more tragic, ringing across his ancestral home. He lowered the rifle further and stepped off the porch, walking toward his former target.
E.J. lifted his body, rising to his knees. “Lawyers say the mineral estate is the dominant estate. Don’t make much sense, so I explain it this way.” He walked along the driveway as he continued speaking. “You took the company’s money, promising they could dril . Of course, the company was using other people’s money, right? Company promising those folks to bring in a gas well. Then before we can get the dril site made, you dump roofing tacks on it and threaten our contractors with guns.”
Copeland lowered his head as E.J. approached.
E.J. added, “Those dirt men are just trying to make a living, and you got them changing high dol ar tires on equipment the bank owns. You’re not hurting the company.
The company will pay nothing. They’ll hire some other old boy who owes the bank for his dozers and finish building the site.”
Stepping off the gravel drive, E.J. walked across a bright green field toward the house. He marveled at the vivid green grass. Spring rains had made keeping up with the Bahia grass near impossible. The split open seed head made an endless sea of swaying peace signs. Copeland was closing the distance with his face and the rifle pointed at a downward angle.
Behind Copeland and his home, E.J. saw dark clouds far in the distance, keeping vigil over the pines. To the right of the house were the cattle pens, and a barn roofed by rusty tin. The barn’s lumber walls were bleached grey from the sun.
As he walked toward Copeland, E.J. stepped back in time and place. His fingers slid through the tall grass, dis-lodging the tiny seeds like he had done so many times running across his family’s home place. Absently his head 7
turned, looking toward the big oak to see if his mother was ringing the dinner triangle.
The armed man before E.J. crushed the illusion. When their eyes met, Copeland barked, “You’re the big ranger the deputies told me about. Bought and paid for law.”
“Fair enough. Cal ing me bought. I took their money, but you took their money too. We a pair, brother.”
“You think I went to Paris and seen the Eiffel Tower on their dime. I used it to pay for doctors, experimental treatment in Houston. What the VA couldn’t handle. I had prostate cancer. None of it worked. I didn’t want to fight.
Effie insisted, claimed she didn’t put fifty years training me to let me go dying when her hard work might pay off.”
Copeland laughed while his eyes watered at the corners.
E.J. saw that the old man’s mocking laughter served to fight back tears. “Then I lived, and she up and died on me.
Right next to me. Same bedroom where we slept for fifty-two years.”
He turned the butt of the rifle toward E.J., offering the gun to him. “Hear you folks got cable TV and medical care up there. You might as wel feed me. I got nothing here anyway.”
E.J. looked away. The dark horizon capping the white house nestled in a pasture made almost neon by the bloom of spring. He caught the faint sight of some White Dutch Clover almost lost amongst the sea of emerald green. He rarely saw clover like that anymore, and for a moment, the absurdity consumed him. Why was he thinking about clover with an armed man in front of him?
After the long silence, E.J. turned back to Copeland.
“Mr. Copeland, I will get the company to move the dril site back another five hundred feet. You are going to go out 8
there and get every one of those tacks picked up, unarmed, and apologize to those construction hands. You’re gonna tell them you’ve seen Jesus and won’t be sinin’ no more.”
Copeland looked bewildered, then released the tension in his face with a subtle grin.
E.J. pushed the butt of the rifle back to Copeland. “Put your gun up and move your hands. I’m not gonna cuff you.”
“Well, I appreciate you not shooting me. You got a glass of tea or a cup of coffee. I got a mouth full of this dirt you’re so proud of out here.”
“I got tea, coke,” Copeland smiled, “maybe some stronger if you’ll drink with a man who nearly killed you. Come in the house.” The old man extended his hand.
E.J. took it. “You wanted me dead. I wouldn’t be breathing. I’ll settle for the porch and some tea. I got my dog in the cab. Better check on him, likely scared to death.”
The tea tasted stout. Ice and sugar couldn’t cut the bite.
He swished it across his tongue, satisfied the brew had sat far too long. Couldn’t the same be said of Copeland? His weathered rail frame made him look every inch the wore-out cowboy.
The two passed the time talking about rain, heat, drought, gardens, and cattle prices. E.J. had driven his truck the rest of the way to Copeland’s house. He assessed the damage to the pickup. Cosmetic, though, he had enjoyed the view from the large fancy motorized mirrors. Well, it had probably made Copeland feel considerably better shooting the mirrors, more oil company’s property. Maybe hitting them had part way dispelled the man’s anger and saved E.J.’s life.
The distant familiar noise of EJ’s cell phone caught his attention. He was grateful he had left the device in the truck. After a few more moments he rose, shook hands with Copeland again, and walked to this pickup.
The sweet smell of moisture rolled over E.J. as he watched the clouds slowly grow darker, springing thick with water vapor. He cranked the truck and closed the door to call the office.
E.J. spent the entire afternoon on the phone with corporate. Everyone knew company founder and president Rex Ashe had hired him. E.J.’s edicts had carried the weight of an ancient pharaoh; so let it be written, so let it be done. Such prior transactions had spoiled him.
Normal y, E.J. downplayed his friendship with Rex Ashe. However, frustration overcame him, and he played his hole card. “This is E.J. Kane, head of corporate security.
I report directly to CEO Rex Ashe, and he has approved the fol owing….”
The line went quiet for a long time. Then another voice came over the speaker. The person questioned E.J.’s authority before beginning a series of transfers to executives, refusing to acknowledge they worked for Rex Ashe. Finally, someone identified only as the acting CFO spoke.
She spoke curtly yet agreed to fulfill the promises E.J. had made to Copeland.
Grateful to achieve success, E.J. didn’t ask her name, nor did he carry the conversation further. The CFO’s high-pitched voice went to great lengths to pronounce each syllable. E.J. surmised the perfect pronunciation hid an east-ern accent, New York, Boston, perhaps New Jersey.
Stepping from the truck, E.J.’s boots felt heavy, like being mired in quicksand. Arguing with fools can make a 1 0
man more tired than working. Copeland’s eyes were closed, mouth open, and his head leaned back against the chair.
No point in waking the old man.
E.J. turned to walk off the porch, followed by a bluish-black and white dog. He whispered, “Load up, Yak.”
Copeland opened his eyes, looking up from the tall oak framed wicker rocker. “You’re a good man.”
E.J. stopped with his back to Copeland.
Despite not facing him, Copeland continued. “I mean, people say you’re so crooked, when you die they’ll have to screw you in the ground. More cross than the devil on Sunday. Ain’t none of it true. You treated me decent.”
E.J. stepped into the rain toward his truck. He yelled above the squall without ever looking back. “Don’t you go telling nobody Copeland or I’ll come back and finish our little gunfight.”
Copeland snickered a gravelly chuckle.
E.J.’s cell phone rang through the radio in his truck.
E.J. understood mechanical contrivances, yet Bluetooth technology eluded him. Every so often, for reasons unknown to E.J., the phone and radio seemed to come off the rails, and his company’s technology department had to pair the device again.
He pushed a button on the steering wheel, and his daughter’s voice was in stereo. “Daddy, are you home?”
“Making the planet an environmental wasteland for Devekon and Rex Ashe’s greed. You know the polar bears don’t have a home anymore because of you.”
“That’s right, princess, I’m literally wrecking polar bear houses as we speak. Melting them big ice cubes with a hair dryer. Did you just call to give me grief, or you going 1 1
to visit your pop sometime?”
There was a pause, then she sighed, “Dad, I need some money.”
Her soft voice was almost inaudible over the rain. Was it the sound system, or was his hearing weakening? E.J.
didn’t need to hear. It seemed like all she called about was money these days. “How much?”
“Seven hundred dollars. My computer got fried with my entire term paper, and it’s due Monday.” Her voice had taken on a whiny quality.
“What did your mother say?”
“You know I can’t talk to her about anything real. You know how she has been since Konner’s death. She’s ready to bite everyone’s head off. She checks my grades online and chews me out every day. I’m nineteen years old. She’s moody and rude to my friends, and I’m tired of it.”
“Calm down, breathe, come home tonight. I even bought the stuff to make you a bean sprout sandwich. Sunshine misses you something awful.”
“I don’t have time,” said Sharla.
E.J. didn’t want to play his hole card, though he did.
“I’ll get you the money.”
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