Blake was all bullshit except for the bomb. His baby-bald scalp burned bacon-red, the same color as the tips of the Bull Brands he smoked. Extras poked from the slash pocket of his frayed Army field-jacket, sleeves cut at the shoulders. Yard-sale purchase: Blake wouldn’t last a minute as a soldier. But his yarns about the bomb were truth: he worked at Los Alamos to develop the bomb tested in the Alamogordo desert. In July 1945, Blake watched New Mexico burn. Now he was back to see what was left.
A letter from his brother, Nuss, had brought Blake back. Nuss was nearly a decade older than Blake. They’d never been very close. Usually Nuss ripped on Blake’s fat ass: how he’d let himself go to shit in Arizona from eating hot-plate meals on his lap and chugging thin beer. Nuss kept tight: both for his woman, and because he was so paranoid, always convinced that someone was out to get him. He’d been involved in some dealings that he never told Blake the full story about. Something with drugs. But Blake wasn’t one to judge. They exchanged letters every few years. Most of Nuss’s messages were a waste, but Blake knew this one was different. Nuss was serious when he was direct:
COME BACK HERE. KNOW A GUY WHO CAN HELP YOU FIND THE BOMB.
There was no bomb to find, but Blake knew what Nuss meant.
Blake lived in a double-trailer in Yuma, Arizona. He left New Mexico the week after the bomb blew: he couldn’t live that close to his guilt. He quit the project, and washed his hands of the deaths that came when the bomb seared Japan. He could have escaped to Canada, or further. But Blake knew he couldn’t leave the bomb altogether. He had to stay in its shadow.
He called Nuss, who promised it wasn’t a hoax, his voice shaky on the other end. Nuss said it was all true, but he couldn’t explain it over the phone.
“Just get here. What’s holding you back?”
There wasn’t much. Blake looked around the trailer. Beechwood bowls piled next to gold-plated key chains of the presidents and home-recorded folk albums. The east wall of the trailer was covered with newspaper clippings and torn pages from Life magazine, where the bomb looked as fake as a wooden apple in the dark pink, brush colored photos. The desert appeared so stale and white, as if God had created the vast expanse for one reason: to be blown up.
Blake had feared a bad test. The New Mexico test was to have two parts: a TNT explosion which created the chain reaction that set-off the plutonium. If the TNT blew but the reaction failed, that plutonium would be spilled across the desert. A waste of money; but more: that would taint the land for good. So Blake fought for a casing to be placed around the bomb, an airtight shroud that would hold plutonium that eked from a bad explosion, or would simply disintegrate during a successful test. He thought the decision was simple, but Groves and Oppenheimer thought otherwise. They decided to set the casing aside, unused during the test.
That morning in 1945, Blake was still nervous about the decision while he stood with other Los Alamos staff, packed like corn in the pale-lit, North 10,000 bunker. He could not see faces, only hands and feet. The bomb was strapped a hundred feet high on a steel Forest Service fire-watch tower. Blake raised a square of dark welder’s glass in front of his eyes, and at 5:29 the bomb blew. It was a ripple in the sky like a pulled zipper that revealed the red fire behind the blue.
The casing survived the blast. Years later, the Army had blown smaller bombs inside it, leaving it more cylinder than closed casing. Now, it sat in the desert, the closest thing left to the bomb. A brother to the bomb. Something Blake could touch and feel and help himself forget. He packed his pickup and left for New Mexico.
Blake’s pickup clunked over a wooden bridge that threatened to crumble into the threadbare Rio Grande below. Grama grass clumped in bunches along Route 380, flanked by tan, jutted rocks, green and yellow flowered creosote patches, mesquite thickets, and barbed cholla cactus.
A dragonfly imprinted on his windshield, and the free wing flopped from the wind. Blake looked past the dead bug to see the first sign on the bare highway: STALLION SERVICE ROAD. The south-running paved road was gated shut. The test site and surrounding area was now the White Sands Missile Range, where missiles were proved for most days, but the gate did open twice a year to a herd of visitors. They stood in the blown-open casing and took photographs of trinitite: rock-glass formed during the test. But Blake hadn’t come for the two-dollar tour. Nuss had talked about a friend named Ortiz who knew a safe route to the blast site. Blake had come to feel the real, bare desert. He’d convinced himself that there was something more to find. Maybe melted fragments of the steel tower. An unearthed bunker. Some burnt elegy to the bomb.
He toed a croaked Texas jackrabbit that curled on the crumbling pavement edge. The rabbit’s mouth was open bean-wide; its dirt-salted fur pasted down, but the tips fluttered from mites or wind. Blake flicked his cigarette off its belly and squinted down 380: he couldn’t tell if it was rocks, a ranch, or Nuss’s place. He waved his hands in front of his face in some misguided attempt to calm the heat.
As he drove closer, he saw two buildings and what looked to be a chapel, a metal cross reaching from the roof’s peak. Typical, Blake thought: Nuss would try to bring God to the desert. The lot was littered with hollowed-out cabs, stacked and shredded tires, overturned carburetors, and orange-decked, walk-behind lawnmowers. A dilapidated, tire-less International A-110 was propped on cinder blocks at the grama’s edge. Red paint had been bleached flesh-pink from the sun, and uncut grama speared underneath. A Dodge Polara was quarter-buried in the earth. The driver’s side door was duct-taped along the edges. Yellowed newspapers stacked on the hood, a rock on top to keep them from blowing away. The place looked like a collection point for things lost or dead in the desert.
The mess cleared near a high white post that read GAS in round, bubble letters. A small man leaned against the front pump, nozzle slung from his hand, the hose sprawled at his feet like a dead rattlesnake. Ortiz: pen-scribbled on his shirt. He waved Blake forward. As Blake rolled past, he saw that Ortiz had hide-tanned skin, a wide wrinkle curved deep under an oval-tipped nose. Dark lips that offered a quarter smile, and a rumpled, holed, dotted chin. The only smooth places on his face were the blue, soaked bags under his brown eyes. His arms were as thin as wheat-whisks. Ortiz had a wet look to his eyes that made Blake wonder if he had ever stepped foot outside of the desert.
Before Blake shut off the truck, Ortiz opened the gas cap to the right of the door handle, stuck the nozzle inside, and clasped both hands while the gas pumped and chugged. Blake kept time to the flow on his steering wheel as he looked in his rear-view mirror at Ortiz, and was surprised to see that Ortiz stared back.
“What kind of gas is this? Texaco?” Blake asked.
“I don’t know.”
“You work here and you don’t know?”
“I pump it. I don’t mix it.”
Blake folded the Socorro map and eased out of his truck. Ortiz was dwarfed by the Texaco Sky Chief pumps. He swam in his light blue mechanic’s suit, the shoulders down around his elbows, his sleeves rolled back enough that the excess could stitch a new shirt.
“Nuss used to pump his own gas.”
“Used to. Now I work here.” Ortiz kept a hand on the nozzle.
“I can see that.” Blake jostled Bull Brands in his chest pocket. “Did the old man get lazy?”
Ortiz shook his head. “He’s sick.”
“Cancer.” Ortiz closed his eyes while he held the nozzle.
“He’s got cancer? Never told me a goddamn thing about it.”
“Are you a doctor?”
“No. I’m his brother.”
Ortiz opened his eyes. He twisted-out the nozzle, latched it back on the pump, shut the gas-cap, and left a hand against the truck. His hands looked like oak, his fingers like twigs. He wouldn’t reach five feet if he stood on the truck bed. He nodded toward the stable. “Let him tell you about it.”
Blake walked down the hill and cautioned over the middle post of the empty paddock. He slowed across the dried circle. The Oscuras lined the distance like rafters. The space between them and here appeared unending. Ahead, the stable doors were open and appeared dark inside, even red. The smell of burnt hay and shit forced Blake’s tired nose away.
“I can barely recognize you,” Nuss grunted. “And I’ve never seen you move so slowly.”
Nuss’s ten-gallon brimmed to the horizon, even in the dark. He wore a pearl-snap, breast-pocketed, red and white western shirt, cotton tight around his biceps, sleeve-cuffs tucked back at his wrists. His forearms were a mixture of sunburned skin and sunbleached dirt. His face stuck with black and grey hair that curved up with his lips. The only inch of him that wasn’t dirt-crusted were his silver-tipped cowboy boots. His legs flexed in jeans that looked like they were rubbed over rocks.
He sat on an overturned carton and somehow looked tight while also looking sick.“Shit. Don’t just stand there. Come on over.”
Blake shook Nuss’s hand and pulled him up. Nuss was still wound hard but felt soft beneath the flex. He was drifting away.
Blake started to ease him down, but Nuss said they had to talk, but didn’t want to do it there.
“I’m not long for this desert.” He pulled down his hat. “They say it clears you out. Well, it’s burning me alive.”
Nuss led Blake through his overstuffed gift store. Hank Williams 8 tracks lined the windowsills, above stacked cartons of Kool, Lucky Strike, and Camels. Rusted fans whirred lukewarm air on their faces. Antiquated shovels, pickaxes, pitchforks, and iron rakes lined the dark, wooden walls. Crates of venison and antelope jerky--‘Cured in the sun-dappled mountains of Wyoming’--were piled next to cartons of clementines and grapes. Nuss grabbed a few packs of jerky and gave them to Blake. “I bet you’re hungry.”
Nuss unlocked a room in the back. The walls were bare save for a framed vinyl tondo of Jesus with a dew-glistened crown of thorns. In the center of the room a state park wooden picnic table was fastened to the floor with thick screws. A rusted square on the table read ‘Food left out brings bears and fox.’ Not if the bear ate the fox first.
Nuss’s face ridged smooth under blue-gray eyes that pulsed younger than his worn hands. Blake rested his elbows on the varnished table.
“Is it too early for beer?” Nuss asked.
“Never too late, never too early.”
Nuss opened the cooler and brought over two bottles. He set his hat on the table. “We always wanted a bar.” His short hair was silver and black in parts. “So we called this place a lounge to keep ourselves happy. You’ve got to convince yourself of things like that sometimes. That they are what they aren’t.” Nuss turned his lips.
“Where’d your woman go?”
“She’s gone. Left me here to die alone.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I would have come.”
Nuss shrugged. “You came anyway. The bomb, cancer. It’s all the same slow death.”
“How’d you get it?”
Nuss laughed. “Christ. The bomb’s radiation has soaked into everything. They should have listened to you about that casing.”
“That was only meant for a bad test.”
“It’s all a bad test. The goddamn desert is all soaked. We’re fucked.”
“So leave, then.”
Nuss coughed. “Funny story. How’d that work for you?”
“I came back because you said someone could take me to the bomb.”
Nuss leaned his elbows on the table and closed his hands together. His tanned knuckles rutted like red rocks. “I’ve got you down here for something big.” Nuss pulled a Marlboro from his pocket. He lit it, and it burned between his fingers, unsmoked. “Ortiz saw the bomb too.” Below him, the bench creaked. “He saw it that morning in ’45. Watched it from his ranch.” Nuss tapped the filter on the table. The cigarette smoked his clementine-smelling fingers. Sweat covered his shoe-horn chin. “I catch him staring straight south. I think he still sees the bomb.”
“Send him on that tour. There’s not much else to find.”
“Well, what the fuck are you here for, then?”
“I don’t know.” He took a swig. “There’s nothing for me, anywhere.”
“I’m the one about to croak, but you sound like it.” Nuss leaned forward. “I want you and him to split the money.”
Blake looked up from his bottle. “What money?”
Nuss had flown training missions over Mexico during the war. That was no secret. But after the war ended, he took his discharge check south, and met Ortiz, who ran opium in Sinaloa. “He was looking for a good pilot. I was looking for money.” That first part was news to Blake. “All went fine until I got greedy.” He always flew after midnight, but tried a double-run during a storm, and crashed. “I should be dead. So I cut my losses, made a deal with Ortiz, and crossed the border, my truck full of cash.”
Blake smirked. “I always wondered how you bought this place on a soldier’s salary.”
Nuss opened his arms. “You always knew I was dirty. Now you know where the mud’s from.” He smiled. “I buried the money in the desert. Before those White Sands bastards shut down the place.”
“Why’d you bury it?”
“You know me.”
Blake laughed. “Not as well as I’d thought.”
“I’m shit paranoid. Thought one of those Mexicans would find me. Well, one did. Ortiz. He came back a few months ago. Down and out.”
“Looking for his share?”
“Maybe. But he’s been patient. You’ve got to be patient to survive in the desert.”
“I believe you. You never said where your woman went.”
“Gone. With this new young fuck. Wild one. Buck-toothed fireman, National Guardsman. Grade-A prick. Mark Powell. Mark Coward, more like it.”
“Why’d she leave?”
Nuss pointed outside, but there was no window. “That paddock’s for her. She rode bulls, bucked them like she thought herself a real cowgirl. Well, a bull threw her, almost trampled her. So I shot it in the heart. Saved her fucking life but she had a fit. Her new man showed up with a trailer, took the other bull, and they left. I still remember how she looked that day. She wore suede, feathered knee-high boots that still left her short. A cream and beige rebozo spread round her. Purple-tinged hair curled past her chin. Her green eyes somehow slipped past hazelnut skin, even-toned from her forehead to her fingers. A thousand bracelets gathered on her wrists, and a Winchester spread across her chest. And that was it.” Nuss shook his head. “That was almost a year ago.”
“She knows you’re sick?”
“She’s always known.”
“The hell with her, then.”
“That’s right. The hell with all of us. But listen. She knows about the money. I spilled the beans after we’d fucked, off on coke, like a dumb bastard. She doesn’t know the spot, but she’ll find it, sooner or later.”
“And you’re thinking sooner?”
“With that young fucker around? Yes. Sooner.”
Blake turned, stretched his back. “So why do you need me?”
“I don’t. I’m not long for this world. You’re younger than me.”
“I’m not young.”
“You’re not dead. You left the desert. How fucking ironic. You cooked up the bomb. Blew it. And I’m dying because of it.”
“Sounds like I don’t deserve the money.”
“Quit looking this gift horse in the mouth. I want you and Ortiz to split the money. I can’t go out there myself. And they don’t give you pockets in Hell.”
Blake pulled his palms down his face. “All of this. It’s a lot to keep from your brother.”
“We’ve never really been brothers. It’s time to fix that.”
“You could have just told me about the money.”
“I know you. The bomb brought you back. The money? It’s a bonus.”
“Does Ortiz know a way to the money? A way that we can travel?”
“Your Ford won’t make it.”
“I’ll ditch the truck. My legs will take me where I want to go.”
“Those legs?” Nuss looked under the table. “A bit wider and shorter than your college days.”
Blake pointed to his head. “My mind’s still right. These legs do what I tell them to.”
“That’s why you need to go with him. Lord, his mind’s nearly gone.”
“Is he dangerous?”
“You’ve got think about this is as a way to make peace. With him, with the desert.”
“I already talked to him.”
“You haven’t talked. Not really.” Nuss downed the rest of his bottle, and said it was time to go outside.
The wind clubbed hard, but Nuss’s hat damn well wasn’t going anywhere. He smoked between the wrecks and told Blake to talk to Ortiz.
“What’s on his mind?” Blake asked.
“Same as what’s on yours, I expect.”
Wind wrapped Blake’s shorts around his thighs and raked his legs with dust while he walked to the bench.
Ortiz’s skin wound tight over bone. His lips were chapped. His blue suit was open to show a sunken chest that barely moved with his breaths. His hands rested on his thighs; his fingers were curved like they held oranges. “That took a while.”
“My brother had a lot of secrets.” Blake gave him a Bull Brand. Ortiz puffed long, like a boy taking drink from a straw. “What are you looking at?”
Ortiz lifted his lips from the cigarette. “How do you know I’m looking?”
“Then what are you doing out here? It’s damn hot.”
“I’m looking at the bomb.” Ortiz cleared his throat after a puff.
Blake stepped forward. A thick bed of grama began after the rock-embedded dirt. “There’s not much to see. We blew it up, you know.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Nuss told me you know a way to the bomb.”
“The money, you mean?”
“Fine. The money.”
Ortiz zipped his blue suit up to his collarbone. “I’ve already got the bomb.”
“You’re bullshitting me.”
Ortiz looked at Nuss, who faced the desert, smoke curling around his brim. “I snuck out there already. Let me show you.”
They walked behind the store. Cobwebbed-cartons stacked alongside a raised door. Ortiz slipped a key from his cuff and stepped inside. The sun lit a room that Blake first thought was a closet. Ortiz appeared unbothered by the sparse light. Wooden crosses zigzagged along the walls. Red and blue rosaries nailed among the wood. A chain from a bulb remained untouched, and shifted from an unfelt wind. A mattress covered most of the wooden floor. Sheets were folded and tucked with the tightness of a nervous cadet. A TV perched on a Franklin stove. One of the stove’s doors was open, and a stack of Excelsior had spilled onto the floor.
Ortiz made noise in the corner, but could no longer be seen.
The sun became free of clouds and lit the far wall. A crack traced down the center of a narrow window. The glass didn’t lead to sun; instead, the shadow of figurines on a shelf in the store.
Ortiz lifted something over his head. It was too dull to see. He finally stood and turned on the light. The grill from an Army’s war-era Jeep lay on the floor. Ortiz turned the grill and pointed to random sections of the grate, then set it aside. He pulled an overstuffed box from the right of his bed. Duct-tape lined the edges of the stretched cardboard.
“Go ahead and look.” He pushed the box to the doorframe.
Blake took out one item at a time. Thick, red-orange glass. Maybe from a shattered vase. No markings. Then an aluminum canteen with U.S.A. G.M. Co. 1941 printed along the side. A crusted mattock. Rebar rope-coils that stained Blake’s palms orange. A cigar box of scrapped mortar shell nose caps.
“This is a box of junk.” He wiped the rebar’s rust on his shorts. “I don’t get it.”
“I found them all in the desert.”
“Jackrabbits take shits in the desert.” Blake folded his ditched cigarette in half and held it under his nose. “Jackrabbit shit is not the bomb.”
Ortiz turned off the light, and laughed.
“I make piles under mesquites. I can weld the bomb back together now.”
“You’re a fucker, you know that?” Blake threw the cigarette into the dark room. “You’re shitting me. I knew it.” Blake walked to his truck. He should have seen the scam. Nuss, bored as hell and fucked over by that woman, had lost his sense.
Nuss stood in front of the Ford, hands on his hips. “What’s the problem?’
“You’re an asshole. Are you even sick?”
Nuss smiled, but looked away. Blake looked back at Ortiz, who held a bowling ball under his laughing face.
He dropped the ball on the ground. “Boom.”
“You son of a bitch. I should leave.”
“Relax.” Nuss patted Blake’s shoulder. “I’m dying. For better or worse. That’s true.”
Nuss had already stepped aside. Ortiz said he had a story to tell.
Ortiz said he could barely distinguish between the bomb he experienced and the bomb he’d imagined those lonely years in the desert. Still, some facts remained on his skin like the indelible wrinkles that pinched his hands. Back in ’45, he lived on a ranch near Carrizozo, a mule deer’s skip from the same highway the gas station bordered now. He was awakened when the bomb blew at 5:29, blasting his windows and covering the floor in shards. The wobbly sun reflected off the cut glass and heated the walls, the bed. A low sound rumbled toward the house, so low it seemed to crawl along underground caverns. A storm beneath their feet. The sound culminated with a swamp of grey. Ortiz’s wife swept the sheet over them and they breathed the sheet into their mouths, against their tongues.
“The Army is shooting us.” Gumersinda really had no idea. She wanted to peek, but Ortiz kept the sheet in place. He was scared to look.
He couldn’t see her but could imagine her face.
“My sister. Jesus.” Gumersinda pulled the sheet away. A misty cloud rotated along the ceiling, carrying black specks of dust that glued to the walls on contact. Ortiz pulled the sheet back over their heads but Gumersinda grabbed his neck. “I need her.” Gumersinda stood on the bed and cupped her hands over her mouth. The smoke rested above her like a web. Ortiz laid the sheet on top of the glass-covered floor and stepped across with arched feet. He ran down the hall, now beginning to flush with smoke, and still heard the rumble, though the sound now seemed to reverberate from the earth’s core.
Gumersinda tugged the knobs of the closet. Muffled screams pinched from beyond the doors.
“Watch your feet.” Ortiz held back Gumersinda. “¿Que haces?”
“Carmela won’t come out. She thinks we’re being shot.”
“She’ll suffocate there.” Ortiz tugged open the doors and Carmela stumbled out, her robe clinging to sweat-dampened skin.
A clocking boom shook glass spiked on the windowsill. The women crouched under the kitchen table in the center of the ranch.
Ortiz walked over the glass.
A cloud draped from the sky. Inside the grey fire formed the shape of an orange bull, primed to leap. Purple flashes clipped its hide.
Ortiz pulled glass from a sill. The last boom had quelled his ears. He heard from memory now. He climbed out the window and sauntered through a rank, lukewarm wind. His eyes stung from particles carried by the stray air. He looked for his dog but could not find it.
The pigs piled in the trough. One heaped on its back, mud in its eyes. Ortiz poked it, but the stick sunk inside the boiled skin.
That was the end of Ortiz’s true memory for the morning. He’d imagined events past that, but couldn’t be sure of them. The rest of his images from that day resided in his memory like a shuffled puzzle.
He sliced a pig open during the afternoon, and its insides poured on the mud.
Gumersinda said the devil had come and Ortiz hadn’t done a thing.
He found his dog crouched behind the cellar doors. Half the leash burnt away. Her fur molted black. But she lived.
Night came slowly. He leaned on his fence. The devil’s breath still winded across his cheeks. He walked to the front of the ranch to find Carmela in the passenger seat of the idling pickup. Gumersinda walked out of the house and asked him what he was going to do. He said nothing. This was his ranch, his land. Why would he leave? She said the house is destroyed, cursed. There was no life left for her here. He waved her off, and in that passing gesture he sealed his loss: Gumersinda and her sister took the pickup and the dog to Corona.
Ortiz would never hear from them again.
It was his fault. Sure, they were superstitious and scared, but Ortiz knew the bomb was coming. He had been warned: not that there would be a bomb, but that something would happen. The Army mailed him a deed in 1942 for the house and the land. The land was in the range of expected testing. They didn’t say what would be tested, but Ortiz soon felt the desert would burn: when he drove south he saw wires strewn across the yuccas. So many covered trucks. Army. Tough looks and little talk. The other ranchers moved in droves, caravans of covered horses and shifty eyes. The threats, the visits that he hid from Gumersinda. Trying to not make her worry only resulted in her anger.
Ortiz forked-over three quarters of the land but said he wouldn’t budge on the rest. He had a cop friend in Carrizozo, a Hispano with light hair, who said Ortiz could go to Judge Dominguez in Lincoln County and keep his land. Ortiz wouldn’t move because there was nowhere to go. Not even in this big desert.
So he sat there and let the bomb topple him. He spent one more night in the house after Gumersinda left. Wind spun through the cracked windows and he moved his mattress to the kitchen. He kept a blanket over his face and wondered if he would ever wake up. He had dreams within dreams and saw the desert in black and white, and imagined peeling off his own skin and touching bone and feeling so real.
He hiked to Carrizozo the next morning. He bundled chicos and cleaned pipes.
He asked if anyone had seen the bomb.
Hadn’t he? They all knew his story. He had spoken it, half-drunk, leaning against the wall of cramped bars, and while playing dominoes with chalked hands.
No, Ortiz had seen only what the bomb had left.
He was scared to go see the site of the bomb. Scared to actually go south. He knew the way. Instead, he hiked around it. He hoped the bomb would find him. Wasn’t that the point? Someone told him such a dream was selfish. The bomb, whatever it was, was not made for him. If he was killed or moved or made sick because of it he was one of many. Of course none of them used that word, bomb. They said blast, they said explosion, they said great death.
Ortiz stoned jackrabbits in the morning and rubbed his finger under their dead noses. He tied them as bait, tossed them onto open dirt, and lay at the base of a creosote as the stinky, oily leaves dribbled on his forehead. Spear-headed bugs crawled up his thighs while he waited. A mule deer over-leapt the rabbit, expecting the smaller animal to dart forward. The deer turned back, and swept the rabbit in its mouth as Ortiz shot. Each pull of the trigger shook the creosote.
The rabbit still pressed between the deer’s frozen jaw. The deer thinned along the ribs; its underbelly was a weak pink. Although Ortiz charred the deer’s purple meat over a tumbling fire, the meat maintained the consistency of hot dough. He ate the meat and it pained his stomach. He slept knees to chest under the paling night sky, and woke countless times, swearing the bomb’s cloud had crept toward him again, and imagining that the bomb had bled inside the mule deer, spinning and churning inside like a second heart, heated from the fire, and now inside Ortiz. A parasite.
He crossed the desert for months, for years, until he woke under tied branches on a pickup bound for Sinaloa. He was given two options: death, or deal. Opium. He took the latter, and bought his freedom as soon as he convinced a former American pilot—Nuss—to take midnight flights.
“That’s how I met your brother.” Ortiz threw the cigarette in the dirt and let it burn.
Blake stammered through dusty grama. He waited until the end of Ortiz’s tale to give in to the shivering pain in his stomach. He had caused all of this pain. He hobbled down a slight incline and then dropped to his knees. Vomit belched from his sore throat like poured soup. He fell on the creamy puddle. His fingers found stringed chunks in the hot mess. His arms turned limp at his elbows. His eyes turned back far enough to see Ortiz striding through the grama. Soon Nuss was there also. He shoveled Blake over his shoulder like a sack. That forced out more puke that flopped on Nuss’s shirt.
“You’re about to pop.”
Blake choked some back. The acid coated his throat.
Nuss waved at Ortiz. “Get him some tequila.”
Nuss lost his hat. Blake bounced off his back. He was weak. He was bug-eyed. His chin slopped from the constant drip of slaver. He saw Ortiz running behind, Nuss’s hat tucked under an arm like a pigskin.
“Goddamn hold it.” Nuss squeezed. “I don’t want to swim in your stuff.” He ran through the open house door and set Blake on a chair.
Ortiz threw Nuss’s hat on the kitchen table. “There was blood in it.”
“Don’t make him nervous.”
Blake moaned as he rested his head back on the chair. Nuss tugged his neck forward.
“You’ll choke on it.”
Ortiz held a pineapple-shaped bottle of Don Julio and a shot-glass. Nuss just took the bottle. Sometimes it takes liquor to purge a sick stomach. “Guess that jerky didn’t agree with you.”
Blake opened his mouth, and a burp escaped.
Nuss turned the bottle over Blake’s lips. A good deal spilled down his shirt and pooled with vomit.
Nuss pulled back the bottle. “Don’t get greedy. Thumb it out.”
“What?” Blake’s face blotted radish-red and paper-white.
“Thumb the shit out. There’s poison in your stomach.”
Nuss hoisted Blake to his feet. “Can you walk?”
No response meant no.
Nuss nearly dragged Blake into the bathroom. He flopped down the toilet seat and set Blake on top. He put the garbage pail on his knees. “Let it out.”
Blake made a half-assed attempt.
Nuss tugged a kerchief from his pocket, wrapped the cloth around a finger, and forced it down Blake’s throat. Blake gagged. Nothing came. He tugged Nuss’s finger out.
“No more.” Blake closed his hands over his mouth. “I’m empty.” He quavered like a fool. Ortiz’s bomb seemed so much more real than his. So much more immediate. “I dropped the bomb on his ranch. I tried to kill the fucker but I missed.”
“Don’t talk.” Nuss put the bottle back on Blake’s sore lips. He gulped. He choked some out.
Nuss plopped the bottle back on Blake’s lips. Blake slurred the bottle away but Nuss pressed the end, enough that the glass tapped Blake’s teeth. He blew again: a long, throaty mess that was peppered with blood from an overworked stomach.
Nuss shook bile off his hands. Blake’s forehead bumped the big man’s shoulder. Ortiz rinsed the garbage pail in the sink. “What did you tell him?” Nuss asked Ortiz.
Nuss patted Blake’s leg.
The bathroom was much too small and hot for the three of them. Ortiz filled the pail, then dumped the water over Blake’s head. The coolness caused a low moan to ooze from Blake’s lips. He let the water sprinkle from his bald head and drip along his cheeks. Nuss held his hat to his chest. He pinched his nose and turned to the open door.
“Breathe it out. Breathe.”
Ortiz stood in the hallway, as if to ask, are we still doing this?
Nuss nodded. Now or never.
Mark leaned against the Jeep’s door and pressed the binoculars against his face. “Whose truck is that?”
Estrella leaned out of the open window. “Probably his fucking brother.”
Estrella pushed open the door, nudging Mark aside. “Not much of one. But yes. The one who built the bomb.”
“Then Nuss is really dying.”
“Probably. They were never close.”
Mark set the binoculars on the hood. “Then we need to get ready.”
“Now. We need to be ready now.” He shook his head. “Aren’t you worried that they’ll head out before us? And all this waiting will be for shit.”
“You need to be patient. Nuss moves slowly, even with death on his back.”
Mark smirked. “I don’t know why we don’t just kill him.”
Estrella laughed. “What will that do? He doesn’t have a map. We’ve just got to wait.” She lifted the binoculars.
“I don’t know why you ever wasted your time on that sick piece of shit.”
Estrella shrugged. “He wasn’t always sick.”
Moonlight shuttered through the lone stained glass at the far end of the chapel. Nuss stood, hands touching the pews on each side of him. There were only a few rows leading toward the altar. Ortiz blessed himself and the water trailed onto his nose. Nuss genuflected and walked to the front row. He shuffled along the pew and leaned his arm over, motioning for Blake to come.
Framed paintings of pained saints lined the walls under the peaked roof, and the Stations of the Cross paneled below. Candles, unlit save for the front two on each side, rested on narrow, round tables. The floor was dirt.
Blake sat next to Nuss, who was kneeling now, rosary beads nearly bursting from the chain that pulled across his knuckles. Ortiz walked past them and kneeled in front of the altar before lying down completely, his arms open.
Nuss sat up, crossed himself, and stretched his arms along the pew.
Ortiz kissed the Bible and smoothed his hand along the light cloth covering the altar. He turned to them and raised his hands.
“Ain’t this a show?” Blake crossed his arms.
Ortiz read from Isaiah and the Gospel of John. There was no sermon. He came back from the altar and knelt and Nuss knelt and he pulled down Blake by the hand.
“You sinners are always the closest to God.”
Nuss hushed him. Their prayer seemed to last for a half hour. The wind moved through the open window but there was no sound. Blake thought both men were sleeping but occasionally saw their eyes flitter open, as if possessed.
Ortiz went to a bronze tabernacle and raised the Host high, and followed with a dulled chalice of wine. He took both.
Nuss stood and told Blake to go.
“I haven’t confessed,” Blake said, smirking.
“Consider these your Last Rites.”
Blake left the Host on his tongue. A priest had once told him it should never touch his teeth. The bread began to soften but was still tough, so he chewed it, and then took the wine. It tasted like a sour port. His stomach rumbled, but he pressed against his skin. They all prayed together in silence, and then walked out in a line. Nuss brought Blake inside, and told him to rest. He and Ortiz would need to leave soon.
Nuss shone the flashlight onto Ortiz’s forehead. He’d done the same to wake Blake minutes before. Blown-sand pasted to his sweaty skin. His hair was unwashed: the strands curled like coir. A blanket hid Ortiz from the eyes on down.
“How’s he going to lead me in the desert?” Blake asked.
“We’ve got to pray for him. Something’s got him weak.”
“Maybe the same thing that’s soured you?”
Nuss lit a green, paint-chipped lantern perched on a flat rock. The emerald light gleamed Ortiz’s face. He rolled over. Nuss unclipped a toolbox at his feet. He tossed Blake a bag of tobacco and new paper. El Reys. Bread-tasting shit, but Blake obliged.
Blake opened a paper on his curled toes and dribbled tobacco in an awkward line. He looked past Nuss’s thighs at two hiking packs leaned against the wall of the store. A pillow rested on top of a ruffled sleeping bag.
“You should head south with Ortiz in the morning.”
Blake licked the roll but coughed off the tobacco. “What will you do?”
“Why don’t you use the money for treatment?”
“There’s not reversing this. What’s done is done.”
“I can’t trust Ortiz in the desert.”
“Why not? He wants what you want.”
“Or the bomb. Sure. You’ll find both. You know the bomb, but he knows the land.”
Blake blew the tobacco off his hands. He had come so far. “I’ll go. Got nothing to lose.”
“That’s what I like to hear. It’s already 1. You will have to leave at 5. Before sunrise. It’s one thing to walk with the sun. That’s hard enough. But to start into it, that’s nearly impossible. It’s going to take you nine or ten hours by foot. Maybe more.”
“By foot? These feet? I can’t even ford a puddle.”
“Listen, I’ll drive you to Bingham. Then you’ll have to hike the rest. It’s the only way. They’ll catch you on the service road. MPs are itching to put those guns to use. I found an old mining map. As you go, the Oscuras will be to your left, the Hansonburg Hills to your right. Just follow Ortiz.”
“Nine or ten hours?”
“More, if there’s a storm. They usually come in the early afternoon.”
“I haven’t seen one yet.”
“This isn’t the time to test your luck. The money’s near the bunker closest to the test site.”
“Why hasn’t anyone found it?”
“Nobody’s looking. Not for this loot, anyway. Let them be distracted by that Victorio Peak gold.”
“Nobody except your woman.”
“They’ll have to comb the whole desert.”
Blake spat out the El Ray and smashed it under his sandal.
“That’s a waste.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just that nothing tastes right to me anymore.”
Nuss shook his head and took a rifle from a duffel bag on the floor. Blake looked surprised.
“I’m sick,” Nuss said, “but I can still shoot.”
Nuss walked out into the desert, and dropped two pheasants with three shots. He said they looked so bright against the dark sky, but Blake couldn’t see them. He carried back the rifle while Nuss carried the birds. He tossed them on the hood of the Polara and pulled out their tail feathers. The wind caught them. He cut the wings, legs, and head, and let them all fall to the ground. He skinned them, cracked open what remained of the legs wide, and pulled out the guts, wiping the sludge on his jeans.
Ortiz smoked, head leaned against the partition between the pumps.
“Is he going to make it?” Blake asked.
“Don’t you worry about him.” Nuss slapped the meat onto the grill and drubbed on some barbeque sauce that looked red. “He could do this in his sleep.”
“I’m afraid he’s going to kill me.”
“Why would he do that?” Nuss pressed the meat on the grill and waved away smoke.
Nuss flipped the meat. “You need each other.”
They sat on the hood of the Polara and tore into the meat, sauce painting their palms. They drank Merlot from fogged glasses that looked like they came from a yard sale. Nuss kept two bottles between his legs, and they kept emptying the glasses and refilling them.
Blake lifted his glass. “The blood of Christ.” Nuss didn’t react.
“I don’t get your humor. You smile in the face of the devil, but you’re also scared to death of him. You can’t have it both ways.”
Blake finished his plate, and Nuss tossed it on the front seat. He led Blake out back and turned on two spotlights. Gnats and mosquitoes popped off the bulbs and nipped their necks. Nuss tossed him a football. “No pads.”
Blake shook his head. “This won’t end well.”
Nuss backpedaled, stopped a few steps from something that sat silent under a tarp. Nuss lowered into a three-point stance. Blake tucked the ball against his ribs, and Nuss waved him forward. “You need to get tough for out there. Heat in the desert’s like a thousand afghan blankets.”
Blake moved forward but his knees wobbled. The wine had loosened him up, but only in his mind. He still carried the same, tired old body. Nuss bounded off the imaginary line, shoulders lowered, and crashed into Blake, lifting him in the air. The ball dropped and rolled downhill. They grappled, weaker than their youth, but juiced with the strength of knowing this might be their last time in midnight air, playing a game often mistaken for war.
Blake’s arm coated to the elbow with blood. A dream must have made him scratch and open a cut on his palm from their late-night game. Dried blood pasted under the fingertips.
“Jesus.” Nuss crossed his forearms over the driver-side window.
“I woke up like this.”
“There are bandages rolled in the top of your pack. Rinse the cut off first. There’s a spigot behind the Polara.”
Blake continued past the front of the Chevy. It was dark but the moon was enough to see. He found the spigot amongst grama. He stomped a trail into the blades and then leaned into the pump. Nothing. He rubbed his finger along the hole; it was stuck with sand. He pumped again, and water choked from the spout, threatened to stop, but finally dropped in big drips. He fingered the clot under the flow. His blood washed across grama, and then into dirt. He rubbed along his arm and drenched his face.
His pack was on the bed of the truck. Ortiz leaned against the edge, and dragged the pack down. He was barefoot. His khakis were cut at his calves. A sombrero, brim-chewed, hung between his fingers. “Are you OK?”
“I’m fine.” Blake teethed the bandage around his palm. “I should ask the same about you.”
Ortiz climbed onto the truck bed.
“Why? Because I didn’t play games with you last night?”
Nuss was out of the truck now, pacing around the pumps. “Are we ready?”
“Waiting for you.”
Blake clipped the bandage. He wiggled his fingers.
Blake heaved the pack onto the bed. He walked to his Ford and pulled the pointed shovel.
The grey sky rippled with red cotton clouds. Wind gliding off the bed played tricks with the end of Blake’s El Rey, lighting it and snuffing it in turns. He tongued the top row of his teeth to avoid the taste. His elbows rested on a sliced concrete bag while they drove down 380. Off the road, snowshoe rabbits scurried through flat-tires half-buried in dirt. The desert was a refuse of corpses.
Nuss slowed near two abandoned Texaco pumps. He stuck his head out the window but all that could be seen was his hat. “It’s going to be rough from here on.” He smacked the roof and sped off the road. They banged in the bed. The bones of something shot from under a mesquite after Nuss rolled over the branches.
He stopped the pickup before a cluster of turtleback stones. He stepped out and took in the air. “This is as far as I can go.”
Blake stuck the El Rey inside the concrete bag. “We went a couple of inches. I could have jumped this far.”
“If you complain around Ortiz like that, he may cut you and leave you for the mule deer. Their tongues won’t feel good inside your ear.”
Ortiz agreed. Nuss hugged him. “Buen viaje.” He held him close for a moment said something that Blake could not hear. Ortiz’s face changed. He understood whatever he was told.
Blake landed heavy and dragged the shovel off. He pegged it in grama. Couldn’t they drive a little longer? Nuss may break an axle, but at least Blake wouldn’t break a leg.
Nuss hugged him also. “Don’t die out there. You better promise me.”
“You’ll see me again soon. And about twenty pounds lighter.”
“Thank God for that.” Nuss unbuttoned and untucked his shirt, and pulled off his holster, pistol inside. He gave it to Blake. “You never know.”
Nuss shook Blake’s hand and drove off, his head leaned out the window. His face became a cloud of dust, but not before he lost his shape, his features, his eyes.
Ortiz drifted ahead, bare-chested.
“I’ve got a map.” Blake waved it.
“Maps are good for roads.” Ortiz stopped in ankle-high grama. His cheeks were wrinkled; the creases were moist. The veins of his neck, and the thick tendons, resembled the contours of a tree trunk. The sun rose behind him. The arc of light threatened to blot his small form into the dust. He shifted in the grama. A worm-like, pale scar trailed from his armpit, down his side, and continued into the top of his beltless pants. He turned and walked some more, now into the sun, his head down and forward enough that light revealed the Virgin Mary tattooed across his back. The light made the ink fresh. Mary’s oval face was surrounded by clouds. Beneath her, a rocky hill led to a vacant cross.
“Wait,” Blake said. He had to get settled. He sat on his pack and checked his bandage. He had to keep it dry. He could not deal with an open scar in the desert.
“You can still see me.” Ortiz kicked in the grama. The pack shook on his back.
Blake tightened the straps of his sandals. Then he loosened them. He searched his pocket for smokes. Everything was unprepared. He had slept too long, but the sleep was wonderful.
Ortiz whistled Blake ahead. “Don’t get a sore ass.”
“Because the money’s not going anywhere.”
“It could be gone already.”
Blake laughed. “Let’s hope not.”
“I’m done hoping for anything.” Ortiz smacked something on his thigh.
Blake stretched the bandage a bit further. It stung.
Ortiz left the conversation. He cleared the grama patch and landed hard on his knees. Blake stood. Ortiz combed through the dirt. His fingers worked fast. The red pack bounced like a silly appendage. His arms became dappled: tan dust on brown skin. His mouth and cheeks grimaced as if he attempted to crunch an egg between his teeth. He spat on the dirt. He kept spitting.
Blake walked next to him. “Are you nuts?”
Ortiz stopped, looked up, and spat one last time.
“It’s a wonder that you’ve got any water left in you.”
Ortiz pointed ahead.
A pronghorn, proud and straight, stood at the base of the first Hansonburg Hill.
“I haven’t seen one in years,” Ortiz said. “They never come near the station.”
“Maybe they don’t like the smell of gas.”
The pronghorn was brown as the desert, but had white patches along its underbelly. Its horns looked like fish hooks.
“She’s big,” Blake said.
Ortiz brushed his palm along the dirt. Then he clapped his hands.
The pronghorn bucked and bounded. Each landing brought a scurry of muscles. She paused. Ortiz rose onto his knees and crossed his arms. The pronghorn turned right and skimmed over the land. Her bounds were the length of a truck. Soon she became the hills.
“Nuss shot one of his bulls. Because it threw Estrella.”
Blake tried to find the pronghorn amongst the rock. “I know. What sense did she have riding it?”
Ortiz let dust pour from his palms. “No sense.” He stood and looked back at Blake’s pack. “We can’t stop every minute.”
“I thought you knew the way.”
“I don’t trust my steps in the dark. I’m following a guess already. Nuss buried it. Not me.”
“Well just give me a minute. Can I take that?”
Ortiz wrapped his hands around the shoulder straps of his pack.
The route seemed simple enough. The sun’s silent departure behind pink-grey clouds now revealed more of their trek. God’s thumb had chalked an ivory line across the peaks of the Oscuras. Those mountains distanced to the left. Their bases were unclear, hazy; perhaps from heat, possibly from dust. Blake and Ortiz were much closer to the Hansonburg Hills. Smaller, they appeared to present a more manageable crutch for the trip. They bumped like muscles, covered with grama in haphazard patches, like hairs on a quarter-shaven face. Their mines were gutted and hollow. The copper had been stripped from the walls and carried back to Socorro, San Antonio, and farther north.
These ridges would lead to the test site, to the money. Blake tugged a pear-shaped canteen from his pack and drank. At first his tongue rejected the slight taste of salt and he spat. His bottom settled into the dirt as he looked at Ortiz, who watched him back.
Two more filled canteens topped the mound inside the pack. They were cold; maybe the one he’d drank from was only for washing. He lifted the holstered pistol. He hadn’t shot a gun since their father took them hunting. That was a world ago. Below the pistol, clementines and grapes were mixed in a paper bag. Six flares were strapped together with a wide rubber band. A Buck knife stuck inside a rolled pillow. The knife stretched from the tip of Blake’s middle finger to almost his elbow. A wetted towel gave Blake a short break from the heat, but he tucked it into the back of the pack to save for later, next to a Camel nylon wall-tent. A compass, pinned through its leather strap to a warped map, was clouded beneath the glass. The map showed the contours of the valley, but those shifted with each rain. A chainless crucifix fell along the side to the bottom, under extra clothes and candles. Blake stuck the still-sheathed knife into his pocket. He coveted the cool again so he wrapped the towel around his neck, tucked the moist cloth under his collar. He heaved the pack over his shoulders and jostled his knees. They had to hold up for a long time more.
Ortiz hadn’t moved ahead, but he had drifted toward the hills. He had found his knife, and tore his shirt down the center. He wrapped the ragged cloth around each strap of his pack and balanced the bag on his bare back. He stuck the unsheathed belt through an empty belt loop.
The desert was wonderful. Blake didn’t even care that he was out of smokes. He held suntan lotion in his hand, found at the absolute bottom of the pack, and rubbed globs haphazardly on his face and neck. Repelling some of the sun seemed an accomplishment. Ortiz looked like he wanted to eat it up.
“You may as well rub cheese on your face.” Ortiz mimicked the motion. “Your sweat will run it off.”
“My skin is like a bagel. I’ll burn in this heat.”
“Keep moving then. Have you ever seen a sunburned jackrabbit?”
“You can say that.” Blake’s bandaged palm was hot. That was the only place where sweat remained past a minute.
“I’m older than you.”
“Maybe in desert years.”
“Those are the only ones that matter here.” Ortiz entered a patch of high grama. He raised his knees and moved at a good pace; if Blake lifted his knees past his hips, he would pull something.
“I feel like I’m made of wood. Like an old man.”
“What did you do in Arizona? To end up like this?”
“Collected dust.” He felt uncomfortable. But Ortiz looked content. He shifted gaze every few steps from under the wide sombrero. Blake tried to match each step, to follow the narrow trail of grama parted or lowered by Ortiz’s shins and feet.
A dull rattle came from their right. Ortiz stopped, looked across his shoulder.
Blake backpedaled. His sandals caught grama, he almost fell.
Between the blades raised a long, tan form, wide as a belt. Hissing low.
Blake grabbed his knife. There could be more at his feet. He stood on his toes and turned.
Ortiz laughed. “Are you scared?”
“Do you see the snake? I see it.”
Ortiz’s front foot patted the ground. The grama crunched soft onto the dirt. He beckoned it.
“You’re going to lose a toe. I can’t carry you.”
“You wouldn’t?” Ortiz leaned forward. “Would you leave me?”
“I would have to ditch you or the packs.”
Ortiz patted his stomach. “You’ve got enough stored here. Choose me.” He blew quick over his teeth. It sounded like a wet whistle.
The snake coiled, its skin tight. It rattled, then eased onto dirt. It popped up again and pressed down along a blade to the ground.
“It’s a gopher snake.” Ortiz stomped his foot.
Blake jerked. He held the knife down.
“It’s gone. It’s a fake. You may want to take the knife out of its sheath next time.”
Blake hadn’t noticed. “Christ. I’m nervous.” He searched the grama.
Ortiz laughed again. “What did you expect to find out here?”
“Money, at least.” Blake put the knife in his pocket and exaggerated each step, forward and up.
“When are the missile tests?”
“Shouldn’t you know? You’re one of those government guys.”
“I built the bomb. Then I left.”
“They test all day and all night. If somebody blows up, it was meant to happen.”
Grama thinned to canyon flats, the ground crusted and chipped, sore on his feet. Boots would have made more sense, if only for the support; his ankles wobbled like a baseball on a needle. But the thought of leather heating his legs wasn’t welcoming.
Ortiz stepped sure. He knew the route. Anything less was a lie; this was his desert. People like Blake and Nuss were only temporary. Even Estrella was a visitor. Ortiz would outlast them.
What stopped him from dropping the pack and sprinting to the bomb? His legs could take it. Ortiz could leave for the bomb, and Blake would rot.
“Can you slow down?” Blake rubbed his knees. He wasn’t exaggerating. He didn’t feel connected to the bottom half of his legs.
“We’re moving slow already.”
Blake’s stomach still turned from the vomiting. He pained to his throat. Each spit came-up a deep yellow. Could he be dying already? Each breath was closer to the end.
“My legs are worn out.”
He turned the shovel in his hand. He picked ground with the tip, flicked chips into the air. Some dust caught in the wind.
Blake sat down. His shins creased under his skin. “Aren’t you scared?”
Ortiz tapped his fingers on the handle of the knife. “Of what?”
“It happened too long ago. I’m not scared anymore.”
“But you know it remains.”
Blake splashed water onto his shins.
Ortiz looked south.
“Do you see it? Do you see anything?”
“I don’t know what I’m looking for. The bomb or the money?”
Blake lifted his neck. He began to explain, but couldn’t.
The sun oscillated between clouds.
It was his bomb. Blake’s. His fault. He wanted someone to believe that, to recognize it.
“I built the bomb,” Blake said, into the air.
It was Ortiz’s desert. But Blake’s bomb. Blake hadn’t come to apologize. He had come to claim what was his.
Ortiz crouched, arms crossed over his knees.
“Do you want to kill me?”
“Because I made this. I made the bomb that killed you.”
Ortiz flicked pebbles on the ground. His fingers seemed to follow the small rocks. “It’s not your bomb.” He stared at an oryx. It was colored fawn and white. Its face was a mask. Black and white. The free sun revealed its broken and bent horns, curled and cracked, attached to a misguided head, shaking, turning.
Mark screwed the dipstick, then pulled it out. Tan oil drubbed down. He tied an extra two gas tanks to the back of the quad, and checked the pressure of all the tires. Estrella watched him, arms crossed.
“Is it good?” she asked.
“Great.” He latched the toolbox closed, and said he could use some food. For now, and for the trip.
Estrella mixed batter for the waffles. “Is it safe out there?”
“You lived closer to the desert than me. What do you think?”
“Where you’re going is fucked. Hotter than here. There’s no rest from it.”
He stuffed rounds into his backpack. He ate the waffles without butter or syrup, and left the plate on the table before walking out.
Estrella stood in the doorway. “You know, I could fit on the back. I could go with you. You could probably use the help.”
She walked behind him, put a hand on his back. “I want to go with you. I’m going.”
Mark turned. “Stop that talk.”
“I am. I know how he thinks.”
Mark smacked her. She fell onto the bed. He kneeled on the bed, straddling her. “I’m sick of you thinking you know shit.” He pulled out his pistol and pointed it at her face. “Your mouth’s always going.” She turned her face and closed her eyes. He unzipped his pants and pulled down her underwear. He leaned inside of her and pushed the pistol into her face. He lifted her legs and rocked into her. She wrapped her lips around the barrel of the pistol, and her tongue curled past the metal. He moved faster and went inside her. She let him. Both of them thought he was never coming back.
The sun left after noon. Wind turned up Blake’s shorts. He dry heaved.
“I’m not going to make it.” Blake pushed against one nostril and emptied snot out of the other.
Ortiz rubbed along his collarbone. His smile disappeared when he looked at the sky. Thunder followed black, ruffled clouds over the Oscuras.
Ortiz swung on the pack. He looked surprised that Blake had not done the same. “Get your shit.”
The clouds spread across the sky. Blake closed his pack as rain needled his neck. He held the shovel above his head and the rain panged off the metal.
They ran. Blake could not see; the rain, after flushing down in a whirl, bounced off the dirt. The clouds dropped below the Oscuras. Fog, or a heated mist, rose from the desert ground. Ortiz was somewhere, and he was laughing or crying. Blake ran into a mesquite. A pointed branch lodged into the side of his kneecap; he did not notice the pain until he bent the knee and the branch snapped, leaving a splinter inside his skin. He dropped the shovel and fell into the new mud. Each breath was a mix of water, dirt, and rock. The mud sucked his chest down: the desert had taken hold. Rats slipped past his face and burrowed under creosotes. A mule deer leapt up and over the hills. Ortiz could not be seen. The thunder repeated, and pooled above Blake’s head. They were in a valley, and this was the brunt of the storm. Blake fingered mud from his teeth and tongue. The ground was beginning to coat with water. He crawled, dragging uneven clumps of earth along. Ortiz’s overturned sombrero filled with rainwater. Blake would drown in the valley. He covered his eyes and stood. He turned. He could only see gray rain.
He followed a voice. Ortiz’s, muffled. A sandal’s flap tore. He kept running. The earth crumbled beneath his feet. He ran blind until Ortiz pulled him onto the hill. The base was padded dirt. Blake shifted and put the pack over his face and the rain continued to land with dull thuds. Rain clubbed his shins. The run-off from the top of the hills milked his scalp. He shook his legs from the sputter. Ortiz’s knees knocked his chin. The mud sludge browned his face. He called Ortiz a bastard as rocks scraped against his splintered kneecap.
The clouds sifted. The rain dulled. The desert was left dewed and humid. The low-level fog had become a rising mist, looking like an iron’s steam. Blake fumbled mud off his face. His chest was a mess. Sand and dirt crept down his shirt, and even reached his stomach, his stuff. He slapped mud off his skin in all directions. His knee buckled when it supported weight. He pinched the splinter.
“Your knee looks like a bull’s eye.” Ortiz slapped water off the soaked packs. Rain had made his hair stiff.
Blake squeezed. Nothing came but blood.
“Let me.” Ortiz crawled and held his knife.
“No.” Blake backed up the hill.
“I have to.” Ortiz grabbed Blake’s ankle.
Blake stomped Ortiz’s hand. He screamed and rolled down the hill. Blake dove up hill. He was careless with his stuff, and that caused a pain in his stomach. He was muddy again, and he climbed up the hill, frantic.
Ortiz said something about the bones in his hand.
Blake reached a leveling of the hill. He reached for his knife. It was gone. He had lost it.
Ortiz, knife outstretched, walked uphill.
Blake rolled over the top. He clunked down the other side and landed in a heap at the bottom. He squeezed his kneecap. The wood moved beneath his skin. Ortiz’s form showed over the hill; Blake ran over the rain-marked desert, his sandals gone, the ground shifting from soggy to soaked.
Ortiz stood on the hill, his hand pressed on his scarred side.
Blake hopped. He scratched his kneecap and saw nothing but flat land ahead.
Ortiz tackled him into the mud. They squirmed. Ortiz reached for Blake’s kneecap under the mud. Blake rolled from underneath and closed a palm around Ortiz’s neck. Bit his chest. Ortiz leaned his back into the mud, fell into it, and Blake’s lips slipped from his skin. Ortiz shoved the knife tip into Blake’s kneecap. He turned the blade and Blake shook. Ortiz flicked a brown, blood-mucked root from the skin. Blood formed the shape of a pedaled flower on his knee. Blake turned his look from that long enough to notice that his bandage was gone. His bad hand shook in the air as Ortiz wiped the knife on mud.
They trailed the bottom slope of the hills. Blake tucked the mud-covered shovel underneath his arm. The pack hurt his bare skin. His shirt was lost. His muddied shorts kept him cool.
Ortiz pointed to a copper prospect hole. He spat down it. “Did you hear that drop?”
“I can’t hear a thing.”
“Unless those mines caved in, there are caverns down there.” Ortiz dragged his arm along hill rock. The pack leaned him sideways. “That’s where Nuss should have put the money. Or where they should have blown the bomb.”
“Nobody would have seen it.”
“They could have put cameras on the rocks.”
“It would have melted them.”
“Hell of a thing, that test.” Ortiz shook his head. “Fucking government.”
“Had to be done.”
“Really? Why did it?”
“The war had to end.”
“You don’t believe that.”
“Well, it worked. It would have ended with a million more dead.”
“Dead is dead. The bomb killed people. Even so, why test it here? There’s life in the desert.” Ortiz picked up dirt. “This is life. Maybe you can’t see. But it’s there.”
“What happened if it didn’t blow in Japan? We needed the test. What if it dropped like a rock from the plane and didn’t explode?”
“Then it probably wasn’t meant to happen, right? God could have snuffed the fuse.”
Blake had used the rest of his bandages to ease the bleeding from his knee. His bad hand was free now, a small pinch of mud dried in the center of the scar.
Ortiz pulled something black from the mud. “Here.” Blake’s knife.
“How did it get so far?”
“We lost ground during the rain.”
Blake didn’t bother wiping it off before he put it in his pocket.
“Are we far?”
“Very. We could be.”
“My entire body is cramped.”
Blake sat on his pack and took from his canteen. His toes curled from the stab of hill rock.
“Have you ever been out this far?”
“I’m not sure. It’s always dark. It all looks the same.”
“It all looks the same to me now.”
“You’re looking at it with new eyes.” Ortiz dropped the pack in a rush, and jogged to a lone cholla on the flat ground. The plant was slanted, possibly from the storm. Its stems barbed heavy. Violet flowers bloomed.
“It looks like a candy tree.” Blake picked mud from his teeth.
Ortiz chopped a stem and tongued the drip. An antelope squirrel sped from the rooted bottom. Blake rifled a rock at the scurrying brown.
Ortiz pared the cholla down. Each sliced stalk dripped. Ortiz’s scar was bleeding onto his pants. Heavy, dark blood.
Ortiz clamped his hand on an oozing stem, and then rubbed his wet palm along the scar. “It comes back every year.”
Blake’s stomach cramped from the cold canteen. He wondered where his underwear was. “I knew somebody with shingles.”
“Yeah. He never rubbed plant juice on the scar. But he did rub sweet potatoes on them.”
Ortiz held his hand on his side. “Sounds like a fool.”
Ortiz crouched as he walked, his arms low. He turned the knife. Sun shined off Mary’s face. He frisked a horned lizard from grama. The spiked lizard prodded toward him, then walked in the other direction. Ortiz followed behind, on his toes, his face wide and sheened. He swung down the knife double-handed, with a short yelp. He speared the lizard’s back. Its head shot up. Ortiz leaned the knife forward. He carried the impaled lizard to Blake.
“You found some fruit.”
“A nice one.” Ortiz shook the lizard from the knife. Ortiz flapped the lizard’s marble eyes. “Can I have your knife?” Blake tossed it. Ortiz staked the lizard into the ground. He filleted its back with the other knife. He flipped a wafer of beige flesh on his waiting tongue and chewed. “Do you want some?”
“Not a damn chance.” Blake fished for the clementines.
Ortiz’s mouth was dry as he chewed.
Blake pressed the canteen spout against his belly. “Where’s that spigot water come from?”
“Rio Grande, I guess.”
The lizard laid, head forward, skin flapped wide down the center.
“This is good water.”
“Not as sweet as cholla.”
“I’m sure.” Blake wanted to kick the lizard away. “You know this desert.”
Ortiz licked a finger. “Most of it.”
“And that’s what you did all those years?” The clementines bittered his gum. “Walk under the sun?”
“Just about. I tried to stay away from the caves.”
“And you ran with Nuss?”
“He ran with me.”
“Down in Mexico?”
“That’s where he met me.”
“You did some fucked up shit there?”
“No worse than making a damn bomb.”
The red, clayed arroyo puddled from the storm. Blake stepped in. He cupped stagnant water onto his face. Ortiz leaned over the edge.
“Will you make it?”
“I’ve come this far. Not about to quit now.”
Blake scratched the wind-weathered walls. Dirt crumbled into the water. “What do you think we’ll find? What if Nuss tricked us both?”
“We’ll find something. There must be something. The money or the bomb.”
The water was ankle-high. Blake imagined a massauga nibbling his toe. He closed his mouth and went underwater. When he rose, Ortiz was gone. He climbed out of the crevice and rested on rock. He piled his shorts under his crown, lay back, and stretched, and stretched longer. Clouds compromised the sun. It could have been afternoon or evening. It was nice to feel cool, and he closed his eyes.
When Blake woke, Ortiz’s arms were flapping like a kestrel’s against the wind. He stomped into a dirt-tank--a wide, shallow artifact from the now-defunct mines. Mesquites lined the shore. Ortiz whistled and waved his arms. “You’ve been out.”
It wasn’t good rest. Blake was more tired now that he had a taste of sleep.
Woodhouse’s toads slipped from under mesquite cover into the black water. Ortiz splashed behind them and dove. He whisked his head from the muck. His side looked clear, clean. “How do you feel?”
Blake couldn’t yell, so he kneeled at the edge of the dirt tank. He splashed water over his face and spat dirt from his lips. A Gambel’s quail, its topknot sticking straight up like a pin, chipped from the mesquite.
“What have you been doing?”
“I slow you down?”
“Maybe.” Ortiz walked out of the tank. Black stuck to his skin. It was dirt, bugs, or pronghorn shit. “So now you don’t sleep until dusk.” He ate wet handfuls of grapes. He finally drank from his canteen; loud gulps to make up for lost time.
“I’m not sure what I’m seeing.” Blake left his good hand in the water. “Are we still in the desert?”
“Look around. Where else could we be?”
Blake eased back onto the mud.
Ortiz turned Blake’s bad hand to see his palm. “Don’t let this open.”
“I wish Nuss was here.” Blake sat up. “I know it’s not his bomb. I mean, it’s his money.” Blake squinted. “Tell me again what the bomb looked like to you.”
Ortiz, still kneeling, rested his bottom onto his heels. “The cloud looked like most other clouds, except blown into from the bottom. Like a bag. Then pulled up and stretched long. You’re asking me to describe things that are not real. I mean, they were too big to be real. This desert is real. The mud. It’s hot when I touch it. I don’t know what the bomb was. The center of it looked like drops of blood in milk. As if you filled a saucer with milk, and the blood kept its shape. And the wind felt new. It felt,” he waved a hand in the air, “created. When I looked at all this, I thought of every man I ever hated. And I knew I would lose my wife over it.”
“I don’t need you to apologize.”
They moved. They creaked down deeper ridges. They took short steps, and used their toes to hold footing. Ortiz was inconsistent with his speed. At times he appeared content with Blake’s pace, but then a few steps later he would rush ahead, his face full of recognition. He missed good footing and fell into a storm-filled gorge. Blake didn’t trust his body enough to leap the expanse. He walked over the burrows of sod-poodles with arched feet.
Ortiz stood next to a yucca bunch. “Lamparas de dios.”
Blake inspected. The thin, green whisks on the bottom brushed his ankles. “The Army guys hung wire from these.”
“I remember.” Ortiz swiped his knife at the white, flowered panicle at the top of the long stalk. The cut flower powdered his wrists and feet a cotton color. He pulled back the stalk and sliced near the base. “This is a good walking stick.” He flicked away a blister beetle that rolled lifeless along the dirt. “When I was young, I smacked one on my forearm.”
“Where did you live when you were a boy?”
“You don’t remember? I’ve never met a man who doesn’t know where he grew up. Alpine Trail. That was me. The only house on the road. Not really a road. A parting of grass a few feet wide. Our house was brown in the front, tan in the back.”
“I don’t remember much before the bomb. It seemed to rewrite my life.”
“Think about it. I want to know where you lived as a boy.”
Ortiz lay on the dirt. “North. Past Santa Fe. The mountains. It snowed there. The snow ran off the mountain and the dust made it red. I was scared of anything that fell from the sky. I slept under a tree one afternoon and found the beetle on my arm, its feet ingrained into my skin. I smacked it, plucked it off. My mother massaged hot soap onto the wound, all the while distracting me with a story about a man from the plains who never stopped running, who believed the miles traveled in a person’s life is set from the second he is born, so he wanted to run it down as fast he could because he wanted to discover death.”
“Why would he want to do that?”
“Because it gave him power. When my mother finished, the bite had blistered into the blue and purple shape of a man’s face. It was frowning.” Ortiz stopped, and looked to the sky. “My mother wrapped me in a sheet. So tight she forgot to leave an opening for me to breathe. She brought me to the priest. He made the sign of the cross on my forehead, and over the blister. He pressed very hard, and puss seeped below his fingers. The blister was gone soon after.”
Ortiz stood. He left the mud on his bottom and along his back.
Their movement became sporadic. It was unclear how far they had traveled. The storm had upset their sense of place. At least they knew they were headed in the right direction. Blake was no longer worried about the conditions. Somewhere between sleep and awareness he had lost comprehension of what they hoped to do. The absolute heat clogged sweat onto his stomach, crotch, and bottom. The wind had slopped his eyelids heavy. He could barely see. Blake, so close to the bomb, wondered if it had even ever existed.
He dropped the shovel. He stood hunchbacked. The canteens, slung from his neck, clunked together. He fell forward. His hip landed on his bad hand. He inhaled pebbles between dirty lips.
Ortiz flipped him over. “You’ll suffocate.” He drowned Blake’s face with canteen water. “The sun put you down.”
Blake grabbed Ortiz’s ankles. They felt like roots.
His eyes rolled over. He dreamt he walked along clay. The red pushed up between his toes. The sensation was similar to that of walking on the beach, but the clay was cool, wet, moving on its own accord.
There was no sun, no moon, no mountains. The land pulsed under his steps.
He found a spat of oddly colored land. A purple circle. He swung down his shovel. The ground split like cake. The dirt’s consistency was jellied, like a bowl of smashed berries.
Blake snapped back his arms when the shovel reached something supple. He knelt. He spread the black, whipped dirt. The ground filled its wound fast, but Blake patted the earth. Beneath the lush dirt, he palmed fresh, cold, infant skin.
Soon, it was dusk. Hip-high grama. Blades stuck with beetles. Wind-blown cholla stumps that thorned their skin. Packs long gone, dumped after Blake woke. Wits gone. Scared of the dark.
Blake tucked the tent under an arm. He trailed the shovel along; its tip creased the dirt behind him. Canteens filled with cholla water swung like drums from his strap-cut neck.
His fingers were orange. The cut could not be seen beneath mud. His chest was red beneath the hairs. He scratched the pain.
Ortiz swung the yucca stick at spotted bats that swarmed high above.
Blake gawked at the action. His face was roasted to sandpaper.
Past the whirling bats, the sky was crud. Overcast. The coward moon ducked behind the Oscuras.
Blake tasted Ortiz’s smell that warbled from his back. Burnt chowder. The lizard’s hide. Cow chips. Ortiz had blue teeth. He gritted the yucca stick that glowed between his lips.
A purple fog covered the clouds. Ortiz used the handle of his knife to hammer the tent’s stakes. Beetles climbed the vented front. Gnats slid down the roof.
He placed a ring of rocks near the tent, then stomped the circle inside flat with his heels. He sawed the dead, skeleton roots of a cholla, and placed the sun-baked branches in the center of the ring. He dropped one of Blake’s matches on the brush. His fingers wafted behind the smoke. Red ash breathed onto his sugared cheeks.
Blake rolled in the dirt. He shook his canteens for water. Only drips were left. The loose scab on his palm flapped.
Ash swirled and swooned, flipped past Ortiz’s twitching ears. The flame lit his feet.
“You’ve still got young legs,” Blake said, half his face covered in dust. “Go run after it.”
Ortiz blew. The flame fluttered. “I’ll walk to it. I’m tired of sitting. I’ve done this for so many years.” Ortiz’s jaw cracked as he yawned. The harvest moon lit his back. He kicked dirt over the fire and spat. He waved his hand over the suffocated flame, and then crouched. He traced his knife along the ash that had spilled over the ring of rocks. Yards south, a lone mule deer wobbled. Its big, leafy ears flapped.
Ortiz spread along the dirt and crept past Blake.
The mule deer shook, shifted in a bound. Stiff-legged, it stotted a good distance, and then stopped again. Its head bounced dumb. The deer trotted past a black mesquite.
Ortiz leapt from beneath the brush. He straddled the deer’s thick back and stabbed its sides. The fast chops buckled the animal. It slouched, and then stumbled. Ortiz landed on top. He tugged the deer’s ankles. Her head lumped on a limp neck. Together, they were a black spike in the low moon. The deer’s hide churned through the dirt as Ortiz moved to the fire. His khakis bloodied black along his thighs.
Blake buried his hands in the ground.
Ortiz stood, spread-legged, over the deer. He jutted down the knife and pulled as he stepped back. He ripped her hide down toward dirt, his feet moving fast as he jabbed the dark, wet insides. Blood masked his wrists.
Ortiz stomped the ash fire. Gray chips glazed and embered between his toes. Ashes spun up his ankles. Some attached to his skin. Others whisked into Blake’s nose. Blake tried to pick them out, but they melted into his nostrils.
He had slept through sunrise. The crumpled deer hide stunk next to the dead fire. The deer’s innards heaped on the ashes. Muscle oil dripped over the charred cholla and pooled the mud into small circles.
Ortiz sat awkwardly on his ankles and coughed. Something sputtered out of his mouth. He chucked his teeth over cracked lips.
“The money’s past the creosote ahead.”
“How do you know?”
“That’s where the hills end. It’s not far past that.” His lips brazed as he spoke. His cheeks, overnight, had taken on the weathered texture of bristlecone pines.
“Thank the Lord.” The last canteen boiled Blake’s throat. He threw the empty jug onto the ash pile. The metal slumped in the black and liver and fat.
“Are you ready?”
“Sleep didn’t do me any good.”
“We’re close. Doesn’t that make you want to move?”
“Just wake up.”
Ortiz’s scar was opened. Blake wanted to help. Something had speared Ortiz’s side. But Blake could do nothing. He could not look at Ortiz anymore.
“Let’s go.” Ortiz’s head flashed before the sun. Blake grumbled. They moved.
Blake wiggled between greasewood like a speared pupfish. He held the shovel above his head. Green leaves stuck to his chest. Kangaroo rats squealed from the bush roots. Their brush tails feathered across his feet.
Ortiz’s sweat had blurred the tattoo of Mary on his back. His skin was part red, part butter-golden. His neck was pinholed and damp. He held the corroded knife high. Flies pinched his exposed armpit. His shoulders had a caked black substance; between dreams, Blake remembered seeing Ortiz wrapped in the deer’s hide, spinning in place. Then pissing in the dirt and turning his heel in the new mud.
The creosote finally trickled to rat-gnarled patches. They crossed a graded Army service road that trailed from west of the Hansonburg Hills.
Blake couldn’t see. The sun had welded his eyes swollen. The wind, before sparse, was now fervent. Blake could only concentrate on his gunked, black feet.
He bumped against Ortiz’s back.
Behind a fence topped with barbed wire, Blake saw the bomb’s casing, the bottom quarter buried in the earth. It was as high as one and a half men and as long as a truck. The open ends of the cylinder were jagged like spiked teeth. Grama stretched up the rounded sides. Wind whistled through the hollow center.
It was there. The casing was still there after 30 years. He knew that, but to see it, to find it this way, gave it new life.
He looked to the side. A bunker, built into a slope. The bunker.
Ortiz snatched the shovel from Blake’s hands and ran. Blake followed: rock glass, formed from the blast, still scattered over the ground.
Ortiz dug, feverish, while Blake looked back at the casing. It could have stopped the bomb. It could have contained the blast. Wind sprayed dust onto Blake’s face, but he ignored the itch.
Of course, it couldn’t have swallowed the blast. It would have disintegrated. But if the blast had gone wrong, it would have contained the plutonium. Perhaps it could have done more. It could have been the shield the desert needed.
Blake watched Ortiz’s shoulder muscles twitch. He was no longer old. He was young, made new by the desert, the dust baking them fresh, spooling with the wind, until the shovel pierced garbage bags.
Ortiz turned. “Motherfucker.”
They both got on their knees, their backs to the casing, and dug out the other bags.
Ortiz swiped the knife from a loop and held it at his waist. “Empty your pack. We’ve got to stuff these in.”
Ortiz’s sweat brimmed black: a new, heavier skin. He pulled bag after stuffed bag, his face shifting. Blake shook the pack, the holster dropping in dirt.
The wind relaxed, but the sound of wind remained. The sound became an idling engine. A quad rolled forward from the base of the hills. Rock-glass popped under the tires. The quad stopped.
Mark stepped off.
Mark’s socks were hiked to his wide, dark, bruised knees. His right hand bounced a whiskey bottle off a thigh. His left hand leaned a rifle against his shoulder.
“Thank God you fuckers are alive.” He wiped his mouth with the bottom of a wrinkled F.B.A. shirt. “How you feeling Ortiz?”
“He didn’t answer.”
“You look good. Better than this guy.” He tossed the bottle aside and lowered the rifle. “How come you’re not dead yet?”
Blake held out his hands. “Don’t shoot me.”
Mark laughed. “I could give a shit about your fat ass.” He looked at Ortiz. “Cut it.”
Ortiz kneeled in front of a bag and sliced across the layers and duct tape. He paused.
Mark nudged Ortiz’s back with the rifle. “Get out of the way, asshole.” He unwrapped the rubber bands and thumbed through the money. “Smells like shit. It’s wet, but thank Jesus it’s all here. You want me to take a picture of you in front of that piece of metal, old man?” He tapped Blake in the belly with the tip of the rifle. “Estrella said you’d be coming. Your hard-on for the bomb reached here from Arizona.”
Mark tossed Ortiz a duffel bag. “Fill it.”
Mark sniffed the money again. “I’ll have to put these out on the clothes-line.” He turned to Blake. “Or you could suck them dry.” He let the rifle tip to the ground, and Blake lunged for the holster. Mark pushed him aside, but Ortiz whirled around, knife drawn. He swiped the blade across Mark’s chest. He stumbled back, arms opened, bleeding from the torn shirt. Ortiz rushed him, but Mark fired three shots, the last pounding Ortiz against the bunker. He slumped to the ground, knife falling on his lap.
Mark stood over him, breathing heavy, his blood dripping on Ortiz. Blake fumbled with the holster but stopped when Mark turned.
Mark stepped forward and smashed the butt of the rifle between Blake’s eyes. He didn’t stop until Blake crumbled in the dirt.
Blood painted the horizon burgundy and, for a moment, the casing was gone, and the bomb had never been dropped. Blake rubbed the moisture from his eyes and blinked and blinked and he could focus again, on the casing that still remained behind the fence, on the pile of dirt, on the garbage bags still half-buried, flapping loudly, on the quad tracks. On Ortiz’s limp body.
He pushed up on outstretched arms and blew dust from his lips. A headache pulsed from the center of his forehead and pushed his eyes to a squint. The blood crusted inside his lips and each move of tongue made it new.
The horizon wobbled around the casing. Blake settled back into the ground and closed his eyes to blink but had trouble reopening his eyelids, and he passed in and out of awareness. He thought he saw Ortiz alive again, stabbing the bomb, eating the money. But he saw him bloodied and broken, the same he’d been for these past 30 years. The bomb had finally done him in.
Blake crawled forward. He shook Ortiz’s leg and he tipped over, body leaning inside the casing. Half of Ortiz’s face was gone. For some reason Blake expected a last word, an explanation, but Ortiz’s heart had long stopped. There was nothing left to say.
Blake’s mouth was full of tub water when he woke. He spit.
“Don’t get excited. You’re not dead yet.” Nuss racked his razor in the water-filled sink and set it on the counter. Shaving cream frothed along his neck but his cheeks were clean. He pressed Vaseline into a cut under a sideburn. A bruise nearly closed his left eye.
Blake shuffled his legs in the low water. His underwear, looking cleaned and starched, hung from a line tied between the shower head and a light fixture. His bad hand was bandaged tight and wrapped in a plastic bag tied at his wrist. His skin was burnt beyond color. He remembered tinted images, splices of life. Face-flat on the desert floor, vomit spooling past his lips and chunking on the dust. Pushing Ortiz’s arm.
Blake pushed up out of the tub and reached for the razor. Nuss grabbed his forearm. “What the hell are you doing?”
Blake shook his arm but Nuss’s hand was firm. “You tried to kill me.”
“You know that’s not the truth.”
“I should kill you.”
“That’s not going to happen. And you don’t really want to.”
“I want some goddamn answers. He shot Ortiz.”
“That’s the third time you told me.” The razor was loud against his stubble. “Maybe I should have taught you how to take the gun out of the holster. And this is the last time I’m going to go through this, so tattoo it on your skin or in your brain. Soon you’ll remember the whole thing and kick yourself.” He paused long enough to finish his shaving and drop the razor in the water. Tufts of cream scattered across his shaved face and neck. “I found you passed out next to Ortiz. I thought the both of you were dead because you lay in his blood. I woke you up and put you both on the quad. Drove you back.”
“And that bastard Mark?”
“Gone, with Estrella. He nearly killed me. That’s when I went out to get you. Found his quad on the side of 380. He’d ditched it for his truck.”
“I thought you were scared of the desert that deep.”
Nuss patted his face with a towel. “I think you realize that the rules have changed now. I’m willing to die for you. You’re my brother.”
“Did Mark take the money?”
“All of it.”
“Did you go after them?”
Nuss hung up the towel and put on a t-shirt. He pulled up the stopper to release the cloudy water. “No. He had the jump on me. I feel like a fool. Word is they’ve already crossed the border. They should be in Sinaloa already and don’t have any plans of coming back.”
Blake hoisted himself up onto the edge of the tub. Nuss looked surprised.
“I’ve rested for long enough.” The house was too quiet. “What now?”
Nuss tossed Blake a towel, and he dried before changing into a shirt and shorts Nuss left on the rack. Both were tight.
Nuss walked down the hall and into a bedroom and shut the door. Blake followed the hallway to the kitchen, where the sun washed across an oak table, chairs at both ends. The table looked like an ancient place of communion.
Ortiz lay on the table. His scars looked like red and yellow ribbons.
His tongue flopped over his teeth as Nuss heaved him onto the trunk bed. The graded road sucked the truck’s tires while they swerved north. Blake sat in the passenger seat and listened to Hooch’s “Golden Valley.” “Where are you going to bury him?”
“Does it matter?”
They stopped somewhere. Nuss left the truck running and took the shovel in one hand and Ortiz over his other shoulder. He tapped the ground with the tip until it gave. He set Ortiz down but not that gently, more like a bag of mulch than a man, and he shoveled an obtuse hole that was only deep enough to reach his knees. He slid Ortiz in, ripped the crucifix from his own neck, and dropped it on the dead man’s chest.
Blake’s palm was bleeding onto his thigh but he continued to watch. Nuss drag the dirt onto Ortiz’s body and smacked it down once he was finished.
“We found the bomb and the money,” Blake said.
“The money was for you. So was the bomb.”
On the drive back, Nuss said that Blake should stay. Blake said he would think about it.
The sun was on one side of the sky and the moon owned the other, and between the two a violet hue extended to the clay horizon. Nuss walked outside with his hat against his chest and smiled and said the sky was so beautiful. It was almost as if God was there, shifting the clouds away. He said it would be a shame if no one else was looking up at the sky as they were just then, and he wondered how many times the sky had gone unnoticed. And it wasn’t because people are evil, it’s because sometimes they just don’t look.
Blake stared at the ground. “This isn’t right.”
“All of this.”
“We’re in Hell. That’s the way it has to be. There’s no one but sinners in the desert. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
“I don’t think so. Want to go after them? I nearly died out there. And you say it was for me. And maybe you were trying to heal me in your fucked up way. But that was almost the end of me.”
“We’re both close to death.”
“You owe me this. I owe you this. At this point, what do we have to lose?”
Nuss eased off his shirt. He pressed his ribs and wheezed. “Nothing.” Moist medical tape flopped off the gauze. The edge bled a light iodine color.
“That motherfucker could have killed us,” Blake said.
“It’s worse to live, you know. That’s what life’s taught me.”
“Agreed.” Blake closed his eyes beneath the glasses. “So what do you think about Estrella now?”
“She crossed me. In the worst possible way.” He shook his head, palmed his hat. “It’s one thing to fuck around. To leave. But she betrayed me.”
“You still love her?”
“Sure I do. That’s why I hate her so much.”
Blake turned to Ortiz’s grave. “I thought he was going to slit my throat.”
“That wouldn’t give him what he needed.” Nuss smacked rubbing alcohol between his palms and patted the wound.
“I killed Ortiz.”
“I built the bomb.”
“Well, money came before the bomb. You don’t own all the evil in the world.”
Blake scratched under his beard. “I saw the bomb. It laughed at me. I’m fucked. I’m still going to Hell.”
Nuss eased gauze onto his ribs and pressed the tape onto his skin. “We all are. But I’m taking Mark with me.”
“How do you plan on doing that?”
“You and I are taking a little trip.”
“I’ve taken enough fucking trips to last me. I’m about to go into your bathtub and just die.”
“We need to right this. You understand.”
Blake pressed his own wound. “And what about Estrella?”
Nuss put his shirt back on and looked in the mirror. “You know, let’s take a walk first.”
The tarp fitted over a form Blake couldn’t discern. The edges of the tarp staked into the ground every few feet. Nuss hiked a pitchfork over his shoulder. A rifle slung across his chest. Rounds stuffed into his pocket.
Blake stood in front of the tarp. “Shit. I hiked into the desert and you’ve got the bomb right here. You’ve been babysitting it.”
“That’s right.” Nuss pulled out the stakes with the pitchfork. The metal snapped and the canvas eased. Half the cover lifted back and Nuss shifted the rest.
“Son of a bitch.”
A PA-11 sat silent in the dirt. Wide drums of gasoline rested on both sides of the plane.
“I’m not flying that.”
“I wouldn’t trust you to. She’s mine.”
“What about all that keeping your boots on the ground bullshit?”
“I’m not going to heaven but I might as well take a look before I croak.” Nuss shifted the tarp back and rested his palm on the tail. “Your home’s out there. My home’s up. That’s where we’re really connected. You realize I could have dropped the bomb. Could have. You never know.”
Blake crossed his arms. “Then let’s do this.”
“Just another hour. I don’t fly until after midnight, remember?”
“Too late to change now.”
Nuss moved with new strength. He tucked his Western shirt in hardworn jeans and squeezed into new boots, a pair he’d bought in Carrizozo. Ortiz had recommended the place.
Spanish onions and bell peppers roasted in the oiled skillet. Nuss had already downed two Tecates and was working on a third. Blake smoked two Bull Brands at once, said he’d finish the whole lot before midnight.
“What you fixing to do when you find them? Take the money?”
Nuss set two plates on the table. Beige chipped black around the rim. “I’ve got some ideas. Actually, I’ve got a single idea.” He flipped the omelet and grabbed a towel from the counter. He slid the omelet on the plate and set a broken piece of bread next to it.
“No sense in that. I’m not hungry.”
Blake pointed. “You’ve got a plate there.”
Nuss sat down. “All of a sudden I changed my mind.”
They both sat, palms on the dark wood, and stared at the food.
“I knew a flyer once from Helena,” Nuss started. “Fire jumper. Flew planes out of the Army airfield and dove into those flames. Told me how hot it was when they swept low over the treetops.” Nuss nodded. “Now I can imagine, but he explained it to me real nice: said it was like he’d become the fire, become the flame. Not like sticking your face in front of a fireplace or an oven. That shit came from inside you. Became you. And that was how he later died. They said he got too close to a flame, swung too low, caught the top of a high one and spiraled down. The whole plane covered in flames within that flame.”
“Hell of a way to go.”
“I’m not sure one way is better than another. Fire, water. Rifle shot in the back of the head.” He looked at Blake. “You know how many soldiers’ lives you saved with that bomb?”
“I know how many Japs it burned.”
“You couldn’t see any of them face to face. They’ll always be numbers to you.”
“Not him. We both did him in. We’d seen his face, knew him.”
Nuss finished the beer and smacked his lips. “God won’t take me.”
Blake looked up at the clock. Midnight. “You ready?”
Nuss reached forward and cut a piece of the omelet. He dipped it in mustard and brought it to his lips. “Cold.”
“You got an oven right there.”
Nuss picked up the plate and smashed it on the hardwood. He did the same with his bottle. He pushed out his chair and rested his boots on the tabletop. He asked Blake for a Bull Brand but didn’t light it. Said the taste was good enough. He let that sit between his lips for a few minutes and then tossed it on the table. “It’s time.”
The plane rose in the dark. At first Blake couldn’t shake the height, couldn’t take the thin air and the smallness of the world below, but after the first half hour it felt right to be up among those clouds. He could understand what Nuss had loved: to not only be free, but to be made new, to cut the sky, to angle and fall and build back up with a swoop. The mountains peaked closely below them but Nuss had such a good sense. He was smiling, and he shifted the holster across his chest every few minutes. Blake had a rifle on his lap. A Remington. Nuss said they were like Dobbs and Curtin. Off to Mexico to do right.
“They went there for gold.”
Nuss had called Santos, Ortiz’s cousin. Ortiz had left the number behind like a will. Nuss said Mexicans had some type of bond, a connection not understood elsewhere. Blake reminded him that Ortiz was American, but Nuss said it didn’t matter. Santos said that Estrella had gone south. Her cousin’s ranch.
Nuss wasn’t surprised. “I told Estrella so many stories about quick money in Sinaloa. I knew she’d go there.”
“But she’s already got the loot.”
“Money makes you want more. That’s the golden fucking rule.”
Blake and Nuss talked so much during that flight: about the August double sessions with no water, about chalked hands in the weight room, about missed chances with women and the fucked fate of the desert. Nuss explained his plan: they would land in a nearby field, stake out the ranch, sneak up and get Mark when he was sleeping. Knock him out, rope him up from the rafters. Lock Estrella in her room and take the money. Come back to New Mexico. Buy a local motel and turn it into a brothel. Have a good time until they croaked. They laughed afterward, because the real plan wouldn’t be spoken. It would simply be done.
Sinaloa was quiet, but the type of quiet that hid a thrum just behind closed doors. Nuss turned the plane and pointed against the glass.
“You see it?”
“I see black.”
“There.” He pushed his finger forward. “Those lights. That’s the ranch.”
Now Blake saw it.
“You sure of it?”
“Absolutely. She’s been wanting to come. Now she got her wish. You see how things work out?”
“In the most unusual ways.”
The plane descended, but Nuss eased it to the side before gentling it down in a field. The propeller sounded like a swarm. Blake couldn’t see Nuss’s face in the dark, but he could see the glint of the pistol, feel his older brother’s hands pushing him out of the plane. Blake hopped down. He stepped back from the steel wind that reminded him of the bomb’s whistle. He watched Nuss rise again, circle back, and then lean the plane forward, pushing it into speed. Blake ran forward. The lights in the ranch became bigger and wider, and he swore that he could see inside: Estrella, her rebozo over a chairback, and Mark at the head of the table, counting the money.
Wind screamed around the wings as Nuss dove toward the ranch. Blake imagined the blast he knew would come. The flames and the smoke. When all in the night would become one: the metal, the wood, the ground and the new light. He kept running when the plane seared into the ranch and flamed the field. It was nice to feel the bomb again. Blake wanted to stay warm for a moment longer before he turned back to the cold.