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Fight or Flight
The slow slap, slap, slap of playing cards on a worn desktop, the high-pitched whir of an ancient electric fan and the occasional crackle from the police band radio were all that broke the silence. For Sheriff Clint Knox, that was good enough for him.
It was too damned hot outside to do anything anyway.
Knox wasn't the only law man in the region, but he was the only one in the station house that hot and muggy afternoon. The heat wave that had blanketed the western region of the United States and Mexico had certainly not spared this tiny desert community.
The screen door to the small office creaked open. Knox looked up slightly to see the person walking in. He did a slight double take as he saw him. The man was wearing a heavy black overcoat.
Considering that it was hot enough to boil water out there, that was decidedly out of place.
Knox was aware, of course, of the history of the American Southwest, in which men in overcoats were typically concealing a shotgun or rifle. As the movies would have you believe, the additional detail of a black overcoat meant that there was serious trouble brewing.
The old man stepped into the foyer and seemed to pause. He sagged slightly in his coat and shook his head almost imperceptibly. "Of all the times that I could have been early..."
Sheriff Knox leaned back in his chair and grinned. "Afternoon, sir. How may I help you?"
The man almost seemed taken aback by the question, like it was something he was rarely asked. After a moment, he reached up and slipped off his fedora. "There is nothing that you can do for me, my friend. Nothing you can do at all. I suppose that you could say that I'm a little early for an appointment."
Knox gave the man a funny look. "Here? Were we supposed to meet today?" Knox bent forward to look at his appointment book.
The old man shook his head. "No, I wasn't here to meet you specifically. More an acquaintance of yours."
The Sheriff leaned back again, now with a puzzled look on his face. "I'm sorry, but do I know you...?" His voice trailed off as the screen door opened again, far more forcefully this time. Walter Smyth stormed through the opened door and brushed past the old man like he wasn't there.
"Damn it, Knox, I've had enough! This is it! I want you to take care of Gustovson now!" he said, slamming his fist onto the front desk.
Knox stood from his chair and stretched. "What'd he do now?"
Smyth spread his arms out wide, "What the hell hasn't he done?" He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wrinkled piece of paper, slamming it on the desk. "I found this load of shit on my front door this morning. The goddamn bastard even ran five head of my cattle to his land!"
Knox sighed and picked up the paper. It looked like a legal document. It didn't have a great deal to say, though. In straight English, it claimed that the Smyth ranch land had been confiscated for crimes against the People of the United States of America. The owner was informed to vacate the premises by the following morning or face jail. It was signed by Peter Gustovson, in the name of the People of the United States of America.
The Sheriff laughed a little. "Com'on, Walt. You know that this guy is just one of those damn militia lunatics. Hell, he doesn't even have any cohorts. We both know that he's got no claim on your land, and no court in the land would enforce this crock."
Smyth jabbed a finger into the Sheriffs chest. "Look. This is your job, Clint. The guy may be a lunatic, but he's a lunatic with an arsenal. Now, if you want to sit here and let him continue trying to annex every farm and ranch from here to the Arizona boarder, then you can go right on ahead. But I've already spoken with the Carl Heeling and Major Ricks. We're agreed. We'll get a posse together if we have to and take care of him ourselves."
Knox sighed and shook his head. This job had seemed so easy, once. There was precious little crime in this town, hell in this county. But ever since this Gustovson nut had moved into town, there had been problems. They guy claimed that he wanted to be left alone, then went and stole from his neighbors, claimed their land as his and then loudly denounced all his ties to the United States.
In a town where about half the adult men had served in the military, and a number of families had lost relatives in war, that was sometimes a dangerous position to take.
Knox had been able to fend off trouble for the most part, but he knew that Gustovson had crossed a line now. If Major Ricks, USMC, ret., was gunning for this guy, then there was no patients left in the community. "Okay, Walt. I'll go and arrest him for the cattle theft. That'll get me a warrant to search his place for some other stuff that's gone missing from you folk the last few months." Knox reached back and grabbed the keys to his cruiser. Smyth was smiling now. "Need a hand Sheriff?"
Knox grunted in a short laugh. "Not from you folks. The last thing I want you people to do is gun him down in front of me. You know I'll arrest you for it."
Smyth nodded, "Fine. Be careful."
Knox brushed past him and stepped to his cruiser. That's when he noticed the old man in the overcoat again. He was leaning against the side of the dusty brown and white car. "Sheriff, you mind if I come along?"
Knox looked him over for a second. The guy looked seventy if he was a day, and if he was that bundled up against this heat he must have had a circulation problem. More than that, he didn't know this man. Nevertheless, he found himself saying, "Sure, I guess that'll be all right. But I can't guarantee your safety. I'm going to be bringing in someone that could be trouble."
The man nodded slightly. "I understand. Don't worry about a guarantee to me, though. Little is guaranteed in life."
The Sheriff laughed as he motioned for him to get in. "Except death and taxes."
Rather than the courtesy laugh he had expected, the man only nodded grimly. "Yes, that is so. For everyone, there is an end."
Knox furrowed his brow at the cryptic remark, but started the cruiser up anyway. They drove in silence for a few moments when the old man asked, "How is your life, Sheriff?"
Knox looked sideways at the old man. What kind of question was that? "Uh, fine, I guess. No real complaints."
The Sheriff shrugged, "Oh, I won't say that there are things that I wouldn't have done different. I probably would have gone to college if I could do it again. Then again, maybe not. I might not have met Kristen, my wife." He shrugged and smiled, "Too much to think about, really."
"No regrets at all?"
Knox found himself considering the question a moment. "No, not really. Well, maybe one small one. I wanted to be a pilot once, when I was just a kid. I even applied for the Air Force when I graduated high school, but they wouldn't take me. My eyesight."
"Did you ever want to learn to fly on your own?"
"Nope. Got too busy with my day to day life. Besides, it's pretty expensive if you don't know someone with a plane."
The old man merely nodded, as if agreeing to a point that he didn't care about.
They turned off the main road about twenty minutes later. The old man had not said a word since then, but instead seemed lost in thought. They drove a short distance up the road before coming to a closed, though unlocked, gate. Knox got out of the car and opened it up. As he sat back in, the old man put his hand on the gear shift.
"Sheriff, I want to tell you that this is dangerous, what you are about to do. As much as I would like, I cannot interfere with the next few minutes. Please, be careful."
In the back of his mind, Knox knew that he should have been suspicious of what he just heard. It sounded a lot like a veiled threat. The man seemed completely sincere and open, however. The smooth, deep voice cracked ever so slightly. Something, indeed, was about to happen.
Suspicious and alert now, he put the cruiser in gear and drove forward up the dusty road. Soon, they came to end of the dirt driveway and found themselves in front of what had once been a nice home. Now, the windows were covered in heavy sheets of plywood, the yard had rows of fencing and barbed wire all over the place. It seemed that the place was built to withstand a full frontal assault, or at least tunnel it down the one access road.
Knox pulled the cruiser up in front of the house and stopped. He got out, one hand on his side arm, and took a long, slow look around. The place seemed deserted. The house was boarded up, though he knew that it was only a twisted security precaution. The barn at the other end of the central compound was wide open, but silent. The mournful moo of an unseen cow was all that seemed to break the silence. For a moment, Knox wondered if the nut was even home, but then spied his beat-up beige GMC pickup truck.
Since the barn was open, it seemed likely that Gustovson was doing some work out there. He made his way across the compound slowly and carefully. Abruptly, something seemed to click in his head. The man's warning seemed to replay in his head. He stopped and looked around.
He was completely out in the open. He turned to jog back to his cruiser when the first shot rang out. He felt a burning pain in his shoulder as he spun and fell to the ground. There were two more shots, both missed but kicked up rocks and dust from the ground into his face. He pulled his gun from its holster, but couldn't open his eyes enough to see a target.
He blinked a few times and made out the vague shape of his cruiser. He struggled to his knees, hoping to make a dash behind the cover of the steel and glass. Too late, he heard the pounding steps behind him. To late, he tried to spin himself to aim his service revolver. He felt a numbing pain in his head as the rifle butt came down on his skull.
Stunned, he rolled to his back. There was another kick, this time at his hand. He didn't see it, but knew that his revolver was gone. Blinking as he looked at the bright afternoon sky, he saw the form of the middle aged man dressed in military fatigues.
"Who sent you?" shouted Gustovson. Knox tried to open his mouth and speak, but didn't get the chance. "You're trespassing, Knox! That's a serious offence against the People of the United States!"
Knox grunted, "Please. I came here to talk to you..."
He felt another kick in the ribs. "Liar! Who was it? Smyth? Ricks? The government? Who, goddamnit, or I swear, so help me God, I'll blow your head off right here!"
Knox found himself looking straight down the barrel of a 30-06. Through his teary eyes he saw the wild look in the eyes of the man he had always thought of as a harmless nutcase. He felt the blood flowing out of his shoulder, and realized with a sinking feeling that he wouldn't survive regardless of what Gustovson did now.
A new hand fell on the rifle. Abruptly, it was wrenched from his view. A quiet, cold voice said, "That is enough. I can't stand aside any more."
Gustovson seemed shocked that anyone was even there, much less that someone had taken the rifle from him. "Who the hell are you?" he shouted as he lunged to reclaim his weapon. Knox watched in morbid fascination as the man he had thought was old seemed as spry as a man decades younger. Stepping back a step, he swung the rifle like a bat, striking the fatigue clad psychopath across the side of the head, knocking him to the ground.
Dropping the rifle to the ground, he grimaced. "That felt better than it should have." He muttered. He bent down and grabbed the stunned man by the shirt front. "I'm not going to say that you're the worst I've ever met, but you're close."
The younger man seemed more stunned than before. "I'm a patriot." He sputtered, spitting out a shattered tooth.
"A patriot." Spat the older man. "You're no patriot, you're a thug. You want nothing more than what you want."
"I want to be left alone..."
"You want to be able to do whatever you want to do, with no repercussions. I suppose, in a way, I can arrange that."
Knox had been watching this scene with quiet wonder, forgetting his own pain. Abruptly, he started to cough, and the old man turned his head. The hard, cold look in his weathered features seemed to soften a little. He turned back to Gustovson. "I'll deal with you in a minute."
He stepped over to the fallen Sheriff and knelt down. "I'm sorry, my friend, but I could not interfere. Life is sometimes possibilities, but sometimes there are none left. I'm sorry."
Knox looked silently at the old man, feeling a realization on the edges of his mind. "I'm dying..."
"Yes and no. Sometimes, one life ends only to begin another."
Knox felt odd for a brief moment, then the pain in his shoulder was gone. The world seemed larger, more clear, all of a sudden. He shook his head to clear his head, but something was wrong.
Gustovson, for his part, was stumbling backward in a sudden, panicked effort to get away. He managed to turn around to run, but somehow managed to run headlong into the old man. He fell on his butt, and then shielded his eyes as if the man were glowing with the light of the sun.
The old man mournfully shook his head. "A coward, like so many of your kind."
"Oh, God, please, no! Just leave me alone!" he shouted, almost crying.
He knelt down and pulled Peters arm away from his eyes. "I'm afraid that it's too late for that. You were destined to committee at least one murder, that I could not stop. I won't let you commit the second." He grabbed the man by the scruff of the neck.
Knox barely believed what he saw next. Where one moment there was a young man there now was a struggling desert hare. Knox stared at the sight, his mind somehow not able to accept what he saw as real. It had to be a trick.
Then, something clicked in his head. The sight of the struggling hare made him remember the pain that had been in his arm. The pain that he no longer felt. He tried to bring his arm in front of his face, but found that where he expected the sleeve of his uniform, there instead was a layer of dark feathers.
He stopped as he examined it. A wing. he mused My wing. Oddly, the realization didn't bring with it any sense of panic. No sense of wrongness. It seemed right, normal. He was a bird of some type. He looked at his own whitish chest feathers, twisted his head to see the brilliant red tail. I do look good he thought, somehow feeling distant from himself.
The old man stepped over, still holding the struggling hare. The man gently reached a hand out, and touched the new hawks head. "I am sorry I couldn't do more for you." He held out the hare, "He's yours, if you'd like."
The former officer of the law looked at the hare, feeling the hunger in his gut. Instead of lunging for it, though, he silently shook his head. That's not my way. he thought.
The old man seemed to consider for a moment. "I give his life to you, Sheriff. What do you want to do?"
He didn't need to consider long. I am...was...a man of the law, he thought simply.
The old man nodded once and reached out a hand, which Knox stepped onto. Abruptly, he dropped the hare and Gustovson was once again human.
He never said a word, but instead started running down the dusty driveway away from the old man. "He won't go far." he said quietly. "It seems that your friend Smyth was coming out this way to give you a hand, despite what you told him. He'll find Gustovson covered in blood, your blood, running down the road." He smiled thinly. "They'll never find your body, but they'll never believe his story, either."
Knox nodded his head, wishing that this new body could manage a smile. What happens now? he thought.
"You learn to fly."
With that, Sheriff Clint Knox spread his wings and leapt into the sky.
Fight or Flight copyright 2001 by Brian Eirik Coe.
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