A Hard Place to Die by Daniel Davis

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Narrated by Bob Eccles

 

Lemont opened his eyes.

The moon was full, the sky cloudless. He lay directly beneath the gaze of Orion, and in the sand his left hand formed a fist, with the middle finger sticking free.

“Fucker.”

He coughed, a spray of blood erupting into the night. He slowly lifted his hand, pressed it against his abdomen. He could feel the hole there, feel the blood rushing from it. Something slimy lay just beneath the surface, but he refused to think about that.

Could he stand? Did he dare try?

No. Breathing was hard; he could feel each breath as it pushed against his chest. His throat was dry, crusty; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a drink, the last time he’d wanted a drink. The very thought of water pulled a dark shade across his mind, and yet he was thirsty, so damned thirsty.

He had sand in his nose, sand in his throat, sand in his goddamn bullet wound. He could feel the sand digging into his back, and rocks too, gravel digging into the flesh of his thighs, imbedding through his jeans, through his t-shirt. There were rocks and things in his shoes and hair, and he felt something crawling across his right arm, something tingling, and he clenched his fist in frustration, then remembered that his right arm lay two feet away, and just above the elbow his arm ended in a raw, bleeding stump.

“Uhhhhhnnnn.” He coughed again. “Uhhhhhnnnn.” He took a deep breath, then another, his eyes fully opened now, locked on his severed arm.

His lips were chapped and cracked; he grimaced and they split. He tasted blood and sucked it in, the only liquid he could find. He turned onto his left side and wretched, which only brought up more blood. He cried, too, and drank in the tears, and they mingled with the blood and his chest heaved some more, nothing coming up but blood and bits of flesh. He curled into himself, crying, moaning, shaking back and forth as the wound in his stomach leaked and his stump bled all over him.

If only. Two words that never meant so much to a man. If only you hadn’t fucked her, you two-bit son of a bitch. If only you hadn’t run. If only you hadn’t come the fuck out here.

Never mess with Stoltz’s wife. He’d known that. He’d known that, goddammit. Knew it from day fucking one, just a week after he’d arrived in Vegas, a wad of cash in his pocket and a gun in his waistband. You do your job, you get paid, you get laid, but you do not fuck Stoltz’s wife.

He smiled. His lips bled further but he ignored it. She’d been a looker, she had. Laura. Black hair, green eyes, a figure curved and lithe and dangerous. She’d known things, had shown him things he hadn’t thought possible. There’d been so many mornings he’d woken up shattered, bruised, the light streaming through the hotel blinds illuminating a body encased in scratches and welts. He would limp for a couple days afterwards, he would have trouble sitting down for a week, but he kept coming back, how many times he had no clue. Six months. Eight months. Enough months for Stoltz to take notice.

He wondered if she was out here somewhere, too. Probably. He wondered, if he called her name, would she answer? He turned over onto his back again, the impact causing him to wince, and he turned his head about, one way then the other, but he could not see much further than a few feet in either direction. The moon was full, and lit the desert as best it could, but the desert at night is a dark place no matter how much light shines upon it. Bad things live in the desert, and bad things need the dark.

Using his left arm, he propped himself up, then scooted backwards, into a cactus. A few spines dug into him, but his body was slowly going numb from loss of blood, and he didn’t notice. He coughed again, blood trickling from his mouth. He stared at his feet, the shoes ripped and torn, his jeans tattered and soaked. He glanced again to his arm, not quite remembering who had severed it or how. Stoltz had shot him, he was sure of that; he remembered looking into the man’s eyes as he did it, thinking what kind of man it took to shoot someone while looking into their eyes. He’d underestimated Stoltz, that was the long and short and everything: he had thought Stoltz incompetent, but that was exactly what Stoltz had wanted him to think.

Why hadn’t he fought back? He’d had his pistol when they jumped him. And he was quick, too—he was good at what he did, not the best but good enough to still be alive. But Stoltz’s men had been better, damn them. They’d been fast, and they’d outnumbered him, and Lemont had gone down easy as you please. And then he’d regained consciousness out here, and then someone—Heinrich, it was Heinrich, that German fuck—had chopped off his arm with a goddamn machete, then Stoltz had walked up, looked him in the eye, and gut-shot him. Not even a single fucking word. No explanation necessary. You fucked my wife, that look had said. Now I’m gonna fuck you.

Lemont thought of calling Laura’s name again, but decided the hell with it. If she was out here she deserved it, the cheating bitch. He’d slept with her because she’d been the best piece of ass he’d ever had. There had been no emotion, on either one of their parts, and he hated her now just as much as she surely hated him, if she were still alive. Which she probably wasn’t. In Stoltz’s eyes, Lemont was the one whose betrayal ran the deepest. He was the one meant to suffer. Laura had probably received a quick shot in the head, nothing more.

Speaking of which . . .

He glanced down at his stomach. How much longer? Gut shots were slow, but not too slow. They were agonizing, he knew, but the blood loss was keeping him light-headed, and though he felt the pain somewhere distant, it didn’t matter to him. His severed arm bothered him most, because he’d always hoped to die in one piece. At least he hadn’t been hacked apart and strewn about the highway, as Lemont himself had done to a few of Stoltz’s enemies.

He wiped his face with his good hand, smearing the blood and sweat that had accumulated there. He glanced up at the moon again, leaning his head back into the cactus, feeling the pricks this time and letting them come. There was a face up there, and in it he saw Stoltz’s final smirk, the narrowed eyes, the twisted pockmarked visage of a man long insane. A fool he’d been, working for a man like that. The money had been good, the action had been good, but he’d known he was getting into trouble from day fucking one, and he’d gone right along with it because, at twenty-eight, you didn’t give a damn if you died young until you were actually dying.

Something moved in the darkness, to his right. He turned his head. Gravel rattled. He heard breathing, light and curious. With his left hand he groped around for something, anything, but only found a decent-sized rock. He hefted it and waited.

The coyote appeared slowly. He saw fear in its eyes, and curiosity, but the animal held his gaze. It was smaller than he’d expected, but when its jaws opened and he saw its teeth for a brief moment, he wet himself.

“Go away,” he said. His voice probably wouldn’t have carried to a person, but the animal stopped, its ears perked.

“Go away.”

It looked at him. Then at his severed arm. Then at him again. He shook his head, wincing as the cactus’s spines dug through his skin, a few ripping off in his scalp.

“Go away.”

The animal took a step forward, and he lobbed the rock at it, but he wasn’t left-handed and the rock sailed far to the right of the animal. It jerked a little when the rock hit a cactus in the dark, but the damned thing stayed where it was, looking at him, taking another step forward.

“Go.” He mouthed the word “away” but it didn’t come out. It wouldn’t have made much difference if it had—the animal lunged forward, grabbing his arm. With a quick turn of its body it leapt away into the night, carrying his arm with it. He cried out, which only urged the animal further, until it was out of sight in the desert’s darkness.

Oh God. Did he say that aloud? “Oh God.” His thoughts were flowing together. Orion, up above, staring down at him, accusing and laughing. Lemont laughed back at him. See if that won’t shut the bastard up. “Deserves it, motherfucker.” A bird chirped, somewhere distant, and he wondered why a bird was out in the night, birds were daytime creatures usually, unless it was an owl but then it would hoot and this wasn’t a hoot it was more a bleep and—

“Fucking coyote. Fucking dog ran off with my arm.”

There was a breeze; he couldn’t feel it anymore but he could hear it rustling through the sand and sparse shrubbery. He wished he could feel it, a cool hand on his brow, something to ease the sweat. A tourniquet for his sweat, how fucking funny was that? He’d once read that irony was overrated, or maybe it was sarcasm, it didn’t matter because at that moment he was full of both, and he looked up at Orion and said Motherfucker, I swear if I somehow come up there I’ll—

“Kick your fucking ass” you “smirking motherfucker.”

He laughed again. He felt drunk. Was he drunk? Something shifted in the dark in front of him, then to his right, then to his left, then behind him, and he wasn’t sure how he could tell that but he could just the same. Part of him knew it was the blood loss, he’d read about such things, it came with the job, and part of him didn’t give a rat’s ass because his gut didn’t hurt anymore, nor did his arm, nor his back, nor his head. He could still feel the sand against his skin, and he could feel the pressure of the cactus against his back, but they were just sensations, distant feelings that weren’t really associated with anything.

He blinked, grinning, and the coyote was back, or maybe it had never left, except his arm was gone. The animal was looking at him, and then he realized there wasn’t just one of it but two, three.

He laughed. “Thought I told you to go away,” he said.

The animal cocked its head. Or at least two of it did. The third just stared at him, head down low to the ground.

“Go on,” he said. “If I can’t die in one piece then—”

I want to die alone.

One animal took a step forward. Then a second. Then the third. One of the animals had a chip in its ear, a piece of tissue missing, just like his arm wasn’t that fucking hilarious, except it wasn’t hilarious because, even as dizzy as he was, he knew what that meant, and he shook his head, the thorns of the cactus shredding his scalp, and he could feel that but it didn’t matter at the moment, nothing did except—

“Leave! Go! God!”

Except he wasn’t sure if he spoke or not, wasn’t sure if they were actually words or grunts, but it didn’t matter because the animals could sense the hollowness of the threats. The coyotes moved in, slowly, gaining confidence. He tried to kick the first away, but his legs wouldn’t move, that is until the coyote sank its teeth into his shin and tugged. He felt that, too, felt the flesh tear away, and he screamed but the coyotes were used to screams, and the other two darted in, one sinking its teeth into his abdomen, near the wound, the other going for his stump.

He swung his left arm at one of the coyotes, but the blow was limp, and as soon as his arm was down the animal tore off his index finger. He had to laugh, though, because sensation was coming back, and wasn’t that ironic, oh yes it was. He laughed and leaned his head back into the cactus, staring upwards into the moon, Stoltz’s face grinning at him, even after the coyotes pulled him back onto the ground.

With his right hand he gave Stoltz the finger. “Fuck you,” he might have said, or maybe he just screamed, but either way Stoltz and the coyotes ignored him, and he had to laugh at that, because if he couldn’t die in one piece, and he couldn’t die alone, then he could at least die laughing, goddammit, and when the coyotes deprived him even of that, it was still pretty fucking funny.

 

AUTHOR BIO: Daniel Davis was born and raised in Central Illinois. His work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com.