I HAD TO SHOOT numbers fourteen and fifteen before dawn.
I started my count years before that. Government didn’t call me responsible for the thirteen I’m sure of. Even then the number seemed like an evil omen and so it was. What else could you expect from government? It creates killers by the thousands, tens of thousands. Then when they’re no good for anything else it throws them away like worn out shoes.
I spent time in the VA hospital outside Denver and after a while I found something I could do in the world that wasn’t killing. I could take care of farm animals. Cows, goats, sheep, chickens, pigs. Especially pigs; the woman who raised me kept pigs and I got to know them pretty good. Dogs and cats expect too much of a person but the rest? They accept what you offer which is no more than the little they require and they don’t want or need more than that. Let them out, let them in. Fill the water troughs, shovel their shit, hose them down from time to time. Tend to the minor problems and let the vet tend to the rest.
Working as a farm hand means you get food to eat and a place to stay and a little money in your pocket to pay for expenses like gas for the truck or a woman now and then. They say the VA hospitals are there when you need them but you know that’s just government promises. Pension money goes straight to the ex.
It isn’t a bad life all in all, away from people for the most part so there’s not much danger of killing anyone accidentally. Because nobody can ever be sure they won’t kill someone by accident. Or on purpose. Especially if you’ve already done that, in which case the barrier isn’t nearly as high as it once was and there’s lots of ways killing on purpose can happen, even if you don’t start out with that intention, which I didn’t.
That morning in April Floyd, the farm’s manager, got me up early to look for a sow that had broken out of her sty during the night and gone roaming. Like I said, I was out in my truck before dawn, driving up and down the county roads around Lamar. I found her, too. I could tell it was her by her blue ear tag.
She was struggling along the side of the road. Somebody hit her with his truck, sent her skidding off the road and broke her spine. She was tore up, blood running from eye to tail, dragging the deadweight of her useless rear legs forward, grunting and drooling, still intent on freedom.
I pulled over and walked up beside her. She stopped and waited for me to help her but there was nothing I could do so I knelt down beside her, stroked her head and spoke softly, told her she was a good pig and put my gun against her head. I could see she knew what I was going to do because she knew she was done and couldn’t go on any more and she sagged a little on her worn forelegs—and let me do what needed to be done. I count that as number fourteen though I know she was a pig and not a man.
She must have weighed six hundred pounds easy. There was no way I could get her into the truck so I left her there for the time being. I was sorry I couldn’t do better for her and I’m not ashamed to say I watered up, me sitting behind the wheel wondering what was happening to me and then it all came back sharp, Technicolor, second by second and all I could do was squeeze the steering wheel and let the rerun roll.
By the second week we’d been there the trail through the jungle had become a cleared path snaking its way back to regimental. Fuck-all knew why we were even there. We were pretty much on our own if they tripped over us. And Charlie would have to trip over us, we were so out of the way. So deep under canopy that green turned to gray and shadows were the color of dirt and you couldn’t hardly tell where dirt stopped and shadows started. The lieutenant only came around once a week, if that. The rest of the time it was sleep and drink and smoke that good, sweet herb.
Which is why we were sitting ducks when Charlie actually did trip over us. I was off in the jungle taking a dump in a gully a hundred yards away. I heard that Chee and Jersey and Paul went down before anybody even registered the sound of their AKs. After that were the sporadic outbreaks of AK barks and ’16 chatters. The sounds of professionals at work.
The gunfire stopped, which meant Charlie was content to fade away into the jungle. That was good. If they’d been Chinese regulars we’d all be dead; they were all about the body count. Sneaking back, I saw one of them slipping away through the trees off to my right. He wasn’t looking, a momentary lapse of attention.
In retrospect I could have let him go. But like I said, professionals at work. I left the body for the pigs.
When the memory and the shakes stopped I went looking for the son-of-a-bitch who hit her. He wasn’t too far away, his truck stopped in the middle of the road. It was a nice truck, a Chevy C-10 in red and white, just like the one in the magazine ads. Its right front headlight and grille and fender were crumpled back into the wheel well and the tire was shredded. I parked behind him and walked over to see him prying metal away from the flat tire. He was taller than me, maybe forty, bald and bullet-headed. His check shirt strained against his belly and there was black grease on the thighs of his jeans.
“What happened, friend?” I said.
“Fuckin’ pig loose on the road. Ran into my truck.”
Right from the start then I didn’t like his attitude but I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. I said, “I saw her back there.” I got leather gloves out of my truck and together we were able to pull out the twisted steel enough to free the wheel well. Then I helped him jack up the front axle and change the tire.
“Thanks friend,” he said, heading around towards the driver’s door. “I best be to work.”
“I need you to help me pick up the sow, load her into my truck.”
“Wish I could, friend,” he said, cooling. “Grateful for your help, though.”
He stopped, surprised when he saw the automatic in my hand.
“Whoa,” he said, “It’s just a fucking pig.”
I could see he was looking to see if I was close enough for him to make a lunge at me, get at the automatic, but he wasn’t the first man I’d pointed a weapon at. So he raised his hands. I nodded. “My fucking pig. You are gonna help me.”
“Okay, okay,” he said. “No need to get upset.”
I tied him up good and got him into the front seat next to me. I could see he was gonna try something so I whacked him hard across the side of his head with the automatic and that put him off troubling me while I drove. I want to point out that I wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t keep looking for a way to get at me so really it was self-defense.
We got back to the sow and a flock of buzzards had started to rip into her. They looked up from their feast when we got there but didn’t make a move to leave so I shot one and it exploded, guts and feathers, like a bursting balloon. And if you wonder about that, no, buzzards don’t count. The rest took off then.
Even with him helping it was hard work hauling and lifting the sow into the bed of my truck but we were able to do it ourselves. At that point I was leaning towards sending him on his way. I’d smacked him upside the head pretty hard and that took a lot of the angry out of me.
But then he opened his mouth and showed he wasn’t fit to live with others. “It’s just a goddamn pig,” he said.
“She had eight piglets and now they will starve unless me and some others hand-suckle them ‘til they’re weaned. You killed a mother, you asshole.” I pulled the automatic out of my pocket and pointed it at him.
He shook his head like he couldn’t believe what was happening and repeated, “It’s just a god damn pig.”
I shot him in the head, just like I shot that sow. As an act of mercy. I didn’t blame him for hitting the pig because it could’ve been an accident like he said, pigs not known for being good pedestrians. I blamed him for not stopping to help her, a suffering creature like we all are. I don’t believe a jury would find that a good reason to shoot a man, though in a better world it would.
That was fifteen.
I left his body where it fell and went about the business of getting the sow back to the farm. By that time the sun was clear up and it was already hot as hell. I washed up and went about doing my job the rest of the morning and nothing much else of note happened until lunchtime when a Prowers County deputy drove up and got out of his Jeep.
He was a deputy-looking man, gray uniform, black ankle boots and belt and holster, aviator sunglasses, donuts and beers rounding his belly some. He moved easy, sure of himself inside his uniform and badge and weapon, unaware of any circumstance he could not dominate. In my experience, men like him got killed early so I knew he wasn’t ex-military.
Floyd came out of his office to meet him. They talked a while in the yard there by his vehicle and it occurred to me that if I didn’t want the deputy to become number sixteen, then the best thing for me to do was be somewhere he wasn’t. Because if he’d asked me straight out if I killed that man I would have looked him right in the eye and told him ‘yes.’ I was not ashamed of it then and I am not ashamed of it still but it is a true thing that one killing tends to lead to another, though I was inclined to let it rest there.
By that time the manager pointed me out as the one who brought in the dead sow so the deputy headed my way. I drained the plastic cup of lemonade I was drinking and stood up to meet him. Aware my automatic was on the passenger seat in my truck, slipped into the tear in the cloth.
He stopped a few paces from me, just out of arm’s reach. I put my hands at my sides where he could see them and this did reassure him a bit. But we both had wary eyes on each other, something you do naturally away out from society where men can have dark reasons to be.
“Floyd says you brought a dead sow in this morning,” he said.
That was true so I nodded.
“See a dead man while you was there? Billy Cozzins, nasty piece of work.”
Sticking to the exact truth I said, “Saw a dead man and his truck down the road some. Didn’t recognize him.”
“And you didn’t tell nobody?”
“Any reason for that?”
“I’ve seen a lot of dead men.”
“Oh? Have you now. Military?”
“How many you responsible for?”
“Deputy, that’s not a question a man asks another man.”
He raised a palm in apology. “Why didn’t you say something about that particular dead man?”
“I could see he was dead and no point in trying to do anything. Deputies patrol the roads all the time. I figured you’d find him.”
“What were you doing out there this morning?”
We’d already established that but I let it go. “I was looking for that poor sow.”
“What happened to it?”
“Some son-of-a-bitch ran into her, broke her spine and left her for dead. Which she wasn’t. Left it to me to end her suffering.”
“So if I asked to see your weapon I’d see it was fired recently.”
He thought for a minute. I gave him all the time he wanted. “Floyd tells me that sow had eight piglets. They’ll need hand rearing now.”
“Til they’re weaned, yes. That’s on my mind.”
“How’d you get that sow’s body into your truck?”
“Had a little help from a man drove past.” Not technically a lie. Shaded though.
The deputy stopped and I thought he was going to ask me if I killed the man but he didn’t. Maybe he knew and didn’t want to know. I don’t know why he didn’t.
He went back to his Jeep and I got into to mine. On his way out he stopped so we were driver’s window to driver’s window. He said, “If I asked you if you had your weapon in your lap right now you’d say you did.”
I nodded. “And if I asked you if you had your weapon in your lap right now you’d say you did.”
He nodded. “Take care of those piglets,” he said and drove off.
Floyd come up and leaned a forearm on the door of my truck. “What did he want to know?”
I shrugged. “Did I see a dead guy on the road.”
“You didn’t stop to help? Or call the police?”
“Damn stupid. You could have gotten into a lot of trouble.”
“Am I in trouble with you?”
He took off his baseball cap and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “Not so long as you take care of those piglets.”
I’d been thinking about heading south to Mexico but he was right. I owed those piglets for shooting their mama.
I figured the deputy might wait on me for at most three months, when the piglets were weaned, though if things got too awkward for him he might have to come for me sooner. Either way, I expected him to be back.
Which was the problem because it meant I had to be gone before then. Which I was, Fortune smiling on me for once in my life, so I thought. Just about the time the piglets became weaners the farm sold one to an Army research lab south of Colorado Springs and the day I drew my pay Floyd told me drive her over. I packed my stuff and hid it in the truck, as it was the right time to move on, given the situation with number fifteen’s killer still on the loose.
Took me about three hours to drive the piglet to the Army base in my old truck which don’t go much over 50 any more, during which I had a lot of time to consider where to go next, with a straight shot down I-25 to El Paso and then over the border into Ciudad Juarez the obvious route. Lots of farms in Northern Mexico a man can disappear into.
At least that was the plan until I got to the lab to deliver the piglet.
It was a windowless three story brick building with a one story office wing attached, like it might have been an elementary school at one time, nothing agricultural about it and that got me worrying about what they planned to do with her. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to slaughtering animals for food, not even weaners. But I don’t stand for cruelty and torture. I’ve seen too much of that.
Charlie had his own political corps just as sick as ours. We were hunting a cadre of them, caught sight of them once or twice, two men and a woman, lost them then picked up their trail again and followed them to this little village, really no more than a handful of hooches in a clearing with a stream running nearby.
They were gone by the time we entered. Nobody anywhere, not in the hooches, not in the nearby jungle, only a scrawny old papa-san in the middle of the clearing down on his knees with his arms bound behind him, bent forward like an inchworm. No shirt, no pants. Only sagging gray underpants soiled with his piss and shit. His back was a mass of red slashes and a bamboo shaft stuck out of one side of his neck. His blood still dripped into red patches in the dirt. He was alive. A little.
He’d been there long enough for the feral pigs to sniff him out. They were circling him but ran off when we walked in. The old man turned his head a little towards us. I don’t know what he thought but whatever had been holding him up just drained away and he pitched over on his side and the bamboo stick drove itself completely through his neck and blood fountained up through the hollow tube and he made a gargling, coughing sound, twitched on the ground a couple of times and was still. The new guy in the squad projectile puked.
We didn’t know what to do. Leave him and move on didn’t seem right. But if we buried him would anyone ever know what happened to him? And where? I insisted we carry him into one of the hooches and untie his arms and pull the stick out of his neck and rinse most of the shit off him and put him on a mat and wrap him in a cloth for anyone who might came back. Which we did.
If nobody came back to bury him the pigs would eventually get him.
We caught up with the cadre the next evening and the new kid shot the woman dead, a young woman. Then he went over to her body, ripped off her shirt and began slashing her with his knife like the old man had been slashed which was something no professional would do and he took a bullet to the head and dropped like a stone while the rest of us returned fire blind into the bush to run them off and me and Willie had to carry the kid in a bag to the nearest LZ which was more than 5 klicks away.
Driving the piglet to the Army felt like carrying the kid’s body, so I was curious and also suspicious of what I might see at the lab and it’s the only explanation I have for why I took the automatic with me when I asked them to show me around, which they did proudly, including a sty that took up half of what would have been the gym when it was a school. There must have been a dozen pigs of various ages in there, each in its own metal stall with a clipboard hanging on its gate.
Then they led me to an office suite and bragged to me about their work, which they claimed was to help the Army improve wound treatments. As a side benefit, they said, once they were done with a pig they harvested its organs for the medical school in Denver where doctors were doing research on organ transplants.
What I understood from that was this: they were going to shoot the piglet then try experimental treatments on her, operations and such, then slaughter and cut her up and I could not allow them to do that so I showed them the automatic and told them she was going back with me and they needed to have her loaded onto my truck. “And if anyone says, ‘It’s just a pig,’” I said, “I will shoot that person.”
They were scientists and such, not real soldiers, and willing to let me have the piglet, all except one young guy. A smartass. Who had to say, “But it’s just a pig” and smirk at me, not expecting me to follow through, which I always do, though in this case I was willing to make a distinction between smartass and asshole and give him a break.
So I shot him in the thigh and he went down and started screaming. The bullet shattered the bone and severed an artery and he was bleeding out pretty good. The others froze in place, which was good for all of us.
Not wanting him to be number sixteen if I could help it I stood over him and pulled his belt out of his pants, slipped it around his thigh north of the wound and yanked it tight. Immediately, the bleeding slowed to an ooze. He screamed even louder and started to cry.
I said, “One of you come over here and take this belt. Put your foot on his thigh and don’t loosen the belt unless you want him to die.” An older scientist, a trim guy in his fifties, came over and I handed him the belt.
Someone had triggered an alarm, maybe it was the sound of the gunshot. That was good for the scientists but not so much for me. I was sure I could get out of there all right but I wasn’t going to leave without the piglet. In truth, I didn’t plan on leaving any of those pigs in their stalls.
It was about the time I made it to the end of the painted cinder block hallway and turned right to get to the sty that it occurred to me that alone I couldn’t load one pig onto my truck, let alone the dozen or so there. I had a clear moment then, before anything else happened, when I could see a way out, to my truck, off the base and down the highway to Mexico. Or I could free the pigs, give them the chance for the freedom that old sow wanted when she broke out. Which made up my mind.
By then the guards caught up to me in the doorway I’d opened. I had another clear moment then, when I could have taken number sixteen and maybe number seventeen down but what was the point.
So I laid down my weapon and showed them my open hands. Over my shoulder I could see pigs hightailing it across the parking lot towards the plains to the east and freedom.
— PETER ALTERMAN
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