quiet nights of quiet stars
When they arrived at his grandfather’s ranch in New Mexico, Jimmie climbed out of the back of the overstuffed Ford station wagon and stretched, then his mouth fell open. There wasn’t a tree – a real tree, anyway – in sight. There were a few scraggly looking things on a distant hillside that almost looked like trees, but almost everywhere he looked he saw brown grass on rolling brown hills – with some reddish brown rocks thrown in for good measure. His grandfather’s house looked like it was made of the same stuff, too – some kind of brown mud, he thought… And even his grandfather looked kind of brown – like he’d sprung up from this land. The old man seemed more a part of this landscape than the world he knew.
He remembered his father talking about him all the way across the country, too. How Ellis, his grandfather, had flown “in the first war…” then come home and built the hardware store into a real, going concern. Not content with being a storekeeper, Ellis had started building houses, a few here and there, then dozens at a time. In the early 1920s, long before the Crash, he’d built one of the first public aerodromes in Vermont, and pretty soon Ellis Patterson was giving flying lessons to anyone who dropped by on Saturday mornings, including nearly all the pretty young “gals” in the Northeast Kingdom. He married one of those girls, Sarah was her name, and they started their family in St. Johnsbury. And, the way his father told it, times were good.
Until 1929, anyway.
Because Ellis Patterson nearly lost everything he’d built in the Crash.
But the hardware store kept the family afloat, and after Roosevelt’s election in ‘32 he got busy again, secured contracts to built airports up and down the Connecticut River Valley. He taught his son, James, to fly before he went off to college…but by then another war looked more and more likely. Ellis worried about his son going off to fight over there, but he also knew enough about the world not to worry about such things.
Then Sarah died. Some sort of influenza, they told him, and he fell away from the world after that – for a while. James was in his second year when he bid on several airports the government wanted to be built in a hurry – out in the middle of New Mexico. He had people he trusted to run the chain of hardware stores he’d built up in Vermont and New Hampshire, so when he won the bid he took his crews out west…to a sleepy little city called Santa Fe.
His company literally built a dozen airports in a little more than a year, from Santa Fe to Los Alamos and Taos in the northern part of the state, and as far south as Socorro in the south. As most were being used as training facilities for the Army Air Corp, his business expanded to include building-out these airports as military facilities. And along the way he picked up a parcel of land near a little town called White Rock.
So, of course, the first thing he built on his land was a runway, then he added a few hangers. Then a few more. When he went to the ranch, as he started to call it, he usually slept in a tent and made do with bottled water, but one morning he woke up and stepped outside his tent and ran into a rattlesnake – and that put an end to sleeping on the ground. So he built a stable and bought a couple of horses, and he slept in the hayloft – until he woke one morning staring at a rattlesnake coming out of a bale of hay. After that he started roaming the ranch with clear purpose in his eyes, looking for just the right spot to build a house.
One Saturday afternoon he was riding through some piñon and he came upon a break in a rocky escarpment that split his property into two zones. Below the escarpment, the land was flat and almost bleak, while beyond the break mountains, real mountains loomed.
He looked at the rocks and studied them for a while, feeling something odd…something he’d never felt before. Like he was being watched.
He rode into the break, the horse he was riding suddenly taking short, tentative steps. The opening in the rocks was perhaps fifty yards wide at the opening, the walls a good hundred feet tall, and there were pines inside the opening. He rode quietly, then stopped when he saw the horse’s ears lay back. He pulled the Winchester 30-30 from the scabbard he’d strapped under the saddle and laid it across his thighs just then, just as the hair on the back of his neck stood on end…
He felt something, a stirring in the wind, perhaps, and he turned and saw the cat making it’s sprint, felt the cat’s eyes boring in on his, and he raised the Winchester and fired once. He fired short, deliberately, willing the cat to stop – and it did.
They each stood their ground – watching one another for the longest time – then the cat turned and walked away, maybe a little defiantly, up into the trees above the canyon.
He watched the cat until it disappeared into the trees, then he let the horse walk ahead at its own pace.
The little canyon followed a stream, turning first to the left, then bending almost back on itself in a hard oxbow to the right…and after perhaps a quarter mile the canyon gave way to a tight, bowl-shaped valley…
He climbed down from the horse and looked around, stunned by what he’d just stumbled upon. There was good water in the steep-walled bowl, and green grass everywhere he looked. A small pond…no, several ponds, falling down the hill at the far end of the bowl, in what appeared to be a series of small waterfalls. He saw a perfect spot for the house he had in mind, but then the next thing he thought about was desecrating this spot.
Because it was perfect. Too perfect – for something as mundane as a house. If he built here he knew he’d spoil this spot forever…and then he saw the cat again, up in the trees – watching him.
He turned and got back on the horse then returned to the escarpment and walked along a while. He stopped and looked down-valley; he could see his runway and the half-dozen hangers nestled in the piñon, and he sighed. He dismounted again and walked out onto a small promontory; he scratched at the rocky soil with his boot and looked at the hard-scrabble under the surface, then he turned and looked at the opening in the escarpment. There’d be water here, he knew, though he’d have to drill for it; but, from where he stood he could see Santa Fe in the distance, and even Albuquerque far away to the south.
“This’ll do,” Ellis Patterson said – to a passing breeze.
He watched tension form in the air as if between two towers, tension like an uneasy awakening when his father and grandfather shook hands that first day.
“Long drive, isn’t it?” Ellis Patterson said, almost defiantly – like he’d had his doubts his son was up to such a journey.
“I wouldn’t want to do it in summer,” James Patterson added.
“Get’s bad once you leave St. Louis,” Ellis nodded. “Unless you turn on the air.”
“Don’t have air–conditioning. Never needed it back home.”
“Well, you’ll need it here, so you might as well think about getting rid of that car before summer comes.”
He watched this exchange, wondering why these two seemed almost at odds with one another…then he turned and saw his mother – staring at some buildings down the hill. He turned and looked at them, too; he saw one was an airplane hanger – and there was a silver airplane inside, protected from the sun. It was, he could just see now, a P-51 Mustang – and his heart started racing. His father had flown one in the war and now, right out here in the middle of the desert, there one sat. Even sitting still, almost lost in shadow, the airplane looked like a living, breathing thing. Lethal, full of menace – full of all the stories his father had told him about combat in the skies over Europe.
But…what was this airplane doing here, hiding out under the fierce New Mexican sun.
When he turned back to his father he saw both men staring at his mother, looking at her looking at him, and trying to read her reaction. He looked at her, too.
He thought she looked a little like a volcano.
Maybe right before an eruption.
“I thought I saw her out there tonight,” he said, pointing to the parking lot above the marina. She was there, and then she was gone.”
“I didn’t see her,” Brigit said. “I haven’t seen her in weeks.”
“Funny, but sometimes it feels like she’s watching me. Us, maybe.”
“Us? You mean you – and me?”
“Oh, no. Ted. Ted called me a few weeks ago, said he’d run into her at a Starbucks near campus. He goes there after this one class, usually with a bunch from his study group. And there she was, waiting.”
“Did they talk?”
“Yup. Just pleasantries, a little about me, then she left. He called me that afternoon, wondered what it meant.”
“Do you know?”
“What it means? I’m not sure. I can’t get her to open up, but ever since she showed up at Nancy’s…”
“Yeah. She was there, I’m pretty sure, after that girl, Tracy. She hasn’t said why, not directly, but I think she thinks I’m tied up with that stuff. And that’s what bothers me.”
“Trafficking. Human trafficking.”
She laughed. “I doubt that. I think she likes you.”
“Likes me? Hell, I think she hates me.”
Sullivan looked at him, sitting in the cockpit – in the middle of his night – and she thought he really might remain in the dark. Clueless. Anyone could tell Melissa loved him, even Ted. Why else would she be keeping an eye on them both? Obviously that wayward girl – Tracy – had exposed them both to unknown dangers, so Melissa was keeping an eye on them.
She wanted to change the subject just then. Wanted to keep his mind off Melissa. She looked at the stainless steel of his prothesis gleaming in the night, and she wanted to ask how it felt, but no. She realized how little she knew about his life, about his one true love.
So, she asked.
He was on one of his grandfather’s horses, following the old man along a winding trail that led away from the main house. A tall, rocky ledge was off to the right, and they were slowly converging on a gap in the formation.
“You need to be quiet now, boy,” his grandfather whispered. “And keep your eyes on those rocks,” he added, pointing at the escarpment.
He, of course, had heard stories of the cat for years. How his grandfather had stared the beast down. The first time his father visited, right after the war, he too had made the trip out to the rocks, and he too had seen the cat. It was, his father said, a rite of passage.
“What’s that?” Jimmy asked.
“Well, it’s like something you have to do before you can become a man.”
And he’d thought about that for a while.
“So, seeing this cat is going to make me a man?”
And he’d seen his grandfather looking at his father – with a strange grin on his face.
“Well, not exactly. But it’ll help.”
Now, as he looked at the rocky cliff, and at the jumbled scree along the base, he had his eyes peeled – looking for any sign of movement…
Then his grandfather’s horse stopped. The old mare pawed at the ground – twice – and his grandfather pulled the weatherbeaten old 30-30 from its scabbard one more time.
“Come here, boy,” his grandfather whispered.
“Do you see him?” Jim asked.
“Top of the ridge,” his grandfather said, pointing a little to their left, “by that big rock.”
He looked and looked – but didn’t see a thing…then…movement caught his eye. His eyes locked on, went right to the cat then – and he gasped out loud. “It’s huge,” he whispered, his voice straining to conceal the fear he felt welling up.
“Big cat, alright. Mean son of a bitch, too.”
The cat was working its way down the rocky face, hardly taking its eyes off them, and he watched as his grandfather cocked the rifle, then planted the butt on top of his thigh, the barrel pointing at the sun. The cat leapt over several boulders – then disappeared in the scrub and piñon.
“Get behind me, boy,” his grandfather said, and while he maneuvered behind his grandfather’s mare he heard the old man talking to himself. “She’s acting strange today, boy. She hasn’t acted like this in a long time.”
Then he saw the cat off to their right. She had circled around and was streaking in now; his grandfather saw the cat and fired once – into the sky – but this time the cat wasn’t falling for it. He watched as his grandfather worked the lever, chambering another round, and then as he sighted-in on the cat – now less than a hundred yards off and closing fast…
And the mare saw the cat then, too, and began bucking…
And he watched his grandfather falling to the ground, the Winchester arcing through the air…
He reacted now. No thought at all, just pure adrenaline-fueled reaction…
He jumped off his old nag and picked up the carbine, fired one round – striking the cat’s shoulder; it stumbled once then it’s legs gave out – and she slid to a stop not ten feet away.
Wounded, very angry, and growling. And trying to stand up.
He did what his grandfather had done. He worked the lever, chambered a round and held the cat in his sights.
“She’s wounded, Jimmy. Bad. You can’t leave her like this.”
He nodded, looked the cat in the eye – then pulled the trigger.
They rode back to the house, got there just before sunset, walked up to the barn under reddening clouds; his mother looked at the cat tied-off behind her son’s saddle and shook her head. She wondered, for a moment, who had killed the cat – but she saw the look in her son’s eyes. She’d been teaching him to shoot for years, after all, and she’d had to admit more than once he was at least as good a shot as she. His father walked up and helped get the cat off the saddle, then they walked the horses, let them cool off, then watered them and stabled them for the night. Be they time he walked up to the house the cat was gone.
His grandfather told the tale that night. About Jimmy’s presence of mind, and how he’d saved them both out there. His father listened quietly but inside he seethed; his mother was lost between waves and anger and pride.
After dinner, after Jim went to bed, they tried, gently, to remind Ellis that they’d come out west to avoid being killed by Chinese gangsters. Being killed by mountain lions wasn’t any more appealing.
Three months later he turned fourteen.
And that afternoon his grandfather took him up in the Mustang…
“What’s a Mustang?” Sullivan asked.
“Hmm? Oh, back in the Second World War there was this fighter. Some say it was the airplane that turned the tide in the air war, but it escorted the bombers that flew missions over Germany. My dad flew one in the war.”
“And your grandfather had one?”
“Not just one. He got hold of the plane my dad flew over there.”
“Honestly, I have no idea. My dad used to say that Pops knew people.”
He laughed a little at the memory. “Yeah, when we really wanted to get under his skin, we’d call him Pops.”
“So, he took you up in the airplane your father flew in the war? Why didn’t your father take you up?”
“Dad never flew again. He loved it, I guess. Flying, I mean, but the war killed that love. He wouldn’t even fly commercially. Always drove, or took the train.”
“Did he talk about it?”
He nodded. Something about Dresden, the bombings. He came home after that, back to Vermont. Mom said he never talked about the war, what he’d seen, and didn’t for years. Like it never happened, I guess, but after a few months back to the hardware store she said it was like he’d never been gone. He just got to work and kept at it – like twenty hours a day.”
“So, your grandfather took you up in this Mustang? What was that like?”
“Weird. I knew some of the details about the war by then, the things my father did, and it was really strange touching this machine my father had flown. In a way, it made some of his stories, maybe even his grief, seem more real.”
“I can’t imagine what your father felt…”
“He wouldn’t go anywhere near the hangers, wanted nothing to do with it.”
“My grandfather taught me to fly out there. The basics, all the way through instrument training.”
“In a World War II fighter?”
“Oh, no, he had a bunch of planes. A few more military aircraft, but he had a few civilian aircraft too. A Cessna 210 and a Beech Baron, those kinds of things. He taught me in a smaller Cessna, then, when it was time to do my cross-countries, he’d follow me in this old Waco he had…”
“Yup, a YMF, not that that means anything. It’s a bi-plane, a real screamer, and one of the first long flights we took together was in that old thing. Took off, flew up to Farmington then west, out to the Grand Canyon. We gassed up at the airport by the south rim, then flew down into the canyon, followed the river almost all the way to Vegas. Then he landed the thing and grabbed a cab; we went to the Sand’s Hotel and saw Frank Sinatra that night. I’ll never forget that…” he said, looking up at the stars.
“Sinatra? Really? What a neat memory to have of him…”
“Pops was alright. He was in his seventies then, I think, but no one really seemed to know how old he was. He looked like my dad’s older brother…like almost the same age. I guess the hard thing about it…my father died before Pops did, by about six months.”
“When was that?”
“Oh…I guess about twenty years ago.”
“Did you ever fly that…what did you call it? That Mustang?”
“Oh, yeah, all the time, actually. I did two summers ago, anyway.”
“What? But you said he died…?”
“Yeah, well, he left the ranch to me.”
“The ranch. You know? In New Mexico…?”
“You mean you could move there? Not stay on the boat?”
“I suppose so, but not really. I’ve been leasing out the land to a grazing company, and one of their foremen lives in one of the houses.”
“How many houses are there?”
“I don’t know. Five or six, anyway, mainly for ranch-hands that come up during round-ups. It gets kind of busy then.”
“I don’t understand…?”
“Well, grazing companies move whole herds around the country to the best grass. Usually South Texas, down around Corpus, in the winter; New Mexico through the Spring, then alpine pasture in Colorado. It’s expensive, but herds that are pre-sold to the big steak-houses demand the best beef, and they’re willing to pay a premium for it. The part of New Mexico where Pops bought land has consistently good grass, and we make a pretty penny this way.”
“I’m just trying to think of one good reason why you don’t move there right this instant. Or, really, why you didn’t twenty years ago.”
“Because I love what I do. Well, loved. I guess that’s all over now, really.”
“What about Atlanta…?”
He felt the air beside his ear rippling before he heard the first gunshot, and, in that instant, he grabbed Brigit by the waist and pushed her down the companionway steps – just as several bullets slammed into his right arm and leg. Lights were coming on all over the marina moments later, and he remembered hearing a car peeling out of the parking garage, then the pulsing wail of sirens. He saw Ted and Susan for a moment, but they disappeared in a hot, blinding white haze. He felt himself swallow once, and thought he tasted blood.
“That can’t be good,” he said – to no one in particular…then he felt cut loose, adrift, like a leaf on a stream in the sun…
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