[Re-upping this old story about an octogenarian gun fantasist in honor of today’s March for Our Lives. ]
Out of embarrassment, I have never mentioned what happened a year ago when Roo and I came to Tombstone together for the first time. Within five minutes of entering town, not 500 feet from the OK Corral, I was credited with breaking up an armed robbery and preventing a murder. Of course I did no such thing. I am only bringing it up now because of guns, which, especially on Roo’s behalf, drive me crazy.
If you ever want to find a place where guns are what life is all about, look no farther than Tombstone. There is a shooting gallery, shootout re-enactments, pictures of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday everywhere, places to buy guns, replica guns, pictures of guns, gun belts, gun needlepoints, posters for rallies inviting the government to see what happens if they try to come get the guns. You can have your picture taken with gunslingers. There are streets named for people about whom everything but that they shot someone has been forgotten. The only gun control is in the bars, which have signs outside telling you to keep them out.
In its mining days nearly 150 years ago, Tombstone was so wealthy that residents regularly had their clothes shipped in from Paris. This, in turn, gave all the movie stars who shot each other up so gracefully in the eponymous movie the perfect excuse to wear good-looking suits and complicated gunleather, which make a lot of people fantasize about getting in a gunfight at least once in their lives. If you don’t dress the way they do in Tombstone, though, you’ll probably be wearing sweatpants should you ever be blessed with the opportunity to blow someone to smithereens.
On that day last year, Roo and I had been to see a motorhome in Tucson. When it fell through, I was feeling bad that her life had taken to such wandering. I didn’t know where to go next. It was time for her to eat and I put her bowl down in a parking lot. It was dusk and a cold wind from Mexico started blowing. We got in the car and headed into the wind. The night started off badly when we stopped at a taco stand and an unattended cattle dog jumped out of the back of a truck and bolted across the highway and into the night. His owner didn’t care. He was drunk and wouldn’t get up from stuffing his face with tacos. A few of us by-standing tried to look for the dog but in the wind we couldn’t hear each other whistle from ten yards away. We knew it was pointless. The desert was like the middle of a stormy ocean on a moonless night, and the way that dog ran he might not have stopped for miles.
I was tired, and when I saw a sign for a motel in Tombstone, I turned. Rooki was still a lot more spooked in those days, so she waited in the car. The motel office was tiny, no bigger than a small walk-in closet. A couple of young guys were stuffed in there talking to the owner across the wooden counter. The space was too small to go in without being awkward, but the wind was freezing and it seemed like the transaction ahead was taking a long time, so I said, “Excuse me,” and opened the door. I could only open it partway, edging the door into one of them so I could squeeze through. The office was done in gun decor - old time gun advertisements for Colts and Winchesters and pictures of men with waxed mustaches and their hat hair combed down, holding rifles.
One of the young men was asking the owner if there were any restaurants still open. She asked them what it was they wanted to eat. They looked at each other and one of them said steaks. She said it was probably too late. They thanked her and left. I held the door for them and closed it behind them.
The woman had been holding her breath and let it all out at once. “You saved me.” she said. “They were going to pull a gun on me. They were going to rob me and kill me.”
“Those guys?” I said.
“They were - they were about to pull a gun on me when you came in. You saved me.”
“If you saw a gun you ought to call the cops.”
“I didn’t see it. I didn’t need to. They had one. Don’t need the police. You were sent here to stop it. I really thank you.”
It took me a moment to get in tune with how distressed she was. “Ma’am,” I said, “I really believe you misread them. They were no threat. Maybe a little skittish about asking for a room together. To tell you the truth, when they were talking it occurred to me how gentle they seemed.”
We talked about it for a while. It wasn’t much fun for her believing that her life had been in danger and for some reason I tried hard to convince her that I didn’t believe it had been. Later the woman knocked on our door and brought a printout about Jesus and travelers to our room in an act of kindness. Again she thanked me for saving her. Again I told her her thanks were misplaced.
A misunderstanding like that could never happen in, say, Iceland, where you would have a better chance of finding out that a manatee was running an oil company from your china cabinet than for someone to walk into your motel with a gun. Everybody who loves guns claims that they bring peace. Anybody who has been around guns when they’re being used for what they were made for knows that is plain silly. And in any place where handguns are a way of life, there is more of the possibility - and fear - of having one pulled on you. Just ask Wyatt Earp or Doc Holiday.
Fast forward to last week. Roo I spent Thanksgiving driving, again after looking at RVs, and again without any clue of where to land. We ended up at a decrepit Motel 6 on the Mexican border. That night Roo scavenged a bellyful of street tortillas, and the next morning she and I drove back to Sierra Vista. I was too tired to experiment with a new hike and I wanted her to get back on the river she loves after some some days in dirty cities and on the road with me too ill to let her run.
As usual, the skunk who lives near the parking lot was stinking the place up. The smell comes through the vents as soon as you get close. This might be the same panther-sized superskunk Roo cornered last year and managed not to get sprayed by, though he filled the skies that day with clouds of spray.
The smell of the skunk made Roo shoot up in her seat. I was weak already. Realizing that I was going to have to argue with her about the skunk made me feel like I was sprawled at the bottom of a trench. It was World War One. I had just been hit by phosgene gas. Soon, I would have a moment of repose when a couple of medics made it through the line and loaded me on a stretcher. I wouldn’t have to hike the river. Instead I would be sent to convalesce in a château near Biarritz where nurses in Florence Nightingale uniforms with red crosses on their bibs - young women who would see unspeakable things in war and go on to become silent movie stars with doleful expressions - bandaged my eyes and wheeled me to mahogany tables and got me better on a steady diet of Turkish cigarettes and marmalade jars full of cognac and read me someone else’s soggy onionskin love letters that had taken half a year on board freighters misrouted from Miami to Argentina before they got to the wrong place. The nurses would constantly talk about how radiant Roo was and guide my shaking hand to feed her morsels of lightly seared alpine marmot in cream sauce and let her chase fat Spanish squirrels imported by the crateful just for her.
My head was throbbing and spinning. Even in the skunked-up air, I had to sit on a rock for a minute of rest before setting out. I kept Roo on her long leash so that she couldn’t tend to unfinished business with the skunk. It is the only one of her life’s great ambitions that I hope to thwart forever.
I took my hat off and pressed it on my face and put my head in my hands so I could have a moment of darkness. About ten seconds into it a man called, “Hey!” at me. He was about 80 and left his wife where she was standing. He seemed to have told her to hold her ground no matter what. They were perched at a spot that looked like a trail at first, but which, had they tried to descend, would have smashed them both to pieces under an avalanche of rocks and old beer bottles.
The man had a little Maltipoo on a red leash. Over the years, the dog had taken on a deep nicotine stain. He had gone from what must once have been white to an ashen, dirty yellow. He was looking at Roo with the earnest expression of a dog who knew that he had missed some boat that dogs all hope to be on and of which Roo looked like she might be the captain. Roo wouldn’t so much as acknowledge that he was a life form. The man stood sideways so that I could see that he had a pistol holstered. He must have read in a magazine that this was the way to keep anyone from getting ideas. His holster was shiny and new, and, riding about five inches above his belt was a nine-millimeter automatic of a type commonly used in murders. It was an idiotic rig, the kind of thing Starsky or Hutch would have chosen to go with bellbottoms and Members Only jackets, a design requiring a draw so unnaturally high as to guarantee second place.
“Oh, God,” I said. “Now this. You expecting hummingbird trouble?” The gun was as out of place as finding a turd in your safety deposit box. I put my face back in my hat.
“Listen - guy at the RV park told me I could get to Charleston this way,” he said.
Roo came over and touched my arm with her nose. This forced me to come out of hiding. She wanted to get going. The light was edging her in gold and silver. Soon it would all turn to mud and she would be happy.
“RV park,” I said. "Let me guess - Tombstone.”
“Yup. Guy at the RV park said it was an easy walk to the old mining town. Said just follow the wash.”
“Man, you must have pissed him off something fierce.”
“Well. Is this the right place or not?”
“If you can make it a mile up that river, you might see a few feet of crumbling adobe brick on the river bank. Getting there will kill you and your wife and cover that dog in brambles bigger than he is that he’ll float away on. He’s going to end up having to fend for himself wherever the river lets him off in south Utah. And you’ll be wishing you’d brought a walking stick instead of that goddamn gun to Eden.”
I don’t think he heard any of it. It was just as well. He looked at me for a moment as if I were a new kind of fat lizard that might be fun to shoot. He went on. “Guy at the RV park said it was right up,“ he paused to look north with his chin jutting out just like Charlton Heston did when he first surveyed The Planet of the Apes, “right up chere.”
The sun was behind his head and it drove nails through my eyes when I looked up at him. But I had to look at him when he said “chere” instead of “there.” There are not many people for whom that word is not a pretense, and neither of us was one of them. I don’t think Wilford Brimley even says “chere”.
“A few crumbing bricks. That’s all. It took me about fifty times walking this dog up there to even notice them. If that’s worth killing everybody over, go on. But be advised that there are parts where it’s hard on this dog, and she’s a prizewinner.” Roo stood as straight as a legend and gave the old man the look of one. “If that little guy falls in the river, especially as sticky as he looks, it’ll be the last you ever see of him.”
With the Maltipoo in one hand and stumbling to get over rocks, that gun was sure to tip out of that holster. There was no hammer strap on it. Just the weight of the gun and the tight fit of the holster at the muzzle to keep it in. I hoped and prayed that it would plop straight into the water and that the man’s wife would finally put her foot down when he ordered her to retrieve it. And that that might dampen his love for garbaging up a beautiful place just because open carry law says you can.
“The guy at the RV park said it was right up here.” At least he wasn’t trying the good-ol’-boy ‘chere’ crap out on me any more.
“Yup. And if you make it back to that RV park, he’s going to be expecting an angry man with a loaded gun. He’s going to have a dead drop on you.”
Now I was talking his language. The day might start looking up after all. “Ho-ho!” he said. “I’d like to see him try!”
And that is the main problem with people who enjoy carrying guns around in places like the San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area. They would love to see someone try. Anyone who tells you that they hope they never have to use the handgun they parade around without a badge or a uniform to go with it just to feel like big shots in open-carry states is out of touch with the truth of their own lives. They’ve watched Tombstone one too many times.
He was considering the best way to make me talk. I’ve been looked at that way before. Kneeling somebody down and blasting a few rounds off next to their ear was tried and true. Maybe that would work. He was convinced I was lying to him about the Charleston ruins. I wasn’t. I was fully prepared to accept the risk that he might have to put himself and his wife out of their misery while their Maltipoo bobbed in the cold water all the way to Utah, where he would at long last get to be a big dog for a short while. The extended bath in highly oxygenated flowing water, and a little time afield, would fade the nicotine stains. As he unstuck, his outlook would improve. He would morph into the blaze of fluffy white again that when he was a puppy he saw himself growing up to be. Maybe he would have the time to develop dreadlocks, before the inevitable sunset when he was carried off by a parakeet or a gila monster and his bones left to bleach on a high ridge where his spirit would linger to hear no one but the mountain bluebirds sing until the end of time. No dog in his right mind would turn that down.
The old man was fed up. Not just with me but with the fact that the damn gun laws kept you from using the damn things the way they were damn well meant to be.
“Over here!” he said to his wife, commanding her to position herself ahead of and below him on the trail so he could put his hands on her shoulders for balance. This was going to be how the egg timer ran out on 60 years of marriage. In a double suicide.
I didn’t want to watch, but Roo did. She pulled her tongue in and put her ears up to look at them as soon as they got on the wrong path. She knew. I looked at her. She looked at me with gleaming eyes and an expectant wag. Among themselves, dogs probably joke all the time about how humans can barely walk at the best of times. This had the makings of a real kneeslapper.
“Not that way!” I hollered over at the couple. My own voice made my ears ring. “You’ll break your legs. Over here is the only way down.” They looked at me and then turned to consult each other about how much of a lyin’ sack I was and whether he would be justified in doing anything about it.
Now that I had ruined that for her, Roo got impatient. She wanted me to get up off that rock or let her loose.
Putting one foot in front of the other was going to be hard. My head was pounding. My ears were screaming. I was going to need Roo’s help. I asked her to come close, and she did.
“Kahooki. My little bear.’ My voice was hoarse. “I know you’re the most ferocious tigrotto who ever prowled a jungle. Everybody knows this. You have nothing to prove. And we’re going to go now. But, one thing, Junior - please. Today, of all days, would be the worst day ever to make your old daddy have to deskunk you. It would cripple me. Maybe permanently. I won’t be able to spend a few hours getting the skunk out. It’ll ruin the car. We won’t be able to sell it and buy a trailer. You’ll live in motels your whole life. You don't want that, Bearface. So, no skunk. If you see the skunk, turn the other cheek. Will you do that for me, Fatso?”
Roo wouldn’t commit. We went ahead of the couple to avoid my having to push them back upslope if it came to that. At gunpoint I would probably be forced to whittle a system of pulleys and winches out of felled tree trunks like they used in the gulag to retrieve tractors that had fallen through the ice. Better to get them out of sight and out of mind. Anyway, he could always shoot his way out.
And, Roo, who can always be counted on to be sweet, even if she considers herself the greatest comic prankster of all the jungles and forests and mountains there are, didn’t pull on the leash or be impatient at all. She was a gentle young lady and we went for a shortened walk of about an hour. It was all I could hack. When we got back, the gun-toting man and his wife and dog were gone. He was probably back in Tombstone by now. It was too bad he was in an RV park. He might have better luck if he started offering marshaling services at motel offices.
The Kahoo didn’t mind the shorter walk. In the car, she hopped in the front and put her head on my leg, and went as fast asleep as if she had run for hours. Her front paws were on my thigh, and as we drove I could feel her claws digging. Her eyes started rolling around in their sockets. I could feel her jaw muscles working.
She was dreaming of that skunk. She finally nailed him.
* * *
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