Human Phoenix
Chapter 10

Copyright© 2012 by Refusenik

Broken Creek Boys Ranch, October 27, 2006

It was time to get up and do his chores. Scott got up reluctantly, and splashed cold water on his face. He didn't look in the mirror. The t-shirt was where he had left it. He picked it up and examined it. The bullet holes were still closed over. He balled the t-shirt up and threw it toward the trashcan. Scott didn't want to wear it again.

He went to the equipment shed and found a screwdriver. The brake handles on his mountain bike needed to be adjusted because of the crash. There were some new scratches on the frame, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. He left the ranch and rode slowly past last night's ambush site. There was nothing to see. Unless you had been here you would never know what had happened. Nobody had come to investigate. The two men had planned ahead.

A light was on in the Mendoza house when he rode by.

Scott pedaled for a few more minutes before he braked to a hard stop. He jumped off the bicycle and ran to the side of the road where he was violently sick. He knelt in the gravel until there was nothing left in his stomach. His eyes watered and his nose was running. Stomach muscles cramped from the dry heaves. Removing a bottle of water from his backpack he rinsed and spat to clear the taste from his mouth.

He dug through his backpack. A spiral notebook from biology had been pierced by the bullet. He flipped through it in disgust.

Jobe was sitting by the kitchen door when Scott rode up. His tail was wagging back and forth. At least the dog still liked him. Scott crouched down and gave Jobe a big hug and rubbed his ears. The dog licked his face, but Scott didn't mind. They went into the kitchen. He didn't feel like cooking, so he set out a couple of bowls of cereal.

"No hot food this morning?" asked Mr. Piotrowski when he came downstairs.

"No, sir, if that's okay?"

"Pass the milk."

They ate in silence while Jobe inspected his mat. He finally got comfortable and curled up. The kitchen was quiet except for the noise of their spoons.

"Something on your mind this morning?"

"Need to do a little thinking is all," Scott replied.

"Anything that I can help with?" Mr. Piotrowski was concerned.

"I need to work through a few things."

'Hmmm.'

Mr. Piotrowski stood and put his bowl in the sink.

"You know when I was about your age I used to do a lot of camping. There's a lot to be said for camping out under the stars. You ever been?"

Scott looked up, "Once," he replied. "The first year I was at the ranch. It rained and it was pretty miserable. Mostly because Mr. Rewcastle didn't know what he was doing."

"You could hike out to an old creek bed that runs behind this place. I always thought the ridge above it would be a good camping spot," Mr. Piotrowski offered.

"By myself?"

"Sure, it's the best thing if you have a lot of thinking to do."

"When could I do it?"

"Why not do it this Saturday after your shift at Mendoza's? You could leave from here and hike back sometime Sunday morning. I've been thinking about the catfish I had up in Imperial. Thought we might drive up there for Sunday lunch. How's that sound to you?"

"Do I need to get permission from the land owner?"

"That property behind me belongs to a holding company out of Nebraska. They won't mind. They've sent me a couple of letters recently asking if I wanted to buy them out."

"Nebraska?"

"It's changed hands a bunch of times. People buy things like that for investments. It was probably bundled in with some other properties. I doubt the last couple of owners have ever stepped foot in Pecos County."

"I'll have to look for the tent at the ranch. I don't know if we even have it anymore."

"Tell you what. While you're school today I'll dig up a few things. Are you up for it?"

"Yes, I think I'd like to give it a try."

"Excellent."

Scott threw everything that had been damaged by the bullet into a dumpster at the school. He didn't need the notebooks, and he didn't want to mess around with 'fixing' anything. He went through his classes on autopilot. At lunch he ate his salad oblivious to those around him.

"What's wrong with him?" Molly asked Eddie.

"He's okay. This is one of his quiet moods. He does that sometimes. Watch this," Eddie punched Scott on the arm.

"What?"

"Scott, what are you doing?"

"Thinking," he went back to his salad.

"See, what did I tell you?" Eddie asked.

"That's weird," said Molly.

Scott ignored them.

After biology class Scott borrowed a couple of Petri dishes and placed them in his backpack. "Bring them back when you're finished with them," his teacher insisted. She didn't care what he wanted them for.

Coach Zell wanted the cross country team in the weight room. They did circuit training. Scott normally enjoyed the weight room because he got to use equipment he didn't have at Mr. Piotrowski's. With only five people on the team you didn't have to wait long to move on to another exercise. Coach Zell announced that they were going to finish the day by running the bleachers. It was tough way to close out the training session and everybody groaned. Scott threw himself into the task and ran the bleacher stairs with a vengeance. He was covered in sweat, but his body felt good. Maybe that's what he needed to do, work himself to exhaustion.

Scott stood under the shower and his thoughts turned inward again. Less than twenty-four hours earlier he had been dying, face down in the dirt. He'd just finished lifting weights and running the bleachers of the football stadium like he was in the best shape of his life. I really am a freak.

He left the gym and rode the bus back to Meritt's Corner in blissful silence.

Mr. Piotrowski was outside and had the tail gate down on the truck when Scott biked up. He called him over. "I got a heck of a deal on this stuff."

"I thought you were going to look around for some old camping gear?"

"And I did, I found a good bargain."

"I mean here at the house."

"Never mind about that," Mr. Piotrowski said. He was excited to show Scott all the camping supplies he'd purchased.

He showed him how the mess kit fit together. Scott examined the rigid frame backpack, and the two man pup tent with interest. They laid all the items out and went over them. Mr. Piotrowski explained that he needed to know how use it all, and be able to repack everything. That way he could concentrate on camping, and not be worried about his equipment. It made sense.

"Let's try it out here in the back. Set it all up like you would at your camp site."

Scott assembled the tent with Mr. Piotrowski standing back and giving advice. The tent had fiberglass poles and went up pretty easily.

"You need to stake it down. You don't want to be chasing your tent when the wind kicks up."

Scott was trying to pound the stakes in with his boots when Mr. Piotrowski handed him a small hatchet.

"Use the head of this to drive those stakes in. With that synthetic handle it weighs less than two pounds. We'll have to weigh all this equipment to see what kind of load you'll have."

Jobe tested out the tent while Scott built a pit and tried to start a fire with a magnesium fire starter.

"That's for emergencies. Use one of these 'strike anywhere' matches instead. Or maybe I should get you a lighter?" Mr. Piotrowski was rubbing his chin. He had the 'I need to go shopping' look on his face.

After trying everything out and listening to some of Mr. Piotrowski's stories, they tore the campsite down. They repacked it all, and weighed it on the bathroom scale. The tent, mess kit, hatchet, medical kit, and sleeping bag came in at eleven pounds. The rest of the weight would be food and water. Since he was just going for one night and not that far, he didn't need much.

Mr. Piotrowski helped him pack the camping pack and had him try it on.

"Even if you're only going to be hiking for a few miles you want to be comfortable. Jump up and down a few times. There you go. That will help settle everything in. How does it feel?"

"It's good. I like it."

"Let's go sit in the kitchen. I've got an old survey map that shows this area. I'll point out where I think you ought to camp out."

Mr. Piotrowski spread the map out and explained the legend and scale to him, and where he thought there might be a good camping site. "These contour lines show changes in elevation. See how the lines get tight right here? That's a steep change. It means you'd be climbing instead of walking. Look at this map and try to picture the route you'll be taking. Here's a flat area, and here's a high point. Can you see how this would form a hill? If you can make a picture in your mind with this information it will be a lot easier for you."

If you only knew, he thought. Scott slowly ran his finger from the location of the house and traced a route to the camping site.

"That's not bad. Find another one now. You always want to have a couple of options."

They sat and examined the map for a while.

Scott had an idea, "I'll be right back."

He ran upstairs, retrieved the laptop, and brought it down to the kitchen. He pulled up a map of the area and flipped over to the satellite view. Mr. Piotrowski watched over his shoulder.

"That's incredible. Look at the house, and there's the old sedan."

Scott compared the survey map with the satellite pictures, and easily found the area Mr. Piotrowski had talked about.

"I've got a very nice manual on land navigation that I want you to study. You feel up to a game?" Mr. Piotrowski asked.

Scott spent the next hour learning how to use a compass and shoot bearings. Mr. Piotrowski had a big poncho he threw over Scott's head. He'd spin him around, and tell him to find a cardinal point on the compass. Jobe thought it was all great fun.

He tripped the first time a map and grid system popped up in his field of vision. It was like a better version of the truck's navigation system, and it didn't interfere with what he was seeing. He wasn't doing it consciously, or at least he didn't think he was. He closed his eyes and in the blackness of his mind's eye he brought the map grid up again. Turning slowly in a circle he watched the compass heading change. He stopped and opened his eyes. He checked his head against the compass in his hand. The two matched. He dismissed the map overlay from his mind.

"Think you've got the hang of it?" asked Mr. Piotrowski.

"I think I've got a good start anyway."

"Outstanding. I'll give you those manuals. I think you should get a good night's sleep."

Scott went back to the ranch. He found the foreman, and told him that he would be away Sunday morning. He volunteered to do extra chores to make up for it.

"You know you really don't need to do these chores. I've got extra hands now. The Rewcastles assign those chores to keep the kids busy. I'd say you stay busy enough as it is."

"I don't know what to say," Scott replied. He was a bit shocked. Not do chores?

The foreman went on, "Luisa told me about old lady Rewcastle's scheming, and what you said. I'd take it as a personal favor if you let me handle the chores from now on. I've got a new guy on my crew, and extra work isn't going to harm him any. I'll still write chores down on your board like always. You can ignore them. If I ever need your help for something I'll come find you."

Scott stuck out his hand.

The foreman shook his hand and gave him a thump on the shoulder, "You're a good guy."

Scott went to his room. He had so many things to think about, he felt overwhelmed. The camping trip was exactly the kind of thing he needed. He owed Mr. Piotrowski more than he could ever imagine. How did he always know the right thing to do? Scott envied him.

The next morning he was halfway to the barn before he remembered that he didn't have any chores to do. What was he going to do with all the extra time?

Back in his room he put his desk chair against the door handle. He rarely ever had visitors, but now would be a bad time. He took the two Petri dishes from his backpack, and got the fancy watch from the lockbox. He set out a paper towel, and removed the lid from one dish. He tested the blade of the pocket knife he'd recently sharpened, and cut into the heel of his hand. The bottom of the dish filled with blood. He started the timer on the watch and put the cover back on the dish. He used the paper towel to wipe the blood from his hand as he watched the cut close.

After two minutes the blood began to solidify and break down into powder. Over the next few minutes the powder broke down even further until only watery condensation remained. He stopped the watch. It has taken a little over five minutes. Scott reached to take the lid off of the dish, but pulled his hand back in surprise. The glass dish was very warm, almost hot.

This was going to be a huge problem at his next physical. There'd never been any indication of this happening before. What the hell am I going to do? He looked at the paper towel. It was still soaked in blood. Interesting.

This time he repeated the experiment with both dishes. With one dish he concentrated and thought, blood sample, but the other dish he left alone.

After five minutes he had one dish of sticky blood while the other was filled with hot vapor. He stored the Petri dishes in his closet. The boys were starting to move around in the other bunkhouses and he went to join them for breakfast.

He rode past Mr. Piotrowski's place on his way to the engine center at Meritt's Corner. He waved to Jobe when he saw him sitting in the driveway. Scott kept his head down and worked straight through lunch. His coworkers were respectful of his mood. A little after 3:30 p.m. he arrived back at Mr. Piotrowski's.

Scott checked his pack. He added four bottles of water, and a couple of packets of freeze dried food. Mr. Piotrowski tossed him a miniature bottle of Tabasco sauce.

"Freeze dried eggs can be pretty bland. A dash or two of that Tabasco will cure most anything." He handed him a baggie of dog food and a collapsible water dish, "I think Jobe would like to go along."

Scott shook his head and added a couple more bottles of water to his pack. He lifted it experimentally.

"Not too heavy?" Mr. Piotrowski asked.

"No, it's fine."

"I want you to promise me that you'll make camp before the sun starts to go down. Even if you haven't made it to the ridge, make camp anyway. I don't want you stumbling around in the dark."

"I promise."

"Find yourself a good walking stick. It will make the trip a little easier. Now, I got you a little present."

"Mr. Piotrowski!" Scott protested.

"Who else am I going to spoil?" he asked. Mr. Piotrowski handed him a small box. It was a Leatherman Skeletool.

Scott took it out of the box and balanced it on his hand. It only weighed about five ounces. He admired the blade, and then folded the handle out into a pair of pliers. The multitool could come in very handy.

"Notice that carabiner clip. You can attach it to your pack, or hang it from a belt loop."

Scott folded the tool back into its compact shape and clipped it to a belt loop, "Thank you, it's great."

"Okay, final check," announced Mr. Piotrowski.

"Map?"

Scott patted his pocket and pulled it up a little ways to show him.

"Compass?"

Scott tugged on the cord around his neck.

"Water?"

"Six bottles," he replied and held one up.

"Food?"

He showed him one of the freeze dried packages.

"Take a little bit of beef jerky with you from the pantry. You might want to gnaw on something as you walk. Makes a good snack," Mr. Piotrowski suggested. "Almost forgot, you need a shovel."

He handed him a small, collapsible shovel.

"You're either going to have to dig a toilet, or pack it out. Personally, I'd go with the hole."

Scott tried not to laugh, "Good idea."

"You're wasting daylight. Let's get you out of here."

Mr. Piotrowski helped him put on the backpack. Scott secured the waist strap, and tugged on his shoulder straps. It felt good.

"I'll see you tomorrow morning. No later than ten o'clock."

He was off with Jobe at his side. At the boundary of Mr. Piotrowski's property he stopped and flipped the lid up on his compass. He didn't think he could get lost, but what if the map in his head stopped working, or was wrong? The one thing he couldn't miss was the road. It was as straight as an arrow. No matter where he was, he could reverse course and eventually hit the road.

The quiet of the hike relaxed him. It took a while, but eventually he found a good walking stick. Mr. Piotrowski was right again, it did make a big difference. Jobe was having a lot of fun. He'd curl off to investigate something, and then come bounding back to walk along with Scott for a while. A few more minutes and he'd be off again.

The sun was just beginning to fade when Scott found a campsite he liked. He was on the ridge overlooking the ancient creek bed. This must have been a nice area back when it had water, he thought.

He had the tent assembled, and the flaps pulled back. He put out some food and water for Jobe, who happily crunched away. He surrounded the fire pit with rocks, and disassembled his mess kit. The beef stew mix sounded good. It wasn't bad. Next time he promised that he'd bring a plastic spork instead of the aluminum one. He didn't care for the taste it left in his mouth.

He leaned back against a comfortable rock and relaxed. The cool water bottle felt good when he held it to the side of his head. He took a deep drink. Jobe flopped down inside the tent with his head sticking out the flap.

He let his mind drift back to the events of the previous night. Men had tried to kill him twice in nine years, almost exactly nine years apart. Was his strange healing ability the only reason he had survived the first time? Was he just some random freak of nature? A genetic ability should have meant that his parents had it too. If he did survive because he could heal ... why couldn't he remember? Shouldn't his brain have healed too? What about the strange dreams he had? He didn't come up with any answers.

His actions in the early morning hours of Friday morning hadn't been exactly rational. Craig Carson had murdered Scott's family, and thought he had gotten away with it. When Carson learned Scott had survived, he killed other people attempting to locate him and finish the job. Had they ever captured Carson? Was he another killer out there waiting to take his shot?

What about the two men at the rock face? He'd left living enemies behind him, but then again they thought they'd killed him. Who did they blame for their current situation? The two men could still free themselves if they were willing to sacrifice a limb. They were miles from civilization, and injured. There was a slim chance. If not, would they leave a final note? What did they think had happened to them?

Was he evil for making them suffer? If he had just killed them outright was it any different? He couldn't reconcile the conflict in his head.

He got angry, to hell with them - they got what they deserved!

The fire had burned out. Scott looked up and gasped. The sky was amazing. He stretched out and put his hands behind his head and took in the stars. Jobe left the tent to lie next to him with his head on Scott's chest. The stars stretched from horizon to horizon. The Milky Way was center place in the night sky, displayed in all her glory. There was no light pollution out here in the county. He couldn't believe that city folks couldn't walk outside and see this. What had they traded for missing out on this view? Was it worth it?

He watched the slow trail of a satellite moving in orbit. A grid popped up in his vision detailing orbits and other obscure bits of information on the visible stellar phenomena. Go away! I want to look. I don't need to understand it. The overlaid image faded away.

Jobe sighed.

Scott scratched his ears. They looked at the stars together. After a couple of hours he got up and climbed into his sleeping bag. He zipped the tent flap shut and told Jobe to get comfortable. He hadn't solved any great moral dilemmas. He could live with what he had done and who he was, whatever he was.

At his normal wake up time he sat up, looked around, and then rolled back over. Eventually he got up when it was too bright to sleep any longer. His watch said it was after seven, he'd never slept so late before.

Jobe was eager to get out of the tent and do his morning rounds. The October morning air was crisp. The condensation from their breath hung in the air. It had been cozy in the sleeping bag.

Scott got the fire going again and read the directions for the scrambled 'eggs' in the packet. The picture looked good, but reality was a little different. The reconstituted eggs had a different texture than he was used to. He liberally applied the Tabasco sauce.

Jobe crunched away at his breakfast.

A golden eagle was scouting over the area. It was hunting for an early morning meal. Scott watched it for a while and wished it a good breakfast. The tent came down quickly and he repacked it. The mess kit cleaned up with a little water. He used the shovel to pack sand over the old fire pit. They left no trash behind.

Jobe and Scott walked down to the old creek bed. There were a few agates here. Maybe he'd collect some on his next trip. The area around Alpine to their south was supposed to be the big place for rock hounds. Scott brushed some gravel aside, and an object caught his eye. He'd found an arrow head. Delighted, he picked it up. He dug out a water bottle and rinsed off the flint. It was a beautiful pinkish brown color. The base curved in and tapered away from the widest point of the shoulders. He showed it to Jobe who was disappointed that it wasn't something to eat.

This object could be ancient. Maybe three thousand years ago, or even more, a boy like him might have knapped this point out. He held it up to the sun. The thin edges of the flint glowed with light. He tucked it into his pocket.

"Come on Jobe, let's go home."

When they got within site of the house, Jobe took off like a shot. Scott called after him, "I'm not running." Jobe stopped and looked back at him. He took off running again. Scott picked his pace up.

Mr. Piotrowski came out of the house with Jobe at his heels.

"I think he missed his nice warm bed," Scott shouted as he passed the storage building.

"Good night?" asked Mr. Piotrowski.

"It was great! But I'm not so sure about freeze dried eggs."

"They are an acquired taste. If you took a small cooler you could have fresh eggs and meat."

"Maybe next time. Look what I found," Scott excitedly showed Mr. Piotrowski the arrow head.

"Well how about that. Nice find. It wasn't part of a large site or anything was it?" he asked, concerned.

Scott thought about it, 'I don't think so. It was down in the old creek bed."

"That's good. If you ever find any sort of burial site, or anything like it, you should let the right people know. They'll send somebody from the state to examine the site. Theft of artifacts is serious business."

"I won't get in trouble for this, will I?"

"Not for one arrow head. It's a good find like I said. Keep it. Now, unpack your gear. You need to air out your sleeping bag, and wash your mess kit."

"I washed it out this morning."

"You need to really clean it with soap and hot water."

"Yes, sir. Where should I store this stuff when I'm done?"

"Why don't you put it in the closet of the bedroom by the stairs?"

Good. That meant that Mr. Piotrowski had finally moved back into the master bedroom. It was about time. The bed in there would be more comfortable for him.

They had lunch in Imperial. Scott ordered the catfish along with Mr. Piotrowski. He wasn't sure how he felt about collard greens. He liked spicy food, but the greens had a lot of garlic in them and the ham bits were salty. It was an interesting combination.

Scott checked the Petri dish when he got back to the ranch. The blood had dried out, but it was still blood. He thought about the dish for a while. He looked at it and said, "Stop being blood." He walked out of his room and took a shower. When he returned, all that remained in the dish was condensation. He wiped the dishes out with a paper towel and put them back in his school backpack.

The week passed without incident. Scott slowly regained his equilibrium, but still felt a little lost not having any chores to do. He checked the local newspaper's web site daily. There was no mention of anything odd happening out in the county.

On Tuesday, November 6, 2006, Sheriff Walter King was reelected. There was never any doubt. There had been little change in the county political standings. Scott and Mr. Piotrowski were invited to a big celebratory party for the sheriff held at Judge Upcott's house.

The libations were flowing freely. He got several pats on the head from very happy party goers. Bea Upcott crushed him in a hug that buried his face in her impressive cleavage. Scott was bright red when she was finished with him. The judge laughed. The party people were in high spirits.

Scott and Mr. Piotrowski congratulated the sheriff. The sheriff was a little more circumspect. He put an arm around Scott's shoulder.

"It's young men like this that are the future of Pecos County," he announced.

"Hear, hear!" echoed the judge.

If they only knew.

They didn't stay for the entire party, just long enough to be polite and to congratulate the guest of honor. On the drive back to the house Mr. Piotrowski asked him what he thought about his first exposure to county politics.

"I don't know about the political part, but the party seemed fun. I don't know any of the politicians. Everybody was in a good mood. The sheriff is a good man, and will do a good job for the county."

"Scott, the judge and the sheriff are both elected. Trust me, they're politicians. They're good men, and that makes all the difference in the world. Men like Sheriff King and Judge Upcott serve because they think it's their duty to their fellow citizens. Be careful of the other kind."

It was a short school week since they had Friday off for Veterans Day observances. Fort Stockton had a yearly parade. Mr. Piotrowski was going to ride on a float with a handful of other Korean War veterans. He asked if Scott wanted to help out with the parade.

"Sure, what do I have to do?"

Friday morning in downtown Fort Stockton was a fun place to be as the parade participants assembled. Scott and another boy were going to carry a long banner that read "Korean War Veterans" in front of the float with Mr. Piotrowski and a handful of other veterans. It was a small town float. That meant a flatbed trailer pulled by a small tractor. The flatbed was lined with bales of hay festooned with American flags. The float was augmented with a few girls who had been county fair beauty pageant contestants. It was an odd mix. The elderly veterans had chairs to sit in. They waved vigorously to the crowd that lined the downtown parade route.

Scott saw a lot of people he knew from school. It was odd being in town like that, out of school but still knowing many people. He'd met more people this year than he had in the previous eight years of living in Pecos County. What would it be like to live in a big city like Dallas or Houston where you wouldn't know anybody?

After the parade there was a big party at the VFW, and it was open to the public. There was a band playing on a stage, and in the parking lot a small fair was in full swing. There were booths selling all sorts of knick knacks, or you could play carnival games. They even had a few rides.

Out in back of the building the VFW had a target range set up. For a dollar you could take ten shots with a .22 rifle at ten holes cut into a big piece of plywood. They'd put new paper over the holes for each shooter, and you had twenty seconds to shoot. Best shooter of the day won a prize.

Scott got all ten in about fifteen seconds, and he didn't even cheat.

Mr. Piotrowski found him and they had a dinner of fair food. Both had a hot corndog fresh from the fryer, and a quarter piece of buttered corn on the cob liberally coated with salt. Thank goodness it was on a stick or it would have been horribly messy. It was all topped off by a big glass of spicy apple cider.

"What do you say to some funnel cake?" asked Mr. Piotrowski. "Come on, it's a fair. We can indulge ourselves."

He talked him into it. They split a plate full of warm funnel cake topped with powdered sugar. Scott was cleaning his fingers with a wet nap when he heard his name being called over a loud speaker.

"Scott MacIntyre to the side stage. Scott MacIntyre to the side stage," repeated the voice.

Mr. Piotrowski and Scott went to find out what was going on.

"There he is. Right over here young fellow," a friendly man said. The man had been one of the veterans operating the .22 target game.

The man handed him a small, gold colored plastic medal, and a certificate that proclaimed him the winner of the game. It had his name, and the date.

Scott grinned and showed it to Mr. Piotrowski.

"That's not all. Come over here so we can get a picture for the paper."

Scott stood next to the man while he handed him a soft sided rifle bag. It contained a brand new Ruger .22 Sporter rifle. The rifle had a handsome walnut stock. A flash went off, and the man shook his hand congratulating him.

Mr. Piotrowski admired the rifle, and assured him that he could keep it at the house.

Scott was stunned. He had never, ever, won anything in his life. What a prize!

At work on Saturday he told Eddie about the rifle and invited him over Mr. Piotrowski's to shoot it. Eddie asked his dad for permission. To their surprise, Mr. Mendoza took the afternoon off and drove them over to Mr. Piotrowski's.

The four of them had a great time out behind the storage building shooting the little .22. It had a ten round magazine and was wickedly accurate. The .22 was incredibly cheap to shoot. You could buy a brick of .22 ammunition from the farm supply store for around twenty dollars. A brick contained five hundred and fifty rounds of ammo.

There was only one 'no' vote on the target shooting. Jobe was not fond of the rifle's noise and stayed inside. He definitely wasn't a hunting dog.

Monday at lunch the mood was light. The redhead cowgirl, Molly, sat down with a suspicious grin on her face. She produced a special Sunday edition of the local weekly newspaper with a flourish, and handed Scott a pen.

"I require your autograph," she informed him.

"What?"

"Your autograph, on your picture," she explained to him.

Eddie and Bo crowded around. Eddie snatched the paper from Scott's hands and read aloud from the picture heading.

"Fourteen year old Scott MacIntyre, a Fort Stockton High School Freshman, had the reflexes of a panther when he shot ten for ten, winning the target rifle competition at the VFW's Veterans Day community party."

Bo teased, "We're going to have to start calling you John Wayne MacIntyre instead of Scotty Wayne."

"Nobody calls me Scotty Wayne."

Eddie piped up, "Mrs. Mathews did."

"That was in third grade!" Scott protested.

"It's true," Bo confirmed to the questioning Molly. "We had two Scotts in the class. Whatever happened to the other one?"

"I think he moved to avoid Mrs. Mathews," Scott replied.

"Duke!" Molly clapped her hands together.

Scott didn't like the way Eddie and Bo were nodding.

"Duke what?" asked Rene Keebler. Bo's girlfriend was late joining them for lunch.

"The actor, John Wayne, was called 'Duke' by his friends. Scott's middle name is 'Wayne' and he shoots like John Wayne," she pointed the article out to Rene.

"Oh goody, a nickname for Mr. Perfect," Rene joined in.

"Mr. Perfect?" repeated Eddie.

"That's what I call him. Straight 'A' grade point and he barely breaks a sweat no matter what distance we run. It's disgusting," she fake pouted. "A nickname is just the thing to bring him down a peg or two."

"Duuuuke," Eddie and Bo chorused.

Scott hoped it wouldn't catch on. The newspaper picture bothered him, but not for reasons any of his friends might suspect. There wasn't much of a chance of any wire service picking the picture up nationally. Even if they did, Scott didn't look anything like the five year old version of him had. At least he hoped not. He didn't think Craig Carson, wherever he was, was scouring obscure West Texas papers.

On Wednesday Scott was surprised to be called to the front office over the school's intercom system. The students in his sixth period Biology class all turned to look at him. What trouble had he gotten into they wondered. Scott shrugged and gathered his books. He asked his teacher what the homework assignment was, and got the assigned reading before he headed to the office.

Scott was surprised to find Sheriff King and a city of Fort Stockton police officer waiting for him. His heart rate spiked up, and his thoughts began to race. Was the jig up?

They waved him into the principal's office.

"Scott," the sheriff started. "Did you know your photo appeared in the paper over the weekend?"

Scott felt a cold chill move up his spine, and he broke out into a sweat. He turned pale and looked for a seat.

The sheriff was slow on the uptake. "Shit!" he exclaimed. Over their protests, the sheriff made the principal and the city police officer leave the office immediately. He told them to bring him back a soda or glass of water.

"I'm sorry, Scott. That was just stupid on my part. I didn't even think. It's nothing from before. There's a problem, but it's here in Pecos County."

Scott looked up. His stomach felt like it had tied itself in knots, "I don't understand?"

There was a knock on the door. The sheriff opened it, and was handed a cold soda. He popped the top and gave it to Scott.

"Drink, you need the sugar."

Scott took a deep drink, and tried to figure out what sort of problem his picture in the local paper meant here in Pecos County. The two murderers out at the rock face already knew who it was they had tried to kill. Could it be the third man from the bar?

"Are you okay?"

"I'm alright." He wiped the sweat from his face.

"Okay, I'm going to bring the other two back in."

Scott took deep breaths, and tried to get his heart rate back under control. If this had been an interrogation room, he had just failed. He heard the sheriff tell a very convincing lie.

"You know he lives at Broken Creek. Police officers delivered some terribly devastating news to him once. I think he must have had some sort of flash back. We'll go in and pretend that nothing happened. This is going to be difficult enough for him."

The principal sat behind his desk, and the police officer stood next to the sheriff. He might have been mistaken, but he thought he saw a hint of sympathy in the principal's eyes.

"Scott. The local newspaper received a death threat against you on Tuesday. It came from the county jail. The person who sent it was Nazario Guzman. Now we know that you two had a confrontation in mid-October. Have you been threatened by anyone since then?" the sheriff asked.

Scott cleared his throat, "Nazario Guzman, that was just something stupid about the girl I took to the homecoming dance."

The police officer asked, "Were you love rivals? Did you move in on his girl or something?"

The sheriff looked up at the ceiling and shook his head slightly.

Scott stared at the officer. Was he for real? "Nothing like that. My date was Lilly Mendoza, she's an eighth grader. I don't think she had even heard of Guzman until after the dance. It was a first date, ever, for both of us. Guzman was mouthing off about some kind of bullshit race purity thing."

The school principal looked at him sharply.

"Sorry, Principal Reynolds," Scott apologized for the profanity.

"I think we can let it pass this time," he replied.

"You've not heard from him at all. He hasn't written or anything?" asked the sheriff.

"Not a thing."

"The threat against you is very specific, and disturbing," the sheriff checked a piece of paper from his pocket. "He writes that you're already supposed to be dead, and that he's going to make sure of it this time."

"That's appalling," stated the principal.

"What we're going to do is have a reserve police officer stationed here at the school for the immediate future. At least until we can determine how serious the threat is," the city police officer stated.

"Okay. Principal Reynolds, thank you for your time. I'm going to take Scott out of school for the remainder of the day. There are some people we need to stop and see," the sheriff said motioning for Scott to stand up.

"Sheriff, would you mind if I had a minute with Mr. MacIntyre?" asked the principal.

The sheriff looked at Scott, who gave him a small shrug.

"Of course, we'll be waiting outside."

Scott sat back down. The principal leaned over his desk, "We might not have gotten started off on the best foot. Mr. MacIntyre, I want you to know that I take the safety of the students here very seriously. If you have any problems, or see something that concerns you please come to the office and see me. Can you do that for me?"

He believed him, "Yes, sir, thank you."

"Okay then, we'll see you in school tomorrow. Hopefully we can put this dreadful mess behind us and concentrate on that education of yours."

Scott left the office, and walked with the two officers to the parking lot. The two men shook hands, and promised to keep each other up to date. Scott climbed into the sheriff's truck.

"Are you all right, Scotty?"

"I guess so. Surprised more than anything," he answered. "Where are we going anyway?"

"I think you need a little more firepower on your side. I called the judge this morning after the newspaper called me about the letter—"

Scott interrupted, "Is it going to be in the paper?"

The sheriff shook his head, "No, it's not. The judge called them, and they agreed that because of your age they really couldn't say much anyway. Besides, they like getting letters from the nutters. They don't want people to stop sending them in. Where was I?"

"The judge," prompted Scott.

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