Improbable Fortunes, page 1
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601 West 26th Street · Suite 325 · New York · NY 10001
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey Price
Set in Minion
ePub ISBN: 978-1-941729-12-0
Publisher’s Cataloging-in-Publication data
Names: Price, Jeffrey.
Title: Improbable fortunes: a novel / Jeffrey Price.
Description: First Hardcover edition | Los Angeles [California] ; New York [New York] : Archer/Rare Bird Books, 2016.
Identifiers: ISBN 978-1-941729-08-3.
Subjects: LCSH: Cowboys—Fiction | Mining—Fiction | Colorado—Fiction | BISAC: LITERARY/Fiction.
Classification: LCC PS3616.R5261 2016 | DDC 813.6—dc23.
Adopted by the Dominguez Family
The Svendergards’ Inhibitions
Learning the Ropes at the Boyles’
The Stumplehorst Outfit
Ground Zero: The Puster Auction
Eighteen Licks and One for Good Luck
The Big Dog
Hell to Pay
The Lightning Strike
The Past Has a Half-Life
One Last Ride
Back to the Morning Of
The Defense Rests
Cha-pol-loc, the Ute
Till We Meet Again
By morning, several theories would circulate Vanadium as to why their town had been destroyed. Vanadium’s First Church of Thessalonians would put forth the notion that the Almighty had finally gotten around to clearing off His cluttered desk only to discover a stack of neglected outrages, perpetrated in these environs, so great as to demand His immediate retribution. Some of the standouts were the Spanish Conquistadors’ introduction of Vanadium’s first native inhabitants to slavery, small pox, and syphilis; the Mormons’ massacre of the Utes; the range wars of the 1870s; the many murders over water, women, and the receipt for the uranium mined—not two miles from Vanadium’s Main Street, that was expedited to Japan via the Enola Gay. The pagans in town believed their misfortune was caused by the Curse of the Utes—a hex put upon this land by shamans and trotted out whenever anything went wrong. But in the cold light of day, when everyone had settled down, they would come to the consensus that what had befallen them was simply because Marvin Mallomar, one of the richest men in the United States, had moved there from New York City and formed an unlikely friendship with a dim-witted local cowboy by the name of Buster McCaffrey.
It had been raining for seven days straight, and on this auspicious night, most of Vanadium’s regulars would decide to “drink in” rather than venture into the wet. It was now 1:30. The neon light of the High Grade Bar switched off. The Busy Bees, the area’s anarchistic motorcycle gang and Lame Horse County’s largest manufacturers of methamphetamine, saddled up their Harleys and pulled out of the parking lot. Although business this evening was slow, the Busy Bees were up 9.5 percent for the second quarter. Their success was no accident, for Cookie Dominguez, the gang’s leader, had modeled his sales and distribution system on an organization he much admired, that being the Mary Kay Cosmetics Company.
Here they came now, grim-faced and rain-slickered, throttling down Main Street heading back to their secure compound twenty miles to the west, giving the town one last defiant crankpin exhaust blast as they passed the town’s proudly misspelled welcome sign suggesting that everyone: “Quit Your Damn Bellyachin’ Your in Vanadium.” As the Geiger Motel sign, with its neon Geiger counter needle that twitched from “vacancy” to “radioactive” shut off, the town was officially closed.
Two bug-encrusted sodium lights illuminating Main Street’s convexly-graded stretch of black asphalt created the image of the back of a giant sperm whale skimming krill near the surface. Water, from gutters and downspouts, poured down both sides of the whale’s spine—flushing its skin clean of cigarette butts, candy wrappers, dead cats, flattened blue jays, snuff spittle, and horse manure. This sluice was then hurried into Vanadium’s storm drains and sent westerly into the San Miguel River. There, it descended two thousand feet into the valley where it took the Dolores’ hand in muddy matrimony and poured through the slickrock canyons of Escalante—rolling like a marble along the linoleum floor of the Great Basin through Utah, Arizona, and Nevada, and out kitchen faucets where Vanadium’s fulsome appellation was unwittingly quaffed by people in Los Angeles. At least, that’s how people in Vanadium liked to think of it. Vanadians were, by way of geography and the fact that most of them were direct descendants of Butch Cassidy’s Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, a naturally xenophobic and suspicious lot. This original outlaw breeding stock was attracted to the canyon in the 1890s for its remoteness and defensibility. Vanadium was miles from the railroad, the transportation of choice for Pinkerton agents—who were, by and large, city boys out of their depth chasing bandits in the backcountry on horseback. If Pinkertons, or any other kind of lawmen, were foolish enough to attempt a sortie on Vanadium, they would find themselves riding the gauntlet of its one steep road into town. The slow-climbing pace the incline demanded offered countless opportunities for boulders to be pushed from above and the children of outlaws to hone their marksmanship skills on live targets. The reputation of Vanadium as a dangerous and hard-to-get-to place stuck. For those living outside the law, Vanadium became the perfect place to raise a family—especially if the breadwinner was away most of the year robbing banks in the neighboring states or stealing cattle across the border in Old Mexico.
Generation after generation had struggled to live on this land—parts of it, beautiful. One might say this community existed much like its native bristlecone pine, which during long periods of drought, allowed itself to mostly die in order to keep alive a small, tiny ember of life until better circumstances presented themselves. For Vanadium and greater Lame Horse County, desiccated and exhausted from years of poor land management and cattle ranching, toxic from reckless mineral mining, that life-saving ember came to them in the form of the atomic bomb. Uranium was everywhere in the hills surrounding Vanadium, and the US government along with its proxy, the Atomic Mines Corporation, wanted as much of it as they could get. And so began Vanadium’s “go-go” years starting with the US Atomic Energy Act of 1946. One need only visit the town’s salvage yard to identify Vanadium’s outlandish prosperity in those years: impractical DeSotos, Cadillac Eldorados, Studebaker Hawks, Buick “Deuce-and-a-Quarters,” stacked one atop each other. And these were only the ones that escaped the bank. Old timers would say it was the one-two punch of the 1982 S
The mud-filled clocks, retrieved in the aftermath of the flood, were in general agreement that it was 2:34 when all hell broke loose. It started with an explosion above the town, muffled by the rain and lightning. A few moments later, there was the horrible sound of trees cracking and boulders thundering as a giant wave of red mud and rocks came crashing down Piñon Street, taking a hard left onto Main. The lava went in and out of escrow at the town’s newly installed Vanadium Premier Properties—smashing its contrived western storefront. It flattened Nature’s Grains Whole Foods, which, until Mallomar came here, had been the Feed and Saddle Shop. It pushed his Einstein’s News and Books off its slab and sent it hydroplaning westerly down the street toward Utah—where some of Professor Einstein’s ideas were first tested underground. It pushed the meat freezers from Lugar’s Prime Meats out the front of the store and sent them careening through Boho Coffee and Poet’s Corner—which used to be El Cid’s Guns before Mallomar arrived—scouring all the books containing the answers to how the planet might be saved, while grabbing hundreds of pounds of gourmet roasted coffee beans, kneading and folding them into the moving brown meringue that already contained similar-looking deer and elk feces. All of Main Street was suddenly moving. A parked car, obediently waiting for its owner to consummate his assignation at the Geiger Motel, was carried away. A dead horse, with its legs up in the air, was swept past the Rodeo Arena—where perhaps it had seen better days. And then a man came moving by. Fighting the muddy undertow, he held an arm up in the air as if calling for help from a lifeguard on a beach in the Hamptons. Then, he too, was gone.
The Vanadium Volunteer Fire Department had been the First Responders. Most of the men were either drunk or hungover when they climbed aboard the two old fire engines that sallied forth into town. By the time Sheriff Shep Dudival showed up, the wheels of social order were already coming off. There was much shouting, obscenity tossing, and blaming. The sheriff stood tight-lipped as he witnessed two volunteer firemen fighting over a five-thousand-dollar Rancilio Epoca Italian espresso maker that they had salvaged from the mud. It was the sheriff’s experience that men often became unglued in the face of an overwhelming task. The cleanup would certainly qualify as that. Authority needed to be established quickly. He let the men see him as he walked to the edge of the mud field and lit a generic cigarette. He wanted to provide the two looters an opportunity to relinquish the espresso maker and regain their self-respect.
Down Main Street, the sheriff could see the hooves of the dead, upside-down horse heading west toward Egnar. A pickup truck was stopping for a naked hitchhiker covered with mud. Lucky sonofabitch, the sheriff mused to himself, some drunk that just missed being swept away. He turned his attention back to the looting firemen who, disappointingly, were not deterred by his presence. They were still squabbling over the booty. The sheriff walked calmly to the first man and kneed him in the vastus lateralis—the “Charlie Horse” muscle as it’s called in schoolyards. He slapped the other man in the Adam’s apple. Both men doubled over in pain and quickly relinquished the espresso machine—letting it drop into the arms of the moving mud. There was some muttering under breath, but nobody had the guts to take it further.
Despite Main Street being a complete disaster, there would be no help from FEMA. There would be no help from the governor in the form of road crews, nor the National Guard, or building loans. There would be no speeches from the president about how all our thoughts and prayers were with the people of Vanadium. The shuttering of Vanadium’s once strategic industry, the Atomic Mine, had reduced them to the invisible status of any small western town with a population of three hundred and sixty-seven. But then, Vanadians would never want the damn government, anyway.
The sheriff would probably be calling the high school principal later in the morning asking if he needed any dirt for the new ball field. The larger ranchers could be called upon for heavy equipment. Vanadium could supply the dump trucks. A full day—maybe two—and the road would be open to traffic. But where exactly had the mud come from? That was the plate of beans in front of the sheriff now. As he peered through the rain, he coolly reverse-engineered the mud’s path. His eyes tracked up Main Street to Piñon to the top of Lame Horse Mesa. He thought for a moment, then flipped his cigarette into the mud. Some men had just arrived with a Caterpillar D9. “Hey, can you fellas get me up to the Mallomar place?”
It was dawn by the time they cleared the road well enough for a rescue team to get to Mallomar’s Big Dog Ranch. The rain, at this higher elevation, was coming down as stinging cornsnow. The sheriff let it gather on his eyebrows as he squinted at the jumble of aged Montana logs, glass, steel, and broken furniture that had once been the forty-thousand-square-foot residence of Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Mallomar. It was just last April that it had been on the cover of Architectural Digest. Mallomar’s French architect boasted that there were more steel I-beams used in the construction of this house than the new American Embassy that he had recently completed in Dubai. And yet, the mud had gone through the reinforced Adirondack/Frank Lloyd Wright-style edifice as easily as a black bear going through a screen door. The once magnificent lodge now looked ridiculous—its massive Corten roof having accordioned down on itself like a clown’s top hat.
One hundred yards away, a late model Audi Q7 and a black Mercedes AMG could be seen standing nose down in the mud, their rear ends sticking up in the air like ducks feeding on a pond. When the sheriff ran the plates, he came up with what he already knew. The cars belonged to Dana and Marvin Mallomar. Mallomar was often out of town on business. When he was, Dana, his young and beautiful wife, was left at the ranch with the twenty-one-year-old foreman, Buster McCaffrey. There had been rumors in town about their relationship, but gossip held no interest for the sheriff unless it helped him solve a crime. Right now, he was hoping no one had been at home when this happened. An ambulance was ordered anyway. Sheriff Dudival hiked up the hill following the mudslide. On a flat bench above the house was an emptied reservoir. Everyone in town had made fun of Buster McCaffrey for bringing a douser to the property to find water to fill a reservoir above the house, but dammit if he hadn’t done it. Unfortunately, for some reason, the levee had failed and let loose twenty acres of water on the residence and the town below. Several hours later, with the help of two bulldozers and a Bobcat, they uncovered the wrought iron front door. It was pinched shut from the weight bearing on it. Four men put their shoulders to it, but it wouldn’t budge. A bulldozer was suggested, but they didn’t want to do any more violence to the house for fear of further cave in. One of the men eagerly suggested using his acetylene torch that he had brought with him in the back of his truck. Another man suggested placing hydraulic jacks on either side of the door to take the pressure off the jams. The sheriff considered both ideas and went with the hydraulic jacks. This caused the acetylene torch man to throw his shovel and stomp off in a fit of pique. People in this part of the country typically carried odd things in the backs of their trucks for years in the hope of one day using them in a heroic and manly fashion. So, one can only understand the man’s frustration, being so close to finally using his equipment—only to be edged out at the finish line.
The jacks were installed and everyone eagerly gathered around the door for the big question: were there any dead people inside? The sheriff was well aware of the Volunteer Workers’ Dark Little Secret: in exchange for having to get up in the middle of the night to ride on the back of the fire engine or drive the Emergency Medical Technician Ambulance two hours to Grand Junction, they got to witness only what doctors, police, and priests were allowed to see. The Burned Beyond Recognition, The Head That Went Through the Windshield and Rolled a Hundred Yards Down the Road, The Blue Teenagers’ Bodies Pulled From the Frozen Pond, and The Surprised Expressi
The sheriff nodded to one of the two young men standing by the door to go ahead and open it. Cautiously, he turned the handle. The door swung open surprisingly easy. So far, so good. Then suddenly a three-year-old Galloway steer, wide-eyed with fear, mucous blowing from its nostrils, came charging through the doorway, trampling the men.
And again, another “Shit!”
After the initial astonishment had passed, the men, of course, said “shit” and “goddammit” a few more times then laughed to relieve the tension and embarrassment of being frightened in front of one another. Finally recomposed, they turned on their Petzl headlamps and tentatively entered the breech once more. No sooner did they take their first step into the darkened shaft that another steer bolted out at them. And then another, and another, until forty-nine by the sheriff’s count had blasted past them—shitting themselves with fear.
There’s a detail for the journal, the sheriff thought to himself.
Now, no one seemed quite so eager to go back into the house. Who wanted to risk having their ribs broken by a six-hundred-pound animal trapped in the dark? There was a metallic clanking of Zippos as they lit up cigarettes to mull this over. Suddenly there was a voice behind them.
Everyone slowly turned to see a tall, skinny cowboy squinting into the daylight from the doorway. The buckle of his belt was missing, and his pants were half undone. In his arms was a semi-conscious woman in her thirties, raven-haired and as beautiful as a movie star.
“Well, goddamn…it’s Buster.”