1st Place – October 2020

Last Tango in Gunnison

By Gary Christenson

Snow fell in the Colorado mountains. Cold and darkness blanketed the land. My anesthetized heart struggled against the darkness warping my soul.
***
The clock ticked midnight as I sucked down my last glass of wine. Yeah, Sam, you unforgiving, rigid, heartless bastard, you’re drunk. Two tours in Afghanistan, screaming nightmares, PTSD, a sister brutally raped and murdered by her asshole boyfriend, and corrupt cops who did nothing. The only answer is booze. Yeah, I’m drunk.
Two days and two hangovers later, I was certain that Kathy’s killer, one Lawrence Lambert, needed to die. Killing him would balance the scales of justice and correct what the cops hadn’t finished.
First, research your target. Then pick the killing field. Observe him. Plan the execution. Feel cold and lethal. Squeeze the trigger. Escape. Pretend to be normal.
Kathy, I’ll fix this. Your tortured spirit can depend upon me.
That night I drank beer while my brother James and I roamed the Gunnison taverns looking for Lambert, observing him, and learning his rhythms. We followed him home, and watched him walk from his pickup to his tiny cabin. The night made it impossible to locate a shooter’s nest, but I’d find one. James drove me home. I hadn’t told him my plans, and he didn’t ask.
***
A week later, I knew Lambert’s daily patterns. He fed two dogs in his backyard between 5:30 and 6:00 every night. A light illuminated the spot where the dogs ate, the dance floor of our last tango.
Lambert wore a dirty brown coat, blue jeans, John Deere hat, and boots. From four hundred yards south-east of his cabin, I watched him place dog dishes on a concrete slab. He smiled as his black Dobermans attacked their food.
My laser told me his back door was 407 yards away. Winds were calm, unlikely to divert my bullet. In Afghanistan, I had fifteen confirmed kills from over 600 yards. A four-hundred-yard shot was a piece of cake, as my Marine buddies would say. This was my dance floor.
That night I raised several glasses of whisky, toasted Kathy, and promised her I’d terminate the animal who raped and killed her. He’d never know who nailed his sorry ass. My .308 head shot would shut him down like flipping a light switch. I smiled as I sipped, hoping my nightmares would not torment me.
Minutes after dawn, I walked into my backyard, measured five feet from one corner of the fence, and drew a line in the snow. From the other side, I measured five feet and marked the intersection. While shoveling the snow I uncovered the hiding place of my secret stash. I dug an elongated hole into the dirt and retrieved a sealed four-foot length of six-inch PVC pipe. I wiped off the dirt, carried it inside my little house, and unscrewed one end. My rifle was dry and safe.
That night I removed my .308 from inside layers of plastic and laid it on a large cloth. An hour later I had cleaned and oiled my instrument of retribution. I smiled, fell into bed, and slept well until I woke screaming with another nightmare.
The next day I eased into my shooter’s nest at four in the afternoon. I loaded my rifle, calmed my mind, and waited, certain that Lambert should die. A few minutes before six, Lambert emerged carrying two dog bowls. I centered the crosshairs of my scope on the spot where he always stood, breathed slowly, entered my mental sniper zone, and rested a finger on the trigger.
I waited for him to scratch his dogs behind their ears, as he always did. Then, one hundred seventy-five grains of death would streak toward his head. He wouldn’t hear the rifle report.
I increased pressure on the trigger.
Focused upon Lambert, I hadn’t heard James approach. From behind me he whispered, “Sam. Don’t do it. Don’t pull the trigger.”
I removed my finger from the trigger and asked, “What are you doing here? What do you mean, don’t do it? Lambert must die for what he did to Kathy. And how’d you know I’d be here?” Shocked out of my sniper zone, my heart pounded.
“Sam, Lambert didn’t do it. This afternoon, the cops arrested the guy who killed Kathy. Not only did he confess, but his DNA matched what they found in her post-mortem exam. You weren’t home, so I knew you would be here.”
I couldn’t speak for a long time. Lambert was the killer. “I don’t believe you.”
“Sam, I’m telling the truth. It’s all over the television news as of an hour ago, and I read it on the internet. The cops did a major PR announcement, took credit for finding the killer, and sprained a shoulder patting each other on the back. They announced the DA would seek the death penalty, and Kathy could rest in peace. The bastard killed a woman in California, but they paroled him, and he fled to Colorado. Now, put down your rifle and come home.”
I couldn’t move. My muscles were boiled spaghetti. I almost fainted. Mumbling, I said, “I know Lambert killed her. I must kill him.”
“Sam, let’s go home. I’ll help you to my pickup.”
That night every muscle ached. The mother of all headaches tormented me, and I suffered from a cough that wouldn’t quit. Death seemed like a gift. I called my mother, left a message, and fell into bed. I told her, “Mom, I need you. I’m really sick.”
***
Afghanistan ambush nightmare. Dead bodies, Taliban bombs, explosions, mortar attacks, severed limbs, and death everywhere. Ugly dreams, gushing blood, running for my life, total terror! A bullet exploded my head. Spattered brains. Cold, dead heart. Nothingness.
A radiant angel emerged from white clouds and calmed the battlefield chaos. She touched my forehead and brought me back to life. A miracle. My second chance.
***
The shining face of my angel peered down upon me as I woke. A minute later my head cleared, and the angel transformed into my mother.
“Welcome back to the land of the living. You worried us.” Her smile was tense.
“How long have I been out?” My scratchy voice sounded hoarse, disconnected from my body. “What happened?”
Mom put her hand on my forehead. “Your fever is almost gone. You were deathly ill, suffered through a healing crisis, and have been comatose for five days. It gave us quite a scare.”
A hammer banged inside my head, and every muscle protested. “What happened to me?”
“James said you received shocking news and collapsed. Do you remember calling me?”
My stomach growled. I was thirsty and hungry. “No. What did I say? I need water.” I tried to sit up and failed.
She glared at me. “Samuel, lay down. You’re too weak to move. I’ve been caring for you for days and I know. Lay back and I’ll bring you a glass.”
I can be stubborn, but she’s my mom. “Yes, Mom. Please get me water.” Something pounded inside my head. Too much anger, fear, hatred, and booze had damaged me.
She handed me a glass and tucked a pillow behind my back so I could sip. I used to be a tough Marine, and now I’m too weak to sit up and drink water. This really sucks.
***
A week later my headache had faded, and I could drag myself out of bed to eat at a table. Mom smiled, knowing I was regaining my health.
James stopped by to visit. She left the room and closed the door. “Well, Bro, you doing okay?” His frown was strained.
“I’m alive. I guess I had a huge reaction. You didn’t tell anyone what happened, did you?”
James stared at me. “Nope. It’s your secret. I know nothing except I’m happy to see you moving around and looking half-normal.”
I sighed with relief. “Thanks. Let’s forget what could have happened. Things look different today. I have plans.”
“Good. So, this sickness knocked some sense into you?”
“Yeah, thanks to a battlefield angel and nearly making a huge mistake, I’m changing everything. That angel touched my soul and brought me a new and healthier life. You understand?”
He smiled. It looked like relief. “Yeah, I get it. Congratulations.”
I nodded my head. “Thanks. I need to sleep. I’ll be zoned in a minute or two. Good to see you.”
***
Three years later, I work as a PTSD counselor with emotionally damaged vets. I’m good at it and have helped many tortured souls. My nightmares disappeared. Rex, my specially trained dog, helps me manage my PTSD. I seldom drink.
My life has meaning. I’m more alive.
Almost killing Lambert, an innocent man, shocked me awake.

Writers’ workshop and writing group