with Dan Lowry
Micky was at it again. His screams echoed up the fuselage, blended with the wind roaring past the top gunner port. The Pilot released Sparks from his radio duty long enough to send him back to take care and comfort Micky.
The day had passed slowly and they had passed it in the hangar, listening to the radios, taking turns at watch from the tower, making battle plans. Just after sundown they got into their gear and took off, waited high up in cover over the well-traveled trade lanes. Waited for prey.
Tonight they intended to go after a big convoy. Get as many kills as they could, then hit the smaller trade lanes later on, search out and destroy. With luck their craft would be covered with a horde of red kill marks before daybreak. At the thought of that, the Pilot formed the thing he used as a mouth into a smile. He was the one who painted the red slashes on the sides of their machine (war paint), and it was a joy to see them grow. It was his hope that someday they would turn the craft from black to red.
Finally the Pilot saw the convoy. He called to Sparks.
In the rear, Micky had settled down to sobs and moans, had pushed the pain in the stumps of his legs aside, tightened his will to the mission at hand.
As Sparks came forward at a stoop, he reached down and patted Ted, the turret gunner, on the flight jacket, then settled back in with the radio.
"It's going to be a good night for hunting," Sparks said to the Pilot. "I've been intercepting enemy communiqués. There must be a hundred in our operational area. There are twelve in the present enemy convoy, sir. Most of the state escorts are to the north, around the scene of last night's sortie."
The Pilot nodded, painfully formed the words that came out of his fire-gutted throat. "It'll be a good night, Sparks. I can feel it."
"Death to the enemy," Sparks said. And the words were repeated as one by the crew.
So they sat high up, on the overpass, waiting for the convoy of trucks to pass below.
"This is the Tulsa Tramp. You got the Tulsa Tramp. Have I got a copy there? Come back."
"That's a big 10-4, Tramp. You got the L.A. Flash here."
"What's your 20, L.A.?"
"East-bound and pounded down on this I-20, coming up on that 450 marker. How 'bout yourself, Tramp?"
"West-bound for Dallas town with a truckload of cakes. What's the Smokey situation? Come back?"
"Got one at the Garland exit. Big ol' bear. How's it look over your shoulder?"
"Got it clear, L.A., clear back to that Hallsville town. You got a couple County Mounties up there at the Owentown exit. Where's all the super troopers?"
"Haven't you heard, Tramp?"
"Heard what, L.A.? Come back."
"Up around I-30, that Mount Pleasant town. Didn't you know about Banana Peel?"
"Don't know Banana Peel. Come back with it."
"Black Bird got him."
"You have been out of it."
"Been up New York way for a while, just pulled down and loaded up at Birmingham, heading out to the West Coast."
"Some psycho's knocking off truckers. Banana Peel was the last one. Someone's been nailing us right and left. Banana Peel's cab was shot to pieces, just like the rest. Someone claims he saw the car that got Banana Peel. A black Thunderbird, all cut down and rigged special. Over-long looking. Truckers have got to calling it the Black Bird. There's even rumor it's a ghost. Watch out for it."
"Ghosts don't chop down and re-rig Thunderbirds. But I'll sure watch for it."
"10-4 on that. All we need is some nutcase messing with us. Business is hard enough as it is."
"A big 10-4 there. Starting to fade, catch you on the flip-flop."
"10-4. Puttin' the pedal to the metal and gone."
The Tramp, driving a white Freightliner equipped with shrunken head dangling from the cigarette lighter knob and a men's-magazine fold-out taped to the cab ceiling, popped a Ronnie Milsap tape into the deck, sang along with three songs and drowned Milsap out.
It was dead out there on the highway. Not a truck or car in sight. No stars above. Just a thick, black cloud cover with a moon hidden behind it.
Milsap wasn't cutting it. Tramp pulled out the tape and turned on the stereo, found a snappy little tune he could whistle along with. For some reason he felt like whistling, like making noise. He wondered if it had something to do with the business L.A. had told him about. The Black Bird.
Or perhaps it was just the night. Certainly it was unusual for the Interstate to be this desolate, this dead. It was as if his were the only vehicle left in the world. . . .
He saw something. It seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, had flicked beneath the orangish glow of the upcoming underpass lights. It looked like a car running fast without lights.
Tramp blinked. Had he imagined it? It had been so quick. Certainly only a madman would be crazy enough to drive that fast on the interstate without lights.
A feeling washed over him that was akin to pulling out of a dive, like when he was in 'Nam and he flew down close to the foliage to deliver flaming death, then at the last moment he would lift his chopper skyward and leave the earth behind in a burst of red-yellow flame. Then, cruising the Vietnamese skies, he could only feel relief that his hands had responded and he had not been peppered and salted all over 'Nam.
Tramp turned off the stereo and considered. A bead of sweat balled on his upper lip. Perhaps he had just seen the Black Bird.
". . . ought to be safe in a convoy this size." The words filtered out of Tramp's C.B. He had been so lost in thought, he had missed the first part of the transmission. He turned it up. The chatter was furious. It was a convoy and its members were exchanging thoughts, stories, and goodtime rattle like a bunch of kids swapping baseball cards.
The twangy, scratchy voices were suddenly very comfortable; forced memories of 'Nam back deep in his head, kept that black memory-bat from fluttering.
He thought again of what he might have seen. But now he had passed beneath the underpass and there was nothing. No car. No shape in the night. Nothing.
Imagination, he told himself. He drove on, listening to the C.B.
The bead of sweat rolled cold across his lips and down his chin.
Tramp wasn't the only one who had seen something in the shadows, something like a car without lights. Sloppy Joe, the convoy's back door, had glimpsed an odd shape in his sideview mirror, something coming out of the glare of the overpass lights, something as sleek and deadly looking as a hungry barracuda.
"Breaker 1-9, this is Sloppy Joe, your back door."
"Ah, come ahead, back door, this is Pistol Pete, your front door. Join the conversation."
"Think I might have something here. Not sure. Thought I saw something in the sideview, passing under those overpass lights."
Moment of silence.
"You say, think you saw? Come back."
"Not sure. If I did, it was running without lights."
"Smokey?" another trucker asked.
"Don't think so. . . . Now wait a minute. I see something now. A pair of dim, red lights."
"Uh oh, cop cherries," a new trucker's voice added.
"No. Not like that."
Another moment of silence.
Sloppy Joe again: "Looks a little like a truck using nothing but its running lights . . . but they're hung too far down for that . . . and they're shaped like eyes."
"Eyes?! This is Pistol Pete, come back."
"Infrared lights, Pistol Pete, that's what I'm seeing."
"Have . . . have we got the Black Bird here?"
Tramp, listening to the C.B., felt that pulling-out-of-a-dive sensation again. He started to reach for his mike, tell them he was their back door, but he clenched the wheel harder instead. No. He was going to stay clear of this. What could a lone car — if in fact it was a car — do to a convoy of big trucks anyway?
The C.B. chattered.
"This is Sloppy Joe. Those lights are moving up fast."
"The Black Bird?" asked Pistol Pete.
"Believe we got a big positive on that."
"What can he do to a convoy of trucks anyway," said another trucker.
My sentiments exactly, thought Tramp.
"Pick you off one by one," came a voice made of smoke and hot gravel.
"What, back door?"
"Not me, Pistol Pete."
"Who? Bear Britches? Slipped Disk? Merry—"
"None of them. It's me, the Black Bird."
"This is Sloppy Joe. It's the Black Bird, all right. Closing on my tail, pulling alongside—"
"I can see it now . . . running alongside . . . I can make out some slash marks—"
"Confirmed kills," said the Pilot. "If I were an artist, I'd paint little trucks."
"Back door, back door! This is Pistol Pete. Come in."
"Sloppy Joe here. . . . There's a man with a gun in the sunroof."
"Run him off the road, Sloppy Joe! Ram him!"
Tramp, his window down, cool breeze blowing against his face, heard three quick, flat snaps. Over the whine of the wind and the roar of the engine, they sounded not unlike the rifle fire he had heard over the wind and the rotor blades of his copter in 'Nam. And he thought he had seen the muzzle blast of at least one of those shots. Certainly he had seen something light up the night.
"I'm hit! Hit!" Sloppy Joe said.
"What's happening? Come back, Sloppy Joe. This is Pistol Pete. What's happening?"
"Hit . . . can't keep on the road."
Tramp saw an arc of flame fly high and wide from the dark T-bird — which looked like little more than an elongated shadow racing along the highway — and strike Sloppy Joe's truck. The fire boomed suddenly, licked the length of the truck, blossomed in the wind. A Molotov, thought Tramp.
Tramp pulled over, tried to gear down. Cold sweat popped on his face like measles, his hands shook on the wheel.
Sloppy Joe's Mack had become a quivering, red flower of flame. It whipped its tail, jackknifed and flipped, rolled like a toy truck across the concrete highway divider. When it stopped rolling, it was wrapped in fire and black smoke, had transformed from glass and metal to heat and wreckage.
The Bird moved on, slicing through the smoke, avoiding debris, blending with the night like a dark ghost.
As Tramp passed the wrecked truck he glimpsed something moving in the cab, a blackened, writhing thing that had once been human. But it moved only for an instant and was still.
Almost in a whisper came: "This is Bear Britches. I'm the back door now. Sloppy Joe's in flames. . . . Gone . . ."
Those flames, that burnt-to-a-crisp body, sent Tramp back in time, back to Davy Cluey that hot-as-hell afternoon in 'Nam. Back to when God gave Tramp his personal demon.
They had been returning from a routine support mission, staying high enough to avoid small-arms fire. Their rockets and most of their M-60 ammo were used up. The two choppers were scurrying back to base when they picked up the urgent call. The battered remains of a platoon were pinned down on a small hill off Highway One. If the stragglers didn't get a dust-off in a hurry, the Cong were going to dust them off for good.
He and Davy had turned back to aid the platoon, and soon they were twisting and turning in the air like great dragonflies performing a sky ballet. The Cong's fire buzzed around them.
Davy sat down first and the stranded Marines rushed the copter. That's when the Cong hit.
Why they hadn't waited until he too was on the ground he'd never know. Perhaps the sight of all those Marines — far too many to cram into the already heavily manned copter — was just too tempting for patience. The Cong sent a stream of liquid fire rolling lazily out of the jungle, and it had entered Davy's whirling rotors. When it hit the blades it suddenly transformed into a spinning parasol of flames.
That was his last sight of the copter and Davy. He had lifted upward and flown away. To this day, the image of that machine being showered by flames came back to him in vivid detail. Sometimes it seemed he was no longer driving on the highway, but flying in 'Nam, the rhythmic beat of the tires rolling over tar strips in the highway would pick up tempo until they became the twisting chopper blades, and soon, out beyond the windshield, the highway would fade and the cement would become the lush jungles of 'Nam.
Sometimes, the feeling was so intense he'd have to pull over until it passed.
A C.B. voice tossed 'Nam out of Tramp's head.
"This is Bear Britches. The Bird is moving in on me."
"Pistol Pete here. Get away, get away."
"He's alongside me now. Can't shake him. Something sticking out of a hole in the trunk — a rifle barrel!"
A shot could be heard clearly over the open airwaves, then the communications button was released and there was silence. Ahead of him Tramp could see the convoy and he could see the eighteen-wheeler that was its back door. The truck suddenly swerved, as if to ram the Black Bird, but Tramp saw a red burst leap from the Bird's trunk, and instantly the eighteen-wheeler was swerving back, losing control. It crossed the meridian, whipping its rear end like a crocodile's tail, plowed through a barbwire fence and smacked a row of pine trees with a sound like a thunderclap. The cab smashed up flat as a pancake. Tramp knew no one could have lived through that.
And now ahead of him, Tramp saw another Molotov flipping through the air, and in an instant, another truck was out of commission, wearing flames and flipping in a frenzy along the side of the road. Tramp's last memory of the blazing truck was its tires, burning brightly, spinning wildly around and around like little inflamed Ferris wheels.
"Closing on me," came a trucker's voice. "The sonofabitch is closing on me. Help me! God, someone help me here."
Tramp remembered a similar communication from Davy that day in 'Nam: the day he had lifted up to the sky and flown his bird away and left Davy there beneath that parasol of fire.
Excited chatter sounded over the airwaves as the truckers tried to summon up the highway boys, tried to call for help.
Tramp saw a sign for a farm road exit, half a mile away. The stones settled in his gut again, his hands filmed with sweat. It was like that day in 'Nam, when he had the choice to turn back and help or run like hell.
No trucks took the exit. Perhaps their speed was up too much to attempt it. But he was well back of them and the Bird. What reason did he have to close in on the Bird? What could he do? As it was, the Bird could see his lights now and they might pop a shot at him any second.
Tramp swallowed. It was him or them.
He slowed, took the exit at fifty, which was almost too fast, and the relief that first washed over him turned sour less than a second later. He felt just like he had that day in 'Nam when he had lifted up and away, saved himself from Death at the expense of Davy.
"Report!" said the Pilot.
Through the headphones came Micky's guttural whine. "Tail gunner reporting, sir. Three of the enemy rubbed out, sir."
"Confirmed," came the voice of the turret gunner. "I have visual confirmation on tail gunner's report. Enemy formation affecting evasive maneuvers. Have sighted two more sets of enemy lights approaching on the port quarter. Request permission to break off engagement with forward enemy formation and execute strafing attack on approaching formation."
"Permission granted," said the Pilot. "Sparks! Report State Escort whereabouts."
"Catching signals of approaching State Escorts, sir. ETA three minutes."
"Number of Escorts?"
"Large squadron, sir."
"Pilot to flight crew. Change in orders. Strafe forward formation, to prepare to peel off at next exit."
The Bird swooped down on the forward truck, the turret gun slamming blast after blast into the semi's tires. The truck was suddenly riding on the rims. Steel hit concrete and sparks popped skyward like overheated fireflies.
The Bird moved around the truck just as it lost control and went through a low guardrail fence and down into a deep ditch.
Black smoke boiled up from the Black Bird's tires, mixed with the night. A moment later the sleek car was running alongside another truck. The turret gunner's weapon barked like a nervous dog, kept barking as it sped past the trucks and made its way to the lead semi. The turret gunner barked a few more shots as they whipped in front of the truck, and the tail gunner put twenty fast rounds through the windshield. Even as the driver slumped over the semi's wheel and the truck went barreling driverless down the highway, the Bird lost sight of it and took a right exit, and like a missile, was gone.
Black against black, the Bird soared, and inside the death machine the Pilot, with the internal vision of his brain, turned the concrete before him into a memory:
Once he had been whole, a tall, young man with a firm body and a head full of Technicolor dreams. The same had been true of his comrades. There had been a time when these dreams had been guiding lights. They had wanted to fly, had been like birds in the nest longing for the time when they would try their wings, thinking of that time — living for that time — when they would soar in silver arrows against a fine blue sky, or climb high up to the face of the moon.
Each of them had been in the Civil Air Patrol. Each of them had hours of airtime, and each of them had plans for the Air Force. And these plans had carried them through many a day and through many a hard exam and they had talked these plans until they felt they were merely reciting facts from a future they had visited.
But then there was the semi and that very dark night.
The four of them had been returning from Barksdale Air Force Base. They had made a deal with the recruiter to keep them together throughout training, and their spirits were high.
And the driver who came out of the darkness, away from the honky-tonk row known as Hell's Half Mile, had been full of spirits too.
There had been no lights, just a sudden looming darkness that turned into a white Freightliner crossing the middle of the highway, a stupid, metallic whale slapdash in the center of their path.
The night screamed with an explosion of flesh, metal, glass, and chrome. Black tire smoke boiled to the heavens and down from the heavens came a rain of sharp, hot things that engulfed the four, and he, the one now called the Pilot, awoke to whiteness. White everywhere, and it did not remind him of cleanliness, this whiteness. No. It was empty, this whiteness, empty like the ever-hungry belly of time, and people floated by him in white — not angel-white, but wraith-white — and the pain came to live with him and it called his body home.
When enough of the pain had passed and he was fully aware, he found a monster one morning in the mirror. A one-legged thing with a face and body like melted plastic. But the eyes. Those sharp hawk eyes, that had anticipated seeing the world from the clouds, were as fine as ever — little green gems that gleamed from an overcooked meat rind.
And the others:
Sparks had lost his left arm and half his head was metal. He had been castrated by jagged steel. Made sad jokes about being the only man who could keep his balls in a plastic bag beside his bed.
Ted had metal clamps on his legs and a metal jaw. His scalp had been peeled back like an orange. Skin grafts hadn't worked. Too burned. From now on, across his head — like some sort of toothless mouth — would be a constantly open wound behind which a smooth, white skull would gleam.
Micky was the worst. Legs fried off. One eye cooked to boiled-egg consistency — a six-minute egg. Face like an exploding sore. Throat and vocal cords nearly gone. His best sound was a high, piercing whine.
Alone they were fragments of humanity. Puzzle parts of a horrid whole.
Out of this vengeance grew.
They took an old abandoned silo on Spark's farm — inherited years back when his father had died — fixed it up to suit their needs. Had the work done and used Spark's money.
They also pooled their accounts, and with the proper help, they had elevators built into the old gutted silo. Had telescopes installed. Radios. And later they bought maps and guns. Lots of guns. They bought explosives and made super-Molotovs of fuel and plastic explosives. Bad business.
And the peculiar talents that had been theirs individually became a singular thing that built gadgets and got things done. So before long, the Pilot, stomping around on his metallic leg, looking like a run-through-the-wringer Ahab, became their boss. They cut Micky's T-Bird down and re-rigged it, rebuilt it as a war machine. And they began to kill. Trucks died on the highway, became skeletons, black charred frames. And the marks on the sides of the Black Bird grew and grew as they went about their stalks. . . .
Highway now. Thoughts tucked away. Cruising easily along the concrete sky. Pilot and crew.
Tramp felt safe, but he also felt low, real low. He kept wondering about 'Nam, about the trucks, about that turnoff he'd taken a few miles and long minutes back, but his considerations were cut short when fate took a hand.
To his left he saw eyes, red eyes, wheeling out of a dark connecting road, and the eyes went from dim to sudden-bright (fuck this sneaking around), and as Tramp passed that road, the eyes followed and in the next instant they were looking up his tailpipe, and Tramp knew damn good and well whose eyes they were, and he was scared.
Cursing providence, Tramp put the pedal to the metal and glanced into his sideview mirror and saw the eyes were very close. Then he looked forward and saw that the grade was climbing. He could feel the truck losing momentum. The Bird was winging around on the left side.
The hill was in front of him now, and though he had the gas pedal to the floor, things were Slow City, and the truck was chugging, and behind him, coming ass-over-tires, was the Black Bird.
Tramp trembled, thought: This is redemption. The thought hung in his head like a shoe on a peg. It was another chance for him to deal the cards and deal them right.
Time started up for Tramp again, and he glanced into the sideview mirror at the Bird, whipped his truck hard left in a wild move that nearly sent the white Freightliner side-over-side. He hit the Bird a solid bump and drove it off the road, almost into a line of trees. The Bird's tires spat dirt and grass in dark gouts. The Bird slowed, fell back.
Tramp cheered, tooted his horn like a mad man, and made that hill; two toots at the top and he dipped over the rise and gave two toots at the bottom.
The Black Bird made the road again and the Pilot gave the car full throttle. In a moment the Bird found its spot on Tramp's ass.
Tramp's moment of triumph passed. That old Boogy Man sat down on his soul again. Sweat dripped down his face and hung on his nose like a dingleberry on an ass hair, finally fell with a plop on the plastic seat cover between Tramp's legs, and in the fearful silence of the cab the sound was like a boulder dropping on hard ground.
Tramp's left-side window popped and became a close-weave net of cracks and clusters. A lead wasp jumped around the cab and died somewhere along the floorboard. It was a full five seconds before Tramp realized he'd been grazed across the neck, just under his right ear. The glass from the window began to fall out like slow, heavy rain.
Tramp glanced left and saw the Bird was on him again, and he tried to whip in that direction, tried to nail the bastard again. But the Bird wasn't having any. It moved forward and away, surged around in front of Tramp.
The Bird, now directly in front of him, farted a red burst from its trunk. The front window of the truck became a spiraling web and the collar of Tramp's shirt lifted as if plucked by an unseen hand. The bullet slammed into the seat and finally into the back wall of the truck.
The glass was impossible to see out of. Tramp bent forward and tried to look out of a small area of undamaged windshield. The Bird's gun farted again, and Tramp nearly lost control as fragments flew in on him like shattered moonlight. Something hot and sharp went to live in his right shoulder, down deep next to the bone. Tramp let out a scream and went momentarily black, nearly lost the truck.
Carving knives of wind cut through the windshield and woke him, watered his eyes and made the wound ache like a bad tooth. He thought: The next pop that comes I won't hear, because that will be the one that takes my skull apart, and they say the one that gets you is the one you don't hear.
But suddenly the two asslights of the Bird fell away and dipped out of sight.
The road fell down suddenly into a dip, and though it was not enormous, he had not expected it and his speed was up full tilt. The truck cab lifted into the air and shot forward and dragged the whipping cargo trailer behind it. As the cab came down, Tramp fully expected the trailer to keep whipping and jackknife him off the road, but instead it came down and fell in line behind the cab and Tramp kept going.
Ahead a narrow bridge appeared, its suicide rails painted phosphorescent white. The bridge appeared just wide enough to keep the guardrail post from slicing the door handles off a big truck.
Tramp's hand flew to the gearshift. He shifted and gassed and thought: This is it, the moment of truth, the big casino, die dog or eat the hatchet; my big shot to repay the big fuckup. Tramp shifted again and gave the white Freightliner all it had.
The white Freightliner was breathing up the tailpipe of the Black Bird and the Pilot was amazed at how much speed the driver was getting out of that rig; a part of him appreciated the skill involved in that. No denying, that sonofabitch could drive.
Then the Pilot caught a scream in his ruptured throat. They were coming up on the bridge, and there were no lefts or rights to take them away from that. The bridge was narrow. Tight. Room for one, and the Pilot knew what the truck driver had in mind. The truck was hauling ass, pushing to pass, trying to run alongside the Bird, planning to push it through the rails and down twenty feet into a wet finale of fast-racing creek. The senseless bastard was going to try and get the Bird if he had to go with it.
The Pilot smiled. He could understand that. He smelled death, and it had the odor of gasoline fumes, burning rubber, and flying shit.
Behind the Bird, like a leviathan of the concrete seas, came the white Freightliner. It bumped the Bird's rear and knocked the car to the right, and in that moment, the big truck, moving as easily as if it were a compact car, came around on the Bird's left.
The semi began to bear right, pushing at the Bird. The Pilot knew his machine was fated to kiss the guardrail post.
"Take the wheel!" the Pilot screamed to Sparks, and he rose up to poke his head through the sunroof, pull on through and crawl along top. He grabbed the semi's left sideview mirror and allowed the truck's momentum to pull him away from the car, keeping his good and his ruined leg high to keep from being pinched in half between the two machines.
Sparks leaped for the steering wheel, got a precious grip on it even as the Pilot was dangling on top of the car, reaching for the truck's mirror frame. But Sparks saw immediately that his grabbing the wheel meant nothing. He and the others were goners; he couldn't get the Bird ahead of the truck and there just wasn't room for two. They were scraping the guardrail post as it was, and now he felt the Bird going to the right and it hit the first post with a kaplodata sound, then the car gathered in three more posts, and just for an instant, Sparks thought he might be able to keep the Bird on the bridge, get ahead of the semi. But it was a fleeting fancy. The Bird's right wheels were out in the air with nothing to grab, and the Bird smashed two more posts, one of which went through the window then hurtled off the bridge. In dim chorus the crew of the Bird screamed all the way down to where the car struck the water and went nose first into the creek bed. Then the car's rear end came down and the car settled under the water, except for a long strip of roof.
No one swam out.
The Pilot saw the car go over out of the corner of his eye, heard the screams, but so be it. He has tasted doom before. It is his job to kill trucks.
Tramp jerked his head to the right, saw the maimed face of the Pilot, and for one brief moment, he felt as if he were looking not at a face, but into the cold, dark depths of his very own soul.
The Pilot smashed the window with the hilt of a knife he pulled from a scabbard on his metal leg and started scuttling through the window.
Tramp lifted his foot off the gas and kicked out at the door handle, and the door swung open and carried the Pilot with it. The Pilot and the door hit a guardrail post and sparks flew up from the Pilot's metal leg as it touched concrete.
The door swung back in, the Pilot still holding on, and Tramp kicked again, and out went the door, and another post hit the Pilot and carried him and the door away, down into the water below.
And in the same moment, having stretched too far to kick the door, and having pulled the wheel too far right, the white Freightliner went over the bridge and smashed half in the water and half out.
Crawling through the glassless front of the truck, Tramp rolled out onto the hood and off, landed on the wet ground next to the creek.
Rising up on his knees and elbows, Tramp looked out at the creek and saw the Pilot shoot up like a porpoise, splash back down and thrash wildly in the water, thrashing in a way that let Tramp know that the Pilot's body was little more than shattered bones and ruptured muscles held together by skin and clothes.
The Pilot looked at him, and Tramp thought he saw the Pilot nod, though he could not be sure. And just before the Pilot went under as if diving, the tip of his metal leg winking up and then falling beneath the water, Tramp lifted his hand and shot the Pilot the finger.
"Jump up on that and spin around," Tramp said.
The Pilot did not come back up.
Tramp eased onto his back and felt the throbbing of the bullet wound and thought about the night and what he had done. In the distance, but distinct, he could hear the highway whine of truck tires on the interstate.
Tramp smiled at that. Somehow it struck him as amusing. He closed his eyes, and just before he drifted into an exhausted sleep, he said aloud, "How about that, Davy? How about that?"
"Pilots" was originally published in the anthology Stalkers (1989). It was later included in the short-story collections Writer of the Purple Rage (CD Publications) and Bumper Crop (Golden Gryphon). "Pilots" © 1989 Joe R. Lansdale and Dan Lowry.
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