So we build our fire, I tell him, cook dinner. Bud passes around a bottle of whiskey. By dark, Mike looks worse—can’t stop shivering, though we’ve got him up close to the fire. He won’t eat. His cheek’s swelled up like a beehive now, and his arms make these funny jerks here and there, like convulsions. All right, Will says, standing, that’s it—we’re walking you out of here right now, he says. No way, Mike says, and Will looks over at Bud and me for help. That tooth’s got to come out, Will says. And there’s a minute or two of quiet then, with the sounds of the creek running and the fire coughing up sparks. I suspect that we all know Will’s right. Then you all will have to pull it, Mike says, and none of us answer—like we didn’t hear or it’s too crazy even to think about; he’s not in his right mind. Will waves me over, and I can see that he means for us to pull Mike up and to carry him out of there on our shoulders if we have to. I ain’t going, Mike says, and he hurls a stick at us to keep us back. One end of it pokes me in the shin and draws blood. Then he digs in his bag and comes out with something in his fist that I can’t make out at first in the dark. And when I get a better look, it seems like it takes forever for my mind to accept that it’s a pistol he’s got—a Colt .45, cocked. He’s not aiming it at any of us, but it’s shaking in his hand, pointed straight out into the dark, the sight of which beats the blood up into my head and my hands. All right, Mike, Will says, all right.

In the operating room, the staff are all gathered along the sides of my bed, listening.

Mike uncocks his gun then and sets it down in the dirt, I tell them. And Will, Bud, and I are just standing there awhile, all of us looking at that gun, and after a time Mike nods over at his bag, like he wants us to go through it for him. Will looks over at Bud and me, then he kneels and eases it open and puts his hand inside, slowly, the way you’d reach in for a stick of dynamite or a trapped snake. He looks up at us again and starts pulling things out—an old brass compass, a jacket, hunting knife, a pair of flathead pliers. Will opens and closes those pliers a few times, gives them a good squeeze, and turns them over in his hand once or twice by the fire. Then he and Bud are looking right at me, and I can feel the weight of their stares in the dark. I can hear their arguments before anyone even opens his mouth: that they should be the ones to hold Mike down; that I’ve got the steadiest hands; that I’m the one who volunteered six months in school in the emergency room—where, truth be told, I mostly folded up sheets and carried specimens to the lab—and I’m holding my hands up already and clearing my throat to tell them there’s no way. But then I’m looking at Will and Bud—watching me, waiting—and over at Mike—head down, hunched by the fire—and I imagine that if I were one of them, I’d want me to do it, too. And I suppose that one way to look at it is that they’ve managed to duck this thing—Will and Bud—that they’ve pushed the worst of it off onto me. But the other is that they didn’t decide anything at all, that they just knew, like I know—sure as that fire, and that river, and those mountains—that this is the way it has to be.

We pass the whiskey around a few times, Mike drinking double, then Will hands me those pliers. They’re cold and heavy in my hand, and they catch a little, but they close true. Will gestures for me to hold them out. Then he splashes them with what’s left of the booze. We have four flashlights and two lanterns between us, and we set them all up around Mike where we’ve got him propped up against a boulder, and Will and Bud kneel down close and lean into him. Will holds one of the flashlights for me, and Mike lets his mouth open. The smell pulls the bile up into my throat, but I swallow it down. I tip Mike’s head back a bit, and right there I can see what’s wrong: a molar, second from the back on the right, up top, is gray and rotted through to the root. The gums all around it are red and tight, like they aim to burst. I fit the pliers in over Mike’s lip, and his tongue is big and wet and pushed up against the edge of my hand. I ease the handles open and turn them a bit to get the right angle. Then I clamp down, and when the tips touch that tooth, Mike lets out a whimper and tries to stand up, but Will and Bud hold him. I’ve got what I think is a good grip, and I pull. But that tooth won’t give. I pull harder, and this time the tips scrape and slip off with a snap, and I fall back a few steps into the dark and damn near put my hands in the fire. Mike howls and curses, and Will and Bud look pale. I show them the empty pliers, and they gather themselves and lean in close to Mike’s ear and tell him, easy now, it’s all right, you’re all right, almost done. Then we set ourselves up to try again. I get the pliers in, and now I’m worried that that tooth will break, that I’ll have to squeeze so hard it will crumble and we’ll leave behind the bad part, that it’ll be buried and there’ll be nothing left to grab onto. I prod the edges for a place that feels right, where I can get a good pull without squeezing too hard, and when I find it, I clamp down and hold, afraid I might lose it. And then I look up for a second and I catch Mike’s eye, open wide and white, looking down at me over his nose. I can feel his body shaking against that rock. I can feel his breath on my hand. My arms feel weak, like I’m about to lose my nerve, and I put my other hand on his chest for leverage. And then something happens with my hand there, and he stops shaking. I can feel his body ease up and his breath get deep and slow, like he’s giving in, like he’s giving himself over to us, with our hands on him like that, whatever might happen.

I look down and pull again, angling in toward him this time and twisting a little, and this time something gives—not much, but it’s something. I pull out the other way, and then I rock back and forth some as I’m pulling. My wrist aches, but I can feel that tooth start to loosen. I give one more hard pull, straight down. And then it goes. There’s a pop I feel through those pliers, in my hands and shoulders, that feels like it comes from somewhere deep down inside Mike, like the bottom of his spine or somewhere even deeper. And I go straight back again into the dark and down on my backsides in the dirt. Mike howls and curses again, but it’s different now, like there’s a bit of relief or release in it, too. And when I hold the pliers up, there’s that tooth: stuck in the tips with three big prongs reaching up, and I can feel my heart going. I turn it around a few times to be sure it’s all in one piece, and so far as I can tell, it is. Will sees it and lets out a laugh, and Bud just stares, wide-eyed. Mike rests his head back against the rock, like he’s set to lie down, and I gather myself and we help him over to his bag and tip some water into his mouth. Will takes the tooth and holds it between two fingers in the firelight. He rolls it in his hand and it shines a little, like a wet pearl. Mike is sitting up, watching, like he means to say something, but he’s too tired or his face hurts too much. Then he picks up that gun that’s still sitting there beside him in the dirt. Will, Bud, and I freeze. He cocks it. Then he points it straight up at the sky and fires once. The shot rings off the mountains and down the river. Then Mike sets the gun back down in the dirt where he got it from, and falls straight back onto his bag—passed out.


<< 1 2 3 >>