Before he became fully conscious he heard the woman's voice and some sixth sense of warning held him motionless. Her voice was sharp, impatient. "Just start the fire and let's get out of here!"
"Why leave that money on him? It will just burn up."
"Don't be such an idiot!" her voice shrilled. "The police test ashes and they could tell whether there was money or not . . . don't look at me like that! It has to look like a robbery."
"I don't like this, Paula."
"Oh, don't be a fool! Now start the fire and come on!"
Monte Jackson held himself perfectly still. Despite the pounding in his skull he knew what was happening now. They believed him dead or unconscious and, for some reason, planned to burn the house and him with it.
From some distance away he heard footsteps and then a door closed. All was quiet except for the ticking of a clock. Returning consciousness brought with it pain, a heavy, swollen pain in the back of his head. He opened his eyes and saw linoleum, (turquoise and black squares), an edge of enameled metal and beyond it, lying against the wall in what he now realized was the dark corner behind a washing machine, a man's dress sock, lightly covered with dust. His head hurt, it hurt badly and he wasn't sure he could move.
His fingers twitched . . . okay, movement was possible. He didn't get up, but he thought about it . . . were they gone? Who were they? A woman. He could almost remember her, something . . .
He smelled smoke. Smoke! And not wood smoke either, burning plastic, amongst other things. He was definitely going to have to get up.
He lurched to his knees, sending a flurry of twenty- and one-hundred-dollar bills to the floor; his head swam and black spots passed before his eyes. He was in the utility room of a house somewhere, flames crackled, there was money everywhere. He grabbed the side of the washing machine and stood up, a haze of smoke hung in the doorway before him, he stumbled forward into a kitchen. Behind him there was a good two thousand dollars in currency scattered on the floor . . . but other things had his attention.
The pain and the increase in light blurred his vision. A roll of paper towels, conveniently placed near a burner on the gas range, was spreading fire to items left on the counter, brown paper bags from the market, a wooden box built to hold milk bottles, and from there to the gaily colored drapes over the sink . . . one whole side of the room was in flames. On the floor lay a man in his shirtsleeves and wearing an apron, a caked reddish-brown stain on his side. Beside him lay two items. A small pistol and a heavy, cast-iron pan.
Monte Jackson suddenly had a vision of that pan coming down on the side of his head. It was only then that he noticed the food that was splattered all over his right shoulder and sleeve. He touched his scalp and nearly lost his balance. It was split, split to the bone.
He turned, and as the lightbulb over the sink burst from the heat of the fire, staggered to a door that looked like it opened onto a side yard; he yanked at the knob. It turned but the door wouldn't open, it just rattled in the jamb. A lock? The heat was like the broiling desert sun and growing even more intense. The lock needed a key . . . and the key was not in it.
As the paint began to blister on the wall next to him, Monte Jackson dropped to all-fours and crawled into the burning kitchen, desperately headed for the door that he assumed led to the dining room. He slipped in the sauce that covered the floor near the body, his hand hit the pistol and it went skittering into a corner. He pushed through the swinging door and he was suddenly in the comparative calm of a butler's pantry.
Shadows thrown by the flames fled ahead of Jackson as he scrambled to his feet and ran down the hallway. Past the dining room, the living room, then the front door was before him. He slid to a stop; a faint whistling sound came from under the door . . . air rushing into the house, feeding the fire that was spreading in the kitchen and licking its way down the ceiling of the hallway. He could feel its heat at his back. Jackson turned the knob and pulled the door open. It came easily, like one of those automatic doors in a supermarket, the pressure of the outside air pushing it inward. The fire roared to greater life behind him, flames pouring up the stairwell and into the second floor.
Jackson stumbled across a wide front porch and down a short set of concrete steps, the free warm air of the summer night enfolding him. He swayed on his feet. What was going on? He remembered a building with arches along the sidewalk, sitting in a bar, a girl . . .
Riverside. He was in Riverside. He had been in the bar at the Mission Inn!
Fire lit the second-floor windows of the house. He had to call the fire department . . . but, what of the man on the floor? The man was dead. The man was dead and he probably owned the house that was burning. Monte Jackson wanted to be far away. Far away in a place where none of this could have happened.
Headlights swung into the front yard and Jackson turned. But the car was not coming in from the road, it had been parked behind the house, near the detached garage.
"It's him! You idiot, get him!" He heard the woman's harsh voice again, and suddenly the car accelerated. Jackson backed up, turned, then ran. The dark sedan sprayed gravel as a heavy foot was applied to the gas. He dodged, jumped a hedge and went to his knees, but was up with a lunge and into the shrubbery, slamming blindly into a woven wire fence, hitting it hard enough to throw him back, he ploughed on. The car ground to a stop, caught in the hedge, and he heard the doors pop open. There was a shot. He felt the hot breath of the bullet pass his cheek. He crouched and ran, sighted a gate . . . how he got through it and into the orchard beyond he never knew.
Twice he stumbled and fell headlong, but forced himself to keep running until he was completely out of breath.
As his head cleared he caught the sound of tires as a car drove by on gravel. Following the sound, he emerged from the brush on the lip of a ravine dividing the wood from a county road.
It was not a main road but, by the look of it, plenty of cars were passing. If he could get a lift, get out of here, well, maybe he could figure out what happened.
He thought of his appearance and lifting a fumbling hand, felt gingerly of the wound along his scalp. There was dried blood in his hair and on his cheek and ear.
The sound of water led him to an irrigation ditch where he dropped to his knees and bathed the blood away, then dried himself with his shirt and handkerchief. Carefully, he combed hair over the wound to try to conceal it. Behind him, the orchard was silhouetted against the glowing cloud of smoke that rose from the fire.
So what had happened? Well, there was the lounge at the Mission Inn. A girl, pretty enough . . . pretty enough for a man who had spent the last three months in the desert. He had caught her eye momentarily, but what would a girl like that want with him?
Unfortunately, it was all coming back to him.
The girl, woman, (he had other names for her now) . . . had been well dressed but was obviously nervous. A man, a big young man, was hanging around the bar, watching her. The two never spoke but Monte Jackson hadn't been in the desert so long that he was blind; the man didn't want to be noticed, but he was watching the woman whose name, Jackson now knew, was Paula.
He had finished his drink and left the bar, there was no time in his life right now for women; few women would tolerate the way he was living. There was also no time in his life for whatever kind of drama was brewing between her and the man at the bar. He had no time for it, but when the dark sedan had pulled up beside him as he walked down the street, he had found himself involved, regardless.
After cleaning up, he decided against trying to get a ride. Although he was hurt, a minor concussion, at least, a torn scalp, bruises and scrapes from his escape, and a nasty cough from the smoke he had inhaled, he had to think, and he was still sure that his appearance, especially so close to a fire, would draw unwanted attention.
His memories were sorting themselves out and he thought he knew where he was. A little farm, a nice gentlemanly farm, on the outskirts of Riverside. He turned right and started walking along the road. Occasionally cars sped past. At first he ducked into the ditch when he saw them coming, fearing a bullet from Paula or her friend. But soon after he started out he had heard fire engines in the distance, probably on a parallel road, and figured that Paula might be busier trying to explain to the cops and the fire crew what had happened than she was trying to find him. So he walked along the shoulder of the road, squinting against the dust of passing cars, until he came to an intersection. The new road was paved, and on the other side, under a streetlamp, was an empty bus stop.
The bus got him within a block of the El Mirage Motel where, earlier in the day, he had taken a room on the second floor. He no longer had his key but the desk clerk remembered him and gave him another. The room was as he had left it just hours before. He went to the bathroom and washed his face and scalp again. Though very painful, he cleaned the wound, and that started it bleeding again. He tore strips from a towel and bound it up as best he could, the kind of pressure it needed was impossible, for the bruising was worse than the cut. He slipped out of his torn and filthy clothes and noticed that the pockets were almost empty . . . it was not only his room key that was gone, his wallet was missing too! He sat down next to the telephone. He should call the police.
That was simple. That was the right thing to do. And what would he tell them? Well, the truth; a woman had picked him up in her car as he left the lounge at the Mission Inn. She had said that a man was following her and that she would like him to see her home. Her husband, a local doctor, would then drive him wherever he wanted to go.
It had made sense at the time.
Once at the farm, she had asked if he wanted a drink. When he said yes, she'd suggested that he get a coaster out of the cabinet behind him. He had turned, and when he had turned back, the big man from the bar had been standing there and had hit him on the head with the cast-iron pan. He'd fallen to his knees and the man had hit him again. The last thing that he remembered was the woman, Paula, fitting his hand around a small automatic pistol . . . curling his fingers around it, then carrying it away in a handkerchief.
He was a patsy. The two had set him up but it hadn't worked. He definitely should call the police.
Except that thought worried him. With his wallet gone he had no ID. No one knew him here; the year or so since leaving the service he had spent prospecting in the desert. His terminal leave pay and what he had saved financed the venture, for his expenses had been small. He'd never had an address or a job anywhere except for the Army and he'd only gone there because a judge had given him a choice, the military . . . or jail.
He had a record, that could be a problem. Breaking and entering with a gang of other kids from Tempe. His uncle, an old jackass prospector, had taken a strap to him many a time but it hadn't helped. The Army had and after eight years in a ranger company he had emerged a different man.
None of which was going to help him now. He had escaped but the woman was going to have a lot of explaining to do and he was suddenly certain of what she was going to say. The very story she had tried to set up in the first place would be her best bet now. Someone had tried to rob the dead man in the house (was it her husband?), the house had caught fire just as she was returning home. He didn't know exactly how she'd spin it but he had no doubt that she would identify him as the killer . . . and she probably had his wallet.
He felt short of breath and his throat was tight. Everything he had learned in the Army told him to call the police. But his childhood, the poor kid raised in an ovenlike trailer who had been chased by the cops down dusty alleys and through weed-grown scrap yards, said something else. The world he lived in now was not the world of the military. He could not count on officials being the hard but fair officers he had once known. He could not count on those around him to take responsibility for their actions or to take pride in their honesty.
In the end he split the difference. Quickly dressing in clean clothes, he packed his bag and, using a stash of money left in his shaving kit, paid the bill. He gingerly pulled his hat on over the makeshift bandage and set out for the bus station.
After buying his ticket he turned to a phone booth and, pulling the door shut, dropped a dime in the slot. After speaking with an operator and holding for a minute or so a voice responded. "Robbery-Homicide, Lieutenant Ragan speaking."
Jackson took a deep breath. "Lieutenant Ragan, don't think this is a crank call. I'm going to outline a case for you. Listen. . . ."
Without mentioning his name he outlined his story from the moment he'd been accosted by the woman on the street. He told how he was lured into her home, that he'd been knocked out, and the plans to fire the house. He ended suddenly. "Ragan, I need help. This man, whoever he was, was killed, shot, and these people are looking for a cover story . . . something that doesn't implicate them. I'm not a killer, but you can see the spot I'm in, can't you?"From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from From the Listening Hills by Louis L'Amour. Copyright © 2003 by Louis L'Amour. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.