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Carter or No Carter

Stuck out in the woods with armed militia men?

Better have an exit strategy. And you'd better know what you're doing. 

Carter or No Carter by Ross Peterson

An assault rifle hung from his shoulder by a strap, a wad of tobacco bulged behind his lower lip. He wore a tie-dye shirt under his camo jacket and a necklace with a bear tooth for its pendant. He walked toward me through the tall grass.

“I’m Leon’s friend,” I said to him.

He spat a wad of brown sludge.

“I’m the one . . . I got some shit for you guys.”

“Carter’s shit?” he said.

“I think so, yeah. Carter, yeah, he’s the guy.”

“Let’s see it.”  

I took off my backpack, unzipped it, and reached for the slab of H wrapped in freezer bags. Twenty five thousand dollars’ worth.  I handed it to him for inspection.

Like an apparition, another militia member appeared from the trees at the edge of the grove and stepped forward from the brush. Bearded and dressed like a mountain man, in buckskin pants, he too brandished an assault rifle.

I greeted him with more trepidation in my voice than I would have liked. The takeaway bit of wisdom Leon gave, before he sent me hiking up here: do not exude fear in any way.
“Works for Carter,” the one with the bear tooth necklace said, nodding at me.
“Indirectly,” I said. “I’ve never met the guy. I’m coming from a lot further down the totem, but I go way back with Leon, one of his . . . associates.”
Buckskin Pants smiled and I saw the hole where there was once a front tooth.
“I know I’m probably not what you’re used to,” I said. “I bet you wouldn’t believe it if I told you I’m actually an elementary school P.E. teacher.” Shut up, shut up, shut up.
“You know Carter’s dead, right?” Bear Tooth Necklace said, showing me his missing teeth.
“Carter’s d—”
“Yep. Popov and some other Russian guys.”
“Nothing left of him, dropped in a drum of fucking acid.”
“I don’t think he’s following,” Buckskin Pants said.
“No,” I said, “I got you. They dumped him in hydrochl—”

“Money, asshole,” Bear Tooth Necklace said. “Your boss ain’t around to collect, so we ain’t got a reason to pay you. Thanks for handing over the product so easy.”
“Wait,” I said.

I was in unchartered waters. There were no in-case-of-emergency acronyms to apply, were there? LAST? Listen, Apologize, Solve, Thank? That might get you out of hot water with irate parents but didn’t do shit when it came to prying heroin money out of odious backwoods militia members.

 “Even if Carter is dead, a deal’s a deal, right?” I said.

Bear Tooth Necklace jammed the cold steel barrel of his rifle into my cheek. “You tell me, idiot. Is a deal a deal?”

“Whoa,” I said. “Easy, easy. I’m cool. You’re right. You can—you can have the shit.” It wouldn’t have surprised me if I’d suddenly felt the warm wetness of pissed pants.     

Bear Tooth necklace slowly lowered his rifle.

This might have been my first handoff, but Carter or no Carter, I knew I couldn’t return empty-handed. It doesn’t matter who’s dead, you collect. Fail to and that’s how you end up bubbling in hydrochloric acid.

I backed away with my hands in the air.

Both men pointed their guns at me.

I bent down to pick up my backpack. “Just got to grab this,” I said. I moved slowly, as if an imaginary cop had told me to keep my hands where he could see them and picked up my backpack.

Buckskin Pants cocked his gun.

I showed him my hands, my bag hanging off my thumb by a strap. In an instant, I ripped the bear spray out of my bag, tumbled, rolled, flicked off the plastic safety cover, and discharged the canister. It burned my eyes, but not as bad as it burned theirs.

They screamed, kneading their eye sockets with their palms. 

When they opened fire, I ran as fast as I could toward the trail. Bullets bounced off dirt, rocks, and trees. I rolled behind a boulder, yanked the .38 from its ankle holster, turned off the safety, and fired. The little cannon shocked my shoulder backward. I sprung to my feet and ran.

They held their fingers steadfast to their triggers, created a wall of bullets around the encampment. Why was I now only considering this was a piss poor way to take their money? Why was I now only considering they might not even have the money?


“Drive, drive, drive!” I said to Leon, slamming the door of his pickup.

“I heard gunfire, Donny. What happened? Tell me that wasn’t you they were shooting at.”

His truck fishtailed across the washboard on the dirt road. We bounced over a giant pothole.

“Carter’s dead.”

“No he isn’t. Evans texted me an hour ago and told me Carter said to meet him with the cash at the Briar.”


“What? Don? Why do look like that? That’s not a good look.”

“You’re sure Carter isn’t dead?” 

“You got the cash. Please, tell me you got the cash. If you didn’t get the cash we are so, so fucked.”

“Some Russian mob guys put him in hydrochloric acid.”

“No, no, no, no, no. You got the cash, though? Right?”

“Yes,” I lied. “Of course I got the cash.”

We bounced down the mountain drive, dodging protruding rocks, swiping low hanging brush. I still had bullets in the .38. If Leon refused to be left on the side of the road . . . I couldn’t even think about it. The guy was a pallbearer at my father’s funeral. He’d submit. People submit to all kinds of shit at gunpoint.

Where to disappear, though? How far away could I get today? How long before they’d start hunting me?

Why did Leon’s pickup have to be a stick shift?