The Air Marshal

by Craig Johnson

I was seated in the last row of United Flight 4614, and as distracted as I was, I figured I made three of the woman who was across the aisle. Unfastening my belt, I lumbered to a standing position in the confined space. “Where to?”

The flight attendant stepped into an empty row in the half-filled aircraft and gestured toward the front. “All the way up, if you don’t mind–it’s just a question of weight distribution.” She smiled ingratiatingly at my solving her problem without having to bring up my size and watched as I collected my hat and hard case from above and then made my way up the narrow aisle to the seat on the left at the front bulkhead.

I passed a belligerent man, who glared at me from the second row, and opened the overhead compartment to place the hard case and my hat inside.

“You the reason we’re not taking off?”

I stared at him. “Excuse me?”

He turned to the window and ignored me.

Once settled, I looked across at a boy, who was seated on the aisle. The flight attendant passed between us and paused for a moment to ask the kid to fasten his seat belt. He did and looked up at her with some trepidation. She smiled at him, patted his shoulder, and handed him something. Taking her place on the jump seat behind the cockpit, she winked at me and explained, “The airline always gives these to someone who first earns their wings.”

Studying the tiny plastic medal for a few seconds, he clutched it in his hand before turning away to look out the window.

I buckled my seatbelt and sat there trying not to think about anything, finally sighing and glancing at the young man who was now looking at me. “Howdy.”

He turned away again.

Sitting there with nothing else to do and no one to talk to, I opted for brooding about the things that had happened in my life that had led me to this pass and wondering if there were things I could’ve done, things that would’ve made anything better.

I petted Dog, my best friend, pulled my duffel and hard case from the Bullet, and stood there with the door open, unsure of what to say. My undersheriff, Victoria Moretti, stood on the sidewalk and didn’t look at me.

In a lifetime of crazy things, this had to be the craziest of things I’d ever attempted to do. My other best friend, Henry Standing Bear, had driven me down to Denver International Airport and was sitting there on the driver’s side of my truck with my granddaughter in the car seat between us.

The Cheyenne Nation smiled, holding a finger out to Lola to chew on. “You know, I have always thought of you as the rule of law and myself as the outlaw.”

“Me, too.”

“This kind of changes the dynamic.”

“Yep.”

He studied me. “Let me go for you, and you take your granddaughter home.”

I took a deep breath and turned my head, looking past Vic and watching the travelers hurrying to catch their flights, people leaving and people arriving—living normal lives. “She’s my daughter, Henry.” I looked at the silent child, chewing on his hand. “If something happens to Cady and me, this one here is all there is left.”

The Bear nodded. “Nothing will happen to her, you have my word.” “Take her up on the Rez.”

“I will.”

“Teach her how to speak Cheyenne.”

“Héehe’e.”

I looked at the child between us as she distractedly wrestled with the Bear’s hand. “Tell her how beautiful her mother is and about her grandfather. Tell her that he… Tell her he loves her more than anything.”

“He will tell her himself.” Reaching behind him, he pulled the beaded scabbard holding the stag-handled Bowie from the small of his back and held it out to me, Lola clutching at the buckskin fringe that hung down between us.

I stood there for a moment and then jostled the hard case. “I’m already armed.”

“Yes, but you may need stealth. Besides, your adversary likes knives—give this one to him blade first with my compliments.”

I stood there for a few seconds more and then taking the weapon, carefully placed it in my bag. “Thank you.”

He nodded. “Remember to find the man you once were—the portion of yourself that you have kept locked away, the most dangerous man I have ever known.”

After a few moments, the plane began moving, and I looked at the young man again. Probably about eleven or twelve, his attention was toward the plastic wings in his hands. I saw him wiping his eyes, and I was pretty sure he was crying.

“Hey?”

He partially turned, swiping his eyes again with the back of a hand, and glanced at me.

“Your first flight?”

“Yes, Sir.” He nodded, obviously terrified, the tears welling in his eyes again. “There’s a hole in my window.”

I paused for a second and then realized to what he was referring. “A little tiny one at the bottom?”

He nodded.

“Mine, too.” I gestured. “There one in all the windows–it’s called a breather hole and helps the window equalize interior cabin pressure. All of them actually have three layers, so you’re okay.” I waited a moment and then gestured toward the tiny medal in his hand. “I never got a set of those from the Marine Corp.”

“You were a Marine, Sir?”

“Once a Marine, always a Marine but yep… a long time ago.” He seemed more open to conversation, so I threw something else out. “Going home?”

He shook his head and then cleared his throat and spoke softly. “Visiting my Dad at Fort Bliss in El Paso. My Mom signed the indemnity form and put me on the plane.”

“Army brat?”

“Yes, Sir.”

I smiled. “Hard for your Dad to send a tank for you, huh?”

A moment passed. “Sir, how do you know about the tanks?”

“Bliss is the largest tank operations base in the US.”

He nodded and then leaned toward me and spoke in an even lower voice. “Are you the Air Marshal on this flight?”

I glanced at the hard case I’d stowed above, noting that the kid didn’t miss much. “Nope.” I leaned in closer to him. “Why, are you planning on causing trouble?”

He smiled for the first time. “I did some research–did you know there’s one on every flight?”

I glanced around adding to the conspiratorial feel of our talk. “I’m not sure there’s one on every flight—that’s a lot of planes, and I think there are currently only about four thousand Air Marshals.” We were lining up on the runway, and the pilot made the final announcement that the crew and passengers needed to be buckled in. The kid fidgeted a bit, and I studied him, thinking how much he reminded me of my daughter at that age. “You’re lucky, this is a nice plane with a pressure-controlled cabin… You should’ve seen the plane I flew in my first time. You got on this plane from Concourse B? Then you walked right underneath it between gates fifty-two and fifty-five, the bi-plane hanging in the terminal.”

“The old one?”

I nodded, thankful for something to talk about that would take my mind off my current troubles. “Curtiss Jenny. There was an airshow that traveled around with a couple of old WWI planes, and they came to Durant where I grew up in Wyoming.” I could feel the plane we were on now starting to move and gradually gathering speed. “For five dollars they would take you for a ten-minute flight.”

He looked out the window but then quickly turned back to me. “Only five dollars?”

“That was a lot of money back then.” Keeping his head turned toward me, I got the feeling he did not want to look out any of the windows, so I leaned forward, blocking most of mine. “They gave you a leather helmet and a pair of goggles and off you went. After we got aloft we circled around the town, and there was a storm and we hit a rain ball—I guess they call them microbursts now.”

“What happened?”

Flying in and out of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in the afternoons is always a bit of an adventure because of the rising warm air of the plains in combination with the cool winds from the peaks resulting in both mechanical and thermal turbulence, and I could feel us leaving the ground as a side wind struck the Bombardier CRJ200, causing the aircraft to shift slightly before straightening and ascending. “It shook that Curtiss Jenny pretty bad, and I remember watching the canvas ripple from the wind and you could hardly see anything.” I smiled. “This is a breeze in comparison, honest.”

He nodded, but I could tell he wasn’t completely convinced.

The plane slowly began turning south, and the kid’s eyes stayed on me. “Are you sure you’re not the Air Marshal?”

“Is there a Mexican Air Force?” “I think so.”

“Get them to bomb the fucker.”

“I don’t think they’ll do that, besides they might also get Cady.” I stood there holding the duffel and hard case, realizing this was probably the last time I was ever going to be able to look into her tarnished gold eyes. “When you get back…”

“Fuck that, let me go with you.”

“Somebody’s got to get things squared away, and then you can jump a flight to El Paso. Who knows how long it’ll take the FBI and McGroder to get the ball rolling with the Mexican authorities—that’s why I have to go now.”

She shook her head up at me, looking so achingly beautiful that I actually thought about taking her with me. “You suck.”

“I know.”

“What do you want me to do with Dog?”

I glanced in the window at the beast, who whined. “Give him to Ruby to dog sit– he likes her best, anyway.”

“Everybody likes her best.” Reaching out, she wrapped her arms around me and pulled me in like a boa constrictor, holding me there until I could barely take a breath. She released me, but kept her head against my chest, the tone of her voice changing. “Don’t you get killed, do you hear me? Don’t you dare get killed, because if you do I’m committing suicide and coming after you, you son of a bitch.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Her face pulled back, and the look in her eyes was murderous. “That’s not good enough.”

“I won’t get killed, I promise.” I gestured over my chest. “Cross my heart.”

“No half-measures–kill anybody that gets in your way.”

I nodded as a Denver patrolman in a safety vest approached but when he saw all the uniforms and the markings on my truck, simply turned and walked away. “That seems to be the consensus.”

The ferocity stayed in her eyes. “I’m not fucking around here. He almost killed me, he killed my brother, he’s taken your daughter, and he killed…” She paused, catching her breath. “His time is up.”

The plane took another hit of turbulence and skittered across the sky as it continued to climb. “I’m going to Mexico to get my daughter.”

The youngster looked a little more at ease. “Does she live there?”

The plane leveled off, but the seatbelt sign stayed on as I tried to force the cooling from my face and the stillness from my hands. I glanced over at the kid. “No.”

He studied me, and like I thought, he didn’t miss much. “Is she in trouble?”

I breathed a laugh, looking down at my hands resting on my lap like stones, and tried to speak, but the words weren’t there. How do you explain to an eleven-year-old

stranger that your daughter has been kidnapped by a psychotic, drug-dealing assassin and hauled off to the middle of nowhere in a foreign country—that the chances are she’s already dead and that you will be too in a matter of days.

Feeling the blood moving again, I tried to relax, attempting not to think about the things that had been done to me and the things I was going to have to do to get back what was most important. “Yep, she is.”

I leaned back into the truck, pointed to my cheek, and felt my granddaughter wrap her arms around my neck, knocking my hat to the floorboards, and plant a smooch on my left eye as if saying goodbye to it exclusively.

With so few words between us, there were so many things I wanted to tell her about her lineage, her history, and her family.

There just wasn’t time.

It killed me to think of her without her mother, without someone to tell her the ins and outs of life, to give her a sense of who she was and what was expected of her–to help her in being the best person she could be.

Maybe she would go back to Philadelphia where she was born. Perhaps the last Longmire would go east where she still had family. Maybe her mother and I would only be fleeting memories from her early youth, rapidly retreating ghosts.

Maybe she would become a sheriff.

Startled by that thought, I looked up at Henry, who regarded me with the paper-cut smile, the thin one that almost got me to believe that he knew what I was thinking.

My eyes dropped, and Lola stared at me, even at that young age realizing that something was different this time. She was like that, an old soul, and I breathed in her smell and looked into her dark eyes and could see my reflection. I thought about something Henry had said about how some day there would be conflict between us, and I’d objected on the grounds that we were so much alike and that, he said, was where the trouble would begin.

Pulling back, I reached down, grabbed my hat, and retreated from the truck. Standing straight as she watched me, her expression was unreadable. Not knowing what to say, I relied on some of the few words I’d taught her and tossed them out. “Boy howdy.”

The somber look remained on her face.

Thumping my fist on my chest, I extended the fingers in a symbol of peaceful waters and then watched as the Cheyenne Nation did the same. Turning to go, I placed a palm on the window and watched as Dog licked the glass and then nearly stepped into Vic as she clutched the front of my shirt. “I’ll see you in twenty-four hours.”

Stepping off, I turned toward the revolving doors and walked away, not trusting myself to look back at my life, almost all of it at that curb, knowing full well that I might break down at any second.

I got to the entrance doors when I heard a noise that passed for words and turned to look back, because now I had to, and there framed in the open doorway of my truck was Lola reaching out to me with both hands, her mouth open.

The revolving door continually batted my duffel against me as I stood there.

She reached for me again, her fingers gripping the empty air. “Boy howdy, Poppy. Boy howdy.”

They adjusted the jet way into El Paso International Airport as the young man and I waited there in the galley for the flight attendant to give us the go-ahead.

“My Mom and Dad are getting a divorce, so I’m supposed to go to El Paso to try it out and see if I want to be there for part of the year.”

I stood there, holding my hat and hard case but brought my attention back to the boy. “You won’t be in El Paso though, you’ll be at Fort Bliss.”

He nodded, still looking at the plastic wings.

“I have to admit that I don’t know from personal experience, but it would seem to me that growing up part time on an Army base would be pretty great. Kids your own age, good schools…”

“I don’t think he likes me.” “Who, your Dad?”

“Yeah.”

Kneeling down, I lifted his chin and made him look at me. “I’m betting he loves you.” He seemed uncertain, so I released his chin and held my hand out to him. “Let’s try an experiment, shall we?” Taking his hand, I placed it in mine. “When you get off the plane, walk right up to him and shake his hand—not too strong but not too weak. Always stand but more important look him in the eye, it shows respect and makes a good impression.”

He nodded, looking very serious. “Did you learn that in the Marines?”

“No, from my father.” He smiled as the flight attendant gestured toward the walkway, and I allowed him to go first, following him into the terminal where he slowed and pulled up alongside me. Glancing through the doorway at the end, I could see a uniformed sergeant standing by the counter.

“Is that your Dad?”

“Yeah.”

Beyond the soldier stood a group of grim looking individuals led by a dark-suited man with a peppered crew-cut, two other suited men with covert acoustic ear pieces, and a large man in the back, whom I didn’t know, in a black cowboy hat and duty belt complete with a prominently displayed, nickel-plated, .357 revolver.

The young man stopped and looked up at me. “Are they here for you?”

We stepped to the side to allow the other passengers to get by, including the belligerent from the second row.

“Yep, they are.”

He gave the group behind his father one more worried look and then without another word slowly went to the uniformed man and carefully shook hands with him.

I stood there for a moment as the sergeant turned to glance back at me, and I smiled and then walked over to Agent-in-Charge Mike McGroder, who plucked off his Ray-Ban sunglasses and stared at me with hard eyes like blue marbles. “On behalf of the Department of Justice’s Welcome Wagon, Bienvenido a El Paso.”

“Thanks.” I was about to say more when I became aware of the same young man from the plane having returned and now at my side, his father standing a little away. “Mr. Marshal?”

I started to correct him again and then noticed he was holding his hand out to me, which I shook as he looked me directly in the eyes and smiled. “Nice to have met you, Sir.”

I watched as he raced back to his father and hurried away with a wave.

McGroder placed a hand on my shoulder. “Friend of yours?”

I nodded. “Actually, I think that that right there might have been the Air Marshal.”

3 thoughts on “The Air Marshal

  1. A superb lead in to Depth of Winter and a very moving one. Thanks Craig, and Ry, thank you for posting.

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  2. NO words to tell how hard for me to read DEPTH of WINTER! But Craig’s words pulled me into the story and I felt that I was there with Walt every step of the way. I could not stop reading his words until “we” got back to the USA!

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  3. I miss getting notes to read more Longmire stories. I’m no longer on face book and feel so disconnected from Longmire. I’ve read the books twice and can’t count how many times I’ve watched the series. 1 book a year just isn’t enough. I read the book in less than a week then I’m left with 51 weeks waiting for the next one.

    Thanks for this story Ron Stone

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