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Jim Farren
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murderboots.jpg
Art by Steve Cartwright © 2017

MURDER BOOTS

A Clayce Talcott and Luther Twoshoes Story

 

Jim Farren

 

Black Tom Cahoon—not to be confused with his twin brother Red Tom Cahoon—leaned against a front porch post staring down at Clayce Talcott and Luther Twoshoes who stood in the snow-covered yard at the bottom of the steps.  Cahoon cradled a 12-gauge pump shotgun in the crook of his arm and it was common knowledge that he kept a holstered pistol in the small of his back and a hunting knife in his boot.  His gabardine work clothes were worn, but clean, and the brim of his slouch hat shadowed his eyes.

“What can I do for you, Talcott?” he asked in a neutral tone, neither hostile or friendly.

Clayce scratched the side of his nose and said, “Joe-Boy Puckett is dead.”

Cahoon didn’t seem surprised.  “Couldn’t happen to a nicer fella.  Can’t say I’ll lose any sleep over that news.”

“We need to talk to Vanda.  Thought she might be here.”

Cahoon spat tobacco juice into the yard and nodded his head.  “Showed up last night after supper with a black eye and a busted lip.”

“Compliments of Puckett?”

“She didn’t say and I didn’t ask.  You lay down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”

“And Puckett was a dog?”

“Worse.  He was a no-account, nickel-plated sonovabitch.  But they say love will not be denied nor sometimes even explained, and Vanda’s a grown woman.”

“She’s still your daughter.”

“There is that.  The missus patched her up and put her to bed.  She’s still asleep.”

“We need to talk to her.  For the record, Tom, where were you last night—after supper?”

“Right here,” Cahoon said.  “Never left the place.  You and your Injun c’mon in for coffee.  I’ll go wake Vanda.”

“By the way, Tom, aren’t you curious how Puckett died?”

“Nope.  Him just being dead suits me to a tee.”

“Well, in case you get curious later, it looks like he answered the front door and somebody blew him in half with a shotgun.”

----- / ----- / -----

“So,” Luther asked, “what do we know, hoss?”

He and Clayce sat across from each other in the last booth in the Coffee Cup Café.  They were sharing a Miner’s Special breakfast—eating sausage, eggs, biscuits and gravy, cheese grits, hash browns, and fried apples from communal plates.

Clayce pushed his hat back and a cowlick of sandy blonde hair fell across his forehead.  “Well, we know Joe-Boy Puckett is dead and, thanks to yesterday’s snowfall, we know whoever killed him was wearing brand-new hunting boots.”

“A lot of new boots around this time of year.  They make good Christmas presents.  Black Tom was wearing a pair.”

“You noticed that, did you?”

“I did.”  Luther’s grin was starkly-white against his dark cherry complexion.  His eyes were the color of ripe blackberries.  “You believe Vanda when she said Puckett was alive when she left the house?”

“No reason not to.  She said it had just started snowing when she took off.  That explains why there’s only one set of tracks from the street to the house and back again.  The weather folks say the snow stopped about 9:00pm, so the killing took place sometime after that.”

“You reckon we can match the tracks in the snow to the size and tread of Black Tom’s boots?”

“How many pair of size-10 Wood n’ Streams do you figure are being worn around town even as we speak?”

“Longenacre’s Sporting Goods sells ‘em like hotcakes, though not all size 10.”

“Maybe Hank or one of his clerks will remember who bought what.  After we finish here, we’ll go ask.”

“Speaking of finishing here, are you gonna eat that last biscuit or do I have to force myself?”

---- / ----- / -----

Dixie Cahoon was eating a bowl of chili when Clayce paused to kick the snow off his boots before entering the Café.  He took an adjacent counter stool and ordered coffee, then turned to the girl and said, “Cold out this morning.”

Dixie nodded agreement, but didn’t speak with her mouth full.  She was dressed in corduroy pants and a flannel shirt over faded red long johns.  Barely thirteen, she still had a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose and a gap-toothed smile.  Her carrot-colored hair was pulled back into a makeshift ponytail.  Her trapper’s hat had the ear-flaps down and there was a winter coat across her lap.  A single shot 16-gauge shotgun was propped against the counter beside her.

“You still running rabbit traps, Dixie?”

“Every morning, Chief.  Only it’s boxes, not traps.  They’re worth more alive than dead.”

“Get any today?”

“Four,” she said between bites.  “Two bucks, two does.”

“You are one industrious girl.  Tell me what happened out at your place day before yesterday.”

Dixie sighed before adding another package of saltines to her chili bowl.  “Joe-Boy came home half-drunk while Mom was fixing supper.  He accused her of smoking his last joint and they started yelling at each other.  I’ve got enough drama in my life without them fighting, so I left and spent the night at my cousin’s.”

“Why didn’t you go to your grandparents?”

“Because I knew that’s where Mom would end up going and, like I said, I’ve got enough drama what with algebra and puberty.”

Clayce sipped his coffee then remarked, “Life’s hard when your folks are dopers.”

“I’m used to hard.  I’ve been taking care of myself since I was nine.”

“How did you and Joe-Boy get along?”

“We didn’t.  I hardly ever saw him.  I stayed in my room or went out when he was around.”

“Did they fight much?”

“Just about always.  Mom’s buzzed most of the time and he was, too.  Plus, he drank like a fish.”

“He ever lay a hand on you?”

Dixie gave Clayce a you-must-be-kidding look.  “Joe-Boy was stupid, Chief, not crazy.”

Clayce laughed at that then glanced down.  “You’ve got pretty big feet for such a skinny girl.  New boots?”

“Uh huh.  I buy ‘em big so I can wear two pair of socks to keep warm in the woods.”

“And Joe-Boy was alive when you left the house?”

“Yes, sir, he was.  The two of them were about to start throwing dishes, so I went to Uncle Red’s.  My cousin Callie and me did our homework and watched TV.”

“And you didn’t go back to the house?”

“No, sir.  I called Grandma to make sure Mom was okay, but I stayed in on account of the snow.”

“You haven’t seen your Mom since you left?”

Dixie shook her head and took a deep breath.  “I went back to the house yesterday after school and cleaned up the mess.  There was a hole in the front screen door the size of a dinner plate and a lot of blood and stuff.  Mom will come home when she gets tired of Grandpa’s preaching and Grandma’s sympathy.

“Do you have any idea who might’ve killed Joe-Boy?”

“Somebody with a shotgun, though that don’t narrow it down much.”  Nodding to weapon beside her she added, “Even I’ve got one.”

Clayce took another sip of coffee and said, “Yes, you do, Dixie.  Yes, you do.”

----- / ----- / -----

Clayce was having supper at Luther’s house; fried squirrel, mashed potatoes, tomato gravy, home-canned string beans, and cat-head biscuits.  Seven of the Twoshoes’ brood crowded around the table while a toddler sat in a high chair and Patsy cradled the baby in the crook of her arm.

“Vanda pretty much ran off the rails after her husband died in that mine accident,” Clayce said.  “Got involved with the wrong crowd, started doing drugs, lost her job.”

“Poor woman,” Patsy said after handing the toddler a buttered biscuit to gum.  “Losing her man and left with an eight-year-old girl to raise.  I always liked Vanda.  She was a few years behind me in school, you know.”

“And then she hooked up with Joe-Boy.”

“Who was worthless as tits on a boar,” Luther said.  “All he ever did was deal drugs, and they say he used as much as he sold.  The word is he only married Vanda to get at the insurance money.”

“Daddy said ‘tits’, Mama,” one of the twins offered with a giggle.

“Don’t tattle,” Patsy said then asked Clayce, “Do you really think Tom Cahoon shot him?”

“Well, somebody surely did, and Cahoon’s a prime suspect.  Maybe he got tired of Joe-Boy knocking Vanda around.”

“Or maybe Dixie got tired of it,” Luther added.

“Luther!” Patsy frowned.  “You don’t really think that child killed her step-father, do you?”

“Don’t let the fact that she’s only thirteen cloud your judgement, honey.  She’s had a hard upbringing.  I’m not saying she did it, but I wouldn’t be all that surprised if she did.”

“Neither would I,” Clayce added while spooning more mashed potatoes onto his plate.  “Somebody pass me the gravy, please.”

----- / ----- / -----

 

----- / ----- / -----

The weather had warmed a bit, enough so that Clayce and Luther were standing in puddles of slush just off the porch.

“We’re looking for Tom, Miz Cahoon.”

With a nod of her head, Sarah Cahoon indicated the woods behind the house.  “He’s up on the mountain.”

“Making moonshine, is he?” Luther asked conversationally.

“I wouldn’t know.  I tend to my own knitting when it comes to what Tom does to provide for his family.”

“It’s the ATF’s problem if he is,” Clayce said.  “I’ve no issue with a man taking a drink now and then or oftener—or with a fella who supplies the booze.  When Tom gets home please tell him to come see me at the office.  Tell him I’m holding Dixie in connection with Joe-Boy Puckett’s murder.”

Sarah’s eyes widened in disbelief.  “Dixie?  Our granddaughter Dixie?  Our barely teenaged granddaughter?  You’ve arrested her?”

“Let’s just say she’s in protective custody until Tom and I talk.”  Tipping his hat deferentially, he added, “Tell him the sooner he comes in, the better.”

----- / ----- / -----

“Luther, if you shot a man with a pump shotgun, what’s the first thing you’d do?”

“What do you mean, hoss?”

“You’re a hunter, think about it.  You pull the trigger and then what?”

“Hmmmm.  I rack another round just in case.  There’s nothing more useless than an empty gun.”

“Bingo.  Did we find an empty shell out at Vanda’s place?”

“We did not, and there was no disturbance in the snow other than the boot tracks.

“Now, if you shot him with a single barrel, non-pump, what would you do?”

“The same thing, I suppose—open the breech and put in a new round.”

“And the empty shell casing, you’d drop it on the ground?”

“Nope, I’d put it in my pocket.”

“Exactly.”

“Are you saying that Dixie shot Joe-Boy, hoss?”

“I’m not saying anything, Luther.  I’m just thinking out loud.”

----- / ----- / -----

“What the hell is the matter with you, Talcott?”

Clayce looked up from behind his desk.  “Lower your voice and sit down, Tom.  Luther, pour Tom a cup of coffee.”

“I don’t want coffee,” Black Tom said, the blood-suffused darkness of his features more than living up to his name.  “What I want is Dixie and I want her now.  Where is she?”

“Back in one of the cells drinking hot chocolate and playing checkers with Bob Oliver.  Don’t worry, Tom, the cell’s not locked.”

“Have you gone daft, man?  Are you out of your mind?  She’s only a girl!”

“Who wears size 10 boots,” Clayce said mildly.  “Now sit down and let’s talk.”

Tom sat.  Luther poured him a cup of coffee and added a jolt of whiskey to ward off the chill.  He topped off his and Clayce’s cups before resuming his chair beside the stove.  Cahoon locked eyes with Clayce and huffed out a lungful of pent-up breath. 

“What’s this guff about Dixie’s boots?”

“They’re size 10,” Clayce repeated.  “Same size as the tracks found at the crime scene.”

Luther looked down at Cahoon’s feet.  “What size boots do you wear?” he asked softly.

“Size 10, same as Dixie,” Black Tom snapped.

“They look brand new.”

“They are.  I got ‘em for Christmas.  Same as Dixie.”

“How convenient,” Clayce mused, then placed his hands on the desk top.  “Tom, just between the three of us, did you kill Joe-Boy?”

“I did not.  And even if I did, you can’t prove it.”

“I’m not talking about what can be proved.  I’m talking about what happened.  If you didn’t kill him, Dixie did.”

“You’re out of your mind, Talcott.  She’s just a girl.  You’ve got nothing to show either of us did it.”

“Maybe not, but I know what I know.”

Black Tom shrugged to show he didn’t much care what Clayce thought he knew.  Placing his cup on the edge of the desk, he folded his hands together.  His voice was quiet and level. 

“You’re not welcome out to my place anymore, Chief.  Next time you come, bring a warrant.”

They stared at each other for a moment then Clayce sipped at his coffee and said, “Luther?  Please go fetch Miss Dixie so Tom can take her home.”

----- / ----- / -----

Luther poured two fresh cups of coffee and doctored them with whiskey before placing one in front of Clayce then taking his chair beside the stove and sipping from the other.

“How long are we gonna chase this fox around the tree, hoss?”

Clayce flashed a smile that never quite reached his eyes.  “Until one or the other of us gets tired, I reckon.  You tired yet, Luther?”

“More confused than tired.  What’re we going to do?”

“There’s not much we can do.  Without a shell casing at the scene there’s no way to tie a particular shotgun to the killing.  Only two suspects, both with brand new, size 10 boots.   No witnesses.  No confession and not likely to be one.  The DA says we don’t have enough evidence to arrest someone, much less take them to trial.  Besides which—to coin a phrase—Joe-Boy Puckett was a no account, nickel-plated sonuvabitch who dealt drugs and beat his common-law wife.  I doubt he’ll be missed.”

“Good riddance to bad rubbish?”

“Yes, to coin another phrase.”

“So, what do we do next?”

“There’s not much we can do.  Unless something changes, this is going down as unsolved.”

“Killed by party or parties unknown?”

“Yup.”

“But we know one of them killed Puckett.”

“Indeed we do,” Clayce agreed mildly.

“The question, hoss, is which one?”

“The answer to which is we don’t have the faintest idea.  Just out of curiosity, take your pick.”

Luther sucked at a back tooth to show both his displeasure and lack of certainty.

“That’d be a heap easier if they wore different sized boots.”





Born and raised in the mountains of West Virginia, Jim has lived in ten states and three foreign countries. Currently retired somewhere in the Ozarks, he has a passion for his wife, blended (not sour mash) bourbon, Hawaiian shirts, anything fried in bacon grease in a cast-iron skillet, stray dogs, and whatever vegetables are in season, with the exception of Brussels sprouts and eggplant.

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