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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.”






collateraldamage.jpg
Art by Steve Cartwright © 2018

COLLATERAL DAMAGE

Jim Farren

 

Collateral Damage – Injury inflicted on something or someone other than an intended target.

----- Monday -----

Waiting is the hard part.  That’s what Bolander always said.  Comparatively speaking, action is easier because it’s driven by your experience and reflexes, dictated by what is happening around you.  But not waiting.  Waiting is suspended animation.  It gives you time to go over the plan, look for holes, probe for weaknesses, wonder if you should have polished this or tweaked that.  Waiting is where self-doubt creeps in and makes you second-guess things you shouldn’t worry about.

Bolander said this particular job was a piece of cake.  He had a reputation for meticulous planning and no mistakes, which is the reason Archie was his partner.  But something went wrong this time. 

According to Bolander, the overseas merchant had come out of the Diamond Exchange with a million and a half dollars worth of diamonds and emeralds in an alligator briefcase chained to his wrist.  He entered the back of the armored truck only to find Bolander waiting for him with a shotgun in hand and a Lone Ranger mask hiding his features.  The diamond merchant was startled, more so when he saw the two guards bound and gagged on the floor.  Bolander duct-taped the man’s wrists and ankles before using a pair of bolt cutters to sever the chain securing the briefcase.

Archie was at the wheel of the getaway car parked fifteen yards behind the armored truck.  He watched Bolander exit the rear, toss the mask and shotgun inside then stroll to the car, briefcase in hand.  He slipped into the passenger seat as Archie checked the mirrors before pulling smoothly into traffic.  That’s when a Mexican illegal in a battered pickup ran a red light and T-boned the driver’s side.  Archie was pinballed from steering wheel to side window to dashboard.  By the time he stopped bouncing he was a bloody, battered mess.  Bolander slipped away in the gathering crowd.  Around the corner he flagged a cab and, thirty minutes later, was seated aboard Amtrak’s Sunset Limited on its way from New Orleans to Los Angeles.

That was his story when he called me.  He told me Archie was dead, but gave no details.  I found them out later.  He said that even with Archie gone, the plan hadn’t changed.  He still expected to see me the next morning.  I told him I’d be there.

----- Tuesday -----

Bolander exited the train in San Antonio where I picked him up and we spent five minutes talking about Archie before driving five hours to Dallas.  I took the first leg, switching drivers after we ate chicken fried steaks in Waco.  The top jewel fence in the county lives in a gated and guarded compound just outside of Fort Worth.  His name is Elliot Kruger and he only deals in loose gems—no jewelry, no exceptions.  He also pays 25% on the dollar which is 5% more than anyone else who deals in hot gems.  He pays the extra because he is very selective about his customers.  Over the years I’ve sent a lot of guys his way and he likes doing business thru me.

We had switched the loose stones from the alligator briefcase to a nylon gym bag lined with cotton batting.  Kruger looked like your neighbor’s kids’ grandpa, complete with a horseshoe of cropped white hair, twinkling blue eyes, and bifocals perched on the end of his slender nose.  Think of Geppetto the woodcarver in Pinocchio.  Bolander handed him the gym bag which he handed to an associate who could have passed for Santa Claus if he’d been wearing a red suit.  “Professor,” Kruger said, “we await your appraisal,” then asked us if we’d like some refreshment.  Bolander said a beer would be good and we were each brought one after the Professor left the room.  We made small-talk while we waited, my contribution being an occasional nod and grunt to show I was paying attention.  We were halfway thru our second beer when the Professor reappeared with a smile and a Samsonite overnight case.  Kruger took the case and arched an inquisitive eyebrow.  The Professor said, “Very nice.  As good as advertised.  Three hundred and thirty thousand for the lot.”  Kruger shifted his eyebrow to Bolander who said, “I’ll take it,” and we did.

Leaving the compound with me behind the wheel, Bolander opened the case and whistled softly under his breath.  I glanced over at the banded stacks of cash and grinned.  We found a FedEx store in a Fort Worth mall and I watched the attendant box up the case and slap on a label addressed to Bolander at his home in the Ozarks.  “Safer than an armored car,” Bolander said as we crossed the parking lot.

Six hours later we were in a Best Western motel in Joplin, Missouri.  We ate a light supper and turned in early.

----- Wednesday -----

Up at dawn, we had breakfast at a Cracker Barrel and spent a little over an hour driving to Springfield, Missouri where we left the Interstate and followed twenty miles of twisty, two-lane backroad to Bolander’s place.

Opal was waiting.  She hugged us both, kissing me on the cheek and Bolander on the lips.  It was obvious what they wanted so I said I thought I’d take a walk.  I spent half an hour kicking thru leaves and chunking rocks at squirrels.  Back at the cabin, Bolander grinned at me while Opal rustled up something on the stove.  They had a we-just-fucked look about them and I felt a sharp pang of jealousy.  Not that I wanted Opal in particular, although I wouldn’t have kicked her out of bed, just that I could use a good fuck, too.  Later I’d drive into town and see if Sandy was still tending bar in one of its two taverns.

We washed down soup and sandwiches with cold beer, all of us antsy now that the money was in transit.  Like I said, waiting is the hard part; waiting for the job, waiting to fence the goods, waiting for the money to arrive.  The best thing about Bolander was his approach to thievery which was purely professional.  He had a solid reputation, but little was known about him.  No one knew who he really was, or where he lived, or anything about his background.  His only mode of communication was burner cell phones and he always called you, never the other way around.  Anonymity was his safety net, his protection, his way of staying off everybody’s radar.

Archie and I were exceptions to the rule.  We went way back with Bolander; back to being kids together, to the orphanage, to dropping out of school and running away to join the carnival.  Back to shoplifting and grifting and scamming marks and gradually working up from knocking over gas stations and convenience marts to banks, then jewelry stores.  That’s where we found our niches.  Bolander’s was loose gemstones (no jewelry or baubles, no matter how tempting).  Archie’s was being a dependable second banana, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but a guy you could count on and one hell of a wheelman.  As for me, I’ve always been a people person so I developed relationships.  I knew guys who knew guys who could fence anything if the money was right.  I knew a couple of high-priced defense lawyers who couldn’t care less if you were guilty, and a few judges (including two on the Federal bench) who could be bought, and several cops in several states who could make evidence disappear or fake you an ironclad alibi or provide reliable people to vouch for your sterling, law-abiding character.

As I said at the start, waiting is the hard part.  After ten years of being in business—an average of two Bolander jobs a year, plus several others for different clients—I was wrapping it up.  Nobody stays lucky forever.  Sooner or later the odds catch up with you.  All along I’d had a number in my head, a number that would let me live comfortably the rest of my life.  My cut from this last job of Bolander’s would put me over the top.  Bingo!  Time to retire to the land I’d purchased outside of Boise, Idaho, where I planned to raise a few cattle, grow some potatoes, and find a good woman who wanted to settle down with a guy who drank sparingly and knew how to treat her right.  Now the wait was almost over.  FedEx would deliver by 10am tomorrow.  I intended to be on the road by noon.  Bolander wasn’t sure what he was going to do.  Maybe find another partner, maybe go into semi-retirement, maybe open a legit business.

That afternoon Bolander took a nap while Opal and I played dominoes.  She told me how she’d met Archie when he came into a bar where she was waitressing.  He sat at a table by himself and nearby were two ersatz cowboys who were hassling her—asking for her number, remarking on her physical attributes which were plentiful, trying a little touch and grab.  She went across the room to wait on some college boys and saw that Archie had joined the two assholes.  By the time she returned, Archie was back at his table and the pair of hasslers were gone.  She told me he was such a mild-mannered guy she had no idea what he could have said to them.  I told her not to be fooled by Archie’s easy affability, that when riled he could be tougher than marked-down meat.

That was the same night she first met Bolander who stopped in to have a beer with Archie.  He was a charmer, Bolander was.  Handsome, too, far better looking than me or Archie.  He was the kind of man who had a way with women, and he had his way with Opal.  They’d been together going on four years, though I never got the feeling it was permanent.  A comfortable relationship to be sure, but more one of convenience, as if each of them was waiting for something better to come along.

I drove into town for supper, giving them some space and time.  After supper, I hit the local tavern for a few beers and some laughs with Sandy the bartender.  She and I had known each other a couple of years and were occasional fuck-buddies.  Those occasions being whenever I was at Bolander’s place.  Like me, Sandy enjoyed a good romp in the hay, no strings attached.  She called it intimacy-of-the-moment, which was the only kind either of us wanted.  After she closed the bar, we went to her apartment where we played some satisfying mattress polo then ate warmed-over pizza while naked in bed.  A shared shower led to us crawling back between the sheets for another athletic round of exercise before falling asleep, exhausted.

----- Thursday -----

I awakened early, but Sandy wanted to sleep in.  When I slapped her on the butt she rolled away and mumbled for me to leave her alone.  I found eggs in her refrigerator and scrambled four with sour cream and green onions, made some buttered toast, and watched Fox News while I ate.  It must have been a slow day for news because they had a segment on the Diamond Exchange robbery.  That’s how I found out about Archie.

FedEx had come and gone by the time I got to Bolander’s.  He was sitting at the table with stacks of cash in an open gym bag.  He nodded at the brown paper sack across from him.

“Forty-nine thousand five hundred,” he said.  “Your 15%.”

I didn’t count it, in fact didn’t even look at it.  Instead, I turned a kitchen chair around and sat, folding my arm across the back.  My eyes never left his face.

“Opal’s in the back packing,” he said.  “We’re leaving as soon as you do.  She wants to visit her people in Florida and I could use some sun, sand, and cold beer under an umbrella.”

My voice was a little raspy, partly from stress and partly from grief, when I asked, “Why’d you shoot Archie?”

His expression didn’t change except for a slight narrowing of his eyes.  He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “Believe me, Hank, he was already dead.  It was a gift.”

“A what?  Did you say a gift?  You’re going to have to make that make sense.”

“You had to be there,” he explained reasonably.  “He was gone.  All cut up and his head bashed in.  There was blood everywhere and he wasn’t breathing.”

“So you shot him?”

“I did it to confuse the cops.  I needed time to get away.”

“So you put the gun in his hand?”

Bolander sighed again, shook his head sadly.  “Believe me, if he’d been alive I’d’ve stayed.  As it was I wanted the cops thinking about him, not about a second guy.”

“So you made it look like a suicide?  That was pretty fast thinking, don’t you think?  What if he wasn’t dead, just in a really bad way?”

“I know dead, Hank,” he snapped, “and believe me, Archie was.”

“If it was like you say, why didn’t you tell me before?  Why’d I have to hear it on the fucking news?”

“Because I knew you’d take it the way you’re taking it now.  Man, you had to be there.  Do you honestly think I’d shoot him if he wasn’t already dead?”

“I dunno,” I said honestly.  “Maybe if you knew he was dying anyway.  If he wasn’t dying quick enough.  If you were worried he might give you up.”

“Archie wouldn’t do that.”

“You’re right, he wouldn’t.  Not ever.  But how could you be sure?  All those jewels and him being the only guy who could finger you.”

He tried being reasonable again.  “Even I’m not that cold.  Do you think I could be that cold?”

“I dunno,” I said slowly.  “I’m not sure.”

 “Shit,” he said gruffly.  I knew you’d take it all it wrong.”

“He was my brother,” I said sadly.

“Yes, and like a brother to me.  That’s what I’m talking about.  I wasn’t sure you wouldn’t come looking for me.  I’m still not sure of that.”

I thought about the revolver tucked in the waistband of my jeans. 

“If I wanted to kill you you’d already be dead.”

“Uh huh, but that’s right now.  What about later?”

“There is no later,” I said flatly.  “I’m out of business . . . retired . . . as of today.”

“That’s what you say, but I also know how you are.  You get fixated on something and can’t turn it loose.  You worry it like a dog worries a bone.  What if you’re sitting out there in the boondocks and decide there’s more to it than I’m telling you?  I don’t intend to spend the rest of my life looking back to see if you’re behind me.”

“I’m telling you it’s over,” I said flatly, almost convincing myself.

“I’d like to believe you, Hank.  Truly I would.”  His hand came up from under the table and he cocked the gun he held.  It made an inordinately loud sound in the quiet room.  “I just can’t take the chance.”

I could see his finger tightening on the trigger.  Two shots, almost as one—Bam!Bam!—but not from Bolander who stumbled forward half a step, surprise changing his face, his hand dropping as he fell against the edge of the table and onto the floor.  Standing behind him was Opal, smoke curling up from the muzzle of the gun she held.  Her expression was mixed, determination in the set of her jaw, regret in her green eyes.

I sat there, mouth agape.

“Dead or not, he shouldn’t have shot Archie,” she said quietly.  “He really shouldn’t have.”

Without Bolander standing between us, her gun was pointed at me.  It didn’t waiver.  My mouth was dry as cotton, but I managed to make my voice work.

“What happens now, Opal?”

She shook her head as if to clear it, then refocused her gaze on me.

“He was going to shoot you, too,” she said.  “Take your money and go, Hank.”  Glancing at Bolander’s body she added, “I guess his share is mine now.”

I looked down, too, then asked, “What about him?”

“I’ll take care of it,” she said in a wistful tone.

She dropped into what had been Bolander’s chair and put her head in her hands.  I rose to walk around the table and massage her shoulders while she cried softly.  Her trying to stifle the tears brought on the hiccups.  I patted her back and she finally lifted her head, saying, “You’d better go if you’re going to make any miles before dark.”

All I could think of to say was, “I may drive all night.”

She walked me to my car, the brown paper sack in one of her hands like a mom sending her son to school with his lunch.  I got behind the wheel and put the sack on the passenger’s seat beside me.  She leaned in the driver’s open window and kissed my temple.

“Drive carefully, Hank.  You’ve got my cell number, don’t be a stranger.  Call if you need anything.  I’ve never been west of the Rockies so maybe I’ll come visit sometime.”

“You’ll always be welcomed,” I said, suddenly realizing that I meant it.

Pulling down the driveway I looked up and saw her in the rearview mirror.  She had one hand on her hip and the other half-raised in a goodbye wave.  The sun highlighted her red hair like a nimbus.  Archie was dead.  Bolander was dead.  My old life was dead, and Idaho would be a new beginning.  How many people get that?

I wondered if she was coming on to me, that crack about maybe coming to visit.  Not that I’d mind so much, just that I didn’t know how to take it.  She’d saved my life, but unlike Bolander I wasn’t all that good with women.  She was a good one, though, that much I knew . . . and a good-looking one.

As I turned onto the twisty, two-lane blacktop I caught a last glimpse of Opal’s red hair.  Like a halo, I thought.  Maybe there was something there after all.  Once I got settled and some time had passed maybe I’d call her from Boise and find out.

 

END




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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