Chapter One

Bittersmith, WY 1971

 
  
Got my eye on a purty waitress across the street named Jeanine; been telling myself for two years that one day I’d visit her on this desk.
 
Sonsabitches want to run me out? Sheriff Bittersmith, run out?
 
Only thing left to go in the box is my coffee mug. Soon as I dump the last cold swallow and run it under the sink, I’m going to prop my feet on the corner of my desk and wait for noon, walk over there for a wedge of cherry pie, see about Jeanine.
 
I’m grumbling out loud and Fenny watches from her desk.
 
Women age twice as fast. Twenty woman-years ago, Fenny was something to look at. Now she’s got corncob thighs and tits that spread like loose flapjack batter.
 
“What’re you bitchin’ about?” She smiles, and she’s purty enough to bend over. Barely. “You got your health,” she says.
 
“Aw, hell.”
 
I rap a desktop that’s as empty as a liar’s stare. No time like the present. Grab my coffee cup.
 
“Where you going?” Fenny says.
 
Deputy Odum says, “We got coffee here.”
 
“I’ll be back in five minutes. Don’t think you can move your shit in my office.”
 
It’s colder’n a witch’s bippy outside, all snow and ice. Across the street, cattycorner, is the County Seat. Best hashed brownsin the state, and the prettiest waitress serving them. I wait while old Mrs. Llewellyn drives past in her Mercury, still smelling like ninety-five octane gasoline ’cause she’s never in the last six months had her carburetor adjusted. I wave, and she waves back. I toss my old coffee to snow piling on the road where the salt isn’t keeping up and spend a minute with the broom outside the County Seat cleaning slush off my boots.
 
“What brings you back so soon, Sheriff?” Jeanine says.
 
“Need a refill.” I rest my mug on the counter and look around. Late morning; nobody here. “Things not picking up yet?”
 
“Not for an hour, if then. We got the storm of the century coming in.” She carries the coffee pot to my cup. “Something on your mind?”
 
“Couple of things.”
 
She’s an Irish brunette with skin the color of a pink rose and eyes like fireflies.
 
I look and she smiles.
 
“Couple things on my mind,” I say. “Last day on the job.”
 
“How’s an institution like you get to retire?”
 
“Damn town council is how.”
 
She carries the pot away but turns to keep eye contact. “Had a vote last night,” I say. “Back room. Brandy snifters and cigar smoke, you know. The public uninvited.”
 
“Sounds rotten already.”
 
“That’s the story. I’m out.”
 
“Terrible.”
 
“Puts a man in an awkward situation.”
 
“How’s that?”
 
“I’ll shoot you straight.” There’s noise in the kitchen. I lower my voice. “You started two years ago, and I’ve come here every morning. Every time I leave, it’s been with the thought that one day we’d swan over to the station and get familiar with each other. You seem like a girl needs adventure, and I’m down to one last day wearing the badge—”
 
“What?”
 
“You asked what was on my mind.”
 
“Familiar?”
 
“See, I know where you come from.” Her lips aren’t inviting now. I’ve seen it on other girls. “Elderberry has a sheriff, you know. Stevens. Good man. Good friend of mine.”
 
“What’d you have in mind, Sheriff?”
 
“It’d be a shame for him to have to drive up here, weather like this, to fetch you home. Why, you’d end up in that jail across the street for a week, maybe, ’til the roads clear.”
 
“You wouldn’t.”
 
“I’d be obliged. That’s why I thought if you and I was to go over to the station, we might find a reason it don’t make sense for me to call my friend Sheriff Stevens. Might find a way around some of the uglier aspects of the law.”
 
“Two years,” she says, shaking her head.
 
“Two years I wondered what’d bring a pretty thing like you up here. Keep you laying low, not partying about town like the other kids your age.”
 
She looks at an oval clock above the kitchen window. “Just how familiar?”
 
“I dunno. Maybe a little head. Mornin’ head is always nice.”
 
She clenches her jaw.
 
“You wouldn’t be able to do that,” I say. “I’d put a pop-knot on your head, you did something like that.”
 
“That it? Freedom for a blowjob?”
 
“Simple.”
 
“You got people over there. Deputies.”
 
“And Fenny. But you’ve never been there, so I wouldn’t expect you to know there’s no window in my office door.”
 
“You’re an asshole. Put me in jail.”
 
“Think on it. Give it thirty seconds. You know the price of a good lawyer? You’ll need some lawyerin’ for sure. Grand theft auto’s a big deal, great state of Wyoming.”
 
Her jaw slides sideways. Tired. Predictable. Furrowed brows, then arched—but with squinty eyes. Mad as hell about being forced to buckle, but in the long run, things are going to be better if she takes the world—and her place—such as they are.
 
She turns her back and I count seconds. Fifteen, twenty. She faces me, says over her shoulder, “Eddy, I’m going outside for some air.”
 
Eddy grunts.
 
She goes the long way around the counter, lifts a leather jacket from the rack at the far end, and precedes me out the door. Ass shakes like good stiff pudding. She takes the steps two at a time and strides across the street so mad she loses balance every other step. Old Mrs. Llewellyn is coming back the other way and slides partly sideways to stop, and I offer her another wave.
 
I hurry to pass Jeanine and she still beats me to the door, but pauses. “One time. If you ever come for me again…”
 
“Don’t bother saying it. You’ll scratch my eyes out.”
 
“I’ll castrate you.”
 
“Promises. Let’s get inside.” I take her elbow. Guide her to my office. At the door I say to the deputies, “Miss Jeanine and I will be a minute. She’s a potential witness.”
 
I close the door.
 
“They know.”
 
“Who the hell cares?”
 
I lean against my desk and she scans the office. Pulls a cushion from the couch against the far wall. Stands before me all perky and defiant.
 
“There? In front of the door? Sit on the couch.”
 
“Plumbing works better standing. Getting old.”
 
I unfix my drawers and pull out Big Nixon. She gapes. Gulps. Tosses the cushion at my feet and falls to her knees in front of me. She opens her mouth and leans, and I already feel that special scrotal tickle. Her breath.
 
“Let me be clear,” Jeanine says. “I hope I give you a heart attack.”
 
“I do too, sweetie.”
 
* * *
 
The phone rings and Fenny answers. She clucks and chatters and I recheck my desk drawers for anything I’ve forgotten. Spot a paperclip and slide it across the drawer bottom. Can’t get my fat fingers around it. Fenny clears her throat. She’s at my door holding the receiver to her hip.
 
“Don’t look so sour,” I say. “They’ll make you retire.”
 
Fenny doesn’t smile. The cord extends fifteen feet from her desk and swings against the garbage can. Her face is pale.
 
Something urgent at hand. She presses the receiver to her breast and mouths, “Line one.”
 
Fenny bird-steps away, smoothing her underpants line while jawin’ into the phone. “Now Missus Haudesert, start from the beginning. The sheriff is on the line.”
 
I press the phone to my ear. “Bittersmith.”
 
“He’s dead,” she says. “Gale G’Wain run him through with a pitch fork.”
 
I drop my feet from the desk. “Who’s dead?”
 
“Burt is, you old fool. That whelp killed him this morning.”
 
“Burt? What whelp?”
 
“That’s right, and you got to get out here and do something about it.”
 
“Burt’s dead,” I say. Breathing feels like pulling a hundred pound bowstring. My face tingles and my mind is low-blood pressure thin.
 
“Sheriff?”
 
I clench the edge of my desk. Cover the phone with my other hand. “Who’s Gale G’Wain?”
 
Fenny’s looking away.
 
“Sheriff?”
 
I uncover the phone. “Missus Haudesert, are you sure? About Burt?”
 
“Well, he ain’t moved, and I don’t expect there’s a pint of blood left in him.”
 
“I’m coming.” I drop the phone in the tray. Deputy Travis completes a form at his desk.
 
Deputy Odum peers in through my open door. “What’s shakin’, Sheriff?”
 
I have four deputies: Odum, Sager, Roosevelt, and Travis, a youngster whose father made an impression at the Lodge.
 
Travis’ daddy saw me in town, said Travis served with honor and distinction in the military police. He’d be coming home from the service and looking for work. Town Council anteed up the budget and the job was waiting when Travis got home.
 
He’s a solid boy and has the discipline. I’d sooner see him Sheriff than Odum, but he’s only twenty-six years old.
 
“Fuck off, Odum.” I check the load in my Smith & Wesson, snap the cylinder, and shovel the piece into my holster. Grab my coat from the rack.
 
Odum blocks the door. I shoulder past.
 
“Them roads is slippy,” Fenny says. “And getting worse.”
 
“Storm coming in.” I can’t think, so I ramble. “If it hits like the one in fifty-eight, like the weatherman said on the radio this morning, we won’t have much time before Burt’s snowed in for a week. Fenny, call the coroner and send him to Haudesert’s. Odum, I want you at your desk, case I need you.”
 
The door handle is ice, the wind outside brutal. Already a swirl of a drift forms at the west side of the steps. Like a fool, I’ve left my gloves in the Bronco. The snow on the steps is fluffy and the wood at the front of each plank is rounded. I grab the rail. 
 
I scrape new ice from the windshield. Climb inside. The Bronco’s heater blows warm air. I went for a cruise late in the morning and the engine is still cooling down. Fenny was right about the roads. A layer of white hides patches of black ice until skid marks expose them.
 
Haudesert lives south of Lake Wilbur. Lived. I knew him—took an interest in him. 
 
He was a wild man in his early years. A sheriff catches wind of things, sees all manner of idiocy. Years ago, he spent a night in my jail and I sat him down for a come-to-Jesus, and he quieted after our talk. But it was his wife and batch of rats that tamed his rabble rousing. He turned his energy to the Wyoming Militia and started running with a bunch of loons. I already got a gut that it killed him.
 
I take the empty roads slow. Word about the storm is all over and folks are staying home. There’s not much that won’t hold a day…long as you got a day. Goddamn town council held their vote last night behind closed doors. Edmund comes into the hallway with his hands buckled at his belly and says, “I hate to tell you,” and I say, “Then keep your pie hole shut, Ed.” He looks at the floor and I say, “How long have I got?” 
 
“Tomorrow. They want you out tomorrow.”
 
“For Odum?”
 
He nods.
 
“For goddamn Odum?”
 
“These boys think he’s the bee’s knees.”
 
“He don’t have the sense to pull his pecker out a hive o’ hornets.”
 
“You’re seventy years old. You ought to enjoy your wanin’ years.” And I said, “I’m seventy-two, and fuck my wanin’ years, Ed. Fuck ’em. Fuck every one. I’m sheriff of this town. Town bears my name. I’m sheriff ’til the day I die.”
 
I know the game Odum plays, that he can steal a man’s job. He talks new ideas, as if keeping order is nothing but having cars with new radios and an armory stacked with sawed off shotguns. But the fact is, he got to the men who do the deciding. Odum doesn’t know how to get out among the people. Doesn’t know how to take a personal interest in a ruffian like Burt Haudesert, lower his voice, lean in close, grab his eyes by the goddamn balls and say, “I’m going to give you some fatherly advice. You want to keep your momma from seeing your toe with a tag, keep your voice down in my town.” Odum doesn’t have the gravity to tell a man twice his size he’s going to park a pile of hell on his front porch. He’d rather wait and face a big problem down the road than deal with a small one now. It’s a lack of conviction. A sheriff has to own his town. Has to take things personal, and love the wayward son enough to set his ass straight.
 
Maybe that’s why forced retirement feels like they cinched my balls in a leather strap and trussed me from a tree limb. 
 
Haudesert’s lane crosses a built-up section of wooded swamp formed where a crick’s been backed up thirty years. Heavy rain came November—late—and ice sheets half the drive. I track slow on the snow. I’d planned to put on the tire chains on today, but to hell with it.
 
The two-story farmhouse stands on a bare knoll like a broke down castle keep atop a hill. A little farther and to the right is the barn where I’m betting Burt Haudesert breathed his last.
 
The farm looks clean, but dreary. The air is so thick with snow that everything is gray, and the pall extends to the wood-smoke taste of the air.
 
It’s been a long time since the town of Bittersmith saw a murder.
 
The Bronco slips and I downshift, ease along at an idle. Off the ice now, the rutted lane scrambles my guts. I stop on the slope to the barn door and pull the emergency brake. Let the engine run.
 
Fay Haudesert rushes from the house. “He took Gwen!”
 
I look inside the barn. Burt’s boots point to the roof. I can’t see the rest of him.
 
“Guinevere’s gone!” Reaching me, she says, “Didn’t anyone else come with you?”
 
“Who?”
 
Tears stream down her wind-chapped face. “You’ve got to find Gwen!”
 
“Did you see what happened?”
 
“It’s plain.”
 
“He’s plain dead, but did you see it?”
 
“He’s got the fork in his neck.” She stands in the shelter of the Bronco and cups a hand over her eye. Snowflakes melt on the windshield as she looks across the field. Beyond is a band of forested hillside, and beyond that, the lake.
 
An eddy brings the taste of gasoline exhaust to my mouth. “There was tracks that way, before it started blowing,” she says. 
 
“They’re still there. I see ’em.” I look at the purple storm clouds and then at the pair of prints headed across the field. Nodding back at the barn, I say, “You see who did this?”
 
“Who could it be but Gail G’Wain? Our hired hand.”
 
“We’ll see.” I step inside the barn for a quick look and my stomach tumbles. Burt wears green corduroy and flannel, like he came out the house in a hurry. I imagine the scowl masking his face matches the one that fetched him without a coat. The pitchfork through his neck is narrow and Burt’s neck is half as wide as his hips. Wider’n his head. Two tines go all the way through, the middle one piercing his voice box. His fingers are curled into fists, and blood is splotched all over the barn bay—not just the puddle where he bled out, but across the floor, on the joists, bales of hay, on the workbench. It’s like a kid pumped a five-gallon bucket of red paint through a squirt gun. The drops are frozen.
 
Above him, off to the side, a truss hangs from a hemp rope. It’s a two-by-four with thirty-penny nails pounded into the end for hanging deer. It swings in the breeze as each gust of wind sweeps through the bay door.
 
I wipe my eyes. They’re wet from the cold. Fay Haudesert doesn’t see, and I paint my face detached and solemn and turn to her.
 
“Where’s your boys? Where’s Cal and Jordan?”
 
“They ain’t been around all morning.” She turns her eyes to her husband. “But he’s dead, and my little girl’s out in that.”
 
I look outside. The sky is mad as hell.
 
 
 

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