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By John Lutz
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 John Lutz
All rights reserved.
The horizon was red-rimmed, tall cedar and pine trees standing out in sharp relief like black notched arrowheads against the glow. In the dark sky above the glow no stars were visible, but directly overhead in the smokeless sky were several pinpoints of wavering yellow light, like tiny eyes watching what was going on below and blinking occasionally in disbelief. The reddish glow might have been the trailing glory of a brilliant Ozark sunset only the time was 10:30 P.M., and the glow was on the northern horizon.
Sheriff Billy Wintone stood in the dusty main street of Colver and watched the crimson glow, one hand resting lightly on the holstered .38 that lay on his right hip, the other hand clenching and unclenching empty air in an unconscious nervous gesture he'd lately acquired.
"Hell's own," old Bonifield observed beside Wintone. "Worst forest fire this country's seen." There was a trill of excitement in his voice, like that of a young child at an accident scene. Old Bonifield owned a little truck farm some ten miles out of Colver, but he seemed never to farm it, choosing instead to inflict his presence on Colver and Sheriff Wintone. Bonifield was a whipcord-lean old man, well into his sixties, with surprisingly young pale blue and eager eyes and a cantankerous soul and tongue. He liked to harangue. And since he was alone and had no one to harangue; he harangued everyone.
Wintone didn't answer Bonifield, hoping that the old man would leave, knowing he wouldn't. The August heat made a man sweat even at 10:30 at night, and Wintone moved out farther into the street, away from the buzzing glare of the half-lighted neon sign above Mully's tavern.
"Been burnin' some two days now," old Bonifield said, following the sheriff. "Burnin' out thousands of acres up there, all them resorts an' tourist places. Serve 'em right up there, maybe. They been rich too long."
"It'll burn some while longer with this drought," Wintone said, still gazing at the low-lying reddish glare that was miles away, on the other side of Big Water Lake. He thought of how the fire must be dancing in the dry night breeze, crowning in heat- blasted explosions of flame through the tops of the drought-thirsted trees. He had seen a few forest fires close up. A few had been enough.
The front screen door of Mully's slammed, reverberating like distant rifle fire, and Wintone heard footsteps on the hard ground. Luke Higgins, owner and operator of Higgins' Motel, walked toward Wintone and Bonifield through the neon glare, walked none too steadily.
"Still a'blazin' up there, ain't it," he said, looking toward the northern horizon. The red glow was caught for a second like candlelight in his thick, wire-rimmed spectacles, lending his round, unshaven face an almost angelic appearance. Wintone saw the pint bourbon bottle sticking half out of his hip pocket.
"You be careful goin' back to the motel, Luke," Wintone said.
"Sheriff ain't about to arrest you for drunkenness," old Bonifield said. He spat chewing tobacco skillfully and carefully onto the street, as if aiming at something.
"What I come out for," Higgins said, "was to tell you Mrs. Plumber phoned to see if you were at Mully's, said Jack Allen's hound is givin' her fits again with his yowlin'. Wants you to shoot the dog ... wants you to shoot Jack Allen."
"There's plenty I'd shoot before Jack Allen," Wintone said. Now that he was listening for it he could hear the lonely howling of Git, Jack Allen's coon hound, from the other side of town though the wind was carrying it away.
Higgins moved off toward the back of Mully's where his ten-year-old Dodge was parked, and old Bonifield followed him or the bottle. Wintone ran a hand over his damp forehead and set off walking toward Jack Allen's.
A tiny night insect struck Wintone's face, buzzed for a second about his nostrils. He swiped at his nose, brushed his coarse mustache with the backs of his knuckles. He drew a handkerchief from a pocket of his tan sheriff's uniform and wiped his forehead and cheeks, the back of his neck. It was simmering hot still, as though the heat of the northern inferno were somehow rolling over the lake's black surface to Colver.
Git's howling was louder now, and Wintone could understand how Mrs. Plumber would have trouble sleeping. Most likely she did want him to shoot both Jack Allen and the dog, knowing that if he shot only the dog Jack Allen would howl.
Wintone turned down a side street, walked awhile longer, then turned in through a wooden gate needing paint and crossed the hard ground, ground that seemed it must be packed dry to bedrock, to Jack Allen's front door. Behind the small, cedar-plank house the hound took up its mournful howling in a more serious vein, as if to impress the sheriff. Across the way, lights burned in the Plumber house.
Five minutes passed before Jack Allen, sleepy-eyed, hair mussed, wearing only a torn T-shirt and boxer shorts, opened the door some six inches. He squinted hard at Wintone.
"Gotta keep Git quiet," Wintone told him. "I got complaints. People can't sleep."
Jack Allen rubbed his eyes. "Keep what? ... Quiet? ..."
"That howlin'," Wintone said. "It's keepin' some folks awake who don't want to be."
"You're used to it, Jack Allen. That's how you can sleep. Listen, there's some that ain't."
"Uh-huh!" Jack Allen nodded as if for the first time he heard the sirenlike wailing rising from his backyard. "Some bein' that Mrs. Plumber, I'll bet."
"She's got a right to sleep," Wintone said.
"Old bitch'd rather be up all night lookin' into other people's affairs, is what."
"Take Git inside. Calm him down."
"If'n I don't?"
Wintone sighed. "I'll have to take him out somewhere where he's not botherin' anybody."
"You'd take my dog, would you?"
"If it came down to it, which I hope it won't."
Jack Allen opened the door wider, looking silly with his massive upper body and skinny legs. "Never threatened to do that before, Sheriff. It's like you're pushin' things with that badge of yours lately, ever since ..."
Wintone's left hand clenched, unclenched. "Since what?"
"Since, is all."
The two men stared at each other, conveying what words would have given shape to, made actionable. But no words were exchanged. The dog howled louder, inspired by Wintone's presence.
"He ain't et," Jack Allen said by way of explanation.
"You feed him, why don't you. Make him quiet." Wintone walked the short distance to the back of the house into sudden silence. He untied the rangy spotted hound and led it around to the front door. Jack Allen hadn't moved.
"He smells coon, maybe," Jack Allen said.
"Maybe." Wintone dropped the thick rope and the dog wedged between Jack Allen and the door frame to get inside the house, where it remained quiet.
There was a crash inside the house as the dog knocked something over. Jack Allen glanced back into the darkness, then stared at Wintone with resigned anger.
"You keep him in now," Wintone said. He turned and walked the hard ground halfway back to the dirt street that was just as hard.
A big dark station wagon, fairly new, seemed to appear like a magician's illusion in the street before Wintone. Four men sat in the air-conditioned interior behind rolled-up windows, all middle-aged, dressed casual-expensive. As the power window on the passenger's side glided down, Wintone saw that one of the men was wearing a gold chain and medallion like a necklace.
"You know where there's a passable motel around here?" the driver called to Wintone. "Near some passable fishing?"
Wintone noticed the fishing gear in the back of the wagon, rods and reels, hip boots, tackle boxes. "Higgins' Motel'd do. Keep goin' like you are, make a right when you can't go no farther and take that road on up along Big Water Lake till you come to Higgins' place off to your left."
"Straight, right, left," the driver impressed upon himself.
"Thanks, scout," one of the passengers said, and the window glided upward as the big car accelerated, raising dust invisible in the night air.
Wintone watched the wavering red taillights until they disappeared, then he walked on toward the street.
"Since, is all ..." Jack Allen repeated loudly behind him.
When Wintone looked back after a few steps, the door was shut.CHAPTER 2
"We shoulda know'd the tourists'd be comin'," Mully said from behind the bar. He was a large man, though thin and a bit stooped in middle age, and his tanned face behind dark-rimmed glasses was lined like old folding money.
"Takes a real ass to have that kinda hindsight," Frank Turper, who ran Turper's Grill, said to laughter up and down the bar.
Mully smiled to show Turper he wasn't riled and started wiping the smooth bar top with a tattered but clean white rag.
It was dim in Mully's, and though the old brick building wasn't air conditioned it always seemed cool compared to outside, maybe because of the old wide-bladed ceiling fan that was always slowly revolving as if it might just continue to do so as long as the earth revolved. The floor was rough-sawn plank, and the red vinyl booths and some of the bar stools were so patched with smooth electrician's tape that they were more tape than vinyl. The bar itself was grand, twenty feet long and of fine mahogany with a solid brass foot rail. Mully laughingly refused frequent offers from tourists who wanted to buy the bar. Behind the bar, hung high on the wall, was an illuminated beer ad, a faded picture of a heavy-antlered stag poised atop a rise and looking back over his shoulder as if at his pursuers. There was a broken electric clock beneath the stag, its coiled cord plugged into a wall socket, but its ornate black hands had indicated 11:59 for as long as Wintone could remember. Above the front door was a mounted trout upon the belly of which a taxidermist had skillfully attached rabbit fur. The few city fishermen who had ventured into Mully's had been amused.
Mully set Wintone up another beer.
"Ain't an empty cabin in my motel," Luke Higgins said beside the sheriff.
"It's an ill wind ..." Wintone said.
"Ain't nothin' ill about it," Frank Turper said from down the bar. He was a heavyset man with soft padded cheeks and small dark eyes that seemed harder and sharper for being set deep in all that inflated flesh. "Every business in Colver's picked up like we never believed. Only wind I can see in it at all is the one fanned those flames that burned out all those tourist traps on the north shore."
"That big new fancy one built last year," old Bonifield said, "it burned clear flat level, Seth Orson told me. Serves the bastards right; they done made enough money."
"Amen," Luke Higgins said beside Wintone.
Turper bought Bonifield and himself another round. "Thing is, once the tourists start comin' down here for their fishin' an' boatin', they might keep on comin' even after the north shore's built back up in a year or so."
"Except for one thing," Wintone said, tilting back his beer mug and taking a pull while Turper waited. "The south end of Big Water Lake ain't nearly the resort an' fishin' kind of water they got up north. This end is wild, shallow an' reed-grown. There's places nobody's set foot in for years."
"And with good reason," Mully said. "If you don't get lost or snakebit, you'll drop your hook in an' all you'll bring up is weed or slime. Lynn Cove an' the bank down near the dock are the only decent fishin' spots on the shore."
"City fishermen are funny sorts," Higgins said. "They'll go someplace where nobody's set foot just to get their lines tangled."
"So's they have to buy new line," Turper said.
"Which the Colver General Merchandise store'll sell 'em," old Bonifield said, raising his beer mug to Wintone.
"Still," Wintone said, "this water ain't clear like off the north shore, an' it's too overgrown and shallow for a boat to get around for some hundred yards off the bank. A little shallower and it'd damn near be swamp."
"Sheriff'd bitch if you hung him with a new rope," old Bonifield said, lifting his mug again. "He oughta be glad prosperity's come to Colver."
"Amen," Higgins said.
"Mayor Boemer might not like you talkin' like that, Sheriff," Frank Turper said with the burlesque of righteous indignation that was all he could muster after five beers.
Wintone shrugged. "Piss on the mayor. He's lucky I don't arrest him in his office for loitering."
"Ain't you techy," old Bonifield said. "Been techy on to ... six months or so."
Wintone's fingers whitened on the dark beer bottle as he poured.
"I will say the sheriff didn't arrest me when I got glorious jug-bit last Saturday a week," old Bonifield went on. "I will say he ain't that techy, to arrest a man drunk but not so drunk as to be a nuisance."
"You're a nuisance sober," Wintone said.
"A nuisance," old Bonifield said, "ain't exactly a menace ..."
"Sheriff's right about this end of the lake, though," Mully said at the right time, as was his way. "Ain't nothin' but miles of bad water, wild growth an' copperhead snakes. We fish this part of it 'cause we live here an' we're used to it."
"Fish is a fish," Bonifield said with a shrug of his thin shoulders.
"If mudcat, crawdad an' bony carp are your fare."
"Good eatin' if you know how to cook 'em!" Bonifield snapped.
"Tourists don't know," Wintone said calmly.
"Them that don't know comes to my restaurant," Frank Turper said.
Wintone saw that the talk was caught in a circle, a hoop-snake conversation bound to bite its own tail. He finished his beer, slid off his stool and walked out into the brightness and heat of midday.
He crossed the hot street slowly and walked toward his office, thinking of Lil Higgins renting cabins and making money while Luke sat in Mully's. Thinking of Velda, the henna-haired waitress at Turper's Grill, dealing out hamburgers to the ring of the cash register. The hordes of tourists that had invaded the south shores of Big Water Lake meant added business for most everybody, and Wintone knew that sooner or later he'd get his rightful share of business. Only he was likely the solitary one who didn't want it.
Wintone waved to Web Hooper, passing in his red pickup, then he opened the door in the frame street-front building that used to be a sweets store but some twenty-five years ago had been converted into the sheriff's office and "temporary" jail. Wintone remembered the sweets store from when he was a boy, the taffy in the winter, still hot, that would steam some if you dropped it in the snow and taste all the better after you dug it out. He was just turned forty-one now, and that time seemed long, long past, only a dream more vivid than most.
In fact, it seemed years since Etty had died, but old Bonifield had set the time right: six months and nine days. The sheriff could tack on the hours and minutes, if you wanted, to a hair.
Wintone shut the door behind him quickly so the old window air conditioner wouldn't have to strain to catch up. The office itself was small; scarred wooden desk, green file cabinets on one wall, a few hickory chairs with seat cushions on them, a cork bulletin board with the usual curled and yellowed memorandums and wanted notices attached like mounted long-dead butterflies that had faded. The back room, where Wintone had a cot, was larger than the office and held most of the furniture, and beyond that was the room containing the three eight-by-eight cells, most often empty.
Wintone ran the back of his wrist across his forehead and slumped in the swivel chair behind his paper-strewn desk. The office was the coolest room right now, but if Wintone decided to spend the night here he'd set up a small fan to blow the coolness from the air conditioner into the back room. It worked. Cool air pretty much went where it was pushed, and where it was pushed was cooler than the small set of rooms Wintone leased from the Lalprin family, who had left the rest of the house empty two years ago to move to Springfield.
Etty regarded Wintone from her portrait on his desk corner, a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman in her mid-thirties, with beauty but no hint of mystery in her slight smile. The smile was simply something that belonged about the generous lips; the thing about Etty that stayed strongest with Win-tone was the smile.
Excerpted from Bonegrinder by John Lutz. Copyright © 1977 John Lutz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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