THURSDAY, MAY 13, 1999
ON THE MORNING HE LEARNS ABOUT THE SHERIFF'S BOYS FINDING SISSY Fletcher's body, the smoke is worse than ever, has worked its way through the window unit into his bedroom, its smell factoring into his dreams like sounds sometimes do, waking him up. His subconscious mind registers it, tells him get up, something's on fire.
But once he's awake he knows nothing's on fire, leastwise not in these parts. He lies there, thinking it's too early to get up.
He listens to Martha's breathing, deep and steady, not quite a snore but almost, in the twin bed on the other side of the room. It's a sound he's listened to in the predawn for a lot of years, and he tries to follow the memory of it backward in time, tries to get it to carry him to thoughts of a day when Martha and he were younger and life hadn't used them up so much, thoughts so pleasant they might settle him down some, help him sleep.
In the end it's no use, his mind has gotten going on matters from this time right here. He decides that if he's going down that road he might as well do it over a cigarette.
That thought gets him up.
Soft as a big man can, trusting in the darkness to feel and memory, Jeremiah Spur fetches his work clothes hanging organized and handy in the closet where he had left them the night before. Knowing when he hung them there that even if he were to sleep all night he'd probably need to get dressed before Martha turned over for the first time.
He picks his way to the kitchen, starts the coffee machine. He strips out of his pajamas, folds them, lays them in the bottom of a kitchen chair, pulls on his khakis, buttons his work shirt. He taps his package of Camels in the palm of his hand until the coffee is done, then tucks the cigarettes into his shirt pocket, pours himself some black, takes his boots in one hand, mug in the other.
He pads his way across the family room in his stocking feet, has to clamp the boots between his elbow and his rib cage to free a hand, open the back door and keep it from banging, waking Martha up.
He drops into his straw-bottomed rocker that sits out on his back porch, pulls on his boots, drinks his coffee, rubs his eyes.
Duke gets up from the other side of the porch, stretches his body, its color that of a Zulu potentate, walks over head low, tail going from side to side. Duke plants himself next to the rocker, his back to Jeremiah, offering his head up to get scratched.
Jeremiah drains the coffee, hawks and spits, lights a cigarette. Sits there smoking, scratching Duke behind the ears, below the jaw, down his old black neck. Directly he can tell from the way the world is stirring out beyond the rail fence, birds calling some, chickens starting to make a racket, it's fixing to be light.
There'd been many a time, working some case or other as a Ranger, when he had been up and about this time of day, or even earlier. He had been partial to the predawn in those days, liked being up before the rest of the world got going. Bad guys still snoring away, dreaming their bad guy dreams, him wide-awake, tending relentlessly to the business of reeling them in.
But those days have been over for some months now. Giving up that life had been like having an arm sawed off. Not that he had any choice in it if he was to have any hope of managing all the forces that have him in their grip. You get to a certain point where you can't go on pretending that those other problems would somehow magically get better.
Life has taught Jeremiah Spur a thing or two, like miracles can happen, you just can't plan around them.
So he had had to quit. But, Lord, how he missed it.
He's being weak-minded, and he shakes his head over it. He stubs out the cigarette, flicks the butt out into the yard.
Not much for an old rancher to do this hour of the day but wait for the sunrise, except there won't be a sunrise worthy of the name. Instead, the sky lightens by degrees from complete black to a gray, the color of a cinder block, and there it stays. Somewhere out there you know the sun is up, but you can't see it. All you can see is smoke.
He wonders, How many days are left to Elizabeth to see a sunrise or a sunset? It's a bitter thought.
They say the fires are down in southern Mexico somewhere. Peasant farmers clearing woods and jungle, burning trash. Making new fields for various crops. The weatherman on Channel 13 allowed as how there's some kind of high-pressure system positioned over the central Gulf, redirecting the jet stream. Pumping smoke from the Mexican peasant fires and heat from the Mexican desert all the way to Texas, way up past his ranch even. They say smoke fouls the sky all the way to Dallas and beyond.
The very air of the Earth has become pestilential through acts of God and man. It smells like a trash fire, you can't stand to be outside for any length of time. Causes even a smoker's eyes to itch, throat to burn. He's lived in Washington County some forty years and he's never seen the likes of it.
Once it's light enough to see he gets up, takes his Stetson off a wall peg, puts it on.
He and Duke walk to the pickup he keeps parked just beyond the rail fence, Duke taking the tailgate in one jump. They'll drive the place. Check on the cattle.
The drought has scorched the pastures, turned them brown, cracked them open, cracks big enough to drop a pullet in. The weatherman says that the Gulf high-pressure system is pushing all their rain way north, up toward Kansas. Until that system breaks up or moves off, they would be getting plenty of smoke, plenty of heat, but the one thing they won't be getting is the benefaction of rain.
He parks near a copse of scrub oak, lets the engine idle. Lights a cigarette, eyes the cattle that huddle around looking lean, sickly. Hardly moving.
He gets out of the pickup, walks around to the back. Opens the tailgate, muscles a hay bale to the ground. Flicks his pocketknife, cuts the cord so that the hay falls loose. Now the cattle can feed.
In a better year he'd work his herd at the end of the month, cull the fallborne steers for market. He could do that this year too, he supposes, but they aren't going to fetch much. Maybe thirty head, weighing four hundred pounds, four twenty-five each on average. With cattle prices at less than fifty cents a pound, he won't gross more than six, seven thousand bucks, a piddling anthill compared to his bank debt piled up like the Rockies. In a better year, he'd do twice that.
Jeremiah says to himself it's all kind of academic anyway. His hay will last him maybe another month, then he'll have to start selling his herd for what he can get. Lots of cattlemen had already been forced into it, that's why beef prices are what they are.
Won't be long before he'll have to go into town, see the bankers about cutting him some slack. It's a melancholy thought, hard for a man to abide, especially a Texas Ranger. A man who never used to have to give an order more than once.
He slips the pickup into gear and drives down to the tank. Parks, gets out. Duke hits the ground, starts running the perimeter, nose close to the surface, snorting.
Ordinarily it's a ten-acre tank, largest on his place. Now it's shrunk to maybe four.
He picks his way down to the water's edge. The cattle's hooves have chopped up the mud near the water. He spits in the water, looks up at the cinder-block sky.
For six months he's been pouring everything he has into this place, into his family. In every respect it has done nothing but get worse. The way things have been going, he figures he might as well have stayed a Ranger. Kept the paycheck.
It's a new thing to him, this sense of being a failure. Never had to struggle with anything like it before.
Don't be so damn weak-minded, Jeremiah.
He whistles Duke up, they drive back to the house. Walking through the backyard, Jeremiah's boots kick up little dust clouds with every step. Duke follows him as far as the back porch. Jeremiah pulls the screen door open, goes into the kitchen.
The house is quiet, Martha still in bed, sleeping off yesterday's fifth of vodka.
He goes to wash up, sees the message light blinking on the machine. Glances at the wall clock. Only reason someone would call this early must be bad news from the hospital. He hits the PLAY button.
"Morning, Jeremiah. This here's Dewey Sharpe. Sorry to call so early, but I was just wonderin' if you'd have time to come into town this morning. We got ourselves something of a situation here I'd like to visit with you 'bout. Give me a call and let me know if you're gonna be around today."
The man leaves a phone number and the machine clicks off. Jeremiah Spur pours some corn flakes and milk, swings a leg over the back of a kitchen chair, sits down to eat.
He can't imagine what the sheriff would want from him.
"NOW THIS IS MR. CHOCOLATE AND THIS IS MR. VANILLA AND THIS IS MR. Strawberry and this ..."
A singsong voice is coming from behind the counter at the Big Scoop Ice Cream Parlor. Every now and then Jeremiah can see the chanter herself, working her way down a row of short freezers that runs along the back wall, a little gray-haired lady dressed in blue gingham, calling out the flavors, pointing at the freezers with a bony forefinger, her arm pumping up and down, like she was hammering a nail into a two-by-four.
"... and this is Mr. Chocolate Fudge and this is Mr. Neapolitan and this ..."
Jeremiah reckons maybe she forgot he's sitting out here drinking this cup of coffee she sold him ten minutes ago, or maybe she hasn't forgotten and it just doesn't inhibit her, the thought of a total stranger listening in on her peculiar ritual.
He has set up shop in the booth farthest from the front door, established for himself a good view of the whole place, except a few parts in back where the chanting is coming from. Choosing such a seat is so old a habit he hardly even thinks about it.
He sits with both elbows on the table, sips his coffee, wanting a smoke, but there are no ashtrays on the tables. It's not like he has seen an actual NO SMOKING sign but these days you can't be too careful.
"... and this is Mr. Rocky Road and this is Mr. Coffee and this is Mr. Butter Pecan and this ..."
It feels odd to be sitting here, drinking coffee in an ice cream parlor at a little past nine o'clock on a weekday morning. Better than being at the county courthouse though. Jeremiah hasn't been down yonder since he retired, got no particular desire to be seen walking around there in civilian clothes, no gun belt, no badge. No official business to attend to. He would have drawn lots of stares down at the courthouse.
He is used to being stared at, had been stared at plenty in his life, but in the past it had always been for the right reasons.
Through the front windows Jeremiah watches Sheriff Dewey Sharpe pull up in his brown and yellow county cruiser, open the door, heave himself out of it. Open the back door of the cruiser, fetch out a black attaché case, stroll into the restaurant.
Inside the door he hollers, "Howdy, Miss B."
"And this is Mr. Spumoni-good morning, Dewey-and this0 is Mr. Lime Sherbet ..."
The sheriff spies Jeremiah, gives a little wave, ambles over, drops into the opposite side of the booth. Sets the attaché case down, sticks out his hand to be shook. He is a man of manifold physical imperfections the most pronounced of which include his beer gut, multiple chins, fireplug build, cheap haircut, mouth full of yellow teeth that look like a "Before" picture in an orthodontics textbook.
"Thanks for coming," he says. "You ever been here before?"
Dewey jerks a fat thumb over his shoulder. "That there's Miss Baker. She owns the joint. She inventories the stock first thing in the morning." He drops his voice, leans in. "She's a couple enchiladas shy of a combo plate."
"I think I seen her at church. Don't she have a grown son who's kinda slow?"
"Yeah. I fixed him up with a job on the lube rack out at the county garage. Changing oil on highway maintenance equipment is about all he's fit for."
"You reckon she'd mind if I smoked?"
"Oh, hell no." He turns around, hollers, "Hey, Miss B? Could we trouble you for an ashtray?"
Directly the ice cream lady appears with an ashtray and a cup of coffee for the sheriff. "Will we be seeing your sister today?"
"I 'spect she'll be along after a while."
"Good. She's so sweet. She tells me when they have the sales on down at the pharmacy."
Then Miss B disappears, goes back to her freezers and her chanting. "Now this is Mr. Peppermint and this is Mr. Rum Raisin and this ..."
Jeremiah lights up a Camel, eyes the sheriff.
Dewey slurps his coffee, gestures outside. "Man," Dewey says. "This smoke is just gettin' worse and worse. I guess it ain't gonna get no better 'til we get some rain."
Jeremiah is wondering why he agreed to get together with this fat fool, this walking disgrace to law enforcement, a peckerwood who doesn't even have the courtesy to be on time. He takes a drag. "I've got fifteen minutes. You want to talk about the weather, that's up to you. Makes me no never mind. But I'm leaving in fifteen minutes."
The sheriff pulls a case file out of the attache. Sets it on the table, squares it up in front of Jeremiah.
"Here's the deal," he says. "Three days ago a work crew preparing an oil-well drilling site over near Gay Hill called us in to check out a suspicious situation, cowboy boot sticking up out the ground. Upon investigating, we turned up a human skeleton. Preliminary forensics establish it's Sissy Fletcher."
"Jim Fletcher's daughter?"
"Yep. You remember when she just up and disappeared about ten years ago?"
"I recollect it some. When was it exactly?"
The sheriff flips open his file.
"And this is Mr. Pistachio, and my goodness, Mr. Pistachio needs to be replaced ..."
"She was last seen February 11, 1989."
Jeremiah flicks the ash off his cigarette, thinks a minute. "I was down in Laredo, workin' the Jalisco Diablos Gang drug case. I wasn't gettin' home much, just a day or two ever' now and then."
"Well, here's the upshot of it. She was last seen that night, at the rodeo dance. She didn't come home that night nor the next night neither. The guy she was living with reported her missing on that Monday, the thirteenth. The next day her pickup was stopped down at the border, near McAllen. A Meskin kid from here in town was at the wheel. Claimed he found it with the keys in the ignition over on the near north side of town, was headed south with it, was gonna sell it.
Copyright © 2003 by James Hime