IF HE STOOD OUT IN HIS BACKYARD JUST AFTER SUNUP, SHERIFF DAN Rhodes could almost make himself believe that the whole day would be as cool and pleasant as that brief moment in the early morning.
But he knew better. The sky was turning blue, and there were a few feathery clouds that looked as if someone had colored them with a pink crayon, but the clouds would be gone before long. The air was so dry that there was no dew on the grass, and by noon the sun would have boiled the sky to blazing incandescence.
It was the second of July. There hadn't been any rain to speak of in Blacklin County in nearly two months, and before that, hardly any rain for nearly three years. In fact, the last good rain Rhodes could remember had been during the writers' workshop out at the old college in Obert, and that had been quite a while ago.
The ground beneath the scorched brown grass in Rhodes's yard had two-inch cracks in it, and all around the town of Clearview, the stock tanks were drying up. There was no grass for the cattle to graze on, nothing but needle grass and weeds. Even most of the johnsongrass in the bar ditches had dried to a crackly brown. The ranchers were despairing of having any hay for the winter.
There was one good thing that had come from the weather, however, at least as far as Rhodes was concerned. He hadn't had to mow his yard in weeks. The town hadn't yet put restrictions on water use, but he didn't think it would be right to water his yard when the situation was becoming critical. Besides, he hated mowing.
Speedo, Rhodes's outside dog, tried to keep up appearances by pretending to be interested in the ball that Rhodes threw for him to fetch, but Rhodes could tell that the dog's heart wasn't really in it. He wasn't moving half as fast as he did on cool fall days, and instead of hanging on to the ball and making Rhodes wrest it from between his teeth, he dropped it at Rhodes's feet and wandered off, as if already looking for a nice shady spot to spend the day.
Rhodes knew the spot Speedo was thinking about. It was under a pecan tree, where the dog had worn the thin covering of grass away and gotten to the cool dirt beneath. The leaves on the tree looked shriveled, and if it gave up any pecans in the fall, they would be few and small because of the lack of water.
Yancey, Rhodes's inside dog, who had been released for the moment to romp around the yard, didn't show much enthusiasm either. Yancey was a Pomeranian, and he spent most of his time in the house either yapping, yipping, or sleeping. When he came into the yard, he yapped constantly and chased Speedo from one corner to the other, looking a lot like a bouncing Q-Tip as he harassed the much larger dog. Today, he looked more like a slowly rolling dust bunny. He was still yapping, but Speedo was ignoring him, and Yancey didn't really seem to care.
"I have some good news for you, fellas," Rhodes said to the dogs. "No fireworks for the Fourth this year."
He didn't know how Yancey felt about fireworks, but Speedo didn't like the explosions. He usually spent the evening in his Styrofoam igloo. But this year he didn't have to worry. The danger of fire was too great, and the annual fireworks show at the Clearview City Park had been canceled.
In the past, Rhodes had been much more fond of explosions thanSpeedo. He still liked them but recent events had changed his point of view. He'd nearly been blown up twice, and the experiences had tended to sour him on explosions. Nevertheless, he was more or less expected to show up at the big Fourth of July celebration, though he could have seen the fireworks, if there had been any, almost as well from his house as he could in the park. But he always attended, and he'd be there again this year.
Even without the fireworks, there would be other festivities, like the barbecue cook-off and the historical pageant, though the heat would be brutal. People assumed that the county sheriff would be there, and Rhodes would have to put in an appearance. He thought he'd rather curl up under the pecan tree with Speedo, though he did like barbecue with spicy sauce, even in the summer.
Rhodes heard the screen door slam behind him and turned to see his wife, Ivy, standing on the little back porch. She had short gray hair and a trim figure that Rhodes admired a great deal.
Apparently Yancey admired it too, or admired something about her. He perked up, bounced over, and started yipping around her ankles. Like Speedo, Ivy ignored him.
"Hot enough for you?" she asked Rhodes.
Rhodes gave her a thoughtful look.
"If I had my pistol, I'd shoot you for saying that," he told her.
"I thought it was pretty clever."
"So does everybody else in the county. Do you know how many times a day I hear that line?"
"Two?" Ivy said. "Three?"
"Three hundred is more like it. There should be a law against it."
"Well," Ivy said, "there's one good thing--"
"Don't say it."
"--it's a dry heat," Ivy finished.
"I'm going for the pistol now. No jury in the world would convict me."
"You can't shoot me," Ivy said. "I can say anything I want to. This is America. Freedom of speech and all that. The freedom doesn't extend to shooting people, though. Besides, wife-shooting wouldn'tlook good on your record when you have to run again, even if you weren't convicted."
"I think the voters would understand."
"The voters are the ones who're asking if it's hot enough for you," Ivy said.
Rhodes admitted that she might have a point.
"I know I do. Do you think there'll be any fires today?"
Rhodes hoped not. There had already been too many, mostly little ones, grass fires that were easily put out, but he was worried that sooner or later there might be a real conflagration. Maybe on the Fourth of July.
"It's too bad we don't have a law against fireworks," he said.
"I thought we did."
"Clearview does. The city can pass ordinances like that. The county government can't. So once you're out of the city limits, you can sell fireworks, you can set them off, you can do pretty much what you want to. Grat Bilson's been trying to get something done about it in the county for years, but he hasn't had any luck."
Yancey continued to yip and yap and dance around Ivy's ankles. She pushed him aside with her foot, but he didn't mind. He moved right back in.
"I thought you liked fireworks," Ivy said to Rhodes.
"I do," Rhodes said. "But I think they should be handled by a licensed pyro. Otherwise, they're dangerous, especially in weather like this. One Roman candle ball that gets into a bunch of dry johnsongrass, and a whole pasture can go up."
"I didn't think there was enough grass to burn."
"Sure there is. On places where there aren't any cattle, there's grass. And sometimes a house. Not to mention a little woods. It can be pretty bad."
"Why doesn't the state do something?" Ivy asked.
"I don't really know. But there's a lot of money to be made off fireworks."
"You don't think the legislators are being bribed, do you?"
"No. They probably get some big campaign contributions, though. Anyway, there are plenty of other things that can cause fires. I was just thinking about fireworks because it's so close to the Fourth."
Ivy reached down and picked up Yancey. He wriggled with pleasure, but he didn't stop his yipping.
"Maybe we could tie your little dog here to a bottle rocket and send him to the moon," Ivy said.
"My dog? I thought he was our dog."
"You're the one who brought him home."
That was true. Rhodes had found both Speedo and Yancey in the course of his investigations, and he hadn't wanted to leave them without someone to take care of them. So he'd brought them home.
"But you love him," Rhodes said. "Anyway, cruelty to animals is worse than shooting people. Especially who ask if it's hot enough for me."
Ivy set Yancey down. Instead of assaulting her ankles, he went to the door and yapped.
"I think he's had enough of the great outdoors," Rhodes said. "I don't blame him."
Ivy opened the door, and Yancey ran inside, his little claws clicking on the hardwood floor. Rhodes went to check on Speedo's water bowl. It was about half full, but Rhodes dumped the water out and refilled the bowl.
"Do you think the historical societies will get along this year?" Ivy asked when Rhodes had finished with the water bowl.
Blacklin County had two historical societies, the Clearview Historical Association and the Sons and Daughters of Texas. While it seemed to Rhodes that they both had similar goals, the members of one group never seemed able to agree with the members of the other on how to reach them. Not so long ago, the presidents of both associations had been murdered, and there had been a lot of talk about the two groups consolidating. But it hadn't happened.
"You never can tell what they'll do," Rhodes said. "Now that Grat Bilson's taken over as president of the Sons and Daughters and VernellLindsey's president of the Association, things are more unstable than they ever were."
Both Vernell and Bilson had had dealings with Rhodes in the past. Bilson was a combative man who had a contentious relationship with his wife, Yvonne. Vernell was Clearview's celebrity, the author of several romance novels published under the name Ashley Leigh.
"The fireworks were always the biggest problem," Ivy said. "Maybe everything will go off perfectly this year."
"We'll see," Rhodes said, not believing it for a minute.
RED, WHITE, AND BLUE MURDER. Copyright © 2003 by Bill Crider. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.