Better Than Dead—25

by Colin Deerwood


“Don’t shoot!” I called out. I didn’t raise my hands lest the Scout toppled over. Besides I was getting tired of having people poke guns at me,

The man in the peaked hat with the insignia above the bill grinned at first like he’d just won something. Then he looked at the gun in his hand like he didn’t know how it got there. Feeling foolish, he got angry at having been caught out.

“You should know better than to sneak up on a man from behind like that!” He thumbed the badge pinned to his shirt pocket that looked like it might have come as a prize in a box of Cracker Jacks, “I’m an officer of the law! And I got every right to shoot you where you stand!” He holstered his revolver like it was a bother and gave me a squint from under a hedge of eyebrow. He had a nose that sat on his face like a large pickled strawberry. What passed for a moustache hovered crookedly over a mouth of bad teeth.

“What seems to be the problem, Sheriff? Have I broken the law?” I asked, pretending not to notice the patch of wet that had bloomed at the front of his trousers.

“This here is my jurisdiction.” He touched the butt of the gun with a finger.

He raised what little chin he had for a try at a haughty glare. “Well, tresspassin’ for one. And who’s to say you are the owner of that there motor-sickle. It might not belong to you.” He rested his hand on the butt of his revolver.

“I’m not trespassing, Sheriff, I got permission to be here seeing as how I’m related to the old gal who used to own this cabin.”

“That so. What’d her name be then?”

He had me there. All I ever called her was granny. But then I remembered a little game she played with us when we were kids and we wanted a sweet from her. “You ask nice,” she’d say, “cause that’s my name.”

“We only called her granny because it would have been disrespectful to call her by her given name, and of course she wasn’t my real granny, more of a great aunt a couple times removed. But if I recall, seems someone referred to her as Eunice.”

He nodded like I’d passed a test. “I ain’t the Sherrif. The name’s Thorndyke, Alvin Thorndyke. I’m the Constable from over in Ridley.”

“A little out of your jurisdiction, ain’t you, Chief?” I offered and watched the slow coloring of his wan cheeks.

“This here is my jurisdiction.” He touched the butt of the gun with a finger. “I’m looking out for a friend. Don’t want no hobo settin’ up camp out here.”

“I’m not hobo, Marshal, you can ask my cousin, Ruthie Walker. She knows I’m staying here at the Ask family cabin, doing some cleaning up and repairs since nobody’s been out here since Uncle Ned passed.” I lowered my eyes, solemn like. “And Ruthie knows I borrowed old Ned’s Indian to get around.”

I could almost hear the gears turning under his hat. “What d’you say your name was?”

I figured him for a blowhard with an exaggerated sense of self-importance. I ignored him while I parked the motorcycle and undid the saddlebags to take them inside the cabin. When I turned to face him, he was giving me that suspicious look again.

“I didn’t say, but you just reminded me of something. Maybe you can help me.”

The constable wasn’t too certain how to take the request and cocked his head to one side. “How so?”

“Well, I’ve been meaning to pay my respects to granny and Uncle Ned but I realized that I don’t know where the cemetery is that they’re buried in. Now I suppose I could ask Cousin Ruthie but I don’t want to bother her more than I have to, she seems to have a lot on her hands with them youngsters. Can you direct me?”

It was like I pulled his earlobe and a light came on. He gave me a grin that I was sure I didn’t want to see too often. “That’s right Christian of you, son. Not only can I show you, but I can take you there!”

And that’s how I ended up in Thorny’s jalopy heading back toward Ridley.


You didn’t have to be a detective to figure Thorny out, he gave the store away whether he realized it or not. First he warned me about my neighbor, a trigger happy moonshiner, said to have killed a man or two in the wild wooly days before repeal. And his daughter was man crazy, headed for perdition if she didn’t change her ways. Nothing a good husband couldn’t fix.

He gave me the lowdown on the farmer who had the stand down on Lake Road. The raggedy scarecrow of a man was known as Three-Fingers McKay. He’d lost them in a fight at a roadhouse near Grover City. “He was a lowdown drunk until he found Jesus and the Widow Larson who lost her man over there where we dint got no business being.” He shook his head. “Sad story,” and then glared at me with a sidelong glance.

“I would have joined up myself but as I was sole support of my dear widowed mother, rest her soul, I was given a deferment. In thanks to the Lord for saving me from almost certain death in the mud of a foreign land, I served him as a chaplain over at the county jail, the youngest man to hold that post in the history of the State.

“I also worked as a youth councilor at one of the all-girl summer camps they have around here. That was the toughest work I’ve ever done. You get that many young gals together at one time and you end up with packs of she-wolves, circling each other, looking to dig their claws into each other. It was enough to make your hair stand on end. It was my saving grace and blessing when my cousin, Sylvester Boone, became president of the town council after being the constable for many years and passed the post on to me. I was probably around your age, and I have to say, I have served proudly upholding law and order for the citizens of Ridley.

“And let me tell you, it hasn’t been an easy job, especially the way things are in this country right now. I’ve had to deal with my share of hobos and drifters. My words to them when I catch them, don’t let the sun go down before you’re gone. I got enough to do with the ruffians and layabouts who belong here.” He frowned at me and nodded. “Your cousins, I’m sorry to say, among them. That bunch went wild after the old gal died. . .’scuse, I meant to say, the Widow Ask, and her son Ned, well, the heart went out of him about then, too. He’d had a tough lot what with the war. All he cared about was fishing and drinking, and that consarned motor sickle. Didn’t matter no how to him that his nieces and nephews was raising holy hell with their drunken carrying on, almost burned the house down around them. Those boys, they were always in fights, especially with any boys who came around to see their girl cousins. Even when they’d been invited.

“County Sheriff, wonder what he’s up to?” he asked himself as the large dark Dodge sped past, the man in uniform at the wheel glancing briefly at them.

“And they let that wonderful apple orchard the widow had go to seed. I can’t count the times I pinched apples from those trees. And of course the cider she sold around town was loved by all. I just felt it was my duty to do something about it. After a while those boys got tired of spending their nights in the pokey with the town drunks. They got the message. They were better off being some place not in my jurisdiction. Some of them try to squirrel back, but I catch ‘em.” He smiled at the thought of that.

“And the girls, most ‘er gone or married. The big city attracts them like moths, they think they can do better. But I seen some come back, too, worse for the wear, and by then what man is gonna to want ‘em? Except for Missus Walker. She was the one who cared for the Widow toward the end. There was a will. She was very generous. Maybe too generous. And Missus Walker inherited the house. I look in on her now and then. She’s had some hard luck. One husband left, part because of the goings on at the Ask house and part because there was no work for a man in these parts unless you want to be a busboy or dishwasher. And you have to know that Paul and Polly are a handful without a strong man to put his foot down. Except for the father of little Angel, but he’s a waiter at one of the resorts in Big Lake. Man can’t raise a family on what they pay, and from what I’ve heard, he likes to play the odds.” He lifted his hand off the steering wheel and shook his fist like he was holding dice. “Can’t say she didn’t pick a good looking one, but something about him bothers me.” And put a finger to the side of his nose.

A large powerhouse hove into view. I could tell by the headlight arrangement and the twin spots that it was official. Only the government could afford that much chrome. It was speeding headlong toward us, crowding the centerline of the narrow country road.

It caught Thorny by surprise. He grunted in alarm and steered for the shoulder of the road. “County Sheriff, wonder what he’s up to?” he asked himself as the large dark Dodge sped past, the man in uniform at the wheel glancing briefly at him.

“Yep, he’s in a hurry to get somewhere. Wonder if he’s late.” I offered.

Thorny looked at me like I was an idiot which I figured was to my advantage.

“No, something is going on.” He looked over his shoulder and was about to pull out onto the road when another patrol car hove into view and passed at high speed. “Now I’m positive. Probably something to do with that missing gal.”

“A girl is missing?” I thought of Rebecca. It was still eating me alive.

“Oh, probably just some youngster has run away with big ideas in her head. Or,” he considered the possibility, “got knocked up by some summer vacationer. Happens all the time. And they come back, dragging their bastards with them in the walk of shame.”

I could see that Thorny could be a self-righteous ass but I kept that to myself.

A mile or so down the road he pointed at a hillock topped with a few large oaks and a wrought iron arch over a gravel track.

“Coming up on it here,” he steered onto a driveway where a sign announced Morton Heights Cemetery, All Denominations, 1832.

The road led up to beneath the oaks. Thorny knew the way up through the rows of burial plots, some more elaborate than others. Granny’s larger stone held court over all of the dead relatives of which there were more than I realized. Ned’s stone was the freshest, least weathered. The dates said he was only eighteen years older than me.

My old man hated his youngest brother. Not in so many words but through his arrogance toward him, resentful because he was his mother’s favorite. I’d overheard him telling my mother that his brother was illegitimate. I didn’t understand at the time, only that granny had done something with someone other than grandpa who might as well have been a faded picture behind glass on the wall for all that I remembered of him. I remember my mother defending Ned and the beginning of an argument, one of many, where my old man would win by a knock out.

Otherwise I could have cared less for the dirt encased bones beneath my feet. I was at the cemetery for an entirely different reason. I’d given it some serious thought. If I was going to vanish, I was going to need a different identity. Lackland Ask was going to have to disappear and in his place would have to be a verifiable person, someone with a birth certificate and a death certificate. Someone my age who had died young enough so that no one could tell the difference. That had been my plan all along. Thorny had just provided the opportunity and was familiar enough with the populace to provide some background if need be. Still being there did have its effect and I removed my dark glasses and rubbed my eyes.

Thorny cleared his throat. “Mighty fine woman,” he said huskily, and I knew he meant it. “I get choked up myself at the thought of these good people. I can tell by your eyes going red. No need to be ashamed.”

I didn’t want to tell him that my eyes had been watering and red for nearly wo weeks and the dark glasses were the only thing that kept them from brimming with tears in bright daylight. I walked away from the family site and lit up a cigarette, glancing at the headstones, many dating from the last century, none in an age range to be of any use to me. I’d figured my idea to be a bust as Thorny joined me at his ragtop and started to get in the driver’s seat. On the downside of the hill were a couple dozen dingy headstones in overgrown plots.

“Who is buried down there?” I asked as I stepped down the hill and into the first row of graves.

He followed to the edge of the gravel patch. “Them’s paupers graves, some of them from the influenza.”

I stood in front of a row of five headstones. The large one inscribed with the name Jedediah Paulson had lived forty years, and his loving wife, Sara, five years less, and their three children, all had died within the same year. The youngest was my age. He was nine when he died.

Thorny stepped down next to me. “Paulson. I remember about them. Cousin Sylvester said they was found in their little shack out by the rail line, all dead. Said it was the Spanish flu though I can’t tell you why they called it that, maybe that’s where it come from. They were pretty far gone when someone come up on them.” He shook his head and walked away. “Sad story.”

I took the note of the name, Jerome Paulson, born nineteen and eleven.

At one point in the sober drive back to Little Lake, Thorny turned to me and said, “I know your name ain’t Dick Sales.” He laughed like he knew a secret when he said it.

“I don’t think I ever said it was.”

“I know your real name. Sam Carter.” There was a hint of triumph in his revelation. And he revealed his source. “Paul told me. He heard you tell his mother. A fine lad, that boy. He has my ear.”

I was about to set him straight when I saw the dark car parked partially blocking the road ahead. I didn’t have to say it. Thorny said it for me. “Roadblock.”

I needed a roadblock like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Next Time: The Missing Girls


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