Cold Eyes

by Howard Faxon

Tags: Western,

Desc: Coming of Age Story: Alan missed being killed along with his family by minutes. At nine there was nothing he could do about it. He ran. When offered a place to stay on a farm out west he stuck around. He matured and came to love the life. The life he led was shaped by old Gert, the woman that gave him a place to stay.

I was nine when Uncle Jack came calling. I was out in the garage playing with our new dog, Lady. I heard a few loud bangs from the house then saw my Uncle jack quickly get into a car an drive away. I ran into the house to see what happened. I almost stopped breathing when I saw them. My mom was dead with a bloody hole in her chest. My dad was dead with a hole where his right eye was. My sister--My sister was dead too. The bullet went into her forehead and took out half the top of her head. I heard screaming and didn't figure out until later that it was me. Nobody came to see what was wrong. Nobody came to investigate. I sat there all night holding my dead sister in my lap not doing anything, not thinking. I think that I cried my last tears that night.

In the morning I laid out my family on their beds and covered them with sheets, then cleaned myself. Then I packed a little backpack that fit me. I took some underwear and socks. Downstairs I took a knife, fork, can opener, spoon, cup and plastic bowl. I rolled up a grey wool blanket we had and tied it to the bottom of my pack.

I found out that dad didn't trust banks. He had over twelve thousand dollars in two shoe boxes, marked 'college funds' for my sister and myself. I took all the money I could find, the .32 Smith from under his mattress and took the car.

Uncle Karl had a farm up in Wisconsin. He taught me how to drive the tractor while we picked rocks, (I was big enough to drive the tractor, just not big enough to pick up the heavier rocks. He was both, so I got the job of driving.) and later how to drive the hay wagons back to the barn when they were filled. I did all right with the car, as most farm kids would.

I wrote on the wall, "Uncle Jack did this. Why?" He was a quiet talking man with an easy smile and curly hair. The women loved him. Aunt Inga obviously did as she had two boys by him, Terry and Paul. Then I left. I had to sit on a stack of books that I taped together to see where I was going, and I taped blocks to the floor pedals to control the gas and brake. I drove West, staying on back roads. I lived on oat meal and canned peaches. Whenever I filled the gas tank I bought a gallon of water. I used the station bathrooms to do my business and clean up a little. I parked in parking lots where there were other cars around to sleep.

I realized that I should have taken another shirt and pair of pants before I left. I needed something to change into so that I could do my laundry. I spent a few dollars at a Sears store in Hays Kansas for a shirt, pants and a pair of boots. I bought a jacket that looked sturdy and a cap, too. I washed up in a laundry mat bathroom while my new clothes washed, then I washed my dirties. I found a newspaper on a table in the laundry mat. It was a couple days old, but that was okay.

Uh-oh. There I was on the third page. It was last year's school picture. All I could do was to keep on the way I had been. I was suddenly glad to have that baseball cap. The coat made me look bigger, too.

I remembered dad would check the water and oil before going up to Uncle Karl's. This trip had been a lot longer than that so I figured I'd best check them. Yup. The car was down two quarts of oil and the radiator could use a half gallon. The old Buick got me to Grand Junction, Colorado before it got tired. I took off the license plates before leaving it. I got a good night's sleep before I packed up. I found a Roadway bus stop and bought a ticket for San Diego. The people waiting for the bus didn't look any too promising as travel companions. I stopped into a hardware store for a sheath knife and some snacks. They had towels, heavy tape and plastic wrap too. I bundled up most of my money in plastic and wrapped it in a couple of towels The peanuts, a fruit drink and other stuff went on top. I taped that big Buck knife to the left side of my belt so that it didn't hang down. You have to give those Buck people credit, they don't sell dull knives!

That pack didn't leave my side, and when I relaxed to sleep I kept the backpack's strap wound around my arm.

I woke up with a big guy tugging on the strap. He said in a low voice, "Give it up, kid, and you won't get hurt." I wasn't about to give anything up, dammit. I pulled that big Buck knife and stuck it deep in his belly, all the way to the guard. He made a "Whoop" noise and went to punch me. I stabbed him again, higher. He wheezed and folded over. That took all the fight right out of him. I used one foot to shove him over and into the passageway between the seats. I was happy that he crawled away. I used some napkins that I'd taken from a diner to clean up the knife real good, then stuffed them between the seat and the side of the bus. After I put my knife away I went back to sleep.

At the next stop an old lady got on the bus. She sat down next to me. She gave me the eye then started knitting something, rocking back and forth all the while. After a while, she asked, "You goin' to your folks?"

"They got killed." She scowled at me. "You do it?"

"Why would I want to kill my mom and pop? And my little sister?" I turned up my arms. "I held her all night. She was cold. Dead. There wasn't a thing I could do. So I ran." I ran down. I didn't have anything else to say. She patted my shoulder. "You done what you had to." She looked at me for a while, not smiling, not frowning. "Ya kin stay with me if ya want. I got a place north of Las Vegas. It's God's own asshole, called Moapa Nevada. I raise some food for market. You wouldn't have lived on a farm, would ya?" She looked hopeful. I nodded fast. "My uncle has a dairy farm in Wisconsin. I helped pick rocks, bale hay, drive a tractor, scoop cow shit. I'll do whatever for a place to stay." She smiled and leaned back. "Good. If ye can work with yer hands we'll do well together."

It was only April tenth when we got out of that bus, but by damn, it was hot! The air hit me in the face like a towel fresh out of the dryer.

Old Gert had the butt-end of a cattle ranch that she'd inherited from her folks. The ranch house was made of stone and thick timbers so it was both easy to heat and keep cool. She was an only child so nobody else but the government wanted a cut of it. She had an old decrepit central pivot walking irrigator making a big circle. It kicked out jets of water every so often as the wheels crept around in a circle twenty four hours a day, driven by water pressure. "We've got one hell of a deep well here. It was pounded in during the middle thirties, just after the dust bowl. The deep water levels were low. They had to go searchin' for it." The water was cold and sweet.

I sat on a tractor a lot. She had an old Ford with a four-bottom cultivator. It was small enough to go under the walking wheel while I chewed up the weeds. Everything was planted with the same distance between the rows so that the tractor and implements wouldn't crush any of the crops. If I wasn't on the tractor then I was taking care of it.

Gert had one other person on the farm. His name was Sid. He did a lot of repairs and did the cooking. He grinned and slapped my back. He said he was glad I was there because it kept his ass out of that tractor's seat.

I had a nice room to myself but I had to keep it clean. The bathroom too. Gert said, "I'm too old to be cleanin' up after a young' un. You do what you know you should and I'll take care o' the rest." She did, too! She kept me fed and in clothes, which made me worry if she was going to kick me out. But no, She kept me. I even got to ride to school. It wasn't much of a school, but it was local. I didn't have to ride a bus forty miles both ways to get to Las Vegas and back every day. I didn't make any friends. They seemed to take one look at my eyes and gave it up as a bad job. I went to school, listened in class, did my lessons and went home.

The field house was filled with migrant workers and the front yard was filled with pickup trucks, beat up cars and campers for about a month every fall when the crops came in. During the harvest big trucks came every day to haul away flats of vegetables until the fields were bare. Then, like the sun blows away a fog, everyone was gone but Gert, Sid and me. Afterwards I plowed under most of the garden except where the root vegetables lay for our own eating.

After being out in the sun so much, if it weren't for my blonde crew cut I'd have looked just like the migrants, except for my gray eyes.

When I got a little bigger I got a twenty-two rifle for Christmas. Proud? Damn, I was proud of that thing. I did my best to bring in rabbits for dinner, too. Sid wouldn't take 'em unless I skinned and cleaned 'em first, though.

Then the damned gophers moved in. I hammered together some little eight-foot towers just outside the irrigator's path. I was up in those things before daylight before school and all through the summer. Gert looked at me funny when I kept asking for more .22s, but she bought 'em. Slowly but surely our gopher problems went away.

When I was sixteen Gert started paying me a hundred dollars a month. "You've got to learn how to handle money, Al." I didn't spend any of it. I put it away with the rest. I learned how Gert scheduled the plantings so that all the crops wouldn't come in at one time. That way the migrants had a chance to harvest it all before it went bad in the field. They could only do so much a day.

I saw small deer early in the morning. I filled my wallet full of bills and asked Sid to take me to town the next time he went shopping. "Whatcha after, Al?" "Rifle. Saw some deer." "Okay, what kind of rifle?" "Savage bolt action .22 magnum" "That'll do 'er. We'll get you taken care of, then go pick up the groceries."

It seemed like that rifle knew what I wanted to hit from the first time I fired it. During sunset and sunrise the javelina and the mule deer came down from the hills to visit the vegetable gardens and the wheat fields near town. It wasn't but a few seasons before I had the rear of the field house filled with tacked-up skins. There was a place in the city that would buy 'em. Sam and I went in about four times a year with the trunk of his car packed full of dried hides. It kept me in clothes, boots, ammunition and school fees, plus a little to put away.

Gert asked me how much I got a hide. The next day she was MAD! She was fumin'! She made me go to another place to sell my furs. Boy was I glad to. I made more than four times what I had been making. I was saving over four thousand a year from my hunting. We ate the javelinas and the deer carcasses. The cats? I skinned 'em and left 'em for the wild dogs.

I did my best to keep up the fence around the property. We had right around a thousand acres. I didn't want to use up that poor tractor, so I hefted a military pack frame with a shelf, holding a spool of wire, a pair of gloves, a box of staples and a pair of stapling pliers. It went pretty slow at first as I walked the fence, then I did better and better. After a while I had this 'shuffle' thing going that just ate up the distance. It got so I could chug over the fence line in a morning. Sid took the truck around it once to check the distance with the truck's odometer. It came out to about 26 miles. I just kept pickin' 'em up and puttin' 'em down until the job was over.

After I graduated high school I got my diploma and my driver's license. Gert sat me down after dinner one day. "So, you gonna go find your uncle and settle his hash?"

I motioned for her to wait one. I went to my room to get an envelope that I'd been putting together. There was a newspaper article, titled "Jack Putnam arrested for murder. "He's been shagging my wife!" The victim, Harold Carter, had been living with his long time partner, James Evans for over nine years. Mr. Evans reported, 'Poor Harry had been gay since he was a teenager.' State police have opened several cold cases involving Mr. Putnam." She put down the article. "So. You got it out of your system?"

I shook my head and looked out the window at the bleak landscape. "Afraid not. I've got too much unforgiveness built up inside. Wrong time, wrong place and it'd be a shit storm. It's safer here. Safer for me, safer for others."

"How about Sid and me?"

"Aw, hell, Gert. I'm your dog, and you know it. I'd hold still for it if you felt you had to put me down."

She put her head down on her arms on the kitchen table. "Dear Lord--guide me in the tasks you set before me."

She peered at me like she was looking for gold flakes through quartz. "You been takin' critter hides right and left. With a few college courses under your belt we might get you a good payin' job as a state game warden. You know trackin', boy?"

I shook my head. "I know a couple of Paiute guys that'll teach me tracking for a good supply of mule deer for the local tribe."

"Do it. With that under your belt and some good desert trainin' by the tribes you'll be a shoe-in. Come Monday, let's see what you'll need for classes to qualify. Ranger station should know."

That's how I got started. I found a couple college grants for orphans and low income farms. I had to move onto the UNLV campus as a freshman. All the reading I did in school did me well. I tested out pretty high and managed to even test out of a Spanish I college course. (I worked a lot with the migrants and even read the local Spanish newspaper.)

I found a used pickup at a rancher's sale. It looked like hell, but on lifting the hood I smiled. Someone had been taking care of it. I put in my bid and picked up an '89 crew cab long bed half ton for seven hundred. It looked like five miles of bad road but it sure ran and rode sweet.

I talked to the campus maintenance supervisor. I let him know that I was used to working for a living and would appreciate finding a nice, cool basement room somewhere in return for whatever he needed doing. He scratched his head a while and sat back. "Ya look likely enough. Where ya worked?"

"Up by Moapa, an irrigated truck garden."

He grinned. "You been working for Dirty Gertie?"

I began to get mad. "Ya don't call Gert that around me or we're gonna have words." I about climbed over his desk to adjust his necktie.

"Now, hold on there, fella!" He backpedaled as fast as he could. "I didn't mean nothin' by it."

I stared him down, then said, "Well, I did. We'd better not have anything more to say lest I pound you in like a fence post, mister." I walked out.

I found a furniture store that I could talk into hiring me on as a live-in night watchman. He had a line on a little travel trailer that he pulled into this goddamned enormous receiving bay. He hooked up the sewer, water and electric, then made sure the air would circulate to outside through a big louvered fan. I got a copy of the keys and a hundred a week. He got a night watchman and a thousand a month off his insurance. We both made out like bandits.

The university about shat when I found housing outside of their dormitories, but I made an appointment to speak with the Dean of Students and dressed up in my good suit. When I told him my story of woe I was shocked. He sat back and smiled. "Son, you hooked up with Gert's place?" "Yessir, up by Moapa, with Sid. She took me in as an orphan when I was nine. She wants me to take the courses I need to be a game warden. I'm thinkin' maybe State Police even. I have to keep away from the campus maintenance supervisor or there's gonna be blood spilled. Ain't NOBODY callin' her 'dirty Gertie' in my hearing' and gettin' away undamaged. Hell, I got plenty of desert, a diamond point shovel and I know how to use it."

"Now, take it easy, son. I don't have anything but respect for Gert."

"Well, that's what I want to hear. But y'all keep Simon's crew's yaps shut or there's gonna be a few mysterious disappearances in your maintenance staff." I shook his hand and left.

"Oh, Christ. Gert's done raised a fucking Marine." The telephone lines had quite a bit more traffic than normal that night.

I didn't feel right unless I got some good exercise every morning. Most days I woke up early, loaded up a pack full of gallon water bottles and ran around the college track until I ran out of steam. It was a lot more boring than running the fence line, but it was some fifty miles closer.

Just like in high school, I attended my classes, did my homework, took my tests and went home. Friends? I had no friends. I felt lost that I didn't have any chores to do after school. The store manager caught me out after school looking for something to do.

He took me into the office and showed me the scheduling system for the warehouse. "Say, you want to load and unload these trucks according to the clipboards on this tree, I'll pay you for it."

"How much?" I watched him start to get squirrley. "You know, I've been nothing but straight up with you."

He snorted and screwed up his face. "All right, dammit. I pay two guys eight bucks an hour each for an hour to load or unload a truck. That's sixteen bucks a truck. I'll pay you in cash."

Somebody's gotta teach me to back up and navigate these big semis or I'm an accident waiting to happen."

"Good man. Better you bring it up now than after an insurance hit. Come Saturday, I'll come in and show you all you need to know. I grew up doing everything here."

We shook hands and grinned.

That Saturday I learned how to hook up, back and park a semi trailer, how to operate a fork lift and how to read a warehouse docket.

I unloaded and reloaded between four and seven trailers a night before going to bed. That was some nice cash.

I used the college computers to investigate what jobs were out there for people with my skills. Remarkably, the game wardens were harder to get into than the state troopers. I changed the focus of my courses to criminal justice and did ride-alongs with the local police. Even though it cut into my income I did some evening EMT night courses. I did a little speed work on the running track and worked on my military P. T.

The summer between my first and second year I learned to track. I told them I was going into the state police and needed to be able to track people. Boy, did that change what they taught me! Nobody caught me sleeping ever again. They taught me to look at nothing and see everything. That was damned hard. I couldn't do it until they slipped me some peyote. After a while it became a habit. Whenever I walked into a place I saw all of it. They had me start drawing--sketching to put down what I'd seen.

The winter before I graduated I bought a Glock G31, .357 semi-automatic pistol. I spent a lot of bench time working on my target recognition and accuracy no matter what my posture. Standing, squatting, turning, lying prone, on my back, it didn't matter. I wanted to hit what I aimed at even if I were tossed into a corner and had my legs broken.

I graduated college with high marks. I interviewed to get into the state troopers. I went through the school at twenty one. By twenty-two I'd learned how political the job was. I hated that. Instead I applied for an interview with the Federal Marshals to be a deputy. I passed the competition ladder and went to Georgia for their school. They had video-taped courses of how to do everything including how to take a shower and tie your shoes.

Watch a movie, take a test. Watch a movie, take a test. Wash, rinse and repeat. Some movies I went back to watch two and three times because I knew that I missed things. I kept on it until I ran out of movies. Then they partnered me on missions. My silence unnerved my trainer. "What, don't you want to ask anything?"

"Nope. I figure that if you want me to know something you'll tell me. If you screw up and don't tell me it'll be your fault, not mine. Then I hunt you down."

He looked at me like a rabbit looks at an owl. I got a different trainer. He talked me through a lot of stuff, like what he knew about each job, what to expect, what each bad guy was like and what he had done before.

I got more and more 'armed and dangerous' retrievals. My success rate was pretty high. Once the runners saw me over the barrel of my gun all the fight just went out of them. I asked one of the more dangerous ones why he gave up. He said, "You're a stone-cold killer. I could see it in your eyes. I didn't have a chance."

I spent over ten years in the field bringing back runners. Some went into Canada, some into Mexico, some in the back hills of Montana or Maine. I didn't care. I brought them back, usually alive.

I always did live frugally. The service paid for all my running around on the job. I had a uniform allowance and a per diem budget while on the road. All I paid for was apartment rent, electricity, insurance and food. I socked away the money.

The psychologists didn't want me in the field any more. The service had to listen to them. They discharged me with a medical. I was left without direction. No military or police would hire me with the psych profile I had. I bought a Dodge Charger with the police package off of the service web site. It didn't seat five so the model was remaindered out. It had low mileage and the garage checked it out for me. I signed my separation papers and went back to Nevada. It wasn't exactly legal, but I handed in an older ID I had and kept my current one.

Gert had died while I was gone. I drove up the driveway to a picture of desolation. The ranch was closed up, the irrigation pump turned off, the fields were dry. The desert had made inroads into recovering the property. I went to the county court house to find out what happened to the place.

Gert had willed it to me and not said a word. I guessed that she cared for me like I had cared for her. I found a note in the file that her lawyer had the deed to the property, the keys, access to an account with some money in it and a letter for me. I made an appointment to pay him a visit.

Gert's account had been paying off the property tax the last four years so the place was out of hock. When she died the lawyer had a cleaning service go through the place and empty the refrigerator. Then he pulled the breakers and locked the place up.

I got the power turned back on and the phone too. I bought a new vacuum cleaner and some cleaning supplies. I unlocked the gate and swung it open, then drove through. The sun was high. The wind never stopped blowing. It parched your lips in minutes and blew a constant bitter grit everywhere.

I unlocked the ranch house and walked in. Familiar sights and smells came crashing down around me. If anywhere was home to me, this was it. I dropped my suitcase near the door and shut it behind me. In the near-gloom I raised the shades and pulled open the curtains as I walked through the place, headed for the back porch where the electrical service panel sat.

I opened all the breakers then threw in the main. The service panel light turned on, meaning the power company had done their job. I started throwing on breakers one by one, bypassing the irrigation pump and the machine shed circuits. I'd have to see what condition things were in before I tried those. I heard the compressors come on in the kitchen, and the bigger one outside in the air conditioner. The place had central air. I cut off the air conditioner circuit and went outside with a broom and a screw driver. I wanted to clear the filters before I got it running. It wasn't but a twenty minute job to get rid of the dirt and mouse nests. Then the cooler air started coming out of the vents.

I turned the water pump on. I heard coughing and spitting coming out of the sink and the bathrooms. The toilets were filling. I turned off the sinks when the traps had filled and ran some water in the showers to fill those traps too.

I dug out a five-year-old jar of instant coffee and put a pot of water on the stove to heat. Nothing. No gas. I tried the phone and got a dial tone. The propane company's number was written down in the front of the phone book. I gave them a call to see if they were still in business. Yep, they were. I ordered 500 pounds to fill the tank. That meant no hot water either, dammit. Well, I'd be all right until tomorrow. I'd drive the forty miles into Vegas to get dinner and a place for the night. I'd arrange for a Merry Maids party too. Let them clean the damned place. It would be cool enough inside by morning so I got a 10:00 A.M. appointment. I drove to town where I bought detergent for the washer, a cheap cell phone that I could get linked to the house number and a room at a Red Roof Inn--cheap and clean.

Then, showing my federal ID, I bought a pair of new rifles, a good pistol, a bolt-action goose gun and a pump action shotgun. I bought a holster for the pistol, lots of ammunition and several cleaning kits with Hopp's #9 and dry-lube. When it came down to choices for my new rifles I bought a new Savage .22 magnum bolt action with iron sights and a Browning A-bolt in 7mm Remington magnum with a Redfield 3-12 power low light scope. I'd used one in the service and had made friends with it. For a pistol it was back to the Glock 22 for me. Vegas being Vegas, I also bought a poncho to cover everything in the back seat that didn't fit in the trunk. I had a nice dinner then took the Glock into the hotel room with me along with some rags and a cleaning kit to give it a good working-over. Then I worked on the shoulder holster. When I was happy I tucked it away and went to bed.

Bright and early I dressed in an informal suit to hide my shoulder rig and went to breakfast. I'd forgotten what Las Vegas was like in the morning. Six A.M. was no different than 6 P.M. Before heading back to the ranch I stopped by the Clark County Sheriff's office to see if they were accepting applications. I knew that it was kind of an iffy proposition with my psych profile, but I'd never shot an unarmed man, I'd never shot first unless a civilian was being threatened and I'd been in the field almost constantly for ten years retrieving prison escapees and federal runners. I picked up an application. The commander had the local union stuck in his craw and was about to do a little union busting. He was frantically beating the bushes to replace his troops while providing services for the population. It looked like I was a shoe-in, at least temporarily.

By two that day I had gas for the kitchen and water heater, Merry Maids had run through the place like a white tornado and my washing machine was working its mechanical heart out cleaning the bedding and curtains. The rugs were rolled up ready to take to town to be cleaned there.

I spent most of the afternoon in the machine shed with a big fan blasting air around, tossing the dust around in dervish devils. There was an air compressor in there hooked up to 220 Volts to operate a rack full of tools and a nice manual hydraulic ram kit, very close to a jaws of life kit that I'd practiced with. That reminded me to write to the federal offices to get a copy of my certifications, my scores and their completion dates. Hopefully I'd be given credit through the Nevada training facility.

The tractor was dead. It looked like they'd been starting it with a gasoline donkey engine fitted to the front of the drive shaft. That was dangerous as hell. I needed a new tractor. The implements needed refurbishment but were otherwise in decent shape. The planter was done for, though. There really wasn't a local newspaper that wasn't glamour and glitz that close to Las Vegas. Nothing for the farmers. I had to take a trip to the Ag Co-Op elevator to see if there were any postings for used equipment or auctions on the board.

That night I sat at the kitchen table with a Vegas radio station playing. I wrote to get a copy of my records then took out my bank books to check my balances. I carried half a duffel bag full of cash around with me that got dropped during a drug bust. I found it during the final area sweep. Four other teams had passed it by so I considered it providence that it landed in my lap. It was time to count it. I started laying out piles of bundles in 100's, 50's, 20's and 10's. It came out to 45 straps of 100's, 25 straps of 50's, 8 straps of 20's and 12 straps of 10's. A little scratching on my note pad gave a figure of five hundred and fifty three thousand bucks. Quite a little nest egg. From then on I'd have to pay cash for what ever I could. Things like fuel and the bills had to be from accountable funds. I'd been through courses tracking counterfeiters and drug money and knew how not to leave signs. Some tanks of gas, some grocery runs and such had to be made with clean money too. Everyone had those expenditures and they had to show up.

Finally I got down to the letter Gert left me.

"Dear Al, I'd sure like to be a fly on the wall when you got the news about the ranch going to you. I hope you enjoy living on the place and don't sell it off.

There's a box full of warranty papers and what not in my bedroom closet. Pay attention to the irrigator's contract. It's got a long time to go yet.

Be careful cleaning out my bedroom when you go through it. I've been a pack rat for a long, long time.

Love ya, kid--

Gertrude Lawrence."

I didn't know whether to cry or smile, so I did both. Old Gert did right by me, even to the end.

The next day I got a call from the Sheriff's office. I was requested to report to the head office at 8:00 AM.

I showed up bright and early, ready for anything. They'd run his background check and gotten back a list of my certifications. The state governor had signed off on the cross-posting. A box containing captain's bars sat on the desk in front of me along with a cased badge. I looked up into the smiling face of the Clark County Sheriff. "Where do I sign?"

My new boss held out his hand for a shake. "We've got to get you straight on the uniform and your duties. We're breaking this department away from the union until they can get it through their skulls that WE determine if an officer gets put on paid leave, unpaid leave or fired, at OUR discretion, not that of the goddamned union! I was voted into this office, not the goddamned union president or his flunkies."

I said, "Arrest them for interference with an officer, obstructing justice and interfering with a law enforcement case. When their lawyers come in to get them released, search every one of them for firearms. If they're carrying on the premises then they're automatically guilty. Put them away. If a judge objects, have him censured by the state Judicial Conduct Board. If it goes any higher, call the FBI."

Sheriff Gillespie got a pious look on his face. "From your lips to God's ears." He called in his secretary to get me signing paperwork and get me on the payroll while he started making phone calls. Once the door to his office closed his secretary asked me, "What just happened?"

"The sheriff was too close to the problem to see the answer. I just opened his eyes a little."

After a shit storm of paperwork got put under control I was shown an office with a ratty desk and rolling chair. I took one look and smelled the money tree. I collared a secretary and asked a few questions. "Who's in charge of furnishings--you know, internal assets?" "That'd be Jerry Morgan in accounting." "And where can I get a copy of the last few years' budget breakdowns?" "That's all on the computer. I can print copies if you want..." I nodded. "Please. Now, Is brother Jerry in the office?" He leaned over to me and said in a low voice, "Him? You'd think he was on the golf team. He's never here." I smiled. I love the smell of corruption in the morning. It smells like victory.

I found an emergency fire evacuation sign that showed me where my office was, then went down to the main desk to do a little bull shitting. I flashed my federal ID. "Special investigator Simms. Please take me to the accounting department."

I was talking to the CPA within ten minutes. We pulled budgetary records for internal allotments dating back eight years, along with the documented expenses drawing down on those allotments. When the accounts payable records were researched to find records of those checks nothing could be found. There weren't even folders in evidence. The money had evaporated. Still, the requisitions were there, and they were signed by good old brother Jerry Morgan. I lightly asked the accountant, "What does this look like to you?" "Umm, a repeated pattern of grand theft." I said, "Yep, and malfeasance of office. Let's get the keys to brother Jerry's office and see if he's a stupid thief."

Well, he wasn't stupid. His office was clean. On the strength of the evidence and my new position I went before a sitting judge to get a search warrant for brother Jerry's place, and a writ to freeze all his assets.

I took five officers with me to the better side of town where we executed that warrant. We went in teams of two, photographing everything where it lay then taking pictures of each page of the ledgers we found. I called in for four other officers to drive around to several banks to freeze brother Jerry's accounts. Then our wandering golfer was brought in and arrested. He was properly Mirandized and locked in the pokey. When a union rep and two lawyers showed up at my desk to bitch and take a bite out of my ass, making noises like, "You just don't understand how things work around here.", I had them frisked for weapons. Now why would a union rep and his lawyers have ankle holsters and pistols? Well, they didn't have 'em for long. That was a federal rap. I personally made sure that they were properly Mirandized, and on tape, before they went into solitary holding cells.

With the evidence in hand the sheriff went to the state's attorney. He got a judge to allow a hearing to be scheduled the next week. Ol' Jerry spent the next fifteen years at Lovelock with no parole. The budget got about half its money back--three and two-thirds million. It took until Christmas but I finally got new office furniture. The garage got a new lift, two tow trucks and tools. I got assigned to a nice patrol car out of the deal, too.

Next I looked over employment records, times-in-grade, pay grades, duty schedules and mandatory training certificates. Out of twenty thousand troops a third were behind on training and over half had not range qualified in a year. You'd thought that I'd made a bunch of enemies but I also asked why a totally different group of troopers hadn't had a pay increase in over two years. Where was their fucking union representation, eh? Sucking down cold ones at the good-old-white-boy's club, that's where. Shit happens, then people like me come around and wipe it up.

The sheriff came down to pay me a visit my second week. I'd just turned up the payroll and staff record problems. It must have just hit his desk. He sat in my ratty visitor's chair and winced when it bit him in the ass. Then he grinned again. "You're a mean little shit-stirrer, aren't you?" I know my grin looked dangerous. It had helped me in more than one interrogation. "Yep. I'll kick a turd with steel toed boots just to see the shit fly."

"I'll be shakin' out some deadwood on the staff with this records thing, so don't be alarmed at seeing some holes in your staff. If I were you, I'd be wearing a vest outside the building, too."

That reminded me. I needed a housekeeper. The job was going to make huge demands on my hours. I had the room and could afford it. "I need a cook and housekeeper. I've got the bitter end of a ranch up in Moapa. Even two people. There's an old rotary irrigation system that's under warranty. I could get it shortened a bit and grow enough just for me and a few others, maybe buy a few head of steer to feed up and put in a chicken house. This job's gonna chew me up if I try to do it all on my own."

He nodded. "Smart. You're only thirty one. Mebbe you can get something long term out of it, too."

I slowly shook my head. "You know what federal recovery work does to your head? After ten years on the road it's like I've been in combat. I need to unwind a couple years first."

"Keerist. I wish we could get ahold of half those training films you got qualified with. You're the best prepared officer on the force. Still, you're gonna need some down time to get your house in order. Tell you what, take a week, even two. come back when you've got some staff and the flames die down around here."

"Thanks, sheriff. I need a tractor and some too. It's late for auction season but some folk are gettin' out of the business before the end of the year. I'll head down to the Ag Co-Op to see if I can kill two birds with one stone."

I left my patrol car in the shop and drove out to the old grain mill. That's where the ammonia tanks were stored by a railroad siding. The notices board had a few things that interested me. I found an ad from an agricultural Ford dealership. I called him to come out to the ranch to pick up the tractor and the implements. He had a flat bed and a day tractor that would do the trick. I took a trip out to see what he had.

Out back he had a little old John Deer 730 that someone had put some time and effort into. The front wheels ran in the same tracks that the rear wheels did, and all four of them matched the wheel span of the attachments. He wanted 12,500 for it. I offered 800 cash, delivered. Now that he got the idea, I had him look at my plow and cultivator with an eye towards rebuilding them, and I priced out a sickle-bar mower and a used seeder. I made sure that the seeder had the right disks to seed a vegetable garden, then I paid the man.

I went back to the Ag Co-Op to talk to the guys hanging around. I introduced myself and shook hands around. After a while I described the pickle I was in. The guys talked back and forth for a while, bringing up names I'd never heard of. Finally--"What about Jaime?"

"He still around? What about Gloria?"

"Yep. Still naggin' him to death, too." One of the younger guys there said, "Jaime's Mexican and Gloria's Swedish. They had a passel o' kids on a California pecan farm, then moved down here to retire. Be damned if they didn't miss farming. They've been lookin' for a small hold for ages."

"Well, hell--give 'em a call. I've got to clean the place up some, but the ranch house is clean and air-conditioned. I'll take 'em out for a good meal at a casino, then if it all works out I'll invite 'em out to the place tomorrow. If it doesn't work out, no hurt, no foul." They nodded all around. "Good idea. Nobody gets bent out of shape, nobody gets hurt."

I picked up a small, cheap wheelbarrow that would fit in the trunk of my car. I had dinner, bought a dozen small boxes at U-Haul and went home.

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