That Monday, I drank a thermos of black coffee and was working by five a.m., just as the light started to come over the forests and high snowcaps of the Rockies. I was fixing a load of mixed metal for the three-hour haul north to Boise. I'd come out west from Ohio to work with my younger brother Tom. He owned a one-man scrap metal operation in northern Nevada – Elko County – near Jarbidge, twenty miles shy of the Idaho border. It was August and I had been working with him about a year.
My brother and I junked and scrapped everything – cars, logging gear, old mining equipment – and managed to live off the thin, backbreaking profit. Most loads in the scrap business are straight – I'd separate the metals with an acetylene torch and run solid batches of copper or aluminum or steel. But my brother kept a good eye on tonnage scrap prices and we were set to make an extra eight hundred dollars if we sold a heavy mixed load before Thursday. I figured this load weighed out at nine tons.
The wide blue sky was magnifying the sun. Eagles and buzzards circled on the thermal currents. Around noon, when the dead cars in the back lot were too hot to lean against, I shut down the hydraulic compactor and went for a drink of water. I walked to the front of the office, a whitewashed cinder block building where my brother kept the books. I heard him inside, talking to somebody on the phone about a backhaul. I turned the spigot handle and let the hose run, to wash the hot rubber taste out of itself. I sat on an old plastic lawn chair, in the shade of the office. Some flies buzzed the dog's head and he snapped at the air. I filled his metal bowl with water.
The dog's ears came up sharp and he growled. He looked ahead, straining on his chain. I caught the signal. We were a good mile off the connector to Interstate Ninety-three, so strangers were rare. The mountains were all around and the evergreens, calm, but the dog said different. The dog pulled his chain tight and looked straight down the crushed rock dirt road that led to the interstate. He was a big black and tan mutt, maybe part shepherd and part husky. Enough teeth and muscle to rip into business. He kept alert and so did I. I'd had a run in with the law back East, in Ohio. I'd been on parole for some small time drug sales, but I cleaned up my act. The Ohio Department of Corrections didn't see it that way. If I wanted to stay on the outside, I needed to sell drugs for them. I gave them twenty-five grand a week. That went on for a while and then, they wanted more money. My partner and I tried to make one last sale and get out.
Four dirty cops and two parole officers cornered us at a cheap motel after the last big sale of coke. They were going to take us in. They shot and killed my partner and in the longest, loudest second I've ever lived, it was all over. The gun was in my hand, alive, and they were all dead. It happened beyond fast - I was lucky to get out with my life. I didn't belong in Ohio anyway. I came out here to Jarbidge to work with my brother and get away from that. There was more room out here. We still worked outside the law once in a while, but nothing heavy. We were going straight-edge after this last mixed load. The last bit of sketchy business would be settled, day after tomorrow. I meant it and I think my brother did too. On my way to Jarbidge, somewhere in the Rockies, I said words that were meant to be a prayer.
The dog growled low and I snapped my fingers. He stopped. Everything was quiet. I could hear my heart beating in my ears.
I finally heard it crunching stones. It was a sheriff's car pulling up the long unpaved driveway. It was white, dirty from dust, with the Elko County star on the hood and driver's side door, a tall antenna on the roof and two whip antennas on the trunk. The driver got out and another man got out on the passenger's side. They both had silver hair. The driver wore a tan sheriff's uniform. He was smoking a cigarette. It was hard to tell how old he was. He was a large man with a barrel chest. His silver-star badge shone in the sun.
"Hey," he said. He gave me a wave as he walked slowly towards me. I gave him a half-wave back. He stopped about five feet away, reached up and took off his Stetson, wiping his brow with a red kerchief in his left hand. He put the kerchief in his back pocket. He had a brutal looking short nosed revolver holstered in his duty rig, on his waist at the right side. In a natural way, his right hand never moved more than eight inches away from the butt of his gun. The safety was off. "It's a hot one," he said.
The other man stood silent. He was wearing a pressed dark blue suit, white dress shirt with a black string tie and a gray cowboy hat and dark brown cowboy boots. He had a Colt .45 automatic holstered at his waist and his suit coat was pulled back to reveal the black raised-check of the pistol's grip. His right hand rested there. His shirt was damp with sweat around the collar. From the way he held himself and the line under his coat near his left shoulder, he might be carrying another pistol in a shoulder holster, hanging down on his left side. His eyes were a little red with dark circles underneath. It looked like he'd been crying. Both of them were giving me the hard once-over. "Hot," said the sheriff.
"It's hot where I'm standing," I said. "Blazing."
"You don't want to work much in heat like this," he said. There were some metal creaks from the patrol car. Dust settled. My brother came out of the office behind me and stood there with his arms folded. They looked him over too. I imagine they were looking for guns. Neither of us was visibly armed, but my brother usually had a gun on him somewhere.
"I been ducking work for years," I said.
"Believe him when he says that," my brother nodded. He laughed and the sheriff smiled. He pointed his chin at the sheriff. "Too hot for a vest?" he said. There was no bulky outline of Kevlar underneath the sheriff's tan uniform.
"Oh what the hell's the point?" the sheriff said. He waved his left hand at the surrounding hills. "They've all got those big fifty caliber rifles by now anyway. The vests don't stop that shit." He took a drag off his cigarette. "They can shoot you from a mile away," he said.
"I heard that," my brother said. "Somebody told me that."
"Well it's true," said the sheriff.
The sheriff made a motion to the silent man, who produced a small reporter's-type notebook and a ballpoint pen. The silent man wrote in the notebook and held it out for me to see. It read Jim Atwell, Elko County Deputy Sheriff, Retired. I'm deaf and mute. Hello. He tipped his hat slightly.
"He's not retarded or anything," the sheriff said. "He's just got problems." He took a hit from his cigarette. "I'm Sheriff Art Jenkins," he said. He held his hand out and we shook. "I haven't been up this way in a while." He nodded at the cinder-block office and the scrap yard behind it.
"What happened to him?" I said. I pointed at Atwell's head.
"About thirty years ago," he said. He put his cigarette out in the dirt with the toe of his boot and lit a new one. He was smoking Camel nonfilters. "Well the whole thing's a long story, but the main part of it is that Jim was my chief deputy at the time." He took a drag off his cigarette. "We had to transport a prisoner named Broughton on a governor's warrant across our jurisdiction, from Utah to California." The sheriff made an invisible east west line in the air with his hand. " I assigned Jim to the transportation detail, as driver. So it was an escort of two officers – state troopers, big fellows - from Utah, and another deputy, Ernie Dixon from Elko County, and Jim." He lifted his chin toward my brother. "Were you around when Ernie Dixon was around?"
My brother shook his head. "I don't recall him," he said. The dog was sitting near his feet, panting.
"Before your time," the sheriff said. "Hell of a guy." He paused. "Hot to trot with the ladies, before he got married." He fussed around with his tongue inside his mouth and worked a single piece of tobacco to his lips and dry-spit it to the ground. He nodded at his patrol car. "We put those sturdy boys from Utah on either side of the prisoner and Ernie rode shotgun. Jim was driving." He took a drag off his cigarette. "Somehow, Broughton got free from the cuffs there in the back seat and grabbed a gun and shot the two Utah staties, shot Ernie Dixon in the front before Jim got his own iron loose, turned around and gave him one between the eyes." He shook his head. "I forget what Broughton had done, probably stabbed his mother and ate her or fed his kids to a dog," he chuckled, "I have no frigging idea - who knows what they do. But Jim got him and that settled Broughton's hash and I didn't see anyone crying because he's gone." He took another drag off the cigarette. "The slug went right through Broughton's head and blew the rear window out of the cruiser." He pointed at Jim Atwell. "Traumatic shock to his tympanums from all those guns going off, burst his ear drums on the spot. He was lucky to keep the car on the road." He drew the smoke into his lungs. "I guess not being able to hear, he sort of can't talk too well either." He blew the smoke out. "He used to make noise once in a while, but he cut that out years ago," the sheriff finished.
"That's awful," I said. Jim Atwell hunched down a little, grabbed an imaginary steering wheel with his left hand, ducked his head with a pretend horrified look on his face, made a gun with his right forefinger and thumb. He turned his upper body quickly, without letting go of the wheel, pointed the gun of his hand into the imaginary rear seat and silently mimicked a shot and recoil with his finger. He straightened up, turned back to us and shrugged.
"Terrible day all around," the sheriff said. "It was a real shit-storm." He blew some smoke out and it hung there. " The paperwork was just a mess. Broughton had killed here on Nevada soil, so we exercised legal claim over his body, but the Utah governor wanted him back for killing the troopers, even though he'd already signed him over to California, who wanted the death certificate and the body. It was a mess."
"It sounds like it," I said. "What'd you end up doing?"
"Kept him right here in a pine box," said the sheriff. "Still got him, in an unmarked grave west of here, near Golconda." He puffed his cigarette. "He shot Deputy Ernie Dixon in the line of duty, so I made sure he stayed on Nevada soil." He threw the cigarette into the dust and lit another. "I check up on him sometimes, when I'm on the road. Stop over there and take a piss right on him." He touched his fly. "It might surprise you, how often I have to piss." He paused. "I'd like to think it's motivated by hate, not age." He almost smiled. "I'm old-testament Christian, so hate and retribution and terrible eternity," he nodded, "that's fine by me." His right hand still stayed close to the butt of his gun. He used his left hand for his cigarette. Smoke spilled out of his mouth.
"You take care of your men," I said.
He looked up at the big empty sky. "Sometimes that's all you got out here," he said. "I really don't care about good and bad. I care about loyalty." He put the cigarette to his lips and inhaled and finished it. "Being a deputy is a serious thing. It affects your whole life." He shook his head. "I won't live long enough to give Jim his hearing back, so I do the best I can when I have the chance."
"Sure," I said.
He lit another cigarette with the Zippo. "Jim was my best friend," he said. "He was my best friend then and he's my best friend now." He blew smoke through his nose. "That's why we're here."
I nodded. "What can we do for you?" The dog sniffed the air.
"Well boys, we got a bad problem," he said.
"How's that?" I said.
"Jim's son George was arrested late Saturday night."
"That's part of it. He got arrested in Reno for passing a phony hundred-dollar bill at the craps table. He says he got the bad paper from you." He took another drag on his cigarette and his hand rested on his revolver. He pointed his chin at Jim's suit. "We just came from talking to his boy. We got to Reno Sunday, Jim went to church and a jail visit all in the same day, in the same suit. He keeps himself neat, though, always did. I don't know how he does it." He touched Jim Atwell on the arm and Jim Atwell barely smiled. "He was Mormon for about two years after George's mother died, maybe that's got something to do with it," the sheriff said. "Now he's back to regular Lutheran." Jim Atwell watched everything without moving, primed for the draw. "Maybe we can get a look at your books," the sheriff said.
I went slowly into the office and came out nice and easy with the logbook. "Sure enough," I said. I pointed to his name on the light blue ledger line. George Atwell. The sheriff read over my shoulder. "He towed a car in here a couple days ago and we scrapped it for him," I said. The total on the line indicated we'd given him five hundred dollars cash for a 1977 Chevy Impala.
"Where did you get the money from, to pay him?" the sheriff asked. "The actual bills."
"Bob Burke," my brother said. "Whole stack of hundreds came from Bob Burke the other day."
"I've heard his name before," the sheriff said. "That's not good."
I moved down the ledger book – the name Robert Burke was listed next to some figures for scrapped mining equipment. Burke had paid us to haul it. On that particular day, my brother also sold Burke two thousand rounds of ammo and a case of blasting caps. Those items were not reflected in the logbook. Burke, in turn, gave my brother some cash and twenty pounds of crystal meth. My brother was supposed to sell it to a group of bikers who were due by later in the week. Tomorrow. Bob Burke would come by after that, to pick up three-quarters of the cash we got from the bikers. The day after tomorrow. It was our last piece of bad business. I'd never actually seen Bob Burke, just hauled scrap from his house with my brother. My brother said Burke supposedly beat a dog to death a while ago. Nobody did anything – it was Burke's own dog.
"Can I see one of those bills?" the sheriff asked.
I went into the safe and pulled one out. I held it to the sheriff and he held it out to the sun. He went back to the patrol car and ran a special pen over it. "It's a good fake," he said, "but it's definitely a bad bill."
My brother spit into the dirt. "He's a cocksucker," my brother said. He shook his head and shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
The sheriff nodded. "Do you know where this Bob Burke lives?" he asked.
"Up in Idaho, south of Rogerson," my brother answered. I guess that severed our goodwill with Bob Burke.
The sheriff wrote it out on a pad to Jim Atwell. Jim Atwell wrote something back to him. Then the sheriff turned to us. "This is a little awkward," the sheriff said, and now he was talking straight at me," but I've got to cuff you and ask you to sit in the back. I've actually got a warrant for your arrest based on all this, but we'll try to straighten it out now and I won't have to execute the warrant."
I looked at my brother. "Okay," I shrugged. I didn't have much choice. I put my hands behind my back and he put the bracelets on me.
He turned to my brother. "You can ride in the front."
We all rode in the patrol car. Jim Atwell in the back with me, my brother in front with Sheriff Jenkins. We pulled out onto the connector and drove north. The road was rough and the trees gave way to broken rocks and reddish, dusty soil. We passed an abandoned Sinclair gas station with the green dinosaur sign still out front.
"Do you think you can give the cigarettes a rest?" my brother asked. "You're killing me over here." He shook his head. "You'll get cancer," he said, "or give it to me and I don't want it." The smoke filled the car, even with the windows open.
"That's part of it right there," the sheriff said. "One night, maybe forty years ago or longer, Jim and me were up on a ridge drinking some beer after our shift. This was before I smoked heavy. Must have been midnight, cause we worked three to eleven. We felt a wave of heat, like the air was boiling. I'll never forget that feeling. Then bang! The whole sky lights up, everything, just like daylight for a minute, wham, the whole sky lit up and everything glowed red. Then it was gone." He dragged on his cigarette. "It was the nuclear, down south, only we didn't know it at the time. They didn't tell us." He smoked. "So I got the whole thing beat, the way I figure it. I got the chemo first, before I started smoking too much. That's the key to it, get the chemo first," he chuckled. "Jim and me, never a spot of cancer." He kept smoking.
"That's a good theory," my brother said. "You're killing me here."
The sheriff didn't seem to hear him. "That's how I learned to draw a pistol fast," the sheriff said. "After seeing that flash in the sky." He watched the road. " You have to shoot fast. It comes on like the heat and then you get that fast light. Make the air boil," he finished. He patted the big revolver on his hip. Jim Atwell wrote something on his notepad and showed it to me as if somehow he'd been listening. The note read Man makes a lot of things go fast, but only God can make speed. Jim Atwell nodded at me and I nodded back.
We drove and passed a small ravine and a sign saying we had crossed the state line into Idaho. Welcome. I was still cuffed in the back seat.
"Hey," my brother said. "You can't just go across the state line like that." He looked at the sheriff. Jim Atwell sat silently next to me. "You've got to notify somebody."
"It's all Elko County to me," said the sheriff. "Maybe things in Nevada grew and mutated after all the nuclear stuff, maybe the counties got bigger. Maybe the law got bigger." He puffed his cigarette. "Who do you want me to call?" he said. "Specifically."
"I don't know," said my brother.
"Then button it," the sheriff said. "If you think normal people would ever live out here, you're fooling yourself."
We drove for forty minutes. We pulled off the interstate and snaked around, my brother giving directions, and ended up in front of Bob Burke's house. It was a gray cinder-block shack with concrete front steps. In the back were low cages that looked like kennels and a dog run. I knew the house because I'd been there once with my brother. Two men were there, standing near the front steps. A pickup truck sat in the front yard. A Winchester hung in the rear window of the truck. A woman was in the front passenger's seat of the pickup truck. She didn't turn to look at us.
The sheriff stopped the cruiser and got out. He walked to the two men and I watched from the back seat. Jim Atwell and my brother watched too. "Is Bob Burke around?" the sheriff asked the two men.
One of the men spit and the other man shook his head and spoke. "No," he said. "We're looking for him."
The sheriff nodded. "We're looking for him too," he said.
He walked around to the back of the house and I couldn't see him. There was a loud crash. My brother got out of the cruiser and stood there, then got back in. The sheriff walked toward us from around the corner of the house. He held a couple hundred-dollar bills in his hand. He put the bills on the dashboard of the cruiser. I was cuffed in the back seat, sweating. Jim Atwell sat next to me, in his own silent world. He was sweating too.
The sheriff walked to the pickup truck, to the passenger's side next to the woman. He spoke to her softly. The two men came over and stood with him and the men and the sheriff walked to the back end of the truck.
One of the men spoke up. "If we don't find him here, we were going to go over to The Fifth Ace and see if he was there. He drinks over there sometimes."
"Regular," the other man said. "I see him there every day when I drive past, with his big yellow truck parked out front." The hot sun was moving a little over the Rockies.
"How come there's two of you?" the sheriff said.
"Burkey's pretty mean," the one guy said.
"Burkey's fast with a gun," the other man said. "He thinks I'm afraid of him, but I'm not." He looked up at the sky and then at the sheriff. "I'm not," he said.
"Sure you're not," the sheriff said.
"That's my wife," said the man, pointing at the woman in the front seat.
"How long you been married?" asked the sheriff.
"We're not yet, but we're going to be soon," the man said. "We're supposed to get married."
"That's nice," the sheriff said.
"Nobody hits my wife," the man said. "Did you see her? Bob Burke did that to her."
"I saw her," the sheriff said.
"She might be pregnant," the man said. "We might lose our baby."
"Where was she when Burke hit her?" the sheriff asked.
"She was at The Fifth Ace, having a beer, minding her own business," the man said.
"Where were you?" the sheriff asked.
"I was in Spokane for a couple days and I come home to this," the man said.
"We're going," the other man said.
"I'll follow you to The Fifth Ace," the sheriff said. The two men pulled out onto the highway in their pickup and we followed right behind. After fifteen minutes, we pulled into a run-down strip mall, set off the road by a big parking lot. The lot had about ten cars, baking in the sun. As we parked in the back, Jim Atwell wrote a note on his pad and handed it to the sheriff. I didn't see what Jim wrote, but the sheriff's reply reply read Dog dead in kennel – woman beat bad – eye socket maybe broke. The two men parked their truck so all I could see of the woman was the back of her head and her dirty blond hair. From the way her head moved slightly, it looked as if she was smoking cigarettes constantly.
The sun burned the air. The sheriff, Jim Atwell, my brother, and the two men stood on the sidewalk, watching the parking lot from the shade of the overhang. We had pulled into a corner of the lot and the cruiser was sort of hidden behind the deserted store. At the other end of the strip mall was The Fifth Ace, then a Laundromat, then a deserted store front, then the store we were next to. In front of the store was a kid's coin horse. Mister Quickly was written on the bottom of it, on the rectangular base. Jim Atwell patted Mister Quickly on the head.
A kid, a young boy, came out of the Laundromat. He walked down by us. I sat cuffed in the back of the cruiser. The sheriff tossed his cigarette in the parking lot as soon as he saw the kid.
"Hi," said the kid. He had on little jeans, black sneakers, a white tee shirt and a short, done-at-home haircut. He picked at a small scab on his right forearm. His belt buckle was an oversized fake gold baseball.
"Hi there partner," said the sheriff. The other men looked at the kid.
"I'm Stevie," the boy said. He adjusted his pants.
"Hi Stevie," the sheriff said. "I'm Sheriff Jenkins."
"I'm five," Stevie said.
"That's great," the sheriff said. He didn't take his eyes off the parking lot. Jim Atwell looked at Stevie and then back at the parking lot. His right arm was a coiled spring, ready to draw that big .45. I tried to imagine what firing a gun and not hearing the shot would be like.
"How many old are you?" Stevie asked.
The sheriff looked down at him. "I'm eighty-seven," said the sheriff. It didn't seem to register on Stevie. A truck pulled into the parking lot, but it wasn't Bob Burke.
"I'm going to ride this horse," Stevie announced. The horse was directly behind the men.
"For Christ's sake," said my brother.
"Oh put a quarter in," one of the men said.
"Fuck you," my brother said. "You put a quarter in."
"Come on," said the sheriff. "Don't curse in front of the kid." He looked back at the parking lot. Jim Atwell stared at the heat devils coming off the black macadam and the cars.
"Yeah," Stevie said. "No cursing."
My brother shook his head. The two other men laughed.
"My mother doesn't like cursing," Stevie said.
"I bet I know what your mother likes," my brother said.
"What?" Stevie said. The sheriff looked at my brother.
"Never mind," said my brother. "You want to ride the horse, fine." He put a quarter in for the kid and lifted him up into the saddle. Nothing happened. A car pulled into the lot and an old woman got out and headed into The Fifth Ace.
"He's not going," Stevie said. "Make him go."
My brother put another quarter in the silver slot. Nothing happened. "You know what they do to horses that won't go?" my brother asked. Stevie shook his head and in an instant, my brother was holding his Glock up to Mister Quickly's cast iron brown ear. "They shoot them," my brother said. "Bang." The color drained out of Stevie's five-year-old face. My brother put the Glock away.
The sheriff turned around. He pointed his chin at the two other men. "Make it go for the kid," he said. "Pick it up."
The two men strained at either end of the horse, shifting it around a little.
"Giddyup," Stevie said.
The man at the head of Mister Quickly said, "I got the good end." He laughed.
They shifted the horse around and Stevie whooped it up. The painted expression on Mister Quickly's face never changed. He kept charging ahead at the same rate. Even though Mister Quickly was a racehorse, there was a painted-on rifle in his saddle scabbard.
The sheriff went to the car and reached up on the dashboard. "I've got something for you Stevie," he said. He came out holding a tin star. He knelt and pinned the star on the kid. "You're a deputy now," the sheriff said. A pickup truck pulled into the parking lot and turned around, headed back out onto the highway.
"Wow," Stevie said.
"Do right by the law and the law will do right by you," the sheriff said. "Look out for bad guys." Jim Atwell stood at attention and saluted.
"What should I do if I see one?" Stevie asked.
"What do you think you should do?" the sheriff asked.
Stevie looked at my brother for a moment, then back at the sheriff. He made a pistol with his thumb and forefinger. "I know what to do," he said.
"That's right," said the sheriff.
"Are you the good guy?" Stevie asked.
"I'm the only guy," the sheriff said.
Stevie turned around and walked on his little legs toward the Laundromat. He turned around and saluted before he went inside. My brother made a noise.
"Don't be such an asshole," the sheriff said.
He lit a cigarette.
"Nobody does," the sheriff said, "but what the fuck does that have to do with anything?" He spit. "Jim's the only one here who cares about kids." He took a drag on his cigarette. "You're a grown man. Keep your act together, before we have a problem."
"Right," my brother said.
"No, seriously son," the sheriff said. "Keep that shit in mind." He nodded. He watched the parking lot hard. Somebody pulled into the parking lot in a big yellow four-by-four. A man got out.
"That's not Bob Burke," one of the two men said.
"But it looks like his truck," the other man said. He squinted in the sun. "It's not him though," he said. "Burkey's bigger than that."
The sheriff stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled loud. The man who was driving Bob Burke's truck turned to look and the sheriff motioned him over. He walked across the parking lot. He had a cowboy hat on, with jeans and a black tee shirt.
"Hi," said the sheriff. "Is that Bob Burke's truck you're driving?"
The man slowed and nodded. "Yes it is," he said. Half a tattoo showed from under his sleeve on his left bicep.
"Burke around?" the sheriff asked. I saw the man's eyes take in the size of the sheriff's gun.
"No," the man said. He paused. "I'm no friend of his," he said. "Just doing him a favor to get some money he owes me." He nodded. "Legal."
"When's he back in town?" the sheriff asked. He lit a new cigarette.
"Day after tomorrow," the man said. Jim Atwell stood, watching. He was looking right through the man.
"Fine," the sheriff said. "You never saw me and I never saw you and you get your legal money and that's all you know." He took a long drag.
"You're a stranger that just became a ghost," the man said, "as far as I'm concerned." He started to walk away, toward The Fifth Ace.
"Because I'll come back," said the sheriff. He puffed his cigarette.
"Burke's not my friend," the man called over his shoulder. "You can have him." He kept walking. He went into The Fifth Ace.
The sheriff and my brother and Jim Atwell got into the cruiser. As we pulled out of the parking lot, I got a clear view of the woman's face in the pickup truck. I've never seen those colors of deep purple and blue black. She didn't look at us.
We drove back across the Idaho state line, into Nevada. We turned off the connector, onto the dirt road of the scrap yard and stopped, a mile from the scrap yard. The sheriff and Jim Atwell got out of the car and exchanged notes on Jim's notepad. My brother got out of the car. I was still sitting cuffed in the rear seat.
"What's that you're wearing?" my brother asked. He nodded at the sheriff's pistol.
"Smith and Wesson 629-V 44 mag," the sheriff said. Jim Atwell walked around the cruiser and got in the passenger's seat. He took his hat off and nodded at me. I nodded back. He didn't uncuff me. He wasn't going to uncuff me.
"It looks like a real stopper," my brother said.
"Oh this is a widow-maker from way back," the sheriff said. "This thing will shoot to China." It was in his hand, more quickly than was possible.
"You're a fast draw," my brother said. "Some guys draw fast and it's a trick, but it looks like you could shoot that way."
"You can talk about all the fancy trick shooting you want, but unless you can grab it and hit the other guy before he hits you, it's all talk." He reached down, put the gun in his duty rig and before I could breathe, he drew it again. "You can't beat me," he said to my brother.
"No," my brother said, "I probably can't."
"No probably about it," the sheriff said. He tossed his cigarette into the dirt road. He holstered the ugly magnum.
"But that doesn't matter," my brother said.
"Not today it doesn't," the sheriff said.
"I've got good friends in the hills," my brother said. "Friends that don't care about shit."
The sheriff patted the magnum. "Like Bob Burke? He was your friend yesterday. And then today he's got you involved with phony money and he beat someone else's wife and it looked like he crippled a dog or two, maybe killed one." He paused. "Someday the shit he won't care about will be you. How do you know he's not coming here to kill you? You think he's steady?" He shook his head.
"I guess I don't," my brother said.
The sheriff patted the magnum again. "I've got six good fast friends right here," he said. "My friends are like Jim Atwell. Steady." He nodded at me in the car. "I heard you draw pretty fast."
"No," I said. "Not me. I'm afraid of guns."
"That's not what I heard," the sheriff said. "I heard you're fast."
"Who'd you hear that from?" I said. I was sweating. Jim Atwell looked at me from the front seat. I felt like I could hear his silence.
"I got it on pretty good authority that you shot four Ohio cops before they even got their guns out." He paused to light a cigarette. "They tried to tell me you shot your partner and got away."
"Never happened," I said. With my eyes, I told my brother to stay cool.
"That's what I said too, till they faxed me the report." He puffed his cigarette. "They forgot to mention the two parole officers that got killed. Some Ohio detective who claimed to be working the cold case squad called a month ago. They had you surrounded in that motel, three squad cars, two officers in each car, pulled right up front and went to get out and you came out of that front door and shot those men to death fast like nobody's business and turned around and shot your partner so he wouldn't squeal. Didn't make sense to me." He looked up at the sky. "They only got one shot off, six trained officers. A couple of them didn't even clear leather with their piece. That's what the forensic report said." He looked over at me. "Now that's fast," he finished.
"I don't know what you're talking about," I said.
He waited a minute. "Well I didn't say anything to him." He took a hit off his cigarette. "He talked to me like I was a hayseed, so I didn't say anything to him. I told him we didn't have anybody like that out here in Elko County and if a man could really draw that fast, I'd make him my deputy." He nodded at me again. "That would be a good idea, wouldn't it?"
"That'd be a good idea," I agreed. "What about cops sticking together?"
"That shit ends at the Mississippi," he said. "I don't tolerate dirty cops. If it was a regular take-down, why was parole involved? It smells like a bad operation gone worse."
He took his hat off and wiped the sweat from his brow with his red kerchief. "You probably don't know this, but right over there somewhere was the last stagecoach robbery in the US in 1916." He pointed into the woods.
"Really," I said.
"Yup," he said. "Outlaw named Judson robbed a mining payroll coming down from Rogerson to Jarbidge in the middle of a December blizzard. He shot four or five road agents they'd hired as guards, but one of them winged him. They caught him by the blood trail."
"Hmm," I said.
"But the governor pardoned him, and when he got out he hung around for a bit and then disappeared, with the money he'd hidden. I kind of like that story."
"It's a good story," I said.
"When I was a kid, I used to tell people that my grandfather had changed his name from Judson to Jenkins."
"Did he?" I asked.
"Not likely," he said. "Come here, get out of the car." He opened the back door and helped me out. He unlocked the cuffs. I rubbed my wrists. Jim Atwell leaned over and handed him something through the open driver's side window. "Are you ready?" he said.
"Yes," I said. "I'm ready."
He pinned the star Atwell had handed him on my blue denim work shirt. "By the power vested in me by The State of Nevada, I hereby make you a full deputy of the Elko County Sheriff's Department." We shook hands. I felt the weight of the star on my shirt.
"Thanks," I said.
"Now we're going back to Reno," he jerked his thumb at Jim Atwell in the cruiser, "and arrange for his son to get out of lock-up. I think I can arrange that on the basis of our on-going investigation into Bob Burke."
"Sure," I said. "That sounds good."
"And Bob Burke will be back here the day after tomorrow," he said.
I nodded. My brother spoke up. "That's right," my brother said.
"Well I'm going to be here too," the sheriff said. "I might have to shoot Bob Burke." The magnum was in his hand and he spun it once around on his forefinger and jammed it back in its holster. "I can feel it coming on," he said.
"I'm with you," I said.
"If I'm not here, you might have to shoot Bob Burke," he said. "We're doing this for Jim and Jim's boy. Remember that."
"I know," I said.
"How fast are you?" he asked.
I had the star on now. "Faster than you've ever seen," I said.
"Now you're talking," the sheriff said. "Strap on an iron and let's see it."
My brother took off his belt and gave me the small holster he'd been using to hold his Glock. I put it around my waist. My arm felt good and my wrists had recovered from the cuffs. The gun was in my hand.
"Let me see that again," the sheriff said.
I put the Glock back into the holster. I shrugged and the gun was in my hand.
The sheriff shook his head. "Oh," he said, "that's some kind of fast."
"Thanks," I said. "I won't let you down." I looked inside the cruiser at Jim Atwell.
The sheriff climbed in behind the wheel and lit a cigarette. "If I'm not here day after tomorrow," he said, "you go ahead and kill Bob Burke and we'll figure it all out later."
"Okay," I said.
"You're going to like it in out here in the West," he said.
"I like it already," I said.
The sheriff pulled away and my brother and I stood at the end of our dirt driveway. We walked up into the woods a little, talking about what had happened and trying to imagine the precise spot of that last stagecoach robbery and the gunfight in the December blizzard of 1916. We talked about catching some bull trout. We talked about the mystery of how God makes speed. Then we walked back to the scrap yard and waited for Bob Burke to show.
Scott Wolven is a graduate student in Creative Writing at Columbia University, and he is teaching fiction writing this fall at Binghamton University (SUNY). His story "Copper Kings", originally published in PWG (jointly with Handheld Crime), appears in Houghton Mifflin's Best American Mystery Stories 2002 anthology.