Excerpt for Ridgerunner: A Killer from the Hills Novel by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


A Killer from the Hills Novel

Rusty Barnes


“Rusty Barnes has done it again. Ridgerunner is a well-oiled, perfectly crafted shotgun of a novel, one that delivers just as much heart as it does gunpowder. No one else working today can showcase so much humanity in such dark places. It’s a genuine thrill to see what Barnes can do with twenty-six letters and a handful of characters.”—Sheldon Lee Compton, author of The Same Terrible Storm and Brown Bottle

“With Ridgerunner, Rusty Barnes has earned a place at the table with hardscrabble-noir poets like Woodrell, Wolven, and—yes—Thompson. This short novel packs a wicked punch that will leave you shaken and wanting more. Drop whatever you’re doing and get your hands on it.”—Patrick Shawn Bagley, author of Bitter Water Blues

“Rusty Barnes has something special here—the narrative equivalent of a fist to the gut, followed up with a well-placed kick in the teeth. You’re going to want to get yourself a snack to go with Ridgerunner, because once you start reading this book you’ll forget to eat. It’s a non-stop thrill ride from page one as Barnes blends mayhem and heart in equal doses, giving the reader a tour into the souls of men and their vices, exposing the lengths they’ll go to protect what’s theirs.”—CS DeWildt, author of Love You to a Pulp

“A guttural and unrelenting survey of a people and place that is not lawless, but, rather, governed solely by its own backcountry creed. Ridgerunner blurs the boundaries between lawmen and outlaws. Barnes has delivered the stuff of fine fiction.”—David Joy, author of Where All Light Tends to Go

“Barnes starts his story with a fast boil and wrenches up the gas on every page, never relenting until the lid pops off and scalds the hell out of you. Ridgerunner is brutal, satisfying, and left me looking forward to his next book.”—Samuel W. Gailey, author of Deep Winter

“Jim Burke says he works the pages till, when you pick them up, they crackle in your hand. That’s Rusty Barnes’ Ridgerunner. From the first line it crackles: it’s alive, moving about, and won’t be still.”—James Sallis

Copyright © 2016 by Rusty Barnes

First Shotgun Honey Edition October 2017

All rights reserved. No part of the book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

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The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

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About the Author

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For Heather.

Chapter 1

Soldier Pittman and his brother Jake had raised a shitload of kids, mostly boys, that I’d been dealing with in one way or another for their entire lives. Soldier and Jake seemed not to care what their kids did, so it really became a monthly thing, hauling them in for jack-lighting deer, feeding bear, trapping out of season, fishing with quarter sticks of dynamite, the whole bit. They knew every ATV-ripped deer path and hollow-hugging logging road on either side of the NY-PA state line for fifty miles. And I didn’t. They were born, bred, and mature criminals by age sixteen, and tonight was one of many nights I had spent chasing them.

Through binoculars it was hard to tell, but I believed the two I saw walking the ridgeline two back roads ago were the oldest one, Soldier, and one of the little ones, Marky. Stark Mountain rose high behind them like an over-huge shadow. If they got to the bend of the stream that ran maybe a mile behind the house, I’d lose them, and they’d come back to pick up their truck, now parked on the roadside, some other day when I wasn’t around. So I wasn’t sure what the right course of action was. I wrote out a quick note, Hi guysbe seeing you soon, and stuck it under a wiper blade.

The sunlight pooled in my reflection in the windshield of the car as I thought about what would come next. Luckily, it was decided for me when I heard the flat report of a .22 behind the house, then again, and a third time. I closed the car door softly, checked my .40 with one hand and grabbed a tiny Maglite to stuff in my pocket. I loped downhill across the field as quickly as I could, hidden somewhat by the lines of poplar in the hedgerow, which would serve me for another two hundred yards before I’d hit open ground and the eventual crossing of the creek.

Where the field evened out was another ruined house. When the occupants left, they left everything. A rusted plow sat by the outer house and a homemade singletree leaned against the door on the back porch. I took cover behind the outer house to catch a little breath and see if I could breathe my adrenaline down, the dark already deep. I sat there only for a moment when a spotlight froze me just like a deer, and I felt a deep pain in my shoulder even as I tried to back out of the light, before I heard the shot. I could hear the truck up on the road start, and I felt two more shots go past me. I ran for the cover of the house, but lost my footing and crashed headlong down and down and down before I hit. Blinded by the light I heard rather than felt—the stiff hum of a powerful spotlight—someone, probably Soldier, squeezed off three shots in my direction. I don’t think he missed, but it wasn’t in the cards for me to find out immediately.

I came to with the sound of water dripping and a stabbing pain in my left leg. I pulled at the cuff of my pants and the pain rooted itself in my calf and ankle and began to throb like a bitten tongue. A roundelay of stars showed themselves fifteen or twenty feet over my head, and some tree branches, the remains of the boards I’d fallen through. I lay in about ten or fifteen inches of cold and mossy water. The Maglite in my belt showed me how things lay. The siding of the well I’d fallen into consisted of slick field stone and moss. I saw what looked to be a mudpuppy disappear under the water. Stretching myself as much as I could against the pain, I wondered how much shit or other filth was driving into my leg now on the clear path to sepsis. My radio wouldn’t work. I didn’t bother to check my cell phone as it only worked in the mountains. Somewhere Soldier Pittman and his brothers laughed their asses off.

Something made me shift my ankle on up to my other knee. After cutting through the cuff, with the Maglite in my mouth, I could see the reddened skin and the pale white bulge of the break. I found my handkerchief but lacking something stiff for a splint I bit the inside of my cheek raw and tied it as tightly as I could stand around the break. When I finished shaking I leaned my head against the wall narrowing down my choices. I felt a fever start in my shoulder. I knew at least one of those other shots had hit me. I could sit there. Try to do what little I could. Scream my fool head off. All three seemed good to me. My hand under the water found a sealed coffee can, done over with electrical tape. I didn’t have it in me to get excited or wonder what it was.

I pulled my sidearm and shot at the stars three times, then waited five minutes and shot three more times. I think I got one. At some point the stars winked out and I dreamed about the hot light of the desert, nowhere to go, and nothing to do when you get there, thick-tongued, exposed skin burned, when even your hair hurt to the touch.

The second time I opened my eyes the night hadn’t gotten any better lit. I couldn’t control my shivering, and I dropped more shells than I got into the clip, but I shot again, three times—then three times more. A cascade of boards and rubble came down and I covered my head the best I could. I could hear the long loping sound of someone’s dog baying in the near distance and I screamed for help. The dog abruptly stopped howling, and I laid my head back again and passed out.

Floating on a current of pain, I heard someone behind me say “watch his arm now, watch the arm.”

Since one was strapped at my side already I dutifully put the other on the stretcher.

“Thanks for that, sir,” another voice said. “More careful now, he’s awake.” I gave thumbs up from the side, just to say I was cognizant. “All right, good man, good man.” The stretcher moved up slightly then slid into place in the ambulance bay. A blue-suited EMT with a scarred lip jumped in beside me, and patted my arm. On the other side of me I saw Dean Blackwell, who I’d known my entire life. He was a cousin through a grandmother here and a grandfather who had died early on in the Korean War.

“You fucked up good.” he said. He pulled his cap off and ran a hand over his thinning hair.

“I hear that,” I said.

“You’re lucky twice today. Once that I was out hunting at the end of the day and again that my dogs aren’t worth shit.”

“I heard them barking.” Various parts of my body seemed to be burning, and I couldn’t feel my ankle anymore. I wondered if they’d given me something.

“Not to interrupt old home day here, but how are you feeling?” the EMT said. His name was Everett, according to the patch.

“I’ve had better days.” My neck had been strapped down as well, so all I could see was the top of his head as he fiddled with my pants leg, which they had split up the side to my hip.

“Ankle broken,” Everett said. “A concussion for sure and possibly, a skull fracture. We can’t tell for sure because you raked your head on the wall all the way down.”

“Next time you try to find someone up here, why not stop in and pick me up first?”, Dean said.

“You’ll be the first one I call next time,” I said. “I followed these Pittmans all the way up Mottown Road from Fassett.” My baseball coach taught me breathing techniques for when I was full of rage or disordered somehow, and I wanted them to work badly right about now, but they seemed useless a game as soccer. “They were after deer.” I closed my eyes again and gave up on the breathing.

“I’ll have Woody take some time off and build a better cover for that well. I probably should have done it years ago, but it’s not my property, technically.” Dean lived in a huge farmhouse with a hundred and sixty acres of land he didn’t work. He served as caretaker for sixty cows, a bunch of Rhode Island Reds, and a million dollars’ worth of farm equipment that he kept up, but never used. Dean claimed he was giving the land a break after the Gills family farmed it for fifty years, but the truth of the matter was that the property was owned by a New Jersey lawyer named Standing who wanted to be a gentleman farmer. He didn’t qualify by knowledge or experience, which was where Dean came in. I swore to myself as the ambulance took a hard turn.

“Which hospital we headed to?” I asked.

“You have a choice,” Everett said, “You can go to Towanda or we can go up into Elmira.”

“Elmira. Saint Joe’s,” I said.

“They don’t have a file on you there.”

“I’m the shittiest patient there ever was,” I said to Everett. “You’re going to want to kick my ass out before we get there.”

Everett smiled through his scar. “Even Dean’s not that cruel.”

“You may be surprised,” I said. The ankle began to throb like an angry red sun.

“Rest now. Plenty of time to bullshit later on,” Everett said, inserting a needle into my IV. Dean crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall. His eyes looked rough to me, rode hard and put up wet, I would have said. I took that opportunity to sleep, even though I found out later Everett wrote the record as “lost consciousness.” Whatever he put into the IV felt rough at first, but then quite satisfying like rubbing a dog’s fur. I chose to sleep. They didn’t make me.

Waking in the hospital, I saw nothing but antiseptic white and light green walls. I wasn’t tied down anymore, which was a relief, so I used the bathroom first, then took stock of what I felt. The left ankle set in a hot pink cast already, and even a signature in black marker, though I couldn’t see whose. Bandages on the left shoulder as well as a slung left arm. Another bandage high in my chest that would have worried me had I seen it on someone else. I wondered where Joyce was, if she’d been called yet.

A Doctor Stevens, came in the room and ignored me until he’d finished looking at my chart. “You’re lucky, sir.”


“The bullet missed your aorta by,” and here he measured between his thumb and index finger, “a teeny tiny bit.”

“‘A cunt hair’, you mean.”

“And your ankle is broken. And you have a concussion. Is that enough for you for one night?”

“Has anyone called my wife?” I asked.

“You’re lucky. I’ll ask the nurse,” he said. He turned and left in a swirl of efficiency. A blonde girl—a candy-striper—came in to say she’d be glad to call. I gave her the name and number and left it in God’s hands, because truth to tell, I was tired as I’d ever been. I dreamed of white noise and spaceships until 3 a.m., when I woke in a sweat with Soldier Pittman at the edge of my vision, shooting me in the shoulder again and again and again until I woke.

I hit the call button a few times but the only one who showed was that blonde girl. Now that I was more myself I knew her immediately. Her family, the Bostonians, had been called that ever since they moved in from South Boston, regardless of whether they wanted the name or not. The Bostonians had been in town maybe twenty years. The girl came in to empty the garbage and get the linen.

“Suzanne Sullivan, I know you now. Did you make a call for me earlier?” I pulled myself into an almost-sitting position, taking care to cover my crotch.

“I did, yes, Mr. Rider. Sir. She says she’ll come over when your brother comes to get her. She said she had to get herself ready first.” She looked away quickly and gathered the linen under her arm. “Hope you feel better soon.” She exited, leaving a sweet clean scent behind her. What she knew and few enough people around the horn did, was that Joyce would not come out for just anybody, not even me, which gave you a measure of how much she was worried about me this time. The kindest way to describe it—agoraphobia. The unkindest way? She had left the house once in the last six months, and only then to drop off Jenna at the bus she took to college.

I got a part-time job as a conservation officer in addition to my day job as a mechanic, hoping that with my time filled my mind would fill too. It had worked occasionally, so I kept it up like a maniac trusting it would be all right, that it would make a sort of sense in a world that deserved to make sense. I didn’t have anything to report.

I picked up the remote and turned on my little TV. Somewhere there were men bouncing or throwing or shooting or hitting a basically round object. I wanted to be mesmerized. I clicked until I found some Mesmer. I couldn’t tell you a thing about it, though, because I got my hourly shot of something that felt like sliding my body into warm grease and I went to sleep.

When I awoke, Joyce and Randy were there waiting on me to wake up. “You know you’re not supposed to get shot,” Joyce said, a torqued smile failing to cease her trembling hands. “I’m scared.”

Randy laughed and patted her on the back. “You’re here and that’s what matters,” he said.

“The doctor says you’ll be able to go tomorrow morning,” Joyce said.

“I’ll come and get him,” Randy said quickly, and Joyce nodded.

“Be more careful,” she said, and walked out of the room. Randy gave me a helpless look, which I waved away, and he hustled out the door after her.

I didn’t know how this incident figured in her internal ranking of events I’d fucked up on, but it had to be pretty close to the top of the list. I’d never been in shit like this before, so she’d never had to react to it. I could only predict the unpredictable.

“Everybody wants to see heaven but nobody wants to die,” Randy said. “You know how close you came, out there?”

I moved the crutches away from my side and stuck a ballpoint pen underneath my cast, already trying to scratch the unreachable itch. I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t exactly non-talkative, by my nature. It just didn’t seem as if there might be something to say yet.

“All right then.” Randy one-handed his big truck through the sparse traffic. “You shouldn’t have been out there in the first place. And.” Randy coughed. “You take the job too seriously.”

“Probably.” This would cost me a few days more than the car accident six years ago. I’d been trying to find an excuse to take time off, and here it was, in the form of a hot pink cast. “Whose idea was the color?” I indicated it with a flip of my finger.

“Yours,” Randy said. “You don’t remember?”

“That’s what I have a big brother for, to take notes.” We rode in silence a while more. Elmira looked like what it was, a semi-decent city losing the battle against poverty and joblessness, heroin and crystal meth. I thanked God I worked across the line in PA where the problems were the same but the scenery much improved. At least until the frackers had their way with the land. “How’s Joyce?”

Randy sighed. “About the same. She left, but she was shaking like a scared dog. You’re lucky you got as much time with her as you did.”

“Pretty soon I’ll be back in the hills. Three weeks maybe.”

“Six if you pay attention.” Randy crossed the state line into PA, the low green sign marking the friendly territory, the lone car wash sitting off to the right in what used to be the Prutsman’s farm and was now a decently producing natural gas well. It smoked out the day and lit up the night while it sucked the guts of the earth right up out of its bowels. Everybody’s neighbor was getting rich while the crime spun out of control along with the whitetail population and the price of a house. I’d bought ours as a shell for thirty-seven thousand including ten acres of forest and field and people might get fifteen hundred a month for that in rent now. It didn’t seem like much of a place to live. Heavy metal in the groundwater, habitats ruined permanently or so near to it the details didn’t matter.

“I’m paying attention now,” I said. “I have every intention to pay more.”

Randy glanced at me. “DEPUTY Conservation Officer. Not police officer. Let the damned state troopers do what we pay them to do.”

“Have I told you, brother? I have a decided interest in the Constabulary position these days.” I wanted to be legit law enforcement when I took Soldier down. Otherwise, I was just some guy dumb enough to get shot while the Pittmans rose up before me with a veritable wave of character witnesses. I wanted something else. Not revenge, exactly, but a notion of a bad thing put right. As I stretched my arms a bit, I could feel the wounds slip open painfully the way you might feel from a whiplashed branch on a run through the woods.

“The best part of you ran down Dad’s leg.” Randy pointed over at me. “I can’t haul your ass around here all fall. Heal up, at least.”

“I love you too,” I said. “Let’s go home.”

I lay out on the table my entire arsenal as Joyce watched, smoking one cigarette after another in her bathrobe, with nothing much to say to me other than the amenities. I’d gotten a cool cheek to kiss when I’d gotten home. That’s it.

I broke down and cleaned the .40 first, awkward as hell with one hand, as it had survived the bottom of a well and deserved better treatment than I usually gave it. Then I lovingly took care of the 9mm Glock 19 and my .22. I wrapped the .22 in its holster and deposited it on top of the fridge out of reach of any prying hands. The .40 went back with the uniform, and the 9mm on my bedside table. I left them all loaded. Then I took the plug out of my shotgun, loaded it, and set it with a box of shells by the back door. Joyce cursed under her breath and went to the bedroom, slamming the door behind her. I heard Thump’s chain rattle as he heard me make noise, and I stepped outside to roughen up his ears a little. Someone went by the house in a roar of dust, and Thump’s ears perked up the way the Shepherd dogs always had. It was something you could count on. I slipped the collar off him and booted him inside with the back of my heel. I brought in his food and water dish and put them by the front door. Then I took a load off in front of the tube. I turned it on, then off. Thump rested his snout on my foot, and we both slept peacefully until about 3 a.m. when I found Joyce crying, huddled on the floor, her arms around my cast.

“Honey?” I said. Her voice shook, though her shoulders didn’t move at all. “Come on, now. It’s OK.”

“No one said you’d take a bullet.”

“Always a chance,” I said. “It’s not as bad as being a cop.” I brushed her sweat-thick hair back from her forehead.

“The bullet doesn’t care who it kills.” She pulled her head to the side and laid her head on my knee. I couldn’t see her eyes. “You and Jenna are everything. If you—.”

I leaned back in the chair and let myself go back to sleep. I didn’t know how to say what needed to be said.

Chapter 2

The spit and growl of a tanker driving by woke me up in the early morning. My crutches held me up in the most rudimentary of ways, but I had enough mobility to feed and water Thump, and to attach his chain to the grommet set in the two-by-four support of the back deck. Joyce wouldn’t be up for hours. I took my coffee out on the deck, checked the hummingbird feeder briefly then sat down. I had a weakness for birds. When I was a kid, my father bought suet from local butchers and nailed pieces to the trees all around our house, so birds could find it readily in the middle of winter. It was my job to sit around the porch all day with a .22 killing the squirrels that tried to steal it. Fog stood shoulder-high at the second hedge row. I drank coffee and thought about the day. Randy had told me yesterday before leaving he’d taken work off, so I felt all right about rousting him out early to ram the roads, as Joyce called it.

Practically, that meant loading up a cooler with pop, grabbing some jerky and chips from the store, and riding around all day where no one else would bother to go. In this case, we had an obsession other than my being shot, though that would seem to be enough for one man anyway. But since I couldn’t do anything else, we would go on a cougar hunt. The cougar had been practically extinct since the 1890s, but there were reports of sightings as late as 1932. I had seen what I thought were big cat tracks all my life, but never seen one in the flesh. Randy and I both believed they were there, mostly for the romance of something to do during our off-time, but I knew something was out there if nobody else did. The eastern cougar had been declared extinct in 2007. I couldn’t find butchered cows or any other living sign, and I’d been looking. This time it would be through the window of a truck with my pink cast hoisted up on the other knee. Thump barked once, then twice, jerked to the end of his chain and pulled up gagging. When I leaned down to see what he’d done he looked up at me like any dumb animal running a rabbit.

“Dummy. You forgot the chain.” I threw him a chew bone. Randy’s truck came pucking down the road and me and Thump jumped into the cab of his truck more than a little awkwardly. Six more weeks before I could cut the cast off.

“So which way?” Randy said, shifting up as the truck rattled like the beater it was.

“Up the hill. I want to see if Dean has somebody working on that well yet.”


I held back what I wanted to say—I wanted the Pittmans there at the scene of the crime, an easy snatch and grab—and I wasn’t sure yet how I’d negotiate the side hill on my crutches and I wasn’t on duty. The Pittmans would know to stay away today at least. As we drove up the valley I saw nothing but hayfields and forest abutting the fields. Not many cows, not many farms being worked anymore, but the signs of the gas industry were everywhere. Capped wells, open and graveled drainage troughs that emptied into farm ponds or any creeks, plus working wells chasing soot toward the sky. It was a damned shame. We turned by a capped well within fifty yards of a trailer park and headed into the hollow. The ground rose nearly imperceptibly all around us. When we reached Dean’s property Randy pulled off onto a grassy-middled field road so we would be partly hidden by a rock boundary wall.

“You can handle this with those crutches?” Randy said.

“We’ll find out.” I wrestled myself out of the cab and Thump jumped out right behind me and immediately took off down the hill. I adjusted the crutch under my left arm and hobbled down through the stubby action of the field until I could see over the hill down to the abandoned farmhouses. I saw a pile of new lumber near the well and what looked like a small square box over top of the hole. I leaned more heavily on the crutches. My armpits felt on fire. Randy stood behind me. I could smell his wintergreen dip.

“Satisfied?” he asked.

“Nope,” I said. I whistled sharply and Thump broke from behind the house in that low-to-the-ground Shepherd step, and stood by my knee, tail wagging. He needed a job to do and so did I, for the next six weeks, with a bum leg.

“I heard,” Randy said, throwing his dip away with one finger, “that up by the Curren farm the old man lost a couple of head to coy dogs or coyotes.”

“Unusual,” I said. “Let’s go see what he has to say. Maybe there’s tracks.”

“Shouldn’t you have a uniform on for this?”

“It’s casual…” I looked at my watch. “Thursday.”

“Dumbass. We’re driving over. He may not be there at all.” I knew he would be. Old man Curren hadn’t left the township in probably ten years, let alone his farm. His sons did most of the work, and Rich Curren did most of the repairs and the general overseeing.

When we got there Rich Curren stood a hip and a half deep in cordwood, the splitter spitting out the stove-lengths of ash in a regular pattern. He waved at us and continued working. Old man Curren came out of the sheet-metal roofed shed—couldn’t really call it a barn—and tossed a pair of greasy gloves onto the bed of the truck.

“You look poor as my old dog,” he said.

“I’m all right,” I extended my hand.

“And my dog’s got worms.” He shook my hand warmly. I’d known him since I was a kid. Rich and I both made second-team all-state in high school football, though Rich had gone to beefier and I had gone to skinnier since then. Also, his granddaughter Brooke went to Jenna’s high school class and the two of them had even picked the same college.

“I hear you lost a couple of cows last week.”

“Damnedest thing. I missed them when I counted them once, then the next night I caught on and went looking. Sure enough ripped to shit, their guts all out and smelling to beat the band.”

“Coyotes?” Randy leaned against the truck.

“Not likely,” he said. “Them cows was ripped up by something with claws.”

“Next time leave the body for us, OK?” I wrote today’s date on a pad I keep in my shirt pocket. “Now when did this happen again?”

“Last Sunday,” he said. “You going to stake out my cows?”

“Not now,” I said, straightening my body. “I’m not in much shape for that.”

“So I can see.” Old man Curren picked up his gloves and slapped them lightly against my shoulder. “Maybe you better stop chasing your old lady. Your dad should have warned you about shit like that.”

Randy got into the truck, laughing. I hobbled over toward the passenger door trying to look aggrieved. Not much else I could say. I got jokers all around me.

When I got home I chained the dog up and fed him. I sat on the concrete giving him love for some time, until Joyce came out.

“That cast is filthy now,” she said, settling herself into one of our plastic yard chairs. “I don’t think it’s going to last the six weeks.” She still wore her bathrobe, but she’d combed her hair and I thought I even saw a trace of lipstick. Today was a victory. She recognized me coming in and I didn’t have to face my own shotgun, as I often did when she got paranoid.

“I think it’ll make it.” I scratched one last time between Thump’s ears and escorted Joyce inside. She went to the living room and turned on the TV, and I sat down and cleaned my sidearm for the second consecutive day. I worried because it had been in the water so long, but the .40 is a steady performer for me and always has been. I paused by the fridge and thumbed an Oxycodone into my mouth from the script the doc had given me. The ankle burned to a point, then ached, in alternating hours, it seemed like, and the Oxy would barely sheathe the edge of the knife. I fried up eggs and made sandwiches for me and Joyce. The last thing I remember is falling asleep on the couch with her head in my lap. I wished all days ended like this.

I rolled out of bed at about three in the morning again. My ankle itched like hell and I hadn’t slept soundly for the fear of seeing myself shot in my dreams. Then Thump started pawing the back door. I sighed and walked out to the kitchen to let him out. He immediately shot for his favorite spot on the other side of the shed where I couldn’t see him. The pole light motion sensor kicked on. Damnedest thing, a dog that had manners. Either that or he’d been shitting in the same place for so long he didn’t know where else to do it. I sat down on the deck with a glass of soda and watched the dark at the edge of my upper field, which ran high with grass at the moment, and would stay that way until my leg came back to duty. The dog sometimes spoke to me in ways no one else in my life could, just by resting his head on my knee. He jogged back to me and did just that, and I puttered with his ears until he shook me away. I could hear a vehicle coming from down the road all out, but I figured it for a gas employee working off his day with some air speed and a little booze. The engine wound down quickly and I heard the sharp peel of rubber on the asphalt. Immediately after that my pole light punched out with the sound of a gunshot, the glass tinkling as the pieces hit wood on the way down. I heeled it around the corner clumsy but all I caught were tail lights blinking over the knoll.

“Matt?” I heard from behind me. “Did someone have an accident? I heard a car skid,” Joyce said.

“No accident. Just some kids playing around. They shot out the light.” Cleaning the glass up would have to wait until morning. I was in no mood to scrape around.

“Little bastards. Did they get the mailbox this time?”

“No. Go back to bed. I’m going to finish my drink and I’ll be right in.”

Scrubbing off the bottom of my feet, I leaned against the door jamb. Joyce disappeared around the corner, then she came back. Her hands shook. “You know, nobody said deputies would be in trouble like this.” She crossed her arms.

“If you wear a gun, you take a chance.” I touched her face. “I’m fine.”

“But someday you won’t be.”

“I doubt that.” The words unsaid hung between us in the air like room freshener. I had come close to kicking it this time, the first time anyone had ever shot at me.

“But you wear the fucking badge and you leave me every night to face what happens to me if you don’t come back. You think Randy would take care of me? Jenna?”

She had no family, no really close friends except Sue. Just me. It was an indisputable point.

“I don’t know, Joyce.”

“Well, I do.” She leaned against the wall. “I know I can’t take it.”

“Let’s talk in the morning,” I said. “All things become clearer in sunlight,” I said mysteriously, trying to prompt a laugh. Joyce turned around, visited the bathroom, and padded past me into the bedroom. I heard the soft chink of the locking mechanism and swore under my breath. It would be the dog and me on the sofa. That was familiar to me, lately. I turned on the TV and slapped the sofa for the dog to join me. It’d be a short morning, as I’d been scheduled for a debriefing with my superiors at eight o’clock. I fell asleep with the dog licking my hand.

I drove to Towanda doing a slow burn. Joyce hadn’t gotten up with me, which was unusual, but given the spat we had the night before I guess I had no right to expect anything else. The trees whipped by in a blur. Looking down the road, I could see construction workers and equipment lining the guard rails, and I slowed down. It took maybe fifteen minutes to pass through it all. I adjusted my belt and tried to get mentally straight for this interview. Captain Rumsey would go easy on me, I knew, but my direct supervisor Lydia Snow would try like hell to get my ass in her handbag. I admired her will, but the lone woman in a mostly male department made her more hard-assed than she probably needed to be, and maybe she intended to set me up as an example. The doughnut shop next door had closed some months ago and many of us could not get used to the rotgut DD coffee, but there it was, right across the street. I parked my car and went across to get a cup, walking as best I could.

Once inside, I saw nearly the whole department had shown up. A few guys greeted me and kidded about the pink cast. I kept my nose in close order and waited. Lydia motioned me to sit down in the conference room and to my surprise everyone else came and sat down too.

“Lydia’s already spoken to most of you individually, so I won’t take up too much of your time,” Captain Rumsey said, facing us all and using his official voice. “Matt, here, had a bad day of it a little while ago. I know you’ll all want to ask him your own questions but hear me out.” He half-turned to me. “If it turns out like Matt says, and it’s the Pittmans, we will turn over every goddamn rock in this county along with the police, who I have to say are already on the job, and we will get them and they will get their legal due after their appointed time in court.” Several of the ADCs applauded and I colored up a little. I didn’t expect the resources to be expended on my behalf but there’s something that happens when someone in an official shirt gets hurt. The public rallies to them of course, but most any other man or woman in uniform does as well. The recipient this time would be me. “That’s all for right now. Do your jobs, and stay safe.” Officers got up and left. A few of the longer-term fellows, Mark Spencer and Donny T. and Brooks Lightly, came over and shook my hand. As I got up and started to limp toward the door, Lydia stopped me.

“‘Stay on the right side of the grass, Grampa used to say,” Linda smiled. “Sounds like you could use that kind of advice.”

“I could have used it more the other day, but thanks,” I said. “I’m going to go home and sit this leg up on a table.”

“Take as much time as you need, but remember we need you here, too.”

“All right,” I said. “I’m off now.”

“Keep your radio on,” she said. “You might hear the story of the ones who catch the bastard.”

Not likely. I wondered if anyone had found that coffee can. I should have seen what was in it. That’s what Soldier Pittman wanted. Not me in particular. I told myself that until I believed it.

Chapter 3

I took back roads home from the county seat. It generally took me an hour or so to get home, but I didn’t have anything in particular to go home to. Joyce would mother me to death or get upset when I reacted as if I didn’t want the attention. For a depressed and sometimes paranoid woman, she had obsessions with my staying home and my not getting hurt. Admittedly, those obsessions had taken a hard knock in the last couple of days. I had to slow down only once for a roadblock, which my official hat on the dashboard got me right through. I buttoned the window down, and after identifying myself, asked the road officer if they had any leads.

“Not a damn one,” he said. “These Pittmans fade away like fog when the hammer comes down, but don’t worry, they can’t stay away forever.” He thumped the side of the car twice as if to get me moving, and I obliged.

Like hell they can’t.

Autopilot kicked in soon after the roadblock and I ran through everything I knew about the Pittmans while handing the car through all kinds of back-road dirt-road logging trail thick rutted pieces of county highway. I knew they jacked deer, I knew the younger ones were heavily into dealing meth and heroin now, and probably whatever other drugs their customers wanted. I knew there were twelve or so of them, in varying degrees of size and trouble. Soldier and Jake were the elders, and they’d each had six or seven kids that ran the gamut of hood—petty theft to smoking pot to cooking meth—with Soldier’s kid Marky being the most accomplished criminal. One of Jake’s kids, Charles, didn’t follow the form, went to the state school, and had taken up teaching at a local high school, then became a lawyer. I didn’t know how much truck he had with the rest of the family, but I wanted to find out. He’d be the weak link. At least the rest of their family would see it that way. So I’d talk to him first.

I turned up the driveway and got the mail before I drove up to the house. I saw a state cruiser parked by the rear of the barn so as not to be seen from the road. One patrolman sat on the hood with a shotgun, while the other manned the radio and computer from the driver’s seat, door open to catch the breeze blowing in off the mountain. Smelled like rain. I understood why they were there, but a part of me wished they’d asked me before they sent a cruiser.

“Gentlemen.” I nodded to them as I heaved my bad leg out the door. “Hope you guys are bored stiff.” The one with the shotgun laughed. I threw them a salute as I opened the door. Thump was there nosing my knees already, and Joyce had wrapped herself in a blanket, my 9mm out of its holster and lying next to the remote. She looked like a girl in her bundle.

“Hi, love,” I said. Even then it was noncommittal—I didn’t know what kind of mood she’d be in.

“I’m going to bed,” she said, throwing the blanket aside.

“All right then,” I said. I took the 9mm and checked the load, holstered it and took it into the bedroom and left it in my underwear drawer where Joyce would look for it if she felt she needed it again. She didn’t move under the blankets. I could barely feel her breathe. I could feel the day getting longer the more I stared at the bed.

In the dreams I kept falling through the wood and ruin of the well cover. Every time I hit bottom I woke up. Around 5 a.m. I gave up on sleeping and went out to the living room in my bare feet, doglegging the ankle along. I should have asked for more painkillers than a day or two’s worth, but I didn’t. Off-duty for the next few days, there wouldn’t be much call for me to move. Outside I could hear Thump rattling his chain and I needed company. I stepped briefly out into the frigid air and unlocked the padlocks that kept his chain attached to his collar. Thump had hay stuck to him and to the thick hair of his winter coat. Back inside, he curled up next to me on the couch smelling of the outdoors, clean air with a hint of diesel, which probably fit the bill OK, unnatural though it seemed. So many trucks going up and down this road were bound to throw their scent everywhere. My laptop sat on the table and I pushed it on. Temperature thirty-five degrees and a northeast wind, very little humidity. I read the email granting me sixty days off beginning yesterday, signed by my lieutenant, for general rehabilitation and counseling following the use of my sidearm in the pursuit of criminals. I don’t know why they needed to counsel me. I hadn’t hurt or killed anyone. Not likely to do so for the couple of months anyway. An email from my brother I didn’t read. Another one from Dean saying he’d cover the well himself today as he couldn’t get Woody to do it. I wondered if he was the one that put the wood there at the well. Somebody had left it there. Probably not Dean. Thump shifted beside me and burrowed his nose under my leg. I made a quick cost/benefit analysis with my throbbing leg high on the benefit side and took another Oxycodone. I would get some sleep out of the early morning after all.

I woke when I felt Thump tense next to me followed by a series of short sharp barks meant to identify danger. I shook my head violently and threw myself up too quickly for the broken ankle but I cursed the pain down and shuffled over to the window and pulled back the curtain. The patrol car had moved into the driveway proper, blocking entrance or exit.

Officer Larry Rattray walked toward me. I turned out the deadbolt and the keylock and invited him in with a blast of cold air.

“You the new shift, Rattray?” I didn’t know the man well, but he had the reputation of a bulldog for the rules and the proper etiquette. He and I were not likely to get along for extended periods. He also dated Joyce in high school and thereafter, when I was in college. This was not happy-making to me.

“More or less,” he said, looking around the living room as if he expected to find someone else, like I was a potential perp.

“Well, what can I do for you?” I motioned toward the coffee pot.

“You could stay in the house.”

“My brother’s coming over to get me.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be in Towanda for debriefing?”

“Are you my appointment setter? If not, then fuck off.”

“It’s standard operating procedure, Matt, for police and wardens alike. When you discharge your weapon—”

“I know. I’ll get to it.” I heard Randy’s truck before I saw it pull up short in front of the patrol car. “In fact, there’s my ride. Kindly get your fucking car out of my way.”

“You’re not the law on this one, Matt. Let it go until you get on your feet at least.” He shrugged his shoulders as if to settle his jacket. I turned and left him there. He was gone when I came out from the office with the .40 strapped to my hip. When I got outside Rattray had pulled the car in a bit so Randy could drive up to meet me at the door, more or less. I got in the truck with less trouble than before.

“Look at you getting the VIP treatment,” Randy said. “Are you the governor now?”

“Fuck off.” I pulled the holster to the top of my leg so it wouldn’t ride.

“So where we headed?”

“Down the hill. Let’s go to the junkyard.” The Pittmans ran a little junkyard and auto body business when they weren’t dealing or poaching.

“The last guy went over there in a uniform almost came back in a body bag.” Randy didn’t laugh, cry or say boo. He was just telling me, I felt, the rules for the road. It was the brotherly thing to do.

“I don’t have a uniform on me right now, sorry.” I turned on the radio but couldn’t find anything but crap country.

“Just checking to see things are in order.”

“Yep. Fine as wine,” I said.

The Pittman place was about fifteen minutes away by truck. I kept adjusting the gun and Randy noticed.

“Why don’t you just put the thing under the seat?”

“It’s not legal then.”

“Oh for Christ’s sake.”

“I know the rules, Randy.”

“Sure you do. That’s why you left your unie at home.”

We came to a fork where two dirt roads merged into one blacktop. Pittmans lived all along this road on both sides till we got the other side of the hill to the junkyard. Near the top of the hill the houses got slightly nicer than the leaning doublewides that dominate the landscape down these dirt roads. I’d spent my entire life here except for college and with the ankle, a couple of gunshot wounds, and the attitude they were giving me at the moment, I reconsidered my position on living in the place for much longer. How many people need to get shot before you decide if a place is healthy or not? But then fuck it. Someone in my family had been in this county for the last two hundred years and I would literally be damned if I’d let some convict family taint the place I lived in and loved like they were King Shit and everybody else were cockroaches. That was part of this visit. To let them know I wasn’t so easily intimidated.

When we reached the driveway, we discovered we were not the first to think of visiting the Pittmans. There was the black and white of the state cops, plus another one from nearby Elmira, plus a truck-full of kids just outside the safety zone screaming and flipping off the house and mooning the cops. On any other day the state police would have been all over those kids, but since it was me—ha!—they seemed to be getting a pass. The state police beckoned to us.

“Go home, Matt.” He motioned behind him with his hand. “We’ve got this.”

I had to admit I hadn’t thought of this. Shooting an almost cop was, well, almost as bad as shooting a real cop. They would rustle the branches all around these parts looking for someone who shot a cop. There was that guy in the Poconos who shot two cops as they were getting out of work. It took forty-one days to track that fucker down, but the state police managed it. The man’s TV mug shot showed bruises and scrapes all over him, and nobody with a brain wondered where those bruises had come from. Uniforms stuck together. I couldn’t get to the Pittmans right now, it was clear. Randy cleared his throat. We could see up the driveway and someone was hammering at the rear fender of a rusty old Silverado. From this angle and the long hair it looked to be Marky, the second worst of the Pittmans. In fact, I always figured he was the smarter one and therefore the most dangerous, but situations change after you get shot. I tried to imagine where Soldier Pittman could hide. Cops might not find him but I would.

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