Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Azure Shade of the Bluebottle Tree : Chapter One

Chapter 1

"It's them rustlers, Deputy."
Ben Culver had a missing cow.
Not the sort of crime Deputy Constable Pen Sadler thought he'd be handling when he'd gotten into law enforcement, but there you go. He spent more time keeping the electorate happy than actually solving crime. Even on a scorching July day.
Pen saw random tire tracks in the dust. They all appeared to be Ben's, but Pen put on a show of measuring them. He barely avoided letting Ben talk him into making plaster casts and convinced him finally that cedar posts really don't hold fingerprints well. Finally, Pen showed the nearsighted old gentleman that once again his fence had fallen down and his missing cow was in the next field over. Even worse, that field belonged to his brother Joseph. Ben and Joseph hadn't spoken in thirty years.
Stories varied as to the cause of the feud. It was a girl or it was livestock or it was some imagined slight. It didn't really matter, except to the brothers. Pen doubted they even knew how it started.
Ben Culver was a good sort, as curmudgeonly old bachelors went. He'd somehow missed out on the land and money of the rest of his family. Instead, he ran cattle all over Copete County on leased property. Nobody, including Ben, knew how many cattle he had. He didn't brand or tag any of them, he also never checked his fences. Everyone pretty much acknowledged that any loose cattle on the roads were probably Ben's. If there was ever an accident the cows must be someone else's.
This time the "rustled livestock" in question was quickly herded back through the fence and the rusty wire was tied back up in some sort of order. It wouldn't hold for long, but it actually looked better than most of Ben's fences.
Deputy Sadler was more than ready to leave when he heard the dispatcher's voice on the radio. It wasn't good news.
“Pen, better get over to Dolly Holt’s place. There's been a shooting.”
"I'm on my way."
Deputy Constable Penrod Sadler drove off through the dust devils.

* * *

Dolly Holt’s place fit the stereotype of an old rundown ranch. Today it was showing more activity than it had in years. Pen drove up and stopped by the yard fence. Sheriff's deputies were already there clustered around the bluebottle tree. Dozens of cobalt blue patent medicine bottles, from laxative to squat salve jars, were placed over the end of every bare branch of a dead fig tree. Not an uncommon sight, especially on the older homesteads. The mottled blue shade gave a softly clownish appearance to the body beneath the tree.
There was nothing humorous about the situation. An imposing man in life, Dub Holt was sprawled like a discarded scarecrow, a few sheriff's deputies recording the evidence of death. As president of First Fidelity, Holt had been respected. He inspired trust in his patrons, but the hole in his chest, and the blood soaked dirt around him, made it clear that he had inspired someone to much worse. Blue glass shards around him and a couple of bare limbs gave Pen a rough idea of the direction at least one shot had come.
This was as much as Pen had taken in before Buster Coleman saw him.
"Traffic detail, deputy constable."
He turned away, clearly Pen had been dismissed. Pen walked out the yard gate, the counterweight rising and falling as he passed through. Elena Delgado let her “cop-face” slip a bit, winking at him behind Buster’s back. The big boys were on the job and they enjoyed putting him in his place. Pen had once been Buster's boss. Now Pen was here for traffic detail. Traffic, on a dusty farm road and a hot July afternoon, was not a problem.
Pen ignored the snub and surveyed the place from outside the fence. It was all a bit run-down, but clean. Dub had paid Tupper Roundtree to paint the house fairly recently. It certainly didn’t look like the home of a banker’s mom. Dub’s own house was a couple of miles away on the other side of Shin Oak. Willie Nelson had one of his first picnics out there. Dub's house had acres of lawn and sprinklers. Dolly’s had a bare dirt yard like most old-timers. They still remembered having to haul water and watch out for snakes.
Dolly McAllister Holt had grown up on this farm and had intended to die here till a stroke had put her in Pilgrim’s Rest nursing home. Dub hired Tina Herrera to clean and check on the place in the meantime. According to the dispatcher, Tina had found Dub's body around noon, called it in, and here they all were.
Pen watched Elena interview an obviously shaken Tina. El was doing her usual best to put her at ease. Pen heard the melody of mixed Spanish and English. He knew Elena would fill him in later, if only to spite Buster. Pen heard a truck coming on the gravel road.
A rusty gray Ford came rattling around the corner, faded lettering reading “The Feed Store” on the driver’s door, bales of hay in the back. The truck wheezed to a stop. The white dust cloud caught up and passed before the door opened.
Pen waved. “You’re late, Faye! I thought you’d beat me here!” Faye Taylor ignored him and headed for the gate, her camera in her hand. Pen stopped her.
“Crime scene, Faye, you have to stay outside the fence.”
“C’mon, Pen, I left my long lens at home!”
“Sorry, Faye. You know the rules!”
Faye glared at him, the same way she’d glared at him since grade school. She only came to his shoulder, a weathered wildcat, looking exactly as ancient as she had when Pen was about ten.
Faye and Elmo Taylor ran The Feed Store. Faye was also on the City Council and sometime reporter for the Shin Oak Stump, the “other” weekly paper. Shin Oak Ridge is a small town. The active people have a lot of horseshoes on the anvil.
Faye fussed and took pictures near the fence. Pen heard gravel crunch again and turned to see Anna Patton’s florist van pull up. Pen waved her over toward Faye. Anna often covered stories for the Shin Oak Guardian since she was usually out making deliveries anyway. She always carried her camera along. Pen kept an eye on the two of them to make sure they didn’t start flinging cow patties at each other. For the moment they ignored each other after Faye’s envious look at Anna’s telephoto lens. 
Pen left Shin Oak’s own media circus do their thing. He moved around and visually lined up the body and the broken bottles. Looking beyond, Pen could see that the bullets could have come from the dam of the stock tank, about seventy yards away. It was a shot any of the numerous deer hunters in the area could have made. Pen started to say something to the deputies, but stopped himself. Buster had made it plain that he didn’t want his advice.
Robbie Metcalfe came out to his van and stopped to chat. Robbie was young but he had been one of Shin Oak's first EMT's after the volunteer fire department formed. He really wasn't too concerned about Buster's attitude.
"Terrible about old Dub. Looks like a bullet through the heart."
Pen mentioned what he had noticed about probable direction. When Robbie went back into the yard he passed a private word to Elena. She spoke to Buster. Pen figured she'd find a way to let Buster think it was his own idea. Buster tolerated a smart hispanic woman only slightly more than he did a deputy constable. He would let her check it out, though, if it saved him some effort. Finally Justice of the Peace Sarah Beth Adams got there to declare Dub legally dead and things got busier. She conferred with Robbie and Buster. Pen knew she would keep him in the loop regardless.
 The sheriff's deputies had pretty much recorded everything by the time the JP arrived. Other than Faye and Anna the only traffic to control was the county cars and the ambulance leaving the scene. Buster gave a short statement to the reporters and sent them away. Pen had to stay with "traffic control" until everyone had left. That didn't take much longer.
Pen stepped past the yellow tape and looked around the yard before he left. Nothing he hadn't already seen. The packed earth barely even showed anyone had passed. Blue glass shards and Dub's bloodstain were the only evidence anything had happened. When the rains came the blood would be gone.
Maybe flowers would grow.
Pen took a walk over to the nearly dry stock tank. Some of the dried grass was pushed down, but feral pigs were everywhere, so that may not have meant anything. He could clearly see the bottle tree from there, whatever that was worth.
For now, it was the sheriff's case.
Pen would see what happened. Sarah Beth didn't like him stepping on anyone's toes if it wasn't necessary. It wasn't in his job description.
Besides, Pen had stayed long enough, the radio was squawking.
Pen had other fish to fry, as his old Uncle Hub used to say.

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