Doctor Ruby LaCost replaced the Sensor razor in its holder over the sink and gave her head a final rinse with a washcloth. She toweled her pate dry and rubbed it carefully, searching for signs of stubble. Finding none, she massaged her scalp briefly with Oil of Olay and looked into the mirror.
It could be worse.
The lid of her left eye hung slackly over the socket, the result of having nothing beneath it to round out its appearance. The sight of it still troubled Ruby. The brow was back to normal, however, as was the shape of the socket and cheek, at least mostly. A slight narrowing of the left side of her face and the sharpening of the cheekbone because of the injuries and infections she’d suffered at the hands and will of Boog Jeter gave her a slightly sinister appearance, she thought. Her ribs and fingers had healed nicely, the scarring around her wrists and ankles had been reduced by cosmetic surgery, all but about fifteen pounds of her weight had returned, her muscle tone wasn’t bad; and, all in all, she was grateful for as much of the old Ruby as she retained.
Two of her hardest adjustments had been getting used to her false teeth and compensating for her lack of vision to the left. She still had trouble with that occasionally. Her physical therapist said she was doing well, and Ruby had noticed that scanning one hundred eighty degrees with her right eye was becoming more of a habit than a chore. Everyone, Ivy, Clete, Goody, and the others, were pleased with her progress. In moments of reflection, she was, too. The only real problems that remained were the nightmares, and even they had reduced in both number and intensity over the months of her stay at Ivy’s.
After checking the clock and noting there were only about fifteen minutes left until dinner, she carefully applied makeup to her right eye, more difficult now without a left eye to assist. After that came white hose and three-inch pumps in white patent with a light blue wingtip toe and heel, and a wispy dress in pale blue punctuated by large white daisies. Goody called it her “flower frock.” Ruby twirled slowly in front of the mirror, rather pleased at what she saw. She added lipstick in a pale frosted red and slipped on a dark blond wig in a pixie cut.
Smiling at her transformation and readjusting her restricted vision to balance on heels while using only one eye, Ruby walked a circle for a moment. She knew the dinner was a sort of LaCost coming out party. Even Marta would be in attendance. She was grateful for everyone’s concern and care, even if she also felt a bit stifled by it. These were wonderful people, truly the finest friends she could have, and all of them would be there. All of them except one.
Clete and she had resumed their relationship when she’d felt sufficiently well, and it had been some comfort for her, but it was not enough and had soon become mechanical and just stopped. Crockett. Even when Ruby had abandoned Crockett and gone away on her own, in one way or another, she knew she still had him. If not at her beck and call, certainly in patient reserve, waiting as only Crockett could, or would, wait. In her worst times, Ruby clung to the belief he would come for her, counting on the fact that he loved her above all others. And he had, and he did. She never fully realized how much his care and support had sustained her, until he left. In truth, it had surprised her. He had been a constant in her existence for so long, such a stable and enduring presence that, even when she had turned away from Crockett, she had never really contemplated life without him. She felt hollow and abandoned, and it hurt. Several times she’d been tempted to talk with Ivy or Cletus about it, but that wasn’t her style. Several times she’d nearly phoned Crockett, but that wasn’t her style either. Ingrained and automatic control issues wouldn’t allow it to happen.
Returning to the mirror, Ruby sighed and put on her eye patch. Covered in the same material as her dress, it completed her ensemble. She was ready for the people and she was ready for the dinner. They needed to have the old Ruby back and that’s exactly what she was going to give them. She put on her LaCost attitude, a model’s smile, turned her back on Crockett once again, and headed down to the atrium.
The sign on the front of the office read “Higgenbotham Realty, specializing in farms and rural property.” Crockett pulled his truck into the parking lot near Highway 152 and Barry Road, just north of Gladstone, Missouri, and went inside. The one room establishment contained two desks, both littered with papers. The desk near the rear of the room was populated by a small elderly man wearing a gray gabardine suit, a flannel shirt in blue and gray check, and a gray Stetson Stockman’s long oval. The two-inch brim was turned up all the way around. He put down the phone, stood up, and walked toward Crockett as if his feet were sore. His ruddy complexion broke around a careful smile and he stuck out a hand smattered with liver spots.
“Lyle Higgenbotham,” he said. “What can I do for ya?”
Crockett returned the smile and took the offered hand. “Call me Crockett,” he said. “And I’m not sure.”
“Just what I like to hear,” the old man said. “’I’m not sure’ gives me a damn site more room than a list of demands. Set yourself. Coffee?”
“I got thirty-eight hundred acres with two hay barns, one horse barn, an indoor and an outdoor riding arena, bunch a outbuildings, a thirty-four hundred square foot house, a eleven hundred square foot cottage, a apple orchard and six stock ponds, about fifty miles north a here that you can’t live without. Over three miles a county road frontage, cut by three or four gravel roads, five or six wet weather creeks and two permanent streams. I can gitcha in it for under four million. Whatdaya say?”
Crockett grinned. “Don’t think so,” he said.
The old man chuckled. “Too small?”
“Don’t like apples.”
“Yer damn hard to please, but I’m not worried. I got a lot of places without apples. We’ll find the right one.”
“I need something remote but not too distant from Kaycee.”
“How distant is too distant?”
“More than an hour away.”
“Now we’re getting someplace. What kinda house?”
“Don’t know if I want one. Maybe just land.”
“You want to run stock?”
“No. Just someplace to get away from it all. I spent the last few months down on Truman Lake. It sorta convinced me that I’d had enough of the city for a while.”
“Where you living now?”
“In a motorhome at Apex Park off of Highway 40 in Independence.”
“Motorhome give ya someplace to live if you decided to build.”
“That’s what I thought. I really don’t care if the land is worth anything or not. I’m just gonna leave it alone anyway. I want someplace I can get back in the middle of and get lost. Hills and woods are fine. I need a hideout. I don’t hunt. I don’t need pasture for any reason. I’m not planning to subdivide or anything. I don’t care about school districts or hospitals, shopping or entertainment.”
“I’ve got a little money to spend. All I can get for a hundred to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
“And ya don’t want no house.”
The old man thought for a moment while staring at the ceiling, then returned his attention to Crockett.
“Got a fambly?”
“Nope. Just me.”
“Used to be this place,” he said, “north of here a ways. Tell ya the truth, I’m not sure exactly where it was, or even if it’s still available. I never saw it. Eighty to a hundred acres as I recall, mebbe more, stuck in the corner of some government land. It was privately owned and seized by whatever county it’s in for taxes. Not worth a damn. All hills and gullies, full a hedge and seed pine, no cross fencing, only a couple of flat spots on the whole place. Even loggers wouldn’t look at it. Got gravel roads on two sides and, if I remember right, folks had a trailer house on it at one time, just off the road. Been for sale since Plato was a pup. I ain’t never been up that way myself, but I heard about it three or four years ago. Can’t be asking very much for it.”
“Can you check on it?”
“Yep. It’s prob’ly not even be around anymore. Leave me your phone number. I think Jerry Lawton used to have it listed, but he died a year or two ago. Let me do some pokin’ around. I’ll find out and call you.”
“Not worth much, huh?”
“Not worth a durn.”
“Sounds perfect,” Crockett said.
Crockett stopped by a Price Chopper on the way home and picked up some new potatoes and fresh halibut for dinner. When he arrived back at the bus, his neighbors, Bill and Nadine Ray, newly arrived from their alternate park in Florida in an aged and massive Winnebago, were stringing fake Japanese lanterns around the inside of their attached screen room. He’d met them a few days before when they had shown up at his door with greetings and a welcoming cauliflower casserole.
There was no escape. The acrid scent of a charcoal fire assaulted his nostrils. On the heels of that came an assault from Nadine. Close to a hundred pounds overweight and limping on a hip she was proud to confess was due to be replaced soon, she met him as he climbed out of the truck and peered up at him through hazy eyeglasses with rhinestones on the frames.
“Well, there you are! Bill and I were wondering where you’d been all afternoon. Got some brisket that’s been slow cooking on the Weber most of the day.”
Crockett looked toward the screen room and returned a wave from Bill, balanced on a short stepladder and wrapped in tangled extension cord. His madras shorts, sandals, and black socks were inevitable.
“You’re just as welcome to join us as you can be,” Nadine said, patting Crockett on the arm. “Mel and Louise will be by soon. You haven’t met them yet. They winter in Tucson. They’re coming over for dinner and then we’re gonna play scrabble or Yahtzee. Be a lot of fun and get you acquainted with some of your neighbors. You been here a week and we haven’t seen you hardly at all.”
Inadequate excuses flitted around Crockett’s head like barn swallows. He grabbed one as it soared by.
“That’s very kind of you,” he smiled, “but I’m afraid I have to work this evening. Deadlines you know.”
“Work? What do you do?”
“I’m a cultural anthropologist,” Crockett went on. “I’m working on an article about nomadic subcultures in contemporary American society. Social and familial customs among the transient and quasi-transient inhabitants of the central and southern United States, actually. It’s a mobile population study.”
Nadine blinked at him. “Oh,” she said.
“So, you see, I’m afraid I must keep my nose to the grindstone, as it were. I have to have my paper ready for the Scientific American in less than three weeks. My discipline has just been atrocious and now I’m paying the price for my laxity. Midnight oil and all that. Thank you so much for your very kind offer, but I fear I must decline your generosity. Have a wonderful evening with your friends. Perhaps some other time.”
He darted inside the Pequod, closed the door, and put his grocery sack on the counter. Nudge “myrrphed” at him from the couch.
Crockett grinned. “Scrabble tonight after dinner, old man?”
Nudge yawned and began to clean the fur on his left rear leg. Crockett glanced out the window. Nadine was still standing exactly where he’d left her, seemingly frozen in contemplation.
Nudge was finishing the few remaining scraps of broiled fish, the sun had just gone down, and Crockett was up to his elbows in dishwater when his cell phone went off. Soapy suds trickled down his arm when he put the thing to his ear.
“Mister Crockett, Lyle Higgenbotham. Hope I ain’t botherin’ ya too much this evenin’.”
“I didn’t expect to hear from you so soon,” Crockett said, dripping on the floor as he stepped around Nudge to grab a hand towel. Absorbed in the fish, the cat didn’t seem to notice.
“I didn’t figure ya would neither, but my daughter come in to the office a little after you left, an’ I put her on it. That property I was thinkin’ about is still available. It’s up in the Smithville Lake neck of the woods in Hart County, purty close to the Clinton County line.”
“Land near lakes is expensive, isn’t it?”
“Higher’n a ‘coon on a phone pole usually. Subdivisions poppin’ up like toadstools. A contractor perched on ever other fencepost. This piece is a little north and west of the lake, kinda outside the boom area. Plus it ain’t nothin’ but hills and gullies, rocks an’ post oak. Quarter of a section. A hundred an’ sixty acres. If they measured acreage vertically instead of on the flat, it’d probably be five or six times that much. County took it for taxes about eight year ago an’ can’t do a thing with it. If they was to sell it, they’d git some cash and tax revenue ever year. Most times things like that is sold at public auction, but I made some calls. Claim it’s worth two hundred thousand. I offered ‘em half that. I reckon, after all the flappin’ and crowin’ is over an’ done with, I can probably git it for a hundred and a half, mebbe not even that much. That’s less than a grand a acre. Ten miles away, land is goin’ for ten or fifteen times more. The way that area is expandin’, a feller might be able to make a good profit down the road a ways. Right now, it’s just more trouble than it’s worth to develop. Wanna take a peek?”
“Why don’t you meet me at the office about eight in the morning. I’ll buy ya breakfast an’ off we go.”
Crockett kicked at about ten inches of leaf litter and looked at the concrete slab that stretched before him. “I’d have to find somebody to put the right fittings on the septic system and the well to work with the bus.”
“I know a guy,” Lyle said.
“Then there’s getting the power hooked up.”
Lyle smiled. “Same guy,” he said.
They were standing by a badly deteriorated gravel lane about fifty yards into the land, a half-mile square of Missouri rocks, clay, gullies and scrub, about fifteen minutes north-northwest of Smithville Lake, off a gravel road that connected to a county blacktop that eventually intersected Highway 169. Crockett wasn’t sure he could find his way back to civilization without help. They’d walked the acreage for the past two hours and his back and leg were complaining. Higgenbotham was at least twenty years his senior and doing fine.
“Pretty much what you said you was lookin’ for, ain’t it?” the old man said.
“If ya had to start from scratch, put in a slab, septic an’ a well, cost ya thirty-five grand or better. Pretty good savings right there, all them things already on site. Lots of deer and turkey. You a hunter?”
Crockett, remembering his relatively recent training as a sniper with Goody and Clete, stifled a smile. “Nope. I got no use to kill anything.”
Higgenbotham studied him for a moment. “Had enough a that, huh?” he asked
Crockett ignored the question. “What would you do with the place if you were me?”
The old man thought for a moment. “Most a the run-off from this whole section comes through this piece,” he said. “If’n it was me, I’d git a dozer in here an’ put me up a dam, run this lane back another fifty yards or so, and put me up a cabin on what would be the shore of a nice little lake.”
“You betcha. If this land would hold run-off an’ not leak it out ‘cause a all the rocks and deep cuts, you could probably git fifteen acres or more under water. The way all these draws and gullies cut the place up, I speck you’d git at least two or three miles of shoreline an’ a nice pond thirty feet deep in spots.”
“Nossir. I’d stock it an’ in three or four years you’d be settin’ pretty. Deer an’ turkey out the butt, foxes, bobcat. Damn place would be its own preserve. Post it for no tresspassin’, git a dog, an’ hang a hammock.”
Crockett grinned. “Uh-huh. How much of that is realtor bullshit?”
Higgenbotham chuckled. “Not more than about ten percent,” he said. “If I was your age an’ had more time left, that’s exactly what I’d do.”
“Offer them a hundred and thirty thousand,” Crockett said.
“You got financing in place? If not, I know a guy.”
Lyle squinted at him for a moment, then smiled. “My cell phone’s in the truck,” he said. “Gimme a minute.”
That evening, after a dinner that involved a cardboard carton, six minutes in the microcave, and the addition of a significant amount of extra cheese, Crockett put on a little Leon Redbone and kicked back on the couch with Nudge. Jesus. What the hell was he doing? Life was getting ahead of him. Ruby LaCost was out of the picture now. In the 20-20 light of hindsight, he realized how out of balance their relationship had been. How Ruby had relied on control and manipulation as the foundation for dealing with him. He had to take half the responsibility for that. Without a gun being involved, there are no unwilling victims. His leaving her after he and Clete and Stitch had rescued her in that cave on the Spring River was one of the hardest things he’d ever had to do, but he had to do it. Their bond was not healthy for either of them.
And then, there was Mazy. Mazy, who had taken him into her heart, her life, her family, and her bed. Feisty, indomitable, Mazy, tied to that marina on Truman Lake with cords he could never break. Mazy, who had been exactly what he had needed at the time, who had been much more than water to his thirst, who had no aspirations or desires past the moment. She had set him back on his feet without design or expectation. Honest with him and true to herself.
And now, here he was, looking for his Hermitage north-northwest of Smithville Lake, alone, long past his prime, and starting over. Crockett smiled and rubbed Nudge behind the ears. It was either an opportunity or a curse. His choice. A do-over. Another chance. Christ. His back would never stand a hammock, but maybe old Lyle was right. He hadn’t really thought about it much before. Maybe he should, at least, get a dog.
Two weeks later Crockett was a landowner.
Crockett stood on his freshly graveled drive and watched the dump truck make a left onto the county road about fifty yards away. Beside him was the Pequod, the big blue and silver motorhome looking about as out of place in the woods as a marble staircase in an outhouse. It was leveled and hooked up on a slab poured years before for a fifty foot doublewide, the water and septic lines securely wrapped in electric insulated tape for cold weather, the phone junction box clean and ready to hook-up, the slide-outs slid out, the awning and screen room securely pitched, weighted with sandbags on the slab and outfitted with lawn chairs and a couple of tables. He walked inside the bus, poured a cup of a really nice Ethiopian blend that he’d ordered from a coffee supplier on the internet, and followed Nudge back out into the screen room. The cat stood by the zippered door and blinked at him.
“What? You want out?”
Nudge “myrrphed” agreement.
“You old fool, it’s a jungle out there.”
Nudge sat and lashed his tail, unimpressed by the warning.
“All right,” Crockett said, unzipping the door. “The more time you spend outside, the less time I spend cleaning the litter. Watch your ass.”
Nudge showed the ass in question to Crockett as he ambled away into the undergrowth. Crockett re-zipped the door, leaving the bottom eighteen inches open so the cat could get back in without shredding a portion of the mosquito netting. He sank onto a lawn chair, sipped the coffee, and lit his first Sherman of the day.
Well, he’d done it. A month ago he’d been totally footloose and fancy free. Now he had a hundred and sixty acres, four truckloads of gravel, his own well and pressure system, a freshly pumped septic tank, and a sewage lagoon down a shallow slope and out of sight about sixty yards to the east of the bus. A man of property.
The townhouse that he and Ruby owned was on the market as of a week before. She’d contacted a realtor who, in turn, contacted Crockett about listing the property. He’d readily agreed, no longer wanting anything to do with the place where memories were so thick and Ruby had been abducted. A moving company had installed his furniture and belongings in a storage facility, out of sight and mind, and he and Ruby had had no personal contact at all. His rational self assured him that was absolutely the best course. His emotional self was another matter. He sat and sipped. Spring was in full swing, and he was reminded of the quiet and peace of early mornings with Mazy and her father-in-law on Truman Lake.
Sighing, he stood to get more coffee when the crunch of tires on gravel drew his attention down the lane to see Lyle Higgenbotham’s black Ford pickup coming his way. The truck stopped by the screen room, and the old man clambered out of the cab.
“By God,” he said, scanning the bus, “that there purty much makes havin’ a house a waste a time.”
Crockett grinned and opened the screen room again. “Just in time for coffee. Fresh pot. Interested?”
“Yessir, I am,” Lyle said, following Crockett inside the coach. “Ain’t this somethin’?” the old man went on, looking around. “Hell, this here in just fine! I doan know what more a feller could want.”
“A bathtub,” Crockett said. “A shower with a skylight is nice. A tub would be better.”
“You got a skylight in the shower?”
Crockett grinned. “Doesn’t everybody?”
“Ha! Git me a cup a black coffee and then git me back outside ‘fore I git too spoiled. Place like this could ruin me for life.”
Laughing, Crockett poured two cups, added cream to his, and the two of them retired to lawn chairs. Lyle sipped his coffee.
“Crockett, I believe this here is about the best coffee I ever had in all my days. You could taste this on yer tongue if ya spilt some on yer foot. Only one thing make it better.”
The old man swiveled up on one hip and drew out a flask from a rear pocket.
“Little sightin’ oil,” he said. “Hold out yer cup.”
Crockett accepted a small shot of whisky. “Little early in the day for me,” he said.
“Doc’s orders. Three short shots a day. Got me a little heart problem. This here booze is supposed to help.”
The old man paused for a moment as if straightening his memory. “Dilation of my blood vessels to facilitate cardiovascular circulation, doncha see.”
Crockett smiled. “Took the words right out of my mouth.”
“Probably ain’t doin’ my liver a lotta good. That’s why I only do three short ones a day. Hell, Boy, I’m past eighty. Things is startin’ to wear out anyways.”
They sipped in silence for a while. When Lyle finished his coffee he got to his feet and headed for his truck. He opened the passenger door and retrieved a box and what appeared to be a stack of papers.
“I brought ya a couple a house warmin’ presents,” he said, handing Crockett the box.
The carton contained a black metal mailbox with Crockett’s address neatly stenciled on the side. 13204 Poston Road.
“That my address?” Crockett asked.
Lyle smiled. “Yep. 13204 Poston Road, Hartrick, Missouri.”
Crockett’s eyebrows went up. “I live in a town?”
“More or less. Technically you’re a suburb of Hartrick.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Go east on your gravel road out here about three miles, then north on the first county road about four miles, make a right on the next blacktop and in about a mile, you’re there.”
“Yessir. County seat. That’s where you get your fire and police protection, more or less.”
“That’s the second time you said more or less.”
Lyle chuckled. “The line between town and county gets a little thin in some places. The county has a sheriff and deputies, of course. They’re in the courthouse on the east side of the square in Hartrick. Fire district for this area is local. Hartrick has a police department. They’re on the west side of the square.”
“Did they give him a bullet of his own?”
“A bunch of ‘em. Got the police chief, a feller named Dale Smoot, couple of full time patrolmen, and some auxiliary types in case Iraq invades.”
“But this land belonged to the county, right?”
“Don’t try to figure it out. You’ll just get a headache. When you get a telephone, they’ll give ya a list of numbers to call in case there’s a emergency of some kind.”
“How big is Hartrick?”
“Six or seven hundred people, I guess. Mebbe more. Little ol’ place. Got a school system, little grocery store, couple of gas stations that sell limited groceries, sandwiches an’ stuff that’ll charge ya ten or fifteen cents more per gallon than the city. Even got their own water tower with their name in big ol’ letters right on the side.”
“Jest like downtown ‘cept they ain’t no pigeons,” Crockett said.
“There’s a post office and a restaurant and things like that on Division Street. That’s the one that runs north and south on the west side of the town square. You want to put in a propane tank, you’ll get it from the gas co-op there. Your electricity comes from the county co-op.”
“I’m confused. Things were a lot simpler in Mayberry.”
Higgenbotham grinned. “It’s changed some since Aunt Bea passed away.”
Smiling, Crockett opened the door on his new mailbox to find a staple gun and staples rattling around.
“What all this for?”
“These,” Lyle said, placing a stack of no trespassing signs on an unoccupied chair. “You’ll wanna post this place. Been vacant for years. Folks is justa comin’ and goin’ through here, huntin’ and such. If you don’t want ‘em on the place, you’ll have to let ‘em know. Ain’t no fence around the property. Yer in the sticks, boy. Everthing that don’t say no, means yes. Surveyor’s stakes are still fresh and easy to spot. Follow them stakes around the property and hang these signs on trees. All four sides. I was you, I’d git it done pretty quick.”
“I’ll do it,” Crockett said.
“There’s a cedar post out by the road,” Lyle went on. “That mailbox’ll set right up on…” His eyes traveled to outside the netting. “What the hell?”
Crockett followed his gaze to see Nudge walking across the drive. He chuckled.
“That’s my cat.”
“He give ya any choice?”
Crockett laughed. “Not much.”
Nudge squeezed through the flap and regarded Lyle with yellow eyes from a cantaloupe head for a moment, then levitated to a chair and lay down on the stack of no trespassing signs.
“Lord God! I pity the coyote that tangles with him. Hell, he’s bigger’n a bobcat!”
“Weighed him a couple a years ago. Little short of forty pounds. Been with me for a long time.”
“More or less.”
Lyle stood up. “Now doan think that monster is runnin’ me off. I got a appointment over in Liberty with a gal that doan know what the devil she wants, except she wants it yesterday, and cheap. I gotta whip the team.”
“You’re welcome anytime,” Crockett said. “There’s always coffee that could use a little sightin’ oil.”
“Thank ya, boy,” Lyle said, stepping toward the door. “I’ll keep track of ya.”
“Thanks for everything.”
Higgenbotham stepped outside and glanced back at Nudge.
“God almighty,” he mumbled, and headed for his truck.
Crockett looked at the cat. “Well, old man,” he said, “you’re reputation grows.”
Nudge yawned and began to purr.
After Crockett fixed a late breakfast or early lunch of tuna salad and chips, he grabbed his small toolkit and the mailbox, and headed down the lane. The cedar post Lyle mentioned was right by the edge of the road, overgrown with last year’s weeds to the point he hadn’t noticed it. He pulled most of the weeds away from the post and spent about thirty minutes affixing his new mailbox to the old cedar. As he was finishing up, an older green Chevy work truck, the only vehicle that had passed during the entire time, went by. The driver gave Crockett the typical “two fingers off the wheel” gravel road acknowledgement, then braked to a halt a few yards past the drive, backed up, and rolled down his window.
He was fifty or so, wearing a camouflage ball cap and a smile, and nodded.
Crockett grinned. “Back at ya,” he said. “You doin’ all right today?”
“Fair. Puttin’ up a mailbox, I see.”
“I am if this post doesn’t fall over.”
“Didn’t know any folks lived out here.”
“Up until a couple of days ago you were right.”
“Thought this here was county land.”
The man nodded. “You from the city?”
Crockett smiled at the probing. “Now and then,” he said.
“Lookin’ for my dog. Blue tick hound. Seen her?”
“Nossir. Sure haven’t.”
“She’s a good pup, I guess, but she’ll follow her nose to China if she gits a first class smell of somethin’. Name’s Delbert Sprinkle.” He stuck his hand out the window of the truck. Crockett walked over and shook it.
“Call me Crockett,” he said. “My pleasure.”
“I live over offa Bend Road. Doan git over thisaway much. Wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for that pup. Gotcha some acres here?”
“Half mile square.”
“Good huntin’ in this neck of the woods.”
“Hell ya don’t.”
Sprinkle adjusted his cap. “Most folks do. They’ll keep your deer thinned out for ya.”
“Rather they didn’t.”
Sprinkle digested this new information for a moment. “Gonna post the place?” he asked.
Sprinkle adjusted his cap again and stared out the windshield for a beat or two before he returned to the conversation.
“That might work. You see that pup, tie her up for me, will ya?”
“Sure. How do I get word to you?”
“I don’t find her, I’ll be back this way tomorrow. Tie a rag on your mailbox post. I see it, I’ll stop.”
“Glad to, if that post’ll hold the extra weight.”
“Thanks. Nice to meetcha.”
“Likewise,” Crockett said, and watched him drive away.
Walking back up the lane, Crockett rolled the conversation over in his mind. Maybe he’d put out a few salt blocks. Deer liked salt blocks. The thought of wildlife on the property pleased him. The thought of people didn’t. Might as well post it and set the rules right from the start.
Clouds had drifted in while Crockett was working on the mailbox, and the wind had freshened a bit, driving the temperature down a few degrees. It felt like rain. After putting on what he’d come to consider his ATL, or “all terrain leg,” and the corresponding boot on his original equipment foot, he donned a lightweight hooded Gortex jacket in tan and green, hooked the handle of the staple gun in his belt on the right side, put an extra box of staples in the jacket pocket, stuck twenty-five or thirty of the no trespassing signs in a canvas carry bag, and walked down the lane. His property was bordered by gravel roads on the south and east sides. From the drive, he began to work his way east, stapling up signs every eighty to one hundred feet as the tree growth would allow. It was not easy work.
The rocks, gullies and cuts made it tough going for a one-legged man, and he took his time, dreading having to do the same job on the north and west sides of the property where there were no roads or easy access. When he reached the corner and turned north on the east side of the land, he stopped and rested for a few moments, enjoying the wind in the trees and the absence of traffic. Anticipating rain, he moved on, determined to do most of the two easy sides before he quit or the rain started.
He didn’t make it. About two thirds of the way up the east side, drizzle began. He pushed on. The next surveyor’s stake, complete with its strip of red cloth, beckoned him from the near distance up a shallow slope. As Crockett got to the stake, he was surprised to find a level area, fairly similar to the one that supported his newly graveled driveway.
Free of old growth trees, it had evidently been cleared at some time in the past, perhaps by hopeful loggers who abandoned their efforts because of the unsympathetic terrain. The flat extended into the property farther than the woods would let him see, and he turned to follow it. As he stepped off the shoulder of the gravel road, he noticed two parallel strips at ground level where the weedy undergrowth had been mashed to the earth. Tire tracks.
Training took over and he abandoned the flat, moving into the trees on the south side of the trail, slowing his pace and keeping to cover. After little more than fifty yards, a glint of blue caught his eye. Wishing the weight on his left side was more than just a staple gun, he left it and the bag he was carrying at the base of the only walnut tree he had seen, switched off his cell phone, and continued on.
The blue turned out to be a rusty Chevy pickup from the early nineteen eighties. It was parked as far into the property as the lay of the land would let it go, poised on the edge of a rocky cut. In the bed of the truck were several boards and miscellaneous tools. In the rear window was a gun rack containing a compound bow with a clamp-on quiver of six arrows. The sharpened edges of their black broadheads glinted in an evil manner. As he was making a mental note of the license number, the sound of distant hammering reached his ears. He slipped back into the trees and, dry-mouthed, continued on.
As he got closer to the hammering, it was augmented by conversation, too muted by distance and the woods for him to understand. Crockett pulled the hood of his jacket up over his head and moved slowly onward, being careful of foot placement and branches. A slow sneak of another fifty yards or so revealed two men in their early thirties, hammering two by four board steps in the side of a large oak tree. He crouched in shadow and watched as they took a break for beer. There were two cans left in the plastic rings of a sixpack. Empties, along with a chainsaw, lay on the ground around the base of the tree. A red and white ball cap graced the head of one of the individuals. The other wore a battered straw cowboy hat. Strawhat spoke.
“Six or eight more steps an’ we’ll up to that big branch. We git up there an’ we can thin out some a them little branches. That big’un oughta hold a platform.”
He tipped his can of Bud Light back and drained it, punctuating his accomplishment with a deep and throaty belch, then picked up the chainsaw. His partner retrieved a twelve foot two by four out of the ground cover and straddled it, holding the short end up between his legs. Strawhat started the saw and went to work on the wood, cutting it into short lengths for more steps to nail into the tree. The noise and concentration of their efforts were such that an elephant could have walked by without notice. Crockett seized the moment to move within fifteen feet of the two men and took station behind a downed and rotting seed pine. Neither of the men appeared to be armed.
The sawing finished, Ballcap climbed up the existing steps, a hammer dangling from his belt. When he stopped, about ten feet up the side of the tree, Strawhat started eight-inch spikes in a short length of board and tossed it up. Their backs were to Crockett. He eased out of cover and took three or four steps in their direction. When he was standing nearly beside Strawhat, he spoke.
“How you fellas doin’ today?”
Strawhat squeaked and levitated about eighteen inches off the ground, whirling in mid-air, nearly losing his footing when he landed. Ballcap dropped his piece of wood and hung from the tree, flailing for a moment before rescuing himself from what could have been a nasty fall.
“Who-the-fuck-are-you?” Strawhat blurted, attempting to regain some composure.
Ballcap scuttled down the tree and stood beside his partner, nursing a scraped hand.
“Sorry guys,” Crockett went on. “Didn’t mean to frighten you. Just wanted to say hello and see what you’re doing?”
“Puttin’ up a new deer stand. What the fuck is it to you?” Strawhat said, bristling a little as his heart rate slowed.
“Rather you didn’t.”
“Sorry,” Crockett said. “Can’t do that.”
“Hell, you mean we cain’t do that? I hunt deers out here all the time.”
“Maybe you used to, but not any more.”
“Who the hell do you think you are?”
Crockett smiled. “The owner of this property.”
“Bullshit! The county owns this land.”
Crockett increased the size of his smile, pulled his cell phone out of his jacket pocket and turned it on. “Tell you what,” he said, “I’ll call the sheriff and see if he has time to come by and explain the facts of life to you fellas. Maybe you’ll believe him.”
“Sure,” Crockett went on, fiddling with the phone. “I just want everything to be clear between us.”
“Hell, the place ain’t even posted!”
“I’m working on that.”
“This land really yours?”
“Quarter of a section.”
“You ain’t gonna let nobody hunt it?”
“Nope. Not even me.”
For the first time, Ballcap spoke up. “’Spose we shoot a deer an’ it runs on to yer place?”
“Sorry. No trespassing.”
“Gawdammit! That ain’t right.”
“Right or not, that’s the way it is.”
Ballcap’s smile was sly. “Hell, you wouldn’t know if we come on the place anyway.”
“I knew today.”
“You cain’t keep yer eye on this whole place all the fuckin’ time!”
Crockett dropped his grin. “You willing to bet your future on that?”
Ballcap puffed up. “Mister,” he said, “I doan cotton to no man threatnin’ me.”
“And I don’t cotton to trespassers and even less to hunters. This place will be completely posted by sundown tomorrow. Meantime, you have thirty minutes.”
“To get those boards off my tree and your truck and yourselves off the land. You wanna stop by sometime to have a beer, you’re welcome. We’ll tip a couple and jaw. Maybe even break out the grill and some steaks. You want to hunt, it’s fine by me. You can do that north of here, south of here, east of here and west of here. I couldn’t care less. You sneak back on my place with a gun or a bow, as far as I’m concerned, you’re burglars. Burglars are taking a hell of a chance. You’ve been warned. You’re wasting time. I’ll be watching. Don’t forget your beer cans.”
Crockett left them standing there and walked back into the woods. When he broke line of sight he dropped to the ground behind a stump and eased down into the leaf litter. As far as the two men were concerned, he just disappeared. He lay quietly and listened to them cuss and damn about the way he treated them, but they did take the steps off the tree, pick up the cans, and leave.
On the walk home he got a little queasy because of excess adrenalin. Back in the bus and out of what had become a real spring shower, he retrieved his cell phone and examined the pictures he had taken. While they were not suitable for Christmas cards, they were certainly good enough to I.D. his new friends. Jesus. Welcome to the neighborhood.
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