Land of the Blind

2015 Longmire Christmas Story Post-It

By Craig Johnson (2015)

It’s the last thing you want to hear in law enforcement, and certainly the last thing you want to hear on Christmas Eve, just as you’re finishing up payroll and heading out the office door.

Double Tough, my deputy, leaned against the doorway and held said door open with one hand, the mottled skin of his face highlighted by the haloed glow of the Christmas lights he had hung above the main entrance of the old Carnegie Library that served as the office of the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department.

“Near Story.”

I stuffed the small, red, leather-bound copy of A Christmas Carol, which had been a gift from my father, under my arm and handed him his check. “That’s Sheridan County.”

He stuffed the envelope in his back pocket. “Not exactly–just south, near the fish hatchery.”

I stepped out into the frigid air and flipped up the collar of my old, horsehide jacket and pulled my hat down against the wind. I let the door skip closed behind us and locked it as I hurried toward his unit, yanked open the door, and climbed inside. “Wait, there’s a hostage situation at the fish hatchery?”

“Nope, at the church just next door—The Congregational Baptist.”

I noticed the crucifix hanging from his rear view mirror and made the connection. Since the fire that had cost him his eye, Double Tough had gone through something of a religious reawakening and had been auditioning churches around the area in search of the right theological fit. “Did you try that one?”

“I did, but they were a little too fire-and-brimstone for me.” He fired up the Chevrolet and glanced over his shoulder, checking for traffic even though the street was vacant, before pulling out and hitting his lights and siren.

An Appalachian by birth, the energy worker had followed the methane gas boom that had sprung up in the Powder River, but when it had faded a couple of years ago, he’d pinned on one of my stars. “I would’ve thought with your background that would’ve been right down your alley.”

He reached up and touched the melted skin at his jawline. “I figure I been singed enough for one lifetime.” He smiled, but I wasn’t sure if it was the real eye or the glass one that glanced at me. He navigated onto the interstate highway, and nailing the accelerator he slid slightly before getting the Suburban straightened out. “The Highway Patrol and Jim Persil are on-scene; you know, that new sheriff from over in Sheridan County.”

I fastened my seatbelt, a bit disgruntled, Christmas not being my best season. “So, why do they need us?”

He smiled again. “It’s your county, Bossman.”

The newly elected neighboring sheriff was young and had been genuinely concerned about not overstepping his jurisdiction, so circumspect in fact that he’d become something of a pain in the butt. “Okay, give me the lowdown.”

“Christmas Eve service at the church had just begun when they had this kid come in, twenties, wearin’ nuthin’ but a pair of tighty whities with a 9mm tucked in the waistband. He grabs this poor woman from the front row and drags her up on the altar and says he’s going to shoot her for all our sins. I guess the preacher tried to step in and got a round through his hand for his trouble.”

I rested a palm on the red leather volume on the center console. “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. . . .”

He nodded toward the copy of A Christmas Carol. “You still reading that book every Christmas?”

“Yep, you?”

“Me what?”

I noticed he canted his face to one side as he drove, giving his live eye an advantage, so I was pretty sure the right one was real. “Reading?”

“Yeah.” Double Tough had, along with his religious redemption, taken up reading again, something he’d abandoned years ago. “That book you gave me, the Davis Grubb.”

Thinking a geographical advantage might help the man along, I’d loaned him a stack of Appalachian literature from my office bookshelves, including Grubb, Jesse Stuart, and Wendell Berry. “Night of the Hunter?”

“Nope, the other one.”

As we drove, I looked out over the pristine, smooth surface of Lake DeSmet, covered with a sheet, blanket, and comforter of a fourteen-inch snow. “Fool’s Parade.”

He nodded and then glanced at me again, and I still wasn’t quite sure with which eye. “You give me that book because the guy had a glass eye?”

“No.”

He nodded, taking the exit to the little town of Story, Wyoming, and drawled “Good.”

It was a cop convention. The Sheridan County sheriff had set up a command center, and the HPs had covered the periphery with halogen emergency lights focused on the church with an honest-to goodness sniper on top of one of the nearest vehicles, a large black step-van with the Highway Patrol insignia emblazoned on the side.

The newly minted, neighboring sheriff explained, “The HPs Rapid Response Team was up here from Cheyenne having a training session with our SWAT at the shooting club in Sheridan and were all loaded up to go home when we got the call, so they all tagged along.”

I glanced around at all the armed men in BDUs, looking more like an occupying army than a police force. “Don’t these people have homes? It’s Christmas Eve for goodness sake.”

He shrugged. “I guess everybody’s bored.” I looked back at the Congregational Baptist Church, looking like a Currier & Ives, the snow curling off the edges of the roof and steeple, the stained glass windows glowing warmly, as Persil rolled out a floor plan of the church on the tailgate of one of his trucks. “The stained glass is playing hell with the sniper—he can’t get a laser dot on the kid.”

“Does he have a name?”

“The sniper?”

“The kid.”

“Sam Erlanger, recent parolee with a substance abuse problem, Bolivian Black Tar Heroin being the substance of choice as of late, but who knows what he’s on tonight. We’ve had him inside a few times. The last time he was in, the churches were offering Bible classes to the inmates, and he got all Old Testament on us. He got released a couple of weeks ago.” He pointed to a spot on the plan as he unclipped a hand-held radio and laid it on the corner as a paperweight. “There’s a back door on the right side of the altar where we can get in behind him, but it might be safer just to let the sniper take the shot, stained window be damned.”

I looked at the scroll of paper rolled out on the sheet metal. “Where in the world did you get a floor plan of the church this fast?”

He gestured to where I assumed the wounded preacher was being attended to in the nearby EMT van. “The minister had it in his car; I guess they’re planning an expansion.”

“Has anybody gone in there to talk with him?”

“The preacher?”

“The guy in his underwear.” I glanced at the church. “Fruit of the Loom.”

Persil looked at me as if the answer should have been obvious. “No. I mean the last one that tried to talk to him got a hole shot in his hand.”

“What’s the hostage’s name?”

“Daniela Breese.”

I made the mental note. “Anybody else in the church?”

“Yeah, about a half-dozen in the pews that were too far from the door to make an escape. All the rest checked out when he started talking human sacrifice for the holidays.”

I pulled out my .45, sliding the mechanism and dropping a round in the pipe before flicking on the safety and returning it to my holster, leaving it unsnapped. “All right, please tell the sniper not to shoot me.”

“You’re going in there?”

I started off toward the main doors of the church when I noticed Double Tough falling in behind me. “Where do you think you’re going?”

He was checking his .40 as his face rose from under his cowboy hat. “Bossman, if he decides it’s better to give than to receive with that 9mm, another couple of rounds might be handy.”

As I pushed down the clasp on the heavy door, I could hear someone talking in a low slur, almost as if hypnotized, from inside. Sam Erlanger was deep in to a one-sided tete-a-tete with God, his voice dulled, his conversation meandering. “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God . . . ”

Pushing the door the rest of the way open, I held it and taking in the scene in front of me, rested the web of my thumb on my Colt. Through the vestibule, still loaded with the hats, coats, and galoshes of the faithful who had rapidly retreated, I could see down the main aisle where the heads of those who had not been able to escape popped up now and again, looking toward the simple, white, cloth-covered altar where Sam Erlanger held Daniela Breese half on the table by her hair with a gun to her head.

The woman wasn’t moving and her eyes were closed, but she was breathing. Erlanger was breathing too, as his emaciated muscles contracted against themselves. Continually wetting his lips with a darting tongue, he slowly slung his glance around the room, his deadened eyes looking everywhere and seeing nothing. “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious.”

There were no other doorways into the main part of the church other than the one point blank in front of us, so attempting to enter without him noticing wasn’t much of an option. Figuring we’d at least have some semblance of surprise if one of us lingered in the entryway out of sight, I motioned for Double Tough to move to the right. I walked into the nave, carefully leaving the door slightly ajar for my deputy and in case any of the other hostages could find the courage to beat a hasty exit.

He droned on. “Ah, sinful nation. . . . They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, and they are utterly estranged.”

“Amen.”

His head rose slowly, and he looked at the ceiling but in failing to seeing his God, he allowed his eyes to slip to me, standing in the center aisle with my hands on my hips.

“Hi, Sam.”

He slowly focused, raising a cheap Hi-Point semiautomatic from Daniela’s head and pointing it directly at me. “Stay where you are, or I’ll kill you.”

I tipped my hat back, making sure he could see that I didn’t have a weapon in my hands. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

His face split in a creeping, sick smile, his skin flushed and his nose running freely. “You aren’t me.” The grin widened to where I could see his black teeth. “I’m chosen.”

Over the years you get a feeling in these situations, an idea of how they’re going to play out—and I was getting a bad one on this. It was the certainty that was disconcerting, a snakelike stillness that led me to believe that it was a heroin cocktail that Sam was on—both shaken and stirred. “He speaks to me.” I started down the aisle but stopped when he forced the muzzle against Daniela’s head again, his dark eyes flicking away for the briefest of instants. “Don’t you hear him?” The smile was still there as his face caught the light from the emergency halogens that shone through the stained glass. “He says that I have to make a sacrifice for this country, we’ve lost our way and the only way it can be redeemed is with blood.” He wiped his nose with his gun hand but then pushed the weapon back against the woman’s head. “He’s talking to us now . . . .”

Watching his finger tighten on the trigger, I turned slightly to the right to hide the movement and dropped my hand to my sidearm. The angle was bad, and I was going to have to clear almost up to my shoulder before firing, but I didn’t see anything else for it.

“I hear his voice!”

I froze and slowly turned my head to the left, where I could see that Double Tough, having moved along the far wall for a better position, was holding both his hands out so that Erlanger could see he meant no harm.

“I hear him, brother!” The undisputable zeal in my deputy’s voice must’ve been acquired over the years in his fundamentalist upbringing. Erlanger didn’t move, but his hooded eyes opened a bit as Double Tough continued to advance, shouting his testament as he came. “Out of the heavens he let you hear his voice to discipline you; and on earth he let you see his great fire.”

When DT was within twenty feet, the addict pulled the 9mm away from the young woman’s head and shakily directed it in my deputy’s general direction. “You . . . . You need to stop where you are.”

Double Tough swung his arms wide and spun in a circle, all the time looking up at the ceiling and ignoring the gun pointed at him. “Is that you, Lord?” He stopped spinning, faced Erlanger, and stared at the peak of the church, the mottling of his skin looking like a caul. “You can hear him too brother, can’t you?”

The addict began nodding his head and looking up at the same spot. “I do hear him.” The semiautomatic dropped a little, now wavering between Double Tough and me as he glanced my way. “I do!”

DT’s head snapped back up toward the ceiling, and his face turned back and forth before he cupped a hand to his ear. “How have we offended thee, Lord?”

Erlanger actually moved forward, forgetting his hostage in his eagerness to receive the message. He repeated, “How have we offended thee?”

My deputy crept a little closer with his hand still at his ear, now only ten feet away from the deeply disturbed man. “You demand a sacrifice?”

Erlanger beamed as his eyes cast about and he cried out in triumph, once again placing the muzzle of the Hi-Point against Daniela’s head. “I told you, I told you all!”

“No, wait brother, wait!” Double Tough’s hand shot out. “He demands a different sort of sacrifice. . . .” The same hand returned to his ear, and his face rose to the rafters. “What can we do to remove the offense?” He stood there motionless for a moment, and I even found myself leaning forward along with Erlanger to hear what my deputy might say next. “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out?”

Erlanger didn’t move.

Agonizingly, DT reached up and began prying at his face, screaming as his voice rebounded against the confines of the church walls. He thrashed against the bannister that separated him from the altar and turned away, caterwauling, and finally plucking the furious bright eye from his face, he held it heavenward. “Here it is, Lord!”

He turned slowly, revealing the empty socket in his damaged face, as Erlanger stood straight with his rotten mouth hanging open, his head shaking back and forth.

“Here, take it! It’s seen enough of this world’s woes and mischiefs!” Double Tough lowered the ghastly trophy, and examining it with the remaining eye before looking skyward, he stumbled forward until he was within arms reach of Erlanger. “What’s that, Lord?”

By this time, the drug addict was shaking and had completely forgotten his hostage and scrambled backward against the pulpit.

“It is better for thee to enter into life with one eye rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire?” DT’s hand thrust forward, giving Erlanger a closer look at the dislocated orb as he held the vivid eye out to the addict until it seemed to loom larger and larger. “Brother, he wants you to have it!”

Dropping the gun, Erlanger turned and tripped over the stairs in search of the back door, finally finding it, and clawed at the knob as Double Tough casually threw a leg over the bannister and moved steadily toward him with the proffered offering. “Wait, he wants you to have it!”

Turning to look at his tormentor, the addict wailed and pressed his back against the door, sliding down it and leaving a grease mark as he sank. Finally, as my deputy was only inches from reaching him, he screamed, managed to get to his feet to yank the door open, and disappeared into the snowy night, his terrified cries trailing after him.

Double Tough stepped toward the doorway and watched the mostly naked man through the skimming flakes. “Say what you want about those heroin addicts, they can really move when they want to.” He continued to peer into the darkness where outside we could hear shouting as the assembled manpower moved in and apprehended the culprit. It was then that DT turned, popped the orb into his mouth for lubrication, swished it around and then spitting it out, tipped his head back, thumbed a lid up and re-deposited the glass eye.

He turned and winked at us. “God bless us everyone.”

One thought on “Land of the Blind

  1. Thank you for posting these Christmas Stories! I had only read two of them, so this is like having Christmas all over again!!

    Pat Hartman

    Like

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