Eleven/Twenty-Nine

Longmire Christmas Story (2016)

by Craig Johnson

“Where’s the Count of Monte Cristo?” I pushed my hat back, leaned on the dispatcher’s counter, and posed a nonliterary question to the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department dispatcher.

            She scratched some notes on a Post-It I would pluck from the doorjamb of my office and read on Monday. “His name is Eddie.” We’d engaged in this verbal sparing since taking the prisoner in for his less-than-a-year sentence exactly two days less than a year ago. She gestured toward the steps and the cells in the basement. “He’s taking apart the water heater.”

            “Again?”

            “He figured that since he’d be gone and since no one else fixes anything around here . . .” She leaned back, probably feeling a little sorry about the dig at my inability in home or office repair, and glanced at me. “Taxi service–probably not what you had planned for your holidays, huh?”

            I shrugged. “Didn’t have anything planned . . . Cady and Lola are visiting in Philadelphia with Vic, so it’s just me and the Grendel.”

            She reached under her desk and scrubbed behind Dog’s ear, and I listened to him sigh. If there was anybody he loved possibly more than me, it was she. “Still . . . it seems like I’m always getting you into things this time of year.” She glanced up at me. “Like last year when I almost got you killed.”

“You didn’t almost get me killed.”

            I thought back to when she’d almost gotten me killed.

It had been just before Christmas, and Ruby was standing at my office door. “I know the family.”

            I smiled at her. “That doesn’t necessarily thin the herd–you know every family in the county.” I pulled my sheepskin coat off the stand and shrugged it on.

            She clutched her hands together. “It’s the Byers, the Byers Ranch out on Piney Creek.” She leaned on the doorway with her winter jacket folded over her arm as Dog got up and went over, sticking his nose under the garment in search of her hands. “It’s their son, Eddie. He started drinking, and I guess he threatened to kill his brother and two cousins, and, along with a number of other anti-social behaviors, they’ve had enough.” She sighed. “They want him out of the house.”

            I nodded and thought about it as I walked over to where she stood. “He doesn’t have any priors, does he?”

            “A few.” She studied me and then tugged at my lapel, straightening it and smoothing it with the palm of her hand. “I’m sorry, Walter—just as you were making a clean getaway.”

            I reached over and flipped off the light as she and Dog followed. “What’s the situation right now?”

            “Delores, the grandmother, was the one on the phone, and supposedly they got him onto the porch and locked the doors, but he’s still sitting out there.”

            I glanced toward the bay windows where the sub-zero temperature had etched the low-slung portions of the beveled glass. “He sits out there long enough, and the problem will solve itself.”

            I pulled Dog’s ear and saluted the painting of Andrew Carnegie as I tromped down the steps and waited for her to do whatever magic she did in funneling all the emergency communication into the small pager one of us always carried through the night.

            She handed me the device my tiny staff referred to as The Weight.  We stepped out, and I locked the door behind us, but when Dog and I crunched across in the compacted snow toward my truck, she followed. I stopped and turned to look at her and, like the Ghost of Christmas Future, pointed toward the bumper-sticker-emblazoned Subaru parked in the corner. “Yours is over there.”

            “I’m coming with you.”

            I stared at her. “No, you’re not.”

            “I feel badly sending you out like this on Christmas Eve night, so I’m coming with you.”

            I opened up the passenger side door, and Dog jumped in, but I held my arm there, effectively blocking her. “Ruby, the kid is drunk, and what I’m going to end up doing is bringing him back here and letting him sleep it off in one of the holding cells and then getting him up in the morning and taking him back to the house he got kicked out of.”

            “I’m going with you.”

            “No, Ruby, you’re not.”

            She ducked under my arm and climbed in the truck. “Yes, Walter, I am.”

I found The Count of Monte Cristo on the floor of the utility room. He was lying on his back with the parts of the water heater splayed across his chest, along with the box of new tools that he’d made me buy scattered on the floor. “Tunneling your way to freedom?”

            He lifted his face, the long hair falling away and the headlight attached to his forehead blinding me for a moment. “Oh, hey, Sheriff.” He gestured with a metal loop and base that must’ve been part of the cantankerous water heater. “I don’t think the replacement element is working as well as it should, so I had Saizarbitoria pick up another one.”

            I glanced at the vintage utility that as far as I knew had been there as long as I had. “You found a part for that thing?”

            “It’s a universal one, but I modified the base to fit.”

            I shook my head. “Time to gather up your things and get going.”

            “My family here?”

            “No, we’re giving you a ride home.”

            His family hadn’t visited in the last year, and I read the disappointment on his face as I turned and headed back up the stairs where I found Ruby and Dog waiting.

              Obviously, she needed to talk and followed me back to my office. “Why do you suppose there are more cases of domestic violence during the holidays?”

            Pulling my Carhartt and hat off the stand in my office, I looked around the room to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. “I don’t.”

            “You mean you don’t know?”

            Satisfied, I nudged them out and closed my office door behind me. “I mean they’ve done a lot of studies, and there aren’t more cases over the holidays. The ratio of calls to 911 and the National Domestic Violence Hotline don’t change that much. Comparatively speaking, the statistics show that calls actually drop.”

            She made a face as she followed me down the steps. “Has it always been like that?”

            I paused at the landing to yell downstairs. “Edmond Dantès, let’s go!” I turned, and Ruby was still looking at me. “Difficult to say because the numbers haven’t always been recorded, but there’s a sensitivity to domestic violence during the holidays that might provide something of a deterrent.” I thought about it. “But then you’ve got familial proximity and alcohol to help balance things out.”

            “But the incidents actually go down?” She smiled, the clear light of the icy moon shining through the glass doors highlighting one side of her gentle face. “Peace on Earth . . . ”

            I thought about the Annunciation of the Shepherds. “And good will toward agricultural laborers?” We stood there waiting on The Count to gather his things, and I postulated a bit. “There are problems with the translation, you know . . . In the King James Version the phrase is good will toward men, but the Greek text of the New Testament reads on earth, peace to men of good will, with two subjects in the nominative case. Then there’s the Douay-Rheims Bible, translated from the Latin Vulgate version–on earth peace to men of good will. Then you’ve got the New American Bible that updates it to on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. Which begs the question of whether heaven’s grace is reflected on all mankind or only those of good will.” I looked up and studied the clear night sky thinking about who might be looking back down—and then glanced over to where both she and Dog were staring at me.

“Walter, I sometimes wonder if you should’ve maybe pursued another calling.”

When we pulled up to the porch a year ago, Eddie Byers was sitting on the front steps and puffing on a cigarette, the condensate from his breath and the incidental smoke surrounding him like a low-flying, dark cloud.

            Eddie was a big kid with wide shoulders and a thick mane of dirty-blond hair who’d been a standout defensive back with the Durant Dogies a few years back, although a lack of drive had led to his doing custodial work at the high-school, haunting the hallways with a mop where he’d once been a star.  For a moment, I wondered how they had gotten him on the porch but just figured his grandmother must’ve tossed a turkey leg out there and then had made a run for it.

            I cracked open my door but hesitated as Ruby did the same on the other side. “Where do you think you’re going?”

            “With you.”

            “No, you’re not. Ruby, this is the part where it can get tricky, and I’m not going to be able to do what I need to do here if I’m concerned about you while I’m doing it.” I started to climb out. “Stay here, and no matter what happens neither you nor Dog get out of this truck.” I started to close the door. “But if things go badly enough, feel free to call the Highway Patrol and get me a little back-up.”

            She glanced at the sullen young man on the porch and then the mic on my dash. “How will I know whether you want me to do that or not?”

            I glanced back at Byers’ muscled shoulders illuminated by my headlights. “Trust me, you’ll know.” I smiled and locked the doors with the key, closing the driver’s side as I unsnapped the safety strap on my holster. He didn’t look up as I approached but just sat there smoking like an angry stack. “Good evening.”

            He ignored me. His hand came back to his face, and he planted the cigarette between his lips again, the tip glowing like an acetylene torch.

            “I understand you’re having some problems with the family?”

            He repeated the motion again, still not acknowledging my presence.

            “Eddie, your grandmother gave us a call, and she seemed concerned about the way you’re behaving toward your brother and two cousins.”

            He still said nothing and made a move to take another toke on the cigarette when I caught his arm with my left hand. “Eddie, you’re going to talk to me.”

            His head tilted back in a slow but deliberate manner with his hair parting enough for me to see a cold, blue eye, and he spoke for the first time in a flat tone. “No, I’m gonna kill you.”

The first week that Byers had been in the cells downstairs, I could tell that the ranch kid wasn’t going to take to confinement and had struck upon a way of working around this by having him scrape, clean, sand, prime, and paint all the ceilings, walls, windows, and door facings on the interior of the little library we called home, a job that had needed to be done since the Coolidge administration.

            I’d watched the meticulous, steady progress as he’d made his way around the building. “You do nice work.”

            He nodded as he leveraged the edger underneath the paint. “Anything to stay out of that cell; I just can’t stand being in there with not nothing to do.”

            “Nothing to do.”

            He glanced down at me from atop the ladder. “Yeah.”

            “Not not nothing, it’s a double negative.”

            He continued to stare at me. “What?”

On Easter, Ruby had brought in a few covered plates, and the prisoner and I had eaten at my desk as I broached the subject of his incarceration. “What was the cause of the trouble with your family?”

            He chewed and then took a sip of his iced-tea. “My brother wants the whole ranch, and he’s got my two cousins to go in with him, so it’s looking like I’m getting nothing when my grandparents are gone.” He sat his fork down and studied the bookcases behind me. “I got started drinking and figured I’d set things straight.” His tone darkened. “Something I’ll take care of when I get out of here.”

            “I’m not so sure that you should be sharing that thought with your corrections officer.”

            His eyes came back to me, and he shrugged. “I’m sorry you have to be here for me on Easter.”

            “I’m sorry about that, too.” I reached out and thumbed a well-worn copy of Plutarch’s Lives sitting on the desk and shrugged. “As long as I’ve got a book, though, I’m pretty much happy anywhere.” A thought struck me, and I reached back, opened one of the cases, pulled out a leather-clad volume, and handed it to the young man. “There, that should keep you busy through the spring.”

            Wiping his hands on his jeans, he took the book with a great deal of reverence and glanced back up at me. “A Bible?”

            I smiled and leaned back in my chair. “I thought we’d start with something a little more accessible, a book written by Alexandre Dumas.”

            “What’s it about?”

            “Revenge.”

            His eyes brightened, and he seemed tempted, gently opening the book and leafing through a few pages before starting to hand it back to me. “I don’t read.”

            “Don’t or can’t?”

            “I can a little, but not real good.”

            “Really well.”

            He looked at me, confused. “Really well what?”

            I smiled. “Read. Really well.”

The only part of him that moved in the glow from the headlights of my truck was his right hand, which dropped to his side where I couldn’t see it.

            It was time to put up or shut up.

            Letting go of his arm, I grabbed him by his throat, and lifting him as quickly as I could with all my strength, I propelled him backward where he landed on the wooden planks of the porch with a solid crash. I’d pushed him slightly sideways and forced his hand under him as I kept my left at his throat. Kneeling on his chest, I pressed my .45 against his forehead. “Show me the hand—show me that right hand. Now!”

            He seemed a little surprised by the turn of events and tried to move but couldn’t, finally gargling out the words. “I can’t.”

            I waited a moment and then lessoned the pressure on his Adam’s apple. “I’m going to reach around you and take whatever you’re holding.”

            He nodded, and I slowly felt behind him and touched something sharp. He gave no resistance, and I pulled out a pruning knife about the size of a small banana. An odd looking beast, hawks-bill knives are used for trimming fruit trees or ripping up carpet, but since neither seemed to be about, I could only guess that Eddie had intended another use, the thick, heavy blade with a slight curve also being used by the un-experienced to get behind tendons and arteries in a sweeping motion.

            Judge Verne Selby, not very forgiving when someone attempted to visit harm on his officers, had thrown the book at Byers and subsequently at us—a sentence of eleven/twenty-nine. A common term used to refer to the maximum a judge can impose on a convicted individual for jail time without graduating them into the big leagues of the prison system; more than a year—prison, less than a year—jail. Eddie Byers would spend eleven months and twenty-nine days in my jail, and somebody would have to babysit him.

            Over almost a year, the period of time between when the office closed and dinner became the Eddie Byers reading hour, along with whatever time I could squeeze in before the day got started. Whenever the young man would appear in my doorway, he would quiz me. “Why can’t Edmond forgive Mercedes and marry her at the end?”

            It was the Fourth of July, and I put down the payroll forms and lowered my new reading glasses on my nose. “Well, first off because she won’t have him.”

            “Yeah, but why can’t they get over it and live happy ever after?”

            “Happily.”

            “Happily what?”

            “Happily ever after.”

            He came in and settled his girth in my guest chair. Setting down some tools along with the lighting fixture he was re-wiring, he gestured with the book that he was holding and dutifully repeated. “Happily ever after.”

            “Because she feels as if she’s partially responsible for setting into motion the revenge that he’s visited on her family and others.”

            “That’s messed up.”

            Reaching across the desk, I took the book from him and opened it to a well-worn page and read, “Fool that I am, that I did not tear out my heart the day I resolved to revenge myself.”

            He glanced around the room, sniffed, and grinned. “That’s not a very happily ending.”

            He continued to read, and he got better as the months passed, but he suffered from insomnia and couldn’t read at night, so he looked for things to do. One morning I came in and found him with the printer taken apart and scattered across a sheet on the floor. “What are you doing?”

            “It needs fixed.”

            “It needs to be fixed.”

            He repeated. “It needs to be fixed.” Looking up at me, I’d gotten the idea that even though he’d moved on to other books, The Count of Monte Cristo still preyed upon his mind. “So, one of the people hurt the most is Albert de Morcerf, Mercedes’ son.”

            “Yep.”

            He set one of the printer parts down and studied me. “I don’t get it.”

            I leaned on Ruby’s desk. “I think one of the things that Dumas was trying to say was that vengeance is a blunt instrument at best and does damage to everyone concerned, even the one exacting that revenge.”

We drove to the Byers Ranch in my truck on Christmas Eve, the twenty-eighth day of the twelfth month of his sentence, and watched for flakes but there weren’t any. It had been cold, very cold, the kind of cold the old-timers talk about where you get the feeling there isn’t anything between you and those glittering frozen stars and that this spot might be the only warm one left in the universe.

             I flicked my eyes at Ruby as she reached down and nudged the temperature control on the heater a bit higher.  

             Eddie didn’t say anything the whole way down Piney Creek, but Ruby had decided that he needed some conversation and maybe a little moral instruction. She leaned between the seats and spoke back to him as he sat there petting Dog. “How is your family?”

            “I heard my Mom and Dad got divorced.”

            “Are they both still at your grandparent’s place?”

            “Just my Mom, my brother and two cousins . . .”

            We pulled up to the ranch house and the porch where I’d taken him into custody almost a year ago. “Well, family is important this time of year. You be sure to tell them we said hello.”

            He sat there looking at the warm golden lights of the ranch house, or maybe it was just the porch where our adventure had begun.

            I leaned a little forward and turned, studying him. “Eddie, I need to say something to you, and I need you to listen carefully. Since it’s the holidays, I didn’t get the paperwork on dismissing the restraining order, so technically it’s still got another day to go. So what I’m saying is that I’m doing you a favor by bringing you here, but you need to behave yourself, understand?”

            He silently nodded and then waited a moment more before pulling the handle and sliding out. He stood there with the garbage bag full of the personal items he’d collected over the year. Carefully, he closed the door and walked around the truck to my side. He swung the bag off of his shoulder, pulled something out of the sack, and tried to hand it to me as I rolled the window down.

            It was The Count of Monte Cristo.

            “I don’t want to be taking your book.”

            I sighed. “Lose the infinitive–just take your book.”

            He smiled. “I know, I just wanted you to be able to correct me one last time.” He returned the book to the bag and then stuck out his hand. “Thanks, Sheriff.”

            We shook, and then my dispatcher, Dog, and I watched as he climbed the steps and approached the door; it opened, the warmth of the light catching him there halfway across the porch, and we watched as he slowly walked toward it until the darkness closed in from behind.

            We sat there for a moment, and then I slipped the Bullet into reverse and backed out, heading for Durant as Ruby fastened her seatbelt and looked at the star-packed sky above the mountains. “Just so you know, the printer is acting up again.”

I shook my head and sighed. “Yep. I’ve got a feeling I’m going to miss the Count of Monte Cristo.”

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