Musical Chairs

2020 Longmire Holiday Story

By Craig Johnson

Hey, can I go with you?”

Dog and I stopped at the top of the stairs of the vintage Carnegie Library the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department called home, and I stared at my erstwhile, part-time dispatcher and full-time Cheyenne tribal member Barrett Long. “Why?”

Sitting behind the counter, he shrugged. “I’m bored.”

I walked back over, figuring the domestic dispute I was attempting to respond to wasn’t so dire that I couldn’t take a few moments to impart some hard-won knowledge. “Troop, never, ever, in law enforcement do you say that you’re bored.”

“But it’s quiet.”

I held up a finger to silence him. “That’s the other thing you don’t ever say — both are an open invitation to disaster, especially during the holidays.”

He lay down the copy of Field & Stream, which obviously wasn’t holding his attention. “All I ever do is answer the phone.”

I stared at him. “That’s what dispatchers do.”

He folded his arms. “I think I’m ready to branch out.”

“Not till you do your three months down in Douglas.” One of the mitigating factors in hiring the younger brother of Tribal Police Chief Lolo Long had been that he would not become a full-fledged deputy until completing his studies over at Sheridan College and the extended training at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy. I patted my leg and started down the marble steps with Dog. “It’s Christmas Day—enjoy the quiet time.”

He called after me. “It’s only a domestic dispute.”

I stopped and turned, pointing the finger back up at him again. “That’s the third thing you never say.” I counted off. “One: unrealistic holiday expectations. Two: familial proximity. Three: alcohol and controlled substances. What could possibly go wrong?”

“How do you know there’s alcohol or controlled substances involved?”

I stared at the gallery of photographs of the previous sheriffs hanging in the stairwell and wondered if they had had to explain these types of things and then figured that yes, they probably had. “I know at least one member of the family in question.” I pulled out my pocket watch and looked at the time — late in the afternoon. “And unless I miss my guess, she’s well into her cups.”

He glanced down at the dispatcher’s log, where he had taken the notes. “The Murdochs — who are they, again?”

“They own the antique store downtown.”

“Come on. What are they going to do, doily us to death?” He stood, walking around the counter and looked down the stairs at Dog and me. “C’mon.” He plucked the beeper off his belt. “I’ve got the rock, besides I set it to transfer over to my cellphone.”

I considered. “You can do that?”

“We’ve really got to get you into the twentieth century, if not the twenty-first, Chief.”

Taking his duty jacket from the coat rack, he pulled it on, topping the outfit with the black Resistol I disliked. “I hate that hat.”

Passing me and the dog, he continued down the stairs as I shook my head. “We’re not the bad guys, you know.”

“So, convince the county commissioners to pay me enough to buy a new one.” He pushed on the glass door and held it open. “Coming?”


As high plains Christmas days go, this one was a beauty. A manageable snow covered our little county, and the skies were a passionate blue without a whisper of a cloud. The temperature was hovering around the mid-thirties, and as a gift, the powers-that-be had stilled the ever-present Wyoming wind.

The sun shone, and all was well with the world — well, almost all.

I flipped on the emergency lights as I turned left on Fort Street, heading west out-of-town toward the Bighorn Mountains. Barrett buckled up and reached around to scrub the ear of our one-hundred-and fifty-five-pound backup. “You got any Christmas music?”

I gestured toward the glovebox. “I think there’s some in there.”

He opened it and began hunting through the accumulation of paper, finally coming up with a worn cassette tape, which he examined like it was an ancient relic. “When’s the last time you updated your holiday mix, Chief?”

He inserted the tape into the dash, and the warbling sound of Perry Como’s Ave Maria leaked out into our ears. “I thought you said the Murdochs owned the antique store downtown?”

“They do, but the disturbance is at Ella Murdoch’s house up near the hospital.”

“Didn’t she croak-it a month ago?”

I glanced at him. “We don’t use the term croak-it in this department.”

We pulled up in front of the gaily painted Victorian with the turrets and wraparound porch, where a woman with an extravagant hairdo and possibly one of the ugliest Christmas sweaters I’d ever seen held a single-barrel, Ithaca shotgun on a young man in the driveway who was leaning through the passenger side window of a blue van talking to someone. Killing the lights, I started to open the door but then stopped when I noticed Barrett was opening his. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“With you.”

“No. Stay in the truck.”

“C’mon. If there is a low possibility of actual violence, I can use the training.”

He had a point. “Okay, but keep your mouth shut, got it?”

He nodded his head and then closed his door and circled around, following me up the driveway. The young man in the stocking cap and nylon deck jacket leaned back from the window and smiled at me. “Uh oh, they called in the Marines.”

“Hi, Benny.” I glanced in the van where a grumpy young woman had covered herself in a blanket to try to stay warm was slouched in the seat.

“You met my wife, Laura?”

I raised a hand, but she ignored me. “Are you back in town?”

“No, I’m working at one of the metal fabrication shops over in Sheridan.”

The woman with the shotgun and the flute of champagne called down to me from the porch in a slurred voice. “Excuse me, but I’m the one that called you, Officer.”

I glanced at the young man and continued toward the house with Barrett in tow. Lodging a boot on the steps, I could see the front door hung open and could hear Gene Autrey’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer blaring from inside. “Hi, Lisa. Going bird hunting?”

She took a sip of the champagne. “Jaybird, maybe.”

“Do you want to put that shotgun away?”

She lowered the glass and smirked. “Why, make you nervous?”

I climbed the rest of the way up. “I’ve spent my entire life around alcohol and mishandled firearms, so yes, they continue to be a concern for me.”

She shrugged and stared at me in defiance but then set it on the wooden railing. She pulled out a cigarette and lit it, taking a deep inhale before blowing it up and out, mixing with the condensation of her breath.

I reached over, taking the single-barrel and cracking it open, pulling out the shell and dropped it in my pocket as I tucked the weapon under my arm. “So, what’s the problem?”

She gestured with the cigarette toward Benny. “He’s trying to steal my rocking chairs.”

Benny called back. “They aren’t yours.”

She shook the cigarette at him. “Shut up, Benny.”

“You shut up, Lisa. Mom gave me those chairs before she died.”

“She did not.”

She shook her head and glanced up at me. “In 1869 our great-great-great grandparents carried those rocking chairs across the plains fighting the weather, dysentery, and Indians…” She glanced at Barrett. “No offense.” She turned back to her brother. “…In a covered wagon from Missouri to Wyoming.” She moved toward the railing, spilling a little of her drink and shouting. “Our great-great-great grandfather built this house and those rocking chairs have sat on this porch for almost a hundred years, and you’re not taking them anywhere.”

He moved in closer. “Mom gave them to me.”

She sipped her champagne. “Prove it.”

Still cradling the shotgun, I held out a quieting hand. “Not to interrupt, but where are the rocking chairs in question?”

Lisa pointed with the cigarette, flicking a little ash off the porch. “In that piece-of-shit van of his.”

I glanced at Benny, who suddenly found the shoveled sidewalk of interest. “Did you take the chairs, Benny?”

He mumbled to himself. “She wasn’t going to give them to me.”

Barrett walked over to the van and peeked in the back window, then glanced up at me and nodded as I returned the shotgun to the railing. “Well, that doesn’t mean you have the right to take them.”

“Mom gave them to me. Lisa got the house and most of the stuff in the store, so I really don’t see why I can’t have the rocking chairs.”

“In 1869 our great-great-great grandparents carried those rocking chairs across the plains in a covered wagon from Missouri to Wyoming, and those rockers are important to me; I remember being rocked in those chairs by our grandparents when I was a child — they’re over a hundred years old and I’m not giving them up.”

“I told you — Mom gave those to me.”

“Anybody else hear her do it?”

He gestured toward the woman in the van. “Laura heard her.”

Lisa snorted a laugh. “Oh, right.”

The passenger door of the van flew open and the young woman who had been sulking there, and who I now noticed was pregnant, slammed the door and began stalking toward the porch. “You listen to me, you filthy slut! It’s not enough that you took every single thing…”

My deputy stepped forward, attempting to cut her off before she got to the porch. “You know, guys, it’s the holidays and a time for generosity. I didn’t know your mother, but she sounds like a really wonderful person and I’m sure that if she were here, she’d want you guys to find a peaceful way of settling all of this.”

Lisa sipped her champagne, looking down at Barrett. “Who the hell invited this Jiminy-Cricket asshole?”

I stepped toward her as Rudolph gave way to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. “One more crack like that, and you go in the back of my truck, got it?” I waited for a response. but there wasn’t one, so I stepped down, placing myself between the two warring parties and considerable peril. “Benny, did you take the rocking chairs off of the porch?”

“I did, because I figured she’d be hungover.”

“Drop dead, Benny.”

Holding up the silencing hand to the two of them, I continued. “Then unless you two can come to some kind of understanding, I’m going to have to ask you to put them back.” His head kicked to one side in disbelief, but he said nothing, so I continued. “Without any clear-cut proof of ownership, the letter of the law would view that act as theft.”

“Hey, I’ve got an idea…” We all turned to look at Barrett as he tipped his hat back and tapped the back window of the van. “There are two of them; why don’t each of you take one?”

I stared at my deputy, somewhat shocked at the Solomon-style wisdom. Turning to the young man, I asked, “Benny?”


His sister moved to the railing and puffed on her cigarette. “They’re a set, and I don’t want them separated.”

I sighed. “Lisa, we’re all trying to work toward a solution here…”


Seeing she was outnumbered, she softened, but only the tiniest bit. “He can have the rocking chairs off the back porch.”

Benny shook his head. “Those are falling apart.”

“Take it or leave it.” She crossed over to the post on the opposite side of the steps and looking down at her baby brother. “In 1869 our great-great-great grandparents carried those rocking chairs across the plains in a covered wagon…”

“Yep, all the way from Missouri to Wyoming — I think we got that.” I gestured toward the van. “Get ‘em out, Benny.”


I glanced at his sister, who sipped her drink, balancing the champagne flute between her fingers. “Nothing else we can do.”

Deflated, he walked past Barrett, opened the rear of the vehicle, and slid one of the much-vaunted rocking chairs from it. My deputy joined him, taking the other. Solemnly, like pallbearers they carried the chairs back onto the porch between Lisa and me as Feliz Navidad sounded from the entryway of the large house. Barrett followed Benny as they carefully sat them on the painted wooden floor of the porch’s round turret-corner that looked toward the mountains.

I never remembered having been on the Murdoch’s porch until I began arresting their daughter and bringing her home from the numerous drunken altercations she continued to be involved in, which meant that until she’d taken to drink their lives had been relatively happy — or at least I hoped so.

My deputy crossed back to the stairs and leaned against the railing, studying the combatants as Benny approached his sister, and I moved over toward the rockers, giving the brother and sister a little space in hopes that they might come to some kind of amicable settlement.

“Sis, there isn’t anything else I want.” Her head dropped so she wouldn’t have to make eye-contact with him and continued to drink and smoke. “I just thought I should have something to remember Mom by.”

Jose Feliciano continued singing, and I studied the chairs, finally tipping one forward in order to look at the back, and then reaching over to examine the other one. “You know these are some really marvelous chairs — the workmanship on these old slat-style rockers is amazing.”

The young man glanced at his older sister. “Lisa?”

“Old-world craftsmanship.” I gestured toward Benny. “Come take a look at this.”

He shook his head, stepping away from her. “That’s okay.”

“No, you really should.” He turned and stared at me. “This might be the last time you ever see these rocking chairs, and I think you should be able to appreciate them.”

Benny stood there for a moment more and then crossed the porch in a perfunctory manner as I leaned the one rocker forward, indicating the back of the thing. “Remarkable workmanship.”

As Lisa continued to stew, I watched as the young man darted a glance up at me. I then tipped the other one forward so that he could examine it, too. “How about Barrett helps you get those beat-up rocking chairs from the back porch and put them in your van as a gesture of conciliation?”

He stood there, frozen for a moment. “Um, yeah… That, that’d be great.”They disappeared around the corner as I re-took my post between the two women, finally turning to look up at Lisa to make small talk. “How was business down at the store this season?”

“Shitty, how was yours?”

I stared at her for a moment. “Well Lisa, I’ll tell you, it’s always a busy season for us, but one of the things I did was tell my deputies to be on the lookout for repeat offenders that might be tempted to do stupid things like driving drunk. I told them that with these individuals this year we’re going to take an attitude of zero-tolerance.” She glared at me as the two men returned with the battered rockers, stuffing them in the van and closing the doors as I handed her the shotgun shell from my pocket. “You might want to spread the word.”

Stepping off the porch, I watched as Benny collected his pacing wife from the yard and started toward the van only to stop and call back. “Hey, Sis? No hard feelings and Merry Christmas.”

Finishing off the smoke, she flipped the cigarette into the yard toward him. Picking up the shotgun, she turned, opening the front door and going inside without another word.


“I thought I should tell you, you handled yourself pretty well out there today.”

“Thanks.” He sat against the passenger door, snatching at Dog’s muzzle as they play-fought, like two pups. “Boy, you sure played it cool.”

“People get worked up during the holidays.” I turned the corner on Fort Street and headed back for the office as the sun started to disappear over the Bighorn Mountains, not taking quite all the warmth there was with it.

He studied me, finally reaching over and turning up the volume on Ella Fitzgerald’s What are You Doing New Year’s Eve. “One thing I don’t get is why you felt compelled to get Benny to take another look at those chairs, and I’m not sure why it is he finally gave-in and decided to take the shitty rockers off the back porch?”

“Oh, people get caught up in the spirit of the season and think they desperately want something but sometimes they’re not sure what, then they get a chance to think about it rationally and discover that whatever it is they’ve set their heart on really doesn’t mean that much.” Turning into the parking lot, I pulled to a stop in front of the office.

Giving Dog one last scrub of the ears, Barrett opened the door and climbed out.

“The important thing, Troop, is to have faith and patience with people, especially during the holidays.” He closed the door, and I spoke to him through the open window. “That, and there were these brass medallions on the backs of both of those rockers… So, back in 1869 when those great-great-great grandparents carried those rocking chairs across the plains, fighting the weather, dysentery, and Indians — no offense — the whole way in a covered wagon from Missouri to Wyoming — they must’ve stopped somewhere on the way for lunch, because the rocking chairs on that porch came from Cracker Barrel.”


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