Post-It: 2021 Longmire Holiday Story
December 24th, 1972
“This is your first call out with me, so don’t do anything stupid.”
I studied the old Doolittle Raider who’d hired me in the fall as he navigated the road leading up the Bighorn Mountains in the little Bronco half-cab that was his personal vehicle. “Define stupid.”
“I’m looking at it.” He shook his head, his rough hands wrapped around the steering wheel like a braided leather quirt. “As in don’t say or do anything stupid, you got me?” I saluted him, mostly out of habit but also because I knew it would annoy him. Most everything I did these days seemed to annoy him, which begged the question as to why he’d hired me as a deputy. “Just stand there and look intimidating, that’s what I hired you for.”
Well, that settled that.
The weather wasn’t great, and the sifting we’d gotten in the afternoon had turned into a full-on cascade of snow now that night had settled in. There was only a couple of inches in town, but the foothills of the mountain were getting pounded the way they always did, and he’d surprised us all by showing up at 4:25 in the afternoon on a Christmas Eve – but that was the kind of thing he did.
* * *
The Ferg had already headed home, and Ruby our dispatcher busied herself by going over and turning off the coffee maker and emptying the grounds in the wastepaper basket while Lucian Connally had climbed the stairs of the old Carnegie Library we called the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Office, on his one good leg.
Unbuttoning the top button of his red and black wool hunting coat and revealing his star, he stood at the landing to catch his breath, looking around at the all but empty office. “Where the heck is everybody?”
Heck was not the term he would’ve ordinarily used, but in the presence of our grand dame dispatcher, he generally tempered his language. Ruby poured out the remainder of the coffee in the mini-sink and rinsed out the pot before returning it to the burner. “Going home. It’s a holiday in case you hadn’t noticed – you heathen.”
He glanced up at the Seth Thomas, ticking on the wall. “Near as I can tell, we owe the county another thirty-five minutes of service.”
She pulled on her own coat and gathered her purse. Buttoning up, she pulled the pocketbook strap over her shoulder like Pancho Villa straightening a bandolier full of ammunition and squared off with him. “Where have you been all day?”
I liked her.
He coughed a noise of indignation and shoved the Stetson Open Road back on his head, a dollop of silver hair escaping from his overgrown crew cut. “Well, where do you think I’ve been?”
“From the smell of you, I’d say you and your cronies have been smoking and drinking and playing poker in the back of the Euskadi Bar.” With that, she stepped around him and continued down the steps past the gallery of photographs of all the sheriffs past and singularly present.
He turned and watched her go, pulling out his briarwood pipe and fixings as he called after her. “We haven’t been smoking, just so you know.” He stuffed the bowl from the beaded, leather pouch the Cheyenne Tribal Elders had given him. “Not that it seems like such a bad idea.”
Her voice echoed up from the landing below as she got to the front door. “…And if you keep that new deputy of yours here for one of your cockamamie schemes rather than letting him go home to his young wife on a Christmas Eve, Lucian Connally, I will personally come in here the day after tomorrow and skin you alive.”
I hung there in the doorway of my office listening to the argument come to an abrupt stop as the front door opened and hissed shut. He puffed on his pipe, lighting it in his two hands before whipping out the match and dropping it in the astray on Ruby’s desk and then raising his face to look at me. “Damn, what’d you do to set her on the warpath?”
He limped over to the coffee maker on the wooden leg and fingered the handle of the empty pot, even though I’d never seen him drink the stuff after 9 AM. “So, no official office Christmas party, I take it?”
I looked around the empty place and the dissolute candles on Ruby’s desk that read NOEL, the only celebratory decoration in sight. “I suppose not.”
He nodded, leaning against the counter, rearranging the candles so that they now read LEON. “What’s your name again, Troop?”
I folded my arms; it was a game we played. “Longmire, Walt Longmire.”
“Longmire, that’s right.” Studying me, he puffed on the pipe. “I knew your grandfather.”
“So, you gonna man the fort for the next thirty-three minutes?”
“Unless you’d like to take over.”
He glanced at me, unsure if that might not have been a trace of sarcasm he’d heard. “So, you wanna just sit around here for a half hour listening to the clock tick, or do you wanna go learn something?”
This was how it usually started, what Ruby referred to as the cockamamie schemes, with me sitting in his office being regaled with stories of law enforcement of yore or getting hauled out on some emergencywhich really wasn’t an emergency but just something to occupy his time – and mine. I guessed that was what you got to do when you were the Absaroka County Sheriff, dip in and out of investigations as you pleased.
“What is it I’m going to learn?”
He puffed on his pipe, the smoke curling up and around his walnut-stained iris like the devil incarnate. “Every. Damn. Thing.”
* * *
His duty vehicle was a boat of a Plymouth Fury that handled like a pole barge, especially in the snow, so we’d squeezed in the utility vehicle with its four-wheel-drive and enough room for two, regular-sized passengers, one of us who was not.
“Let me see your intimidating look.”
I watched at him as he sawed the wheel, not having put the thing in four-wheel-drive, as far as I knew. “My what?”
“Your most intimidating look.” He shook his head some more as we took a cutoff at the west part of town, traversing the gravel road and approaching a ranch gate. “The guy we’re going up against is one ornery customer, and I want to see if you can throw a scare into him.”
I stared at him, as he glanced at me. “A Rose Bowl and four years in the Corp and that’s as intimidating as you can look?”
I frowned a little.
“That’s it? You look constipated.” Slowing the Bronco, he pulled up beside the gate where a couple of cords of firewood rested, collecting snow. “Get me an armload of that wood and throw it in the back, pronto.”
Sighing, I climbed out in the swirling flakes and did as he said, knocking the pieces together to get rid of the built-up snow. Not bothering with lowering the tailgate, I stacked the firewood and started to climb back in when he stopped me.
“Get another armload.”
Once again, I did as he asked and dumped some more. Then I climbed in and closed the door behind me, trailing an arm along the back of the seat behind him because it was the only way I fit. “Happy?”
He ignored me and simply drove the rest of the way up to the tiny log cabin on the virgin snow, which indicated that no one had gone in or out for some time.
“Willis Dietz, used to own a stock service, provided bucking horses and bulls for the rodeo.” He shut off the V8 and then climbed out, heading for the door as I followed. He stopped and looked back at me. “Well, bring the wood, damn it.”
I dutifully returned and then loaded two arm loads in one, struggling to get back just as he knocked on the wooden door with hardened knuckles.
We stood there under the eaves of the small porch as I looked at the long lines of split logs stacked against the lee side of the house and wondered why Lucian had had us pick up firewood from below. There was some noise and pretty soon the door was yanked wide. A skinny man about Lucian’s age with hair standing on end stood there holding said door by the weight of his belt buckle and a Charter Arms .32 revolver in his left hand. “Whatta you want?”
“Merry Christmas, Willis.” He gestured toward me, all smiles. “We brought you some firewood.”
“I got plenty.” He didn’t move to get out of the way. “At least I did until people started stealing it – you finally here to do something about that?”
Lucian glanced past me at the falling snow, even going so far as to reach up and brush some from my shoulder, but still not answering the man’s question. “Well, you can’t have too much firewood on a night like tonight”
Reluctantly, the man stepped aside in order to allow all of us into the tight confines of the kitchen, overwhelmingly heated by one of the old, wood-burning stoves where a green enamel percolator sat burbling into the glass knob on its lid.
“Willis, this here is…” He gestured toward me, snapping his finger as if it might summon up my name.
I sighed. “Longmire, Walt Longmire.”
“Right, Longmire, that’s right… And even though he rivals Paul Bunyan, he’d probably like to put this wood down somewhere?” He leaned forward, looking through a doorway and what appeared to be a small living room to our left. “Have you a hearth hereabouts?”
Dietz glanced at me, tossing the snub-nosed pistol onto the kitchen counter with a clatter, finally raising an arm and reluctantly gestured through the doorway as I sidled that way, finding several old, framed rodeo posters on the wall and a lumpy sofa and matching chair resting on a frayed, bearskin rug, all of it facing a river-rock fireplace where a miserable flame struggled to stay lit.
Carefully resting the arm-and-a-half load of wood in a cradle there, I listened as the two men talked in the kitchen about somebody stealing the old man’s firewood and figured that was the emergency.
Bored, I reached over and took a poker to move the coals before placing one of the logs I’d brought in on the andirons. Adjusting for maximum combustion, I rehung the tool back on the hook and then turned to see Lucian leading the way as they entered the room, the old sheriff sipping what I assumed was coffee in a buffalo china mug – there being a first time for everything.
“Where’s the wife, Willis?”
The skinny man slipped by Lucian with his own drink and sat in the single chair with a proprietary sense. “Left me.”
“Left you? Again?” The old sheriff looked around the room before standing in front of the fire and stretching a hand out to warm it. “Well, they do that sometimes.” He suddenly glanced up at me with a quizzical look. “You throw that log on the fire?”
“I did.” Pulling off my gloves, I stuffed them in the pockets of my horsehide jacket and leaned in the doorway, figuring I might look more intimidating standing up. “It needed tending.” I glanced over Lucian at the man with the over-sized belt buckle. “I hope you don’t mind, Mister Dietz.”
He ignored both Lucian and me, staring at the partially blooming fire. “You fellas gonna do something about people stealing my firewood or what?”
Lucian sipped his coffee some more but seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time studying the log with which I’d selected to build up the fire before redirecting his attention to the vintage rodeo posters on the wall. “’Fifty-four, that was year we had both Jim Shoulders and Casey Tibbs at the county rodeo, wasn’t it?”
The old man begrudgingly nodded.
“How long was it that you ran your stock company, Willis?”
“Since before the war.” He groused.
Lucian chuckled to himself. “Do you remember Rodeo Joe Odegard?”
For the first time, the old man cracked the briefest of smiles.
“Best rodeo clown I ever saw – rode rough stock before he started getting a little long in the tooth.”
Willis crossed his legs and scratched his scalp, standing what little hair was there up even more. “A lot of fellas do that, just to stay in the game.”
I crossed back to the fire and plucked the poker from the wall so that I could adjust the log, listening to the two old buzzards and was trying to figure out why it was we were here.
Lucian sipped his coffee. “Ol’ Rodeo Joe run into this older clown up in North Dakota who was getting out of the business and bought up all of his trappings. You know, costumes, props and such? Well, this fellow had an act where he’d finish up his schtick with a visit to the outhouse.”
The old man grunted.
“An outhouse which was loosely constructed so that it would explode.”
Willis glanced at him.
The old sheriff held a hand out to me. “Gimmie me one of those logs, Troop?”
I did as he said.
Lucian examined the piece of wood I’d handed him and then looked back at the man. “Yep, you see the old guy used to use an eighth of a stick of dynamite to blow this prop outhouse apart at the climax of his act.”
Dietz glanced around, his eyes not looking at either of us.
“Well, ol’ Joe didn’t know that he was only supposed to use an eighth of a stick of dynamite – and instead used a quarter stick.” Lucian chuckled to himself and once again scrutinized the piece of wood in his hands as if looking for aphids before making a show of tossing it on the fire.
The old man said nothing but glanced up at me, studying my face. “What’s wrong with him, anyway?”
“I don’t know, maybe he’s constipated.” He stretched a hand out to me. “Gimmie another one of those pieces of wood, will you?”
I plucked one from the pile and attempted to give it to him, wondering what he was up to.
“No, that other one. The other one on top there – the round one.”
I gave him a questioning look and then did as he asked, handing him the one he’d requested.
Holding the piece of wood, his dark eyes sharpened. “Lodgepole Pine, aged a year at least; Cottonwood and Aspen burn faster but they make a lot of ash.” He glanced up at the stone fireplace. “Do you ever worry about stopping up your flume with all that pitch and tar?”
Frowning, the old man shook his head. “Not so much, I just get a length of chain and rattle it around in there to keep it clean.”
“Dangerous stuff, I’ve seen quite a few go up like a Saturn-V rocket in my time.” He sighed. “Must’ve been what happened to your neighbor, Mel Stephens. You hear about that?”
Dietz said nothing and remained perfectly still.
“We had a little disturbance earlier this evening. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it – I mean literally heard it.” The old sheriff examined the ends of the piece of firewood. “There was an explosion right here in the neighborhood, back down the road at the Stephens place. We’re not sure what it was, but something blew up and took the old fireplace of theirs and turned it into a pile of rubble.”
The old man fidgeted as Lucian continued to analyze the log.
“Fortunately, there was no one home, Mel had even taken the dog with ‘em to his brother’s place. The funny thing is, it just didn’t look like a gas fire, you know. I mean the house has a propane tank, but none of those lines were ruptured. Then it struck me that it looked like when my buddy Joe Odegard was experimenting with his exploding outhouse.” He breathed a laugh and continued to examine the piece of firewood in his hands. “Now, the average stick of dynamite is about eight inches in length, about one and a quarter inch in diameter, and generally weighs a little less than a half-pound. Somebody could easily hide one in a piece of firewood, why, say no bigger than this one.”
The old man slowly sat forward, still staring at the logs in the fire.
“Ol Rodeo Joe damn near blew himself up in that outhouse routine, and he couldn’t hear for about three weeks and that was with that quarter stick being in a container that cushioned the explosion. Hell, I’d imagine if you had one go up right in front of you with say a stone backing like this fine fireplace here, it’d kill you deader than last year’s fruitcake.” Lucian once again tossed the log on the fire.
Dietz swallowed, his Adams apple bobbing like a lure. “Um, Sheriff, where exactly did you get them logs you brought in?”
Lucian once again gestured toward me with the empty hand, and I gave him another piece of wood. “Well Willis, we figured we’d do you a favor and haul up some of those ones you had down by the ranch gate.” He extended the piece of firewood in both hands as if it were a prize-winning trout. “Yep, right off that stack you got down at your gate near the Stephens place.”
The sheriff had just started to turn and throw the piece of firewood into the flames when Dietz hurriedly raised a hand. “Wait!”
Lucian paused and then slowly smiled pointing the piece of firewood at the old man. “Is there something you’d like to tell me, Mister Dietz?”
* * *
As we drove down the mountain, I shook my head and watched the old sheriff navigate the deepening snow drifts, still in full-time, two-wheel drive. “You think just having him pay for the damages is enough?”
“Oh, it would’ve been another story if he’d kept that .32 on him, but I think he’s learned his lesson.” He glanced over at me and grunted. “Troop, how ‘bout I just run you by your place and drop you off with that young wife of yours.”
“What are you going to do?”
We slid sideways as he corrected the skid. “Oh, I don’t know… Go back over to the Basquo bar, I guess.”
“Why don’t you come on in with us – Martha has a turkey ready with all the trimmings.”
“That’s all right, I don’t need your pity.” He snorted and glanced up at me. “…Longmire, Walt Longmire.”
I nodded and smiled to myself, gazing out the windshield. “All right then, but I’ve still got one question.”
“And what’s that?”
“How did you know which logs had the dynamite inside them?”
“I didn’t…” He continued driving into the darkness. “I just hoped like hell he did.”