Warms You Twice

Post-It: 2021 Longmire Holiday Story


Craig Johnson

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?”
“Me?”
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.”
“Yes, Sir.”
“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.
“Who’s this?”
“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.”

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?”

“Sure.”

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…”

“No.”

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.”

“Sheriff?”

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.”

Who’s Your Daddy?

2019 Longmire Christmas Story

by Craig Johnson (2019)

It’s not every day that you get to watch the Kropky brothers throw furniture and small appliances through the windows of their doublewide compound on the outskirts of the unofficial trailer park in suburban Powder Junction, Wyoming—but, it was Christmas Day, and that made it kind of special. 

         Standing with Frances Wooster in the Kropky front yard, which was covered in ankle-deep snow and household goods, I turned over a loveseat with three remaining legs and gestured for Frances to sit with my faithful companion Dog, while I tried to trace the chain of events that had led to this pass. I remembered that like most things in my line of work, it had started with a phone call.

         Double-Tough, the regular deputy stationed in the small town in the southern portion of our county, had been called away when his favored aunt had passed, and I hadn’t been cruel enough to make anyone else in my four-and-a-half person staff work through the holidays.

         The first night hadn’t been so bad. My undersheriff, Victoria Moretti, had visited with a pan of lasagna, a bottle of chianti, and a Tony Bennett Christmas CD, but the next morning she’d continued down I-25 to Casper to jet back to Philadelphia to be with her extended family.

         A light snow had settled in on Christmas Eve, and I’d had dinner at the Hole In The Wall Bar, after which I was so bored that I’d gone down to the hardware store/country club to shag a few balls into the indoor golf simulator as the owner and Dog watched. Finally, having felt guilty for keeping the poor man there, I loaded up the beast and had driven back to the most depressing place in the western hemisphere—the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department Sub-Station.

         I had stared at the concrete block walls and the enormous map of the county for a few minutes, before picking up the phone to call my daughter down in Cheyenne to confirm our plans for Christmas. 

“That late?” Matching the whine on the high-tension lines from the southern part of the state I listened as Lola babbled in the background. 

“I’ve got some work I need to get done.” There was some jostling. “Lola, put that down.”

         “On Christmas Day?”

         “It’s just another day at the State Attorney General’s Office, Daddy.” More jostling. “Lola, don’t put that in your mouth.” 

         “I’m going to call your boss.”

         There was a pause, because she knew I meant it. “Please don’t.” She sighed. “Anyway, if I can get off the phone with you, I might actually get there earlier.”

         Being a trained detective, I took the hint and let her go. “Bye, Punk.”

         With nothing else to do, I riffled through the government surplus desk, found a deck of cards in the top drawer, and played solitaire till my eyes wouldn’t focus. I then retired to the single bed in the small living quarters in the back. 

        The place had burned a few years ago, but the majority of the structure, being concrete, had simply needed to be power-washed and repainted. The doors, windows, rafters, and insulation were new, and I’d appropriated funding for the building to be finished, but Double-Tough had said that with his construction background he’d just do it in his free time. The stack of T111 paneling was still leaning against the wall, so I guess he hadn’t gotten the time he’d needed, even though as near as I could tell, all you had was free time in Powder Junction. 

        Awakening the next morning to Dog’s snores, I rolled over and looked through the doorway and the flaking decal of our sheriff’s star to see the snow had stopped; the clouds, however, held an ironclad grip. 

        Rising, I’d showered and shaved in the fiberglass shell Double-Tough called a shower and had dressed in bright and shining clothes for Christmas Day. I’d decided to flip the deck of cards into the wire trashcan and only had three cards left in my hands when the phone on the metal desk had rung. I’d dropped them in hopes that The Greatest Legal Mind of Our Time had taken pity and called me. “You decided to leave early?”

        The voice was hesitant. “Double-Tough?”

        I cleared my throat. “No, I’m sorry, but he’s away on personal business. This is the sheriff—can I help you?”

        “Walt, it’s Frances Wooster.”

        I recognized the voice of the sturdy ranch wife whose family owned close to fifteen thousand acres. “Hi Frances, what’s up?”

        “Walt, you know the Kropky place, south of town?”

“Edith . . . the one who passed away a while back?”

“Yes. She had four sons.”

“Roughnecks. Colorful, as I recall.”

“Um, yes, you could say that.”

“What’s going on?”

“I was driving by and noticed they’re throwing things out the window.”

“Things?”

“Appliances, furniture, each other…”

“I’ll be right over.” 

          Seeing as it was only about two miles, I was as good as my word and now stood in the yard as Francis sat on the broken loveseat with Dog, the two of them looking up at me. “What are you going to do?”

          There was thumping and crashing emitting from the trailer house, and true to Francis’ word an item or two were jettisoned from the windows. 

Calling Dog, I walked him back to the truck and opened the door so he could jump in. I lowered the window just a bit before closing the door, then answered Francis. “Oh, as I recall, Double-Tough says they usually calm themselves down after a while.”

         A few moments passed, however, and it became apparent from the noises and hollering that this particular altercation was neither waxing nor waning. I sighed and started off toward the nearest trailer.

“Walt?”

I turned to look at her as she held out a small, heavily worn, black notebook. “You better take this.”

I stared at her. “What is it?”

        “Something from their mother.” She seemed pained by the thought, lowering her head and then raising it again with a sad smile. “Years ago, Edith gave me this to give to her sons in case something like this happened.”

        “Like what happened?”

        She glanced at the house, still sounding like a World Wrestling Federation match. “Walt, I really can’t say, but I think it’ll become obvious if it’s what I think it is.” She stood and started off toward her parked truck. “Those boys used to listen to their mother, and it would’ve done that family a world of good if they had had at least one sister.” 

        I stared at her for a long moment and then stuffed the notebook inside my sheepskin coat and started off. 

        As near as I could tell, the place had begun as four trailers that had been attached to each other. Like most things Kropky, it had started off with great expectations, but somewhere over the long years it had fallen short. Edith had been the matriarch of the family and the glue, I suspect, who had held it together as long as it effectively had held. 

        Edith had been quite a character, a roughneck oilrig worker herself, who could throw chain with the best of the men. Her husband, Mel, had been a shiftless conman who had appeared and disappeared enough in her life to engender the four sons whom they had named after cities around the state, i.e., Sheridan, Casper, Cody, and the unfortunate fourth son, Therm, who had born the dubious affliction of being named for Thermopolis. There was talk that Edith and Mel had stopped having children to keep from having to name a fifth child Rock Springs or Muddy Gap.  

        The yelling had continued inside, and another dining room chair crashed through the front window to land on the porch, as I’d started up the stairs.

        Pulling my Mag-lite from my belt, I pounded on the dents in the door that were already there from previous visits from my staff. “Absaroka County Sheriff!”

        The house grew silent.

        “Sheriff Walt Longmire. I need you to open up.”

        There was an argument, then heavy footsteps, and the door was yanked open, almost off its hinges. 

        There are only three men in Absaroka County who are bigger than I am, and one of them was standing in front of me, holding the door. Therm Kropky tipped the scale at an easy three hundred and fifty pounds; he was doughy, doughy like a hippopotamus or a rhino and had the same, close-set, dangerous, beady eyes. His head looked small, but nothing short of an NBA basketball would’ve been in proportion with his gigantic body. He was dressed in only a pair of stained jeans, and blood streaked down the side of his head, coating his sweaty body with a pinkish sheen that gave the impression that the giant man-child had just been born. 

        Releasing the doorjamb, he thrust a sausage-like finger at me and hollered, “My momma was no whore!”

        Glancing around as if there might be someone else he could be talking to, I finally turned back to the pink hulk. “Okay.”

        The conversation was interrupted when another dining room chair was brought down on the back of Therm’s head, causing the giant to stagger forward and then turn and thunder after the individual who had struck him—one of the other metropolitan areas of the great state of Wyoming. 

        Stepping in the doorway, I watched as Therm disappeared in warm pursuit, and I took advantage of the situation to look around at the shambles of the Kropky home or what was left of it. 

        As far as I knew housekeeping had never been a strong suit for Edith, and since her death the better part of a year ago, things hadn’t improved. There was garbage everywhere, along with what remained of the broken furnishings, stained carpeting, and odd spoors that manifested on the ceiling tiles. All in all, it looked like a great place to get Legionnaire’s Disease.

        Through an opening in the cabinetry that hung over a collapsed counter, I could see another half-naked individual calmly sitting in one of the remaining chairs. He was nursing a swollen eye with a can of Coors, a much larger can of baked beans with a serving spoon sticking out from the top on the table in front of him. 

        Casper was the eldest, and one of the more reasonable Kropkys, which wasn’t saying much, but at least he wasn’t chasing his brother around the house with malicious intent. 

        Holstering my Mag-lite, I moved around the counter and studied the damaged man. “Casper?”

        “Hey, Sheriff.” He looked up at me, and I could see the whole side of his face was battered, the eye completely shut, and a large gash open at his hairline. He was self-medicating with the beer and took a swig before offering me one by lifting the plastic ring with the remaining four cans. “Cocktail?”

        “Um, a little early for me.”

        He threw his head back, his long, dirty blonde hair swinging with the exception of the blood-soaked strands that continued to stick to the side of his face. “Merry tidings of the season.” We heard more crashing and yelling from other parts of the house as Casper glanced in that direction. “Uh oh, sounds like Therm caught Sheridan.”

        Stepping back, I could see that the configuration of the trailers had made for a raceway with the only open path in the otherwise cluttered household.

        “You can get away from him out in the open, but here in the house in an enclosed space he’ll eventually get ‘ya.” He kicked at one of the upright chairs in invitation. “Have a seat. How’s your daughter, Sheriff?”

        Vaguely remembering that they were approximately the same age and had gone to high school together, I recalled Casper had actually been in the math club with Cady. “She’s fine—working in Cheyenne these days.”

        “That’s nice.”

        “She and my granddaughter are supposedly coming up to spend the day with me.”

        It was about then that there was a great deal of cursing coming from the far end of the house when Sheridan appeared turning into the hallway to my left and running toward us at a high rate of speed. I stepped back and watched him pass before hearing the thumping that could’ve been mistaken for a full-blown brahma bull turned loose in the trailer as Therm followed. 

        They disappeared, the hulking individual not quite making the turn and crashing into the interior wall before pushing off and continuing to give chase. 

        I turned back to seated man. “Casper, what’s going on?”

        He spooned some beans into his mouth. “It’s Cody’s damn fault.”

        I glanced around on the stained, shag carpeting in case I’d missed him. “And where is Cody?”

        Casper made a vague gesture with the spoon, a few beans still holding on. “I think he’s out in the yard somewhere… He knows better than to let Therm catch him, especially since he started all this shit.”

        “And, what exactly is all this shit?”

        He gestured with the spoon before noticing the adhered beans at which point he licked them off. “I ought to let Cody tell you himself.”

        “Well then, I need to speak to Cody.”

         “He’s around here somewhere—bought us all a Christmas gift that he gave us for Thanksgiving, and we weren’t supposed to open them up till this morning. Therm cheats, though. I think he got up early to open his, but he didn’t understand it, so he got Sheridan up to explain it to him and that’s when all the trouble started.” He sipped his beer. “All this from spitting in a cup…” He glanced up at me through the closed eye. “Got any brothers, sheriff?”

        “Um, no.”

        “Well, don’t.”

        There was more noise. “Casper, what do you mean about spitting in a cup?”

        He tried to explain. “It’s a kit, like one of those drug tests the insurance companies make you take every six weeks on the job.”

        “A drug test?”

        “Yeah, but no… Like the DMV.”

        “Department of Motor Vehicles?”

        He shook his head, some of the shaggy, blood-dried hair coming loose. “No, in this one you just spit in a tube and then you mail it off and they tell you if your father was the king of France or your mother was the Queen of Sheba.” He shrugged. “Personally, I think it’s all a bunch of horseshit. I mean have you ever heard somebody do one of those things and come back and say—my father shoveled manure in merry old England till he caught the typhus and died like a dog in the dirt, or my mother was the best prostitute in all of Bangladesh?”

        “You mean a DNA test?”

        “Yeah, that’s it. You spit in a cup, and they dig out your essential moleculars, but I was drinking that night, so I got a sneakin’ suspicion that they got more charred barrels from Tennessee than actual DMV.” 

        “DNA.”

        “Whatever.” He shoveled in another spoonful and gestured with the utensil again, a few beans falling to the worn Formica surface of the table. “Anyway, mine came back aborted, which I’m not sure if it means I should’ve been or that the test was a crock because the sample was contaminated.”

        “From the liquor.”

        Picking up the few wayward beans from the table and stuffing them in his mouth, he waxed philosophic. “Yeah, but I mean who cares? I figure it’s all about where you’re going and not where you came from, you get me?”

        I glanced around the trailer. “That our environment has more of an effect on our lives than our genetic make-up.”

He pointed the spoon at me. “Exactly.”  

        “So, all of you took this test at Thanksgiving?”

        “Yeah.”

         “And the results that came back turned out to be something of a revelation to your brothers?” 

        Casper nodded. “I guess you could say that.”

        I nudged one of the discount-size cans of beans. “Broke up breakfast, huh?”

        He nodded. “Since mom passed the eating options have gotten kind of slim.”

        I picked up one of the results of the DNA kit, also lying on the table. “So, assorted pater familias?”

        “Huh?’

        “Different dads?”

        “Well, you know what they say—momma’s baby, daddy’s maybe.”

        “Your mother led a rich and varied life?”

        He nodded. “She got around, yeah.”

        “You don’t seem too upset by the turn of events.”

        “Like I said, my results came back inconclusive, and I honestly don’t give a shit.” He swallowed and gestured with the spoon again. “I figure c’est la vie, you know? Who am I to judge, right?”

        “Therm seems awfully upset.”

        Casper leaned forward, looking both ways in the trailer as if it were a crossroads at a thoroughfare. “In case you haven’t noticed, Therm can be kind of childish sometimes.”

        More noise emitted from somewhere else in the interconnected house trailers as I reached into my pocket and felt the black notebook Frances had given me in the yard. Pulling it out, I looked at it and then opened to the first page where Casper’s name was at the top of a lengthy essay along with four small, black & white photographs in a strip, the kind you might get made in a photo booth in an arcade, acting as a bookmark. “Well, I’ve got something here that might settle some of the mysteries—it’s a notebook from your mother, which looks to have a lot of clues about you and your brother’s lineage.” I flipped through the pages, looking at the photographs, newspaper articles, and obituaries. “You appear to be first.”

        He didn’t say anything, and I turned in time to see Sheridan bounce off the wall. It was as he flew by again that he shouted. “Therm flushed Cody out from under his bed!”

        I turned to see Cody, flinging himself against the far wall sideways, barely avoiding the crushing weight of Therm as the monster slammed into the same spot right behind him. The smaller man was approaching at high speed now, and the behemoth pulled himself from the corner and continued the pursuit in earnest. 

        Cody was wearing an AC/DC t-shirt, a pair of sweatpants, and un-tied work boots, and there was no way the smaller man was going to escape, especially when, scrambling as he was, he stepped on a shoelace and tripped. Falling to the carpet, he slid on his back, a look of abject horror on his face as his brother approached like a blubbery tidal wave.

        Therm pounded past us and began raising his fists to clobber his brother into a genetic puddle when I grasped one of the economy-sized cans of beans from the table and whirled in a half-circle, throwing it with all my strength into the back of the colossus’s head.

        The can smacked the base of his skull with a tremendous thump, creating a large dent in the container, as the giant’s knees immediately buckled and he fell onto his prey who gave out with a short, wheezing squeal. 

         Stepping over, I kicked the can and then grabbed the shoulder of the unconscious Goliath and pulled him to the side like a pole-axed steer. The smaller man was lying underneath attempting to catch his breath. “Cody?”

        He nodded and gasped and finally came out with some words, “Hey, Sheriff.”

        “What were you thinking?”

        “Huh?’

        Reaching down, I gave him a hand and pulled him up from the floor. “This whole DNA testing kit you gave your brothers?”

        He shrugged. “Well, there were questions, so it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

        Helping him step over his still unconscious brother, I seated him at the table with Casper where he collapsed in the chair. I returned to the big man and placed a few fingers at his throat. The pulse was strong, and I ascertained that Therm would indeed survive the liberal application of non-lethal force. “Yep, well maybe not the best idea considering the volatile nature of your brother here.”

        “He was the one that was curious.”

        I stood and returned to the table. “Why?”

        “We used to tease him and say he looked like Raymond Ailes, the milkman.”

        Sitting in one of the remaining chairs, I fished in my pocket and pulled out the black book of secrets again, flipping it toward the end and studying the last section. “Well, your neighbor, Mrs. Wooster, just gave me this. She said that your mother entrusted it to her for safe-keeping in case there might be any questions.”

        “Sheriff?”

        I looked up to see Cody raising a finger and pointing behind me as something like grappling hooks took hold of my shoulders, lifting me from the chair and flinging me sideways into the interior wall across the room. 

        I’ve been manhandled a few times in my career, but nothing prepared me for the amount of considerable force that Therm Kropky could inflict. Absorbing the impact, I slid down on the wall, feeling my lips and nose rubbing against the textured surface, and all I could think was what kind of diseases was I going to get from this. I didn’t have long to contemplate, because in an instant, I was snatched up again and flung down the hallway toward the front entrance, slamming into a broken chair, a floor lamp, and a pile of DVDs.

        I desperately tried to clear my head, but when I opened my eyes, I could only see a performance of the 1812 Overture complete with pyrotechnics as he rolled me over. I tried to push him off, but it was like trying to lift a prize steer. 

        Therm was seated on my chest and was raising the same enormous, dented can of beans preparing to bring it crashing into my face. Just as he came down with it, I heaved to the right and threw my left hand back into his face enough to cause the edge of the can to thud into the floor beside my left ear with the force of a six-pound sledgehammer. 

        I got my right hand under his enormous thigh and on my sidearm, yanking it from the holster as he reared back with the beans again. I pushed the muzzle against the soft underside of his chin. Most people, when confronted with the tunnel-like business end of the Colt 1911a1 in condition one, are given pause, but this did not seem to be the case with Therm Kropky.

        He lifted the quart can even higher.

        Blinking, I snapped off the safety, which usually does the trick with even the most psychotic of antagonists, but all I could see was Therm preparing to bring the domestic instrument of destruction down again. 

        I hated the thought of shooting the giant but being beaten to death with a can of beans in a trailer house in Powder Junction had to top the list of ways in which I really didn’t want to die.

        My forefinger had just begun to tighten on the trigger when, of all things, a female voice rang out clear as a Christmas bell. “Stop!”    

         Therm looked as surprised as me as we both slowly turned our heads toward the open front door where my daughter stood in a full-length, goose-down coat, watch cap, and winter boots holding my equally insulated granddaughter. A few wisps of snow were swirling along in her trail like she was a modern, Wyoming winter pietà. 

        Her grey eyes and voice were sharp. “Drop that. Now!”

        Therm let loose of the can as if his will were not his own, and it fell beside my head, bean au jus splattering the side of my face. 

        I snapped the safety back on, let the big, semiautomatic fall to my chest, and smiled up at her. “Hi, punk.”

Lola sat on Therm’s enormous lap and was enjoying her share of the beans as the giant divvied up what was in the dented can between him and my granddaughter, The Greatest Legal Mind Of Our Time holding up the notebook beside his face and making a comparison. “I can see a similarity, now that the notebook mentions it.”

         “He used to come over and play cards with Mom and Dad on weekends, and when Dad was out of town, he sometimes showed up then, too.” Casper sipped another beer. “He was sometimes here for breakfast, come to think of it.”

         “Raymond Ailes was the milkman?”

         Casper turned to look at Sheridan. “Yeah, back when there was a local dairy– they used to deliver it in bottles, among other things.”

         Sheridan nodded and glanced at Cody, who remained silent. “You all right?”

         Cody looked up at him. “Yeah.”

         Sheridan nudged his brother. “What?”

Cody finally erupted. “Wayne Dean was a shit. You remember how he used to yell at us if we rode our bikes on his yard?”

         “Yeah.”

         “And he yelled at me the most.”

         “Well, now we know why.” Sheridan sipped his beer and shrugged. “You do look like him.”

         Cady lowered the notebook and flipped back to the first section. “Well… Casper?”

        He swirled the dregs at the bottom of his can of beer. “Not interested.”

        She placed a manicured finger between the pages, closed the book, and looked at him. “Really?”

        “Nope.” He smiled a philosophical grin. “I’ll keep that book just in case I get curious, but I don’t think I ever will.” He sat the can on the table and looked around at his siblings. “I know who I am, and I know who they are, they’re my brothers—they were my brothers when they were born, they were my brothers when we were growing up, and they’ll always be my brothers even if they’re half-brothers. Nothing can change that.” He smiled, and I noticed a missing tooth. “Maybe I’m just as bad as those idiots that think they’re long-lost royalty. Hell, I’d like to think I’ve got a shred of dignity somewhere back in my ancestry too, but I don’t need to go digging for it. I know who I am, and I’m okay with that.” 

        My daughter reached out and placed a hand on his forearm. “Casper, I’m a pretty shrewd judge of character, and I’m willing to bet that there is more than a fair-share of nobility in your background.”  They smiled at each other, and the holiday warmth in the wayward trailer was palpable. 

“Merry Christmas.”

Away, In a Manger

2018 Longmire Christmas Story

 by Craig Johnson

Static. “They stole the baby Jesus again.”

            It was after midnight, and I’d just started backing out my truck when the dreaded message floated from my Motorola two-way like the ghost of Christmas past. I stopped and sat there hoping I hadn’t heard what I was sure I’d had. To confirm it, I glanced at Dog, who was studying me, having not only heard the words but the tone.

            Static. “Unit One, this is Unit Three. Do you copy?”

            I reached down and plucking the mic from my dash, held it to my mouth. “Please tell me you’re kidding.”

            Static. “No, Boss, I’m not.”

            With the usual perversity of the Wyoming weather, Christmas Eve arrived with the National Weather Service having issued a Winter Storm Warning with a prediction of fourteen inches of snow by morning. Both interstate highways had been closed, so we’d issued a bulletin saying only travel of an emergency nature would be permitted in the county after 9PM. I’d sent what was left of the staff home, and only Santiago Saizarbitoria and myself were on patrol. I’d intended to relieve him and send him home too when the radio call had come in. 

             Pulling my unit into gear, I drove the three blocks to St. Mathias on the snow-covered, muffled roads. There was a larger, more modern church with an event center where the majority of the local Catholics took services, but the older, mostly Basque congregation still frequented the tiny, stone building by Clear Creek. I navigated through the snow to the old rectory and chapel and glanced up at the naked cottonwoods that were breaking up the heavily clouded sky like a monochromatic, stained-glass window, grained by the steadily falling flakes. 

            Father Thallon was standing a little way off from my deputy with Mr. Krauss, the church keeper, a crusty old handyman whose wife Carole fed and looked after the two priests, the afore-mentioned Father Thallon and the all-but-retired Father Baroja, whom I hadn’t seen in years.

            Saizarbitoria stood on the freshly shoveled but rapidly filling sidewalk in front of the elaborate nativity scene that dominated the front of the chapel, his hands on his hips, steam seemingly emitting from his ears. The Basquo stood still as he studied the scene of the crime, a case he had decided three years ago to take to heart. 

            The first year that Sancho had been in my employ someone had absconded with the baby Jesus from the original nativity scene that had been the property of the smaller Catholic church for decades. Hand carved by old world artisans—the same men who had built the church itself—I’d always thought it not the most flattering depiction of the Son of God, in that it appeared particularly cross-eyed. I’d just hired Sancho, and he’d taken on the task of trying to recover this original baby Jesus that had been an icon to the faithful, but even after exhaustive efforts, the Messiah had remained missing.

            Father Thallon, however, had accepted the loss with grace and bought an improved, blonder version of Baby Jesus in fiberglass, which the brethren had begrudgingly accepted. I’d thought it an improvement over the stigmatized one, but it really didn’t matter since the replacement was stolen the next year. Santiago had again taken the theft personally and vowed to apprehend the serial statue thieves but had once more come up empty-handed.

            St. Mathias had dutifully purchased yet another fiberglass statue, this time at the hefty price of three hundred and seventy-five dollars, but it appeared that once again the Lord and Savior had taken French leave. 

            Parking near the rectory, I got out and allowed Dog to follow as we approached the two men who stood by as the snow coated their heads and shoulders “Father, Mr. Krauss.”

            “Sheriff.” Krauss handed me a Styrofoam cup of steaming cider. “I knew you’d be coming and brought you some.”

            “Thank you.” I watched him return to the rectory where his wife stood at the door, sipped the spiced liquid, and nodded toward my deputy. “How’s he taking it?”

            “Not well.” Father Thallon shook his head. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

            I glanced at him. “I’m assuming you made precautions?”

            He nodded, his beard surrounding his cup like a furry wreath, the eyes behind the horn rim barely discernable in the fogged glass. “We chained him to an iron stake that was driven into the ground.”

            I nodded, glancing around. “Have you thought about a fence and a gate?”

            “I’m not putting the baby Jesus in prison—it’s bad enough I have to chain him up like a dog.” Feeling a little ashamed at the outburst, he reached down and petted the beast. “No offense.”

            I sipped my cider and thought about it. “It’s not just here, you know.”

            “Excuse me?”

            I gestured toward the empty manger. “People have been stealing the baby Jesus for decades—there was even an episode of Dragnet back in the fifties where the statue was stolen by a boy who had promised Jesus the first ride if he got the wagon he wanted for Christmas.” I sipped my cider. “The only episode re-made in color.”

            He shook his head. “You never cease to amaze me, Walter.”

            “Nothing but the facts, Father, nothing but the facts.” I shucked my Carhartt jacket up on my shoulders in an attempt to insulate my neck and sighed a deep breath of frozen vapor into the air. “I guess I better go over and access the damage to my staff’s pride.”

            Dog fell in behind me as I shuffled up behind the Basquo and sipped my drink, allowing the heat to waft over my face. “It was St. Francis of Assisi who came up with the idea back in 1223 in Greccio, Italy. He was trying to place the emphasis of Christmas on the worship of Christ rather than secular materialism. He staged the reenactment in a cave with real people and animals. It got a rave review from Pope Honorius III.”

            He glanced over his shoulder. 

            “I’m pretty sure that baby Jesus got taken home each night, seeing as how it was a real baby and all.” I stepped up beside him as Dog circled and turned to look at both of us, tongue lolling and tail wagging. “Within a hundred years every church in Italy was expected to have a nativity scene, at which point they started using statues instead of live actors. Pretty soon the practice spread out beyond Catholicism to practically all of Christianity.”

            Lodging a hand on his Beretta semi-automatic, he turned and looked at Dog and me. “How about crucifixion, is that still a thing?”

            “Not so much.”

            He looked back at the nativity. “It’s gonna be.”

            I ventured a step closer. “Here, have some cider and calm down.”

            He hesitated but took the cup, sipped the hot drink, and then gestured toward the pageantry with it. He shook his head. “Three years running—.”

            I nodded but said nothing.

            “The Son of God.” He glanced back, peering at the empty manger. “It’s symbolic of something important, you know.”

            I studied him. “I never thought of you as being all that religious.”

            He shot a look at me. “I’ll have you know I’m religious as hell.”

            “Right.” I took a step closer and examined him, the dark eyes piercing the cold night as he stood there running scenarios through his head like an analog computer. I recognized the pattern because it was one of my own. It was odd seeing it in the Basquo though, as he rarely let his emotions run away with him. But it was like that sometimes, the case you couldn’t let go—I was just glad that this Christmas criminal act was relatively benign. “How ‘bout you go home, and I take this one this year?”

            He stood there, unmoving.

            “All right then.” Sighing, I turned and led the way toward the rectory porch. I patted my leg, and Dog trailed along at my side as Saizarbitoria begrudgingly abandoned his vigil and joined us. Father Thallon was waiting at the door, but I hesitated. “What about Dog?”

            “All creatures great and small are welcome in God’s house.”

            The porch door opened into the kitchen where wonderful smells emanated from Mrs. Krauss’ efforts. She busied herself around the place but paused to hand Dog a morsel of uncooked pastry dough, then took his big head in her wrinkled hands. “Hello you old oska you.”

            Father Baroja was seated at the kitchen table much like the last time I’d seen him a few years ago with his arms wrapped around his own steaming cider as if one of us might try and take it from him. The old Basque was sporting a red beret, coated with snow on one side, and what looked to be a wool shawl over his broad shoulders all an attempt to stay warm, giving us a disgruntled look as we trooped in along with the freezing, late night air.

            Crowding in beside the rock fireplace that had an ancient pot hanger suspending a heavy kettle over the flames, I flapped the snow from my hat into the fire and watched it sizzle, and then waved at the priest. “Father Baroja.”

            He ignored me as he always did, but I didn’t take it personally, knowing that he most likely confused me with Lucian Connally, my predecessor, who had had an altercation with his family generations ago.  

            “Kaixo aita.” The old priest immediately brightened as Saizarbitoria spoke. “Bero atatu?”

            Croaking out a response, he patted the bench seat beside him, and Sancho joined him at the table as I nodded for Father Thallon to join me in the chapel breezeway, which allowed the Basques to talk between themselves in their native tongue. 

            Entering through an alcove, we found ourselves at the base of a circular, stone stairwell where a stiff breeze caught the priest’s attention. “Oh no, I must’ve left the window open in our living quarters upstairs.” He turned to smile at me. “When Mrs. Krauss uses both the fireplace and oven, it becomes stifling, so I have to open a window or we asphyxiate.” He gestured upward. “I’ll need to close that. Do you mind?”

            “No, of course not.” I started to follow. “Can I have a look? I’ve never seen this part of the church.”

            “Come along, Sheriff, please.” Following his lead, Dog and I watched as he pointed out the workmanship of the masons. “I’ve always wondered–have you ever noticed that the stairwells in these old buildings always circle to the left?”

            “Yep.”

            He glanced back at me. “I assume you know the reason for that?”

            I thought to myself—medieval design. If you were defending the castle from the top down against intruders it made it easier to lead with your sword hand, which was generally your right. I shook my head. “Nope, can’t imagine why.”

            We made it to the second landing, and he carefully closed the window that had 

been ajar, a skiff of snow lying on the broad planks of the wooden floor. “I’ll need to sweep this up or Mrs. Krauss will have my head.”

            As he busied himself, I glanced out the window behind the rectory where what looked like the beginning of a snowman sat in the middle of the courtyard that led to an old dugout and then moved toward the two doors to my left, one closed and the other hanging open.

            “Father Baroja’s room—he’s getting quite forgetful and leaves the door ajar.”

            I glanced inside at the simple bed, a small desk and chair, and a primitive armoire. There was a crucifix on the wall along with a Basque flag and a few photographs, one of which was of a young, barrel-chested Father Baroja lifting a boulder the size of an ottoman. 

            Father Thallon joined me. “There is an old Basque tradition, the harri-jasotzaileak, or the lifting of stones, a tradition from when the farmers used to clear the fields—they carry stones as heavy as five hundred pounds. I guess the old guy was a champion, back in the day.”

            Leaning over, I studied the next photo where three heavily armed men, grinning sly smiles with their berets tipped at jaunty angles standing in a grove of slender trunked trees. “And this one?”

            “From the Spanish Civil War after he escaped and fought against the Nationalists.” He pointed to the individual in the middle. “That’s him, the one with the cigar in the corner of his mouth. He used to try and smoke them here in the rectory, but Mrs. Krauss put an end to that.”

            There was a sudden, crashing noise that was just short of deafening, which reverberated through the stones. I started, but Father Thallon only smiled as he stowed the broom and dustpan in a cupboard. “Mrs. Krauss.” He turned and yelled to be heard over the noise. “She always plays the pipe organ for Christmas Mass.” He leaned in to be heard. “In all honesty, she pounds it. The way the building is oriented, it’s almost deafening up here in the rectory where we have our bedrooms—like bombs going off.”

            As Dog and I followed down the steps, the volume receded. “So, she only plays it on Christmas Eve?”

            He nodded as we made the ground floor. “It hadn’t worked in ages, but we had it repaired three years ago—the bellows are old and we try not to over use it, but she enjoys it so much she must be giving it a fond farewell for the season.”

            I nodded, glancing up at the hand-hewed beams that constructed the Kingsbridge system that held up the shaker shingles and the beautiful, stained-glass windows that ran along both sides as we entered the chapel. 

            Mrs. Krauss was indeed pumping away at the old foot pedals and pounding out a heartfelt version of Away In A Manger as Father Thallon waved to get her attention and she stopped, closing the cover on the keys and looking repentant. “Sorry, Father, but I love the old organ.”

            He smiled. “I know you do Mrs. Krauss, but we’ll need to hear ourselves think if you don’t mind?”

            I watched as she patted the old wood gently and then climbed down, walking past us, apologizing the whole way before disappearing back toward the rectory.  Saizarbitoria had appeared and held the door open for her. He glanced around the chapel particularly at the cathedral windows that depicted oddities from Basque folklore. Sancho stopped in front of the one with fairies spinning around the head of what might’ve been a saint. “Do you suppose the workmen were playing a joke when they installed these?”

            Father Thallon shook his head. “No, they were donated by a church near Guernica that was destroyed during the war. The windows were removed in the thirties and stored, but the church was never rebuilt, so they were offered by a family member of a parishioner and shipped here.” Father Thallon nodded as he glanced at them. “They are . . . rather whimsical.” Cupping his hands together, he bowed briefly. “I’ll leave you gentlemen to discuss your findings.          

            Sancho looked up at me and glanced at his wristwatch as I climbed the few stairs and sat at the magnificent pipe organ, opening the cover and pumping the pedals before hitting a few notes near middle C, listening to the reverberation in the stone building. After a moment I stood, cracking my knuckles as Sancho winced. “What did the old priest say?”

            “Oh, we talked about the laminak and how they were always listening in on him and how they sometimes move his things.”

            “The laminak?”

            He gestured toward one of the glass panes. “You know, fairies.” 

            “Do you think they took baby Jesus?”

            “I don’t think so.” He stood in the front pew and stretched a boot out to rub Dog, who rolled over on his back. “He doesn’t trust the younger priest, Thallon, but then he doesn’t trust the Krauss’ either—thinks they’re Nazi sympathizers of all things.”

            “Does he trust anybody?”

            “Not much—he’s had a rough life. Before he came to the US, he was taken captive by the fascists and placed in a work camp where he built roads and walls for three years. When they bombed the place, the prisoners ran and hid under bridges, in basements. . .  I guess more than once he had to dig his way out.” I watched as he walked back to the window, the one with the giant stacking stones. “Do you remember the last time we were here? The story that Father Baroja told, the one about the Jentillak?”

            I covered the keys and climbed down, gesturing toward the window where he stood. “The giants?”

            “They lived alongside the Basque, but one day they saw a storm cloud to the east unlike anything they’d ever seen before, so the wisest of the giants marched their people off and moved the great stones that led to a land under the earth in the Arratzaran valley in Navarra.” He continued to study the stained glass. “The giants told the Basques that the time of the Jentellak was now over because Kixmi had been born.” He turned to look at me. “Jesus.”

            Father Thallon appeared in the vestibule and waved his arms to get our attention. “Walter, you better come have a look at this.”

            Trooping into the kitchen at the priest’s behest, I could see that Father Thallon had set up a laptop computer on the kitchen table beside a plate of cookies and was peering into the screen with Mr. Krauss looking over his shoulder.

            “It’s a game camera.” The handyman nodded. “I use this when I’m deer hunting in the fall and thought that if I set it up maybe we’d catch the thieves in the act.” The older man took a cookie from the plate. “I forgot that I’d put it up on one of the trees. I was so busy taking my other precautions . . .”

            “What other precautions?”

            “I filled it with concrete.”

            We all turned to look at him, but I was the first to speak. “You filled the Baby Jesus with concrete?”

            “Yes. I drilled a hole in it and filled it with Quick-Crete—two bags.”

            The Basquo pointed at the screen. “There’s a time signature down on the corner with a date, but these are from a month ago.”

            Krauss nodded. “That was when we put the nativity up.”

            Sancho leaned in further. “Why is this computer loading so slowly?”

            Father Thallon looked back. “I’m afraid it’s old and takes its time.”

            Figuring we had plenty, I thought about the weight of the concrete-filled Jesus and circled around to refill my cup with more cider. I looked out through the heavy, beveled glass at the mounting snow and thought about the lump I had seen in the courtyard behind the rectory. “Father, when were the other statues stolen?”

            He glanced up at me from above the screen. “On Christmas Eve, all of them.”

            I ruffled Dog’s ears as he sat beside me. “Yep, but what time?”

            He thought about it. “During Mass, after midnight.”

            “All three?”

            “Yes.”

            Considering that, I watched as Mrs. Krauss appeared in the doorway with a snow shovel, stamping her boots and shuddering from the cold as she closed the door behind her. “Bill, where did you put the wheelbarrow? I need it to clean out the snow blowing in the entryway.”

            Krauss looked up at his wife. “It’s right outside by the wall leading toward the chapel.”

            “No, it’s not.”

            “Carole, I put it there this afternoon.” He dismissed her with a wave of his hand and then gestured toward the computer screen. “Can’t you see we’re in the middle of an investigation here?”

            I glanced around the room and moved toward Father Baroja, who was sitting on an old upholstered armchair by the window. Kneeling, I offered him another cup of cider and peered into the man’s rheumy eyes. He stared at me, not understanding why I was there, but took the cider and turned back to looking out at the falling snow. 

            The others were eyeing the two of us but quickly went back to the screen, Father Thallon pointing at it. “That’s tonight, and there’s somebody there in front of the camera.”

            Straightening, I turned toward them. “It’s not going to show anything.”

            Saizarbitoria glanced at me, annoyed. “What are you talking about, we’ve got the thief red handed, you can see the . . .” His eyes went back to the screen and then widened. “Did it just go dark, like somebody hung something over the camera?” They all looked at me as I sat the empty cup in the sink, zipped my jacket, and cranked down my hat. “C’mon.”

            Mrs. Krauss got out of the way, and Dog and I lumbered toward the door, the three men following, doing some lumbering of their own. Her eyes shone as she looked up at me. “Where are you going?”

            Pushing the latch down, I stepped out into the cold and pulled my Mag-Lite from my duty-belt. “To get your wheelbarrow.” The priest, the handyman, and my deputy brought up the rear as Dog and I walked through the stone archway and cut a path into the courtyard, Dog handling the snow much better than I. The mound was still there, and it was only as you got closer that you could see a wooden handle sticking out.  

            Reaching down, I pulled at the cart and listened to it scrape in the quiet of the silent night as I straightened it. After setting the wheelbarrow aright, I brushed some of the snow away and lifted the heavy baby Jesus that was lying on the ground back into the bucket.

Sancho stared at the Son of God and then back at me as Father Thallon joined us and Mr. Krauss took the handles of the wheelbarrow. “They must have hit a loose cobblestone or slipped in the snow, but where were they going with it?”

            Shining my flashlight beam over the snow, I could see the dugout with its thick wooden door that I’d noticed from the rectory window. “I assume that’s a root cellar?”

            Krauss looked past me. “Yes, but it’s partially collapsed. We haven’t used it in years.”

            Continuing on, I scuffed some of the snow away from the top of the three steps and attempted to shine my flashlight into the small windows but couldn’t see anything; then I carefully stepped down the three stairs and put my shoulder into the door, forcing it open. 

It was a small area with a dirt floor, and you could see where one wall had collapsed inward, dumping dirt and stones. Dusty cobwebs floated free like gossamer curtains in the flashlight’s white beam, and there were wooden shelves lining the walls with empty jars and splintered wooden boxes. There was a tattered tarp next to an old bentwood chair that sat with a dusty blanket carefully folded on the seat along with an ashtray and a half-smoked, still-smoldering cigar. 

            Following Dog, I stooped my head, took a step to the center of the small room, and pulled the twine connected to a single lightbulb, which, to my surprise, flicked on. 

            Sancho joined me in the dim light, which allowed Father Thallon and Mr. Krauss to enter also. “How did you know?”

            “When we arrived, I noticed that Father Baroja’s hat only had snow on one side, as if it had been hanging outside so he must’ve seen Mr. Krauss putting the camera up a month ago.” Lifting the ashtray and its contents, I put it on one of the shelves and sat on the narrow chair, the beam of my flashlight shining about as Dog nosed the tarp. 

            “And the wheelbarrow?”

            “Just lucky–I saw it out the window.” I glanced around at the snug spot, inhaling the faint smell of burnt tobacco. “There was the photo of the old priest lifting the stones in his youth, but the real key was the thundering racket of the old pipe organ and the fact that it was only being used for Christmas Mass since being repaired three years ago. I’m thinking the noise must’ve reminded Father Baroja of the bombings he endured in Guernica, so he would escape to this place—his own, private bomb shelter.” 

            Reaching down, I pulled the tarp away and picked up the oldest of the two remaining statues, the hand-carved one, and rested it in my lap. Looking into the wayward eyes, I couldn’t help but think that the craftmanship wasn’t so bad after all. 

Dog sat beside me, creating a somewhat unlikely pietà. “I guess the old guy wanted to make sure that the most important thing in the world would be safe.”

The Percentages

Longmire Christmas Story 2017

by Craig Johnson (2017)

Sandy Sandburg, the sheriff of Campbell County, tipped his hat back and slowly turned his head to look at me but said nothing.

We were sitting in the living room of one Connie Terrence/Embersoll’s mother and father who stood behind the sofa and studied us with more than a little concern. I cleared my throat, if for no other reason than Sandy didn’t appear to be clearing his own. “Um… It might not have been the best thing to do.” We all sat there with the parents studying each of us in turn as the clock continued ticking, silver garland and gold lame stockings contrasting tastefully on the decorated mantle of the expansive, very white house.

“Well, what are you going to do?”

Looking up at Mr. Terrence, Connie’s father, I quickly stood. “I guess we’re going to have to go speak with him.” I turned back to Connie, who remained seated, a moist paper towel clutched in her hands. “Do you know where he might be, right now?”

She dabbed an eye and glanced at the aforementioned brass clock, time held captive within the glass dome. “Late-afternoon–he’d still be on shift at the mine if he’s working overtime.”

I nodded and gave a purposeful look at Sandy, who also stood, probably relieved that we were getting out of that living room before he exploded in one way or another. “We’ll be in touch.”

Old man Terrence showed us to the door and thanked the both of us again with a dry, leathery hand as we bundled up, flipping the collars on our Carhartt’s and yanking our hats down so that they didn’t sail off to South Dakota as we made our way down the carefully shoveled sidewalk to Sandy’s shiny unit. We climbed in, both of us sitting there in the silence of the new car smell, the only sound the wind buffeting the half-ton with all its space-age graphics and technology.

“Mother of God, what was she thinking?” Sandy’s breath fogged the space between him and the dash as he fired up the V8 and adjusted the heat to full in an attempt to keep us from turning into a couple of sheriff-sicles. The Campbell County Sheriff’s usual trip to Coco View Resort had been postponed because of the impromptu case, and I had a sneaking suspicion that was the true source of his irritation, that and his fading tan. “I’ve got a flight this afternoon to the Honduras with a very upset wife, and if I don’t get on that plane I’m gonna be a dead man.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose between thumb and forefinger. “Did you know that close to a half-million people are murdered every year?”

He sighed. “Mostly during the holidays?”

Looking out the windshield at the snow-scoured landscape of the Powder River Country where the Terrence ranch straddled the county line between Sandy’s jurisdiction and mine, I thought about it. “That means you’ve got a one in 16,000 chance of getting murdered in your life.”

He glanced back at the house. “Well, I’d say that Mike Castro’s percentages just went up.”

I nodded in resignation as he hit the wipers in an attempt to clear the windshield of the quarter-inch of snow that had accumulated there and then pulled the selector down into drive, searching the fancy buttons now that the snow was mounting. “Where in the hell is the four-wheel drive in this thing, anyway?”

I reached over and hit the button for him. “Mike could’ve improved his odds if he hadn’t lived in the Americas or Africa.”

Sandy headed out and we sledded our way back to the paved road and turned right into deepest, darkest Campbell County. “Why is that?”

“Murder rates are more than four times higher than Western Europe or East Asia.”

“Where’s the safest?”

I thought about it. “Singapore.”

He considered this information as he drove. “Nice climate–I suppose sitting under palm trees and listening to the surf helps.”

“Not really, the Honduras are the worst, about one in every thousand people gets murdered there.”

He glanced at his wristwatch and then at me. “That’s not funny, Walt.”

The mine, Crow Butte Mine, to be exact, is located ten miles north of Gillette in the coal-rich area of the Powder River Basin, which puts out almost eighty percent of the coal used to power the country. An open pit, truck-and-shovel mine that produces low-sulfur, sub-bituminous coal from the Roland and Smith seams, Crow Butte has reserves of 471 million short tons of the black stuff and a permitted production capacity of 35 million short tons a year, which is loaded onto a weigh-in-motion track system that can accommodate up to five unit trains of 48 thousand tons, making it the ninth largest producer in the United States.

In a word, they are a going concern and move a lot of coal.

We sat there at the gate for a while as the guard called into the office to let them know of our imminent arrival. My eyes lit on the Plexiglas container on the side of the small guard shack, lit from beneath by a lone spotlight. “What’s that?”

Sandy glanced at the small figure of a woman holding a child. “Sentinels of Safety, some kind of award for surface coal, but also good mojo around the mine.”

“Another way our alleged victim could’ve saved himself.”

He grunted. “How’s that.”

“Be a woman—seventy-five percent less of a chance in getting murdered if you’re female.”

After packing up our credentials, we got waved through and drove down the hill past a large billboard that read, KNOWING SAFETY IS ONLY HALF THE SOLUTION, PRACTACING SAFETY IS THE OTHER HALF.

We parked at the main office of the mine, a pre-fab building perched in a miniature valley at the precipice of the massive, open-pit big enough to swallow eight Astrodomes and stood before the assistant shift manager.

A jolly looking fellow, the assistant manager’s look was enhanced by the Santa tie he wore, complete with actual, tiny jingle-bells, his festive mood fading as he surveyed the collected hardware of two counties. “Is there a problem?”

“Mike Embersoll.”

He looked a little perplexed. “Who?’

Sandy leaned on the counter between him and the assistant manager, grinning his matinee-idol smile. “Big Mike Embersoll, he’s one of your heavy equipment operators?”

“Oh…” The man looked at a loss of what to do. “We’ve got over four hundred and eighty men working at this mine alone and I only started here about a month ago and with it being Christmas weekend…”

I did a little leaning myself. “Is there somebody who can tell you if he’s here, and if so, where we can find him?”

“Um, sure.” He turned to a young woman seated at the far end of the counter. “Darlene, can you find out if we’ve got a Mike Embersoll working today and where he might be?”

Darlene began tripping the keyboard fantastic as the assistant manager leaned in between us. “So, has he done something bad?”

“We just want to speak with him.”

He glanced at Sandy and then back to me. “Yeah, but… Two sheriffs?”

“Big Mike is big.” We all turned to look at Darlene. “He’s what, about six-seven and weighs about three hundred pounds?”

Sandy pulled a piece of paper from his coat pocket and unfolded it, the small, reproduced photo of a very large, very intense, and very bearded man staring back at us, his head extending up past where the height marks went on the booking wall. “I’d say you’re spot-on.”

“Do you know Mr. Embersoll?”

She glanced at me. “I dated him, before he married that moron, Connie.”

It was quiet in the room as I formulated my next words carefully. “You seem intimate with the couple.”

“Enough to know that it was a love/hate relationship—he loved her and she hated him. This is about Bob Castro, isn’t it?”

Sandy and I shared a glance, and I turned back to her. “We just want to speak with him.”

“Yeah, well Big Mike’s working section three, level eight on a dump—has been for about eight hours now.”

“Doing what?”

The assistant manager joined in. “Running one of our dump trucks that haul the coal.”

This time I spoke directly at Darlene. “Can you call somebody on the radio and get him up here?”

“Sure.” She moved a little closer and tapped her manicured fingers on the keyboard again, and there was a dial-tone and a man’s voice rang from the screen in front of her.

Static. “Three-eight, hey Darlene?”

“Tim, is Mike down there running a dump?”

Static. “Yeah, he’s on his third shift in unit 4. He must have a lot of Christmas shopping to pay for.”

“Can you call him off and send him up here?”

Static. “Sure thing.”

She sat back in her stool and looked at us. “I’m not surprised. Mike was always a very emotional guy… So, you guys looking for Bob Castro?”

I tried to look as nonchalant as I could muster. “We might be–do you think he’s around?”

“Well, he doesn’t work here.” She turned and glanced back at the yawning hole in the earth behind her. “But that doesn’t mean he’s not here… Somewhere.”

The conversation was interrupted by a man’s voice on the computer, who I assumed was Tim.

Static. “Three-eight, hey Darlene?”

She leaned in again. “Yeah?”

Static. “Mike’s logged in on four, but he’s not responding.”

“What do you mean?”

Static. “We keep radioing him in the truck, but he’s not answering—just keeps working.”

I turned and looked at the assistant manager, who straightened Santa to the sound of tiny bells. “Um, I guess I could go down there with you.”

“That might be handy, seeing as how we don’t know where we’re going.”

He turned to the young woman. “Darlene, do you have a map we could use?”

She pulled out a printed sheet of paper, circling a spot in ballpoint and handing it to him. “It’s only about a square mile, you can’t miss it.”

He held the paper, staring at it like it was a death notice. “And how will we know Mike’s unit?”

She studied him. “It’ll be a dump truck about the size of a bank building with a number 4 on it about the size of a house.”

Bouncing along in Sandy’s shiny half-ton along the wide-swept ramps, I couldn’t help but notice that we were the smallest vehicle in the place by far. I also couldn’t shake the thought that we were descending into one of the lower rings of hell. Hanging between the two front seats and considering mortality, I thought of another one. “Age.”

Sandy partially turned. “Huh?”

“From the age of thirty or so your percentages of being murdered drop steadily in most places, but in Europe you’re more likely to be murdered in your middle-age than in your youth.”

The assistant manager turned to look at me.

“Can’t let your guard down, though. In Australia, Sweden, and Finland you’ve got more of a chance of being killed if you’re over sixty than if you are a teenager, but that’s more likely because alcohol figures into half of those, making it a more predominant factor than any gun or knife.”

Pulling into a flat area, we parked near another pre-fab trailer as a foreman in a white hard-hat and an arctic parka rushed out to meet us. The assistant manager rolled down his window as the man stuck his fur-haloed face in, looking at both Jim and me. “Holy shit, is Mike in trouble?”

Sandy borrowed my line in response. “We just want to speak with him.”

The shift manager, Tim, pointed toward the far end of the pit to where a crane with a bucket the size of an end-zone was filling the largest trucks we’d ever seen. “He’s in 4, but he’s not answering but that’s nothing new, sometimes the equipment gets finicky with weather like this.”

“How can we get his attention?”

He looked at me. “Just drive over there in front of him and hit your lights and siren and he’ll stop.” The three of us in the truck looked in the distance at the behemoths being loaded with tons of coal as Tim added. “Just be sure to hit those lights and sirens so that he notices you, though.”

On the drive over, I questioned the assistant manager. “Mike’s wife said that he’d worked three overtime shifts in the last three days–would that have been all in this one section?”

“Oh, no. He likely worked six sections as a heavy equipment operator in that amount of time.”

“Driving one of these trucks?”

“No, as a full heavy equipment operator he could’ve been running loaders, transfer belts, backhoes, dozers, just about anything.”

I slumped back in the rear seat. “In an area of over six square miles?”

“Yes.”

Sandy and I looked at each other in the rearview mirror.

It was silent as we jolted along through the dystopian landscape with the swirling snow having now turned grey, the equipment before us looming larger and larger like a mechanized skyline as we approached.

The assistant manager, either unused to silence or wanting to know what he was getting into, finally asked. “Um, what is it that Mike’s done?”

“Allegedly done.” I sighed, figuring the guy should at least know the partial score. “About seventy-two hours ago Connie Embersoll chose the very zenith of the holiday season to confess to her husband Big Mike that she had been having an affair with Bob Castro, a UPS driver out of Gillette, who she’d known since high school. Well, about twelve hours later Mr. Castro didn’t show up for his holiday shift. The dispatcher tried to contact him at his home, a duplex he shares with his brother, who said he hadn’t see him all day. After twenty-four hours, a missing person’s report was initiated, and we have been attempting to discover the whereabouts of Mr. Castro to no avail. Mr. Castro’s brother did say that he had seen a black, three-quarter ton Dodge parked in the mutual driveway early yesterday morning with vanity plates that read DEMON.”

The assistant manager stared at me.

“Strangely enough, Big Mike Embersoll is in procession of a black, three-quarter ton with vanity plates that read DEMON.”

The assistant manager glanced back at the approaching equipment. “Oh, no.”

“As near as we can figure, Big Mike Embersoll has had forty-eight hours, six square miles, and unlimited equipment to dispose of the body of Bob Castro.”

Sandy gestured to the surroundings. “The perfect crime.”

The assistant manager glanced at Sandburg. “But, that means he could be desperate, and dangerous.”

Sandy nodded. “I’d say it’s highly likely.”

“Um… I don’t think I want to be party to this.”

I nodded through the windshield. “I think you’ve lost the option—he’s on the move.” Indeed, unit 4 was pulling out and headed directly for us as Sandy studied the dash, finally locating the siren on his new unit and searching for the light bar as the big truck approached, perhaps even bigger than a bank building.

“Where’s the damn lights on this thing?”

The assistant manager hooked his hand onto the handle and looked like he might try and make a run for it, so I spoke to him. “What kind of truck is that?”

His voice was a little high in an attempt to get over the siren. “It’s a Liebherr TI 274 with a V-16 and about 3,000 horsepower and can carry about three hundred and twenty tons of product.”

“So fully loaded?”

“It weighs over five-hundred tons.”

My eyes were drawn to the juggernaut as it turned slightly and began rolling toward us, its walkways and square shape with a stairway running diagonally across it’s snout not really resembling a truck so much as a rolling industrial city block. “Have you found those lights yet, Sandy?”

His fingers raced around the dash as I slowly cracked open the back door and stepped out and onto the running board, slipping my .45 from its holster as the siren howled. “Where the hell are you going?”

“I doubt he can hear this siren with all the noise around here, but if you can’t get his attention your way, I’ll try and get it mine.” Closing the door, I walked around on the frozen overburden and crushed rock, took up a position at the front of the Campbell County Sheriff’s truck, and slowly raised the semi-automatic like David before Goliath, my peashooter aimed at the windshield high above.

The thing was gigantic and filled the sky as the three thousand horses screamed in an attempt to move the tonnage. I was just about to fire when the burst of revolving lights played off everything in the immediate and not so immediate vicinity, bathing the pit in a racing and revolving blue and red.

Lurching to a stop about twenty yards away, I watched as somebody flung open one of the yellow doors and came out on the catwalk, backlit by the LED lights and yelling down at me in an angry voice. “What the hell are you people doing?”

Raising my badge wallet, I waved for Sandy to kill the siren and then turned back to the man. “Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department, are you Mike Embersoll?”

“No, Mike went home; said he wasn’t feeling well.” There was a pause and then the man shouted. “He in some kind of trouble?”

Holstering my sidearm, I called back. “We just want to speak with him.”

“We’ll never catch him.”

We sat there in front of the modest home in one of Gillette’s more modern housing development staring at the rear of the black three-quarter ton with vanity plates that read DEMON along with an assortment of belligerent bumper stickers on an assortment of subjects. “Hmm.”

“You think he’s armed?”

“Maybe, but if he’s smart he’ll just say he has no idea where Bob Castro is and then what are we going to do, dig up an entire coal mine?” I thought about it for a while. “Did you know that worldwide the chances of somebody going to prison for killing somebody is only 43 percent?”

He unbuckled his seatbelt and began climbing out. “Well, I’d put Big Mike in that other 57 percent.”

I shrugged as I met him at the front of his truck. “European police solve seventy-nine percent of murders but in Asia it’s only half.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask about us.”

“Our clearances in the US are somewhere around 60 percent.”

Setting up on either side of the front door of the house, I pulled the Colt from my holster and held it at my side as Sandy drew his Glock. “Well, that ain’t bad.”

“Down from 91 percent in the sixties.” I reached over and rang the illuminated doorbell as the snowflakes swirled around us, the night before Christmas closing in. “But that’s with four times as many homicides.”

He glanced at his watch, again. “Well, if Big Mike doesn’t throw himself on the mercy of the court, I’m not going to make my flight and then I can kiss the Honduras and that wife of mine goodbye.” We could hear someone walking toward the front door, someone heavy and someone big.

The door didn’t open and finally a husky voice sounded through the solid wood. “Who is it?”

“Absaroka and Campbell County sheriffs.” There was another pause as I clicked off the safety of my Colt. “We’re looking for Mike Embersoll?”

The voice rattled the door. “He in some kind of trouble?”

“We just want to speak with him.”

Sandy whispered. “So, what is the percentage of murderers who confess?”

The polished brass latch was depressed, and the door swung wide. He was dressed in grey work socks, boxers, and a vast, plaid bathrobe that hung open at his empty hands. His eyes were rings of red, and his mouth quivered as he first looked at the sky, then the falling snow, and finally at Sandy and me and to our utter surprise, tears began streaking the big man’s face as he sobbed, “I did it, I killed him, and I can show you where the body is buried…”

Staring at Embersoll, I lowered my weapon and took out my cuffs. “Less than two percent, in case you were still wondering.”