There were some folk that thought being the only source of law in a small town was light work. But Prosper Vance knew better. He’d been Sheriff in Holbert Valley for going on twenty years and deputy for fifteen before that. If there was anything that confirmed your worst suspicions about human nature, Prosper reckoned, lawing was sure to do it. Generally, it was the little pieces of meanness that stuck most with you. Unchecked those petty hatreds and slights tended to grow like weeds and often ended up with someone’s body found in an unmarked grave.
As Prosper stared down at Keefe McCalister’s body, he thought it a small miracle that ole Keefe hadn’t ended up in a hole sooner. Keefe wasn’t, or more properly, hadn’t been a bad man, but he hadn’t been a good one either. It was common knowledge that it was Keefe who had done for Roan Everett only a month before. Keefe and Roan had a case of hate at first sight since grade school and had fought over whiskey, women, and cards since that time. There was seldom a weekend since the two had hit puberty that one hadn’t ended up hauled down to the jail or given a good talking to. Since Roan was shot, by accident it would seem – if drunkenness and Russian roulette could be considered accidents – the town had been a whole heap quieter. And with Keefe lying six feet under it was likely to be quieter still.
It was, Prosper thought, a strange killing – though the victim was not unexpected. Keefe’s face was unmarked, but his body was bashed and bludgeoned – caved in near flat in places as if someone had been at him with a sledge hammer. Whoever had done for Keefe had a passionate hate going. And yet, the body, when it was found hidden high in the hills was cared for as if by kin. Wrapped in linen and laid reverently in the ground, there was even a rough cross on Keefe’s breast. Almost as if two men and not one had a hand in it. True, Prosper knew, some murderers took to remorse after a killing, but those were most likely to confess and often killed with a heated heart.
Lovers done wrong often wept over their murders and begged forgiveness as they were hauled off to their fates. But in his long career, Prosper had yet to see a murder of this violence paired with such a respectful burying. It was perplexing and filled him with a strange dread. Any man who could behave in such a way and then turn civilized over a burial was touched by some sort of devil. There were, in this wide world, Prosper knew, such folk about – yet he had hoped never to encounter one in his jurisdiction.
It came to his mind, unbidden, that most folk would suspect Roan Everett’s father – seeing as Keefe had killed his only son a month earlier. But Prosper had known Old Man Everett – as well as the man could be known – since he was himself a boy. And though it could not be argued that the Old Man was uncanny, he was not the type to turn to vengeance. Keefe had other enemies and friends that fought him of occasion who may’ve had cause to come at him with gun or knife. But this work was more than a moment of recklessness.
It was on these matters that Prosper was ruminating, sitting on his haunches and looking into the grave, when the County Examiner, Will Scott, pulled up in a battered ole Jeep that looked like an Army surplus repainted – which was what it was. “Had a hell of a time getting up here, Prosper,” Will yelled up from the Jeep.
“Well, I don’t think our killer was thinking of your convenience,” Prosper said as he stood to full height.
Will walked over and peered down into the hole, “Son of a bitch!” he said, “What the hell did that?”
“Reckon that’s the County Examiner’s job to ascertain,” Prosper said.
“Well,” Will said, “I think my official first opinion will have to be ‘damned if I know.’ That’s a piece of work, that is. Some sort of hammer or shovel, do you think?”
“Those strikes look bigger,” Prosper said, “And rounder and deeper than a man could make with a hammer or spade.”
Will began to open his bag and called back to his assistant still waiting by the Jeep. “He’s a little jumpy,” he said to Prosper, gesturing to the boy walking up the path, “Straight out of school and a murder his first week.”
“Run of bad luck,” Prosper said.
Will looked back down at the body, “For everyone concerned,” he agreed.
Two days later, a second body turned up. This one laying at the edge of town crushed near flat. It took dental records and a good deal of cussing by Will Scott to identify the man as John Willum – a lay-about that came into town for a weekly game of dice. The killer took no pain to hide this kill or the next two that showed up. One a known moonshiner, named Michaels, who folk generally liked and the other a girl named Ann that lived down by the river with her grandmother. The dead had nothing in common but their fate and Prosper was hard pressed to think of a reason – other than pure malice – that anyone would’ve had to harm these particular three souls. Any man who knew Willum wasn’t likely to be familiar with Ann – other than from a distance. She had been a pretty girl and was in training to be a teacher. It was known that Roan Everett had dated her while they were both back in school. But she had little to do with him in the year before his death. Besides, Roan was in the ground himself. The friends he had left behind – easily counted on one hand – were little likely to take revenge on an old love of his. That left only Roan’s father – and there was no doubt that the man had been acting odd as of late.
Old Man Everett had asked that his son be buried up near his house – instead of in the local bone yard. That hadn’t been taken as strange, at the time, since folk had family cemeteries all over the Valley. But there was word that the Old Man had the boy dug up and moved elsewhere – though no one could say for sure. And folk that had seen Everett since Roan’s death said he was strange-eyed and wild acting – not his usual self. But losing a son – especially an only son – can change a man, Prosper knew. Still, he thought it best if he spoke to the man, for it might be that he knew of some friend of Roan’s that had taken the dead boy’s scores upon himself.
Old Man Everett’s house was big by Valley standards and sat high in the hills. A long elm-shaded path led to it and a fellow sitting on the house’s long, low porch could see visitors coming from a mile or more away. When Prosper rounded the curve and caught his first glimpse of the dark-wooded structure, he could see that the Old Man was waiting on the porch and that another fellow was standing under the trees shading his eyes with his hand. But when he pulled up to the gravel lot and parked his car, the shaded man was gone and the Old Man was sitting by himself rocking.
“Mind if I come up for a while,” Prosper called as walked up the path and when the Old Man nodded he climbed the porch stairs and sat.”
“Thought you might be up,” the Old Man said, “I heard about poor little Ann.”
“She was friends with your son,” Prosper said.
The Old Man laughed then, but there was no joy in it, “Not many was friends with my son,” he said, “Ann was a girl with good sense and got shut of him quick enough.”
“All men have their faults,” Prosper said, “And I’d be the last to speak ill of the dead.”
The Old Man nodded, “So would I. They say the dead listen to living folk from where they are. But some don’t hold with such things. I haven’t had much cause to speak to you, Sheriff Vance, but I wonder what you think about such matters.”
“I think I saw a fellow there under those trees when I pulled up,” Prosper said.
“Maybe there was,” the Old Man said, “Or maybe it was just them elms casting a shadow. In these hills you can’t always tell what you see.”
“Maybe that’s so,” Prosper said, “And maybe some friend of your son’s believes that he has reason to feel wronged.”
“I doubt,” the Old Man said sadly, “That there are two or three even in this world that shed a tear for Roan.” He turned and looked at Prosper dead on then and said, “I may’ve been his father, but I wasn’t blind. You hope and you pray, but sometimes there’s no changing things – least of all the heart of a man.”
“If you knew something,” Prosper said, “Something that would help me find the man that killed Ann and the others, you’d tell me.”
The Old Man sighed and then began to rock, “If I knew something to be told, I’d tell you.” He said, “But there are some things that walk in this world that your law has no hold over.”
“Well,” Prosper said, “I’d still like you to send me word if you hear of something – one way or the other.”
The Old Man nodded and after a while, Prosper got up and left. As he drove down the hill, he could see the Old Man rocking still in his rear-view mirror and something dark and reddish that flirted through the shadows along the path. A deer, maybe, but a big one. Or maybe something else that he didn’t want to imagine.
When Prosper got back to the jail, there was a message waiting for him from the County Examiner. There were pieces of clay embedded in the bodies, some lanced into their shattered bones. Will reckoned it might’ve been that the murder instrument – maybe some kind of farm tool – was dirt encrusted at the time that it was used. But the clay was the same in all instances and seemed to come from one source.
Another message asked him to stop by Hollister Hardware – there had been a break-in last night though nothing seemed taken – only a few windows shattered. The Hollister place was right on the edge of town and well-known for its weekly card game. It was also the place that Roan Everett had met his maker a month or more ago – bleeding out before an ambulance could make its way from the County Hospital. There was still a blood patch on the wood floor in the back room.
Folk said that the blood of a murdered man would never be washed off. But Prosper knew for a fact that blood soaked into wood would not be washed whether it came from a man or a critter. It was enzymes that kept the shadow of blood on the Hardware Store floor and not a vengeful haint. Still, Billy Hollister was in a near fit by the time Prosper pulled up to the Hardware Store and took Prosper to the backroom where the blood still looked new on the oak. He pointed, finger shaking in rage, at four broken windows and an unhinged door.
“Son of a bitch busted up the whole back of the store,” Billy said.
“Don’t reckon you saw who did this?” Prosper said.
“Sure I did,” Billy said, “I was in the front closing up when the big heavy-footed bastard clean knocked the back off the store.”
“You might’ve called last night,” Prosper said.
“What good would it have done?” Billy said, “I had that twitchy little insurance fellow to deal with all morning. Reckon you could wait til after.”
Prosper sighed, “Did you get a look at his face?” Prosper asked, “Did he look like any fellow you knew?”
“Oh, I knew him alright,” Billy said, “Though I wouldn’t rightly say you could call him a man.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Prosper asked, “Either it was a man or it wasn’t.”
“Wasn’t then,” Billy said, “Wasn’t anything that I ever saw before – but it was like a man and I can name the one.”
Prosper tapped the table, “I know what you’re going to say, Billy, for you’ve been saying it all about town this morning. And you know well as I do that Roan Everett is dead and buried.”
Billy snorted, “I don’t suppose that being either would stop him much.”
“Well,” Prosper said, “That puts me in a fine pickle – there’s no law governing dead folk I reckon.”
Billy nodded, “True enough. And doesn’t that just put everything on his side.”
Prosper just nodded, which was usually best to do when Billy was taken with a conviction. “There’s not a man in the Valley that don’t know what Everett is or what Roan was,” Billy said, “And you know that’s God’s truth!”
“Well, if you see anything again or anyone,” Prosper said, “You be sure to let me know.”
“I will,” Billy said, “And if I see that bastard Roan Everett I’m going to put a hole in him – dead or not.”
There were times that Prosper thought he had made a bad career decision the day he took up lawing. This was one of them and, of late, there had been quite a few. Folk were dead and it was easy enough to see who was behind the killings. The only problem being that the most likely suspect was dead himself. Folk were talking. They took to locking their doors and kept the curtains drawn by night. Though no one mentioned by name what they all knew to be true, they kept away from dark places and fortified themselves with crosses and charms and comforts against the darkness. Prosper was not a believer in such comforts, though he wasn’t opposed to a stiff drink on a cold night – which was a comfort of its own.
Prosper considered himself a simple man – though, in truth, he was deep minded and though slow to speak, he said a lot. He had seen just about all the wickedness man had to offer, as well as a surprising amount of good. Roan Everett, by his recollection, was one of the worst human beings that the earth had ever spat up – despite the goodness of his father’s heart. Prosper didn’t believe much in God or the Devil, but he did believe in good and evil and he knew that evil men walked among us – many with faces like angels. Roan had been just such a man. And the day that Keefe McCalister had put a bullet through Roan’s throat only one man had wept.
Now, McCalister was dead, along with a good number of other folk that Roan had disliked or liked too much. And Prosper figured that being dead was not likely to stop a man such as Roan from his desires. There were some, Prosper knew, that believed only in the light of day and in what could be proven and seen. Scientific folks, he imagined, lived a comforted life knowing so little about what really was. The electric light, when it had come up and down the Valley, had shut out the shadows and put men’s hearts to rest. But just because the dark was pushed back a bit didn’t mean it was gone or that the things that lurked in the dark of night or in the dark of men’s hearts were any less hungry.
It was plain to see the cause behind the slew of dead and disappeared that had come upon the Valley. The fact that most folk didn’t want to own what they already knew seemed a mystery to him. He had, in his sixty years, known dead folk to walk more than once. He had seen a crow speak with the voice of a girl and a river run red with blood. He had heard, in the high hills, the sultry sweet voice of the Wampus Cat and found prints left behind that matched no creature he could name. So when Alice Caldwell’s mother came crying to his door in the dusk, saying her daughter had took missing, he knew what had to be done. Over the years, Vance had learned that truths, even the hardest ones to digest, had a certain taste to them. And despite the illogic of it, he could taste this truth clear down to the bone.
So, for the second time in that long week, he drove to the Everett Place. Though this time the drive seemed longer, knowing what he might face at its end. Grief for certain lay ahead of him and perhaps something worse. As he walked the lonely path that led to the house, Prosper could see even through the growing gloom the Old Man waiting in his rocker on the covered porch. He climbed the stairs and when the Old Man did not move and he sat down at his right hand.
Old Man Everett sat staring out into the night for the longest time and then he began to rock again. “You know.” he said simply to Prosper and then he sighed. “I used to think,” he said, “That there was some right and wrong in this world. And that if a man did good, good would follow after.”
“You ought to know better than that,” Prosper said.
The Old Man nodded, “I do and yet I don’t believe it. Don’t want to. He was my son, and I knew him for what he was, but he was my son just the same.”
“I never knew you to be a man that didn’t stand by his principles,” Prosper said, “None could say you didn’t.”
“You know what I am, I wager, and what I done for him.” the Old Man said, “His death hit me hard. I come close to losing him as a boy more than once and it seemed some sort of mercy that he lived. With his mother gone, he was all I had. I wasn’t there when he was shot. It could be that there was something that I could’ve done – even if it was only to make my peace with him.”
“He lived his own life,” Prosper said, “He was a man grown when he took that bullet. And though maybe you might’ve kept him from that bullet, there would’ve just been another on some other day.”
“All our death’s are waiting for us one day or the other,” the Old Man said, “Even mine.”
“Still,” Prosper said, “You did the best you could with that boy.”
“It’s a kindness for you to say it,” the Old Man said, “But a boy follows after his father. He had, you see, his mother’s heart. She was a wild thing, but I knew from the first time I clapped eyes on her that she was all I wanted.” He chuckled and for a minute sounded almost young to Prosper, but then the moon passed by and he saw just how old the Old Man was – ancient – almost as if he was cut from the earth and stones himself. “I might was well have loved a wild cat or a bear,” he continued, “She wasn’t something to be kept. And when the boy came and she died I turned all that love in on him and maybe it was too much for him to bear. Maybe it was too much for anyone to bear – to be so much to any other.”
“I don’t conjure it was your fault,” Prosper said, “Every man comes up in this world one way or another and some are good and others aren’t. A man has to take responsibility for what he does in this life.”
“Yes,” the Old Man said, “No truer words were spoken this day or any other. And that’s what I mean to do.”
“I wouldn’t ask it of you,” Prosper said, “For whatever’s he’s done or is, he is your son.”
“I brung him into this world twice,” the Old Man said, “It lays on me to take him out of it.” He smiled then and laid his hand over Prosper’s own, “You’re a young man yet, so you might not know. But all men are called up out of the dirt – some stay in it a good while longer than others – but, in the end, all of them return to it. Nothing’s to be done about it and sometimes it’s a comfort to return to what we are. Dirt. Good and clean.”
They sat in the dark, the Old Man rocking for a very long time. And softly, Prosper heard the Old Man say, “I, of all people, should’ve known better.”
Hours passed before they heard the shuffling, heavy gait of stony dirt against the gravel path. Roan was coming home as he did each night. Under the full moon, Prosper could see that there was something dark smeared about his face and hands. He reeked of sorrow and sin and the Old Man rose to meet him. He walked down the path alone to meet his son and greeted him with a kiss. And softly, almost lip to lip, he whispered a word turned back on itself, almost too low for Prosper to hear – almost.
The change, from life to death, is not a quick one even it is lasts only a few seconds. And for the rest of his very long life Prosper would remember the Old Man on his knees in the dirt holding on to the rapidly dissolving form of his son. He would see, each night in his dreams, the slow silting of the clay and the rising piles of dust around the broken form of the Old Man until he was left holding only gleaming white bones tattered with linen. And even in his sleep, Prosper would weep.