The doctors insisted on checking me out before allowing me to leave. Apparently the debris did a number on my appearance — at least, I hoped thats all it was. Before they released me, Elmira made it to the hospital and he was steamed.
“What were you doing there?” Elmira demanded.
“Saving those cops’ lives,” I said.
“We thank you for that,” Elmira said. “But you had no business looking into the scene of a crime your girlfriend is accused of. That could be looked at as tampering with evidence, Cavanaugh.”
“You damn well know that isn’t true,” I said. “And besides — good luck proving I even got close to the house before the storm took it out.”
“Don’t test me, Cavanaugh,” Elmira said. He turned to stalk out, but hesitated. “There’s pressure coming down on this case from on high, Ron. Beyond the district attorney.”
“That just confirms my number one suspect for me, then,” I said.
Elmira grabbed my arm, a firm, unfriendly grip I was not used to. “Ron. You’re a good man, a good friend. You’re going to pretend you learned this at the Henry house: The witness is a young woman, eighteen by a few weeks, named Cheryl Ruth Schaeffer. She’s went back to her cousins in Schaefferville, so I know I don’t have to tell you not to bother trying to talk to her.”
I’d spent some time on previous cases out in the county, a place mostly dominated by the constantly feuding Vance and Harman clans — long-distance cousins fueding over past sins nobody remembers. But at the corner of the county, spreading across a small, wooded tri-county range, lived the Schaeffer clan. Nobody went into the place called Schaefferville, not even the State Police. Several hundred acres of mostly wooded land broken up by the occasional dirt road and hunting path, inhabited solely by the Schaeffer family. They didn’t take part in the world of men — they stuck to themselves, and outsiders weren’t welcome.
People who ventured too far usually never came back out.
“Shit,” I said again.
“You can’t reach her there, Ron.”
“I’ll have to try,” I said.
Elmira didn’t say anything else to me. He knew he couldn’t talk me out of it, and he wasn’t stupid enough to accompany me — not that I would let him, or anyone else. I hadn’t had many run-ins with the Schaeffers, but none had been particularly pleasant.
Driving the roads in town became a good preview for the county roads: paved or not, the debris and destruction after the storm slowed me at every turn. My skin crawled when I drove past the acres owned by the Vances and toward the foreboding forest heralding the start of Schaefferville. The orange dirt road narrowed as the trees encroached, boughs of oak scattered with Spanish moss and various vines. A lone stray dog near the edge of the woods watched me head in.
Not five minutes into the woods passed before an old, rusted out Ford pulled out of a nearly invisible side road and tailed me. In my rear view I saw three male faces leaned forward, eyes narrow as they stared at my car. Better sooner than later, I figured, and I put on a turn signal and drifted over further under the trees. The truck followed, pulling up near on top of my bumper. I didn’t give them a chance to approach before stepping out of the car, my hands up to show I didn’t intend to be a threat, but not so far as to indicate surrender.
“Well, well,” the driver said as he stepped out. My stomach twisted when I recognized him. A good head shorter than me, his face narrow and pinched, a thin, long nose and small mouth — packed with chew — facial hair a few days past five o’clock. I knew the wiry little shit: Clifford.
While the Schaeffer’s don’t much care for the outside world, they do occasionally send their boys out into the world for the only passion they have for anything but each other: attempting to play ball on any organized team they can. The problem with their strategy is that their ideas about how baseball works are just as inbred as they are.
“Clifford,” I said.
He spit a long, stringy bit of tobacco juice onto the ground between us. “Y’made a wrong turn, boy,” he said. Despite being two years younger than I.
“No, I’m looking for a cousin of yours,” I said. “I wanted to ask her a few questions.”
“Cheryl Ruth,” Clifford said. “Her family wen’out to the worl’ a bit, seems Cheryl feels th’need t’embrace her kin ‘gain. Whatchuh wan’ with her?”
“Just questions about something she saw,” I said.
“Momma’ll wanna talk t’yuh,” Clifford said. “Take ‘is gun, Bubs.”
One of the other two — brothers, clearly — stepped up and pulled my 1911 out of the shoulder holster, tucking it into his belt.
“Bubs’ll drive yuh car,” Clifford said. “So yuh don’t git no ideas.”
I nodded. Clifford was the crown prince of Schaefferville, the son of Donna Leigh Ann and Gary Clifford Schaeffer, a pair of first cousins. I knew Gary’d met his untimely end a few years back which usually caused some other cousin to step up and try to boss the family around — but Donna Leigh had an iron grip on her family.
I sat between Clifford and his cousin as they drove down unmarked, twisted roads toward Donna Leigh’s place. It was an old wooden hut raised up about five feet off the ground, painted blue at some point twenty years ago. The porch wrapped around the house, the covered roof of the porch fallen in where a few trees collapsed onto it. A pair of mean, growling, foaming dogs made their presence known, getting as close as the heavy chains around their necks would allow. Like the clan, the dogs were inbred mutts.
Donna Leigh sat on the porch, in a custom made rocking chair, knitting something. She looked somewhat like her son, Clifford, except she’d expanded something mighty and the chair made creaking noises as she rocked. Donna Leigh wore some form of moo-moo and no shoes. Come to think of it, the feet of the boys were bare as well. One of Clifford’s sisters sat on the porch swing, also knitting. She might have been blond if she washed her hair, and she might have been pale if she washed her skin. Apparently a thick layer of grime protected the Schaeffer’s from ghosts.
“Who’s-is?” Donna Leigh asked. She never looked up.
“Ron,” Clifford said. “The priv-ut dee-tective.”
She looked up at me, eyes so brown they appeared black. “Why’re yuh here?”
“I just want to ask Cheryl Ruth some questions.”
“She’s muh cousin Sharon Faith’s girl, whutchuh wan’ with’er?”
“Just to ask her about something she saw,” I said.
Donna Leigh fixed her eyes on me again. “We know who yuh are, whut yuh do. Forget it. Boys, take him to Uncle Preacher so’s he kin get rat w’th’Lawd.”
They didn’t make threats much more obvious in Schaefferville. Before I got another word out the boys were all dragging me back to the truck.
“Take ‘is core,” Donna Leigh said. “No sense usin’ are gas.”
“Yes’m,” Clifford said. He shoved me into the back of my own car, and Bubs and his brother got in on either side of me. They took off down the dirt road back toward the main way before turning onto another nearly invisible side path. Clifford wasn’t a great driver by any means.
The three of them dragged me into the wooden church, an old building expanded on through the years with the love and care of a half-blind beaver with one good tooth. Even though I was walking with them and not attempting to resist, they still felt the need to be rough about it. Clifford hollared from the moment he opened the front door for the preacher. A few moments after we reached the altar, he entered.
“Uncle Preacher,” Clifford said. “Momma wan’s this’n t’get rat w’th’Lawd.”
The pastor, who may or may not have actually been named Preacher, looked at me, then the inbred hicks around me. The Schaeffer features weren’t as harsh in his face, a little outside blood clearly in his line of the family. A tall man, but not very broad, with gangly too-long arms. He sat on one of the front row pews and motioned for me to sit. I did so, and then he motioned for his kin to leave.
“A man needs his priv’see w’th’Lawd,” Preacher said.
“Y’sir,” Clifford said. His sycophantic cousins bowed their heads slightly and went out of the church.
“Gunna die t’day, son,” the Preacher said. No malice in his voice, no threat — he merely stated a fact, as he saw it. That made it worse.
“Looks like,” I said.
“Shouldn’t be here,” he said. “Wan’ pray? Confess?”
“Pray with me?” I asked.
He nodded, then he put an arm around my shoulder and pulled my head close to his body. I could smell his body odor deep in my soul as he started the pray in his half-English, half-woods-person tongues. I let him lead, let him get into the prayer, before I pulled my slapjack free of my pocket and beaned him hard in the temple.
It wasn’t hard *enough* because he started bellering for his kin before I got to the back door that led into his attached house. An old fat Schaeffer woman screamed at me from her kitchen table — also, oddly, knitting — and a half-naked toddler screamed at both of us from his play pen. Clifford and Bubs’ brother came through the door a few steps before I got to the front door, so I tossed a rocking chair their way.
The yard outside opened up to the ever-present, dark woods around Schaefferville. These boys likely knew every tree and every branch. I just needed to get to my car.
Bubs was sitting in the front seat of it, and I heard a shotgun racked behind me. Trees became far more attractive. Just as I ducked around an ancient live oak Clifford fired the shotgun, and a few pellets of shot hit the bark, spraying my chest with angry debris.
“Go git’im!” Clifford yelled.
I felt around the base of the tree, hoping for a big rock or branch, and wrapped my hands around what felt like a rock. As I lifted it I realized it was once made of steel or iron — an overly rusted hinge or some other ancient piece of hardware. I hurled it deeper into the woods with all my might. The dumb hick followed the sound.
When he passed by the tree I took refuge in, I pulled my .38 snubnose. The stupid hicks hadn’t counted on my paranoia, a lesson passed down by my mentor Kate Nass before his untimely murder. I fired one shot, aiming for his upper back. The bullet hit just below his ribcage and he fell. First to his knees, then he fell forward onto his face. He wailed in pain.
“I’m shot, Bubs! Bubs, I’m shot!” He repeated that chorus several times.
Bubs came running out of my car and toward the trees. I didn’t know where Clifford was. I couldn’t risk running out toward the car, or even away from the wounded idiot. Instead, I climbed up into the tree, just above the trunk, nestling myself between the mighty branches of the oak as they split to reach for the sky. When I was perhaps ten feet up Bubs ran beneath me, toward his brother.
I jumped onto his back, bringing the butt of my pistol into the top of his skull. It knocked him silly, but didn’t kill him or even put him down. Clifford came running up, and I held the dazed Bubs in front of me.
“Don’t do it,” I said. “I could’ve killed both of them — I could have killed the Preacher. I didn’t want trouble, Clifford.”
“Shoot ‘im Cliffy!” Bubs yelled.
“That’s a shotgun, Cliffy,” I said. “You’ll hit him more than me, no matter how good your aim may be.”
Clifford shook with rage and adrenaline. I knew the feeling.
“Lower it,” I said. “Let’s end this without Bubs dying. His brother needs help.”
“I’m shot!” the brother yelled.
Clifford looked past us at his cousin. “Yuh f-”
I tossed Bubs at him. Clifford fired the shotgun into the ground when his cousin slammed into him, and I jumped onto the pile of Schaeffer, wrestling the shotgun from Clifford before his slow mind caught up to what was going on.
I didn’t particularly want to carry his shotgun around if I’d be fighting in close quarters. I racked the slide several times, until the shells all lay at our feet, and then I busted Clifford right in the chin with the side of the shotgun. He dropped like I’d shot him, his eyes glassy, and I hurled the empty shotgun into the woods.
Bubs started to get to his feet and I gave him two reasons to reconsider: I brought my knee hard into the general region of his balls, and then put my knuckles right into his chin, giving him that same glassy-eyed look.
I’d like to say as I drove out I didn’t once look back, but I did. Especially when a different rusty, black Ford truck rolled out of nowhere to chase me. In the rear-view I could see just one Schaeffer behind the wheel and I didn’t recognize him. Not Bubs or brother, not Clifford, and definitely not preacher. A young, fatter-faced man. But his truck had fifteen or twenty years on my car and he couldn’t keep pace.
Not a hundred yards outside the trees, two sheriff’s cars blocked the road, lights on. The Ford nearly flipped over making a violent U-turn and heading back toward Schaefferville. Sheriff Edwards stood between the two cars, a shotgun in his hand.
My car barely stopped in time to miss him, and he calmly walked to the driver’s side. I opened the door rather than roll the window down.
“Are you out of your goddamn mind?!” Edwards yelled right in my face. “You went into Schaefferville to pick a fight? Are you fucking insane?”
“It’s for Audrey,” I said.
“She’ll appreciate that when they never find your bones, you goddamn fool!”
“I didn’t have a choice,” I said.
“Ron. Jesus Christ, Ron. I cannot protect you from them. There are a whole acre of them, and they don’t respect the law. If they don’t kill you, your daddy will when he finds out where you just went.”
“I’m a grown man,” I said.
“You think that’ll stop him?” Edwards asked. His face still glowed red as his lights. “Winston Cavanaugh knows damn well what those inbred yokels are capable of.”
“It’ll be fine,” I said.
“You think you’ll get to talk to that girl now? Ever?” Edwards pointed the shotgun at the trees. “She won’t ever walk out of those trees again!”
I grinned at him. “Then she won’t be testifying, ‘ey sheriff?”
I couldn’t see his eyes through his sunglasses, but I knew they must have widened. “You risked your fucking life to scare her out of testifying?”
“No,” I said. “But it’s a nice side effect. You know damn well they won’t let her out into the world if I was willing to stick my nose in their bushy forest to talk to her.”
“You’re fucking insane,” Edwards said. “I’ve got storm damage to get back to. Get your ass back to town and don’t let me find you near this place again.”
If you like this, and think you’d like to read more, I have collected the first four volumes of the Cigars and Legs series into big e-book: Boots, Dames, and Skies: The Red, White, and Blue Collection (Cigars and Legs Book 5)