Authors: Bill Crider
Rhodes grinned at the memory. His family had moved to town before he'd become an expert milker, but he thought he could still milk a cow if called upon.
He rounded a curve, crossed the wooden bridge over Crockett's Creek, and saw that the old barn where his house had been was almost gone, fallen completely down and almost hidden by vines and bushes that had grown up over and around what was left of it. That was why it was better not to think about the past. What was left of it never lived up to the memories.
Rhodes drove past and around another curve, turned left onto another road, and drove a half mile to where the Hunts lived. He pulled off to the side of the road, stopping the Tahoe in front of the house. It had been new when Rhodes was a boy, but it hadn't been fancy even then. It hadn't been kept up, and now showed its age. The paint was flaked and peeling, and a few loose shingles lay on the roof. A pane in one of the windows had been replaced by cardboard. The yard was mostly weeds, and it hadn't been mowed in a while. The house sat up on concrete blocks, and the space between the house and the ground was covered with tin that had been painted white like the house, though some of it had been bent away and not straightened. It was streaked with rust. The satellite dish on the roof looked like new, however.
Rhodes couldn't remember exactly when the Hunts had moved into the house, but it had been a good many years earlier. The original owners, an old couple named Phelps, had moved somewhere to be closer to their children. Houston, Rhodes thought, or Dallas. They were probably dead by now.
Melvin's wife, Joyce, had worked in town for a while at the Walmart, but she'd quit a few years ago and hadn't had another job as far as Rhodes knew. Melvin made a little money doing odd jobs around Clearview, and he'd done welding for people who needed it until his rig had been stolen. Hunt might've been the one who cut out the B-Bar-B brand and welded it to Billy's gate for him. Rhodes would have to remember to ask Billy about that.
The welding rig had been kept in the barn in back of the house. The barn was in no better condition than the house, but at least it hadn't fallen down. Yet. Rhodes didn't think it was going to last much longer if something wasn't done.
Rhodes looked through the windshield of the Tahoe at the trees in back of the barn. They grew thickly all the way down to Crockett's Creek, and Rhodes wondered if the Hunts had experienced any problems with feral hogs. It seemed likely, but something like that would be the last of Joyce Hunt's concerns now.
Rhodes got out of the Tahoe and shut the door. As soon as he did two black-and-brown short-haired dogs of indeterminate breed charged out from under the little porch in front of the house and headed straight for him, barking loudly, teeth bared. There was some leopard hound in their background somewhere.
Carelessness. That was what came of thinking about the past. You forgot about the present and what might get you in trouble. Rhodes should have thought about the dogs. There were almost always dogs at houses this far out in the country, and the people who had them didn't usually keep them around as companions. They wanted real watchdogs who could protect their property from other animals and unwanted guests, and this pair didn't appear to be in a friendly mood. They appeared to be in the mood to rip somebody's arms off, and the nearest somebody with arms was Rhodes.
Moving with an alacrity he hadn't experienced since the long-gone Will o' the Wisp days, Rhodes opened the Tahoe door, jumped inside, and slammed the door. He was just in time. The dog that had been two steps ahead of the other, unable to stop his forward momentum, slammed into the door with enough force to shake the vehicle. Or maybe Rhodes was just imagining that. The Tahoe weighed nearly six thousand pounds, after all.
The dog wasn't hurt. He and his partner stood outside the Tahoe, jumping up and trying to bite Rhodes through the window, their claws scratching the paint as they slid back down. The Blacklin County Sheriff's Department decal was going to be a mess. The county commissioners wouldn't be happy about that.
Rhodes could have unlocked the shotgun and given the dogs a bit of a surprise, but he didn't want to do that. He saw an old GMC pickup sitting beside the house, so he figured someone, probably Joyce Hunt, was home. Eventually she'd come out to see what was happening and call off the dogs. Or Rhodes hoped she'd call off the dogs. If she didn't, he could always use his handy cell phone to call her and ask her to do it. He was prepared to wait a while before trying that option, however.
He didn't have to wait long. Up at the house a screen door opened and a woman stepped out on the porch. It was Joyce Hunt. She wore a pair of jeans, low-heeled work boots, and a sweater. Her gray hair hung down almost to her shoulders. She stood for a second looking at the dogs and then called out to them.
“Gus-Gus! Jackie! You get back here right now!”
Gus-Gus and Jackie didn't pay her any mind. They kept jumping against the side of the Tahoe and biting at the window.
“Did you two hear me?” Joyce yelled. “Get away from that car and come back here right this minute!”
The two dogs dropped to the ground, and Rhodes leaned over to look out the window. They were still right beside the Tahoe, but they were looking back toward the house.
“I mean it,” Joyce said. “Get up here right now.”
The dogs hesitated for another couple of seconds, then trotted toward the house. When they got to the porch, Joyce bent over and patted them. Rhodes thought she was probably telling them what good dogs they were. She straightened up and called out to Rhodes. “You can get out now. They won't bother you.”
Rhodes hoped he could believe her. He considered taking the shotgun, but that would be cowardly. He opened the door. Gus-Gus and Jackie turned to look at him at the sound. Their looks weren't friendly in the least, but Rhodes got out of the Tahoe. The dogs growled low in their throats.
“You can come on up, Sheriff,” Joyce said. “You don't have to worry about the boys. I won't let them hurt you.”
Rhodes thought that was neighborly of her. She might have changed her mind if she knew what he was there for.
“You boys go lie down,” Joyce told the dogs.
The dogs paid her no attention. They kept their eyes on Rhodes and continued to make low growling noises.
“Just go on into the house,” Joyce said when Rhodes got almost to the porch. “I'll stay out here with the boys until you get in and close the door. They'll be fine.”
Rhodes wasn't worried about the condition of the dogs. He was more worried about his own. He stepped up on the porch, staying as far from the dogs as he could, which wasn't far, considering how small the porch was. The dogs stayed still, but they both stared balefully at him as he went by them and into the house, pulling the screen door shut behind him. It was a flimsy door and wouldn't last long if the dogs threw themselves against it, but they didn't bother. As soon as he was inside, they jumped off the porch and disappeared as if they'd forgotten all about him.
Rhodes looked around the room he found himself in and saw a sagging sofa, a battered coffee table, a cane-bottomed rocking chair, and a couple of end tables with lamps whose shades had accumulated a good bit of dust. The flat-screen TV facing the sofa was on but muted. Rhodes saw Alex Trebek mouthing a question that some gray-haired professorial type wearing a bow tie appeared to answer.
The screen door opened, and Joyce Hunt came inside.
“The boys aren't as mean as they sound,” she said. “They don't like strangers, though, so they're good watchdogs.”
Rhodes nodded. “I'm sure they are.”
“I guess this isn't a social call,” Joyce said.
“No,” Rhodes said. “It's not.”
“I'm going to sit down,” Joyce said. “You have a seat, too.”
She sat in the rocking chair, leaving the sofa to Rhodes. He sat on it, and the cushions sagged down even more.
“Is it about Melvin?” Joyce asked. She pushed her hair back. Her face was browned and wrinkled. “I haven't see him since yesterday.”
“Yes, it's about Melvin,” Rhodes said. He'd never found a good way to tell someone about the death of a family member or a loved one, so he just did it the best way he knew how, which was straight out. “I hate to have to give you this news. Melvin's dead.”
Rhodes never knew what to expect when he said those words. Sometimes people started to cry. Sometimes they said nothing. Sometimes they tried to hit him. And sometimes they denied it. That's what Joyce did.
“That can't be,” she said. “He was just fine yesterday. Healthy as a horse. He's not dead. Not Melvin. You must be wrong about that.”
“I wish I was,” Rhodes said, “but I'm not. Melvin's dead. Somebody shot him.”
“Melvin? Shot?” Joyce started to rock back and forth, slowly, her hands gripping the low arms of the chair. “Who'd shoot Melvin, Sheriff?”
“I don't know who shot him. He was in Billy Bacon's barn. Do you know what he was doing there?”
“He doesn't always tell me where he's going. Sometimes he's gone a day or two, but he always comes back.” Joyce's hands tightened on the arms of the chair, and her knuckles whitened. She started to rock faster. “He'll be back tonight or tomorrow. He always comes back.”
“Not this time. Do you have another vehicle besides the one parked outside?”
“No. That's the only one. What difference does that make?”
“Melvin had to get to the barn somehow or the other. Did he walk?”
“He never tells me where he's going or how he's going to get there. Sometimes somebody picks him up and they go drinking. Sometimes they pick him up here and sometimes they don't. He might walk to Walter Barnes's house. Maybe he's with Walter right now.”
“He's not with Walter. Do you have somebody you can stay with tonight?”
“My sister. She lives in Clearview. Ellen Smalls. Why?”
Rhodes knew the Smalls family. Will and Ellen lived not too far from the Dairy Queen.
“You get some things together, and I'll take you to your sister's,” he said. “You should pack a bag. You might want to stay a couple of days.”
“Melvin might come back and wonder where I am.”
“Melvin won't be back. You get out a suit for him, or whatever you'd like to have him dressed in. You can see him tomorrow.”
Joyce stood up. So did Rhodes. She looked a little shaky, so he took her elbow to steady her.
“I'm fine,” she said. “It's just that MelvinÂ â¦ he's always come back before.”
“Where does he go?” Rhodes asked, dropping his hand.
“I told you. Off with friends. He doesn't tell me much. I need to get his suit. He hasn't worn it in years. I don't know if it'll fit.”
“I'm sure it will fit,” Rhodes said, not adding that if it didn't, it could be adjusted so it would look as if it did.
“I'll be right back,” Joyce said.
She went out of the room, and Rhodes sat back down. A couple of magazines lay on the coffee table, but they were as dusty as the lampshades. The TV remote was beside them, and it wasn't dusty. Rhodes left it where it was and watched
in silence. The professorial type in the bow tie won the final round just as Joyce came back into the room. She had a man's black suit draped over her left arm and an old-fashioned hard-bodied suitcase in her right hand.
Rhodes stood and took the suitcase. Joyce picked up the remote and turned off the TV set. Setting the remote back on the coffee table, she said, “I called my sister. I can stay with her, but I'm worried about the boys. I can shut them up in the barn for a day or so, I guess, but they need to be let out every day.”
“I'll check on them for you,” Rhodes said. “I can give them some food and water if it's safe.”
Joyce laid the coat across the back of the couch. “That would be kind of you. The boys won't bother you. Come on outside and I'll introduce you.”
Rhodes wasn't so sure that was a good idea, but he knew he had to pay another visit to the house. He set the suitcase down and followed Joyce outside. The dogs came out from under the porch in a hurry, but Joyce calmed them.
“You boys sit where you are and behave yourselves. This is the sheriff, and he's going to look after you for me.”
The dogs stood in front of the porch giving Rhodes the stink eye. They didn't appear ready to be friends, but at least they weren't growling. Rhodes figured it was up to him to give them a chance to get to know him. He squatted down on the porch, not facing the dogs and not looking at them. Joyce stepped off the porch and patted the dogs on the head.
“Which one is which?” Rhodes asked, still not looking at the dogs.
“Gus-Gus has the big black spot on his head,” Joyce said. “Jackie's a little bigger, and there's no spot there. They're good boys, aren't you good boys, yes, you are.”
When she'd patted the dogs and rubbed their sides, one of them moved over to the porch for a better look at Rhodes. The other followed. They moved around a little, looking at him from different angles. Gus-Gus approached him and sniffed at his leg. Jackie followed and sniffed as well. Rhodes thought they might have caught the scent of his own dogs, Speedo and Yancey. He'd played with them that morning, and their scents would linger, at least for dogs. Dogs could smell things no human could detect.
After the dogs had sniffed for a few seconds, they seemed satisfied that Rhodes wasn't an enemy. He risked extending his hand, palm down, and Gus-Gus licked it. Rhodes gave him a light pat. Gus-Gus didn't mind, and then Jackie moved him out of the way so he could get a pat, too. Before long, Rhodes was sitting on the porch, and the two dogs were treating him as an old friend.
While they got acquainted, Joyce went back inside the house. In a minute or so, Rhodes heard the back door slam, and Joyce walked across the backyard to the barn. She was carrying a sack of Old Roy dog food, and Gus-Gus and Jackie deserted Rhodes to follow her. They went off at a run and beat her to the barn. Rhodes went along after them, passing a well on the way. A frame over the well held a rope and pulley for drawing water, but there was also a pump. Rhodes figured the pump carried water to the house. The well reminded Rhodes of the one at Billy Bacon's place, the one that had been kicked almost to pieces. Someone didn't like Bacon, all right.