Billy Dumplin’ Josephson settled his bulk into the seat of the Odis City police car which caused the tired old Ford to list slightly to port. Some of the locals thought this was hilarious, and one wag suggested perhaps the city should have Leonard Krebs weld a couple hundred pounds of scrap iron to the frame on the passenger side to counterbalance Billy’s weight.
None of this would have come about if there hadn’t been a crisis of leadership in the city council after an incident at the junior high.
Odis City, Nebraska, seventy miles south of Omaha, was nobody’s paradise. Just a place populated by ordinary people trying to make a living, Odis was a wide spot on Highway 92 surrounded by a vast sea of grain fields. It served the immediate needs of the farming community with its Co-Op elevator; a post office; a bar and grill called The Green Oyster; a grocery store; a gas station and Dairy Deluxe, or DD, out on the highway; and six churches for its four hundred official residents – atheists not counted. There was also a high school/junior high that drew students from surrounding communities in Driscoll County.
It seems that three carloads of kids from Kansas had driven up to Odis for some Saturday night fun. They crashed the junior prom, causing disorder on the dance floor and some scuffles that spilled out onto the street. The County Sheriff sent a couple of cars, but it took them not quite a half-hour to arrive and by then it was all over and the offenders had left town.
Parents were outraged at the lack of law enforcement. They raised some disorder of their own at an emergency town hall meeting called by the Baptist minister and held in the Junior High gymnasium, the scene of the crime.
Annoyed and humiliated by the unauthorized town hall meeting, the city fathers (and one mother, Marcene Mayfair) met in a closed session and after considerable discussion, took action. Since there was no funding for law enforcement, a budget item marked for painted house numbers on curbs was re-purposed. Money was now available for the hiring and equipping of a part-time Constable whose jurisdiction would fall "within the city limits and environs."
(Marcene liked big words. They made the city council resolutions look more resolved, and she didn’t mind that none of the six other council members knew what "environs" meant nor did they care.)
Now that was all fine and good, but there was a downside. Nobody on the council really wanted an effective police officer. For instance, council member Felix Sykes, who was owner of the Dairy Deluxe and a married man, was seeing the Lutheran Pastor’s barely-legal daughter in the storage shed behind his business. She worked Mondays at the DD, bringing a whole new meaning to the term "employee benefits." Felix didn’t want an over-eager cop shining a spotlight on the two of them coming out the shed’s door after-hours.
In fact, every person in the room had reason not to disturb the stability of this little community by exposing high crimes and misdemeanors that were an integral part of its natural order. What incompetent person could the council recruit who would, on the face of it, have the voters thinking their elected officials had answered the call? There was only one possibility: Billy Dumplin’ Josephson.
Billy could have led a normal life, whatever that was, were it not for one event. When he was about ten the girl next door overheard his mother calling him "Dumplin’" as a term of endearment. (Billy was always a little pudgy but not to a remarkable degree. He had two or three classmates with the same kind of build.)
Now anybody who thinks that girls have no capacity for aggressiveness or bullying is living in a fantasy world. The next day at school this neighbor girl and her buddies lit into Billy like a pack of badgers and for the rest of his life the good people of Odis called him "Billy Dumplin’," although the more charitable among them called him "Billy D."
Billy Josephson didn’t have a true enemy in the world except for Coy Dixon who had just taken a natural dislike to him. As luck would have it, Coy was not a person Billy needed for an enemy. It was rumored that Coy’s grandfather had been a bootlegger. Coy’s father, Rayce, had never held a job for more than six months and was feared for his violent temper when drunk. When any of the Dixons came to town there were people who took pains to avoid them.
One weekend during Billy’s High School days, Rayce Dixon’s car left the road in the middle of the night. It went into a deep ditch and collided squarely with the concrete end of a five-foot diameter culvert. Everyone in the car had broken bones including Coy and his friend J.R. Rhinegold.
Coy spent the first weeks of the next school term with a bulky plaster cast around his broken leg. He got by on crutches until the afternoon he slipped on a staircase and slid on his backside all the way down to the next landing, yelling in panic and shedding small pieces of plaster on the gray-painted steps. Unfortunately, Billy was the first to come upon him and seeing that he wasn’t really hurt, made the mistake of laughing at him. At that point Coy’s dislike of Billy blossomed into full-blown hatred and Billy tried to steer clear of him from then on, but he wasn’t always successful.
During a lazy afternoon the following summer, Billy was helping Mr. Train stock shelves in his grocery store. Coming out the back door into the alley with an armload of empty egg cartons, Billy saw, too late, that Coy Dixon was heading his way. With him were J.R. Rhinegold and another guy Billy didn’t know.
Billy scattered the egg cartons and took off running but in seconds he could hear the pounding of Coy’s boots right behind him. Then he felt a hard push on his back, and he pitched forward full-speed onto the broken asphalt of the alley, skinning both arms and hands and getting a hole in one knee of his jeans.
As Billy rolled over, his arms and wrists bloody, Coy piled on him with a knee into his stomach. Billy doubled up. Coy pinned a thrashing and gasping Billy to the pavement and straddled him. The other two guys caught up, but they didn’t participate. They just stood there smiling and observing Coy Dixon at work.
"You smartass motherfucker," Coy spat out. "Say something smart to me now. Come on, you little shit. Say it!"
Billy just squirmed in Coy’s grip. He looked up into the piercing brown eyes of a person so filled with hate he thought he could feel the heat coming off Coy’s dirty stubbled face. And then he could see that Coy was having an inspiration.
To his revulsion, Billy watched as Coy built up a mouthful of spit, which soon enough he let out in an easy drool.
Held to the pavement by his wrists, Billy squirmed and tossed his head from side to side but Coy was in no hurry. He took his time aiming for Billy’s mouth, a moving target which he hit now and then. It was gross. He spit across Billy’s mouth, into his eyes, in his nose.
Finally, J.R. stepped up and said, "That’s enough Coy. Come on. We’ve got other stuff to do." And he smacked his hand on Coy’s shoulder.
Coy released Billy with a shove into the pavement that hurt Billy’s skinned wrists. Then the three just walked away.
Billy rolled over and got to his feet, spitting and wiping his face on his shirt sleeves. He trotted back to the grocery store, went in the back door and stuck his head under the faucet of the utility sink in the storeroom. He dried off, and when his wounds stopped bleeding, he walked out front and bought a grape soda to rinse the yuck out of his mouth. Then he finished his day’s work.
Coy at that time was a bony-lean kid now approaching twenty after being held back in school three times. His tightness and explosive temperament gave him a fearsome strength and a wiliness that only comes from experience in street-fighting. During the school term the other students, and a couple of the teachers, were never comfortable around Coy Dixon.
Shortly after graduation, a ceremony in which Coy received an unsigned diploma, he made the mistake of getting into a brawl out behind a pool hall in Trescott, about twenty miles from Odis. Since one of the participants had been seriously injured the outcome was thirty days in the Rawlins County Jail. At the time of his release he was heard to say that nobody, nobody, was ever going to put him in jail again. If he was a hard-young man before, now he had crossed the line to being just a little dangerous.
As for Billy, his first years after high school were mostly spent working as a farmhand, and in winter he cleared snow with his pickup and his shovel – when there was snow to clear. He continued to live with his parents, and he contributed to family needs. He also got bigger; a lot bigger.
Residents of Odis remember the incident at the DD when Billy was sitting at the lunch counter having his favorite "basket" meal: Two Coney Dogs with chili and fries on the side. Larry Plummer was sitting in one of the booths with his sister and his parents. Nobody knew, but Larry was on a mission. He had made a bet with some of his buddies. Money had been laid down and three weeks of his allowance was riding on the outcome of what would happen in the next few minutes. Billy spotted the fourteen-year-old staring at him.
Billy turned on his stool, making it creak. "What you starin’ at?" he said loudly across the room. All conversation among the other customers stopped. Everyone’s eyes were on Billy, then on the Plummers. The clatter from the kitchen ceased. The silence was… well… the whole world stopped.
Mrs. Plummer was mortified. "Larry! Mind your manners!" She couldn’t look directly at Billy.
Eyeing Billy from behind his father, Larry said, "How big are you anyway?"
"How much?" Larry’s boldness was a little surprising to everyone there.
Larry’s dad said, "Son, you’re getting a little cheeky…"
Billy said, "It’s okay, Mr. Plummer. I got an idea here. Larry, come on out and stand next to me." Billy slid off his stool. Its creaking sound blended into a groan.
Mr. Plummer got out of the booth to let Larry go. He wanted to watch the consequences of the kid’s boldness. There were no clues from his expression but inside he was happy to see Larry was just a little reluctant to come out of his hiding place behind him. By now all three employees of the DD were standing in a row behind the lunch counter, and like the customers, watching.
Billy knew Irene Plummer was the best seamstress in the county. She did prom dresses, tuxedo shirts western-style, and she had sewn more wedding gowns than anyone. A future bride was always honored if Irene would have the time to do hers.
Billy said, "Mrs. Plummer, do you happen to have a tailor’s tape?"
Of course, she did. She carried one everywhere. She fussed in her purse for a second, then handed Billy the tiny roll of thin canvas measuring tape, held with a rubber band. Billy undid it and let it unroll, it was four feet long. He handed it to Larry and said, "Okay junior, measure around your middle and tell me how big you are." Billy put his hands on his hips and paid attention to what the kid was doing.
Larry wrapped the tape around his waist just above his belt: twenty-seven inches. He handed the tape back to Billy.
But instead of measuring around his own waist, Billy wrapped the tape around his left thigh: thirty-six inches.
Now everybody in the place was starting to laugh. Billy said, "Junior, it seems to me that you’ve got quite a way to go before you’re a match for me." He rewound the tape, which took a minute, keeping the roll straight and tight. He replaced the rubber band then handed it back to Mrs. Plummer. Everyone was roaring with laughter including the Plummers, one or two people clapped their hands. Larry stood there, sheepish but grinning. He had won his bet. This was the Billy Josephson they all knew.
Odis was an incorporated town but for some reason its charter had no provision for a mayor. Members of the city council were forced to draw straws for the honor of chairing the recruitment drive—an easy job since there was only one candidate. This task fell to Charlie Hooper. Charlie was tall, weathered and balding, a retired farmer and born-again budget-balancer. Charlie approached Billy with an offer and Billy said he’d think about it and would call him in a few days. As expected, his answer was yes. But in truth Billy was unsure about being a cop and it was only the money that finally swayed him. Billy and Charlie agreed to set aside a few days to take care of the details.
Now Odis also had a city library providing five hundred volumes of educational and recreational reading for the residents of the town. It was set up in a previously abandoned one-room schoolhouse. The building was also Odis’s de-facto center of government since the City Council held their meetings there and kept official records in a drawer of Mrs. Johnson’s file cabinet. She was a retired teacher and the volunteer city librarian, working ten hours a week and given a budget of seven hundred dollars annually.
Those old schoolhouses usually had what were called "cloak rooms," one for the boys and one for the girls. There students hung their coats and winter hats and parked their wet overshoes on big rubber mats. Mrs. Johnson had appropriated one of those rooms for her own office and Charlie offered the other to Billy for his "communications center." He promised Billy that a telephone would be installed, a desk, two chairs, and a bulletin-board but Mrs. Johnson was a little put-out by this since she was using that space for storage. Billy mollified her feelings by assuring her that she could still use part of the room for her boxes. He’d just help her stack them a little higher.
The promised telephone never appeared. Billy wound up sharing the library’s.
Charlie grudgingly allowed Billy to place orders for a set of handcuffs, a utility belt, two uniforms, one hat, one badge, a stock of commonly-used police forms, and one clipboard. He would have to buy his own shoes and supply his own ballpoints.
The city was hoping Billy would be willing to use his pickup. They offered to badge the doors for him and install a siren and lights, but Billy dug in his heels. That would work most of the time, he would say, but in winter the truck had a snow blade, and nobody was going to pull over for a pickup with a snow blade no matter how many lights it had on it.
Whenever the subject came up Charlie would clench his teeth. Billy could see the man’s jaw muscles twitching and that was a sign with Charlie that he was pissed. But Charlie finally caved, and he and Billy went to Overton because a dealer there was selling-out. Both new and used vehicles were "discounted."
Charlie spotted the Maverick immediately. It was in the back row of the used lot, and so old it was no longer listed in the official used-car prices reference.
Not wanting to back out of this job, it was now Billy’s turn to cave and Charlie bought the car. The Maverick was yellow. Billy wanted it repainted a regulation black-and-white. Charlie gave him a choice: Paint the car and find his own gun if he wanted one or leave the car as-is and the city would provide him with a used Colt semi-auto. (It was laying in the junk drawer of Mrs. Hooper’s kitchen.)
Billy chose to have the car painted. He would carry his grandfather’s old revolver. Police lights were added to the Maverick. The regular lights were also rigged to flash. A siren was installed, and a spotlight from the J.C. Whitney Catalogue out of Chicago. Billy now had what sort of looked like a police car, but its interior was still yellow and brown, and its wheezing little six-cylinder engine wouldn’t take it over seventy. Oh, and there was no police radio installed in the car. Billy wanted one but it was sort of a moot point since he wouldn’t have anybody to call. Instead, he put in a CB radio at his own expense, with its big ol’ whip antenna bolted to the rear bumper.
Charlie looked at what Odis now had for law enforcement: A phony police car and Billy Dumplin’ Josephson, scary because he was carrying his grandfather’s ancient revolver that could blow up in his face. Charlie sighed and shrugged his shoulders. Oh well…
During the first six weeks of his employment Billy developed a healthy respect for people’s ability to take revenge, even for something as simple as a parking ticket. So, it happened that in his second week, Billy ticketed Bethellen Bracker for parking too close to a fire hydrant. Well, Bethellen’s husband Rudy took issue. He stomped into Marcene Mayfair’s office at the Co-Op, smacked the parking ticket on her desk and told her to take care of it. Billy got an official reprimand from the city and the ticket was torn up. Of course, Billy knew that Marcene and Bethellen were sisters but that wasn’t the real problem. He eventually learned that something as minor as this could boil up other issues.
Rudy went to so much bother over a five-dollar parking ticket because he understood the "Principle of Rising Expectations," which recognized that now there could be a five-dollar parking ticket and next there could be an arrest and a big fine for running that sewer pipe from his house into an abandoned well. It didn’t matter to Rudy that he was polluting the water table and sooner or later someone’s grandchildren would be drinking the remnants of that sewage. Rudy knew that laws had been written to protect the public’s health and safety and he took them as interference with his liberty. That’s why a fella like Rudy had to keep the Government at a distance. For him it was a matter of self-defense.
And there was that time Billy broke up a beer party going on in Betty Dunbar’s back yard while her parents were out of town. Sore at Billy, the party boys got together the following evening. They climbed the city water tower and with cans of spray paint wrote PUS GUT JOSEPHSON on the side of the water tank about a hundred feet up there so nobody would miss their poetic protest of a bitter injustice.
Billy took some comfort from his long name. By the time the beer-boys had gotten the message written on the tank they had gone three-quarters of the way around it. If anyone wanted to read the whole thing they had to walk or drive all the way around the block where the water tower stood.
Billy was one of those people who just ambled through his own suffering. He bore it without complaint or anger. He turned those hurtful things inside his own self and slowly absorbed any lessons learned, then dumped the remains at a suitable time and place when he was alone—usually at the simple shooting range he had set up outside of town. It was the emotional equivalent of what happened to all those bellyache Cony Dogs he ate over at the Dairy Deluxe.
And Billy genuinely liked people. He was outgoing and easy to talk to, and even kids didn’t hesitate to approach him. So, as time passed Billy learned his limitations and eventually a working compromise evolved between the citizens of Odis and their Town Constable. Once he had settled down, Billy limited his power of arrest and his authority to write citations. Strangers passing through became the only drivers under scrutiny and he never suffered consequences for writing-up offenses made by out-of-state drivers.
Now it happened that Coy Dixon struck up a romance with Lorabelle Williams, a hard-working waitress at the Dairy Deluxe. Lorabelle was well-enough liked and she had some fast friends, but she was also one of those hard cases who put up with no bull from anybody, and for some strange reason this attracted Coy. Mean-spirited and dominating as he was, Coy was still just a little bit afraid of Lorabelle and for weeks people watched those two with fascination. Billy couldn’t figure out that little mystery either, but there was a spinoff. Now Coy was spending a lot more time in town and Billy was inconveniencing himself in order to stay out of his way. Then Billy had a stroke of genius.
He decided he needed a partner who had his back, a partner so fearsome that people would think twice before confronting him. This partner would ride in the police car with him and accompany him as he exercised his social obligations around town. He would be the dog that up until now Billy had kept at home.
Tuffy was a shorthair terrier-mix with a short fuse. He was white with brown and black coloring here and there, nine years old and about twenty pounds. Billy had never understood Tuffy’s mean streak. He never bit Billy or his mom or dad, or a child, but otherwise Tuffy practiced a policy of non-discrimination: He would just as soon bite the preacher as the mailman. He was unpredictable. He would stay peacefully curled up on the floor at Billy’s feet while Billy swapped gossip over coffee at the Co-Op. Then the next second he was off like a rocket and attacking another customer with bites to shin or ankle followed by yanking and twisting at the cuffs of trousers.
People around there sometimes had dogs like Tuffy on their farms. It was no big deal. Some said dogs like that just weren’t "socialized." Or maybe Tuffy was just spoiled. He had his own nest of terrycloth towels on the police car’s front seat. Billy seldom put him on a leash, but the bottom line was Billy’s peace of mind. This arrangement made Billy more comfortable when doing his rounds. Things were looking up and Odis remained settled into its "ways" for most of the summer. But then came a series of events.
To some degree there was a communal sigh of relief when Rayce Dixon out-of-the-blue announced his "retirement" and packed himself and his wife off to Florida. He left Coy a fistful of unpaid bills and a small farm that he had never worked hard enough to make a profit. The elder Dixons had headed south in a rental truck full of their possessions and were never heard from again. Left on the farm, Coy made his first noble decision and resolved to make the place productive. The bank loaned him some money to that end. A week later Lorabelle disappeared.
Felix Sykes noticed first. The girl had missed two days’ work and hadn’t called in. He phoned her parents. They said she was out of town and just fine and they told Coy the same thing when he called. Felix hired another girl and Coy stewed himself into a frenzy. Whatever it was that made him Coy Dixon had twisted while he was in jail, and now with new stresses began to mutate into an ugly and malignant voice in his mind. And Coy wasn’t out of touch. He knew the whole town had quickly concluded that Lorabelle had fled his companionship, and in less than another week he also knew she wasn’t coming back because she had enlisted in the Navy.
In his rage and heartbreak and under the pressure of his debts, Coy broke a few things around the farm, including six fence posts he drifted into with the tractor while absent-mindedly drilling winter wheat. In town, he turned on people at the slightest provocation. Folks would cross the street rather than pass by him on the sidewalk. Any brave and loving soul who ventured to offer him sympathy would be met with profanities and threats and combative vows to take revenge on anyone he suspected of trying to ruin his life.
That’s because Coy Dixon lived a principle written in stone. His life revolved around the belief that he would be successful, respected and valued only if he was strong, and strength came from certainty. Sometimes it seems that children pick and choose the traits they will adopt from their parents. Rayce Dixon had lived in a world of certainties and his son took to it like a wolf takes to the woods. For father and son alike, it was a sign of weakness to change one’s mind; It was a denial of the world in which they lived, and while Coy never became a drinker like his father, he embraced Rayce’s attitude about the world with a passion.
Billy D, who had known Coy since they were both toddlers, could testify to the fact that Coy had trouble learning in school, not for lack of intelligence but because the presentation of facts would often challenge his certainties and he was quick to ignore or oppose new information. He was nearly unteachable. He was incurious, and the stress of learning would at times cause him to revert to violence. Quite a few of his teachers felt that he got too much satisfaction out of bullying people with his words and his fists, and too little from changing his hardened attitudes.
He had decided that Lorabelle was soon going to be his wife but Lorabelle had escaped his grasp. He could do nothing about it, and he had nurtured no internal resources that would help him adapt to the situation. Tension was building up in him.
It was a warm autumn that year, which people blamed for several freak thunderstorms. But the mother of them all started rising on the western horizon early on a Tuesday afternoon while Billy was in his office tending to some paperwork.
Mrs. Johnson had a transistor radio she kept perched on the library’s checkout counter. She always snapped it off when someone came through the door so the proper library silence could be maintained. But now with just the two of them there, Billy could hear the radio crackling from lightning even though the sun was still shining outside. That planted an ominous feeling in the back of Billy’s mind as he filled out a report for the Highway Patrol. Presently, Billy could hear Mrs. Johnson’s heels on the hardwood floor as she walked over to his door. "Billy, there’s warnings out from the weather service. Case County is getting hit hard. Sheriff Parker is calling in all his off-duty deputies and so is the Highway Patrol. The Little Blue is rising fast and three of those old wooden bridges are already out."
Billy rose from his chair and walked down the short hallway and out the front door. Mrs. Johnson was right behind him. Standing on the porch of the old schoolhouse they could see that what was once a thin black line on the horizon had now become a distant swell of menace. The black line was rising higher, no longer a line now but a thick smear that seemed to be a living, moving force. Billy’s eyes could hardly focus on it as it writhed like a snake. He could see flashes of lightning, not just here and there, but solid bursts across the horizon, never stopping, ripping from one end to the other, back and forth like a shorted-out neon sign. It was horrific and it made the hair on the back of Billy’s neck stand up straight. He’d never seen anything like it.
Then Felix’s car skidded to a stop in the middle of the street in front of the schoolhouse. Billy was caught by surprise because he hadn’t seen his approach. Felix shouted out his open window, "Billy! Come quick to the DD!" His voice was panicked. He looked at Mrs. Johnson like he didn’t want to say too much. "Something’s happened!" Then he sped off, back in the direction of his business.
Caught by surprise, the two of them just stood there for a moment. Finally, Mrs. Johnson said, "I’m not staying here. I’m going home."
"Get in your basement," said Billy.
She glanced at Billy for a second while turning toward the door. "I tried to call Michael at home," she said a little out-of-breath, "but the phones are out."
She reached around the door sill and turned out the lights, then hastily dug a ring of keys out of her purse. With hands shaking from her hurry she locked the building, then she and Billy hustled down the steps and over to their cars. Billy opened the Maverick’s passenger door, scooped Tuffy up and tossed him onto the seat. Car doors slammed and Billy backed out onto the street, tires squealing. What on earth happened at the DD? A robbery? He headed for the Dairy Deluxe just as the tornado warning siren on top of the water tower started its wailing cry that always haunted Billy since he was a kid. Danger.
Billy didn’t see any activity as he approached the DD, so he drove around to the back of the building where there was more parking.
There they were: Felix, Martha Pinson his short-order cook, and the two girls who were working that day. The four of them were bending over the prone body of J.R. Rhinegold.
Billy slid out of his seat and slammed the door before Tuffy could follow. He trotted over to J.R. and saw that he was conscious but bleeding badly from his abdomen and left arm. The girls were pressing towels against his belly and had his arm wrapped in an effort to slow the bleeding.
"What happened?" said Billy, half-panicked himself at the sight of all that blood and a man squirming and gasping in pain on the crushed-rock yard of the Dairy Deluxe.
"He’s been shot," said Felix.
"We’ve got to get him inside," said Billy. "He’ll get infection from all that filth he’s laying in." Billy knelt and pulled J.R’s good arm around his bullish neck. J.R. could barely breathe, let alone scream, but his wide-open mouth allowed no mistake that he was in agony. Billy had him by his arm and his belt. Felix lifted his limp legs by the ankles.
Inside, Billy said, "Push some tables together and help us get him on them. Keep the pressure on those bandages. Felix, get over to Eileen Smith’s and see if she will come. Is your phone working? We need some help here."
"Phones are out," said Bridget, one of the girls, "And so is the CB—just static. That must be one heckuva storm."
"J.R., who did this to you?" said Billy.
J.R. opened his eyes and looked at Billy. "Coy…" He was panting for breath.
Bridget said, "J.R. encouraged Lorabelle to leave. He was afraid for her safety. When Coy heard, he came after J.R.."
Billy swallowed hard. In spite of his fear and dislike of Coy Dixon he hadn’t thought the man was capable of this. Events were playing out a lot worse than he would have thought, and with that storm on its way…
He stepped away from the tables, walked around the lunch counter to the back and looked out from the rear door of the DD. The blackness now covered a quarter of the sky. The lightning continued to play its game of pinball and now the thunder could be heard. It wasn’t the erratic booms of a normal thunderstorm, it was a steady roar, like a high-speed freight train approaching from a distance.
Billy turned back to J.R. and gently pulled aside one of the bloody towels. There was a spattering of tiny round wounds, shotgun, probably Number Six shot, which was very small but capable of shredding flesh. The blast hadn’t hit J.R. square but off to the side. Billy thought if the bleeding could be controlled J.R. would have a chance but Nurse Eileen Smith was pushing eighty-five and hadn’t done anything lately but patch up scrapes for kids in Summer Bible School.
J.R. raised his head with an effort. "Billy…"
Billy stepped over close. "What?"
"Coy had other business."
It just took Billy a second to realize. "J.R., do you mean Fred Evans?"
J.R. nodded his head yes. "Billy…"
"Every other round… deer slug."
Then he thought to himself. That doesn’t make sense. Why would a guy load his shotgun like that? Well, Coy must have his reasons.
By now Billy was sweating profusely, mostly out of fear. He was afraid he might make a mistake and get an innocent person hurt. He was afraid if he did nothing one more man was going to get shot. And he was afraid to die, which was a good possibility with what he now had to do.
For six months now Coy had been feuding with Fred Evans, his neighbor to the south. The dispute was over the use of a creek that separated their two properties.
It seems that Coy had been dumping his garbage into the creek, which included the inedibles left when he butchered one of his livestock or a deer he had killed: spines, tracheas, intestines, hooves, heads, all went into the creek. Messes like this would be left rotting in the water and Fred complained, saying that his cattle drank from that water. Coy, a little stung at getting caught, huffed up his pride by accusing Fred of letting his cattle drink water that belonged to him, Coy Dixon, and ’round and ’round they went. Now here at the Dairy Deluxe there was no time to find some help from town. Most people had taken shelter God-knows-where. There were no communications; emergency services were now at the other end of the county; a man was bleeding, and Billy Josephson would have to go out there with his little dog and his antique revolver and try to stop Coy Dixon from killing his neighbor.
And J.R.’s second remark was no more comforting: Every other round in the magazine of Coy’s shotgun was a deer slug. If a deer slug had been in the chamber of Coy’s shotgun when he fired at J.R. the young man would probably be dead right now.
Deer slugs came into use for hunting deer with shotguns. Instead of a spray of small shot, these cartridges discharged a single large bullet, sometimes cased with a plastic sabot to seal better and provide some spin on the projectile. They made a shotgun work somewhat like a rifle but the bullet, or slug, was much larger than a normal rifle bullet and packed a terrific punch at short range. A deer slug hitting a man could blow out an exit wound as big as someone’s fist, or so the legend goes. Billy D. did not relish facing this weapon with his thirty-six caliber Colt Navy black-powder revolver. His was loaded, but he only had five shots because he always kept an empty chamber under the hammer to prevent accidents. Once five shots had been fired it took a long time to reload the old gun, so Billy never carried the supplies. And on top of that, this was a black-powder gun, not modern smokeless powder. When it was fired it discharged a huge amount of, ironically, white smoke which would give away the shooter’s position.
Billy had been carrying his grandfather’s gun mostly for bluff. In its holster it appeared to be a modern firearm. He never expected to use it except for warning shots, but now it was time. The game was over.
His meditations abruptly ended with the scuffing sounds of tires sliding on gravel in front of the DD—only it wasn’t Felix’s car; they had come back in Eileen’s station wagon.
Eileen was in her eighties, but she wasn’t messing around. When she heard Felix’s description of the situation, she immediately made a decision. When they got to the DD she hustled inside and examined J.R.
"We’ve got to get him out of here," she said. "The closest doctor is west of town but we’re not going to drive into that storm. We have to go east."
She re-did J.R’s bandages, praising the job the girls had done on him. "Bring along some water. I don’t think his bowel has been punctured, so he can have a little to drink. It might keep him from going into shock. I need a driver so I can be with him in back, and no more than two other people, quick now. We’re going to Humboldt."
They found a large tablecloth and with some difficulty got it under J.R., then Eileen showed them how to roll up the sides tightly and use the rolls for handles. In that way the six of them carried him out to the wagon like pallbearers and very gently slid him over the open tailgate and inside. The rear seat had been folded down to make a flat deck. Eileen got in the back with him and it was a good thing she was a small woman. Martha the cook and Penny the other waitress slid into the front seat. Martha sat in the middle and began futile attempts to get the car’s CB working. Penny yanked out the headrest and put her knees on the seat so she could face the rear. Leaning over the back of the seat she could help Eileen if necessary. With Felix at the wheel they didn’t waste any time getting onto the highway heading east, a puff of dust and a little squeak of tires as the car made it onto the paved road.
Billy and Bridget were left standing in front of the DD. Bridget’s white uniform was smeared with J.R’s blood.
"You know how to lock up?" he said.
"It takes a while to shut everything down and clean up. I’m staying here. You need to get going."
"I’ll be fine. I’ll go over to the Co-Op for shelter."
As if in answer, the wind picked up in heavy gusts. It rattled the tin guttering around the roof of the Dairy Deluxe and threw up dust and tiny bits of gravel that snapped against the drive-in’s windows. It tangled Bridget’s hair, stinging skin and bringing tears to their eyes.
Billy walked through the building and exited the rear toward his car. He heard the lock on the back door of the DD snap shut behind him. Good. She was locking herself inside and probably putting up the Closed sign.
Billy looked up at the sky. The storm now covered one-third of it, and it was a monster. It had risen high in the atmosphere and churned itself into a "wall cloud." Billy had heard of a wall cloud from some of the old-timers but had never seen one. Now he faced a straight, vertical barrier at least a mile high. It looked solid gray-black. This was wrong. Nature doesn’t make straight lines like that. It flashed lightning fierce, with no letup, no break, relentless, and the freight train was roaring closer and closer. Billy knew his mom and dad would be in the storm cellar.
Billy unholstered his revolver and checked it, something he didn’t really need to do, then opened the door. Tuffy was pitching a fit, bouncing off the doors and windows inside. He didn’t like being left out of the loop. Billy tossed his hat in the back seat, started the car and headed east. One mile out, he left the highway and turned south on the gravel, the wind blowing dust and corn shucks straight across his path so hard he had to fight the wheel to keep his course.
Coy’s place was another five miles and Billy covered the distance in six minutes, but he didn’t stop there because he was pretty sure Coy wasn’t home. Coy would be looking for Fred, and at this time of day and with that storm coming, Fred would likely be with his herd. He couldn’t do anything to protect the cattle, but he may have wanted to know where they were before he had to head back home and take shelter himself. Billy slowed; his window rolled down. He scanned the fields.
When Billy finally saw him Coy was walking along the fence that followed the disputed creek. He was on his own property for the moment, his shotgun reversed over his shoulder, barrel pointing down and the stock up in the air over his head. He heard Billy’s car and turned and watched as Billy stopped on the shoulder of the road and got out with Tuffy. At this point the two men were about five hundred feet apart, not quite shouting distance with the roar of the storm in the background.
Coy swung his gun up and brought it to bear at Billy. That was the first time ever that Billy had had a gun pointed directly at him with malice, and it was terrifying. He froze, staring at the black dot that was the muzzle of the shotgun, death from the insides of a steel pipe, then Billy shouted, "Coy! Put down the gun! Let’s talk!" But it wasn’t likely that Coy even heard him because he pulled the trigger.
Billy saw the flash and dropped, he knew, too late. He felt a bruising pain in his side just above his belt. The slug had hit him there, then fallen away, spent. Coy had fired at him from out of range. Billy put his hand against his side and felt around—no blood. His shirt wasn’t even torn but he was going to have a nasty bruise to show for it.
Coy cradled his gun and turned away. He resumed his walk along the fence. Billy thought Coy must have seen him go down and took it for a kill.
Tuffy darted into the grass. This was a fallow field and grass was growing waist-high. Tuffy couldn’t be seen at all but Billy was watching a line of grass stalks moving as the dog pushed his way along. Tuffy was to his left about fifty feet away. There was no sign of Fred or his cattle, but it was clear that Coy intended to cross the creek and get on Fred’s property. He was turning his head toward the creek as he walked, probably looking for a break in the heavy underbrush along its banks. The brush was a uniform ground cover knee-high and full of thorns and hidden hazards to slow a person down, and solitary bushes that were impenetrable.
Suddenly, like some mysterious switch had been thrown, the wind died just as Billy was starting into the field. In seconds the temperature went from unseasonably warm to a graveyard chill. When the air stopped moving it felt like it was full of electricity, prickling and tugging at Billy’s skin. Around the car the road dust just hung there in suspense as if all nature was waiting, breathless, paralyzed for the coming onslaught. Billy felt the cold since he was perspiring heavily while wading through that tall grass. The grass wrapped itself around his feet, ankles, shins, and made it a battle just to lift a leg and take a step.
Coy propped his gun against a fence post and climbed over, a little wobbly keeping his balance. Seeing Coy’s move, Billy had to cross the fence where he was. No climbing for him; he had to push the sharply barbed wires down with care and throw a leg clumsily over the fence, those sharp and rusty barbs a little too close to his crotch. Almost over, he snagged his trouser leg on a barb at the back of his knee, ripped them down through the cuff, lost his balance and went down. Coy had glanced back and was surprised to see no body laying by the car. Then he saw that Billy had tripped-up trying to get across the fence. By the time Billy had gotten back on his feet he saw that Coy was on the run. He looked back at Billy with a grin of pure contempt that said, "I’m going to shed you, little fat gnat, and take care of business like I planned."
Coy ran like a deer at first, slim legs and powerful muscles carrying him through the grass and saplings in his path, jumping lightly over obstacles. His heavy gun was clenched in his hands, chest high, and he was using its weight like a tightrope walker’s balance pole to stabilize himself over the broken ground. But he was getting winded. He felt his calves starting to cramp up. He ran for what seemed to be a long time, enough to be clear of his pursuer.
But when Coy looked back over his shoulder he gasped. Billy was gaining on him, plowing through grass and brush that Coy had been leaping over. Unbelievable! It can’t be… That fat bastard can cover ground! It can’t be! It can’t be! Coy was shaken. His insulting certainty about Billy was shattered. There was unseen power in Billy’s large frame.
Part of Coy’s world had collapsed. What for most people would have been a simple correction of attitude, for Coy Dixon was a crack in the foundation of everything he believed. Billy Josephson just absolutely had to be a fat, lazy slug. It couldn’t be otherwise, but… Coy was confused, disoriented, and there was no time to think it through. He wasn’t conscious of it, but he was no longer pursuing his plan to harm Fred Evans. Now he was running from Billy D. Josephson. He had to get away from the frightening specter that was telling him he was wrong in his judgment.
Out of breath, confused and panicked, Coy was going to make a serious blunder. He had a clear shot at Billy. He raised his gun, but Tuffy was on him. Coy heard the whispering rustle of disturbed grass behind him. He glanced out at the fallow field and saw what looked like a torpedo-track in its ocean of unmoving grass and the torpedo was heading straight for him. He swung his gun away from Billy, but he couldn’t see his new target. As fast as he was able, he aimed into the grass where he figured the dog should be and snapped off a quick shot. There was a dog’s shriek, then a second, then silence. Movement in the grass stopped.
Billy heard the "Clack-Clack" of Coy jacking another round into the chamber of his gun. He broke off his sprint and took cover.
With Billy out of sight, Coy turned to the creek and its dense shrubbery. He thrashed his way down the embankment, through the undergrowth of weeds and saplings, splashing across the stream and throwing jets of water high in the air. Halfway up the other side he spun around to look, hoping that Billy had gone to the aid of his dog, but no. Billy had renewed his pursuit and had started down the other bank. Coy turned and raised his gun, took aim at Billy’s head and fired.
Billy heard a loud "POP" and felt an impact on the side of his head. He went down on his knees and swayed but didn’t lose consciousness. He caught his breath and moaned. He put his hand to the side of his head, and it came away bloody and with wood splinters. He looked up at the tree next to him and saw a groove gouged out of the bark. The shot had missed him, hit the tree and sent a shower of fragments into the side of his face. That was a deer slug.
Coy’s next shot grazed Billy’s left arm. Now on one knee, Billy unholstered his gun, cocked it and took aim. Dropping down had put him behind some thick underbrush. It was clear that Coy couldn’t quite see him and was guessing at his position. Coy was standing behind a tree trunk. Billy could see Coy’s shotgun pointing out from the side of the tree, moving around, searching for a target. Searching… Searching… The next shot would be a deer slug.
Then Coy slipped.
He lost his balance and for just a split second he was exposed but that was enough. Billy squeezed off a shot and through the haze of smoke he saw Coy wince and double over, but then to Billy’s despair Coy recovered, turned and disappeared into the brush.
Billy didn’t know if he had any energy left to pursue Coy. He was three times wounded. He sat back and leaned against the tree, keeping his gun ready. He was picking splinters out of his cheek when he noticed something.
At the base of the bush where Coy had disappeared was a shiny object. He looked again. It was polished wood. Billy squinted to see better. It was the stock of Coy’s shotgun.
There was no movement over there. Was Coy also carrying a handgun? Was he "playing possum" to lure Billy in? Billy didn’t know, and there was only one way to find out. He holstered his gun.
Gripping the stinging wound on his arm and staying under cover he forded the creek, then made a wide circle around the dropped shotgun. He scooted from cover to cover, not giving Coy time to get a bead on him if he really did have another gun. Finally, when the angle was just right Billy saw Coy through the clutter of tree trunks, fifty feet away. His man was laying on his side under a large tree, propped up on one elbow. Billy drew his gun. Coy was breathing hard, eyes closed, and Billy could see a wide patch of blood on his shirt, just below the ribs on his right side. Billy approached him cautiously, his gun pointing at Coy’s head.
Coy’s words came in gasps. "Don’t bother… you fat fuck… you got lucky… this time."
Billy holstered his gun and walked to a position above Coy’s head. Coy had no other weapons. Billy reached down and grabbed Coy’s shirt collar with both hands. He carefully dragged Coy a few feet and propped him up, half-sitting at the base of the tree. Then Billy sat himself down on a fallen log that was close. Facing Coy, Billy could see that he couldn’t hold his head up anymore but rested it against the tree trunk. He figured the ball from his revolver had found Coy’s liver.
"When I… catch my breath… gonna… rise up, ‘n… kick your fat ass…, " said Coy with all the rage he could muster.
Billy didn’t say anything. He just watched, his forearms laying across his thighs. His grazed arm had nearly stopped bleeding.
"Bet you… happy… ."
Time stopped for the two exhausted men. The roar of the coming storm increased. Lightning flashes began to penetrate the timber.
Billy reached into his shirt pocket and removed a flat round can of Kentucky Gentleman. He took off the lid and set it aside, then he stirred the contents with his fingertip as was his habit. Around and around he stirred, absently staring into the container sort of like a meditation. Then he broke the spell of the ritual.
He pinched a marble-sized chew out of the can and tucked it down inside his lower lip. Then he seemed to hesitate and before he could move the can away, quick as a snake Coy reached out and grabbed Billy’s wrist with surprising strength, almost shaking the can out of his grip. With his other hand Coy put his thumb and index finger in the can and pinched out another chew, putting it in his own mouth. He released Billy’s wrist and stared at him with contempt.
Billy closed the can and put it back in his shirt pocket.
"…know what I think of you?" said Coy. His speech was slurring.
Billy looked at Coy and spat a thin and accurate stream of tobacco juice down at some target on the ground. Then he smiled at him, his lower lip pouched-out from its load.
The wall cloud crept over the sun, pulling a celestial window shade over the Nebraska fields and the creek timber. The two were now sitting almost in twilight. The wind returned in slamming gusts. With a crack and a crash, a tree limb came down nearby. The wind tossed up and swirled last year’s leaves and pine needles, scattering some on Coy’s legs.
"Killed that… goddam… mutt of… yours… you…"
Billy looked Coy straight in the eye and said with sincerity, "Sorry I shot you, Coy." He cocked his head and stared at Coy eager to hear a response.
Coy, rallying, rose up on his elbow a little and said, "Well, go to hell you worm-infested sack of shit."
Billy just smiled at him, like that’s the response he would have expected.
Another ten minutes passed. Coy’s breathing progressively became more rapid and shallow, finally coming in spasms. Billy could see he was fighting it. Coy’s legs squirmed weakly and dried leaves tumbled off his trousers. Tobacco juice drooled from the corner of his mouth and down his chin. A black drop of it fell on his shirt. Finally, shuddering with the effort, he tipped his head back and looked up into the distance. He started to lift his arms, like he was going to embrace something. Then, like from a broken dam, all the energy just spilled out of the man. He closed his eyes.
Billy probably sat there another five minutes, then again reached into his shirt pocket. He opened his can of chew and set the lid aside. He dug out the plug from inside his lip and put it back in the can as was his habit. Done, he pressed the lid back on and returned the can to his pocket. The wind buffeted his face and tugged at his shirt. His ripped trouser leg was now a loose flag.
It wasn’t long before the wall of water hit. It joined the ripping, deafening thunder and the lightning that rapidly strobed shifting, frightening shadows of the trees. The pouring rain doused the corpse of Coy Dixon and refreshed the uplifted face of Constable Billy D. Josephson. And a quarter-mile away the same rain washed the blood-matted fur of Tuffy who had drug himself on three legs back to the car. He crawled under its shelter, where he would patiently wait for the return of his master.