“All I know is them cows didn’t shoot themselves.” Hugh Rakes walked around to the other side of the corral. The steers were back-to-back and head to tail in the mud. It was raining hard. The damage to their heads was unmistakable. Some large-caliber weapon had done it.
Sheriff Howard Gunther, Rakes’s closest neighbor, snapped a few photos of the dead cows and shook his head. The early evening was cold and he wished he were at home.
“I was up clearing out that damn culvert. Didn’t hear a fucking thing.” Rakes took his hat off, slapped the rain off it, and put it back on.
“This one’s been shot twice,” Gunther said.
“Yeah. He wasn’t quite dead when I found them and I had to finish the job. Son of a bitch. If I find the son of a bitch that did this I’m going to —”
“We don’t need talk like that, Hugh. I know you’re upset. I wish I could tell you I had some idea.” Gunther stepped away and looked at the soaked dirt-and-gravel yard. “Well, let’s circle our way away from the pen and see if we can find some shell casings in this mess.”
“This one is mine,” Rakes said, handing the spent round to the sheriff. “I picked it up for you.”
Gunther took it and put it in his pocket. It helped to have it only because he wouldn’t have to find it himself. They found nothing. “So, he picked up his brass. That the way you see it?”
Gunther put away his camera and frowned at the rain. “At least your insurance will take care of it. It will take care of your loss, won’t it?”
Rakes nodded, rubbed his hand through his hair.
Gunther watched him for a bit.
“Goddamn,” Rakes said.
“I’ll be off now,” Gunther said.
“Yeah, all right.”
Gunther got into his rig. He sat there for a minute watching the worn wipers streak the windshield. He then drove the mile to his house. He walked into the kitchen and found his wife sitting at the table writing out checks to pay the bills.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“I was over at Rakes’s place. He was showing me his cows that were mysteriously murdered.”
“I almost believed him until he claimed he was cleaning out the old culvert. County cleaned that out last month.”
“Why would he shoot his own animals?” Karen asked.
“Insurance. “They weren’t his best animals. I could see that he’d switched ear tags. Probably would have done that anyway. He’s up there now dressing out those steers and saving what meat he can.”
“What are you going to do?”
Gunther shrugged. “Nothing. It’s fraud either way. “The insurance agent will come around and I will confirm that the stock were shot and that will be it. I hate this fucking job.” He poured himself a cup of coffee. “You want some more?”
Karen shook her head no.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like that nothing ever happens around here. I hate that all I do is put people I know in lockup for DUI. Remember that song, ‘Lineman for the County’? Well, that job’s a hell of a lot more interesting than mine.”
“But you’ve got me,” Karen said.
Gunther leaned over and kissed her forehead. “That is true, isn’t it? I don’t know how it happened, but it’s true.”
The next morning Gunther left his wife asleep in the bed, dressed, and left for his office. He stopped on the way and walked into the Square Wheel Diner. It had been called the Wagon Wheel, but so much of the business now came from the RV park across the road that the owner changed the name. The RVers could walk over and at once identified with the reference having to wait for their tires to warm up on the road on cold mornings before assuming any roundness. The locals came in, too, and Gunther sat at a table with Dorothy Wise and Danny Denton.
“I’ll start with some coffee, ma’am,” Gunther told the waitress. “A little milk with that.”
“So,” Wise said.
“So? So what?” Gunther looked at the menu, though he knew it by heart.
“Why bother looking at that,” Denton said. “You order the same thing every time. Hell, they’re back there cooking it right now.”
“I could change.”
“So, are you going to let him get away with it?”
“Let who get away with what?”
“Rakes,” Wise said. She was a big woman, broad shouldered, but not fat. She lived alone on her family spread and raised cattle.
“Yeah, that,” she said. “You know he shot those beefs.”
“And I can’t prove it.”
“He’s gonna get all of our insurance rates jacked up,” Wise said.
“That’s for sure,” Denton said. Denton was an accountant and had an office attached to his home in town.
“You don’t have stock,” Gunther said to Denton.
“No, but I know insurance companies, and they use any excuse at all to raise rates.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
“What can I do? He called me out on a rainy day and told me somebody shot his animals. His yard was like a hogs’ pen in that rain, nothing but slop. No footprints, no tire tracks. Just two dead steers and his word.”
“But you know he did it,” Wise said.
“I think, Dorothy. It’s up to the insurance company. I’ll insinuate what I think, but I can’t make any accusations. I mean, what if he’s telling the truth?”
“Ha,” Wise said.
“What she said,” from Denton.
The waitress brought Gunther his oatmeal and wheat toast. He looked up at her face.
“Were you going to order something different?” she asked.
“Thank you,” Gunther said. The waitress left and Daniel returned his attention to Wise. “What would you do?”
Wise looked at her coffee. “I don’t get paid to do your job.”
“I see.” Gunther pointed his spoon at Denton.
“Careful where you point that,” Denton said.
Gunther put the spoon back in his oatmeal. “What about you?
“I guess not.”
“You two are a lot of help.” He drank some coffee. “I’m going to eat my breakfast, then I’m going to go write up my murder report on two beefs, and then I’m going to fill out my usual nothing-happened-this-week report and send it to the state of Wyoming to be filed with the
rest of such reports.”
“You need a vacation,” Denton said.
“From what?” Gunther ate a bit of oatmeal and put down his spoon. He looked out the window at the RV park across the road.
“Hell, those RVers don’t cause any trouble ’cause they’re all eighty years old.” He looked at his friends. “Well, I’m going home to tend to my wife’s horse’s hooves.”
“You’re not going to the office?” Wise asked.
“How can I put this?” Gunther said. “Fuck the office.”
“Howard,” Wise said.
“See you later.”
Gunther in fact did not go to his office. He did call his secretary, Grace, and tell her he wouldn’t be there; there was no point in worrying an old woman and even less reason to get her mad at him. But he didn’t drive home. Instead he drove up into the mountains to an abandoned fishing and hunting lodge. The building had never been completed. It had hardly been started. There was some of the large foundation dug, but the rest had been only staked and strung. The blue plastic string was gone now except for where the ends had been tied. The people who had started it ran into legal trouble, then investor trouble, and bailed. He fantasized about buying the property and finishing the project himself, but he knew that wouldn’t happen.
He wondered if he was really that unhappy with his job. He’d run for office because he could, because he was retired from the Marines and thought the job would be easy. And in fact it was. It was too easy. It was boring. He was fifty and bored. He had a nice wife who was perhaps more capable than he was in more ways. He had a teenage daughter who pretended to like him on occasion. He had a twenty-five-year-old son who lived in Denver who never bothered to pretend. Here he was shirking his duties to daydream on a mountain and not a great daydream at that, it having drifted rather seamlessly into self-pity.
He was depressed. He was not simply sad. He wasn’t simply bored. He felt a weight on his chest that made him want to cry. Sometimes in the night he did. He would discover himself crying and that discovery worked as fuel for more tears. He was embarrassed by it, then embarrassed for feeling embarrassed. His wife would understand, he thought. If she knew he was crying she would hold him, stroke his head, and make soothing sounds, but he didn’t want that. He hated feeling so low and yet could not deny a desire to wallow in it. He felt selfish. He felt small and he felt more lost than he had ever felt in his life. He looked at the unfinished foundation and saw himself, once strung taut, now just a mere suggestion of defined space.
Gunther arrived home to find his daughter and wife sitting on the porch. Their faces were blank, somewhat sour, showing fear perhaps. He walked toward the porch, his eyes asking, “What?”
“Tell him,” Karen said.
The girl looked at the sky.
“Tell him,” Karen repeated.
“What is it, Sarah?” Gunther asked. He was lately always out of the loop, but now he felt high tension. Karen was frightened as well as angry. “What’s going on here?”
“I’m pregnant,” Sarah said, flatly.
Gunther stepped away, turned, and sat on the first step. He understood the words and yet they made no sense. He looked at his little girl. He wasn’t angry. He was confused.
“Did you hear your daughter?” Karen asked.
He said nothing.
“Did you hear her?”
“I heard.” He didn’t know where to go with this news. He might have been angry. He might have been scared. He didn’t know. He decided to not be angry and so put his hand up. “Come here, Sarah,” he said. He felt her hand find his and led her around to sit beside him, put his arm around her.
“Are you scared?”
The girl started crying.
“It’s okay,” he told her. “Everything will be okay.” He thought about the father. He had no idea who he was and felt himself getting angry. He stopped. His daughter was terrified. He looked up at his wife.
“Ask her who the father is,” she said. Karen was angry.
“Not now, Karen.”
Karen walked into the house.
“I’m sorry, Daddy.”
Gunther said nothing.
“Danny is the father,” the girl said.
“Does he know?”
“I told him. He’s terrified you’re going to shoot him.”
“I might.” He looked at the graying sky. “You can tell him that I’m not going to shoot him.”
“He says he’ll marry me.”
“That’s just stupid,” Gunther said. “You’re only seventeen. Even if you were nineteen, that would be stupid. He’s what? Eighteen? You don’t need two children to take care of.”
“I want to go to Denver,” Sarah said.
“I want you to think about this hard. I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I want you to think it through real good.”
“You think I should talk to Danny?” he asked.
“I wish you wouldn’t,” Sarah said.
“Well, I’m going to see him around. I reckon I ought to talk to him just a little bit, don’t you think? I’m not going to scare him. I promise.” It was a promise Gunther meant, but knew it would difficult to keep. He felt strangely good about himself for the measured calm of his reaction, felt like he was being a good father. He realized what a rare feeling that was for him. “I’ll take you to Denver if you want. Just tell me when.”
The girl was crying hard now. He held her.
Karen was sitting up in bed pretending to read a fat novel when Gunther came into the room. He walked over to their bedroom window and looked out at the yard below.
“Tell me how could this happen?” she said. “How could she let something like this happen?”
“It happened,” he said.
“What are you going to do about it?”
“I’m going to take care of our daughter. Just like you. That’s really all we can do.”
“And about the boy, what are you going to do about the boy?”
Karen closed her book and tossed it to the rug at her bedside. “She’s seventeen. He’s eighteen. Isn’t that statutory rape?”
Gunther sat on the bed and put his hand on Karen’s foot. She pulled it away. “What will arresting that boy do for Sarah? It will tear her up. That Danny’s not a bad kid. I don’t like him much, but he’s not a bad kid. What will that do to him? To his parents? What
will it do to us?”
“Why are you all of a sudden Mr. Calm?”
“I don’t know.” Gunther looked across the room and out the window. “Is that snow?” He walked over to look out. There was a flurry, the snow moving harmlessly, the wind hardly a bother.
He turned to see that Karen had picked up and opened her book.
She pretended to read again. It was clear she was not going to look at him.
Gunther went downstairs and sat alone in the kitchen, watched the snow turn serious. The truth was that Gunther did feel windless. He felt unusually calm and he wasn’t sure it felt good, though he was pleased with how he was handling the situation with his daughter. He held his hand out, like a gunfighter in a movie, to check his steadiness. He hand did not quiver. He checked his pulse. Fifty. It had never been fifty. He wanted to be anxious about his newfound serenity, but instead he grew even more relaxed. The irony was not lost on him and in fact played out as being strange and slightly amusing.
He left his house, moving toward his office. At the crossroads outside town he came upon his young deputy, Marty Hawn. He was leaning against his patrol car, smoking a cigarette.
“I thought you were giving those up,” Gunther said.
“Seems kinda silly having to smoke out in the snow like this,” the young man said.
“So far. How about with you?”
Gunther stared out through his windshield and wondered what a truthful answer might sound like. “It’s been an interesting day,” he said.
Marty offered a quizzical look. He was only twenty-one and didn’t look that old, a big kid who had excelled in high school football, but wasn’t good enough for a college scholarship. He liked astronomy.
“Come by the station after your rounds, we’ll take Grace out and grab some coffee,” Gunther said.
“I’d like that.”
His cell phone rang and he answered it. It was Grace. “Are you coming into the office?”
“I suppose I should.”
“Where are you now?” she asked.
“With Marty at the Shell station. What’s up?”
“Apparently Gilly White is out plowing the road in front of his house.”
Gunther looked at the hills and the roads. “But the snow’s not even on the ground yet.”
Grace said nothing.
“I’m heading over there now.”
“What is it?” Marty asked.
“Gilly White’s acting crazy again.”
“You want me to go over there?”
Gunther shook his head. “I’ll see to it. You finished your shift.”
By the time Gunther arrived at Gilly White’s place snow was beginning to stick to the ground. White’s tractor was parked halfway off the road, the snowplow blade down and lifting the front end just a bit. The dirt road was a mess, deep gouges and wounds that promised to become fantastically problematic once the lane was wet from rain or melting snow. Gunther got out of his truck and walked over to where White sat on the running board of his tractor.
“Been drinking?” Gunther asked.
“You can tell?”
Gilly White was holding a pistol in his left hand. He was missing the middle finger of his right. Gunther had never asked him how he lost it. Gunther didn’t like the gun there, didn’t like them much anywhere. He was not armed. His pistol was in his glove box. He didn’t like wearing it.
“Yeah, I been drinking,” White said.
Gunther looked at the tractor and road. “You did quite a number on the road there.”
“Out of gas,” White said. He traced the top of the barrel of the pistol with his right index finger.
Gunther slowly pulled his mobile phone from his pocket. He called his office. “Grace, I’m over at the White place. Yes, everything is all right. “The tractor’s out of gas in the road.”
“You want me to send Horace with his tow truck?”
“Yeah, send Marty out here with some gas,” Gunther said.
“I understand,” Grace said. “Right away.”
Gunther put his phone away. He looked up at the sky. “You were right to start plowing. “is is going to be a big storm.”
“Yeah, a real blizzard.”
Gunther looked back at White’s house. It was set some fifty yards off the road, down a straight drive. The front door of the house was open. No smoke came from the chimney. “Your family at home?”
“Oh, yeah,” White said.
“How are they doing?”
“Tell me, Gilly. How are they?”
“You ever play Xbox?”
“No. What’s that?”
“A video game.”
Gunther nodded. “I don’t know much about that stuff. How old is your son now? Is he six yet?”
“You want to wait here for the gas? I think I’ll go say hello to Kate. What’s your boy’s name?”
“And David. You going to be okay here?”
Gunther didn’t like turning his back on the man, but he had to get to the house. As he approached he was struck by the stillness, the coldness of it. He felt cold inside. He wanted Marty to be there already. As soon as he stepped through the door he called Grace.
“Ten minutes away.”
“Tell him to make it five.”
“What’s going on?”
“Tell Marty I’m in the house. Tell him to be ready.”
“Tell him to hurry, Grace. I need him here now.”
He closed his phone. The house was freezing. He called out for Kate White, but no one answered. He looked out the front window just as Gilly White gained his feet and turned to start for the house.
Gunther ran up the stairs. He saw the boy first. He was lying on a round carpet in the hallway. There was no need to check for signs of life. There was blood everywhere. The rug was soaked. The small body was twisted in an angle that only death would allow. He walked past the boy and into the front bedroom. The woman was on her back on the bed, her light-blue pajama top soaked with blood. Gunther checked for a pulse while he looked out the window to see White some fifteen yards from the house. The woman was just alive, but wouldn’t be for long. She was wide open. Gunther pushed the sheet over and into her wound.
Gunther looked out the window and saw that Marty was just parking behind his rig on the road. He ran back down the stairs and into the kitchen. He sat at the table and tried to figure out what to do. He looked around the room for a weapon, but decided a big knife might just made things worse. He could not shake what he had just seen from his mind. He thought about his daughter. He thought about her baby, her decision, being a grandfather perhaps. His wife was home waiting for him, angry with him. He thought about driving to Denver with Sarah. Maybe they would talk about things. He could hear her voice, her saying that she was surprised at his reaction, her saying that for the first time she was not a little bit afraid of him. But then maybe they just wouldn’t talk at all. Just sitting side by side would be enough. He could smell the blood in the house. He knew he was freezing but he did not feel cold.
Gunther reminded himself to breathe as he heard White stomping
off snow from his boots inside the front door.
“I’m in here, Gilly.” When the man came into the room, Gunther said, “You didn’t tell me nobody was home. Cold in here.”
White didn’t say anything. He leaned against the jamb, as if to balance himself. “e five-shot Smith and Wesson .38 seemed almost to dangle from his fingertips, then he pulled it back into a tight grip. His nails were dirty.
“What now?” White asked.
Gunther looked at him for a second. “Unfortunately, I have to drive my daughter to Denver. I hate driving in snow.”
“She okay? Your daughter?”
“Looks like her mother. Thank god.”
“Long drive. Denver.”
Gunther nodded. “Marty’s here with the gas.”
“Let’s go get that tractor going, so you can get back to work. The snow is falling pretty good now.” Gunther stepped toward him, but the man backed away. Gunther was looking for any opening, any chance at all to grab the man’s arm and control his gun hand, to do
something. He stepped outside, White behind him. The snow was falling hard. The world was still, quiet.
Marty cautiously approached the house. There was no cover. He was hard to make out through the snow. He came on, his pistol out, walking slowly forward in a nervous crouch.
Gunther moved wide left, hoping to give Marty space to take a shot if he needed to. Marty yelled for White to put down the weapon.
“Your deputy is kinda upset,” White said.
“It’s your gun,” Gunther said. “He didn’t expect to see a gun. You know guns have a way of making people nervous. Especially cops.”
“He’s never seen a gun before?”
The snow fell.
“It’s just the way you’re holding it. Makes him think you might want to use it. Maybe if you put in your pocket.”
“White, you drop that gun!” Marty shouted.
“I don’t think so, Deputy.” White’s voice was barely audible.
The snow fell. The world was so silent, Gunther thought. He thought about the drive to Denver.
Gunther watched Marty, his clean, hairless face, what he could see of it, his fear near ready to turn to panic. He watched as the young man froze, feet apart, shoulders square. Marty would never be the same. This was what Gunther thought. He saw the boy in the man’s face. The snow. The swirling snow. That was what he saw.
Excerpted from Half An Inch of Water by Percival Everett. To be published by Graywolf Press, September 2015, Copyright © 2015 by Percival Everett, reprinted by permission of Melanie Jackson Agency LLC.