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To the moderators:
This is a half-mystery tale, of sorts. As such there will be dead bodies. There are some gruesome items, most of which come later. Language isn't terribly bad (at least I don't think so). All in all this probably isn't any worse than an episode of prime-time television. Just my $.02
In the early hours of the 22nd of August the Highwayman got his first victim. Wallace Beaumont was returning home from his job at the mill in Bowen’s Landing by way of the diner in Planters. Planters was a dust speck of a town square between Bowen’s Landing and Stokesville, consisting mostly of Sarge’s Diner, a gas station, motel, church, post office, hardware store, and the home office of Sheriff Isaiah Claxton.
More to the point, Beaumont had a chicken plate and a Moxie. Then he shorted the waitress fifty cents and went out to his waiting car. Like everything else that he had any measure of control of, the car was junk. You could always tell where Beaumont had been by following the car parts in the bar ditches alongside the road. Of course, the only reason to follow the man anywhere was if he owed you money, and then you usually thought twice before demanding anything, money especially.
Beaumont pulled out of the dirt parking lot and raised a dust cloud getting out of town. He was doing well over the speed limit of thirty and had a little too much alcohol floating around his bloodstream. Sheriff Claxton would have busted anybody else. But this was Wallace Beaumont and it was popular opinion that if he somehow killed himself it wouldn’t be any great loss to society.
It was well after dark when he left Sarge’s, and the situation wasn’t helped by the fact that his car only had one functioning headlight. To counter the effect, he made a habit of driving straight down the center of road regardless of any oncoming traffic. In his way of thinking, anybody with two headlights could see the ditch that much more clearly. Therefore, they could avoid it with less difficulty.
Himself, he was having trouble keeping on the road because it kept swerving from side of to side. On top of that, he had a truck following him. At least he thought it was a truck. All he could make out were two headlights about a half-mile back. They seemed to be closing on him, something that irritated Beaumont to no end. He stopped watching the rearview mirror and clutched the steering wheel, his knuckles turning a stark white as he stepped on the accelerator.
In minutes the follower had back away or turned and he let off the gas a little. The car slowed to a more reasonable speed and he let go the wheel long enough to rummage for his pocket flask. The roads here were straight enough not to require his attention all the time.
But if it wasn’t one thing, it had to be another. Up ahead—maybe a quarter of a mile or so—he could make out the flickering light of a lantern. Beautiful. Just beautiful. Beaumont cussed a minor blue streak heard only by himself and tapped the brake. The engine squealed and gears ground against each other in protest, and he shifted his anger to the poor quality of this overpriced vehicle of his.
He rode out the quarter-mile in a crawl, never seeing more than the tiniest glimmer from the light. When he did run across the source, part of his anger changed into dull curiosity. For reasons well beyond the thinking ability of Wallace T. Beaumont, some idiot had gone and left a perfectly good kerosene lantern in the middle of the road. Beaumont kicked the lamp, shattering the smoke-stained globe and sending the remains skittering into the roadside ditch.
Staggering back to the car, he half-fell through the open door and managed to get moving again. He was going at a healthy clip when it came out of the darkness at him. At least he thought it did. Considering his normal slow wit and the retarding amount of booze in him it was a wonder he could see anything.
Like a wraith it came flying from out of the endless black. For a split-second Beaumont clearly discerned the silhouette of a man standing in the road, facing him. The shape had a blank, empty stare and the broken-backed looked share by those who worked a twenty-hour day for chicken scratch.
Being thoroughly drunk, Beaumont overreacted. He spun the wheel hard right and sent the old car careening off the road. The battered vehicle hit the ditch at an angle and rolled, throwing the lone occupant halfway through the windshield before the wild motion had stopped. When it ended the thing was upside down in an empty field with the roof crushed to the point of being unrecognizable as an automobile save the wildly spinning wheels.
The alcohol numbed Beaumont enough for him to live his last few minutes in a relatively painless state. The figure on the road was bathed in chalky light as a truck pulled up and stopped. He heard a door open, then a second figure approached, carrying a baseball bat. With the light behind the truck’s driver Beaumont could see nothing while the footsteps crunched to where he lay. Then the bat slammed down on him and he saw nothing more.
Ike Claxton was out to examine the wreckage at six o’clock the following morning. One of the local dirt farmers had called in upon discovering the mess this morning. There wasn’t much to see, Claxton admitted to himself. Just a crunched-up old Chevrolet with a body half through the windshield.
Beaumont had sure taken a beating on his way out. In addition to the usual scrapes and bumps from a car accident the body was torn by the supposedly shatterproof glass of the windshield, then further beaten by the rolling of the Chevy. The coroner had already extracted the remains and carried them to the sheriff’s office. Claxton was going to have to take a closer look a little bit later today, a job he certainly did not relish. After lunch, he decided. He couldn’t sign off on a body before eating.
Up the road the sheriff spotted a dust trail. That would be Bill Wells, the owner of the only tow-truck in the county. As such, he had a monopoly on any kind of towing the local law needed. Not a bad setup, really. Farmers might not be able to grow crops and factories might be cutting workers by the dozens, but there was no shortage of broken-down automobiles.
Wells slowed his truck and crept between the two sheriff’s cars parked at that end of the scene. He stopped in the middle of things and climbed down to take a closer look.
“Mornin’, Sheriff,” he said as he stepped down into the ditch.
“Billy,” Claxton nodded.
“Looks pretty bad. No survivors?”
“Just as well,” Wells commented. “This looks okay. Think I can get a chain around here—“ he reached around and tugged the front axle. Only one wheel remained attached, a factor that made his assessment infinitely easier.
“Yeah. Yeah, this is workable. Hand me that chain, would you? The big one on the end?”
Claxton located the correct chain and dragged it to Wells, who wrapped it around the axle. The mechanic jumped up to the road and walked to the crank-operated winch on the back of his truck.
“See if we can flip this thing over,” he explained needlessly.
The chain went taut and the winch let out a metallic groan as the weight taxed the bolts fixing it to the truck bed. Claxton took cover behind his patrol car for the duration. His brother who’d been in the Navy said he’d seen chains snap like twine and cut men in half. The sheriff couldn’t be sure it there had been any embellishments or not, but had no desire to find out through personal experience.
Slowly but surely the Chevy lifted out of the drainage ditch. Two deputies went around the other side and pushed and the boxy frame onto the three wheels. That done, Claxton unwrapped the chain and tossed it on the bed. Jacob—Billy’s idiot brother—watched from the passenger seat of the truck. A few minutes later everything was secured and Wells drove off towing the Chevy.
One by one the cars drove away. Claxton, being in charge of the mess, was the last. He cast one final glance at the indentions in the cracked dirt and mixed oil- and bloodstains, already dried to the consistency of charcoal.
Later today he would go to Beaumont’s funeral, though his reasons were strictly professional. Assuming there were enough people in Planters with enough reason to attend the event, he had to be present to answer any questions. Not likely. If it had been anyone else this would have been a tragedy. But since it was Beaumont—and Beaumont was just plain mean—it was more of a relief than anything else.
Claxton polished off the last bites of the sandwich his daughter had packed for his lunch. Then he walked across the road to the Sarge’s and bought another bottle of Dr. Pepper from the machine by the door. Then he went to the post office and checked on his mail. No luck, so he went over to the filling station and sat on the bench by the big windows, hoping for somebody to come along and delay him. No luck there either. Well, no dodging it now.
Begrudgingly he dusted the crumbs from the front of his uniform jacket and returned to his office. Tossing the bottle in the wire-frame trashcan beside his desk, he went from the front office, through the room with the two jail cells, to the rear storage room. Miles Thom—the coroner—was already there.
What was left of Wallace Beaumont had been laid out in a wooden box filled with broken ice. Strategically placed buckets caught the steady drip from holes in the cheap coffin. Claxton’s stomach twisted into knots when he picked up on the reddish tinge of the water in the buckets. Beaumont was torn up bad. He sighed. Might as well get it over with.
He nodded to Thom, who scratched the time on his clipboard.
“Starting at four-forty-seven, twenty-three August, nineteen and thirty-six. Victim is Beaumont, Wallace T—Sheriff, you wouldn’t happen to know what the T’s for, would you?” Thom wrote on without looking up.
“No. Never bothered to ask.”
“I can leave it as a T, I suppose,” the coroner said, returning to his examination. “Cause of death is severe trauma to the neck and chest regions with secondary injuries attributed to broken glass and multiple ground impacts.”
For three or four minutes Thom wrote more comments on his report without explaining any other grisly details. He finished and handed the form to Claxton, who signed all three copies on the second-lowest line. The coroner had to fill out three of them; one for the file cabinet in the sheriff’s office, one for the church death records, and one for the hospital over in Bowen’s Landing.
“Thanks, Sheriff. I’ll have him out of here in fifteen minutes.”
“How do you do it, Miles? The blood, the carnage—how do you deal with it?”
“I drink. Heavily. I learned that in France in ’17. Drink enough and no amount of blood can shake you. Lousy job,” Thom washed his hands in a bowl of rubbing alcohol, “but where would the world be without us? Try not to let it ruin what’s left of the day, Ike,” the coroner picked up his weather-beaten hat and departed to get the men to move the body.
The sun had two or three hours left when they held Beaumont’s funeral. Claxton and the minister from the Planters church were the only two to show and it was fairly obvious that neither wanted to be there. The cleric said a few words and they both left. Claxton still had a couple of hours left until he could call it a day. He elected to go for a drive.
In hindsight it was kind of sad about Beaumont. He supposed that, if you were being both gracious and generous you could call the man a mean son of a bitch. You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody in Planters—or Bowen’s Landing and Stokesville, for that matter—with something good to say about Wallace Beaumont. He was a cheat, liar, thief, adulterer, and general all-around hell-raiser. The only reason he wasn’t in prison for murder was because the courts couldn’t make it stick for lack of evidence.
If you asked Claxton he’d tell you the man could have easily become a serial killer if he’d put a little more energy into his work. He certainly had the mindset for the job. His only known pastime was plinking at tied dogs with and old German rifle. Didn’t matter whose dog or where it was, just so long as it was tied.
That had gotten him in trouble before. One time he’d snapped off a shot and missed. The bullet went low, skipped off the ground, and passed through the skull of a four year-old boy attending a church picnic. Beaumont didn’t have the rifle when they caught him, but Claxton knew it had to be him. Never before and never since had he so wanted to kill a man. He could easily have gone for his .38 and put all six rounds into Beaumont’s stomach . . . but no, he held his temper in the belief that the courts would get the man.
Claxton had given up being sore about the whole sorry mess. Forgiveness wasn’t the right term. Forgiveness would have meant accepting the fact. And Claxton didn’t accept. Suppression would be a better word. All in all, though, he guessed everything had leveled out in the end. The dead boy had the whole town at his funeral, with enough donations for a nice headstone. Still, he shouldn’t have been dead to begin with. Beaumont, on the other hand, had two people at his, both of them required to be there. He would be buried under the cheapest, lowest-quality stone available. And he should have been dead.
Once on the open road he figured he might as well do something productive and drive to Beaumont’s shack. Again, it was more or less required of him to inform any next-of-kin, dependents, or anything else living under the same roof. In the case of someone living alone, it fell to the local law to secure any livestock or potentially dangerous items left unattended. Basically, Claxton had to pick up whatever horses, cattle, goats, firearms, ammunition, explosives, or gasoline in Beaumont’s possession at the time of his death.
On the way he passed the twin columns of stripe-clad inmates from the Cedar Hill penitentiary over on the county line. Two guards with Thompsons eyed the procession from horseback. Prison guards were easy to spot because they wore green uniforms. They wore green because nobody else in the county did. Claxton and his deputies wore brown jackets over khaki, and Stokesville and Bowen’s Landing had their own police departments, who wore whatever the city councils decided.
The lead overseer flicked the brim of his campaign hat. Claxton returned the gesture and rolled down his window.
“Where’s this bunch headed?”
“Clean up that tanker-car spill at the sidetrack in Loline. Railroad didn’t want the job, so they pay us six dollars a head. After that we might just have to find something else,” the guard stopped long enough to browbeat the prisoner back in line.
They were marching in step, the inmates. You could almost set your watch to their footsteps. It was a two-part sound, a kind of scrape as they dragged their feet accompanied by the clinking of their ankle irons.
“See, now the pen at Clarksburg don’t do like us. They keeps theirs all locked up in cages all day long. We see ours as a resource. We got one’s been in here twenty years of a fifty-year sentence; come in like a twig and looks like he could take Jack Dempsey now.”
“Ever worry ‘bout a riot?” Claxton asked.
The guard shifted his tommygun and wiped a speck of dust from the receiver. “Nope. Never once. Where you off to, Sheriff?”
“Wallace Beaumont’s place.”
“Oh, right. Got hisself kilt today. Good riddance, if you ask me.”
“I don’t think anybody’s got a mind to argue,” Claxton took another look at the columns. “Well, I won’t take any more of your time.”
“Aright then, Sheriff.” The guard shouted at the inmates—“Git off’n the road you murderin’ trash! Sheriff comin’ through!”
The columns slowed and shuffled off to the edges of the road, leaving a corridor down the center for Claxton. He dropped it into low gear and crawled through the split formation. None of the prisoners showed any acknowledgement of the passing car. He’d seen some of their faces before, both during their trial and after a few months in the state lockup. At their trials most had been full of spit and vinegar, which they seemed to enjoy hurling at anybody in the courtroom.
A month later they would be a faceless, fightless, soundly broken man. Claxton had sympathy for none of them. There had been—at some point—enough proof to implicate them in one evil deed or another. The sentences went from ten to a hundred years and there was no parole. Not at Cedar Hill. ‘The Hill’, as guard and prisoner alike knew it, was a death sentence in and of itself. On occasion, a criminal spending his last night behind bars would be carted out the next morning with a group of holes in the back of his head.
An inquiry board looked into all of the incidences and every one was dismissed because there was no recognized motive on the part of Warden Ted Harkin or any of his staff. Plenty on the parts of next-of-kin, sweethearts, widows, friends, or associates, but none on the guards. Claxton thought Cedar Hill was just the sort of place Wallace Beaumont would have belonged.
The patrol car rolled to a stop in front of Beaumont’s rundown shed/house. Claxton gave the place a good long eyeballing before he got out. Never knew if there were any attack dogs or, in stranger times, attack goats. Spotting none, he got out for a closer inspection. He took the restraining strap off his holstered .38 just the same. The animals could be asleep in the back.
The front screen was unlatched and swinging in the breeze. Claxton rapped on the doorframe and called inside. Hearing nothing, he moved inside. The stench was enough to knock a man down. He could fix that, if nothing else. Digging a handkerchief from his shirt pocket, he pressed it to his face and went in.
The place was just as much a dump inside as out. A low wall divided the sitting room and kitchen, with a door-less frame leading off to the only bedroom. Claxton shuffled through an ankle-deep sea of papers, rags, and other assorted garbage on his way to the kitchen. There he found a rotting chicken carcass partially butchered. Maggots swarmed the discolored and misshapen lump—a living, moving carpet, almost.
Nothing dangerous here except for a rusting knife stuck in the chopping block under the chicken. He deemed the blade less threatening than the chicken and moved on. In the bedroom he found Beaumont’s old Mauser, the most lethal item he’d run across so far and probably the most dangerous in the house. He checked the chamber and ejected the last three shells before tossing the rifle on the foul mattress and searching the closet.
The closet held a total of five items: a box of shells for the rifle, a heavy coat, a pair of shoes, a small metal box, and a white hood. So Beaumont had been a Klansman, too. The Klan didn’t so much bother Claxton as long as they kept quiet and didn’t do anything rash. So long as nothing mysteriously caught fire in the night they could carry on without trouble from him. When they started shooting and lynching—that was another matter.
He pried the box open and found a roll of paper bills, totaled at $20.00. Also present was a healthy supply of mouse pellets. Claxton shook the dried excrement off and pocketed the bills. If nobody had claim to Beaumont’s estate everything went to the county. In light of that, the sheriff claimed the cash for his department. He’d dealt with some of the county officials—none of them from Planters, naturally—who’d directed the gains the way of their pet projects—none of which involved Planters.
It was especially annoying when old Cynthia Burnham died with no heirs. She was the closest thing to money Planters had ever had. She was also everybody’s favorite adopted aunt. The expectation that her wealth would be transferred to her town was reasonable enough, but that was back before Claxton had learned to stand up to the county clerks. You learned from experience and the whole affair was a painfully memorable.
Anyway, every dime in her purse was fodder for the bureaucrats. They dove out of nowhere like vultures to a roadkill. The whole mess also taught Claxton that legal documents didn’t make a shred of difference when there was dough to be had. The end result was that $500,000 was deflected from Planters. Councilman Red Stewart of Stokesville had explained by saying the people and government in Planters wouldn’t know how to handle such sums of money.
Every last cent was siphoned into the coffers of Stokesville, where it was promptly handed over to the temperance unions, who in turn blew it trying to string Prohibition along another few years. The whole thing had taught Claxton to seize opportunity when it presented itself.
Speaking of . . . he made for the backdoor and went out to see if Beaumont had any livestock worth taking. Years back the owner had thrown up a car shed in the back. The sheet-metal sides creaked in the light breeze and threatened to collapse under their own weight. He looked inside but saw nothing worth further scrutiny and returned to his car.
All he had to show for his efforts was a beat-up old rifle and three rounds of German ammunition. In his opinion, that was enough to call it a day. He’d drop the loot off at the office in town and maybe stop for something at Sarge’s before he went home. Beaumont had been a lot of trouble when he was alive and a couple hours of annoyance after his death. Claxton was glad he wouldn’t have to deal with the man anymore. Tomorrow would be another day and Wallace Beaumont would be history.
Two weeks later it another incident similar to Beaumont’s happened in nearly the same spot, just a few miles up the road and with an out-of-towner. Everybody knew it was an out-of-towner because nobody in Planters recognized the car. This one also happened in the middle of the night with no clear reason for going off the road. Claxton guessed it was a deer or a stray dog. The land was so dry it wouldn’t take footprints, so the actual cause remained a mystery. Still, this second accident was just as bad as the first.
Though the car hadn’t rolled over the occupant had been thrown from the vehicle. The best estimate of what had happened was the suggestion that the out-of-towner had been going too fast and slammed on the breaks to avoid whatever obstacle was in the way.
The sudden stop had projected the lone driver through the windshield and onto the road somewhere up ahead. There was no body, though. Insofar as anybody could tell they had landed in the road and tried to crawl away. A trail of maroon droplets trailed off into the barren fields lining the road. To find them, Claxton had one of his deputies bring in the department bloodhound. The dog a nose that most of them would have put money on. Most times they would have won big. Curiously, this wasn’t the case.
Joe McGaffin let his prize tracking hound get a good long sniff of both the car and the blood trail. For an animal that usually worked off of a scrap of handkerchief or the like, both of those should have been more than enough for a strong trail. The dog started off on a trot, went about forty feet down the road, and turned in circles.
“Dog ain’t working, Joe,” Claxton stated the obvious.
“Wonder why,” McGaffin said. “Trail couldn’t be that short, could it, Sheriff?”
“I don’t imagine. Otherwise we’d have found that body right off. ‘Less of course they stopped and showered first.”
A few minutes passed with everybody formulating their own opinions of what had transpired. Among them they had some close ones, some farfetched ones, and some that were outright ridiculous. None of them thought their idea strong enough to be taken seriously and so kept it to themselves.
Claxton went through the necessary paperwork all over again, with all the normal hassle of dealing with a dead body plus the oddity of dealing with a corpse that wasn’t there. Himself, the sheriff spent a good solid hour behind the office staring at the car with the missing windshield. For all his time he still came up with nothing.
July 17th was when it happened again. Again it was different, though in a much more sinister fashion with a few old favorites. The half-demolished car, for instance. Number three was distinguished by the presence of more than one occupant. The passenger was slumped over onto the dashboard, for all appearances perfectly healthy. A later post-mortem would establish cause of death as a shattered neck
The driver, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen. Even with his whereabouts unknown, Claxton was sure there’d been a struggle. His reasons were the deep scratches on the driver’s-side door. Somewhere he’d heard that bears occasionally attacked motor vehicles. Now if they had bears here he could use that explanation.
“Look like a craze-o to me,” Wells observed from the back of his truck. “Some kinda serial killer could be.”
Claxton dusted off his palms and stood up, looking up and down the road. “They certainly got a place for it. Long, empty road, dark night. Not a house for miles.”
Just then McGaffin’s bloodhound sounded off. In the distance Claxton could barely make out the dog team on their wandering course through the field. One of the team waved the sheriff over.
Until his dying day Claxton would remember what the final few steps of that walk felt like. Everything felt heavier the closer he moved to them. Tracking the body had been easy. The driver had been dragged a full mile, beating down what plant life remained in a line you’d have to be blind to miss. The end of the trail was especially heavily trod.
At one time it had been a path through a farmer’s field, as was made evident by the ragged scarecrow forever standing his solitary watch over a ruined harvest. The driver was sitting up against the scarecrow’s post with his hands splayed out to the sides. He was well dressed. Too well for any of the locals. Another out-of-towner. His dried blood circled him like a purple halo, something the searching party would spend long sleepless nights trying to forget.
From the chest down the driver was scarcely more than a gaping wound. At some point he’d been wearing a shirt, tie, and suit jacket. The remains of the garments hung over his shoulders like a mantle and went as far down as the bottom of the rib cage, where they ended in torn strips. For all practical purposes, the man had been gutted. It looked like the work of an animal to Claxton. A very hungry, very vicious animal.
He hoped it was an animal.
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