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Authors: JM Gulvin

The Long Count

BOOK: The Long Count
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The Long Count

A John Q Mystery

JM GULVIN

Sandy, this is for John.

1948–2014

Leaving the door wide open he stepped out into the night. A brief glance left and right, he walked the shadows to the wheat fields and disappeared into the crop. No wind, no stars in the sky, just cloud the color of smoke.

Beyond the fields he crossed the railroad tracks, heading for the depot lights. Sleeveless Levi soaked in sweat; he made the platform where his gaze fixed on a Coca-Cola machine. Nobody following, nobody heading this way, there was no one in the waiting room. All he could see was a wooden bench, a clock on the wall above the door; no water fountain to quench his thirst.

Searching his pockets he found no nickel, no dime. He studied that Coke machine as if debating whether to give it a thump, then his attention was diverted to the end of the platform where a set of headlights spilled across the rails.

Inside the waiting room he sat on the bench. He did not move. He listened to the sound of footfall as, slowly, someone approached. He watched the glow of a flashlight before it was echoed by the shadow of a man. Moments later the door swung open and his gaze fastened on a holstered gun.

Still he sat there. He could see the cop’s shoes, dust on the toes, the hem of his trouser leg. Finally he lifted his head. Dark hair curled from under his cap, He was broad in the chest and heavy in the arms where they bulged from the sleeves of his pale blue shirt. A badge above his left breast, cap peak high. They considered one another and neither of them spoke. The cop’s right hand hung loose at his thigh, and he studied that hand, long fingers, dirt under the nails, where it hung just ahead of the gun.

Working his jaws across a piece of gum the cop looked him up and down. ‘What’re you doing here, boy?’

From where he sat he could see the clock fixed on the wall. ‘I’m waiting on the four-oh-five.’

‘You seem a little sweaty, like you been running or something. Who are you? What’s your name?’

‘My name isn’t anybody’s business but mine.’

The cop expelled a breath. ‘Two in the morning at the railroad depot and he’s waiting on the four-oh-five. Are you kidding me, boy? All soaked in sweat and you ain’t giving up your name?’

‘Mister, I’m just set here waiting on a train.’

The cop stared at him with his fingers twitching at his thigh. ‘I’ll ask you again: what’s your name?’

He said nothing. He stared at the floor and the cop took a pace into the room.

‘Boy,’ he said, ‘best you answer my questions. What’re you doing here? What’s your name?’

He was looking at the floor then he closed his eyes. ‘I told you. I’m waiting on the four-oh-five.’

‘So you must have a ticket then. Guess you can show it to me, huh?’

He shook his head. ‘Going to buy me one from the conductor just as soon as I get on the train.’

‘Is that a fact? So where is it you’re headed then?’

‘Houston, like it says on the board.’

‘So what’s in Houston? That where you’re from?’

He looked at him. He nodded. He shook his head.

The cop furrowed his brow. ‘Yes and no,’ he said. ‘That what you’re telling me, huh?’ He took a pace backwards again, occupying the gap where the door hung open and a little night air filtered in. Right hand at his side he made a beckoning motion with his left. ‘I don’t know who you are and I don’t like the answers you’re giving to my questions, so I’m going to have you come down to the station house where we can ask you a couple
more.’ He jerked his head. ‘Come ahead now, on your feet.’

Still he sat there and still the cop looked on. ‘I won’t tell you a second time.’ Reaching for his billy club the cop slid it loose of its sleeve.

He sat there a moment longer. Then he got to his feet. The cop held the door open and he stepped out onto the platform where, apart from a couple of lamps, the darkness was complete.

They paced the length of the platform with nobody else around and no sound save the pinging of railroad steel. They were almost at the car, a blue Plymouth with four doors and a metal grille separating the front from the back. A single red light on the roof, he looked at the car and then he looked back. The cop had his holstered gun almost proffered as he reached for the door.

In the blink of an eye he had that gun out of the holster and clattered the cop over the head. On his knees, blood spilling where his skull was split, the cop tried to get up, tried to bring the Billy around but he hit him again and again. He stood above him, one leg either side, he was straddling the officer now. Stuffing the gun in the waistband of his jeans, he picked up the fallen billy club and started pounding him with it.

Finally he stopped. Soaked in sweat, hair flopping in front of his eyes, he stood straight with the club held loose at his side. There was no one around, not a sound from the sleepy little town. He looked down at the cop as blood spread the dirt in a thickening pool. He looked at the cruiser where the back door was open, then at the cap where it rested against the nearside wheel. He bent for it. He put it on his head and it fit pretty well. He took a look in the mirror fixed on the door.

Dressed in the cop’s uniform, he left him in his shorts and socks. His own clothes he stuffed in a large paper sack he found in the back of the cruiser. Stowing that in the foot well on the passenger side, he climbed behind the wheel and sat for a moment with his head bowed and hands clasped in his lap.

Perched on a rock, Quarrie had his shirt off and the heat of the sun on his back. Mud-colored waves danced where the breeze sculled the surface of the river; they held his attention for a moment before his gaze shifted to his son. Sitting cross-legged in the dirt James watched Pious where he too had his shirt off; six feet of middle-weight muscle, he studied the water’s edge.

Picking his way across the stones Quarrie came alongside and they both looked on as a trout jumped close to the bank.

‘Pious,’ Quarrie said, ‘we got us a ranch-sized fish fry to take care of and hand fishing’s illegal in Texas. You got any holes in mind this side of the river, we can’t be grabbling in them.’

Pious indicated the northern shore. ‘She’s legal in Oklahoma, John Q, and yonder is Oklahoma. I got a place in mind a mile downstream where a train wrecked forty years back. More holes over there than you could shake a stick at, and flathead love that kind of thing.’

‘Train wreck?’ From where he was sitting James looked up.

‘Yup.’ Pious glanced over his shoulder. ‘Bridge came down one night in a rainstorm and nobody knew it had happened till the train left the rails and wrecked.’

‘Did anybody die?’

Pious squinted at Quarrie. ‘Can’t tell you that for sure on account of it was so long ago, but I don’t see many getting out.’

Leaning to the side Quarrie spat. ‘Hell of a place to fish for flathead, Pious. You’re talking about a graveyard I guess.’

Pious pointed downriver towards the next bend. ‘You want to fish this waterway with your conscience intact then the best place
is that wreck. You want to forget about being a Ranger for a few hours that’s fine with me, because there’s plenty sweet spots right here where we’re at.’

Together the three of them hiked the clay-colored river that marked the border between Texas and Oklahoma, though where one state ended and the other began was still something of a moot point. Some said the border was the middle of the river itself and others the southern shore. Until a definitive statement was made by someone, Quarrie figured on halfway across.

Memorial Day, he and Pious had been talking about Korea while James asked lots of questions and he hadn’t done that before. It occurred to Quarrie that for the first time maybe, he really understood.

‘Pious,’ the boy said, ‘how come you know about this place?’

Pious looked down where James walked between him and his father. ‘Fact is I found her when I first got out of Leavenworth. You were still a baby back then, only just gotten back from where you lived up in Idaho with your dad. Me, I learned how to grabble catfish when I was a kid growing up in Georgia. Fresh out of prison like that, I figured a hand-caught fish ought to taste pretty sweet, and this old boy in the cell house told me about that wreck.’

Brows knit, James looked up. ‘And Leavenworth was where you were after my daddy wrote the president, right?’

‘Federal penitentiary, yes it was.’ Pious laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘Army gave me the death sentence for disobeying an order over in Korea. I guess we done told you that. Well, your daddy was laid up in the hospital and had some time on his hands. He took to writing and after he was done the president changed that sentence to life with hard labor, and I could’ve been there yet.’ He glanced briefly at Quarrie then. ‘But nobody figured on a bunch of attorneys from back east taking my side, and they found out the government never did declare war in Korea. We told you this story, right?’

‘Yes, you did,’ James said. ‘But I don’t mind hearing it again. It meant it was peacetime, didn’t it, on account of the president not saying how we was at war?’

‘Yup, technically that’s what it meant. It also meant that all they could throw my way was five years for telling an officer how I wasn’t about take a bunch of soldiers I’d just gotten safe back to their certain deaths.’

‘On account of all the Chinese gunfire going on?’

‘Yes, James: on account of that.’

‘But they sent you to prison anyway?’

‘Yes, I’m afraid they did. It didn’t matter that we’d been under the kind of fire where you got no choice but to fall back. Fact of the matter is I’m a black man, and back then there were plenty in the army didn’t think a black man had the stomach for a fight. The captain was dead and so was the LT. It was up to me to make the decision and I brought the men off the hill. CO didn’t want to hear about it, said to me how I was a coward and that I had to take those men right back.’ Gesturing, he made a face. ‘I told him I wasn’t going to do that and if he wanted to take that hill he better pick up a gun hisself.’

They walked to where the river curved and Quarrie considered the trees crowding the Oklahoma shore. On this side the woodland was not so dense, scrubland climbing where bunch grass grew and rattlesnakes made their nests. On the other side the foliage was much thicker, with branches overhanging the water and strings of roots cutting through the mud.

The Red River: threading through the canyons that split Texas and Oklahoma, it carried mile after mile of shallow bends before forming another short border with Arkansas. As they rounded that last elbow they could see the first of the railroad cars jutting from the water, like some kind of warning perhaps. Rusting hunks of metal that seemed as old as the river itself, and Quarrie wondered if the forty years Pious had been talking about wasn’t considerably
more. Spilling from the Oklahoma side he could make out remnants of wall panels, bits and pieces of roof, the partial turn of a wheel, and all of it the same ochre color as the water.

Harsh-looking shanks reached up from beneath the surface, girders lying exposed where the cars had been reinforced and all that was left was the steel. It was all that remained of the train: half a dozen cars in bits that lay scattered across the banks and buckled into cottonwood trees. There was nothing left of the bridge.

Beyond the banks more bits and pieces of wreckage hugged the waterline and there was no way of telling how much metal was actually hidden underneath.

‘Son,’ Quarrie said to James, ‘now that we’re here, I ain’t so sure this is the place for you to learn where to be a catfish grabbler. All that wreckage and everything. You see what we got going on?’

The boy looked up at him with a pained expression on his face.

‘You know what?’ Pious too was considering the maze of sharpened steel. ‘Your daddy’s got a point. It’s been a while since I fished down this way and I guess I forgot just how much of a wreck there actually was. Going to be some real sharp edges down there and I didn’t allow for you getting cut.’

‘I tell you what,’ Quarrie laid a hand on his son’s shoulder, ‘me and Pious will check her out and if it’s safe then you can swim on over, but not until I tell you, OK? Meantime, I want you to set here on the bank and if you spot any snakes in the water you go ahead and holler right away.’

James did not say anything. Working the muddy bank with his toes he kept his gaze downcast as his father passed a palm over his hair.

Wearing just their jeans, he and Pious waded into the cool of the water.

‘Man, that is sweet against the skin,’ Pious murmured. ‘Memorial Day, John Q, and it feels like she’s July.’

Together they made their way to the middle of the river. ‘OK,
bud,’ Quarrie said, ‘we’re on the Oklahoma side now so we’re legal, but she’s narly as hell underfoot.’

‘Yes, she is.’ Alongside him Pious was chest-deep and moving very slowly, drops of river water clinging to his close-cut hair. ‘You-all follow my lead, OK? See if I can’t remember where the worst hazards are at and where the best holes used to be.’

Tucking in behind him Quarrie came to the first hunk of wrecked railroad car and felt sheared metal brushing against his leg. He cursed softly as Pious eased around the side of another wasted panel where a massive water spider was keeping watch.

‘Best have one eye out for snakes,’ Quarrie said. ‘I figure we got copperhead and cottonmouth both.’

‘Yeah we do, and sure as hell we don’t want to get snake-bit, not all the way out here.’

They were right in amongst the wreckage now, with bits of old railroad car on all sides, a maze of metal both above the water and below.

‘Pious,’ Quarrie said, wading up to his chin, ‘there better be some decent-sized flathead back here because this is worse than any string of trotlines, I swear.’

‘Quit bleating, will you? I know what-all I’m doing.’ From where he was picking his way through the wreckage Pious looked back. ‘I’ll let you know when we find what we’re looking for. Just keep following my lead.’

‘So how big are these flatheads anyway?’ Quarrie asked.

‘You think I’d bring you-all in here if they were tiddlers? Biggest I caught was fifty-nine pounds seven ounces and that’s a lot of fish right there.’

They were close to the bank now, in among trees where the roots had broken through, and Quarrie was feeling his way with his toes. As he moved to his left he felt the opening of a large hole and stood there easing his foot across the muddy entrance pretty gingerly, for fear of cutting a toe on some piece of sharpened steel. He was
searching for any kind of vibration in the riverbed, the thump of a flathead’s tail.

‘Pious,’ he said. ‘Think I might have something here. A hole anyways. You want to see if you can’t find where she comes out?’

Pious swam alongside him; closer still to the bank, he was in among the overhanging branches where they clustered around smaller fragments of wrecked train. It took him a few moments, then he located the other end of the hole, and he was up to his chin where the current was pressing him back.

‘John Q,’ he said, ‘I reckon this right here where I’m at is actually the entrance. You got the back end I think, any movement at all down there?’

‘Nope. If he’s in there he knows not to thump his tail. You want me to go down and take a look?’

‘No sir, this here’s my party. You-all stay where you are.’

They were ten feet apart, the hole the catfish had taken for its den feeding the length of the bank.

‘Take care now,’ Quarrie said. ‘Lots of roots to tangle you up in, and a whole bunch of metal to boot.’

‘I know it, so don’t be making it a long count before you figure I might need some help, OK?’

‘Long count?’ Quarrie said.

‘Grabbling term we got back in Georgia. You got a long and a short depending on what-all you got going on. With me the long is one hundred and fifteen seconds because that’s how far I can hold a breath. Short is about forty-five, and in water like this, if I ain’t up by then I ain’t coming up, so best you come on down.’ Pious made a duck dive and disappeared.

Down in the depths he was feeling his way with outstretched fingers before he came to the lip of the hole. Mud rising in swirls from the riverbed, it silted up the water and he was barely able to separate the tangled mass of roots from shards of rusting steel. Easing his way a little further he had his hands where his feet had
been and was working the lip of the hole. Making a fist he reached inside but no catfish latched on, and he peered through the murk to see if there was anything there. He could find no trace of whiskers waving in the water, but there was something moving, he just could not make out what it was. A patch of yellowed white; inching a little closer, it bobbed right in front of his face.

Quarrie counted forty-two seconds and was about to make the dive when the water boiled and his friend came up thrashing and gasping for air. There was no sign of any fish and Pious had a haunted look in his eyes. He took a moment to catch his breath; chest-deep in the water still, he was panting hard. He did not say anything. He just looked at Quarrie and Quarrie looked back at him.

‘What’s up, bud? Swallow a little river water there then, did you?’

‘Yeah, I did. And we got us a graveyard for sure.’

Quarrie dived, feeling his way as Pious had done moments before. He came to the edge of the den and stared through the gloom with his heart lifting against his chest. White and bulbous, a human skull; empty eye sockets, they stared at him like a sentinel guarding the hole.

It was all he could do not to swallow water, and he could see it was not just the skull, but some partial vertebrae as well. A little of the neck was still attached and what looked like part of the clavicle. A child: from the size of the skull and that collarbone he figured it had been a child that drowned here and they’d not been much older than James.

For a macabre few moments he just trod water, then reached out to gather up the bones before he remembered his son was waiting on the southern bank. Leaving the bones where they were, he surfaced and looked at Pious in exactly the same way that Pious had looked at him.

‘You see it?’ Pious said.

‘I saw it. And whoever it is, they’ve been there since the train wrecked, I guess. I’ll call it in when we get home.’ He nodded to where James was skimming stones from the other shore. ‘In the meantime I don’t want him knowing about it. I’ll tell him when I’m ready, OK?’

‘Whatever you say, John Q. But the fish and all – we got people relying on us to bring a flathead home.’

‘I know it. But we’re done here, bud. We’ll go fish the Texas shore.’

BOOK: The Long Count
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