The combination of noises came again and this time I was able to zone in on its location in the shadows cast by one of the yard lights. A man was being held from behind by someone short and wide bodied, while a taller man measured his distance and let fly a sharp punch to the held man’s mid-section. The noise I was hearing was the thump of fists on a body followed by air rushing out of a windpipe.
As I watched, the taller man changed his target for the next assault and landed his fist on the unprotected jaw. The held man’s head snapped back and his knees buckled. The helper let him slide to the ground apparently unconscious. There was some conversation among the two standing men but the distance was too far for me to hear what they were saying and the shadows were too deep to make out the faces of the participants. The taller man stepped next to the downed man and gave him a kick in the head.
What the hell was going on? Cowboy fights were not uncommon. But what I had witnessed was not a fight – it was a beating. My initial reaction had been to charge down the hill and help the guy receiving the blows. But it was all over before my brain had processed what was happening. Was the beating some bunkhouse argument? Had the beaten guy been caught stealing? Or was this something connected with Art’s drug running?
My position in the dark was safe. With the yard lights on, anybody down below was not able to see in the shadows where I was sitting. I checked the gun in my waistband for assurance and started to move downhill toward the light. I wanted a better look at the situation and who was involved. Instead of a charge down the hill I went back to trying to be quiet. My kicking and cussing of a moment ago had gone unnoticed because the others were intent on their own activity. Now they would pick up on strange noises.
The first part of the hill was a gentle slope and easy to maneuver. After I made it about half way to the gravel yard, the slope gradually increased to a point where I had to sit on my butt and slide. I stopped short of committing myself all the way with a slide to the bottom because the two standing men stooped and grabbed the unconscious guy by an arm each and stated dragging him across the yard. Their trajectory would take them closer to the brighter pool of light and if I was patient I might get a look at their faces.
The dragging went slowly. The beaten man was obviously still unconscious. Unfortunately, as they came into the strongest light, their backs were to me and I couldn’t see who it was for sure. But the shortest one was wide bodied and resembled Pinky.
The beaten man was dragged to a pickup and shoved in the passenger side. The dome light going on was no help with the pickup blocking my view. The taller of the two assailants came around to the driver’s door and hopped in. He looked familiar but I couldn’t put a name to him. Art had several hired hands and they seemed to turnover regularly. I could have seen this one at one of the rodeos helping with the rodeo stock. My main focus was on the shorter one. I wanted to see if it was Pinky. But he disappeared into the shadow behind the pickup.
The dome light gave me a quick look at the driver’s profile. He had a long narrow face with high cheekbones and skin pockmarked with acne. I thought that was all I was going to get out of my snooping. But before the tall one started the truck he opened the door and stepped onto the running board and talked over the cab to the shorter one in the dark. I didn’t hear it all very well but the voice was unmistakable as he said, “… follow me.” Those two words floating distinctly up to me came from the throat of Broken Glass.
The voice froze me. Here was the man who had been tormenting me and had possibly caused the injury to Judy. Once again my quick temper popped to the surface and I immediately started to slide down the hill, ready to charge over and drag him out of the pickup.
Before I gathered myself at the bottom of the slide, Broken Glass had started the pickup and was leaving the yard. A second pickup came out of the shadows and fell in behind. I was fifty yards across a gravel open area and even in my better running back college days would not have been able to catch the trucks. Realizing this I tried to get a good look at the pickup that Broken Glass was driving. It was a later model blue, Ford diesel crew cab. It wasn’t the current body style, so it had to be around ten years old or older. The box on the driver’s side had a crease running almost the length of the box that seemed familiar. It looked like the Culbertson ranch pickup. But this was ranch country and there were a hundred pickups similar to this one within twenty miles of Spearfish. The light was poor and it was gone before I could see a license plate. The second pickup was white with Kennedy Rodeo Stock signage across the body.
Now I was almost certain the beating was drug related. My resolve to find some evidence that would put Art Kennedy away surfaced again. After all, I was on his place next to the ranch buildings where he was most likely to store the drugs. It was a simple thing to cross to the first building.
The gravel crunching underfoot was bothersome and unnerving but I was determined to have a look inside the ranch buildings. The two henchman were out on an errand and the family was at the house. Now was as good a time as any. I stayed to the shadows and tried to step lightly.
The first building nearest to me was the horse barn. The large end sliding door was wide open so the horses could have the benefit of the crisp autumn air. There was a night light placed about halfway down the wide alley. A couple of horses’ heads stuck out of the top half door of stalls. They were probably doing some late night communing. The horses weren’t spooked by my presence as they were around humans all the time.
The areas I was more interested in were the tack room and the hay and straw stacks located near the end I entered. The first choice for investigation was the hay stack. My reasoning was that the bales with the fake hollow centers were hay and maybe some of the drugs were hidden in plain sight. I flicked on the small LED lights built into the brim of my hunting cap. It was safe to risk small pencil lights like this. I didn’t dare turn on the large overhead lights.
There were about fifty hay bales stacked against the barn wall. I thought the fake bales would not be at the top of the stack, but a layer or two down. Hay bales like this have two twine strings tied around the length of the bale to hold the hay together. The bales normally weighed around seventy pounds. I moved each one off the pile and checked it individually. I was soon cussing for not having my leather gloves along. The twine was eating into the palms of my hands.
Fifty bales doesn’t sound like much. But if you move and flip fifty heavy bales with twin eating into your fingers and palms while trying to be quiet and worrying about being caught, you soon work up a sweat. And if I flipped one bale, I was going to flip all fifty. No sense doing the job halfway. As I flipped the last bale I didn’t hold much hope of finding anything. And I was right.
Looking behind me was discouraging. I had made a disjointed hay pile that had to be put back in place to avoid the evidence that someone had been looking. At least in putting the hay bales back I no longer needed to flip each one as I had already searched them in the first move.
I was starting to get edgy wondering when Broken Glass and the one I thought was Pinky, would be returning from their errand. I still took the time to flip the dozen or so straw bales stacked next to the hay. This was a little less strenuous as straw bales weigh about half of a hay bale.
By the time the straw was restacked without any better results, my nervousness had increased substantially. The longer I was here the higher the chance of being discovered. After what I had witnessed with the beating in the yard, I didn’t want to get caught.
I moved onto the tack room. My old tack room at my house which was a converted oat bin didn’t hold a candle to Art’s tack room. It was much larger, well organized with a work bench with windows above. The windows bothered me as they would let anyone approaching from that side see my light moving around inside. But I wasn’t stopping now.
The wall near the barn alley was lined with built in saddle racks each with its own wooden pegs for a bridle and accessories. There must have been twenty saddles in there. Well a saddle wouldn’t hold any packages, so I ignored them. At the end of the room was another door. I turned the handle but was surprised it was locked. Was this where the drugs were kept? Of course it could be as simple as the storage room for livestock medicine, which was expensive. With the type of crew Art had, it was a safe bet that medicine could get legs if it wasn’t secured.
I shook the handle but it was well made and didn’t give. I then tried jimmying the lock with a credit card but noticed a second lock that was a dead bolt. The only way into the room would be to bust the lock and give away my snooping. Of course it might be blamed on Art’s crew or a burglary. I was just looking around for something to bust the lock with, when I saw through the window a burst of light from the direction of the house. A door had opened and a couple of people walked through. It looked like they were coming this way.
Shit and double shit!!! Now what do I do. I could picture Art coming into his horse barn and finding me. There is no excuse in the world that is going to cover being in someone’s horse barn in the middle of the night.
I looked around for a place to hide and as I did so I realized my LED cap lights were flashing around with my swiveling head. I took the cap off so I could hold it and point it only to areas away from the window and low down so it wouldn’t be seen. There was a large wooden box against the wall that looked like it was used to store horse grooming equipment. I popped the lid open and saw that it was only about a third full. Moving one of the top trays out I eased down inside and pulled the lid behind me. Now if only the people from the house were on a quick check on the horses before bedtime, I might be all right.
There was time to calm my breathing before the people made it to the horse barn. When the gravel crunch quit I assumed they were on the cement of the center alley. My nerves were shot. How was I going to stand staying cooped up in a small ball with the apprehension of being found at any time? I tried to ease my hand to my waistband to draw my gun but the box was too confining for my arm to make the move. I was about to lift the box lid and get the gun out when the door of the tack room opened and whoever it was flipped the light switch.
Bright light filtered through cracks in the box. My initial reaction was to shrink back from the light. But then it dawned on me I should make use of it and try to see who the late night visitors were. I was hoping it might be Broken Glass so I could pop out of the box and pull my gun and tell him to quit threatening me and mine. When I finally lined up one eye and squinted through the crack, I saw someone familiar.
TT was standing there holding the saddle Brenda had received for her birthday. TT said to his companion, “Where do you want me to put the saddle?”
I still couldn’t see the second person but didn’t need my eyes to identify Brenda. “There are some empty saddle racks at the far end. Put it there and maybe it won’t pick up that sweat and dirt smell from the others before I use it tomorrow. I love that fresh leather smell.”
TT made short work of hanging the saddle. “What about the bridle and martingale. Hang them with the saddle?”
Brenda came back with “That would be good. I want them all together. Curly did such a good job on them. Especially the bridle and reins. I always wanted a Curly Special.” That gave me a temporary burst of pride. That she picked out the bridle and reins for special mention when I had made those picked up my spirits as much as you can have them picked up while hiding from your son and his girlfriend in a box.
My fear of being found out jumped right back in when Brenda said, “I don’t trust those mice down here not to nibble on fresh leather. Dad says this room is mice tight but I have seen some of our other leather with gnaw marks. I think we keep moth balls down here to deter the mice. Let’s put some on the saddle seat to keep them away. I think we keep them in the brush box over here.”
The brush box? That’s where I am hiding. Crap on a stick! Well, Brenda wasn’t done with her birthday surprises. I tensed running my brain a hundred miles per hour trying to come up with a line as to why TT’s father was hiding in a box on Art’s ranch in the middle of the night. I wasn’t coming up with anything as the box lid started to raise.
The lid froze partially open about six inches. I could see Brenda’s fingers cupped under the lid, frozen in the act of lifting the lid. I heard her breathlessly saying, “That was nice. How about another?” With that she dropped the lid and I had a temporary reprieve while I figured out that my son and Brenda were doing more than talking.
TT’s voice came rather huskily. “I haven’t given you my present yet. I thought maybe we could spread a little fresh straw in one of the empty horse boxes and I could show you what it is.”
A feminine laugh followed. “I think you gave me that same present earlier this week.” Some soft steps followed and the light went off as the door closed. Well one good thing about hormones, they helped you forget about moth balls.
I didn’t dare move for a few minutes. If I was going to have a chance of slipping out of here unobserved, I would have to wait for Brenda and TT to become distracted with the ‘birthday gift’. I strained my ears to listen, ashamed of eavesdropping on my son and Brenda when they might be getting close. All I heard was some soft rustling and then quiet.
Opening the lid to the brush box and trying to climb out with limbs that were numb while being quiet was almost impossible. At one point I knocked my foot against the box and held my breath. But no one came running to check on the sound.
I eased the tack room door open and the night light seemed way too bright for my liking. Applying my eye to the crack, I couldn’t see anyone in the barn alley. There were some soft muffled voices down the alley so I assumed the gift hadn’t been unwrapped yet. I slipped out of the tack room door and softly padded my way to the open barn door. Now how was I going to get across the gravel without giving myself away?
As I stepped out and the gravel scrunched under foot I cussed. This was not going to work. There was no going back the way I had come. I remembered from watching from up the hill that the other side of the barn near the house was open to a working arena where I assumed Brenda practiced her breakaway roping. The arena had a dirt floor and dirt did not scrunch when you walked on it. A few slow steady steps in that direction would get me to quieter traveling but it would also keep me in the lights from the house for a short while.
I chanced it. As I was breathing easier ready to step out on the dirt of the arena, the back door on the house opened again and a solitary person was briefly illuminated. It appeared to be Art. What was he doing outside? Was he going to check on Brenda? That could be bad news. Embarrassing at a minimum and worse depending on Art’s perception. If it was my daughter out in the barn, it would be worse.
By now I had slipped around the corner of the barn unobserved and was thankful for the shadows. Bending down I picked up a couple of dirt clods thinking to throw them up by the house to divert Art’s attention. He veered a little off the path to the barn and stopped near the yard fence. He unzipped about twenty feet from me and I soon heard the splash of liquid hitting the grass and gravel.
Here was the cause of all my trouble, right in front of me and defenseless. This is the person who ordered Judy hurt. This was the person threatening my friends and family. Maybe he wasn’t doing it directly himself, but he was the one giving the orders. Another thought hit me as I watched Art from the shadows, here was the person who put Sammy in his grave. My anger and frustration bubbled to the surface and seethed in my brain.
As I sat there in the dark with my enemy only twenty short feet away, my hand seemed to act on its own and drew the pistol. This could work. No one knew I was here. No one had seen me. No one knew I came to Kennedy’s to spy. The pickup was parked on an off road and hidden in the trees. All I had to do was pull the trigger and ditch the gun. I tested my leaner for a shot using the fence for the arena to steady my aim. With the yard light at this distance it would be an easy shot even with the low light.
Art was starting to shake and next he would zip up his pants and head for the house and my chance would be over. But right now he was standing still facing me. The shot would be easy. My anger over Sammy and Judy could find revenge with a forty caliber slug flying twelve hundred feet per second and bursting the evil heart twenty feet away. I lined the sights on the center of Art’s chest and started the slow easy squeeze of the trigger. I was already imagining the hole the bullet would rip through Art at this close range. Remarkably my hand was rock steady. I had never aimed a gun at an unarmed human with the full intention of blowing them away.
I needed to finish the trigger squeeze. Art was zipping his fly. Just a hair more take up on the trigger and it would be all over for Art. I forced myself to hold steady and continue the squeeze. I didn’t want to miss. Art straightened up as my finger crept through the last fraction of an inch. This was going to be easy. So much for waiting on Rawlins to find a solution, I was solving this myself. A smile started to lift the corners of my lips as I finished the shot.
Suddenly my eyes were blinded by approaching headlights. My concentration on the shot was ruined. The scorching glare temporarily blinded me and I closed my eyes to keep my retina from burning into useless meat. Involuntarily my finger released on the trigger. Unconsciously I slumped behind the arena fence post, hiding from the light.
By the time spots quit dancing in front of my eyes, the quiet scene in front of me had changed. The ranch pickup was back and heading toward the machine shed. Art was almost back to the house. Thankfully, no one had noticed the assassin hiding in the shadows. My pistol was still firmly gripped with both hands and the barrel was pointing toward Art’s retreating back. Before I could line up for another shot, Art stepped into the house.
Then the reaction hit me. I, Mitch Tobin, banker and decent citizen had almost killed someone. And not just killed him, had almost murdered him. I was willing to blow away someone I knew without him having a chance to defend themselves or try to avoid what was coming. What the hell was I coming to? I knew the worry over Judy and my family was eating at me and that anger over Sammy was trying to boil out of me. But I had been prepared --- no not prepared, actually been in the act of committing murder. Son of a bitch! What was I doing? My guts were tied up in knots and my adrenaline pump was working overtime. It was a bad combination. I shook myself and tried to put the pistol back in my waistband. My hands were shaking so badly that I couldn’t get the barrel tucked away. I tried holding my belt out with my left hand and shoving the gun down in with my right and still the front sight snagged on my shirt. Remembering there was a live round in the chamber, I finally gave up on putting the pistol away and held the pistol in my right hand as I started moving away from the house.
The shadows along the edge of the arena kept me out of sight of the house. The soft dirt muffled my steps. It was a good thing because I was not capable right then of trying to sneak or be quiet. The arena stopped near the foot of the bluff. Bare dirt slanting sharply up greeted my look at the escape route. There was no covering shrubs, not even any grass. I looked back at the house and couldn’t see anyone looking out of a window.
After the third try, I was finally able to get the pistol tucked into my waistband. To hell with this. I dug my toes into the side hill wincing as my stubbed toe reminded me of kicking the tree. By digging my feet in and laying against the dirt I was able to scrabble up the hill. Reaching the cover of the shrubs and trees the first thing I did was relieve myself. I didn’t care if the stream was making some noise splashing on the ground. It had to come out. Pissing was a delayed reaction of stress relief and a reaction to Art relieving himself.
I collapsed in the safety of the trees. My whole body was shaking and my breathing was erratic. I couldn’t remember being this shaken before. I sat there for several minutes trying to calm my breathing and to slow my heart. The shakes were finally passing and my heart was back to a wild racing pace. It was great to calm down, but that was before someone let the dog out for his final spin of the yard for the night. I couldn’t make the dog out completely other than to note that it was the size and shape of a wolf. The dog tensed sniffing the air in my direction up the hill. My piss pool was only a few feet away and was still steaming where it had hit the cold night air. The dog could probably smell me easily. It started barking up a storm. When that didn’t bring a human from the house, the dog decided to investigate on its own. It cleared the yard fence with a simple jump and was heading to me in the woods.
I decided stealth was no longer a concern but speed was. I flipped my hat lights on and started running toward my truck. From the occasional barking behind me I could tell the dog was gaining. When the barking turned into low growls I knew he was getting really close. I still had my pistol tucked down in my pants, but that was a last resort. Shooting it was a horrible thought. I had just been willing to murder someone and now I didn’t want to shoot a dog. The dog was just doing what it was supposed to do. Besides a gunshot would bring out people from the house to see what was going on.
It would be better if I made it to the pickup and got the heck out of there. My pledge to myself to get back into shape came home. As usual I hadn’t done anything about it. My breathing was labored and my legs were about to give out as my pickup came into sight. Looking back over my shoulder I could see that I wasn’t going to make it. I did the only thing I could think of. I reached down and grabbed it readying for the dog.