I’m Jim Hansen, but everybody calls me Swede. I’m the owner of the only bar in this town. It’s a place where nothing much ever happens, but nobody’s complaining after what happened a couple years ago.
Everybody in town was relieved when they thought it was over. They didn’t feel good about it, exactly, but things had been neatened up, and that had to be good enough. It was messy, as rape/ murders are.
“But anyways, Swede, at least it wasn’t a local girl,” as Otto Klemp (Otto’s Auto Sales) commented, drawing what comfort he could out of a bad scene. “One of those back-east girls, wandering around the country living out of a damn backpack.”
She’d been camping, alone, picking huckleberries up on Copper Mountain. They were going for twelve dollars a gallon--she was probably trying to earn moving-on money.
Sheriff Les Tillman had happened along right afterward, had seen young Ben Hall trying to hide the body, and had knocked Ben cold and brought him in. Too late for the girl, but the guilty party had been caught and the town was, if not pleased, satisfied that justice had been done.
Except for Sam Hall. It cost him his only son.Ben kept saying he was innocent, that he’d been framed somehow, and Sam believed him. Folks would have liked to believe him, too, because Ben was all right. Helped his pa out at the shop, spoke polite to people, and never had been in much trouble before this. Too bad, a nineteen-year-old going haywire like that, but it happens.
Some folks thought he was guilty—“It’s the quiet ones like Ben that go loco”--while others had a lot of doubts, but Ben’s defense sounded pretty weak.At the trial, Ben said he didn’t know what happened. According to him, he’d just gotten there to pick berries, saw the girl, saw she’d been beaten and strangled, and then somebody hit him. But the sheriff had seen what he’d seen, after all, and there were scratches on Ben’s face and back and traces of the dead girl’s skin under his fingernails.
Ben’s lawyer tried to suggest that maybe somebody had taken the dead girl’s hands and scratched Ben after he was knocked out, but the only other person anyone knew for sure that’d been there was the sheriff, and old Judge Paulsen wouldn’t let the lawyer wander down that trail.Even the people who didn’t like Les Tillman, and that was most, thought that was far-fetched.
Sam took it hard, you could see that, but he didn’t say much.It wasn’t his way to carry on about things.Only at the end of the trial, when Ben was found guilty, Sam put his hand on Tillman’s arm and stopped him as he was leaving the courtroom.
“It’s a hard thing, to see your son go to prison for somethin’ he didn’t do,” Sam said. “A man ain’t likely to forget that.”
Les didn’t say anything back, which kind of surprised folks, because a touchy man could take that as a threat, and Les was a very touchy feller.He seldom kept a close rein on his temper, and he could’ve used a martingale on it.
The two stared at each other for a long few seconds, then Les moved around Sam and left. Les’s deputy, Nels Bonner, in for a brewski after the trial, said, “Swede, I swear, I wouldn’t want anyone lookin’ at me the way Sam did. It pure give me the chills. ”Nels always was one to exaggerate.
Everybody said Sam was tough, that he’d adjust, and he seemed to. He’d always been kind of quiet and one to keep to himself, and he got quieter and stopped seeing the few acquaintances he’d had, but he kept on running his gun shop as always, except he didn’t have Ben around to help, of course.
When Ben got killed in a fight up at the state penitentiary, Sam seemed to change, but most folks didn’t pay too much attention to that because they had a lot more to think about. A couple months after Ben’s death another girl was found, assaulted and shot this time. Couldn’t blame Ben for this. Some thought it might be what they call a copycat killer.
It was around this time that Sam changed. He kept on working, but he stopped keeping regular hours. He’d always been a good gunsmith, and now he branched out, started making black powder guns--revolvers, and smoothbore long guns, the kind with no rifling in the barrel to give spin to a bullet. Folks said he was doing this to keep his mind occupied. Those guns aren’t very accurate--you could only be sure of hitting something at close range.
But the guns were real works of art: Barrels of blued or browned steel, finely carved stocks of maple or walnut, fancy gold and silver inlays and engravings.Sam always was a perfectionist--had to get things just right. It was like this was the only purpose he had left in life.
It was rumored that some rich guy from California, passing through, bought one of the guns for two thousand dollars. When Bill Tynan down at the Grange Supply heard that, he went out and tore the “Don’t Californicate Montana” bumper sticker off his pickup. “Hell, if they’re that crazy, let ‘em come--we’ll all get rich!”
But people had more important things to worry about. Several weeks after the second murder, another one, some girl from Idaho, got done the same way. Then a couple more girls were reported missing, last seen in this area. These girls, too, were wanderers, hippies and runaways, girls who should have been home with their families, girls who had no business being where they were. But they had no business turning up raped and murdered, either. People were getting pretty upset.
Funny thing was, Sam didn’t take any interest in any of it. You’d think he would have been going around claiming that this proved Ben had been framed. Instead, he’d go off by himself for long hours, taking some guns, binoculars, a spotting scope. “I’m just testing my new guns,” he’d say, if anybody asked.
Sheriff Tilman didn’t seem to be able to catch whoever was doing it, this time, and it didn’t seem he was trying as hard as he should have. He did drive around the country a lot, but he spent a lot of time in the taverns, too. He’d always been quick with his fists, and he got worse. Loggers and wheat farmers in town for a few pitchers of barley pop would get a little rowdy now and again, but they didn’t mean any harm. Tillman came down on them hard, though. Carted them off to jail, which was okay, if it had to be done, but they started “resisting arrest,” Les said, and they got bruised up pretty bad, some of them. Even a few broken noses, arms, and collar bones.
The sheriff started coming down kind of hard on some of the women, too, some people said, but not to his face. His wife went around one whole cloudy week wearing sunglasses, and there was gossip about him and Cheryl Peterson, the pretty blonde waitress at the Sagebrush Truck Stop. Mitch Urdahl, one of the cooks there, said she used to get off work and meet some guy out beyond the parking lot, kinda sneaking around like she didn’t want anyone to know who she was seeing. Later on, Doc Baines treated her for bruises, but she wouldn’t say anybody had done it. Said she was just clumsy.
Bob Keefer, who lives across the street from the clinic, was pretty sure Tilman was involved. “I was up that night, couldn’t sleep ‘cause of McCarthy's goodam yapping dog, gonna shoot that sucker some day, so I was lookin’ out the front window and I seen a car looked like the sheriff’s pull up that night and let her out, then speed off.” But Bob’s got glasses thicker than pond ice in February, so nobody could be sure.
Nobody wanted to accuse the sheriff, anyway, because if there was one thing he was better at than fighting, it was shooting. Getting beat up was bad enough; nobody wanted to get shot. Les carried a big old .45 revolver all the time and practiced with it lots of afternoons at the clay pit behind Riley’s sawmill.
Sam Hall used to try his guns out there, too, but never when the sheriff was there. In fact, he must have been afraid of meeting up with Les because young Billy Riley saw Sam hiding in the brush on a nearby hill one afternoon, watching the sheriff shoot. Sam had his spotting scope on Les for nearly an hour, Billy said, and after Les drove off, Sam went up to the bank and dug into the clay where the sheriff had been shooting. Scavenging the lead, Billy thought, to melt down the bullets and cast his own, though a .45 that hit into the soft clay bank might have fitted into one of those black powder guns Sam made without any recasting. It would all depend on what shape the bullets were in.Either way, it was a practical thing to do.
Funny thing, though. If Sam was scared of meeting up with Les, he took some chances, roaming around the country the same time the sheriff did. A few times, several folks saw Sam’s black Jimmy a mile or so and five minutes behind the sheriff’s LTD. Mostly, though, Sam would go up on Wright’s Butte, one of the highest points in the county, with his 100X spotting scope. You could see for miles in every direction there.
Then yet another girl was found raped and shot. This time, though, the state police got an anonymous tip where to find the body. Some man phoned. The call came in not long after the girl must have been killed, according to the medical examiner’s estimate of time of death, and the details the person gave made it seem as if the caller had witnessed the killing.
The clincher was that the person swore the sheriff did it and told them to check his revolver as the murder weapon. Told them just where the sheriff was heading to, also, like the person was tailing the sheriff or could see him somehow. Made it real easy for the state police to nab him — he didn’t have any time to try to ditch the murder weapon.
I’d pretty much put all that out of my mind until just over two years later. It was on a Wednesday, early afternoon. The lunch crowd had left. Only the hard-core drinkers and the retirees with no chores or wifely errands were still hanging out, half-watching a baseball game on the TV over the bar. I was polishing beer glasses when the stranger came in.
“What’ll it be?”I asked.
“Draft--make it a pint.”
“Hot one, ”I said, setting the glass down. On closer look, there was something familiar about the stranger. I’d seen him before, but in a different setting.
“You from around here?” I asked.
“Just passing through--going to Red Lodge to testify. Give evidence in a shooting.”
“Okay-- now I know where I saw you before. You’re a ballistics expert with the state police.”
“Swede Hansen.Good to meet you.”
“Yes, I testified in the Tillman case.”
“Sure. We were all at that trial. Guess there’s no doubt that Tillman did it. Evidence seemed pretty strong. Looks like he did frame Ben Hall. Kinda poetic justice that Les got killed in the state pen. He didn’t last as long as Ben did — too many inmates had grudges against him.”
“If I was that kid’s father, I’d still be pretty mad.”
“The father? Well, it seems like he got over it. Went back to work — he has a gun shop. Doesn’t just sell ‘em— fixes them, too. Even made some, for a while — probably trying to keep extra busy, take his mind off his son. You should stop by. He’s got one black powder beauty, hung up under an elk rack like it’s another trophy. Won’t sell it, but it’s sure worth a look-see.”
“I might do that sometime, Swede. But you know, it really was an unusual case. That girl had been shot twice. A bullet from a .38 had killed her, but shortly after death she’d also been shot with a .45 — and that’s the one I showed came from the sheriff’s service revolver, and the .38 came from his other gun.”
“Right, and Les had to admit the .45 was his and it’d never been out of his possession — but he swore he never shot her with it. He got so flustered denying that that he admitted he’d killed the girl with his .38, an unregistered revolver he had. You guys found the gun hidden in his cruiser, and sure enough, that was the gun used to kill the girl.
“But he kept saying he’d been framed, which doesn’t make any sense, because he’d confessed. Then he withdrew his guilty plea, but the judge allowed the confession in evidence. But why did he shoot her a second time, after she was dead?”
“Who can figure? Maybe he was just wacko. Or maybe there’s some reason.” Harrison drained his beer.
“As to evidence,” he added, “sometimes it never adds up, and sometimes it becomes clear after a while. And some of it never comes out at the time. You know that .45 slug? The one she was shot with after she was dead? It had minute traces of clay on it. I never mentioned it because none of the lawyers ever brought it up.”
“Traces of—clay?” I didn’t realize ‘til later that I’d dropped a clean pitcher — didn’t even hear it break, in fact. “But wait a minute — that could mean -- ” I had a mental image of that clay pit.
“Means nothing, believe me. I sure don’t intend to bring it up. Well, guess I’ll be going. Gotta see somebody before I head up to Red Lodge.”
As he was leaving, Mitch Urdahl came in for his usual peppermint schnapps before his stint at the truck stop.
“Howdy, Bob,” Mitch said.
“Hi, Mitch,” Harrison said, and left.
I closed my mouth long enough to say, “Mitch — you know that guy?”
“Oh, sure, Swede. He comes around the truck stop every so often for coffee and to talk to his cousin.”
“His — cousin--?”
“Yep--works at the truck stop. Name’s Cheryl--Cheryl Peterson.”