Fred Schrump was cranky, grumpy, bad-tempered, cantankerous, and defiant to the end. In his fifties, he had a heart attack that Doc Keller swore would've killed a lesser man. A couple years later, he had a winter-long bout with pneumonia. Came through that, too. He fought off throat cancer in his sixties and for the rest of his life had to hold his finger over one of those things they sewed into his throat so that he could talk. What voice he had left came out in frog-like scrapes. Kids teased him. Frog Stump was the name they gave him, partly because years back he had lost one leg from the knee down in a chain saw accident.
In his seventies, Schrump got a cancer on his face and took to wearing a big blue handkerchief tied off over his mouth and nose, like he was keeping dust out or something. Kids made that worse, too. Fred became "Monster Frog Stump." But he never suffered in silence--always defended himself with a harsh comeback. Whether you could understand it was another story. Many a time I saw the man shake his fist in the air and yell out a string of words that'd make a sailor blush. Scrappy, old Fred was. Mule-headed. Surly and disagreeable till the day he died.
Things eased up a bit, you might say, when Schrump hit his eighties. I guess by then the cancer had spread all over his face and up into his scalp 'cause he started wearing this big-brimmed straw hat. Quite a sight he was. Even from a distance you could recognize him limping his way around town. In some kind of sick game, kids would sit on the courthouse benches, spot old Fred off toward the edge of town, and whisper downright nasty things about the poor soul. Some of the teenagers with nothing better to do even spread a rumor that Fred Schrump wasn't human--never had been. He's some kind of space alien, they claimed, from another planet that sent him here to spy on us innocent earthlings. Then, one day, his kind are supposed to swoop down and harvest us like some two-legged food crop.
Being county sheriff, I'd like to defend the old timer, tell you that way down deep he was a sweet, kindly, old gent. But that's just not the case. Once you cut through all the orneriness and meanness that was thick-skin deep, you got to the core part that was plumb sour. I never could get along with the man. Neither of my deputies could make out a word he said but figured half of it was either cuss words or complaints. As you might guess, nobody in town that I knew of could get along with Fred Schrump, and most didn't really care to try. So, it wasn't much of a surprise when one morning in late June somebody phoned in that Schrump was curled up dead out along the old strip mine road west of town.
I jumped into the squad car, motioned for my deputy, Gus Bullard, to drive, and headed out thataway. Gus is what you call the relaxed type. My wife has to press his uniforms since he'd never do it, and I have to remind him to keep his shoes shined and his shirt tucked in. Hair brushing we totally gave up on. But for sniffing out clues, I guess you could say he out-bloodhounds a bloodhound.
Gus parked the car up alongside Yancy Williamson's pickup where he had pulled off not for from the T in the road that branches you off to the town of Percy. Posed like a crossing guard, Yancy was directing us to the bare foot that stuck up out of a weed-choked ditch and onto the border of loose gravel that sided both edges of the old blacktop.
"You can get on with your investigatin'," Yancy drawled. He scratched himself and reset his seed-corn cap. "I gotta meet some fellers fer coffee down at Ryman's Restaurant. They been waitin' on me near a half hour."
Yancy climbed into his truck and hauled off toward town, remembering to slam shut his door just before I yelled out for him to.
Gus was already busy snooping around, looking for anything the least bit suspicious. I stood back for a couple of minutes and watched. First, he checked over the body head to toe, paying particular attention to Schrump's wooden leg stump. Then he took to searching the weeds and the roadside.
"Hit and run, was it?" I inquired when I thought it was okay to butt in.
"Appears so," Gus said softly without looking my way. His nose crinkled up, like it always did when he was doing his deep thinking. Sometimes, for less serious problems, a finger poked up there too. But this was serious. Dead serious.
"He have any marks on him?"
Gus nodded. "Looks like somebody caught him between the grill and the headlights."
I took a few careful steps around looking for glass, pieces of chrome, or maybe skid marks, like the driver at least tried to avoid hitting the victim. Nothing. With the Kodak we keep in the car I snapped a few pictures of the scene.
"Almost like somebody used Fred as a target," Gus pointed out. "They was way off to one side of the road and it don't look like they swerved or hit the brakes to keep from smacking into the man."
I stepped down into the ditch, knelt next to the body, and shooed away the flies. Schrump was face down in a trickle of muddy water with his right arm pinned under him tight against his chest. The other arm stuck out to his left at an impossible angle. His clothes were all ripped up and filthy, but then that's how Schrump usually looked, so it didn't give us anything new to go on.
Schrump's hat was torn up and mashed underneath him. I found it once I turned him over onto his back. That was when I saw his cancer too. Ate up his face real bad. One ear was near gone and it appeared his left eye was either swelled shut or rotten. I laid him out flat on his back, looked him over for marks, and checked his hands in particular. Schrump had tried to fend off the vehicle that killed him; I could see that. But a sickly, eighty-some-year-old man, no matter how hard-headed, ain't much of a match for a couple tons of rolling steel.
While I got a quilt from the trunk of the squad car and spread it out over the body, Gus radioed in for the Burke brothers to bring their ambulance out there and take the body on in to Caughlin's Funeral Parlor. The county, I told Gus to say, would foot the bill.
Gus and me propped ourselves up against the trunk of the car while we waited. It gave us a chance to talk, hash things out.
"Somebody out there killed old man Schrump and never cared squat about what they done." Gus splattered a puddle of chewing tobacco a couple inches from his boot and shook his head. He tightened up his bottom lip to catch a dark brown stream before it could drip off his chin. "It's one sick world, ain't it?"
"Sometimes," I had to agree. "And what's even worse is I suspect it was teenagers what done this. Teenagers out drag racing or something here on the back roads."
"We'll be goin' 'round town then, checkin' some cars, huh?"
"Might just be a good way to start. We'll just drive around, keep our eyes open for new damage to front ends of cars."
"Damn, half the cars in town got dents in 'em," Gus reminded me.
"Okay. We only look for fresh dents-- ones that don't have any rust yet."
"And we should look out for fresh paint or primed Bond-O, too." Gus spit again. This time his shoes got in the way. He pretended not to notice but wiped them on his pants when he thought I was looking the other way. "What'll we do in case the killer does try to fix up the damage themselves?"
"Himself," I corrected politely.
"So, you think it was a guy?" Gus asked me, all sincere-like.
About then Randy Burke pulled up and spotted where the quilt was flapping in the breeze. He turned around and backed up to it. I helped him load the body, making sure the quilt was tucked in tight and covered poor Schrump from head to toe. "Go ahead and drop him off at Caughlin's," I told Randy, "but say to hold off draining his blood out yet. Just keep him cool and leave him wrapped up good till Gus and me get there."
"Randy fingered the brim of his cap and gave me a yessir that I knew he meant because I grew up with his daddy and his Uncle Norbert, and I've been around Randy since he caught tadpoles with a tin can. He could be trusted all right.
Gus and me stopped off at Ryman's for some coffee and some of Kitty Vallard's homemade chocolate donuts. But all the time we were on duty, on the alert for cars with bashed-in front ends. There were three of them in the parking lot outside that we looked over on our way back out to the squad car.
"You figure there'll be blood smears on the killer's car?" Gus asked me. Then before I could say I didn't believe so, he voiced pretty much the same opinion. "Could be hairs or somethin', though," Gus went on, "even though Schrump's were kinda sparse."
We got into the car and sat there for a minute while I filled in Gus on details I thought he might have overlooked. The sky let go of a sprinkle or two, and he flipped on the wipers and watched them wave back and forth while his nose crinkled. His hands stayed on the steering wheel. Before we drove off, I called Gus's attention to the chocolate smears on the corner of his mouth and motioned for him to get out his hanky. Of course, he didn't have one. I loaned him mine, he wiped his off mouth, handed it back, and reached down to turn the key. We headed down Main Street and turned left on Thallman Road.
"Damn," Gus said after some fretful thinking that crisscrossed his forehead with wrinkles. "How come I didn't notice Schrump's hand was missing a finger? The one that was hidden under the body? Right?"
I avoided that question with the suggestion that we head on over to the funeral parlor and talk to Ray Caughlin face to face. When Gus saw through a doorway that Schrump was already stretched out on a metal table next to a tray littered with various and sundry needles and tubes and bottles and blades, he took a seat in the visitation room and let me conduct the official business.
"You can go ahead and call Doc Keller over here and get him to fill out all the papers," I told Ray. "We need to have the county boys run a test to see whether the man was drinking when he was hit. Then you can proceed with the embalming part whenever you're ready, but don't tell anybody anything about the condition of the body. Okay?"
"Yeah, sure," Ray said, like he totally understood that what he had there was evidence. "I won't say nothing. I know all the legal laws and stuff."
I took a peek under the quilt one more time to make sure I saw what I saw and said my good-bye. "And you tell Doc to keep his trap shut, too," I remembered to say on my way out to the visitation room and Gus.
After that, we headed over to the park, where some kids were knocking around baseballs and rocks. Gus cruised between the diamond and the parking lot real slow, doing all the waving and howdies, while I nosed at the cars. One out of the three parked there had front-end damage, but it was Del Gremmer's truck, and I knew he'd hit a deer three springs ago out on the county line road.
"Damn," Gus blurted out when we passed Bert's Filling Station. "Suppose the killer goes outta town to get his car fixed up? Shouldn't we call around to alert all the body shops within say fifty miles?"
"Figured we could do that this afternoon, if it comes to that. Right now I'm for poking around a little more. It's a small town and Schrump had a way of making lots of enemies. There's still too many places where we need to look first."
"Like...?" Gus let the word drop out but left his mouth hanging open like there was more on the way.
I waited awhile before saying, "How about back streets, alleys, and garages?"
"And car ports, too?"
We did some more driving around till we passed Harley Dodd's place there in the shade of the town's water tower. Gus waved and shouted a "How's it goin', Harley," but Dodd looked to be in too much of a hurry to wave back. His blue tick hound pup, Elvis, was jumping up on him, barking, and trying to get at the food bowl Harley held over his head. It was kind of a funny sight, but Harley looked a bit stricken by it all, and Gus noticed the front yard gate was wide open. You never see that. Harley always keeps it shut and chained so none of his dogs can run away on him.
"Gate's open, Harley," I yelled out, pointing. But I guess between the car motor and the yelping pup, I was drowned out. So I got out of the car and walked up to the gate, calm as you please, and grabbed ahold of the chain.
"Whatcha doin' here, sheriff?" Harley says between hound barks. "I ain't done nothin' wrong." His eyes bore into my face, then jumped over to where his old blue Ford four-door sat under a sugar maple, the front end draped with a ragged, blue plastic tarp. Finally, he gave the dog its bowl, hiked up his overalls, and came over to where I was at the fence.
"Harley," I told him, "you don't need to raise a fuss. This isn't official business or anything like that. I was just closing up your yard gate. I know what a stickler you are about your dogs getting loose.
"Oh, yeah." He mopped the sweat off the back of his neck with a big hand and wiped the wet on the bib of his overalls. That's when he noticed one buckle was hanging open and stopped to do it up for company. "Don't want my dogs runnin' the streets. Or Orville Jackson's hogs getting in here and rutting up my lawn. Been meaning to talk to you about them hogs."
I stole a glance at what Harley called a lawn. The whole fenced-in part around his house was packed near solid with various rusted vehicles set up on concrete blocks. Their expired plates told the stories. A brown and gold Chevy El Camino carried a '72 tag. A flat-head, twelve-cylinder Lincoln coupe, likely worth some money, still had a '61. Old barrels, farm implements, stacks of used oak planks, twisted hunks of driftwood from the Mississippi, and various and sundry other pieces of unidentifiable junk littered the rest of the yard. Off in back what appeared to be a truck engine dangled by a chain from an old bowed swing set. In fact, the only places to walk were narrow paths where in some places you had to raise up your arms to squeeze through. But it was the covered-up Ford I wanted to see.
"Mind if I come in for a couple of words, Harley?"
He worked his mouth without saying anything and tugged at the white beard that, except for its scraggly appearance, gave Harley a Santa Claus look. Of course his dunlap's disease (where the belly 'done laps' over the belt) and his bushy-white horseshoe hair cut also lent to that appearance. "Sure, come on in," he said after the long pause. His heavy brows bobbed while his tongue dabbed at his lip. "You're always welcome at my place," Harley threw in belatedly, but he didn't sound at all as if he meant it.
As I passed through the chicken-wire gate, Harley's front porch exploded into enough barking, yelping, howling, and growling to scare away every cat in the county. I could pick out at least a dozen and a half irate shapes, all with their mouths yapping, and eyes flashing hatred my way.
"Shut up!" Harley gruffed back over his shoulder. "Shut up, all o' ya." Most did. To reach those still raising a ruckus, Harley grabbed up what probably had once been a pump handle and slammed it down on the head of a fifty-gallon barrel. I jumped, Gus jumped in the car, and every dog locked its teeth together and lay down in surrender.
"Like little kids," Harley said sheepishly, then smiled. "They're good dogs, just need a hard voice ever' once in a while to put 'em back in their place. I never hit 'em though. Don't you go thinkin' that."
"Oh, no. No, I never thought that." I hooked a thumb in the direction of the tarp-draped Ford. "Car giving you trouble?"
"The Ford?" Harley's attention followed me to where I was headed. In a second he was hot on my heels.
"I was gonna take the hood off'n the thing this afternoon and pull the motor."
"It's givin' me trouble--burns oil real bad." He laughed uneasily. "You likely seen me come through town puffin' out a big black cloud o' smoke from my tail pipe?"
I put my hand on the fender and thought for a minute. "Didn't I see you pull into Ryman's last evening in this car?"
"No," he answered right away. "Not this car. It ain't started in, oh, several days. Believe it's the batt'ry."
"Mind if I have a look?" I slipped my hands under the windshield edge of the tarp and started to throw it off.
Harley's fingers played at his beard. His eyes went back to his dogs, all over me, and then back to the Ford. "Somethin's goin' on here, sheriff, somethin' spooky what you ain't tellin' me."
I eased the tarp back down and leaned up against the Ford. "Harley, have you heard that old Fred Schrump was run over this morning out on the west strip mine road?"
"Somebody was sayin' somethin' over at Garver's Grocery this morning. I walked up there to get me some canned soup and crackers."
"You and Fred never got along, did you?"
Harley shifted his weight back and forth, one foot to the other. He shoved a knuckle into his mouth and adjusted his upper plate so that he could talk better. "There was bad blood between us ever' since we was boys. You know that, sheriff. Never did get along, far as I can recall. If it wasn't a horse trade gone bad, it was a debt that never got paid. Then when Delia came along, well, I married up with her right out from under Fred's nose. At least that's what he claimed anyway. Delia, she told me she never had no feeling for that ugly old coot anyhow. Then, when my Delia passed on, God rest her soul, Fred went and told ever'body it was 'cause I never took good 'nough care o' her--didn't dote on her 'nough, like he would've. Like dotin' keeps a woman's heart from failin'."
"And you and Fred argued a lot. Folks in town heard the two of you."
"He was a nasty, old fart. Never had no use for him and I guess I told him so ever' chance I got." Harley pounded a fist against the roof of an oversize dog house next to him. "Course, Fred never said a kind word to me either. Always called me a Junk Dealin' Son of a Bitch. Knew exactly how to ruffle my feathers and did it ever' time he got the chance."
"You hated Fred, didn't you?"
The hand went back to the beard and the mouth started working again without saying anything.
I threw a glance over my shoulder and saw that Gus had his window rolled down and was hearing all of this. His eyes were peeled wide and his hand was hovering unsure around his nose.
"Sheriff, I'll tell you, if anybody killed Schrump on purpose, it was for sure 'cause he did somethin' that asked for it. The man was just plain ornery!" Harley sniffed and nodded his head like those were his final words.
But I wasn't near finished. "You'd kill somebody if they messed with your dogs, wouldn't you?"
"My twelve-gauge would do the talkin'."
"And if somebody left your gate open, so that your dogs were in the road where they could get hit?"
"I'd do somethin' awright, but I ain't sayin' what."
"Fred tease your dogs last night?"
Harley shook his head no without looking my way.
"Did he throw something at 'em over your fence?"
Harley erupted like that volcano did up in Washington state some years back. "Always teasin' my dogs! Ever'time that old weasel walked past he'd have to yell somethin' mean at 'em-- or throw a rock. More'n once I hauled off an' threw somethin' back... whatever I could get my hands on." Harley's eyes scoured his yard, like he needed something to throw right then.
"So you did hate Fred enough to kill him?"
Harley sucked in a long breath and wheezed it out. He freed a chunk of something from his front teeth with a turned-sideways fingernail. "Always pickin' at me, Schrump was. Never could leave me be. Got real tired of it."
I lifted the tarp from the front of the Ford this time and carefully folded it back so that the whole grill showed. Several scratches raked their way across the chrome. Deep chips marred the paint here and there. One headlight was cracked but not shattered. At least three horizontal bars in the grill were bent crooked. But they were clean. Too clean. Like they'd been wiped off.
"I hit a bird a couple weeks back," Harley explained in a hurry. "Buzzard, I b'lieve it was. Sittin' in the middle o' the road tearin' at a dead rabbit or somethin'."
I heard Gus get out of the car and come up to the fence. The dogs stood up but seemed to wait for a word from their master. One cold look from Harley's deep-set eyes told them to fold back up and keep quiet.
I slid my hand around under the lip of the hood till I found the latch. With Harley peering curiously over my shoulder, I lifted it open. A short search around the radiator and the fan housing, and there it was--exactly what I suspected I would find.
"Well, what is it?" Harley asked from where he couldn't quite see exactly what I was up to.
"Ain't that somethin'?" Gus, who had now joined us, said from somewhere behind me.
Before Harley could get his eyes on it, I wrapped it up in my handkerchief, away from the chocolate stains, and stuck it in my pocket. Gus was fishing in his shirt pocket for that card we're supposed to read. Of course, by then Harley Dodd knew we knew it was him that plowed over old Fred Schrump. He had backed up a step or two and presently perched himself on the roof of that big dog house.
"Hot damn," he said to me. "What you find in there anyways? I figgered I'd cleaned all the blood up?"
Gus put on his glasses, but waited for my signal to read the man his rights.
"Harley," I said, "what I found was Fred Schrump's finger stuck there between the grill and radiator of your Ford. Hope that ends the hate feud you two were having once and for all."
"Damn that Fred Schrump all to hell!" Harley spit out those words like they were poison in his mouth. "Who'da thought after he's dead that old wart toad could come back and point at me just to get even."
"Not exactly point at you, Harley," I said, giving Gus the nod.
Gus looked at me with puzzlement all over his features and asked, "You think we should tell Harley that it was Schrump's middle finger you found?"