I swung the shovel again, hard enough to clean lop Shawn Hadden’s head off his shoulders.
The head bumped downslope and I dropped the shovel and gave chase through the scraggly pines. Barely curling my fingers in the hair before the thing plunged into a seep draw. Good thing. Would of been a hell of a trick to find it down there in the dark.
I trudged back up the slope to Shawn Hadden’s torso as the moon slid out from behind a cloudbank and the hills lit with milky light. Cradled Shawn Hadden’s head in the crook of his own arm and smoked a cigarette looking out at the half-dark hills, carefully tipping ash into my cupped hand. The paper said it hadn’t rained in Tate’s End in three months and last thing I needed was a forest fire. I finished my beer and then the beer Shawn Hadden had started, then dug out the pair of pliers from my pocket. Curled back Shawn Hadden’s upper lip and saw that gold bridge faintly gleaming.
When I finished up with the pliers I took up the shovel and commenced digging.
Dawn loomed about an hour off when finally I walked out of them hills, shovel on my shoulder and gritted in dirt, looking for all the world like a real farmer. Climbed in the pickup, peeled off my gloves, and switched on the radio. Handel’s Opus No. 6 was just revving up and I drove slow over the noisy washboards in the gravel roads. Felt mighty fine as I pulled in the farmhouse driveway, ole Handel fading out.
My old man willed the whole farm to Mitchell when I was still in prison. Mitchell had been mighty stingy about sharing out so much as a dirt clod or a ten-dollar bill since I got out. When it came to legal particularities, Mitchell and the will were in the right. But I grew up on that farm and threw my childhood back into the farm work same as Mitchell, and fuck what the lawyers said. I considered a good half of that farm mine.
I returned the shovel to the accustomed corner in the barn where Dad stored shovels for fifty years. The dogs, a border collie and a blue heeler, yipped and yapped round my ankles so I gave them a good pet down, wiping some of the grime of the hills off my forearms onto their fur. Then I let myself into the house.
Candy sat at the table in a fluffy night robe. I sat down across from her.
“Is he gone?” Candy asked.
“Shawn Hadden is as gone as he’s going to get,” I said. “Your darling husband Mitchell don’t ever need to know nothing about you two.”
Candy shifted in her chair. She’d of done anything to keep Mitchell from finding out about her and Shawn being bang buddies. That’s what she told me. I dug around in my pocket. Came up with a gold tooth lined with a silver bridge that she said everyone knew Shawn Hadden by. Slid it across the table to Candy.
“There’s your proof,” I said.
Candy nodded. She did not touch the tooth. Kept her hands wrapped around the coffee cup. The coffee looked cold.
“Want some?” Candy asked.
“Nah,” I said. “Still dark out. Give me a beer.”
Candy pushed herself away from the table and shuffled to the fridge for a Busch Lite. Placed it on the table rather than handing it to me. I thought that was uncalled for, but I leaned over, popped the tab, had a long pull. Went down a treat after my labor in the hills.
“Well now,” I said. “Next order of business. $13,108.76, I believe it was.”
“You’ll get it,” said Candy.
“I don’t like that 'will' you got attached there.”
“I told you I will pay you and I will pay you.”
“You keep saying 'will'. You got your name on the deed to my daddy’s farm but no money?”
“Just not right now.”
I leaned back in the chair. “You know, I could maybe find it in me to be patient. But I feel like I’m owed a down payment.”
“I told you. I got nothing to pay you. You can’t squeeze blood out of a stone.”
“That is surely true. But there’s plenty else I could squeeze.” I leaned back in my chair, had another long chug. “You know, Candy, when you’re at the stove making pancakes all I can see is that ass. Bet it’s sweeter than buttermilk.”
“What the Christ? You’re out of your damn mind, Kory.”
“Oh, dead Shawn Hadden’s good enough for that ass but I ain’t?” I polished off the beer. “Don’t worry. I’ll be quick. I ain’t going to say you won’t notice I was in there, but long as you stay quiet we won’t wake the kids.”
“No,” said Candy, screeching her chair back over the tiles.
“Hold on now,” I said, standing. “Don’t you go making a scene. You’ll wake the kids. We had a deal.”
“The deal never said nothing about that.”
“It does now.”
I started around that old oak dinner table where I’d grown up eating cabbage and oatmeal. Candy took to her feet, puffy robe slipping off a shoulder. She looked good being nimble. Then my brother Mitchell appeared in the doorway. He had Dad’s old snubnose .32 trained on me.
“Sit. Your ass. Down,” he said.
“Well goddamn, brother,” I said, and retreated to my chair. Pulled out a smoke.
“You can’t smoke in here,” said Mitchell.
“The kids,” said Candy.
“The hell,” I chuckled and lit the smoke. Took a deep drag and exhaled very slowly, smoke trailing through my mustache.
“What, exactly,” I said, “are you going to do? Shoot me? With your kids upstairs?”
Mitchell shook his head and pulled out a chair alongside Candy. He set the .32 on the table and Candy grabbed his hand.
“I’ll be goddamned,” I said, grinning. “You’ve been in on this whole Shawn Hadden affair the whole time.”
“I wasn’t going to be, officially,” said Mitchell. “Till you pulled this bullshit.”
I laughed. Tusks of smoke poked out my nostrils. “Oh, that’s rich, big brother. You going to take the moral high ground? Going to forget how you come by this farm and left me out in the cold?”
“You’d of pissed this farm away,” said Mitchell.
“What the hell’s in it for you? Letting your wife roll in the hay with Shawn Hadden?”
“She never did that!”
“No? That’s not what she said. Ain’t that right Candy, honey?”
“Screw you, Kory,” Candy said. “We owed him money, is all.”
“Shut up,” Mitchell said.
“I see,” I said. “I suppose that debt was in the exact amount of $13,108.76?”
“Ain’t your business,” Candy said.
“Shut up, Candy!” Mitchell yelled. Then he looked at me. “Listen, you are going to get paid, just like we promised.”
“Oh, it’s we now, is it?” I said. “Or is it just she? Remember when you come to me crying, Candy? Saying there’s wasn’t no one but me could help you? Shit, I don’t even know what to think now. How was it, Mitchell? Did you watch when ole Shawn was out fucking her in the pickup in the yard? You one of them likes to watch?”
“I told you,” said Mitchell. “She never did none of that. I wasn’t sure you’d actually go through with it. I wasn’t going to raise the funds until you did. You did and now you’ll get paid for it.”
“Well, that is a relief, big brother. You mind telling me when?”
“I can’t just hand you thirteen thousand dollars in cash, Kory. I got to sell off a chunk of land. It takes time.”
“Yeah? How much?”
“Give me three months.”
“Three months? Jesus Christ, they paid me in prison faster than that.”
“It’s the best I can do.”
“You know,” I said, ashing the cigarette on the table top, “ if you were anybody but my brother...”
“But you are,” said Mitchell. “My brother.”
“Thicker than water, huh?” I said. “Shit. You never said that to the lawyers, I bet, when they were telling you you didn’t have to share none of the farm with me. You got to give me some surety. Give me that .32. Was Dad’s anyway.”
Mitchell looked at Candy. She shook her head but Mitchell slid it across the table to me.
I drifted after that. Familiar haunts. Las Cruces, Albuquerque, Barstow. A few jobs here and there, your standard stuff, meeting a coyote with a truckload of illegals at a rest stop, warehouse B & E’s, roughing up johns in a truck stop parking lot who didn’t feel like paying fair for the girl that visited their smelly cabs. Had to chase one trucker fifty miles down I-25. Sat in the passenger seat with the .32 pulled, watching him shake and count out bills.
Two days later I lost my cash and the snubnose when I got rolled by a couple punks in Grants, New Mexico. Hitched over to Santa Rosa and spent three days starving and dodging cops, drinking water out of back lawn garden hoses, waiting for a meth dealer I knew and when the dealer finally showed, I jumped his skanky ass with a tire iron, stole his stash, and headed north for Tate’s End.
Mitchell and Candy still had a month to come up with the cash so I settled in to a weekly room on the Mexican side of town, where I knew they’d never come. I’d get a bottle of port and then sat on the window sill watching the cars pass, the kids coming home from school. Kept the radio tuned to classical and jazz. I have always enjoyed Rachmaninoff, though some days I could be persuaded to the virtues of Beethoven, Miles Davis, the early Cab Calloway.
I watched the ads for lands sales in the paper. Nothing connected to Mitchell got listed. I considered that I might have missed something the two months I was gone but when I got online at the library and checked the tax records, nothing. Mitchell owned the same parcels he had ten weeks ago.
I let the time tick out. We had a contract I intended to honor. There weren’t going to be no loopholes for big brother.
Seven PM on a Wednesday, three months to the day since I’d left, and I found the farm deserted. Hot August evening so I lit a smoke and swang back and forth on the porch swing to get some breeze going. Finally the minivan rolled into the yard and the family piled out, Mitchell, Candy, the three kids. I stood up on the porch so they’d be sure to see me. Last thing I wanted to do was frighten the kids.
They were skittish anyway, crying and hugging their mamma’s leg, on account of not knowing me and Candy hissing at me like I was an infected leper. No uncle hug or nothing. Oh, sure, I hadn’t exactly played what you’d call an active role in their lives, but I ought to of got a hello at least.
“Candy’s real cautious with the kids,” Mitchell said.
“Oh, I get it. Don’t want them hearing the stories ole Uncle Kory could tell them, huh. Because, boy, I know some stories.”
Mitchell glanced inside. “Come on,” he said.
“Whatever you say, big brother.”
We walked out past the shed to the corral. A scrim of dust settled over the corn rows as the hills to the north sagged into the dark. Mitchell rested his arms on the corral fence and spit into the dirt.
“I ain’t got what you come for,” said Mitchell.
“I figured as much.”
“Look, it ain’t as easy as you think. I got the kids to think of.”
“Shit, Mitchell, I’d of thought you’d put top priority on paying your debts. You know. So you get the opportunity to go on being such a good daddy.”
“Don’t you threaten me, Kory.”
I grinned into the twilight. I knew all about bravado, how a man would try to buck himself up with the armor of the moral high ground. That armor lasts until the first punch, and then you’re just a man scrabbling in the dirt with everyone else.
We stood out there a while, silent. I could tell Mitchell was getting antsy but silence never has bothered me. Then the screen door on the porch slammed and we turned to see Candy stomping across the dirt to us.
“Did you tell him, Mitchell?” she said.
“Nice to see you, too, Candy,” I said, lighting a smoke. “And I believe he was about to tell me. Weren’t you, Mitchell? About to tell me.”
“Hurry up, Mitchell,” said Candy. “The kids are in the bath.”
Mitchell toed the dirt with a work boot. “We ain’t going to be blackmailed over this, Kory.”
“Is that right?” I said.
“We pay you once, what’s to stop you from coming again?” said Candy.
“Guess you’re just going to have to trust me,” I said. “Family, you know.”
“You sat in my kitchen, with my children asleep upstairs, and told my wife you’d like to fuck her in the ass,” said Mitchell.
“At the time, big brother, I didn’t know you was in on the deal. Your darling wife here told me that ole Shawn Hadden had already been in her ass and I didn’t see why I didn’t deserve a turn, too.”
Candy started to say something, then clamped her mouth.
“I never did get the story straight,” I said. “Who’s fucking who and so on. Anyhow, Mitch, I believe you was saying something about family?”
“That’s enough!” said Mitchell. “I don’t got to listen to this shit from you.”
“All right, big brother, all right. I didn’t come here to break up your happy home. I just come to get what’s mine.” I leered at Candy. “You and me was to step into the shed for a few minutes, I’d call that another reasonable down payment.”
“See, Mitchell?” said Candy, face sideways with rage. “I told you, didn’t I?”
“Don’t you ever say nothing like that again,” said Mitchell, “or I’ll ...”
“You’ll what, big brother?”
I stood there jangly, ready to go. I’d been in a hundred scenes like this but the thrill never grew the less. And this my own brother who’d stole the farm out from under me. Lord oh Lord would it be sweet.
“No, Kory,” said Mitchell. He went to Candy, put his arm around her shoulder. From the house they could hear a child crying. “Just get on out of here. Don’t ever come back.”
The juice ran out of me. “You sure about that?” I said. “You’re absolutely sure? You’re going to give me nothing again?”
“Get out of here.”
“All right,” I said.
The hotline people, they lapped the story up. And why wouldn’t they? Solved the mystery of the missing Shawn Hadden, true in all its details. Other than the perp.
I knew Mitchell was a hard worker. He’d have been getting his fingerprints on the shovel that decapitated Shawn Hadden all summer long.
I enjoyed following the story in the paper. Mitchell did the noble thing, took the fall for his wife. Any alternative, including any that involved my name, would of involved fingering Candy. Guess he really did love her. The judge let Mitchell kiss the kids at the sentencing.
A couple months later, when the cops stopping hanging around the farm, I drove on out there, Duke Ellington blowing loud on the speakers.
Candy sat at the kitchen table, dressed in that fuzzy bathrobe again. I stood at the threshold looking at her shoulder poking out of the bathrobe, then had a sit-down at the table.
“You sure did take the hard road,” I said. “We could of worked this out a lot more amicable, you know.”
Candy didn’t look up. “There’s children in this house,” she said.
“You mean, in my house.”
Now Candy looked up, chest heaving, cheeks wet. “What?”
I put my boots up on the table. “That’s right. Oh, there’ll be some lawyering to do, I expect, but nothing you can’t handle. Less you want the authorities receiving another phone call or two, with your name attached. You are going to get the lawyers to deed the place over to me.”
“You would do that to us?”
“I done a lot worse.”
She stood up so hard the chair fell over backward.
“Now, Candy,” I said. “Don’t wake the children.”
“Oh, sweetie,” I said. “I already have.”