A Christmas Present from Craig Johnson
Posted by: Keir Graff
I know I said I wouldn’t post anything until next Monday, but this is too good to wait that long. Just before Christmas, Craig Johnson, author of the very fine Walt Longmire series (Another Man’s Moccasins, 2008), gave a great gift to everyone on his mailing list: an original short story, “Slick-Tongued Devil.” I planned to link to it, but the busy Mr. Johnson (last heard, he was trapping skunks and fighting blizzards) hadn’t posted it on his site yet. I asked for permission to post it here, and permission was granted–a Likely Stories exclusive!
“Slick-Tongued Devil” is a good Christmas story for those who prefer bittersweet to saccharine, with a crime-fiction twist appropriate to its protagonist. Readers familiar with the novels will appreciate the familiar references to Longmire’s world and the nuance it adds to his character.
Happy New Year!
By Craig Johnson
You steel yourself against those unexpected surprise visits in your mind, but it does nothing to prepare you for the physical evidence of a life shared, a life lost; her voice on the backlogged messages of answering machines, photographs used as bookmarks, a song she used to hum, people who knew her but didn’t really, asking about her in casual conversation. People telling you they know what it’s like when they don’t. If you’re lucky, you convince yourself that the only real world is the one in your head, and you make a fragile and separate truce that lasts until one of those depth charges erupts and you can no longer run silent or run deep.
It happened on a Tuesday morning two days before Christmas at the Busy Bee Café as I waited for ‘the usual’. I’d reached across the counter to snag the newly delivered Durant Courant and had flipped open the first page—and seen my wife’s obituary.
I don’t know how long I was frozen like that, but when Dorothy refilled my coffee cup she’d spotted the grainy, black-and-white photograph. I suppose it was her voice, behind me and to the right, that had brought me back. “Oh, Lord.”
I went home early from work that day, and nobody asked why.
I parked the Bullet behind the house, because I thought it would be easier to unload the cord of firewood that I had loaded in the truck’s bed through the back door. I draped my uniform shirt and gun belt on the back of my chair and took another shower, put on a flannel shirt, a pair of jeans, and an old pair of moccasins. I opened a can of soup but left it on the counter; then, I sat in my chair and drank eleven Rainier beers.
When I looked up, it was sleeting and dark.
I thought back to the exact afternoon it had actually happened—one of those warm December days we sometimes get on the high plains, a friendly Chinook from British Columbia that stays the freeze that solidifies your marrow.
She wanted to sit outside on an aged wooden chair I’d bought at the Salvation Army, the red paint peeling away and revealing the gray, weathered wood underneath. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”
Her eyes were closed, but she opened them, the pale blue matching the Wyoming sky that we could see through the windows of our tiny cabin. “Fresh air is good for you.”
I put on the kettle to make tea for her, wrapped her up in a thick Cheyenne blanket that our friend, Henry Standing Bear, had given her when she had gotten sick, and carried her outside where she could see the naked trees in the draws of both Piney and Clear Creeks, the branches moving only slightly as if the cottonwoods were stamping their roots to stay warm. “Could you get my Bible?”
I went back in and retrieved her book from the downstairs nightstand where we’d moved the bed. I carefully placed it, opened to the marked page, in her lap,. “Here, the feel-good book of the holidays.”
I watched as her narrow finger fit between the creased pages and the solemn words. She smiled. “You should be more tolerant of things that give people comfort.”
I watched a great-horned owl drift above one of the creek banks and hitched a thumb into my belt. “Hmm.”
“Tough guy.” Her fingers climbed up my pant leg and caught my hand there. “You know, a little forgiveness in your character wouldn’t hurt.”
I glanced down at her. “Not my line of work.”
She nodded her head at my stubbornness and, except for the mild buffeting of the wind and the chirp of prairie finches, it was silent. “You know, I always thought you’d soften a little with age.”
I crouched by her chair, pulled the soft blanket up closer around her shoulders, and ran my hand across her back, the spread of my fingers as large as the trunk of her body. “Hang around. I might surprise you.”
She took a slight breath. “I’m trying.”
I went back inside at the call of the kettle and returned with two mugs, the paper flags flapping on the ends of the submerged bags. It had been a dry fall, and there wasn’t much snow to make it a white Christmas, but the high desert was warm that afternoon. “It’s nice, isn’t it?”
She didn’t answer.
Dog watched as I got up from the Lazy-Boy and tossed the blanket over my uniform and the gun belt hanging there. I walked across the plywood sub-floor to the window facing northwest where something was making noise. Being awakened ruins some of the best dreams. The wind was picking up, and the heavens had gone nickel-plated underneath the darkness.
There were the skeletal poles of a half-erected, Cheyenne-style hogan that Henry had built in preparation of a New Year’s sweat. It had not been covered, and it hunkered out there in the frozen grass with some of the loose willow branches splayed toward the winter sky like a naked fan.
A few granules of snowy sleet swept across the ridges along the Bighorn Mountains and collected in the low spots and lee sides of the European blue sage, and on one of the escaped structural limbs of the sweat lodge, a great horned owl sat with his back to me. The Cheyenne believe that owls are messengers of the dead and that they bring word from worlds beyond. My thoughts meandered back to the sunny afternoon when my wife had passed, and the days since when the owls had come to impart providence.
I raised an almost empty Rainier to the window and tapped the aluminum punt against the glass and watched as the large head swiveled and the great golden eyes looked back at me. The owl watched as I spoke words not of my own mouth with a breath that clouded the glass.
Dog barked from his spot alongside the sofa and moved over to the unpainted, half-panel glass door. The alcohol was having an effect, like those electronic governors that keep modern cars from going over a hundred-and-fifty-five miles an hour. I belched, hung an elbow on the sill, and looked at Dog. When I glanced back toward the partially assembled sweat lodge, the owl was gone.
Dog barked again. I thought I’d heard a knock but, considering the weather, I thought for sure it couldn’t be a visitor and that something must’ve blown against the side of the cabin.
I pushed off the sill and walked past the sofa to the door, placed a hand against the glass, and peered across my porch and to the two mud troughs that led across the irrigation ditch to the county road. There was a car parked in the drive close to the house, a taupe-colored Cadillac with Nevada plates. He stood to the side of the door, his back to the wind. Long silver hair blew with the gusts that traveled across the porch and plastered a city-type overcoat against him. He was tall and thin and held some sort of package against his chest.
The man raised his hand to knock again but, when he saw me, he started and froze. I scooted Dog away with my boot and opened the door about ten inches. “Can I help you?”
The older man leaned in close to the log wall and looked at me as he adjusted a pair of heavy-framed glasses on his long nose. “Do I have the pleasure of addressing Mr. Longmire?” He hunched a shoulder against the wind and ducked his head. “I was wondering if it would be possible for me to speak to Mrs. Longmire?”
In my beer-fogged brain I thought of something Dorothy always said, that these things always happened in threes: the newspaper, the owl and now this. “I beg your pardon?”
He clutched whatever it was against his chest and pressed himself closer to the doorjamb. “I was wondering if Mrs. Longmire was available.”
I stared at him for only a moment more, and then opened the door enough for him to squeeze through. He stood there dripping onto the dirty plywood and sidestepped, trying to escape Dog’s nose in his crotch. Our faces were about eight inches apart, and I took the time to study him. His face was thin like the rest of him and, even though he’d only been on the stoop for a short time, his hair was molded to his skull. Underneath the khaki trench coat were an expensive dark suit, a rain-transparent white dress shirt, and a maroon tie the width of a tire tread. One of his hands was clutched around the package, which was in a Tyvek bag.
He pushed Dog’s nose away. “Not a fit night for man or beast.” He grinned for a moment, and then his features shifted to an earnest appeal. “I’m really sorry to be bothering you on a night like this, but is Mrs. Longmire in?”
I stuffed a hand in my jeans and downed the remainder of my beer. He was handsome in a talking-head, newscaster-gone-to-seed sort of way. “What’s this about?”
He stood almost at attention, gesturing with the plastic-wrapped package. “Mr. Longmire, my name is Gene Sherman, and I’m from the American Bible Company, and I’m sorry for the delay but the regional office wanted me to make a special trip out here to get this to your wife.”
I looked at the dripping bundle. “A Bible?”
He nodded. “Yes, sir.”
I crossed the room and crushed the beer can in my fist, dropping it into the drywall bucket beside my chair that served as my only trashcan. “C’mon in and sit yourself down—dry off.” I reached into the fridge, still sitting on the delivery skids, and pulled out two cans. “You want a beer?”
He stood there by the door, just a little uncertain. “I’m afraid I don’t drink, that, and I’ve got two more bibles to deliver before I get to Douglas tonight.”
I nodded and gazed out the windows at the frozen rain that swooped out of the darkness and crashed against the glass, sliding down and freezing in patterns that looked like bars. “How about a cup of tea?”
He paused but then spoke. “Tea.” I returned one of the cans to the refrigerator, opened mine, took a sip, and stared at him. “Actually, tea would be nice.”
I turned the kettle on with a soft pop of propane and snagged a dishcloth from the handle of the range and crossed back toward him, handing him the towel. “Here, something to wipe your face off with.” I gestured toward the sofa. “Have a seat.”
“Thank you.” He sat on the edge, his knees together, and reached a hand out to pet Dog who had returned to his spot beside the sofa. “Big dog.”
I stood by the back of my recliner, my arms resting on the Cheyenne blanket. “Yes, he is.”
“Heinz, fifty-seven varieties.”
He laughed a polite laugh, and there was a long silence between us; long enough to make him uncomfortable. He glanced down the only hallway in the cabin and up into the loft. “Is Mrs. Longmire in?”
“No, she’s not.”
He nodded and looked down at the package in his hands. “Are you expecting her?”
His eyes came back up. “The reason I ask is that there’s a financial remuneration concerning the model she ordered from the American Bible Company. Mrs. Longmire showed exquisite taste in ordering the special family heirloom edition.” He carefully shed the Tyvek from the tome and held it out for me to see. There were two other books that still lay swaddled in the bag. It was a very large, leather-like volume with my wife’s name impressed with gilt lettering across the lower right-hand side of the cover.
I opened my can and took a swig as I marveled at the Bible in his hands. “Is that leather?”
He smiled. “Leatherette; superior. It wears better, and that’s something to take into consideration with a fine edition such as this that will be gracing your home and your children’s homes for years to come.”
I stepped back to the particle wood counter, turned over a mug, and retrieved one of the six-year-old tea bags from the cabinet. “I’m afraid all I’ve got is Earl Grey.”
“Oh, that’d be fine.” He took a deep breath and looked around, at the unfinished carpentry, the worn furniture, and the general untidiness of the place. “Is Mrs. Longmire away, visiting family?”
I ignored the question and crossed to my chair and leaned on the back, slightly arranging the blanket there. “When was it she ordered this Bible?”
He looked a little confused and then did his best to look ashamed. “I’m sorry to say that it was over six weeks ago, which is why the American Bible Company sent me out personally to deliver the edition.” He shrugged. “I’m something of a problem solver— you see with the special heritage version there are certain artisan aspects that simply can’t be rushed. It was a phone order, and I do apologize for any inconvenience the delay might’ve caused but if you’ll just have a look at the craftsmanship.” He gestured the Bible toward me. “I’m sure that if you’ll be amazed at the quality of detail contained in the special heritage edition.”
“How much is it?”
We both listened to the wind pressing the sleet against the log walls of the cabin. “The basic price of the special, heritage edition is one-hundred-and-forty-two dollars, but with the personalization option—you can see Mrs. Longmire’s name in 24-karet gold here on the cover—the total comes to one-hundred-and-eighty-eight dollars not including tax, which you are exempt from considering this is an out-of-state purchase.”
“And where exactly is the American Bible Company located?”
He showed me his teeth. “Henderson, Nevada—right near Las Vegas. If you’re going to produce the good book, what better place than sin city?”
I showed him my teeth in return. “Amen.”
He brightened and smiled more broadly. “Are you a religious man, Mr. Longmire?”
I sipped my beer. “Not so much. My wife used to tend to the religion for both of us—my interests were more akin to this world.”
“My wife is dead, Mr. Sherman.”
He rested the bible on his knee, the other two still lying at his feet, and leaned back as if he’d been struck. “I’m terribly sorry.” The wind, snow, and sleet continued to buffet the cabin as we sat there. “Was it sudden?”
I nodded. “Imagine how I feel.”
He shook his head and looked at the Bible on his knee. “I’m terribly sorry for your loss and even sorrier to intrude on your grief.”
“Thank you for your concern.” The kettle was beginning to grouse.
He nodded enthusiastically but then slowed with dramatic sorrow and held the Bible at an angle where I could easily read my late wife’s name. “Your wife, Martha, she was very keen on the idea. I was fortunate enough to speak with her personally.”
The kettle roused itself to full voice behind me. “Really?” The kettle was now screaming. “I’d be interested to hear what she had to say—considering she’s been dead for six years.”
He didn’t move.
I took the last sip of my beer, crushed the can, and dropped it into the drywall bucket. I studied him for a moment more and then stepped to the range, picked up the kettle, and poured hot water into the mug. I stirred the mixture with a spoon and glanced back at him. “Do you take anything in it?”
He still didn’t move.
“Do you take anything in your tea?” I tapped the spoon on the rim of the mug and then carefully placed it on the edge of the sink. “Just as well, because I don’t have anything.” I purposefully walked over to him and handed him the cup. “Yep, a little mix up at the local paper.”
He swallowed visibly.
I took the Bible from his hands and crossed, plucking the blanket from my recliner, revealing the large-frame, Colt .45 in the Sam Brown, and the six-pointed star of the Absaroka County Sheriff attached to my uniform shirt. “Sheriff.” I glanced at the star, and, consequently, my sidearm. “Sheriff Longmire.”
I tossed the blanket onto the chair and sat with my elbows on my knees and the book in my lap. “It was a mistake. Ernie ‘Man About Town’ Brown went into Durant Memorial for surgery on his prostate and left a manila folder on his desk. The apprentice saw the file folder marked ‘Obituaries’ and assumed they were current.”
He still didn’t move.
“I’d imagine it’s hard to throw away the photos and obituaries of people you know. Michael Lenz, a friend of Ernie’s who had died in a car crash back in the nineties was there, along with Ernie’s sister Yvonne, who passed almost twelve years ago—and my wife, Martha.” I stared at the book in my lap. “Those two other bibles at your feet wouldn’t have Michael and Yvonne’s names on them, would they?”
He cleared his throat and spoke. “Mr. Longmire…”
“Sheriff.” Another moment passed. “You know, there was this scam that they used to pull going all the way back to the dirty thirties when cheap presses made mass market printing possible. These conmen would drive around with the trunks of their cars filled with bibles and they’d pick up the local newspaper and get the names from the obituaries, then they print the names in the bibles and sell them to the aggrieved survivors.”
He started to get up slowly, so as to not spill his tea.
I looked up at him, my voice a little more than conversational. “Sit down.” Dog heard the tone of my voice and planted his big paws on the floor and raised his head to look up at him. He stayed there for a second and then eased himself back onto the sofa.
I opened the cover and looked at the cheap, gold-edged pages with color separation that looked like newspaper comics, the inside cover of which was printed with a large tree with blank lines for family members. It wasn’t a very good version of the good book or of any other book for that matter.
“My mother used to drag me to church when I was a kid and I used to sit there looking at the stained glass windows and listening to the choir sing and wondering what the heck was wrong with me.” I sighed and flipped a few more of the thin pages. “Never went back.”
He cleared his throat, and I glanced at him, but he didn’t say anything.
I looked back to the Bible in my hands. “What do you suppose is the most important lesson in this book? That’s what it is, right? A book of lessons on how it is we’re supposed to treat each other.” I took a deep breath. “I mean if I was to read this book, what do you suppose is the most important thing I’d take away from it?”
This time his response took longer. “I’m not sure.”
“I think this book is about forgiveness and tolerance.” I looked up at him. “At least, you better hope so.” I watched his eyes widen as my hand reached up past my duty belt, and I pulled my checkbook from the seat of my uniform pants and my pen from my shirt pocket, which was just below the star. “One-hundred-and eighty-eight dollars, right?”
We sat there, looking at each other.
My eyes stayed steady with his. “Should I make this out to the American Bible Company or to you Mr. Sherman?” He didn’t say anything but just sat there holding his mug. “…I’ll just make it out to you.” After signing the check and tearing it from the book, I tucked the bible under my arm. “Well, it doesn’t look as if you enjoy my tea or my company, and I don’t want to hold you up any longer.”
We stood. I took the mug and handed him the slip of paper.
He held the check.
“Don’t worry, it’s good, Mr. Sherman—and I’ll be happy to deliver those other two bibles to save you the trouble.”
I watched as he turned the expensive car around. As he hit the gas, it slid a little, and my eyes followed the taillights as they disappeared down the ranch road.
I walked over to the northwest window where I’d begun the evening and sipped Mr. Sherman’s untouched tea; it was still warm. Dog watched me as I pulled the special heritage edition Bible from under my arm and peered through the ice-rimed window to see if the owl had returned.
Martha and I had argued that afternoon. I don’t even remember what it was we’d argued about, but I remember the tone of her voice, the timbre and cadence. It’s important to me sometimes to try and remember what it was that had been said, but I can’t. I’m afraid that my mind works like that more and more these days, allowing the words spoken to disappear into cracks and crevices.
I thumbed the good book open, flipped through a few pages, and then closed it. The sleet had turned to snow, and the flakes caught the light from inside the cabin and burst into small sparks before plastering themselves against the glass.
I continued to look out and into the raw night, but from habit my eyes drifted upward and the words escaped with the memories. “You should’ve hung around.”
© 2008 by Craig Johnson