ALL SHE WROTE - J. CONRAD
The first shot took out the picture window. There was a crash of splintering glass, and the room went dark before the lamp hit the floor.
The only light now was the dim glow of headlights from Shorty’s pickup outside. And Shorty was out there, drunk and shouting, “This time, I’m gonna kill you, Archer!”
Archer crouched in his underwear behind a leather chair, waiting for the man to come through the front door – ready to drop him with the 9MM he gripped in both hands.
“Call the sheriff, for crissake,” Darryl said in the darkness behind him.
“Get back and keep your head down,” Archer said, his voice cold and steady. It was miles to town. This would all be over before any law could get there. If the law would even come.
Darryl, as usual, did what he wanted.
“Fuck!” he hissed as he took a step into the room. He’d put his bare foot down in broken glass.
“Did you hear me?” Archer said. But Darryl stayed there with him.
The day had not started out this way.
Summer sunlight had broken clear and bright over the ridgeline of sand hills to the northeast. By 6:00, it was already ninety degrees. The morning sky was cloudless and the air thick with birdsong. Redwinged blackbirds and meadowlarks with that heart-wrenching, falling warble.
Darryl had arrived out of the blue the day before. Hitchhiked from god knows where and walked the last way from town with just his hat and a backpack.
He lay asleep in Archer’s bed, his dark hair long on the nape of his neck, his shoulders sunburned. And Archer had stood in the doorway with a mug of coffee, just watching him, the sheet still thrown back from where Archer had slept beside him.
Then it all ended with the sound of a car pulling up at the front gate, tires crunching in the dusty gravel. He looked out and saw a white Ford Escort. His daughter Angela’s. She slumped over the wheel instead of coming in, and he took a mug of his coffee out to her.
“Jesus,” he said when he got a look at her. Her face was raw with tears, one eye puffy and purpled. Buttons on her blouse had been torn, and he pulled it together to cover her bra.
As he sat beside her and took her in his arms, she choked on the words she wanted to say. “Daddy, I’m scared.”
“Shorty did this to you,” he said, and she nodded, her face pressed into his shoulder.
He felt himself fill with rage. Angela had stayed on in town when her parents split up. She’d helped Archer with the veterinary practice until that had gone south – the county’s other large animal vet suddenly in demand since he was happily married, a church-goer, and not queer.
She’d been working over in Mullen as a legal secretary, and after two or three serious romances that didn’t lead anywhere near the altar, she’d settled on this guy Shorty. Shorty’s family were ranchers with a big spread way up north. They’d been there as far back as Buffalo Bill and the Indians.
At the time, Archer wanted to be glad for her. But he’d never liked Shorty, who was at least thirty and still acted like a kid. Didn’t give a damn if he got in trouble because his old man always got him back out again.
“He loves me,” Angela would tell Archer. “He’s settling down. You’ll see.”
He’d bit his tongue and let it go. Hoped she was right. And doubted anyway. He heard stories.
He’d heard Shorty was fucking some rancher’s wife up by Valentine. But he waited till Angela found out for herself. Which didn’t take long. She was smarter than most men gave a woman credit for.
Maybe the abuse had started already. Archer had begged her to get the hell out. But by then it was too late. Shorty let her go, but wouldn’t leave her alone. He had some power over her. Something sexual she couldn’t resist.
Now here she was. Broken, it seemed to Archer, who’d always loved her so much it made his heart ache.
He persuaded her to come inside the house, but she didn't want any help getting there. She’d already got some of her strength back. There was a will of steel inside her young woman’s body that must have surprised a lot of men and kept the few marriageable ones at bay. Men out here liked their women pliable and dutiful. She was neither.
“What’s he doing here?” she wanted to know as soon as she saw Darryl in the kitchen. He’d pulled on a pair of worn Levi’s and stood with coffee in one hand and rubbing the sleep from his eyes with the other.
Archer felt torn at once between them. Angela could live with his being queer, but she didn’t like being reminded of it. And more so when it was someone like Darryl, who was little more than her own age.
“What happened?” Darryl was saying in one of his rare moments of concern for somebody beside himself.
She ignored him and went to the refrigerator to put ice on her swelling eye.
As for the night before, Archer hadn’t been able to get much out of her. There’d been a dispute when Shorty showed up at the house she’d been sharing with a waitress from the diner in town. Another single girl with a hard-luck story.
He was all nice and pleading with Angela to come back to his place. He’d wept and made promises. And then he’d gotten rough. Rougher than he’d ever been before. She’d stopped at that point, like there was more to the story she was ashamed to tell her father.
At one time, they’d been living together in a doublewide somewhere on the family ranch. Archer had been there only once. He was looking for it now, driving the Explorer he’d bought when he was still the county’s go-to vet.
The rutted dirt road rumbled under the tires and a cloud of dust followed him, hanging on the dead-calm air.
But the doublewide, when he found it, was empty. From the weeds growing up through the front steps, Archer could tell it hadn’t been lived in for months.
Driving on, he met a pickup pulling a horse trailer. Two cowboys sat in the cab, wearing beat-up, sweat-stained straw cowboy hats. Archer recognized them when they pulled over to let him pass. They’d helped him once preg test a herd of cows.
“Howdy, doc,” the driver said with a big grin under his mustache. His uneven front teeth were flecked with bits of Copenhagen.
“Lookin’ for Shorty,” Archer said.
The driver glanced at the man beside him and then shrugged. “Ain’t seen him. Ask ’em back at HQ.” He gestured with a thumb in the direction he’d come from.
Archer nodded and kept driving.
It was Shorty’s father, Riley, he finally found. He was leaning over the fence of one of the corrals, giving orders to a cowboy, who was squatting next to what looked like a bloated steer.
Riley was no older than Archer but carrying an older man’s gut that spilled heavy over the top of his jeans. He’d have to look in a mirror, Archer thought, to see his own dick.
“What you wantin’ with Shorty?” he said smiling, but his eyes hard.
“Your boy’s been beating up my daughter.”
“I want you to put a stop to it. Or I will.”
“Is that right?” Riley said. “Look, you fuckin’ cocksucker. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave my family the hell alone.”
Archer felt his rage return. He had a pistol in his SUV that he kept for euthanizing animals too far gone from sickness or accident. He’d had no need to think of it for anything else. Right now, he wished he had it. He’d aim it at the fat man’s big gut and wipe the look of contempt off his face.
“I’m telling the sheriff about this,” he said, “and I’m getting a restraining order.”
Riley waved his hand and turned away. “You just go and do that,” he said, like he was through talking.
Archer knew it was an idle threat, even when he said it. Cattlemen like Riley still ran the show. They put the local sheriff into office, and they were buddies with any judge. If you didn’t believe it, you could find them together anytime in town at the hotel restaurant, eating their big guts full of chicken-fried steak with gravy and home fries. Laughing at each other’s lousy jokes.
And there was this other thing. It was clear in Riley’s sneering words. As a queer man, there was no one ready to come to his or his daughter’s defense. Why did he even still stick around? Why couldn’t he just go off somewhere and be with his own kind?
But he wasn’t going to let this stop him from trying. Something had to be done. A father protected his own.
Just like he wouldn’t be run off his own property. And there’d been some who tried. His mailbox had been battered flat one night and the American flag out there torn down. He’d had to paint over the “God hates fags” someone had spray-painted on the side of his horse barn.
Someone had even poisoned his dog, a golden retriever he’d loved as much as he loved his daughter. Something wanted to break inside him that day, and he’d wept as he buried the animal.
But he held on.
After three more mailboxes, he started picking up his mail at the post office. And eventually things went quiet again. He also found he hadn’t lost every friend. Doc Richards, the GP in town stuck by him and didn’t care who knew it. His friendship had kept Archer from going off the deep end.
Heading back to the main road, Archer discovered he’d taken a wrong turn, following a sandy track that took him over a cattle guard he couldn’t remember crossing before. When he stopped, it was too close to midday to tell directions from shadows and the look of the sky.
The GPS was useless out here so far off road. His cell phone, he found, had only one bar that cut in and out. He decided to go back and look for the turn he’d missed.
He’d gone not far when he met a big F-150 coming the other way. There was only one man inside – Shorty.
Instead of pulling to one side, Shorty stopped the truck in the middle of the road. Before he stepped out of the cab, Archer saw him reach up to the gun rack behind him and take down a rifle. When he got to the Explorer, he didn’t waste time on pleasantries.
“I could kill you out here and no one would ever know it,” he said, waving the rifle barrel at him.
Archer raised both hands, hardly realizing what he was doing.
“Out. Get out,” Shorty shouted. “I’m gonna teach you a lesson.”
His own gun, now that he really needed it, was still locked in the glove compartment. There was no way to quickly reach for it.
He slowly opened the door and stepped down into the sandy road. After the AC inside, a wave of heat hit him in the face.
“Get moving,” Shorty said, and as Archer stepped away into the pasture grass, Shorty was right behind him. “Fuckin’ faggot,” he muttered.
Archer seethed at the word. “What did you say?”
“I called you a...” but Shorty got no further. Archer swung around and slammed his forearm into the side of his head.
Shorty staggered back with surprise, falling against the Explorer. And Archer didn’t give him a chance to regain his footing. He punched him in the gut and then kneed him hard in the balls.
Shorty doubled up and rolled over in the sand. He hung onto his rifle, but his hat tipped off his head and fell under the Explorer.
Archer stepped on his hand until he loosened his grip on the gun. Then he reached down and picked it up.
“Now it’s your turn for a lesson,” he said.
Shorty struggled to get up, but Archer kept him pinned down with his boot.
“Listen and listen hard,” he said, and with his other foot started kicking him in the ribs, Shorty groaning with each blow. After stopping for a moment, he aimed the last kick at his eye – the same eye Shorty’d blackened on Angela’s face.
“You so much as touch my daughter again and I’ll kill you. I truly will. You hear what I’m saying?”
Shorty nodded, eyes squeezed shut, teeth clenched in a grimace.
Then Archer stepped over him, got back in the Explorer. Still holding the rifle, he drove on, keeping an eye on the rearview mirror. But the young man simply lay there face down, his hat flattened beside him where the Explorer’s back tire had rolled over it.
He swung around Shorty’s truck and then stopped, reaching inside the cab to leave the rifle across the front seat. Noticing the keys hanging from the ignition, he pulled them out with a jerk and slung them out into the grass.
Once Shorty got on his feet again, he’d be out here a long time in the hot sun searching for them. With no water, he’d be dehydrated and drinking his own piss before anybody even missed him.
Archer drove on, the fury slowly dying in him, and finally found the turn he’d missed. In another fifteen minutes, he was on the highway and headed back home.
After a few miles, he heard a beep from the cell phone. He was in range of a signal again. Flipping it open as he drove, he saw a message, but when he felt his shirt pockets, they were empty. Without glasses, he couldn’t read it. No one ever texted him anyway. Probably some telemarketer selling shit.
At the house again, he found Darryl in the shade at the back, lying flat out on the lounger, a feed store cap over his face. He’d mowed the sparse grass with the lawnmower, which stood where he’d finished, his tee shirt hanging from the handlebar.
Which was like him. He thought of being useful as a saving grace, though he didn’t need one. Not from Archer, anyway.
“You get Angela’s message?” he said.
“She’s left. Said she was going to her mother’s.” He sat up, his eyes squinting under the curved brim of the cap.
“Didn’t say where.”
The text message must have been from her. Archer pulled the cell phone from his pocket and fumbled with the keypad.
“Need some help?” Darryl said, holding out his hand.
Archer gave him the phone, and it took Darryl only a moment before he was handing it back.
“You read it,” Archer said.
“You oughta get yourself one of them new ones. Watcha call’em, Blackberrys? This thing’s a piece of crap.”
“How do you know about Blackberrys?”
“I know other people besides you.”
“I bet you do. Just read it to me.”
Darryl focused on the tiny screen and read slowly, “Sorry. Been thinking. No good for me here. Getting out of this hellhole and getting a life. Will call you from Mom’s.”
Archer waited for more.
“That’s all she wrote,” Darryl said, and flipped the phone shut.
Archer’s heart sank. His one connection with any sweet memory of the past was going, if not already gone.
He took the phone and punched in her number. There were six rings, and then he got her voice mail. He hung up.
“Sonofabitch,” he muttered, thinking again of Shorty. The miserable bastard had come between him and his daughter after all.
“You could still stop her,” Darryl offered. “How long does it take a woman to pack?”
But Darryl didn’t get it. Angela was right. There was no life for her here, and Shorty would always be around to make certain of that. Archer had to let her go.
He drove into town to find her and say a last goodbye. But there was no one home at the house she’d been renting, and the white Escort was gone. Coming back, he tried to remember the last time he’d seen her smiling face. Tried hard, but couldn’t remember.
Another gunshot peppered the house. Shorty’s drunken shouts outside were getting closer. And Archer waited for the sound of his boots on the front porch.
Liquored up as he was, he’d probably try kicking down the solid oak front door, which would break his foot – or his leg – if he was lucky. Then he could lie there in helpless agony while he reconsidered whatever assault he’d planned on the house.
Or he could turn the door handle and discover it was unlocked. Which is what Archer found himself hoping.
It would leave him silhouetted against the headlights of the pickup. Even if he came in with barrels blasting, there’d be a moment when Archer could take aim and drop him cold.
“Archer, you fucking scumbag! I’m coming in there after you!”
Shorty had used up his short supply of threats and curses and was starting through them again.
Meanwhile, Darryl had thought better of sticking it out beside Archer and disappeared into the darkness of the room behind them. Archer figured he’d gone back to bed or was lying under it.
There was a long pause. A silence that went on for so long the crickets began chirping outside again, one after another. Like all the excitement was over.
A double shadow fell across the blown-out window. Shorty was moving around out there between the truck’s headlights and the house. Then he must have switched them off, and there was sudden, total darkness.
Shorty wasn’t so dumb after all. If he was coming through the front door, he’d had the same thought as Archer.
He’d also considered the silence. It was a moonless night and too quiet for sneaking up to the house if he couldn’t see where he was going. In a moment, there was a blast of heavy metal from what must have been a CD player in the truck. No radio station out here in the Sandhills played anything but country and western. An army could take the house now and be unheard.
If this was evidence of any intelligence, maybe it went a little to explain what Angela ever saw in the man.
“Daddy, I’m scared,” he remembered her saying that morning. And for the first time, as he waited for Shorty, he was fighting back what felt like fear rising in his chest.
Now he was thinking of Darryl. Where had he gone? Once Shorty got into the house, it would be too late to find out. Darryl could get caught in crossfire, or Archer might mistake him for Shorty.
“Where’d you go?” he called to Darryl.
But if Darryl answered him, he couldn’t hear what he said.
The noise from outside went on and on, without mercy. Lyrics of rage shouted over a discordant wall of distortion and feedback.
Archer kept his back to the wall and waited, listening hard, peering into the darkness until his eyes could make out the dim outline of the windows.
Then he heard something in the kitchen behind him. A crash, a cry of surprise, table legs scraping across the old linoleum floor. Another crash. A strangled curse.
“Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot,” someone was shouting.
Then the kitchen lights came on, blinding him for a moment, and he saw Darryl standing with one hand on the light switch. Beside him, the door from the side porch stood open.
Stretched across the table twisting and convulsing with choked breaths was Shorty, blood soaking through his shirtfront and spreading across the oilcloth. Beside him, Darryl stood unmoving, his bare skin smeared with blood, holding a knife at his side.
“I caught him coming in from this way,” he said.
“I didn’t know you carried a knife.”
“Jesus, Archer, you think I go around without some protection?”
They watched as Shorty breathed his last. Then Archer searched for his pants on the bedroom floor and pulled out his phone.
“Sheriff around?” he said, finally, when he got an answer. “Tell him he needs to come out. We got a dead man here.”
BIO: J. Conrad can be found writing, reading, and staying out of trouble in the Coachella Valley of Riverside County, California.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
11 hours ago