The drive over Lost Trail Pass was treacherous. Even with the temperature at around five degrees Fahrenheit, it was trying to snow, and up on the pass it was succeeding. In spite of the slick roads, the surrounding blue forest looked hushed, magical, and with a billion snowflakes twisting and turning their way down out of the bright gray gloom it was a Christmas card straight off a Leanin’ Tree card.
Coal stopped as soon as they got into Missoula and paid cash for a room at the Missoula Hotel, and they had dinner a little early, at eleven o’clock. After that, they drove around the Christmas card image of downtown until they found a gun store, with a wreath made of a fir bough still hung on the front door, a remnant of the season just past. Coal pulled the pickup over to the curb and stopped. In typical fashion, Virgil looked out at the store front but said nothing. One might have believed him a manikin, for the vacancy of his expression.
“I’m going to go in here and look around, buddy. You should come in and check it out.”
The idea of the gun store had come to Coal in Salt Lake, when he had been wandering around town by himself to give the Mitchells some alone time. He wanted to be here for two reasons: One, so he could get a feel for the Smith and Wesson Model 29 .44 magnum which Elmer Keith had helped design, and of which the old man was so proud, and two, to see what kind of hunting rifle would suit his boy. If Virgil was anything at all like his father had been at fourteen, receiving a rifle of his own would make up for a lot of his father’s mistakes.
As Coal suspected, the Model 29 Smith and Wesson felt much the same as his 27, the venerable .357 magnum. He was a little cautious about how the much more powerful kick of the .44 would affect the way the thumb piece, which released the cylinder, would hit his thumb, but after his experience with .357 rounds bouncing off the sharply slanted window of the fastback Charger, in the car chase with the Medina brothers, Coal had set his mind on something more powerful.
As for Virgil, Coal was grateful to see a light come over his face, the same light he knew must have been on his own when Prince bought him his first rifle, a Winchester .30-06. Virgil was a stout enough kid, and this rifle would hopefully be with him for many years to come—possibly his entire life—so Coal steered him toward the ubiquitous ought-six as well. His had never failed him in the worst of conditions, and as an added bonus the owner of such a rifle would never be in a position of being unable to find cartridges for this rifle. They could be had in most any hunting camp.
After looking over the rifles, Virgil surprised him by choosing a Savage, the plainest looking rifle of the lot. The fit of stock to barrel was fine, as well as the fit of the butt plate. But the wood itself was very plain and almost without grain, and the finish was nothing to draw the discerning eye of a boy seeking his very first hunting rifle. Even the finish of the steel was a flat black that appeared to have been spray painted on.
Virgil had chosen the Savage, but Coal had noticed the brightest spark in his eye when he was holding a Remington Model 700 BDL. The difference in price was significant, and unlike the Savage the Remington didn’t come already set up with a scope, but that rifle was an instrument of incredible beauty, with a wonderful grain in its stock, the smoothest fit of metal to wood possible, and a beautifully blued barrel and shiny steel action.
After Virgil made his choice of the Savage, which seemed to surprise the salesman as much as it did Coal, Coal told the man they would have to do some thinking about it, and they wandered off to look around the rest of the store.
As they looked at the available optics—shooting scopes, spotting scopes, and binoculars, the boots, wool pants, and all of the other magical things that put stars in the eyes of a boy contemplating his first hunt, Coal searched himself for a way to let his boy save face while at the same time letting him know that he understood why he had chosen the Savage, out of all the rifle brands he could have picked. After all, while Coal would never be able to read a woman’s mind, he was pretty good at reading the mind of a boy—his boy—in the act of picking out a hunting outfit.
Virgil, never a boy to burden his father with costly things, had chosen the Savage because of its price tag. And that very reason was why Coal was more than willing to spend a little more on him—because he didn’t demand it as one who believed he was entitled to the best of everything, and because he deserved it.
Finally, Coal felt ready to approach his son about the rifles. “Virg, let me tell you something. I got a really good pay check when I left the FBI, and I get a decent salary as sheriff. Plus, you know Grandma lets us stay at the house for free, right? She’s just happy to have the company.”
Virgil looked up at his father, his face a little puzzled. “Sure, Dad. I know.” Unlike his father, apparently Virgil wasn’t yet accomplished at reading other men’s secret meanings.
“All right. Since we both understand that, I want to tell you something. I still feel bad about giving away Burro, but that isn’t why I want to do this, okay?”
A faint cloud came over Virgil’s eyes at mention of the dog. “Do what?”
“I think you should have that Remington instead of the Savage.”
“No, Dad,” the boy said instantly. “It’s okay, really. I think the Savage is a nice rifle. And it has a scope on it.”
Coal smiled. “You know what? You’re sure a good kid. Buddy, we’re getting you a scope too, all right? And we’re getting that Remington. It’s not that much more. I promise you it won’t break us.”
Virgil’s eyes flickered. “Are you sure?”
“Sure, I’m sure. You’re about the best son a man could ask for. And you’re getting pretty close to being a full-grown man. You need a rifle that’ll be with you for decades, not something you’re going to want to trade off to a pawn shop as soon as you get old enough to get the one you really want.”
Virgil looked up at him. Coal could see that he wanted to speak. But he really didn’t need to. Coal saw the message all over his face: He had gambled right.
“When you’re as old as I am and you’re getting ready to go out in the woods on a hunt, you’re going to want to look at the rifle you’re oiling up and know it’s the same one you killed your first deer with. Believe an old man, Son. You’ll thank me later.”
Virgil was beaming as they went and found the salesman again. Coal had told him to pay careful attention to how business was done, so Virgil followed closely.
“How set are the prices?” Coal asked the man.
The man shrugged. “Fairly set.”
“Okay, talk to me. I have a friend with a firearms license back in Salmon—Elmer Keith?”
The man stared, then chuckled. “Elmer Keith? Wait. Are you serious? The Elmer Keith?”
“One and the same.”
“He lives in Salmon?”
“That’s amazing. Is he like they say?”
Coal laughed. “Well, I’m not sure what you’ve heard, but I’d say probably so.”
“Wow. That’s pretty neat.”
“It is. So the reason I brought that up is I would usually buy my guns through him. And I still might, but my boy took a real shine to that Remington 700, and I wanted to see if we could work something out on it.”
“Really?” He looked over at Virgil. “I thought you liked the Savage.”
“He liked the price,” said Coal. “He was trying to save his dad some money.”
The clerk looked appraisingly at Virgil. “Wow. Good kid. You don’t see that kind of thing much.”
Coal agreed. “That’s why I want to get him the Remington, if you’ll work with me on it.”
“Well, I could probably give you a ten percent discount.”
“So the truth is I would also like that Model 29 I was looking at, and a holster—a hunter. And maybe four boxes of shells for each, along with a scope and a sling for the rifle. I could get all the extras back in Salmon, of course, and the guns through Elmer, but you’ve been pretty helpful to us, so it would be nice to have you make a profit today too.”
“All right. All right, let me go grab a calculator and see what we can do,” said the man. He told another customer he would be with him as soon as he could, then went behind his counter and crunched some numbers on a fat, ugly gray Texas Instruments calculator.
When he finally looked up at Coal, he said, “If you buy all of that here, I can give you a fifteen percent discount on everything. And please understand, that really is the lowest I can go.”
Coal didn’t want to make the man feel insulted. And he wanted to be sure his boy got a rifle with nice grain—a rifle he had picked out himself. So he and the clerk shook hands on the deal, and twenty minutes later they left the store, Coal with a brand-new Smith and Wesson .44 magnum in a wooden box under his arm, and his boy floating a couple of feet off the ground even though with all his new paraphernalia he now weighed more than ten pounds more than he had going into the store.
The rest of the trip was wonderful. They ate supper that night at the Hungry Man Cafe, making it possibly the dozenth time his boy had eaten in a restaurant. Virgil still wasn’t glib, but he never had been. However, he talked as much to Coal as he ever had, and anyway, it really didn’t matter. The look in his eyes let Coal know how his boy really felt.
Sunday, January 7
It wasn’t until they were on their way home the next afternoon, with a wonderful prime rib dinner under their belts, that Coal brought up the subject of the dog. It was something they had to get settled.
“I want to talk to you man to man about something, Virg. Okay?”
Virgil nodded. “Sure.”
“It’s about Burro.”
Virgil nodded again. The veil that came over his eyes was nothing compared to what had been there now for many days. “Okay.”
“Son, I really wish I had known how much that old dog meant to you. I had no idea.”
“No it’s not. I let you down. You’re pretty much a grown man, and I should have seen how much you liked him. I should have asked it if was okay to give him to the MacAtees as a gift. And if you said no, then we should have kept him.”
Virgil nodded. Coal wondered if he had somehow let his boy down, not teaching him the ability to speak his mind, to open up. But he himself wasn’t that different when he was Virgil’s age.
“If you want to, we’ll start looking for a dog for you, buddy. A dog you choose, whatever breed you want—just for you.”
Again, the boy’s only reply for a moment was a nod. But this time Coal waited. Maybe an uncomfortable minute of silence would wring something out of his boy.
“You know what I’ve been thinking, Dad?”
They were almost to the top of the icy Lost Trail Pass now, coming over Highway 93 to start the long, steep descent past Gibbonsville and back into the Salmon River Valley, marked by the entrance into the village of North Fork. A wonderful golden sun, getting ready to set, was striking across the frosty tree tops of the thick forest, once again transforming this place into a magical kingdom, the realm of reindeer, elves, and candy canes hanging from tree limbs.
“I’ve been kind of thinking about seeing if you would let me train Dobe.”
“Train him? How?”
“I don’t know. Just . . . to do other things.”
Coal almost laughed as a silly thought popped into his head, imagining his son trying to teach the pointy-eared Doberman pinscher to put on a little apron, walk on his hind legs, and serve tea, or vacuum the floors—maybe to use a feather duster. After all, Dobe had already been carefully trained to do most of the other things that a dog should know.
Coal went out on a limb and decided to share his silly thoughts with his boy, at the risk of making him feel foolish for suggesting the idea. Instead, Virgil started to giggle, then ended up in a fit of laughter so serious Coal thought he was going to choke. The laughter was contagious, and by the time they got another couple of miles down the road Coal started contemplating pulling over to the side. It was always nice to see where you were steering your vehicle when you went down Lost Trail Pass at breakneck speed, and right now his eyes were full of tears of laughter.
At last, with his cheeks hurting, Coal was able to wipe his eyes dry. “My cheeks hurt,” Virgil said. That made Coal laugh a little more, and his heart felt light.
He and Virgil were going to be okay. And in his wisdom he had never had to bring up seeing Virgil’s journal entry about how Katie had told Virgil their dad didn’t care about them. For Coal Savage, the world was good.
* * *
Charley and Martha May Janx drove into downtown Thibodaux to visit Law Puckett at the run-down Thibodaux hospital. It was five in the afternoon, two hours before the end of visiting time as it had been explained over the phone to the Janxes, but the receptionist told them they could only have five minutes.
When they knocked on the door, a faint voice told them to enter in words that were hard to understand. Nervously, Martha May pushed the door open a crack, then a little more. There were two beds in the room, one of them empty. The one next to it contained a man with casts on both of his arms, another on his left leg, and a head and face completely swathed in white bandages so that he looked like a 1930’s horror movie mummy, with only his eyes and mouth showing. It was the first time Charley Janx had laid eyes on Attorney Law Puckett.
“Howdy, sir. You be Mr. Puckett?”
“Yes sir, I am,” replied the man through stiff, swollen, scabbed lips. “At your service.” He looked over at Martha May, and he might have tried to smile. No one could have said for certain.
“Hello, Mrs. Janx. You’re lookin’ well.”
Martha May’s eyes welled up with tears. “Why thank you, sir. Thank you. You are too.”
This time there was no doubt: Law Puckett was laughing. When he got control of himself, he said, in a slurred voice she had to listen to carefully to comprehend, “Please don’t do that again, Mrs. Janx. It hurts me to laugh.”
“Of course. I’m very sorry, sir.”
Puckett flicked the fingers of one hand, trying to wave off her concern. “I’m just havin’ fun with you, awright? It feels good to laugh, at least inside. You don’t worry now, y’ hear? Now what might I do for you good people?”
Martha May would have liked to break down and cry, right there on the spot. Anyone would have known without being told that Law Puckett was here in this condition because of one reason: He had befriended a poor colored boy and his mother when they had no other friends. Had it not been for that, Mr. Puckett would still have been going about his courtroom duties.
“Well, sir, let me tell you: You tolt me about how you might c’d try t’ call Bryant’s army friend, who lives up there in Idaho an’ is a sheriff. We was just comin’ in t’ check an’ see if you was able t’ do that yet. Because, sir, they won’t let us come in no more t’ see our boy. The jail man, that Mr. Mims, he say the jail is off limits to . . . our kind.”
To anyone who could read eyes, they would have seen that those of Law Puckett grew hard as granite. “He said that, did he? Well, we’re gon’ see about that,” he said with slurred words. He failed to address her first question.
“And . . . I hope it’s no bother, but . . . about that other thing . . .”
“All right. Mrs. Janx—Mr. Janx. We are not gonna give up, you hear me? Yes, I did place a phone call to your Mr. Coal Savage, and yes, I did get through. But, uh . . . Well, he was out of town.” His eyes flickered as he spoke. Martha May’s heart fell. It felt like someone had stepped on it. Something had gone wrong. She almost didn’t want to know more, but she had to.
“You gon’ talk to ’im again?”
Puckett sighed. “Ma’am, I think . . . Well, you know how hard it is to understand what I’m sayin’ with my face and mouth all bruised up, right? I wonder, if I give you the number I found for Sergeant Coal Savage . . . What do you think about you tryin’ to call him yourself? I think you might have better luck—when he gets home, of course.”
Martha May stared. Her heart continued falling. There was little hope in Law Puckett’s eyes. He knew her boy’s army friend, Sergeant Savage, was not going to be any help. He didn’t even want to try again.
Trying to look brave, Martha May nodded. “Where is the number, Mr. Puckett?”
“You know what, ma’am? I would shore like it if you would call me Law. That is what my friends call me, you know.”
Her throat tightening, Martha May stared at the public defender. His suggestion gave her a surge of happiness, but she knew it could never work. And he must know it too. Her gaze faltered. “No sir. No sir, Mr. Puckett. That would be bad for both of us. But I shore thank you for the offer.”
Puckett blinked his eyes a couple of times. He understood. “Martha May—if I may be so bold as to call you that—the number is here in this note pad on my table. I hope you don’t mind if I ask you to get it yoreself.”
Martha May walked past her husband to reach out a trembling hand and picked up a white pad of paper. There were notes on the pad that must have been made by Puckett’s nurse.
“The number says ‘sheriff in Idaho’ above it. Then under it ‘Coal Savage’. See it?”
Martha May bobbed her head. The number was on the second to last page that had any writing on it. She read it back to him.
“Yes, ma’am. That’s the one. Take that whole page. And please try to call him, all right? He might be our only chance.”
“You gon’ save our boy, suh?” It was the first time Charley Janx had spoken. Law Puckett looked over into his eyes.
“I shore hope so, Mr. Janx. I hope I am.”
“He can’t go in no cage,” Charley pressed on. “He go crazy. He seen what’s in them cages. That’s no place for a man. An’ Slugger, he’s a man. He can’t go in no more cages.”
“Let’s try to make the call from here,” Law Puckett suddenly said. “Let’s see what this army friend has to say.”
They called the nurse in, and Puckett told her they hoped to make a long distance call to Idaho. He promised the county would pay for the charges, but she told him just to make the call. It was a very small thing. Mercifully, it seemed the nurse had changed her mind about the five minute limit for the Janxes.
After the nurse left, Martha May picked up the phone and dialed the number. She listened to it ring until a rattling sound came over the line, and then a woman’s voice.
“Yes, ma’am. So kind of you t’ answer. My name is Martha May Janx, ma’am, an’ I’m a-callin’ you from Louisiana?”
Oh, yes! Yes! Are you the lady I received a call about on Friday night?
“Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am, I b’lieve that would be me.”
Well, I wish I could help you. Martha May’s heart jumped at those words. She was going to tell her no. But my son hasn’t returned home from his trip yet.
Martha May stared at the wall, unsure of how to proceed. She wondered if Coal Savage was standing right beside his mother, telling her what to say. She had feared no white man, pretending to be her son’s friend or not, would lift a finger for her boy in his time of greatest need.
Can I have my son call you when he comes home?
Martha May pursed her lips. She had heard lines like this before. There was no way she would ever hear back from them. But she at least had to try. Feeling like her heart was being squeezed by a powerful hand, she quoted her area code and phone number to the woman on the other end of the line. And then she made her final plea for help, calling on the love of another mother for her child.
“Mrs. Savage, my boy told me he was a friend of yore son in the war. He’s in jail for somethin’ he didn’t never do. He ain’t ever gon’ come out, an’ he gon’ t’ prison if we can’t find help for him. I’m a proud woman, ma’am, but I’m beggin’ of you t’ help my boy if you can. There honest ain’t no other place I c’n turn.”