With the first clang of the bell on the rotary phone, Cynthia Holcomb was awake. During her 32 years of work as a secretary, her ear had become dreadfully attuned to the sound of ringing phones. She took pride in her ability to respond quickly to calls, and her boss demanded that pride throughout each and every work day. In short, she hated the sound of a ringing phone and did anything she could to cease their incessant assault upon her ears.
Gus Holcomb, however, never answered the phone on its first ring. Whether he was awake or asleep, busy or sitting idly at his desk, the first ring was always allowed its full duration. Typically, when calls came late in the night, Gus would snatch the receiver before the first ring could finish to spare his sleeping wife. Only when he was tired did he fail to meet this unspoken obligation for her.
The second ring was true and clear.
Cynthia heard her husband stir, sucking in a gasp of air through his nose, and knew the poor man was tired. His years were catching up with him. Even in such a quiet county, a man couldn’t remain Sheriff forever. Gus would soon be forced to face the biggest adversary of his life. The boredom of retirement.
The phone rang for a third time, and this time a thick hand pulled the handle from the base before the sound could complete its cycle. Gus cleared his throat and croaked a grumble for an answer. Cynthia felt a loving pity for her husband. He never let the phone ring three times in the night. He was either exhausted or sleeping exceptionally well. Or both.
“Hold on, now,” Gus said. “Who shot what?” Cynthia’s ears perked up. His voice was low, but when the man speaking them lay six inches away, it was impossible for her not to hear. She strained to listen to the caller. It was a woman and she sounded panicked. “I think it killed the dog” slipped out from the phone.
“The dog?” asked Gus. “Cinder?”
The pieces tumbled into place for Cynthia. Cinder was Dale Swanson’s dog, a hulk of a rottweiler. That meant it was Peggy on the phone now. Something had happened at their place. A shooting.
“Yup, yup, easy now Peg. I’m a-comin’.” Gus swung his legs over the side of the bed and Cynthia felt the mattress roll with his weight. “Keep Andrew close,” he said. “I’ll be there in a jiff. Did ya call Jen at the station? No?” There was a long string of words from Peggy. None of them carried an air of pleasantry. “Yup,” Gus said. More words from Peggy zipped through.Cynthia furrowed her brow when she couldn’t make them out. “Na, na, you were right to call me. I’m out the door now,” he said. He quietly put the phone back in place.
“Anything serious?” asked Cynthia.
“Could be,” Gus said as he stood. “Don’t know.” He pulled on his jeans and looped the suspenders over his shoulders. He gave them a tug and found the material was losing its stretch. He’d need to buy another set. He shoved his feet into his boots and grabbed his holster that hung from the bedpost at the foot of the bed. “How many times did the phone ring?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “There was shooting?”
Gus could hear the concern in her voice. He loved her for it. “From what I gathered. Something may have killed their dog.”
“Someone shot their dog?” Cynthia was sitting up now. Her voice was elevating as quickly as her body. Being married to a Sheriff meant certain things. It meant visibility to the public and the need to carry herself a certain way. It meant waking up to ringing phones at ungodly hours. It meant hearing the stories of how horrific man can be, either on accident or on purpose. But what bothered her more than all these things, it meant dealing with guns. In Cynthia’s mind, guns existed to serve one purpose. To take away.
“No one shot the dog,” Gus said. “It was Dale doin’ the shooting. Probably a big critter getting nasty in a big way.” Gus passed through the frame of the bedroom door.
Cynthia slung her legs out of the bed, ready to chase after him. “Aren’t you gonna call the station?” she said in a voice that was bordering on yelling. She heard Gus stop halfway down the stairs and let out a sigh. The sigh meant there would be no argument on this point. Not tonight.
“Call Jen for me,” he said. “Have her send Kent out to the Swanson place. I’ll get there long before he does.” His heavy body descended the rest of the stairs. Cynthia was on the phone before Gus closed the front door. She gave Jen the most accurate description should could, with a little extra spice to add a sense of urgency, while she watched the headlights of her husband’s cruiser roll through the dark night and over the sloping hills that surrounded their home.
Gus was barely off the gravel lane when he heard Jen calling him over the radio. He smiled at his wife’s tenacity. “Station to Sheriff,” squawked the box. “Come in, Gus.”
“I hear ya, Jen,” he said. The sleep was falling out of his voice now, and the world was becoming more coherent. Lordy, I hate these night calls, he thought. “Cynthia didn’t give you too much of a hollerin’ did she?”
“No, Sheriff, no,” she said. He could hear the smile in her voice. “That woman’s a saint who’s dumped all her love into you and spared none for the likes of Kent.”
Gus laughed. “Was he sleeping?” Gus hated to ask because he hated to be told what he already knew. Kent had turned a nasty habit of sleeping under the Goodyear billboard into the county’s worst kept secrets. But he asked because he had to. Asking was one of the points that made up the star pinned to his shirt.
“He’s here,” she said. “Well, was. He’s leaving now… just pulling onto the road. You’ll beat him by a few minutes. You think the Swansons are in trouble, Sheriff?”
“Hard to say, Jen. Peggy sure was unsettled, but that woman’s a bit of firecracker. Calm and quiet one moment, barely whispering a fuse, then exploding in your hand the next.” Gus thought of the conversation with Peggy and recalled the icy panic that layered her voice. He pressed down on the accelerator a bit. “We’ll get it sorted out, one way or another,” Gus said.
“Your wife said someone shot the dog.” The words fell from the radio as though they were foreign to the girl speaking them. “Who’d shoot a dog, Sheriff?”
“That’s not the version I got from Peggy,” Gus said. “Far as I know, nothing’s been shot with any amount of success just yet.”
“Well that’s something for the positive,” Jen said with relief.
“Listen, Jen, I’m checking off for now. I’d like to clear my head these last few minutes on the road. I didn’t get a chance to pour some coffee. Peggy was in a serious state.” Gus flicked at his radio subconsciously. “If Kent gets side-tracked, you give me a holler. Otherwise, I’ll call you when things get sorted out.”
“Alright,” Jen said. Her voice sounded reluctant. “You want me to call Peggy back and let her know you and Kent are coming?”
Gus thought about it, then answered. “No. We’ve already got too many hands in this poker game. Gimme a chance to sort this out and we’ll deal you in later. Thank ya, Jen.”
“Be careful, Sheriff.”
Gus hooked the radio back to the dash and looked at the speedometer. He was doing 72. He let off the gas and waited for the car roll back down to a reasonable 61. He took a deep breath, and then another, feeling his heavy-set body rise and fall with his lungs. “Easy, cowboy,” he said to himself. “Just take it easy. You gotta get to the rodeo before you can start throwin’ rope.” The car rolled on, cutting the still air of the night. As it passed by, the wind peeled off from the cruiser and stirred the corn fields surrounding the road.