Tess was his littlest girl. She was four. Because of the heat she wore a pair of ribbed summer drawers. Her sister Eloise was asleep. Tess was at the doorway, giving Griff a hug he had to bend down to get. Her body was hot and damp and as always she felt almost frighteningly fragile in his arms. He kissed her blue eyes and her pink lips and then he hugged her, feeling the doll cradled in her arm press against him.
    “Will you kiss Betty, too?”
    “Kind of hot for a kiss, isn’t it?” Griff said playfully.
    “You kissed me, Daddy. Can’t you kiss her?”
    Griff looked over at his wife in the rattan rocker and winked. “Oh, I guess I could.”
    So he picked Betty up and kissed her on the forehead and handed her back.
    ‘“Night, punkin’,” he said, bending down and holding Tess to his leg. She was so small, she scarcely touched his thigh.
    “Will you bring me ice cream?”
    “I’m afraid I can’t tonight, hon.”
    “How come?”
    “I have some business to take care of.”
    “What kind of business?”
    He laughed. “Dora, don’t you think it’s time you put your little girl to bed?”
    Dora got up from the rocker and came over. She leaned down and picked up Tess. Tess held tight to Betty.
    Dora said, “How about a kiss for me, too?”
    Griff obliged. He held her longer than he meant to and he closed his eyes as he kissed her. He knew that she knew something was wrong. He’d told her that Kittredge wanted to talk to him about some haying later on in the fall, that the hay man wanted an answer tomorrow morning. But she knew. All during dinner he’d felt her eyes on him. Gray, loving, gentle eyes. Now, holding their youngest, she touched him and the feel of her fingers on his forearm made him feel weak, as if he were caught up in some kind of reverie. He wanted to be younger, back before the holdup and the little girl getting killed. How stupid it all seemed now, being so concerned about not having a job, feeling so afraid that he’d been pushed to such extremes. Hell, he didn’t have nearly as good a job even now but they were making it and making it fine.
    “You don’t have to go, you know,” Dora said. A tall woman, not pretty but handsome in her clean purposeful way, she tugged on his shirtsleeve much as Tess had done earlier. “You could always tell Kittredge you just weren’t interested.”
    “Could be some good money. You never can tell.”
    She said, “Is Carlyle going to be there?”
    “Carlyle? Why would he be there? I haven’t seen Carlyle in a long time.”
    “It just feels funny, tonight.”
    “What’s ‘feel funny,’ Momma?” Tess said.
    He leaned in and kissed them both again. “I won’t be too long,” he said, and then he was gone.


    Long before there was a brick-and-steel bridge near the dam, Griff used to go there as a boy and throw his fishing line in and spend the day. He’d always bring an apple, a piece of jerky, and enough water to last the long hot day. Other boys would come but
    Griff always managed to stay alone, liking it better that way. But much as he liked it during the day, he liked it even better at night, when the water over the dam fell silver in the moonlight, and when fishermen in boats downriver could be seen standing up against the golden circle of the moon, casting out their lines and waiting, waiting for their smallmouth bass and catfish and sheepshead and northern pike. In the war, where he’d served in the Eleventh Infantry under General Ord during the siege of Corinth and the occupation of Bolivar, he’d lain awake nights thinking of his fishing spot, and the firefly darkness, and the rush and roar of the dam, and rain-clouds passing the moon.
    He was hoping to be a little early tonight so he could appreciate all this before Kittredge and Carlyle got there, but as soon as he left the main path over by the swings he saw two figures outlined against the sky and he knew that tonight there wouldn’t be even that much peace.
    Kittredge said, “Good thing you got here now. Carlyle’s gone crazy.”
    “Crazy, hell,” Carlyle said. “I’m just sayin’ we should take care of him before he takes care of us.”
    Griff sighed. Things hadn’t changed any in the years the men had been apart. Kittredge and Carlyle had never gotten along; it had always been up to Griff to keep things smooth between them. Tonight was especially bad. Even from several feet away, Griff could see and smell that Carlyle was drunk.
    “Plus we’ve got some complications,” Kittredge said. “And I don’t mean just the little girl’s father.”
    “What’re you talking about?”
    So Kittredge explained how Sheriff Dodds had come into the roundhouse tavern and pretty much said that he knew the three men had stuck up the bank and killed the little girl-maybe not killed her on purpose but killed her nonetheless-and that if he, Dodds, had to choose fates, he’d take his chances with the law instead of with some crazy man with a Winchester.
    “That’s why I say we kill Ryan,” Carlyle said, “before he kills us.”
    “Shut up,” Griff said.
    They stood downslope from the dam so they cold talk over the roar. Griff rolled himself a cigarette, taking the smoke deep into his lungs, savoring the burning. He said, “Maybe we should take it to a vote.”
    “Take what to a vote?” Carlyle said.
    “What the sheriff said.”
    “You mean turning ourselves in?” Kittredge said.
    “Yup,” Griff said. “Maybe that’s the easiest way to do things.”
    “That what you want to do, Griff?” Carlyle said.
    “I didn’t say one way or the other; all I said was that maybe we should take it to a vote.”
    “I been in Fort Madison,” Carlyle said. “I’d never last in there again. I’m too god damn old for prison.”
    “So you’re voting against it?” Griff said.
    “God damn right I’m votin’ against it.”
    “Kittredge? What do you think we should do?”
    Kittredge ran a hand across his face, turned slightly to look out at the water over the grassy hump of the slope, then spat into the earth. He turned back to his partners. “You think he’d listen to our side of it?”
    “Who?” Griff said.
    “Doubt it,” Griff said. “Put yourself in his place. Your daughter gets killed by three men and they come and try and tell you their side. Would you listen to them?”
    Kittredge thought a moment. Then, “Maybe there’s a third way, instead of turnin’ ourselves in or just waitin’ for Ryan to shoot us.”
    “What would that be?” Griff said.
    “What Carlyle said.”
    “Damn right,” Carlyle said. “What I said.”
    “Shoot Ryan, you mean?” Griff said.
    “Damn right,” Carlyle said again. “Let’s vote right now.”
    Griff paid him no attention. He turned to Kittredge. “That’s the tempting way, I know. But think about it. You said the sheriff pretty much believes we’re the men involved in the robbery. But maybe he doesn’t have hard evidence.”
    “So what?” Carlyle said.
    Griff kept talking straight to Kittredge, even though Kittredge wasn’t responding. “So if Ryan gets killed, who do you think the sheriff’s going to blame? Us.” He paused. “There’s at least some possibility that the sheriff will never be able to prove we had a part in that robbery. But if we go after Ryan ourselves-”
    “I want a damn vote,” Carlyle said.
    “He’s right, Carlyle,” Kittredge said.
    “What?” Carlyle said.
    “He’s right. Griff is. By goin’ after Ryan, we’d just be admitting that we were guilty.”
    “You votin’ with him, then?”
    “Yes,” Kittredge said. “I am.”
    Griff allowed himself a small sigh. “We wait.”
    “We what?”
    “We wait, Carlyle. We see what Ryan’s going to do next. That’s the only way we stay out of trouble.”
    “What if he tries to kill us?” Carlyle said.
    “Then we have the sheriff take care of him. You know how Dodds is. He won’t allow anybody to start shooting people. He’ll either run Ryan in or run him out of town. Either way, he takes care of our problem for us.”
    “You make it sound pretty god damn simple,” Carlyle said. “It’s a lot simpler than shooting somebody,” Griff said, anger in his voice now. “You seem to forget something, Carlyle. We’re not killers. Hell, we’re not even thieves. We didn’t get any money at all from that robbery. We killed a little girl by accident and we’re going to fry in hell for what we did. But that still don’t make us killers. That still don’t mean we could pick up a gun and kill a man in cold blood.” He nodded to Kittredge. “At least Kittredge and I couldn’t.” He turned back to Carlyle. “And I don’t think you could, either. Not when you came right down to it. You like your hootch and you like your whores but that’s a long damn way from bein’ a killer.”
    “You didn’t see his eyes this afternoon,” Carlyle said.
    “We killed his little girl. How do you think he’d look?” Griff said.
    “So we wait?” Kittredge said.
    “Yes,” Griff said, “we just wait and see what happens.”
    “Shit,” Carlyle said, and pulled away from the two men, wobbling drunkenly over to a huge elm tree. In the darkness they could hear him splashing piss against the tree.
    “He’s gets crazier the older he gets,” Kittredge said.
    Griff nodded. “The way I see it, we’ve got two problems.”
    “Ryan and Carlyle. Either one of them could do something crazy. Damn crazy.”
    Kittredge sighed. “My stomach’s in knots. I couldn’t eat tonight.”
    “We’ll keep an eye on him,” Griff said, “and we’ll be alright.”
    But he couldn’t muster much conviction in his voice. All he could do was just stand there and watch Carlyle come wobbling back, zipping up his pants as he moved through the grass.
    Griff just wanted to be home in bed with his wife and have his daughters come laughing in just after dawn, ready for a new day. But he had the terrible feeling that that simple pleasure was beyond him now. Maybe forever.
    “I still want a god damn vote on the subject,” Carlyle said as he swerved up to the two men.
    Which was when Griff slapped him hard across the mouth. Slapped him as hard as he could, hard enough to knock him to his knees.
    “Maybe you shouldn’t have done that,” Kittredge said, sounding tense.
    Griff nodded. “Maybe I shouldn’t have.”
    “You sonofabitch, you sonofabitch,” Carlyle said, furious but drunk enough that he could not get easily to his feet. “You sonofabitch.”
    Griff walked away from the other two men. He went over and stood by the dam, the silver foaming water falling in the mosquito-thick night air. Thirty years ago, the boy he’d been had stood here all filled with great unbounded hope. How could he have known that all these long years later he would be standing here, the killer of a little girl, and the little girl’s father come to pay him back?
    He shook his head and stared with great sorrow at the roaring, tumbling water.
    Then he went back to tell Carlyle he was sorry for slapping him.
Jack Dwyer #07 - What the Dead Men Say
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