“My husband done got himself killed.”
Sheriff Clarence Rawls sat forward in his chair and set his coffee mug on his desk blotter. The clock on the far wall read ten minutes to seven. Normally, it took at least two cups of the caffeine-laden brew to get him going in the morning, especially on frigid cold days like today. But he was wide awake now.
"I'm Mary Doogan. From Cole County," the weary voice on the other end of the line explained.
The name meant nothing to him, but when she told him who her husband was, he finally made the connection. Clarence hadn’t known Mack Doogan well. But the little bit he did know wasn’t favorable. He took a notepad from his uniform pocket and started taking notes.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“Accident out in the barn.”
“What kind of accident?”
The woman’s words were slow and deliberate, coated in a thick West Virginia syrup. “Don’t reckon we know, Sheriff. I found him yesterday. Big cut on top of his head. Must’ve fallen out of the loft or somethin’.”
She sounded remarkably calm, considering the circumstances. But he’d seen and heard odder things.
“You didn’t call for an ambulance?”
“Don’t have a phone.”
The statement didn’t surprise him. Few folks in Cole County had such amenities. “Where are you now?”
“Bates’s Grocery, out off Route Six. Nearest place ‘round these parts with a payphone.”
Clarence knew where it was. He’d grown up in nearby Higgensdale County, a few miles down the road from the coalmines where his father had spent thirty-seven years of his short life coughing up black soot and pickling his liver. Old Rennie Bates had owned the small roadside store since God was a boy.
A nagging question needled the back of his mind. “You say you found your husband yesterday?”
“Why didn’t you report it then?”
He could almost hear the woman’s tired shrug over the line. “It was late. These roads back here ain’t too safe after dark. And besides, there weren’t nothing I could do for him, Sheriff. I knew he was long dead.”
Clarence looked at the stack of paperwork in front of him and frowned. The only reason he’d even picked up the phone was because his night dispatcher had gone home early due to a sick child. Pauline, his first shift dispatcher, wasn’t due to report in for another hour. He glanced at his calendar. He had several appointments today, and to make matters worse, two of his three deputies were out with the flu.
In the corner, his old bloodhound, Tick, got up from his bed and whined for his breakfast. Clarence removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. Retirement didn’t sound like such a bad thing these days.
“We’ll have to send someone out and make a report,” he explained, knowing full well it would be him. The closest medical examiner was over a hundred miles away in Huntsville and wouldn’t be contacted until law enforcement completed their investigation. “Where exactly is your husband’s body?”
“Locked up in the smokehouse out back. We figured that’d be the best place.”
“You moved him?”
“Well… yeah. My boy and I did. The barn ain’t got a door. We didn’t want no animals gettin’ to him or nothing.”
“How old is your boy?”
“He’ll be going on seventeen next spring.”
Clarence had to remind himself this was a backwoods community with little knowledge of police protocol. He pulled open a file cabinet and gathered the necessary paperwork. “I’m gonna need directions.”
* * *
Winter comes early to the mountains of West Virginia, with freezing temperatures and the first frost settling in well before Christmas. As Clarence drove further into the foothills, a light dusting of snow began to fall. The portion of bruised sky visible through the naked branches of the surrounding pin oak and hickory trees hung heavy with the promise of a coming storm.
Passing the snow-capped ridges to the east, he was reminded of how he and his grandfather used to trudge up Razorback Hill through knee-deep powder to cut down the family Christmas tree. More than a generation removed now from the poverty he’d grown up with, Clarence could easily afford a pre-cut or artificial tree. And yet, he still came back to these parts, year after year, his two grown sons in tow, in search of the perfect evergreen.
He left the main highway and turned onto a narrow dirt road, passing a cluster of rusty mailboxes that had seen better days. The shallow ditches on both sides of the road were dense with tangles of barren kudzu vines and brambles. He continued north to the deepest part of the foothills, where the true Cole County began—tiny cabins and tumble-down trailers hidden behind thick veils of forest, with a scattering of smokehouses and small barns dotting the landscape.
As he topped a rise and started down into the valley, he tapped his brakes frequently to keep the cruiser’s tires from sliding. At one dilapidated rundown, an emaciated dog strained at its chain, barking and snarling at his patrol car, while two small girls played on the porch with a doll that had no arms. Neither child wore a coat.
He had to backtrack twice before he found the Doogan place. The house sat a half-mile back at the end of a wooded path. The first thing Clarence noticed when he got out of his patrol car was the absolute silence. No barking dogs or shabby children greeted him. The nearest neighbor was miles away.
The house was a squat, gray structure with thick sheets of plastic across the window panes, and a tar-pitch roof in need of repair. Wisps of smoke curled upward from a cinderblock chimney. In the side yard, a small sty held three good-sized hogs that would be ready for market in the spring.
A woman came out onto the porch, dressed in a calf-length housedress and a baggy brown sweater that swallowed her small frame like a sack. The sound of the screen door slapping behind her was flat, muted. By way of a greeting, she jerked her head in the direction of the woods and called out, “He’s in the smokehouse out back. I’ll bring you out.”
Clarence followed her to a low-slung wooden shed nestled among a stand of pines. She pulled a key from her sweater pocket, released the padlock on the heavy wooden door, and pushed it open. He waited for her to turn on the light before following her inside.
The man lying on the cutting table was frozen solid, his skin the color of muddy pond water. He was clad in jeans, a long-sleeved plaid shirt, and a pair of worn leather work boots. Clarence estimated his weight at around two hundred pounds. Rigor mortis and the freezing temperature had caused the man’s thick neck and limbs to stiffen and bow, as if his bones were attempting to break free from the flesh that restrained them. There was no odor.
Mack Doogan’s cause of death was clear, even without an autopsy. In addition to a badly broken nose, a gaping wound ran the entire length of his skull from scalp to nape, all the way through to the frozen gray matter beneath.
Clarence had seen enough corpses in his day to know this man had been dead for far longer than two days. He also knew he hadn’t died from falling out of a hayloft. Someone had assisted in bringing about his demise.
Mary Doogan stood on the opposite side of the table, staring down at her dead husband, arms folded across her chest against the cold. An elbow peeked out from a hole in her sweater. Her dishwater gray eyes were vacant, her face unreadable. In the dim light, he saw the remains of what appeared to be bruises along the left side of her neck and jawline, and a crimson bud bloomed in the corner of her right eye. When she noticed his stare, she pulled a length of her limp brown hair over her shoulder and turned away.
Something about the body bothered Clarence. He couldn’t figure out what it was. Then it hit him.
He looked over at Mary. “Did your husband have a habit of putting his shoes on the wrong feet?”
Jerking her head around to the end of the table, Mary’s eyes widened. Then she shrugged and looked away.
“I need you to show me where you found him,” he said.
She shrugged again. “This way.”
* * *
Clarence stood beneath the small loft in the dilapidated barn. The structure looked as though it hadn’t been used in years. Discarded tools were scattered across the floor, and a rusty old still for making moonshine stood in a far corner. The latter didn’t surprise him. Local authorities had long suspected Mack Doogan of running moonshine in several counties, but they’d never been able to prove it.
His eyes ran the length of the loft, looking for any kind of ladder or access. There wasn’t one. “How’d your husband get up to the loft?”
Mary’s expression went blank. Her eyes darted everywhere but at Clarence. “Don’t know.”
“What time did you find him? You said it was yesterday, correct?”
“Um... I’m not sure. It was going on dark outside.”
Clarence looked around for any sign of lighting. “This barn have electricity?”
Mary shook her head. “Just the smokehouse.”
“Pretty dark in here, even in the middle of the day,” he continued. “Doesn’t look like this space is used much. What were you doing in here?”
“This where you found him?”
She nodded and pointed to an area at his feet. “Yes sir, Sheriff. Right there.”
Clarence’s knees popped as he squatted down and examined the filthy floorboards. There wasn’t a drop of blood anywhere.
“Your husband’s head was split open, Mrs. Doogan,” he said evenly. “If he fell out of the hayloft, there should be a pool of blood here, not to mention smears of it all over the floor where you and your son drug him out to the smokehouse.”
Mary Doogan pushed a length of hair behind her ear and swallowed. “I—I cleaned up,” she stammered.
“Cleaned up? Why?”
“M—my Tommy don't handle things too well. I couldn’t let him see all that.” She looked out through the open doorway with a faraway look in her eyes. “So much blood,” she whispered, then gagged, clamping a hand over her mouth as she turned away.
Clarence touched his index finger to his tongue and ran it across the floorboard. It came back covered in dirt and grime. He had no doubt she was telling the truth about cleaning up her husband’s blood. But she hadn’t done it here.
“Why don’t we go inside so we can talk, Mrs. Doogan.”
Mary crossed her arms over her chest and quickly shuffled out of the barn toward the house.
* * *
The snow was coming down harder now. When he followed her inside, a blast of heat hit him in the face like a wet cloth. He unzipped his parka and looked around the small space.
The furnishings were sparse but tidy and the rough-hewn floors were swept clean. Along the back wall, a fire crackled in the fireplace, the flames shooting upward to lick the bottom of a large kettle held aloft on an iron brace. The smell of collard greens and pork permeated the air. Two closed doors led off to what he supposed were bedrooms. Across the room, an ancient Frigidaire wheezed in a corner. Above the kitchen sink, dingy white curtains with faded red cherries framed a window with a broken pane. A rag was stuffed into the hole to keep out the cold.
He removed his hat and was about to sit down on the threadbare couch when one of the closed doors opened. A young man emerged. Well over six feet tall with the same solid, fire-hydrant build as his deceased father, sixteen-year-old Tommy Doogan seemed too large for the cramped confines of the room. Despite the cold outside, he was dressed only in a pair of denim bib overalls and work boots. Thick muscle roped the boy’s shoulders and arms. His bowl-cut brown hair glowed red in the light from the fire. A scattering of coarse whiskers sprouted from his chin and upper lip.
Mary seemed surprised, almost alarmed, at her son’s sudden appearance. “I—I thought you was at work,” she said, wringing an imaginary dishcloth between her hands.
The voice that emanated from the boy’s throat was surprisingly soft. “They shut the lumberyard down for the cold, Mama. Mr. Simms brought me home.”
He shut the bedroom door behind him and shuffled over to the fireplace. The floorboards groaned in protest beneath his substantial bulk. Folding his arms across his chest, he stood in front of the fire and rocked back and forth on his heels.
“This here’s Sheriff Clarence Rawls,” Mary said.
Tommy didn’t answer.
“He’s come to help out with what needs to be done about Mack.”
At the mention of his father’s name, the boy looked over at his mother, a spark of rage in his eyes. Then he turned and spat into the fireplace.
“Thomas Alan,” Mary admonished him. “You mind your manners now.”
Clarence’s body tensed and he placed his hand near his service holster. The boy was twice Mary’s size. He thought for sure he would go off on her, come back with some harsh retort, or worse. But instead, the spark in the young man’s eyes was immediately doused by his mother’s reprimanding words. He hung his head, contrite as a child. Shuffling his weight from one foot to the other, he mumbled something Clarence couldn’t quite make out.
“Sorry, son,” Clarence said. “I didn’t catch that.”
“Sorry, Mama,” he repeated.
“It’s okay, Tommy,” Mary said. “Why don’t you go on back to your room and play with Snowball.”
“No,” Clarence said. “I need to ask him what he knows.”
Panic flashed across Mary’s face. “He don’t know nothin’.”
Clarence pointed to a sagging recliner. “Why don’t you take that chair, Tommy. I’ve got some questions for both of you.”
The boy looked at him with a puzzled expression. “Why would I take the chair? It’s ours.”
“He means sit down, honey,” Mary said. “Go ahead. He’s just going to talk to us.” He went over to the recliner and sat down.
“Tommy’s... slow,” Mary said quietly. She looked away. “Had an accident when he was ten. Fell down some stairs. He ain’t been right ever since.”
Clarence started to ask if he’d ever been seen by a doctor, but then thought better of it. Folks from these parts had neither the money nor the inclination to seek out medical care. Old folk remedies, splints from tree limbs to set broken bones, and babies with stunted development as a result of traumatic home births were the norm here.
It was when the boy leaned forward in his chair that Clarence first noticed the scars—a pattern of pale, raised striations scattered across the broad slope of his shoulders and upper back beneath the straps of his overalls.
To Clarence’s trained eye, the scars looked old, and there didn’t appear to be any fresh injury to any part of him; unlike his mother, who, he now noticed, was favoring her right ribs as she readjusted her position on the couch. It suddenly occurred to him that her bloodshot eye and the fading bruises to her neck and jaw looked to be around three or four days old—the same amount of time he estimated Mack Doogan had lay frozen in the smokehouse.
He looked from the woman to her son and back again. Both were staring at the floor. He’d seen enough domestic violence cases to know these two had been Mack Doogan’s punching bag for years. He figured the final scenario went something like this: Tommy had seen his old man lay his fists on his mother one time too many and he’d finally had enough and came to her rescue. Or, despite his seemingly docile nature, maybe he decided it was time to exact his own revenge for what had been doled out to him over the years.
When timing and rage and opportunity came together in that perfect storm, anyone was capable of snapping.
He took out his notebook and began asking questions, shifting direction frequently to catch their reactions. He directed most of his questions at Tommy, who he knew was the weaker link.
“What do you do at the lumberyard, Tommy?”
He shrugged. “Sweeping and stuff. I ain’t allowed to go near the sharp stuff.”
“The foreman’s known Tommy since he was a boy,” Mary added. “He pays him a few dollars to sweep up. Keeps him busy.”
“You like your job, Tommy?” he asked him.
The boy nodded. “I like how the wood smells. But all the noise hearts my head sometimes.”
Clarence then turned his focus to the subject of Mack. Tommy fidgeted in his chair and looked to his mother with every question, his vague answers offered up in the stilted monotone of a schoolboy reciting his spelling words.
“When was the last time you saw your father?”
“In the smokehouse.”
“No, I mean before the accident.”
He shrugged. “He goes off a lot.”
“Where’s the ladder that leads to the loft in the barn?”
“Did you see any blood in the barn when you helped your mother move Mack to the smokehouse?”
“Did your father store any tools or anything in the loft?”
“I don’t know.”
“When was the last time Mack hit you, Tommy?”
He looked away and didn’t answer.
“Did you put your father’s boots on his feet?”
Tommy looked down at the floor and rocked back and forth in his chair. His hands fidgeted in his lap.
“Mama? Can I go now?”
“Not yet, son,” Clarence said. “Did Mack have his boots on when you first saw him in the barn?”
He rocked harder and shook his head. “I didn’t want to do it,” he said quietly. “But Mama told me to, so I had to.”
Clarence’s adrenaline surged at the boy’s words. He looked over at Mary. Her face had turned ashen, and beads of sweat dotted her forehead. He put his pen down and sat on the edge of the couch.
“Do what, Tommy? What did your mother make you do?”
“Put his boots on him!” he wailed, and tears welled in his eyes. “I didn’t want to do it! His feet were cold and dirty. I don’t—I don’t like touching dirty things.”
Mary said, “Tommy, that fire’ll need tending to soon. Why don’t you go outside and chop some more wood.” Clarence didn’t object. The boy pulled on his coat and lumbered out the front door.
Sheriff Rawls turned to Mary, his notebook still open to the same page. He didn’t think the boy had any knowledge of his father’s death, other than what his mother had told him.
“Kind of hard to believe a man walks barefoot into a barn in this weather.” He paused to let the words sink in. “Is there any part of your statement you’d like to revise, Mrs. Doogan?”
Mary stared at the floor for a long moment. Then she said, “Mama told me I could trust you.”
Clarence’s brow furrowed. “What?”
“She said if I was to ever get in trouble, to call you.”
He shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“My mama was Lila Mills.”
Clarence couldn’t hide his shock and surprise. He stared at the slight woman sitting next to him. “You’re—you’re little Mary Mills?”
It had been thirty years since he’d last seen the child, clinging to her mother’s leg in Lila Mills’ kitchen as he’d asked the required routine questions. He’d been there many times before. A different neighbor had called this time, the new ones two doors down who didn’t know about Ed Mills’ propensity to lay hands on his wife. No amount of cajoling could sway Lila; she again declined to press charges.
The next time he’d seen Lila Mills was at the morgue. She did manage to get off a winning shot with her husband’s own revolver before she died. But that was little comfort to the still-wet-behind-the-ears rookie who had been unable to convince the pretty, petite Mrs. Mills, who reminded him so much of his mother, to leave her husband. For years after the tragedy, he berated himself that he should have done more. He had no idea what became of the pig-tailed little girl who smiled shyly at him whenever he pulled out a piece of hard candy from his pocket and held it out to her – until now.
“I tried,” he whispered. The words were out of his mouth before he realized he’d said them.
He looked up to find Mary staring at him. He cleared his throat. “Where did you go after your mother died?”
A flurry of depressing images filled his mind as Mary gave her rambling answer. She was first sent to a state-run facility in nearby Wellington; then a distant aunt in the western part of the state; then to a string of foster homes. At the tender age of sixteen, she’d met and married Mack Doogan, a man nearly fifteen years her senior. A year later, she had Tommy.
Clarence did the calculations in his head. Mary Doogan was in her early thirties. She looked much older.
“Mack couldn’t hold down a steady job,” she continued. “We moved around a lot. When his uncle up and died a few years back, he moved us in here. He was gone most the time. I know he was running moonshine, but we never saw none of that money. Me and Tommy get by on his disability check from the state. That and the hogs we sell every spring and fall.”
She stopped talking and looked away. A flush of crimson colored her neck and cheeks. “There I go ramblin’ on again. Mack always said I talk too much for my own—”
“Why did you call me, Mary?”
She stared at him for a moment. Then her face crumpled and she leaned forward on the couch and held her head in her hands. “I didn’t know what else to do!” she cried, as tears rolled down her cheeks.
Clarence placed a reassuring hand on the small of her back and said, “Mary, listen to me. If you killed him in self-defense, you won’t be held accountable. But you need to tell me what happened.”
“It—It all happened so fast,” she said. Then her story came gushing out.
She had no idea what she had done wrong to set Mack off. He came stumbling through the door that morning, reeking of booze. He’d been gone for days. Tommy had already left for the lumber mill. She took a carton of eggs from the refrigerator. That was the last thing she remembered before she came to on the kitchen floor, broken eggs scattered around her, with her housedress rucked up around her waist and Mack passed out naked on their bed.
The next thing she knew, she was sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch in the freezing cold with a bloody axe in her hands.
“When I realized what I had did,” she said, “all I could think about was cleaning everything up before Tommy got home. I couldn’t have him seeing that.”
It had taken hours, she told him. She managed to get Mack dressed and roll his body off the bed onto a canvas tarp laid out on the floor.
“That’s when his nose broke.”
She tied several lengths of sturdy rope around the body and drug him into the barn, where she left him. Her next task was cleaning up the mess. By the time Tommy got home that night from the lumber mill, her hands were raw from scrubbing the bedroom floor with bleach. She burned the tarp and bedclothes.
“I made up the story of how Mack fell out of the loft,” she said. “It don’t take much for Tommy to believe. I covered Mack’s head and face with a towel so’s Tommy couldn’t see the mess. Then we drug him into the smokehouse and laid him out on the table.”
She shook her head. “That’s when I realized I’d forgot to put Mack’s boots on. By that time, my ribs felt like they was on fire and I could barely move. So I told Tommy to do it. I didn’t wait to make sure he put them on right.”
Tears welled in her eyes as she looked up at Clarence for the first time since she began her story. “My Tommy’s a good boy,” she said softly.
Something in the tone of Mary’s voice and her curious choice of words made him reconsider the woman sitting beside him. What he saw in the form of Mary Doogan was a good woman, a spent woman, beaten but not yet broken by life's cruel circumstances, hanging on by one thin thread for the mentally crippled young man chopping firewood outside.
Had she ever had any choices in her life?
Sheriff Rawls got up from the couch and went across the room to the tiny window above the kitchen sink. He stood there for a long time, staring out at the falling snow. At this rate, the area would have a foot or more by nightfall. Protocol demanded that he drive to the top of the ridge and alert the medical examiner in Huntsville on his car radio. More privacy and better reception. But he knew he wouldn’t make the call.
He couldn’t save this woman’s mother years ago, or even his own. But he could save this one now.
He turned back to the couch and picked up his hat and held it in front of him. “Looks like everything appears to be in order here,” he said. “I’ll be on my way.”
Unable to hide her surprise, Mary jumped up. Her hands immediately went to her ribs. Her face turned a pasty white. When her color returned, she said, “Wh—what do I do about Mack? I told Tommy not to tell anyone about Mack’s accident, but he’s not too good at keeping secrets.”
“Does anyone else know your husband’s dead?”
She shook her head. “No. Mack’s kinfolk, they’re all gone. And mine—well, there ain’t nobody left around these parts.”
Clarence was silent for a long moment. Then he said quietly, “Cover him up and keep him locked in the smokehouse until the first thaw. Then take him somewhere and bury him deep. And don’t ever tell a soul.”
Before she could reply, Clarence placed his hat on his head and walked out into the swirling flakes.
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