“Bear,” Ellison’s wife called. She had just come back from the kitchen with a plate in one hand and her phone in the other.
“What is it?”
Nguyet put her phone in her pocket and took a seat on the salmon-colored leather sofa on the end cushion, next to her husband’s recliner. Ellison was nearly halfway finished with his dinner of pork chops, string beans, and applesauce with cinnamon. A baseball playoff game droned on from the flat screen TV. Nguyet smiled, placed her plate in her lap, and commenced sawing through her pork chop.
“You’re a grandfather,” she announced as she cut.
“Oh, that’s wonderful.” Bear set his fork and knife down and lowered the volume with the remote. He waited while Nguyet sectioned everything on her plate before she continued, which was her custom.
“I’ve decided, then,” she finally said.
“What have you decided?”
She took three bites from her plate, then dabbed the napkin against her lips. “Don’t you think it’s time?”
“Time for what?” Ellison asked.
“I don’t, Nguyet.” The sheriff picked up a pork chop with his fingers. “Time for what?”
“Don’t you think it’s time to start a new chapter in our life?”
“We talked about this, already. I’m not running for re-election.”
“The election is a long ways off.”
“It’ll be here before you know it. I can retire, then.”
“What is the point of staying on until then?”
“The point is that I have a job to do, Nguyet.”
Nguyet studied her plate, stirring her greens.
“But I do mean it,” Ellison continued. “I’m done when my term is up.”
“Just leave now. Let’s go see our granddaughter. Let’s go tomorrow, together.”
“It’s tempting, Nguyet. Believe me.”
“You have a pension, savings. You don’t need to work anymore. You don’t need this, these people always blaming you for everything, saying all those nasty things.”
“Who would be sheriff, then?” Ellison asked.
“There will always be another sheriff. What about Ken? You say he’s ready. Maybe Frenchie would come back.”
“It’s almost over. Hang in there.”
“Well, I’ve already made up my mind,” declared Nguyet.
Ellison’s phone rang. He glanced at the screen, examining the incoming number. “I have to get this,” he explained quickly, raising the phone to his ear. “Bear here. I see…I see… This was not the time and place we agreed on… I’m very disappointed that I wasn’t informed in advance.”
Nguyet stood up and took her plate to the kitchen, listening to her husband while he talked.
“No… That’s terrible news!” Ellison sounded shocked. “How could this have happened? No, I should be the one… Yeah, hold on, I’m heading there right now.”
“What happened?” Nguyet called from the kitchen as she scraped her plate.
“I’ll tell you tomorrow. I have to go. I’ll be late so don’t wait up.” Ellison was still wearing his work pants. He dressed quickly, pulling his uniform shirt back on, followed by his sidearm, his hat, and his coat.
“Bear…” Nguyet called, but he just smiled at her and left.
Ellison pulled out of his driveway under the stars and took the state highway south towards Salida, past the razor wire and guard towers of the penitentiary, whose grounds were brightly lit against the night. The long, straight highway thrust into the darkness, and the silhouettes of the mountains burst upwards, black against the starry night sky.
The drive afforded him some time to reflect. What had he achieved in his sixty years? He had made sheriff, that was something, but its significance was fading with each day. The job itself wore on him, especially the tasks such as the one that awaited him at the end of the road in Salida.
Nguyet was probably right. Perhaps it was time to quit.
Ellison won the sheriff position by 37 votes in a special election held to replace the beloved Frenchie Francione, who was forced to abdicate due to a heart condition. At first glance, you wouldn’t have thought Frenchie would have amounted to much of a leader. Short. Fat. Bald. Squeaky-voiced. But the people rallied around him.
“There’s something lovable in every man,” Frenchie would say. “Bringing it out is the secret to success.”
Francione and Ellison were never personally close, despite the decade they worked together. Ellison was efficient and competent, and that was reason enough for Frenchie to keep him around. Working relationships have less to do with merit and personality and more to do with the utility the subordinate provides the boss. Ellison was a dutiful deputy and undersheriff who did Frenchie’s bidding, but Frenchie was much more personable to his other subordinates and colleagues.
Frenchie had many friends – friends who kept his political enemies and stalking opportunists at bay. He had friends on the right and friends on the left, friends on the up-and-up and friends in the shadows. He was at the height of his power when he was forced to retire due to bypass surgery. The Prince of Calumet reluctantly resigned, settling down with his wife Astrid on his ranch in the southeastern corner of the county.
When the ailing Francione left, Ellison thought it a no-brainer to throw his hat in the ring for sheriff. There was no one else as experienced as he was. His resume was faultless, and he assumed he would run unopposed. But he soon discovered that politics is not a meritocracy. Sheriff positions, even in small mountain counties, are coveted offices, cherished by the urban party machines. Ellison learned that he had taken Frenchie’s buoyant personality and talent for making connections for granted. He had assumed, incorrectly, that those aspects were secondary to success.
He fashioned himself as an independent, but he was compelled to join the political machine in order to stave off electoral assault. Furthermore, the tight election required Ellison to engage in what he perceived to be the indignity of panhandling for votes, which he had to do right up to the very day of the election. It should not have been so difficult that he needed to hand out cards, pins, and stickers at convenience stores and diners. He considered throwing in the towel at one point, but the machine educated him that he would soon find himself unemployed after the race, as the new sheriff wouldn’t want anyone on his team of questionable loyalty. Ellison pressed on to victory, but the reality of politics scarred him.
“The scum always rises to the top.”
This was another of the many morsels of unsolicited wisdom spooned out by Frenchie Francione. Ellison wasn’t exactly sure what he meant by it, but it resonated nevertheless. Was Frenchie referring to Frenchie? Was it some sort of confession? Or was it a warning? An insult, perhaps? Whatever it meant, it stuck with Ellison, popping into his mind time and time again after he rose to sheriff.
Ellison’s reign didn’t get any easier. Calumet County had known only one murder in the twenty years prior to his election. There had been six or seven since he took office, depending on how one tallied the killings at the Alco. The Gazette’s cantankerous editor was comparing the Ellison term to the wild days of the silver rush, where gunslingers, bandits, and Ute Indians terrorized the peaceful Christian homesteaders – all mythology, of course, but it made for good copy. Visitor numbers were declining. Hotel occupancy was down. Outfitters and guides were feeling the pinch. This had more to do with the general economic malaise than the recent spate of murderous violence, but public perceptions are the reality for any politician. It reflected badly on Ellison and on what would soon be his legacy when he retired. Each crime was solved, yet he was being held accountable for the trend. The pressure mounted.
Ellison finally reached the Salida Regional Medical Center and entered through the emergency room. A nurse directed him to the ICU, her grim expression betraying her thoughts. She knew where the sheriff was headed without even having to ask him. Ellison had made innumerable visits to that hospital. He’d seen far too many people sent there…people who he knew wouldn’t make it. Most of them were victims of car crashes, their bodies wrecked by high velocity rapidly decelerated by steel and concrete. One of his jobs as sheriff was to inform the families summoned to the hospital of the terrible news.
Too many times, he thought. And each time, the routine became more and more difficult.
Ellison stopped at a curtain and checked his watch. He had been beyond that curtain before, and had never witnessed any joy there. Drawing it back, he peered in. The patient was propped up in bed, with numerous tubes and wires hanging out of him. The sheriff scratched his neck, sighed, and removed his hat. As the patient heard him, their eyes met.
“Mr. Turcot?” Ellison asked.
“Yes sir,” Monte groaned.
The sheriff stepped in and took the chair next to the bed.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” continued Monte.
“Of course you didn’t.”
Monte looked away and closed his eyes. Ellison swallowed, his thumbs kneading away at the rim of his hat.
“There…there’s been a terrible accident.”
Monte made no gesture or motion. His eyes remained closed.
“Monte, your wife has passed away.”
The injured man’s only visible response was a clenching of his left fist. His face remained flat and featureless, as if he were asleep.
“I’m very sorry for your loss, Monte. I really am.” Ellison’s face fell. He had endured these encounters many times but this one wounded him, deeply. This was no drunken highway accident, no stupidly or carelessly self-inflicted mortality. This had been a shooting by law enforcement…an accidental shooting, utterly avoidable and unnecessary. Ellison could not compartmentalize the death of Megan Turcot. He was supposed to have been present when the raid occurred, and he could have prevented what had happened. He wanted to tell Monte this, but it seemed self-indulgent at this moment, so he buried it down inside.
Monte opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. “She was pregnant,” he murmured.
Ellison shook his head to acknowledge the additional tragedy. Monte closed his eyes again and turned his head away. The sheriff knew that he was done talking.
“Monte, I’m going to leave you my card,” he said. “We can talk about this when you are able…if you want to. I want to help you. I want to do everything I can for you.” That was as far as Ellison could go. He got up, placed his card on the stand and left. On the way out, he asked the nurse if anyone from the DEA had been by.
“Haven’t seen them, Sheriff,” she answered.