Oathkeeper Chapter 18

Oathkeeper

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Chapter 18

 

Bear Ellison slammed his hand down, killing his alarm. He got up, dressed, and stepped out the door into a morning fog, then climbed into his truck and drove south, the opposite direction of the Calumet County Sheriff’s Department. After driving for a half hour, the fog lifted and the clouds began to break apart.

As the sheriff headed further south, the pines receded from the tawny valley floor, drawing back up into the foothills and north-facing slopes where they grew thick in the cool summer shade. The only trees hardy enough for the dry valley floor were the cottonwoods, clustered along the banks of the creeks and seasonal washes. The dried grasses, matted by winter snows and early spring winds, spanned the plain in a sea of rolling straw. A swarm of ten thousand black birds swirled in an undulating cloud.

The sheriff turned off the highway onto a dirt road going east. The trek took him four miles to a narrow gap passing through cliffs of gray shale. A wide canyon opened on the other side, carved out by a once mighty river – now just a meandering creek. The road bent left and hugged the cliffs, eroded through a million years of sediments. Across the valley, the southern wall sloped gently away, covered by still leafless aspen. The sun dried valley floor was dotted with yucca and cactus, and a smattering of black cattle soaking in the warmth of seminal spring.

The road pulled Ellison onward, climbing higher into a Goshen of lush alfalfa grass nurtured by tributaries that wove through it like an unraveling braid. His cruiser clanged over a cattle guard and past a barbed wire boundary fence set with lodge pole trunks and a sun-bleached bull’s skull mounted on each gate post. Immaculate bursts of white clouds sailed the cerulean sky from west to east. A pastel crescent moon climbed towards a lunar noon. Red-tailed hawks circled above, gliding, hanging from the sky by invisible lines, effortlessly scanning the shadows between the brambles far below in search of a feast. Every so often, the raptors dove down upon the voles, trapping them on the ground with their talons and hauling them up and away to be devoured.

The pickup turned onto a quartz stone drive and stopped on a cement apron loop at the door of a stucco ranch house. Ellison shut off the engine and waited for the dust to be carried off by the breeze. He got out and walked the flagstone steps up to the front door, then reached out and rang the bell.

The door opened, and a Nordic woman appeared. She was sixtyish, lean and tall, her silver hair pulled straight back, her alabaster skin mottled and coarsened by decades of the intense, high valley sun. Her piercing eyes were softened by amber safety lenses and she had a set of hearing protection earmuffs wrapped around her neck. At her side was holstered a stainless steel .357 Magnum.

“Hello Astrid,” Ellison greeted her. “Going shooting today?”

“I just got back. Frenchie’s in the den,” she explained, welcoming him in. The sheriff stepped into the quiet house onto lacquered terra cotta tile. Mrs. Francione closed the heavy paneled door behind him with hands hardened by a lifetime of bending the natural world to her will. She showed Ellison through the house to the back where the den was, swung open the French doors, and let her guest through.

The room was darkened by plantation shades and walnut paneling. A hundred framed photos filled up the walls. Many were pictures of a young Enzio “Frenchie” Francione: strapping football nose tackle with a mane of black hair, graduate, crew cut sergeant, a slightly heavier golfer, and a heavier still and balding sheriff. Mrs. Francione, also pictured, was stunning in every era of her life, crisp in posture, fastidious in attire, with pale blue eyes and an ice-dagger stare. She never smiled, at least not in any of the photos, but she did not look unhappy. The Franciones had three children: two daughters and a son, and their faces filled most of the other frames on the wall. The Francione progeny were each pugnacious and dark and good-natured-looking – archetype Italians just like their father – but they each beamed a steely aura through their mother’s Nordic eyes. They were all grown now and moved far away and had their own children, but those pictures were hung somewhere else in the house.

On the far wall hung an assortment of hunting trophies: antlers, horns, and stuffed heads. A bull elk surveyed the room with obsidian eyes, hung above the mantel on a river stone fireplace. Just aft of the hearth reclined the former sheriff of Calumet County – tanned, bald, paunchy, face hidden by his tinted lenses with their oversized gold frames. He was a little grayer then Ellison remembered him, but essentially timeless. Frenchie didn’t bother to get up when he sensed the visitor in his den. In fact, his eyes didn’t leave his phone.

“So what brings you all the way out here, Deputy?” asked Frenchie.

Ellison knew well that Francione couldn’t stand to have anyone being called “sheriff” who wasn’t him, regardless of the current state of things. “It’s good to see you again, Sheriff.”

“Go ahead. Sit down.”

Ellison took a seat on a deep leather sectional with built-in recliners and cup holders, opposite the former sheriff.

“What can I do for you?” Frenchie asked, still without lifting his eyes.

“I wanted to get your advice on a little situation I’ve got going on.”

“You have a situation?”

“I do.”

“Hmm. I’m guessing it’s one of two things,” Frenchie squawked. “Either you want to know what to do about those feds raising hell in my county, or you want to know what to do with that Monte Turcot fellow. Am I right?” He put down his phone and looked up with a grin. “Or maybe it’s both.”

“Pretty much both.”

“You know, I think I can count on one hand how many times you’ve asked me for advice. How long have you been sheriff now? Four years?”

“Do you still miss it, Frenchie?” Ellison deflected.

“Miss what? Being Sheriff? Nah!” Frenchie snarled. His compensating tone made it clear that he still did, despite his words.

“Do you still have your finger on the pulse of the county?”

“I think so.”

“So tell me what the consensus is. What’s the attitude out there?”

Frenchie sighed and adjusted his dark lenses that covered half of his face. The tint was so dark that Ellison couldn’t even see his eyes.

“Can I give you my honest opinion?” he asked.

“Of course.”

Frenchie reached for a cigar and tucked it into his mouth, then reached for his lighter. He flipped it open with a metal shwing, struck a blue flame, and lit the end. He set the lighter back down on his end table and took several puffs until each draw made the end glow bright orange. Sweet fragrance filled the den.

“Let me ask you something,” he began.

Ellison nodded.

“Do you like my job?”

“Your job?” Ellison asked.

“Do you like being sheriff?”

“I suppose.”

“It sure doesn’t seem like it.”

“Oh?”

“Are you smoking in there, Enzio?” called Astrid from another room.

Frenchie rolled his eyes. “No. I say that because it shows.”

“How so?”

“Enzio!” Astrid repeated.

“Because you look so grim all the time.”

“Grim?”

“Yeah, grim. You know, like you’re headed to a funeral or something. ”

“The job has its stresses,” Ellison explained.

“Yeah? So?”

“I’m not you, Frenchie.”

“You certainly got that right,” the former sheriff answered through several more puffs.

“I came out here for your help,” continued Ellison. “Marshals came by last night.”

“What did they want?”

Footsteps sounded from the adjacent room, and Mrs. Francione appeared in the doorway with her fists on her hips. She didn’t say anything, just stood there and glared.

“I know, honey,” Frenchie explained quickly. “I’d smoke outside, but I’m talking business, here.”

Astrid stared at him in silence.

“I said, I know.”

Still no response. A furrow formed in her brow.

“I’ll make it up to you,” Frenchie promised in a pleading tone. Ellison couldn’t tell whether he had managed to convince his wife or not, but Astrid turned and left after another few tense seconds. Frenchie sighed, took another puff, and turned back to the sheriff. “So what did the marshals want?”

“Turcot,” answered Ellison. “They want Turcot.”

“So why don’t they go get him?”

“Because I’m the only one who knows where he is.”

“I see.” Frenchie flicked the ash from the end of his cigar. “So what are they saying they want him for?”

“They want to retry him,” Ellison explained.

“I take it they didn’t like our jury’s verdict?”

“I would say no.”

“So what do you want to ask me? Do you want to know if I would hand him over,” Frenchie surmised.

“Yes. That, and other things.”

“What are the other things?”

“I’m trying to gauge how the county will react,” said Ellison.

“Now you sound like a politician.”

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“It’s never a good thing when you sound like a politician,” Frenchie took another puff, “even if you are one. Only the worst politicians make up their minds based on what their constituency thinks.”

“Can they really retry him? That’s a Fifth Amendment issue, isn’t it?”

“You think a piece of paper’s gonna stop them?” Frenchie replied. “They don’t give a damn about that. They’ll just have their lawyers find a workaround.”

“How do you feel about that?”

Frenchie took a long draw and blew out a stream of blue-gray smoke that rose and dispersed just above his bald head, then set the cigar down on the empty lowball glass on the adjacent end table. “I’ll indulge your questions, Bear.” He took his glasses off and set them on the table next to the glass, the cigar, and the lighter. “What would Sheriff Francione do? Hmm. Would I turn Turcot over, or tell them marshals to go fuck themselves? Let’s see. If I was concerned about public sentiment, I’d look like a rat selling out a local guy to some smug pricks from DC. On the other hand, if I didn’t hand him over, those marshals might make my life miserable.”

“What if they threatened to arrest you?” Ellison asked.

“Arrest me?” Frenchie laughed. “If they even suggested that, I’d kick their fat asses right on out of my county. No, they wouldn’t arrest me. Now, arrest you? That all depends on what level of respect they have for you – if they think you’ve got it in you to stand up to them, if they think you have any allies that will back you up… Do you?”

“What about the press?”

“What about ‘em?”

“I’m worried they’ll work against me and my department.”

“If you’re worried about the press, then you’re already finished,” scoffed Frenchie. “You’d better just hand Turcot over, resign, and move on out of the county, because no one here will even serve you donuts after that.”

“Can the press be managed? Can it be made to look like the feds got Turcot without my cooperation?”

“Bear, let me tell you something,” Frenchie continued. “The press? They’re just in it for the popularity contest. They don’t care one whit about anything other than seeing their name on a byline or their mug on TV. They don’t believe in anything other than their own egos. They can’t be made to tell people what you want them to. They have to want to tell them. Ego, Bear. The press wants to be acknowledged, that they have power and influence – all that Fourth Estate horseshit. They like to think they’re an important component of our democracy. Maybe that was even true forty fucking years ago, but today, they make nice with whoever has the power, whoever’s winning, because everyone loves a winner. The ones with power – the winners – they control their access, and access is their business. Now the metro guys, they don’t respect anyone in any place with less than 3,000 TVs per square mile. That means Calumet County might as well be the surface of Mars. The local guys, on the other hand, they make their living off the scraps. They’ll sympathize with you if they think you can win.”

“What will make them think I can win?”

“When the people rally for you,” answered Frenchie. “The people will let the press know if they’re with you or not. If they are, then you can pretty much do as you please.”

“And what about the network guys?”

“You’re a dusty cow town sheriff. At best, you might be a Don Quixote to them – some crazy guy with a badge, jousting windmills, a public curiosity, a freak show. They don’t give a shit about a popularity contest in Calumet County, or even Colorado for that matter. It’s a goddamn flyover state to them – ski resorts and pot shops, that’s all.”

“So what do the people think?”

“Of you?”

“Of me. Of Turcot. What do they expect me to do?”

“For starters, they aren’t going to get behind any sheriff who doesn’t want to be sheriff, whether they agree with you or not.”

“How do I convince them I want to be sheriff?” Ellison asked.

“Start by convincing yourself. Do you want to be sheriff, Bear?”

“I’ll be honest, Frenchie. I don’t like the politics.”

“A politician who doesn’t like politics? You have a problem, Bear. Winning hearts and minds is the biggest part of being sheriff. Maybe you’re looking at it all wrong. I can understand why you hate politics, all that glad-handing and keeping your enemies close and all that. But think of it like this: I hate hanging barbed wire, but I don’t hate it as much as I hate chasing my cows all over this valley. If you can’t see that side of it, then why are you doing it? If you can’t find joy in hanging barbed wire, then you shouldn’t be a rancher. You don’t want to be sheriff? Then do yourself a favor and get the hell out. Hell, I’ll come back and straighten things out. I’m bored to tears out here.” Frenchie looked and listened for Astrid, making sure she hadn’t heard that. He reached down for his cigar and took another long drag. “So what’s it gonna be?”

“I’m not quitting,” Ellison stated.

“Then change your attitude,” said Frenchie bluntly. “Listen to me. I keep tabs on you. I follow what you’re up to. What I see is you’re always reacting to everything. You’re always on defense. You’ve got to seize the initiative if you want to make any headway with this whole situation.”

“How?”

“Jesus, Bear!” Frenchie sighed. “You’re the goddamn sheriff! You’re the most powerful man in my county! Do whatever the hell you want. What do you want your legacy to be?”

“I want to be a good sheriff.”

“Oh, bullshit.”

“What?”

I want to be a good sheriff,” Frenchie mocked. “That doesn’t mean anything. What’s your reason for being sheriff, Bear? ‘Good’ is a judgment. It’s how people will describe you based on what you actually accomplish. You can’t just aspire to be good. You have to aspire to do something and let the judgment be what it is. What do you want to change, Bear? What do you want to make better? What cause do you want to champion? No one’s going to give a hootin’ hell about some civil servant who just wanted to be known as a good civil servant. What are they going to say about Sheriff Ellison after he’s gone? ‘Oh, that Sheriff Ellison, he was such a good sheriff. No sheriff ever made decisions based on public consensus as well as he did. Oh how we miss him so.’ Give me a break. You’ve got power, Bear. What do you want to do with it? Figure that out, and then go out and do it. The judgment will be what it will be.”

“I don’t know if the county will support me.”

“Stop worrying. If whatever you do is done enthusiastically, and done in their interest, they’ll see it. If you stand up for them, they’ll rally around you. Hell, they voted for you, half of them did anyway. They’ll stand up for you if you give them a reason. They don’t want to think they voted for some self-promoting, bureaucrat jackass like Chalmers. They want to feel like they invested in a leader. You’re the sheriff, the shepherd, and they’re the sheep. They want to be tended. If they didn’t want to be sheep, then they wouldn’t vote for anyone. And if they don’t vote, then you wouldn’t have to worry about them. So what do you want to do? Go figure that out.”

Frenchie went back to checking his phone while Ellison pondered what he had just said. Finally, he spoke.

“The Department of Justice…”

“What about them?” Frenchie asked, still scrolling through his phone.

“I think they’ve overstayed their welcome.”

“I wholeheartedly agree. If you want them out, and it’s in the best interests of the county, then run them bastards off. You’ll get all the support you need.”

“Any suggestions on how to do it?”

“Oh, you’ll think of something. Worst case, you got as many deputies as they have agents. And you know the terrain.”

“What are you implying?”

“That you don’t need to worry so much.” Frenchie set his phone down again. He struggled for a moment to lean forward. On the third try, he pulled his recliner upright, then put his cigar back into his mouth and took several puffs. “Bear, don’t worry. Everyone wants them gone. It feels like we’re being occupied by a foreign army. Make those feds march on out of here, and you’ll be a bigger hero than Monte Turcot ever was.” He grinned from ear to ear, a grin that he reserved only for his most trusted cohorts. Bear had never seen Frenchie smile that way towards him before.

“What should I do about Turcot?”

“What do you want to do? You ask me, the feds lost. Shouldn’t that be the end of it? Now they want a do-over? You don’t get do-overs, Bear. That’s not how the system works. They’re giving this county the finger. They’re giving you the finger. They’re wagging it right in your face, and everyone in this county sees it. Are you going to let them do that? Are you going to let them just do as they please – make a mockery of our county, our courts, our citizens, our sheriff’s department?”

“It’s complicated.”

“No. It’s black and white. You took an oath, Bear. Remember your oath? ‘I, Thomas Bear Ellison, being duly sworn, say that I will support the Constitution for the United States and the State of Colorado, and faithfully perform the duties of the office of sheriff of blah blah blah….’ Remember that?”

“I thought you said they don’t give a damn about the Constitution.”

They don’t, but I didn’t say you shouldn’t. Use it to rally the public. Look, the feds got beat and they don’t like it. They’re arrogant. Losing doesn’t even compute in their brains. They win 97% of their cases by verdict or plea bargain. That isn’t justice, it’s kangaroo courts…it’s show trials. They have infinite resources. They’re accustomed to always getting their way, and they do whatever they please. Now some hick jury finally stood up to them, and nullified them, and they throw a temper tantrum. Retrying Turcot is about sending a message, Bear. The message is that they are invincible and that resistance is futile. That visit by the marshals at your house wasn’t just about getting Turcot. It was about getting you – getting you to heel like a dog. If they showed up on my doorstep, I’d a met them with my Mossberg. Then I’d make a few calls. I’d round some people up. I’d round up a posse and chase them off.” Frenchie took another series of puffs on his cigar, making the ash grow precariously long. “That’s what I would do, Bear. You’ve got your own way of doing things. You’ve just got to do it. You’ve got to let the feds know that this is your county – Sheriff Bear Ellison’s county – and that you want those DC boys packed up and gone. Make a big goddamn populist spectacle out of it too, for the media. Let them know you aren’t giving an inch – that you’re on offense, now. Remind the feds that they’re a long, long way from home. Those agents have pensions, families, and mortgages, and dreams of high-paying desk jobs pushing papers from in boxes into out boxes. When they get to thinking about a war out here in the mountains, they’ll come to their senses.”

Ellison pondered for a moment, then stood up. “I appreciate your time, Sheriff. Thank you for your advice.”

“Don’t thank me for anything, Bear.” Frenchie reclined back in his chair and smoked his cigar. “Just go do your job…and do it like you love it.”

Oathkeeper

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