Selfmade men always do a lopsided job of it, and the sheriff had come out conspicuously short on the capacity to sympathize with anyone but himself. No doubt ears still were burning at the Fort Peck end of the telephone connection; he'd had to tell that overgrown sap of an undersheriff he didn't give a good goddamn what the night foreman said about dangerous, get the thing fished out of the river if it meant using every last piece of equipment at the dam site. This was what he was up against all the time, the sheriff commiserated with himself during the drive from Glasgow now, toward dawn. People never behaving one bit better than they could get away with.
Die of eyelids, you could on this monotonous stretch of highway down to the dam, he reminded himself, and cranked open the window for night air to help keep him awake. He'd been up until all hours, sheriffing the town of Glasgow through the boisterous end of another week, and had barely hit bed when the telephone jangled. Catch up on sleep, the stupid saying went, but in five years as sheriff he had yet to see any evidence that the world worked that way, ever made it up to you for postponement of shuteye and all the other --
The cat-yellow shapes of bulldozers sprang huge into his headlights, causing him to blink and brake hard as he steered onto the approach to the dam. Past the bulks of earthmoving equipment parked for the night, on the rail spur stood a waiting parade of even more mammoth silhouettes, flatcars loaded high with boulders to be tumbled into place on the dam face. Then, like a dike as told by a massive liar, Fort Peck Dam itself.
The sheriff hated the sight of the ungodly pyramid of raw dirt that the dambuilders were piling across the throat of the Missouri River. He hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt for this project and its swarm of construction towns, if that's what you wanted to call such collections of shacks, and the whole shovelhead bunch down here who had to cut loose like rangutangs every Saturday night. Damn this New Deal crap. Wasn't there any better way to run a country than to make jobs out of thin air, handing out wage money like it was cigarette papers? The sheriff hated having to call himself a Democrat, though he knew that a person couldn't even get elected to town idiot these days without that tag.
By now he was nearing the floodlights, could see the workbarge with its crane arm poised and the cluster of men at the truck ramp where it must have happened. He crept the patrol car along the crest of the dam and when he parked made it a point not only to leave the car in gear but set the emergency brake, hard as he could yank it. Before heading down to the group at the water's edge, though, the sheriff stopped and took a long look east across the river, past last month's trouble here, to the bankside promontories of bluffs and badland ravines emerging in dawn outline like scissored shadows.
One thing Sheriff Carl Kinnick loved was his jurisdiction, his piece of the earth to tend justice on. The upper Missouri River country, or anyway the seventy-five-mile series of bends of the river that Valley County extended north from, like a castle footed into a seacoast. Kinnick's own climb up through life began beside this river, familyless boy mucking out barns and calcimining chickenhouses, working up to the haying jobs, the alfalfa-seed harvest jobs, up and up, squirreling every loose cent away until he had enough to make his start in Glasgow, the county seat. After that there was no stopping him, of course, but he'd always felt -- still did feel -- somehow that first lift into career, into politics (or as he preferred to think of it, law enforcement) had come from the spell of the river. As far as Carl Kinnick was concerned, the Missouri with its broad fast flow and its royal-green cottonwood groves and the deep bottomland that made the best farming in eastern Montana, the Missouri had been next thing to perfect the way it was. Until this Fort Peck project. Until this giant federal dike to put people to work with the excuse (benefit, the Roosevelters were always calling it) of stopping floods in the states downriver all the way to St. Louis. The sheriff believed it would be fitting justice if everything and everybody downriver dried up and blew away.
Duty. He picked his way from boulder to boulder down the riprap face of the dam to the cluster of men waiting for him. He nodded only to the night foreman. The owl-shift workers all had turned to watch him arrive, the bibs of their overalls fencing him in. The sheriff was the shortest by half a head in any group, and how he felt about that can be guessed.
Singling out his undersheriff, without preamble he asked what was delaying matters.
"We've about got it up, Carl, honest. The diver had a hell of a time with it in the dark down there."
The sheriff bit back an impulse to tell the big scissorbill that excuses are like buttholes, everybody's got one. Instead he folded his arms and rocked back and forth on the small heels of his boots while watching the crane at work. Its cable into the water was being reeled in by the operator on the barge, the steel strand making a steady low hum through the intricate pulleys of the boom arm, until suddenly -- a lot quicker than the sheriff expected, actually -- a wallowing sound came and then the splash of water falling away as the surface was broken upward by a Ford truck.
I've seen some lulus since I got myself elected to this badge, Kinnick thought as the vehicle dangled from the cable hooked around its front axle, water pouring from the wide cab and box as if a metal trough had been yanked straight up by one end. But I never had to put up with them wrecking themselves on the bottom of the river before.
For a moment he hoped the Ford's cab would be empty, then canceled that at the prospect of having to drag this river, lake, whatever this stretch of the Missouri amounted to anymore, for a body. Maybe, just maybe there hadn't even been anybody in the truck when the thing rolled down the ramp and plunged into the water about an hour after midnight. The section watchman swore he hadn't heard a motor running, only the splash; then when he raced over, he'd seen only what appeared to him in the lack of light to be the cab and boxboards of a truck going under. Maybe this was only a case of a poorly parked rig that coasted loose somehow. But if there wasn't some brand of human misbehavior involved in a truck visiting the bottom of the Missouri on a Saturday night at Fort Peck, Sheriff Kinnick was going to be plentifully surprised.
The Ford ton-and-a-half twisted slowly in the air like cargo coming ashore. When the crane operator lowered the load as far up the face of the dam as the boom arm would reach, the men clambered to it and the undersheriff, at Kinnick's impatient nod, wrenched the driver's-side door open.
The body question was settled instantly. Plural.
The woman lay stretched behind the steering wheel but turned sideways, facing down toward where the man had slid lengthwise off the seat, headfirst under the dashboard. Both were naked.
Without taking his eyes off the dead pair, the sheriff put out an arm and, even though he knew the gesture was useless, waved back the gawking damworkers behind him. This was the moment he always searched for in a case. The instant of discovery. Any witness's first view of what had happened, right there was where you wanted to start. Now that he himself was essentially the first onto the scene of whatever this was, though, the sheriff was more than a bit uncomfortable at the lack of exactitude here. An entire circus of circumstance, here before his eyes, yet somehow not as substantial as he would have liked. As if the bunch behind him with their necks out like an ostrich farm were sopping up, siphoning away what ought to be clearer to him than it was proving to be.
Kinnick got a grip on himself and tried to fix in mind every detail of how the couple lay in the truck cab, although the woman's bare white hip, the whole pale line of her body and the half-hidden side of her face, kept dominating his attention. No blood, no wounds, at least. He forced himself to balance on the running board and stick his head and shoulders just enough into the cab to reach across the woman to the gearshift. It proved to be in neutral, which made him uneasy; with these two people occupied with each other as they'd been, how the hell had something like that happened? He knew what he was going to find next, when he tried the emergency brake lever and it of course didn't hold at all; there wasn't a truck in Montana with any wear on it that didn't have the emergency brake burned out. Which made the damned gearshift situation even more --
A cloud of colors at the corner of his right eye startled him, making him jerk his head that direction. The wet wads of their clothing, plastered to the truck's rear window. The lighter wads must be their underwear.
"You know them or don't you?" the sheriff demanded over his shoulder, annoyed that he had to drag it out of the undersheriff.
Even then the undersheriff didn't say the names of the drowned two until Kinnick backed out of the cab and wheeled on him with a hot stare. The last name, Duff, the sheriff recognized from some trouble report or another -- quite a family of them on the dam crew, a tribe of brothers and their wives, and a father, was it, into the bargain? -- but the first names meant nothing to him. That was what an undersheriff was for.
Thankful isn't the word in circumstances such as this, but Kinnick at least felt relieved that the undersheriff had named them off as a couple and that these river deaths shaped up as an accident, pure and plain. Terrible thing, but people were asking for it with behavior of the kind these two were up to out here in the middle of the --
The undersheriff still was staring into the truck, rubbing a corner of his mouth with a fist the size of a sledgehammer head, as if trying to make up his mind about something. The damworkers were overly quiet, too.
"What's the matter now?" Kinnick burst out. The little sheriff prided himself on always staying a few steps ahead in the mental department, but somehow he wasn't up with the expressions on all the rest of the men around the truck. What's got them spooked? It wasn't as if this dam had never killed anybody before. Naked and dead out in public wasn't good, nobody could say that. But you'd think it would take more than that to scandalize damworkers. Funny for a husband and wife to be out here going at it in a truck when they had a home of any kind, that was true. But Saturday night and all, who knew what these Fort Peckers were apt to get up to. So what could be out of kilter, if this couple was -- "They're married people, right? You said their names are both Duff."
The undersheriff hesitated. He hated dealing with this fierce doll of a man his job depended on.
"That's the thing about this, Carl," the undersheriff said at last. "Married, you bet. Only not to each other."
Copyright © 1996 by Ivan Doig.