When Sheriff Jack Nevelsen got the call from the dispatcher about the accident out on Highway 284 -- single car, two fatalities -- his first thought was, kids. Teenagers. Oh, sweet Jesus, somebody's babies.
It was ten o'clock Sunday night, May 28, 1957, and Bentrock High School's senior class had graduated that afternoon. Mercer County's roads and highways were going to be traveled that night by kids going from party to party. And they were going to be drinking.
This was Jack's fear every year at graduation, that a kid -- or worse, kids, a whole car full of them -- would get drunk and try to beat a train to a crossing, or weave across the center line, and some parents' proudest day would turn into their worst. On graduation night kids drank; the ones who never drank would probably pick that night to start, and the ones who drank regularly would try to do it up bigger than ever.
So far Mercer County had been lucky. No graduation-night tragedy for them. But three years ago they came close, damn close. The kids held a big party at an area north of town known as The Haystacks, and in all the driving back and forth, a young woman missed a bridge and landed her car in a creek bed. Jack could never figure out if it was good or bad that the creek was dry.
At any rate, the drop from the bridge was not far, less than fifteen feet, and everyone got out of the car unhurt. Only minutes later, another carload of kids -- speeding around the same curve -- missed the same bridge. They didn't fall as far as the first car because they landed right on top of it. A giant hand couldn't have balanced the second car more precisely on the first.
The next morning when the tow truck winched the cars up the slope, and when Jack saw the crushed roof of the first car, Kathy Hessup's white Ford, he wondered how much luck Mercer County had used up the previous night.
So every year, come graduation time, Jack, along with Chief of Police Bagwell, tried to put the word out: Stay put and we'll leave you alone, but if you drive drunk, we're going to be on your ass.
Now it sounded as though someone hadn't gotten the word, or hadn't heeded it, and Mercer County's luck had run out.
Jack took the call on the phone in the kitchen, and before he went out to his truck, he stuck his head into the living room where his wife, Nora, was sewing and watching television.
"I've got to go out," he said. "Accident out on two-eighty-four west of town."
She didn't ask how bad the accident was, or if he knew who was involved. But that was Nora. She would know soon enough; everyone in town would. She was not in any hurry to hear bad news, and the fact that his job kept bringing it to their doorstep, like a stray dog or cat that, once fed, won't stay away, put some strain on their marriage. It was nothing serious. But often Jack could not talk with Nora about his work. If it was in the least sordid, ugly, brutal, or even unpleasant, Nora did not want to hear about it.
Starting at midnight on Friday nights, the television station in Williston broadcast Shockerama, a double feature of old horror movies, and Nora would not even stay in the room when those movies played. Jack loved them, especially the werewolf features, and if he wasn't out on patrol (he and his deputy alternated Friday nights), he brewed a pot of coffee and sat down in front of the set. He kept the volume low, but Nora, in the bedroom, still kept the door closed.
dTheir ten-year-old daughter, Angela, on the other hand, loved scary movies almost as much as Jack, and she would often put her blanket and pillow on the floor in front of the television and watch with him. She seldom lasted through the second movie, and Jack would finally carry her to bed. He remembered thinking one night, as he watched the movie's light and shadow flicker over his daughter's face, about the contrast between mother and daughter. While Nora was in the bedroom with her pillow over her ears so she couldn't hear the monster's roar, Angela slept peacefully while above her the Wolfman claimed another victim.
Ah, it was just as well Nora was the way she was. He shouldn't bring his work home with him. Wasn't that the advice he read in the law enforcement newsletter every month?
Tonight even the family dog seemed to know that it was bad news calling Jack out of the house. Muley, an aging shepherd mix, who usually ran excitedly to the door as soon as he heard the jingle of Jack's keys, did not move from his station by the stove, but merely tilted his sleepy gaze in Jack's direction.
Before he left, Jack shook three Chesterfields out of the pack, slid them into his shirt pocket, and carefully snapped the flap. He was trying to cut down on the number of cigarettes he smoked in a day, and he could best do that by not carrying the pack with him. If he had a full pack out at the accident site, he knew he'd light one right after another. He liked to smoke outside, liked the way the wind tore the smoke off in its own direction no matter how hard he exhaled, or how, when the air was cold, the smoke and the steam from his breath combined and billowed around him like a miniature cloud. He also liked to use his cigarettes to give himself a little distance. While he tried to think of what to do or say, he could strip the cellophane from a fresh pack of cigarettes, slit the foil with his thumbnail, exposing those perfect brown circles of tightly packed tobacco, knock the pack on his index finger until one cigarette jumped apart from the rest, take it out, and tap it on his lighter or the face of his watch. If he still needed more time, he could light the cigarette, inhale, exhale....By that time, he usually had considered the alternatives and their consequences and knew what course to follow.
When a particular moment became too much -- the drunk was cursing you out or the farmer was telling you why you had to arrest his neighbor -- lighting and smoking a cigarette gave you something to concentrate on besides the moment at hand -- like the look of a car or the bodies at an accident site. Jack reconsidered and put the entire pack in the pocket of his denim jacket.
As he drove out of town, Jack tried to keep his gaze aimed straight ahead. He was fighting the urge to speculate who might be lying dead out there along Highway 284, and he didn't want to start looking around for citizens, or their sons and daughters, to eliminate as possible victims. He had already caught himself once. Less than a block from the house, Jack saw Arletta Whitcomb standing under a streetlight with her dog, and he thought: There. It's not Arletta. When was she scheduled to graduate? Next year? Two years? Thank God. He would not be knocking on the Whitcombs' door tonight. But that line of thinking was no good; eventually he would land on someone's name about whom he might say to himself, why not, why not let it be him? He's been in trouble since grade school; he's going nowhere, except perhaps the state penitentiary in Deer Lodge....That line of thought, as far as Jack was concerned, was damn near the same as wishing someone dead. And how Christian was that?
Jack let his thoughts spin for a moment until they settled themselves on a subject that allowed him to think about the accident but not the victims or their identity: he wondered where the white crosses would be. Whenever a fatality occurred in a highway accident, a white cross was planted at the site, one cross for each death. Cautioning other travelers was the idea, to tell them that someone had died here, because of speed or carelessness or hazardous road conditions or simply bad luck. No doubt it made sense and had an effect -- you approached that railroad crossing and saw five crosses bristling up from the weeds alongside the tracks and perhaps you looked carefully before proceeding. But were those five crosses from five separate accidents, indicating that here was a crossing where trains came out of nowhere, or were all the crosses from only one accident, from the night five teenagers heard the Empire Builder's whistle and saw its light but still thought they could beat it to the crossing? What if you drove a highway only once, and by the time you noticed that single cross in the ditch you were already past it -- what lesson could you take from that? Jack had seen bouquets of those crosses in places so dangerous they made you nod your head and say silently, yes, no question but that a heedless driver could meet his death here. But he had also seen crosses in places that brought nothing but puzzlement, that left you scratching your head and wondering what the hell a driver must have done to get himself killed along this ribbon-straight stretch of road.
Now two more crosses were going to be stuck in the soil of Mercer County. And who stuck them anyway? Was there a special highway department crew whose only responsibility was to visit those death sites? Or was it a regular sign crew who just kept a few white crosses in the back of the truck along with the Falling Rocks, Yield, Cattle Crossing, Dangerous Curves, and Soft Shoulder signs? Who -- or what -- marked the spot until the permanent cross was posted? What about the deaths that occurred in winter, when the earth was often frozen so deep April couldn't even finish the thaw, when the mortician had to stack the dead in an unheated Quonset hut until spring -- was there a special spring detail that traveled Montana's highways, pounding in all the white crosses that were owed the previous winter?
He couldn't help it. Those crosses made him feel as though he hadn't done his job. Each one could just as easily be flying a little pennant that said, "If Sheriff Jack Nevelsen had kept the county roads free of drunks, speeders, reckless or incompetent drivers, this cross wouldn't be here." He knew there wasn't a man, woman, or child in the county who held him accountable; nevertheless, he would take those two new crosses personally.
Copyright © 1997 by Larry Watson