The Thinning Ranks, by Tom Sheehan
History says comrades cross paths in many ways, in and out of the ranks, even in years between orders, battles and resolutions, and when Dutch Trainor went down for the final count, Brownie Latefox was there again, Dutch the undertaker on the floor of another undertaker’s funeral home. Death, on the edge for so long, hanging on for more than half a century, had come home to roost. But Brownie Latefox, Lakota Indian, who daily noted the passing of World War II vets at a heightened acceleration in the town and elsewhere, had reservations about the cause of death of his old pal.
The ugly bit and the hero background with Brownie Latefox came up biggest when old comrades, one by one from all across the country, wandered into the vets bar where he worked. They came to connect again with the man who was responsible for the mini-reunions in every case. Brownie Latefox had saved a squad that saved a battalion that saved a regiment that saved a division that saved a battle that won the war. They all knew it. To the last visitor that came into the bar, they all knew it. “A good thing,” many of them said, “the bad-ass Indian was on our side.”
Some of the guys at the bar, regulars from town, members of the Vets Post, as well as some of the vets who traipsed in from around the country, thought Brownie really was ugly as sin; others knew he was warm as embers in a campfire, refusing to let go old comrades. In all instances, he was called Brownie. He had a Rushmore-wide face, broad and sweeping, history on board for the long ride, drills and hammers at it from his beginning. It carried many messages if you were a reader of faces, could plumb bottoms and reach heights, know the differences and measure them. The whole structure of his face stretched with legend and bloodline, showed it open and broad as daylight, and set off a look in his eyes like a puma checking prospects.
There were times his malevolent stare over the bar unseated a drinker from his stool, that stare reserved for “special” people, as Brownie described them.
A bit of the deep regard for Brownie fell away when a few people realized for the first time he was a Lakota Indian, full blooded by the looks but the scalp pole hidden away. Those are the people that he could read in a matter of minutes after they sat at his bar and noticed some of the tribal photos hanging on the wall behind him, found their true beliefs … as did the man looking them in the eye, pouring their mixed drink, setting up a tall cool glass of suds, or swapping weather greetings if the weather was their engaging topic.
He could wave it all off, buoyed by his long experience as a bar keep and an in-built compendium of sorts he used as spare change in conversation. He pulled up retorts that said, “That’s a topic for the tropics,” or “That’s all for the fall,” or “Spring’s the thing, my man,” or “You gotta know in the snow.” Newcomers sat up at his word play, but the old hands waited for the new stuff they knew was sitting just behind the counter on a special shelf of Brownie Latefox’s menu.
Brownie was engaging to many people, but, as it proved, not to all.
Truth of the matter came when Brownie fell down the scale, on a trumped up excuse, and nobody leaped to the rescue; the way life itself often drops the ball in a big game. The deed could have burned a lesser man, but he he’d been the Top Kick in the Big Red One in Europe, then the barkeep at the Vets Bar for years, until the day of the big fall, the insinuating declaration that his being an Indian was a drag at the bar. Brownie said “stuff it” and got a job digging graves at the cemetery. He might have argued it was like the old, old, old days with the white man coming on, reservations being set up, but he didn’t. Perhaps once or twice he might have voiced a concern, but other matters filled his mind.
As a lot of the old vets were dying off pretty rapidly, time choking down on them, Brownie had a hand in saying goodbye at the cemetery, even if it was not formal. And when Dutch Trainor, the funeral director of his own place, fell down at a wake of one of the club members at the only other funeral parlor in town, at Bud Holbrook’s place, the county medical examiner was right there to pronounce the death as natural. “From a heart attack,” he said. He made the pronouncement on Dutch on the spot and signed the death certificate for his widow and town and county records. Bud Holbrook started right off to get ready for the funeral of another vet.
It went quick, a charade in a rush, and Holbrook bought Dutch’s place for peanuts, as they say, from Dutch’s wife. She was in the same hurry to take a deep breath on the rest of her life. It was like Dutch had said, she didn’t have many brains but she was wild in bed. He’d say it with his eyes closed and those around him tried to see old Dutch and how he kept Cindy Sue alive and well and on the road to you know where … which was always later in the night coming around.
One of the guys said, once after a splendid closed-eye remembrance, “Dutch, you’re the one oughta be friggin’ dead yourself.”
The funny thing was Brownie was there that night when Dutch went down, and wondered why there was a blood remnant on Holbrook’s rug when he went to a wake for another old vet the next day. It set him thinking no end. No, it took him over, and Brownie, down in the hole, digging out a grave for Dutch, kept seeing something wrong with the whole thing, knowing he had ridden to the doc’s with Dutch who got a clean bill of health only a few weeks earlier. They had taken the ride together to the VA hospital, sharing as they did small bits of government goodies.
But Dutch was put down in a hole Brownie dug near the river end of the cemetery. He was saying his own goodbyes before Dutch even got there. An old scenario came back to Brownie, him heading onto Omaha Beach with his company and there’s his pal Dutch as part of the boat crew and they shook hands before Hell was upon them. Every clip of that mental film came up in the hole.
Three days later, after the burial, the rain started and it came down for a week, and north of them all along the border of the state the rivers began rising and running over. The flooding eventually slewed right against the lower part of the cemetery where Dutch was at home. The water kept rising. It clawed over the banks, tearing them apart, and then sat like rot in the cemetery for three weeks as the rain continued. The spring melt was also in the act way up-country, river banks and old dams taking the worst beating along the line.
Surprise was afoot one morning, with the rain still beating down. If it was drying out anyplace, it was at the end of somebody else’s rainbow. The phone call came at the police station and a cemetery neighbor said, “Caskets are floating loose down there. It’s like a small boatyard, at the lower end of the cemetery, along the river.”
The situation was a real mess.
And Brownie, when things slowed down with the water levels, found Dutch’s casket on its side, Dutch on his own with the cover open, Dutch the old Navy Chief in the water again. Brownie tried to push him back into the box and realized Dutch hadn’t been dressed in his suit. It had been dropped in place on him, like a mannequin asleep in a goddamned window display. The jacket was sliced on the back side and draped on him, as was his shirt, and his pants, and them only to the knees. The clothes had gone to rags now, slopping wet, caught up on knobs and joints and bone, bearing the muck of Earth.
Brownie was bullshit. Bullshit! It grabbed him right by the throat. He never liked Holbrook, a guy who never let the Indian thing go from his hands or his lips, always the smirk, chin and nose too high in the air for a guy who made his living putting corpses in the ground.
“The Lakota never cries.” He’d said it a number of times. But he was down there with the floating caskets finally landed and he was crying like a baby. It was like a storm at sea had come in and wasted half the Atlantic’s small boat fleets. Like hurricanes toss boats high and dry. With soft hands and deep respect, Brownie tried to push Dutch back home, into his box. That’s when he saw the remnants of a raw gaping wound on his backside, a knife wound. He’d seen them before, inflicted a few himself in hand-to-hand, did so on the day of his highest commendation, the day of the ultimate warrior.
This one was different.
That raw-looking wound said it outright … his comrade Dutch Trainor had been murdered.
Dressing him best as he could, nerves bouncing in his hands brittle as live wires, Brownie put Dutch home. He’d put dozens of men down, in the war and in the cemetery. Now, on this revolting matter, he’d keep his mouth shut for the time being, but he’d not let go of the information he had uncovered. Patience was needed. But that meant slowly poking his nose into the business of Holbrook and the medical examiner. Right at first it didn’t go very far in Brownie’s mind other than Cindy Sue keeping Dutch alive and kicking until someone took the time to end it all. One of the reasons was obvious, for Dutch’s ribald compliments about his wife were renowned. The irony of it all crawled all over the stoic Lakota.
Simple assessments about Holbrook brought uneasiness to Brownie; stories said he moved to quick to the side of grieving widows, especially those without children and with lots of money in the background, at hand or coming. Those assessments hit Brownie right in the face, shadows around the last man to touch a human being as he was put down in the earth, at liberty with the worms or his gods.
Holbrook, without fail, quick as a weather change, had moved right onto the inside track with Cindy Sue, setting up his nephew, a good looking young guy, in Dutch’s old place. A short time later Brownie heard, from another old bartender a few towns away, that Holbrook and Cindy Sue came in a couple of times a week and they’d be all over each other on the dance floor, “Never mind the booth in the far corner,” the bartender said. More than once she went down out of sight in that booth.”
Of course, that sat like a burr under Brownie, but he couldn’t run at Holbrook about the knife that went in Dutch’s back in Holbrook’s place. And he couldn’t push at Cindy Sue because she’d run right to Holbrook. So he set his sights on the medical examiner, the county guy, the phony, Elmond Dubois. Brownie found out his likes and dislikes, where he went, when, with who. He got to know him pretty good; bumping into him in places on purpose, getting friendly, shooting the shit, coming on one night and scaring the hell out of the Dubois.
“Hey, Doc,” Brownie said, “you hear anything about a murder investigation going on in town? So secret hardly anybody knows about it, but a leading citizen is suspected of killing another leading citizen. Hell, I can’t imagine who’s who in this drama, but the cops have nearly got all the wraps on something big. I hear a lot of stuff but I can’t pry loose a single name. One of my old customers is a cop, but he can’t say much about it, except what I told you. You haven’t heard anything either, have you?”
“No, I haven’t,” said Dubois, but a twitch had found space for work in his left eye that Brownie noticed on the spot. “If you hear any more, let me know. That’s an interesting story.”
Brownie thought it sounded like, “Time to pack the bags.” He’d keep tabs on Dubois.
Dubois left his house shortly thereafter as Brownie sat in his car down the street. In ten minutes time Dubois drove directly to Holbrook’s Funeral Home, a one-floor building with a large parking lot and many young trees on three sides. Dubois parked his convertible in the shady area of the lot, and went into the building through a side door, Brownie the only one seeing him enter.
Brownie spelled out his options, a change for him, for he had always acted on instincts, and the quicker they came, the better the outcome. In these new options, though, Dutch was all over him. He felt the handshake from years ago as he hit the water at Omaha Beach, Dutch’s slap on the back, heard him say, “Give ‘em Hell, Chief.” He didn’t see him again for two years, all the time wondering how things had come to Dutch, there off the beach and afterward, then in his own way on the march to Germany.
With clarity diminishing, bothersome details erupting in his mind, Brownie knew he was suddenly on the dark side again, back in the mix of it. It was malevolent and persistent, part of it burning anew in him. Facts had surfaced that he didn’t want to believe; distortions, anomalies, aberrations belonging only in the old zone of near death. Where was all the good stuff in life? It was an eerie sensation that should have been all over for him when he had left the ETO years ago; now it came again, ponderous, the weight of the dark life.
Dutch was smack in the middle of it. And Holbrook, of course, and Cindy Sue. How could he not believe all that was evident? That was the block buster. It had to be more than people being people; hungers, wants, needs that rose from darkness. It had to be big as death itself. Blood. Bones. Knuckles. Joints. The whole person going down. He remembered so many deaths he had not prevented, saw fields of fallen comrades, the litter of glorious youth. Were they coming back now, as penance to bother him until his own death? Even then, would that be enough separation?
So, it said to him, “Here you are, Big Chief, trying to get out of another tight situation. What next?”
Down and dirty he figured, like the old days. Don’t give a job to somebody that you wouldn’t do yourself. If you want it done, do it yourself. He was full of the old sentiments, the old platitudes and wished he could look in the window and see what was going on with Holbrook and Dubois, what the next leverage might bring. Distaste as vile as possible rose in his throat, thinking about the pair of them, and he had not even rung Cindy Sue in on the latest equation. He wondered what his next move should be. That’s when an ambulance roared down the street and pulled up in front of another old comrade’s house. He saw the knife again, in Dutch’s back, saw it twisted so much that he felt the pain.
He was afraid death had come around again, and in close vicinity.
Up and at ‘em mostly forever, Brownie walked straight into Holbrook’s establishment and said, “Hi, gents, I just saw the ambulance go down to Crockett’s house. I’ll bet Harry’s wife’s had one of those episodes again. She’s been close so many times.”
The other two, looking quizzically at each other, nervous to say the least, said nothing. Holbrook looked too smooth to be jumpy, but he was, and the medical examiner took on added color in his face. Brownie recalled a tribal elder, years back, saying that all truth is announced by the face before it is spoken, “And so the lie is hidden there too.”
His own face, he realized, said he was musing, mulling over what next to say, so he took a flyer at the whole situation. “Looks like there’s more business right at your doorstep, Bud. Maybe more business than usual.”
He let the knife edge of his words slip into place, and stay there, as he looked at Dubois and then back at Holbrook in an open-faced declaration that he knew monkey business was afoot. Once before, in all his life, he had transferred the deep hatred in his soul for another man. That had happened in a face-to-face knife struggle with a German sergeant, a look of such hatred and inflammation that a soul would shrink and run from it. He never had illusions about his facial looks, knowing how ugly it must look to people at first glance, but now he must depend on its basic ugliness, and its inherent power. He unleashed it, not at the usually suave undertaker, who had learned to fend off many insinuations and complaints, but at the medical examiner who mostly dealt first with the sudden dead, who’d normally be in the loop before the undertaker got to dress the body for viewing.
It stuck there, on Dubois’ face, and Brownie could feel fear looking for an outlet, and blood in an erratic search for composure.
“I’m going to check on Harry and his wife. See you folks soon again.” He waved. “Have a day of it.”
From the front of Crockett’s house, he could look back and see Dubois, moments later, leave Holbrook’s parking lot and head straight for home. Brownie turned the ignition key in no great hurry; time, he knew, would exact certain demands from the guilty.
Brownie made a call on his cell phone and talked most of the way to Dubois’ house.
Ten minutes later, Dubois pulled into his driveway, and Brownie drove in right behind him.
Red-faced, jittery, Dubois said, “What are you doing here, Brownie? I’ve got business to attend to. We’ve already had one talk today.”
“You got monkey business to attend to, Dubois.” He leveled the fearsome stare. “I’ve got a couple of Lakota Reservation detectives on their way into town to check up on a few things, things that look mighty fishy to me and a few others. They do it different, you know, those range detectives, kind of mean and right at it. They don’t ask so many questions; they just point out things loud and clear to all interested parties, which include the police chief and the chief of detectives, all local stuff you understand. What they really do is scare things right to the top of the barrel where it’s all right there for the looking.”
“Why should Lakota Reservation detectives be coming around here? They have no authority here in town.”
“They have anyplace there’s been murder committed and they can smell it. That’s the thing with those boys, it’s in their blood. They can smell a puma up a tree or a rat in his hole quick as all get-out. You wait and see.”
“What murder you talking about, Brownie?”
“Dutch’s murder, Dubois. Dutch’s murder.”
“I pronounced that one, Brownie. It was natural causes, an old-fashioned heart attack. Happens to a lot of old people.”
“Yes, Mr. Medical Examiner, but not with a knife in the back.”
“That’s foolish. What the hell are you talking about? I saw no knife.” He was pale as he ever was. “How can you say anything about a knife? I saw no knife, I’m telling you.”
“Never saw it? Maybe so, but you better get your story straight before the range detectives get here, and the police chief. You’re sitting on the wrong end of the stick, Dubois. They’ll see that right away. They’ll get you for murder or as an accomplice to murder. What did Holbrook say about how Dutch died, right at his feet? That’s what you have to remember, and tell it like it was.”
“He said that Dutch grabbed his chest and said, ‘Bud, I think this is it.’ Said he grabbed a handful of shirt and went down. Heart attack straight as it can be.”
“You took his word for it all?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“You wouldn’t if you weren’t in on something rotten going on.”
There was a knock on the door. Brownie said, “Maybe that’s the Lakota range detectives. Watch out for them, Dubois. They can smell you a mile away.”
When the Chief of Police walked in, Dubois rushed to him and said, “Bill, I did something wrong, terribly wrong but I never saw any knife.”
“You ready to sign an exhumation order?” the chief asked, primed for a full investigation since the call came in from Brownie Latefox.
“Yes, but don’t let those Indians get near me,” Dubois pleaded.
But Brownie, the ugliest Indian of all, was smiling at Dubois the whole time, even as he realized the ranks were another day thinner.
Which brings me to that last visitor, Drake Kindred, who thumbed clear across the country, from Ridgefield, Washington to Saugus, Massachusetts, about a dozen miles north of Boston and 10,000 miles from a country that no longer exists, but once sat on the sandy soil.
Tom Sheehan is now in his 85th year and still plowing ahead after serving in the 31st Regt., Korea, 1951-52 and graduating from Boston College in 1956. His books are Epic Cures, 2005, and Brief Cases, Short Spans, 2008, Press 53 (print and eBook issues); A Collection of Friends and From the Quickening, 2009, Pocol Press. He has 18 Pushcart nominations, in Dzanc Best of the Web 2009, and has 308 cowboy stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. His work has appeared in the last year in the Ukraine, Romania, Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Mexico, Canada, etc. His newest eBooks from Milspeak Publishers are Korean Echoes, 2011 and The Westering, 2012, the latter nominated for a National Book Award by the publisher. He has an Indie Award for Epic Cures, the Georges Simenon Award for fiction, and nominations for Best of the Web 2010 and 2011. He spends his days, and most of his nights, at an infernal machine that talks back to him on occasion.
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Tags: death, loss, murder, mystery