Along the Buffalo National River
He knew Denny didn’t want to talk about himself, but Jake was intrigued. Clearly, in spite of Poppy and Kate’s warning, he had underestimated him. The guy came on like a loutish dolt, but he was nobody’s fool. Not nearly as menacing as he wanted everybody to think, either.
Take Tank, for instance. The Rottweiler hadn’t joined them for the day, and when asked about it, Denny said he didn’t want Tank leaping out of the truck and grabbing the sheriff by the throat. Jake didn’t believe him. He was pretty sure the only danger around that particular dog was that he might lick somebody to death. And from what he knew about dogs, Tank likely reflected his owner’s temperament.
Denny drove carefully into a small grove of mature maples and birch, leaves thick and shiny. He positioned the Humvee well under the trees, facing the mountain where Poppy and Kate lived. After carefully scanning for dust that might indicate another vehicle in the area, he shut off the engine and the two men seated themselves atop the hood where they could see the surrounding area and talk without looking at each other.
After several minutes of listening to leaves whispering in the woods, birds whistling to one another, and the occasional haunting bugle call of a bull elk to his harem, Denny spoke, measuring out words a few at a time, as if they were drops of pure water on a parched tongue.
“I had a wife.”
Jake waited; not speaking while Denny worked his way through his own story.
“Emily Grace. Arkansas native. She went by two names like that: Emily Grace. Cherokee. Skin the color of coffee with exactly the right amount of cream. She was so beautiful! And smart.”
When he didn’t say anything for a while, Jake asked him, “Children?”
Denny shook his head. “No. We couldn’t. I mean, it just didn’t happen. Never figured out if it was her or me. We wanted to adopt. She had relatives over near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and there was a little girl there—her mother died—we could have adopted her on account of Emily Grace being full-blooded Cherokee.”
“Emily Grace.” Jake let the musical name hang on the breeze. “What happened? Did she have an accident or what?”
“Yeah. Accident. That’s what the Bureau and the sheriff’s departments in two counties want me to think.”
“They killed her.”
“Who? Why would they kill her? How did it happen?”
Denny slid off the truck and walked around to stand in front of Jake, facing him with his pain. “I’m going to tell you a story. I want you to listen real close and tell me if you can believe it was an accident.”
“Emily Grace was a photographer. Amateur, but good. She lived in these hills all her life; learned to drive on roads like the one we just came down. Went to college at the University of Arkansas, got a Master’s degree in Sociology, which qualified her to be a checkout girl at Super Foods.
“I made decent money in those days, and after we were married I told her she didn’t have to work—I didn’t want her standing all day sliding groceries across the belt and being stared at. She was so beautiful even other women liked looking at her.” Denny had gone back to pitching stones at distant posts.
Not working suited her fine. She seemed happy as a clam roaming the hills, looking for pictures. Sold some, too. Scenics, mostly. She said her best work was the black and white stuff she did, especially children. Someday she was going to put together a book with those pictures, something like ‘The Face of American Poverty’ or something. She was real tender-hearted that way.”
He started pacing, scanning the distance for telltale dust, then stood in front of Jake again, kicking at a rock with his toe. He chuckled, “What frustrated her was, when she would show her work to my sister or anybody else, they wouldn’t say anything about the pictures of dirty little poor kids. But the scenics, like a waterfall or a reflection on a lake, they’d say, ‘Why, that’s so purty it could be on a calendar.’ After a couple of times that happened, Emily Grace vowed she’d never show them another thing. I never did know why that made her so mad.”
He leaned his back against the truck, away from Jake. “You ever heard of methamphetimine, Bubba?” Jake could barely hear him.
“Meth? Sure. A lot of truckers get into serious trouble with that stuff—they use it to stay awake on the road and then they take stupid chances because they think they’re bullet-proof.”
“Well, cooking up the stuff is a cottage industry in this part of the country. It’s what landed Emily Grace at the bottom of a cliff.” Denny waited for that to settle in with Jake and went on.
“I’d come home in the evening and ask her what she’d been up to, and she’d tell me, ‘I went for a ride and shot things with my Canon—that’s the kind of camera she had. And I’d ask, ‘What did you shoot, anything we can eat?’ Usually she said ‘stuff purty enough for a calendar’ but then one day she said she came up on a little trailer house. When she drove toward it, thinking there might be some kids there, a guy came out pointing a gun at her and told her to get lost.”
He continued to gaze unseeingly at the countryside.
“I knew right away what it was. I told her it was a meth lab and she’d best stay away from anything like that.”
By now he had Jake’s full attention, and he couldn’t sit still anymore either. He jumped off the truck and started kicking some stones of his own, careful not to disturb any slithering creatures that might be lurking behind larger rocks.
“Well, a few days later,” Denny continued, “she found another one. She found three in all, and she reported them to the sheriff, which is what I told her to do…
“Of course nothing happened. I should have known it wouldn’t. So she calls this friend—she met him at the university—who lives in Little Rock. Another Cherokee, if I remember right. He works for the paper down there, writes about politics. State government, mostly.”
Jake waited without comment through long pauses during which it seemed as if Denny organized his thoughts.
“I had a bad feeling as soon as she told me she called him, but she was determined to put those labs out of business. For the kids, she said.”
He was agitated when he resumed. “This guy didn’t call back for over a week, and when he did, he told her to leave the whole thing to him. He told her, whatever you do, don’t go back to any of those places. ‘Forget you ever saw them,’ he said. She told me he sounded like he was mad at her for bringing it up.
“I begged her to let it go. I’d just started with the Bureau then, and I thought I could refer this to the right people and it would be taken care of.”
He stepped directly in front of Jake again. “Now I’ll never know whether I tipped off the wrong people, or if it came out of the sheriff’s office, or if her friend in Little Rock was in on it, but the next thing I know, the phone rings and they tell me her Explorer went over the cliff on Hogsback road and burned up with her in it.”
His eyes, black with anguish, bored into Jake’s, refusing the comfort of tears.
“Burned to death, Jake. Emily Grace.”
He took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh before filling in the facts.
“She drove a new Explorer. Four-wheel drive. Not jacked up or anything. Great driver. Absolutely competent on these roads. You tell me: Sound like an accident to you?”
So fierce was the grief in Denny’s face that Jake couldn’t bear to look at him. He stared at the stones he kicked, and shook his head slowly.
“What a waste. What a terrible waste. And to protect people who are so greedy they make money from destroying lives. I wish I could do something to help you, Denny. Something. Anything.”
Side by side, the two men leaned against the truck, staring out into the distance. For at least 30 minutes, neither spoke.
Suddenly Denny stood straight up and pointed to where four squad cars, lights flashing, barreled up the mountain toward the cabin. They disappeared around curves and behind trees, and reappeared again, dust billowing behind them. A light breeze carried an occasional faraway scream of sirens.
For Jake it was a chilling scene, but despite the intense emotion of telling his story, Denny seemed amused.
“Guess old Merle finally made it back to the cop shop,” he said. “Wonder who’s minding the store. Sure hope they don’t dig up Kate’s garden looking for your sorry remains, Bubba.”
He looked at his watch, then turned to Jake, serious again. “It isn’t quite time yet, but I want to get you to the FBI office before those fellas are back in Harrison.”
“Those cars going up to Poppy’s aren’t FBI, are they? What difference does it make whether they’re in town or not?”
“I can’t tell from here who they are. Doesn’t matter. Probably local yokels from Jasper, but I’m guessing they called for help from Boone County sheriff’s department, too. That’s where you’ll end up. In Harrison. There’s no lock-up at the Agency office; dangerous felons like you have to be incarcerated in the county jail.”
“Wonderful. I’d better start praying I’m the only customer they have today.”
“You like the idea of being alone with the deputy, do you?” Denny chuffed, then sobered as the police radio, ignored all day because there were only occasional speeding calls and a lot of static, crackled to life.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Harrison, Arkansas, has issued a request that all highway patrolmen in Arkansas be on the lookout for a 2001 Jeep Grande Cherokee Laredo, metallic khaki paint, license number 039-CAJ. Last seen near Fort Smith around noon; at that time driven by a 75 year-old-Caucasian, Peter VanderLeiden. His wife is believed to be with him, as is a Caucasian juvenile presumed kidnapping victim. They are wanted for questioning in the kidnapping case. It is not believed they are armed, but advise proceed with caution…”
There followed a list of phone numbers to be called if any of the patrolmen spotted the Jeep.
Jake and Denny seemed nailed to the ground, grim and heavy with the weight of what this day was doing to people they loved. Denny spoke at last:
“Listen. We’re running out of time, but I have a plan that will do us both good and buy me a little breathing room before my butt’s in a sling. It’ll involve you trusting me as well as me taking some real risk. Are you with me?”
Jake swept his arm in a circle. “You see any other options? What do you want me to do?”