Since it’s his first official day on the county force, Delbert Peck has risen early to dress for the occasion. Peck believes in preparation, so at 4:05 a.m. he is standing (clean, buffed and shiny) before his own bathroom mirror. He lifts his new trooper’s hat out of its box, shucking the tissue it came wrapped in and balancing it on his close-cropped head. He tips the hat forward, concealing his eyes. He has to lean back to look at himself. His face is smooth and ruddy, and he juts out his jaw and squares up his knobby shoulders inside the new shirt that still has creases from the box; Deputy Peck arches his thin chest as if to press these creases smooth. He believes his power comes from his disciplined preparation, as much as he believes that justice is the bedrock of the law. Still, he does surely hope everything goes well today.
* * *
When he reports to the barracks at 6 he meets up with Chief and the senior deputies, Morrow and Doyle. It is a quiet day and Peck spends most of it in the office, seated at the old IBM Selectric doing paperwork. Along about 4, though, Chief rolls in saying he’s heard from English Dick that the old trapper Reynaud Garnier has taken a deer on Cedar Mountain. But it’s June, so that’s illegal in Vermont.
Chief says after supper he’ll go pick up a warrant from Judge Hoyt, and advises Peck to grab what sleep he can and report to barracks an hour early; at dawn they’ll go up there and raid the place, and Peck, the newest deputy, can begin what he intends to be a proud career in law enforcement by serving the warrant on old Reynaud. Peck is proud to be so immediately of use, even though he’d have appreciated a bit more warning. Peck always likes to have time ahead of time to prepare.
The next morning, Peck passes the bottom of Garnier’s road on his way in to barracks, and it makes him wonder what-if: What if English Dick was wrong, or grinding an axe? Or simply too late with his tip? What if Garnier’s not even there when they roll in to his dooryard an hour from now? Peck slows down and pulls over. What if they search, and they do find a deer illegally taken, but the poacher’s not there for them to arrest? Peck feels sure Chief would want to wait till Garnier’s home. Otherwise, they might as well go home for the day, or stay down to the barracks and reschedule this raid for a better opportunity. Peck just wants it all to go well when he starts thinking: well, why don’t he just go check. He can do it sneaky-quiet; Garnier won’t ever even know he’s there. It won’t take just a minute. He backs up, turns the wheel, and creeps up the gravely slope.
* * *
Now Peck cuts the engine and lets the cruiser roll to a silent stop on the gravel road well below Garnier’s cabin. In the middle of June the weeds have grown thick and damp and high on every side. He pulls in a deep lungful of moist morning air and picks up the faintest trace of skunk. The sound of his car door closing is small and dry. His boots crunch on pea stone as he moves around to the shoulder. He looks up and down the road, listening. But he hears nothing except the thickening morning chorale of the birds. There is no breeze on the road. It’s going to be wicked hot later, but it’s cool now, and clear, and moist.
He picks his way silently along the shoulder, careful to step on mossy turf and pine needles only. He crouches in the scrub at the edge of the clearing. Nothing moves at the homestead, but there’s a 15-year old pickup with current plates in the dooryard and a thin tendril of smoke twining up out of the chimney. He can hear the hum of a refrigerator. He checks his watch; it’s half after four and no one yet stirs. Peck edges quietly along the side of the screen porch, his back to the boards, until he reaches the rear where loopy spirea and disheveled box-wood sprawl away from the house like a snarl of springs from a broken watch. He crouches and creeps around to get a look at the barn. He can tell Chief it stands across a tiny yard, empty except for an old, rusted swing set and a grimy Big Wheel trike. The barn’s big doors stand slightly ajar; Peck peers closely but at this distance he can make out nothing in the deep blackness beyond the doors. He squints at a smudge on the jamb that looks, from here, like blood? Could be, he decides. Or not. A breeze stirs the leaves in trees around the clearing and lifts a barn door slightly, outward on its roller track, and lets it fall again noiselessly.
Suddenly voices rumble, indistinct but just behind him. Peck jumps, crouches, his heart pounding. He hears the creak of bed slats. Twisting, he peers up through the unkempt shrubbery into the screen porch. For the first time he sees two cots there, dragged together. He also sees a lumpy form moving under a Hudson Bay blanket, red with a wide black stripe. No, two people are under that blanket; he can see the tops of their heads – one a smoky copper, one steel-colored and glossy in the early morning sunlight. A man speaks again, low and indistinct. A woman chuckles. Nothing further moves but Peck feels exposed; he has no warrant.
He can hear Chief now, angry but sounding as cool and calm as if he were pointing out gravity to an idiot child: “Technically,” Chief will say, “you were trespassing.” And Peck is suddenly mortified at the folly of this visit. What if the poacher rolls over again, and blinks and sees the brim of his broad hat through the brush? Peck snatches his new hat down from his head, then holds very, very still, listening for the breathing of the couple on the porch to return to the slow, loping rhythms of sleep. The fridge clicks, shudders and falls silent. The birds, well awake now and noisy, seem distant as if sounding from a later hour. Peck creeps away.
* * *
Later, Peck has returned with the force. In high color, with Chief standing behind him to one side on the lower porch step, he raps smartly on the cabin door. He can hear a flat-footed shuffle approaching, slow and heavy; the dry hinges squeal as a woman pushes open the screen. She is a large, lumbering woman in a housedress with a faded floral print. Her legs are as smooth and stout as stovepipes. Her grey hair is thinly braided and coiled around the crown of her head. Her face looks to Peck like a potato with deep set dark eyes; her lips are thin and pale as a scar; a wing of rosacea curves across each cheek. She says nothing, but her eyes stay on the Deputy.
Peck pronounces his business. She turns her head without lifting her eyes from his face and yells for Garnier, “Reynaud – ici!” The old poacher himself now approaches from the dark heart of the cabin, in striped boxers and a stained vest, two days’ red-gold stubble furring his upper lip and chin. A hand-rolled cigarette, lumpy and loose, is clamped between his rusty teeth. But he takes the smoke out of his mouth with grimy finger tips to stare down the glossy young deputy. Reynaud’s eyes are small and his expression is unpleasant. Peck takes a breath and pronounces his business a second time; he lifts the warrant and shakes it for emphasis. Garnier’s eyes drop for an instant to these papers in Peck’s hand, then he reaches for them calling “Geneva, cherch’ mes lunettes.” The large woman rolls off into the house, returning a few moments later with a battered pair of drug store reading glasses, their plastic lenses cloudy with scratches.
He puts the roach back in his mouth and takes the glasses from his wife. He puts them on his nose and studies the warrant. His eyes scratch back and forth across the page. Then he stops. He leans in. He leans back and his smile spreads slowly. He taps the paper with his forefinger, and says, “You a day early Sherriff. This say the 19th.”
Peck’s chin juts out and there is a small twitch under the skin below his left ear. He snatches the papers back and looks at them closely, then at Chief. Chief’s face darkens; he checks his watch, then takes the warrant from Peck to inspect. Over Garnier’s shoulder Peck can see a calendar from the town garage hanging on the kitchen wall. They all turn and look. Sure enough: today’s date is the 18th, and just as sure the warrant says the 19th. Peck scowls. His face goes from ruddy to an angry red. Behind him, the other deputies exchange bewildered glances but Chief recovers quickly and announces in his cool and steely voice, “Ok, then. We’ll wait.”
Garnier looks surprised, but shrugs his shoulders as he turns and walks into the cabin. “Suit yourself, Sherriff,” he calls. Chief nods at the two senior deputies. “Somebody’s got to be back in town,” he says. “Peck and I can cover this.” Peck draws upright ever so slightly. The other two nod and depart. Chief stations Peck at the corner where he can watch the porch door and the pantry windows. He seats himself on the stoop out front where he can see the way from the house to the barn.
“No one goes in, no one goes out,” he instructs Peck. His voice is tired.
“10-4, Chief,” hollers Peck.
Chief sighs, shakes his head and settles in.
* * *
The curtains stay closed all day and into the evening. No one could see in. No one comes out. At 12:01 AM Chief gets up and says to Peck, “Wait here.” He walks back to the cabin door to serve the now-legal warrant. Peck stays behind, composing on his face an expression of scathing reprimand. Reynaud Garnier opens the door as if he’d been waiting behind it and the two men stand briefly in the kerosene lamp light spilling through the open door. Then Peck sees Garnier turn aside, flattening himself against the wall to make room for the officer. But Chief signals Peck to come over. “Why don’t you search the house,” he says and heads out the back, off the porch and across the yard to look in the little barn. Peck takes the front steps in two bounds, and trains his practiced look on the poacher. His head swivels as if on gimbals, tracking Garnier’s closed face as he passes. Then he catches his toe on the crumbling linoleum just inside the house, and he stumbles, groping wildly for support. Clattering he catches himself on the back of a kitchen chair and thankfully does not fall all the way to the floor. But his look of censure collapses for an instant to reveal a man out of his natural depths.
Across the room, the massive Geneva leans with folded arms in the pantry door and chuckles. Peck draws himself up again and straightens his badge but the look on his face is drained of menace. Geneva rolls her eyes, turns her back and lumbers away into the pantry. Peck’s brow lowers. He ignores her.
Peck searches the house, managing to avoid Geneva though she stands behind him every minute, watching with those giant folded arms. He sees nothing to suspect – no blood, no bolts of hair. Meanwhile Garnier follows the Chief around the yard, opening doors when asked, watching him look, but volunteering nothing. The Chief steps into the shed and pulls open two old grain sacks in the corner, not really expecting legs or hoofs, bones, scraps of pelt, and finding only clods of old dried peat, a basket full of bobbin ends from the old mill, good for kindling. Nothing. No stains in the dirt, only the faintest metallic tang in the moist air, the scent of damp iron. Nothing there.
Geneva keeps her eye on Peck until he is done, then comes and stands in the kitchen door, her light apron lifting on the night breeze, strands of her steel hair escaping to flutter around her face. Her thin, pale mouth sets like a scar, tugging her cheeks in. Peck touches the broad brim of his hat as he steps out off the porch to go find Chief, but the woman doesn’t say a thing. Together the two lawmen search the shed, and the woodpile, and the back barn where the chickens are. They go to search the upper storey in the big barn where they can see a block and tackle dimly visible through the hay mow. But when they clamber up and walk around they see the dust there has not been disturbed in years.
After, Chief stands in the dooryard, rubbing the back of his red neck with the hand that also holds the signed warrant.
“I told ya,” says Reynaud Garnier.
“You told me,” says Chief.
Peck stands about, useless on this the first night of his distinguished career in law enforcement. Lamp light glints off his tin badge. After a while, Chief shrugs and steps along toward the cruiser.
“I’ll be watching you, Reynaud,” he says, patting his pockets for the car key.
“You watch me,” says Garnier, leaning against the side of the cabin, folding his arms across his chest.
“Peck, you got the key?” asks Chief.
Peck jolts at the sound of his own name, beats his chest and bottom furiously. “Uh no Chief,” he says.
Chief sighs. “Well,” he says, “go look in the house then.”
“Right!” says Peck, hot-footing it up the little block steps. There they are, on the corner of the kitchen table. He lunges for them, surprising Geneva who is just opening the oven. Beyond her, the open pantry door is no longer a black oblong in the back wall of the bright kitchen. Lamp light shines within, glinting off clean glass jars along a countertop. The hot blast from the open oven catches Peck square in the nostrils – a wonderful smell full of brandy and fat-back, raisins and roasted venison. His eyes widen as he looks at the flaky brown crust plumped up atop the china dish that Geneva is lifting from the oven rack. He forgets himself in an instant. Geneva looks him over. His face is child-like: all interest, and all and only about the pie.
Outside, Chief has turned out of the breeze to light his own cigarette. The wind catches and lifts the light blue checked curtain hanging across the pantry window before him. Chief lowers the burning match. The cigarette dangles, unlit, from his lower lip.
Reynaud Garnier shifts, tries to look nonchalant, cannot.
Behind the lofted bit of curtain, rank upon row of glass jars gleam in the lamp-light. They are packed full and freshly labeled. And Chief draws a breath and turns on his heel, about to step back into the kitchen when down the step comes Geneva holding out a china plate with a thick, steaming wedge of mincemeat pie, juices and brandy running into a spicy little soak at the edge. In her other hand she’s got a fork on which is speared a bite-sized bit she holds out now, toward Chief.
“Pie, Sherriff?” she offers.
Peck has followed her out, a hound hanging by the nose on the fragrant steam. Chief gives Peck a deadly look and Peck looks up. His eyes flit back and forth between Chief and the pie. He twists the key chain nervously in his hands.
“Get in the car, you moron,” spits Chief.