A tired whisper called to Danny from the dark side of the smokehouse as she was taking down a roll of sausage for the next day’s breakfast crowd. “Danny, you got anything for me?”
Danny jumped but some of it was theatrical as she had known he was standing there. “Mr. Hunter, you startled me.” Danny made a production out of settling down and then with a faked frustration she looked around before saying, “I’m not even going to play stupid ‘cause I respect you too much. The honest truth is I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking for. If you’d give me some hint?”
Mr. Hunter shook his head. “You haven’t found out anything?”
“Like I said Mr. Hunter, about all Butch does is lay there silently moping. I think it hurts him worse than the other stuff just to think that someone would consider him a suspect in anything. The man is so clean he squeaks when he walks, not that he’s been doing much walking recently. And he sure don’t like me in his business. Last night I tried to talk to him a little bit, kinda find out what the Tallahassee men had asked about and he got so angry and frustrated in short order than I had to dose him and knock him out. This morning he is … well let’s just say that I got gone as quickly as I could. Any word on when they are going to let him go back to work? I want my RV and privacy back.”
“I thought you and Butch had … er … come to an understanding.”
Danny snorted. “Right now the only understanding we have is that Butch is none too pleased that it is me taking care of him. You know he isn’t real respectful of my profession. I swear the man is so stiff he must iron his underwear. I think had he been given the choice he might have preferred being left to die; and the only thing that kept him here is that he is determined to prove to you that he is trustworthy. It’s been all Mr. Hunter this and Mr. Hunter that and what must Mr. Hunter think and surely Mr. Hunter knows …” Danny stopped not wanting to lay it on too think but hoping to see whether there was a guilty conscience under there.
Mr. Hunter for his part grimaced. “Butch always was an idealist. I would have thought the job would have fixed that by now. He’s a good detective but …”
“He … well, between you and me there isn’t always room for idealism in this line of work … and in this life in general. But I suppose you’ve been forced to discover that for yourself.”
“Oh I found that out about the time that a lot of people around here developed what you might call intentional amnesia after Russell Hockstetter horse whipped me. Very few men – or women - in the community said a thing about it afterwards.”
Hunter looked at Danny sharply and she gave him look for look. Finally Hunter asked, “You still holding a grudge over that after all these years?”
“Let’s just say … I know who I can trust and who I can’t and one list is a whole lot shorter than the other.”
Like he’d just thought of something Hunter asked, “Did you ever hear what became of the Ocampo family?”
“The Ocampo’s, now there is a blast from the past,” Danny said like she hadn’t just discussed that very thing with Butch the previous night. “After Mr. Ocampo was shot by Tony Richmond – and that wasn’t no accident and we both know it – Mrs. Ocampo is supposed to have taken her kids and gone to family. Whether she made it there or not I have no clue. I rarely hear news of people once they leave the area. Except every once in a while … like the Richmonds.”
“Why bring them up?”
“It is what I heard about them recently. A few weeks back I heard that Tonya Richmond was listed as a runaway.”
“That’s not exactly an uncommon name Danny. Could be a different Tonya. I doubt …”
“It was a Tony Richmond that had placed the advertisement saying she was a runaway and a danger to herself. All you got to do is put two and two together to get the real truth. What it sounds like is Tonya finally got tired of her father beating her and run off. I hope she gets far away from him and never looks back. And for the record, it wasn’t Cleavis Ocampo that Tonya’s mother was having an affair with that time and we both know it.”
Hunter rubbed his nose and nodded. “That’s a debt already paid.”
“Depends on how you look at it.” Danny stopped her personal digs and sighed. “I’ll try and help you Mr. Hunter but I gotta have some clue which way to look. Butch isn’t like so many others around here. He’s almost too squeaky clean. It is likely one of the reasons he and I have a hard time getting along. A woman can only take so much of that and my patience is beginning to run thin. I’ll keep going for you since you seem to think it is important but I’m just about prepared to dump Butch on his head if he doesn’t knock it off.”
Hunter licked his lips and scrubbed his face. Danny could see the stress and worry that he was trying to hide.
“I don’t want to plant something that isn’t there,” Hunter muttered. “But people – important people – are asking questions. They want answers.”
“Answers for what? Is this still about that posse business?”
“Not … exactly. Danny, are you certain that Butch hasn’t said anything out of the usual for him?”
“No,” she grumped. “Why do you think I’m having so much trouble with him? If he was to suddenly turn nice or start treating me like … well … I’d probably send for the quack and the undertaker.”
An unwilling smile slipped onto Hunter’s face. “And here I thought you and Butch had … an understanding.”
Danny didn’t even try and not understand. “You keep saying that but Butch thinks he is too straight for that. Not that I might not be willing, he isn’t a bad man and I’ve never heard him to be a hitter … but …”
“I’ve got responsibilities and other people to think about. I’ve always tried to live … circumspectly. I know what people think of me and I know they’ve had me in bed with just about every man that has come into the tavern twice, but no. For one thing I just wouldn’t have the patience for it. For two, it’s bad business. For three … well … just forget it. People are going to believe what they want to believe. Butch included. And I guess since you won’t tell me what I’m supposed to be looking for I’ll just keep pecking at him until he gets irritated and starts yelling again.”
“No. Don’t do that.” Hunter stopped and stared off into the darkness. Danny suddenly got the feeling that someone else was watching the exchange between her and the Investigator. “Look, this is sensitive stuff that involves sensitive people. I need to know what Butch saw that day that the tavern was shot up.”
Danny snorted. “Nothing but a face full of mud. It wasn’t until that other investigator … that one visiting from Leesburg … and the undertaker had been gone a few hours before Butch dragged his sorry butt in wanting a bed to crawl into.”
“You absolutely sure about that?”
“Sure I’m sure. I’d already had to drag those three men out into the yard ‘cause no one from the militia office would come get them before they started stinking, especially the gut shot one. And you know how the undertaker is … put it in writing that he isn’t going to get stuck with the expense or you can forget him doing his job for the district. Having to drag Butch out of the mud and get him to the RV … well you were there. He was just so pleasant.”
Hunter scratched his chin. “Who besides you messed with the bodies?”
“I didn’t mess with the bodies. I just got them out of the kitchen so it could be cleaned up before the evening crowd arrived. I dragged them into the back, right over near the refuse pit. It was after the lunch crowd but before the dinner crowd when I went outside and found the investigator telling the undertaker to get a move on. The undertaker was fussing because the investigator had already had the men’s horses moved to the militia corral which meant that the funeral wagon would have to be used and the man was actually fussing that he’d have to clean it ‘cause of the mess the men were in. He wanted extra payment for the trouble.”
Hunter nodded. “That confirms what was … in the report.”
“I don’t know about a report, just what I saw.”
“Could that boy … what’s his name … Ronnie … could he have seen anything? Maybe … tampered with evidence?”
“Only thing Ronnie saw was the inside of a bucket. The boy was sick as a dog and Mrs. Maddox had the quack to check him out to make sure it was nothing catching. He’d eaten a couple of green bananas on a dare and they didn’t set well with him … either end; he was either throwing up or visiting the outhouse. It wasn’t until that eventing that Mrs. Maddox finally let him up and she only let him in the barn ‘cause she didn’t want to disturb the guests.”
“I’ll ask the quack about that.”
“Do. And while you’re at it you can pinch him for me. His prices are getting outrageous. He was already making a pretty penny off of Butch, there was no need for him to give us another travel charge when he was already here. And don’t look at me like that. It just isn’t right.”
Hunter shook his head. “Girl, you pinch a penny so hard you make it cry.”
Being totally honest she told Hunter, “I’ll make it scream and beg for mercy if given the chance. I don’t see anything wrong with Dr. Johnson making a buck … but I won’t stand back and watch someone make a buck he don’t deserve.”
Hunter shook his head and then asked once again, “Are you sure that Butch could not have been back any earlier? That he couldn’t have seen anything?”
“No … and you know? I think I can even prove it. He had toll tickets in his boot top.”
“Toll tickets. I helped Butch take his boots off and he fussed at me for messing up his stupid toll tickets and getting them out of order. He said he had to turn them in with his report. I put them back in order and … stuck them to the tavern bulletin board. C’mon they are probably still there.”
“No, you bring ‘em to me here.”
Danny did and Hunter looked at them in consternation and then shook his head. “If it wasn’t him then who was it?”
“Who was what?”
Hunter jumped; he hadn’t mean to speak aloud. “Danny did anyone else besides the investigator and the undertaker mess with those bodies?”
“Not in my sight but I was cleaning. That investigator didn’t say nothing about the condition the bodies were in or about me moving them. I actually expected that he would fuss but his didn’t.”
“He didn’t remark on it at all?”
“No sir. Look, I will keep talking to Butch but I really gotta get these sausages in to Mrs. Maddox. She’s a little bit on the warpath tonight. Apparently two of those men that came for the posse left without paying their bill.”
Danny named them and Mr. Hunter said, “I’ll look into it. And … and you just lay off Butch for now. Instead of pecking at him, you make up sweet to him … and keep your ear open in case he talks in his sleep. I think I’ve got enough to go with for now. But I want him to stay right where he is at. I know you say you want him gone but until they release him for work … and he isn’t getting paid until they approve his return to the roster. I’ll … I’ll see if I can’t …”
Danny sighed. “Don’t. I’ll look after him. But don’t bring the other into it. I don’t want people getting any ideas about me … being Butch’s … paid companion. I don’t need those complications. But I can’t guarantee what shape he is going to be in if he doesn’t knock off the attitude.”
Hunter only nodded half heartedly like his mind was already some place else and working hard. He walked back off into the dark and though Danny wanted to linger in the yard to see if she could find out if there had been someone else observing everything she hurried to the tavern just like she had said she had needed to. She was even met at the back door by Cindy Brewster who said breathlessly, “Mrs. Maddox is looking for you.”
It was a very late night and she didn’t head to the RV until almost three in the morning. There had been some rowdy customers that had to be sent off down the road. One of them had grabbed Ronnie and shook him up pretty bad and Danny herself had a good knot on her chin where the guy had taken a swing at her when she’d stepped in to protect the boy. Danny had gotten so mad that she’d grabbed the man by his crotch, and then while squeezing painfully, she’d pushed him out of the tavern’s front portal and then nearly gutted him when he’d come at her again. The man would have a vivid reminder of his mistake, that was certain; one that ran from his belt-line to his collar bone and another that ran from the corner of his mouth to his ear.
The man had threatened to bring charges and she’d cussed him so long and hard in Spanish that even the long time regulars were amazed.
“You ever come near me or mine,” Danny finally spit out in English. “And there won’t be anything left of you to find and bury. You were abusing a ten year old boy. I’m turning your name into the decency committee, they keep a database of names of people like you and they share it around the state. And that database is also shared with all the local militias. Mayhap I’ll take a run across the ramp and see if your face isn’t already on a wanted poster … or maybe I’ll make sure your face does get put on one.”
The man snarled from where a couple of his friends held him up. “Just ‘cause you sleepin’ with a lawman …”
“He ain’t got nothin’ to do with nothin’ right now. I don’t hide behind no one. You just remember what I said. You mess with me or mine and you will pay a painful penalty. And you can tell your bosses that too.”
“You don’t know …”
Danny gave a wicked smile. “But I do now don’t I? And just as soon as I figure out who you work for reckon I’ll let them know how bad a job you’re doing keeping their secrets. And how big a spectacle you like to make of yourself. Wonder what they’ll pay you back with for that slip?”
The two other men looked at each other and started pulling their friend away. Danny had already committed all of their features to memory – she would have anyway but she made special effort with them – and also listened to all the gossip the rest of the evening about who they might be. What the man that had attacked her didn’t realize apparently was that she’d picked his pockets during the initial brawl. She hadn’t made any effort to look at his wallet while at work and she was eager to get to the RV and go over it.
But before she could do that she had needed to get Ronnie bedded down which had been no easy feat as he had been very shook up and not a little roughed up. Mrs. Maddox had hired a young girl by the name of Rhonda to help. She was thirteen and had said that Ronnie could sleep in her room if he promised to behave and though Ronnie was a little embarrassed he was also more than willing.
It wasn’t until all of that was taken care of and seen to that she was free. She was half way to the RV when she heard a sound behind her that was out of place in the night. She placed her hand in her pocket – where her knife was - but otherwise didn’t make any outward sign that she was preparing to be attacked. Then the RV door opened and for a brief moment Danny worried that someone had gotten to Butch who was not up to protecting himself from the men she’d fought with.
Instead it was Butch in the doorway. “What the Sam Hill Daniella? You know what time it is?”
“Yeah Abuelo I do. Why? Need me to tell the time for you?”
Butch said something rude and then Danny was on the stairs and Butch was pulling her inside and throwing the lock on the door. “Get down,” he hissed.
Danny realized he had a gun in his hand and relaxed. Butch actually felt some of the tension leave her and asked, “You ok?”
“I felt someone watching as I left the tavern. Had a rough night. Could be the one I tangled with but if it is I’ll be surprised.”
“This one has been watching since the birds finally settled for the night … late but before midnight. And what do you mean it was a rough night?”
Butch was still covering Danny and when he moved he accidentally brushed her chin causing her to hiss in pain. “Watch it will you?”
“What the hell?”
Butch sat up and tried to grab Danny but she backed away. “Lay off. I told you …”
“You ain’t said much except it was a rough night. Now you’re going to explain it.”
There was steel determination in his voice and Danny wasn’t sure whether she was happy or aggravated that the old Butch was coming back. “Geez. It isn’t like you haven’t had to answer a call down here. What do you think happened?”
“How rough was rough?”
Danny stared at him in the dark, not liking his tone. “Lay off Butch.”
“Not this time Danny. Not now that … that I …”
She shook her head. “If you start saying something about owing me I swear I will flatten you.”
Danny tried to move and something inside Butch snapped. “Dammit, what happened?” he growled after backing her up against the wall where the old fold out table used to sit.
“Get … off … me.”
“Danniella Trespalacios … I am way too close to turning you over my knee woman. Now answer the damn question.”
Trying a different tact to defuse the suddenly tenser than expected situation Danny explained what had happened. “And here Mr. Investigator,” Danny said lifting her skirt to pull out the wallet from the pocket of her slip. She tried to hand it to him but his arm got in the way. The arm that was attached to the hand that was touching her knee.
Danny tried to buck away but Butch had her pinned. “What happened? And don’t tell me a story. I’m already about to burst a blood vessel over your chin. You didn’t say nothing about your knee. Look at this bruise.”
Danny looked. “Conyo. I don’t know when they happened. Now move.”
Only Butch was no longer interested in moving. He was more interested in moving his hands. “Your legs. When do you shave them … and how? They’re so smooth.”
“What are you doing?” Danny asked with a squeak in your voice. “And what the devil do you care?”
Butch leaned over so close that Danny could feel his breath. “How?” Butch asked in a guttural whisper.
“I don’t shave them. Delia taught me how to wax my legs. That’s how Momma did it. Said it lasts longer and the hair on your legs is finer so you can go longer between … Butch what are you doing?”
“Damned if I know. God … your legs are amazing. So smooth … and so damn long.”
Danny swallowed a nervous giggle. “You must be feverish or fallen on your head or … or … or something,” she said desperately. “Turn loose Butch. This is the closest to crazy I ever want to be. Now stop.”
“Don’t want to,” he muttered. “Dammit, now I’ll never get you out of my head. God your legs …” Butch stopped and groaned like he was dying.
“You’re being ridiculous,” Danny said trying to get herself out of the most unusual situation she had ever found herself in. And being in it with Butch just made it all the more insane. “Butch, seriously. When you come out of whatever fit you are obviously in you aren’t going to be happy. You’ll regret even talking to me much less …”
“For once will you shut up and let me have a little control?”
“It’s more like you are losing con …” Danny started to say and then was forcibly stopped when Butch’s mouth descended onto hers.