James Early, this is his country
The sheriff takes to a motorcycle
James Early appeared for the first time in "Dead Pool", a short story I wrote for a contest sponsored by the Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave. When I finished that story and a companion story, "Big Dam Foolishness", I knew I had a character who could carry a novel. So I wrote Early's Fall.
Since, I have written a sequel, Early's Winter, and a small herd of James Early short stories, six of them in this collection.
While Early, the sheriff of Riley County, Kansas, would prefer to ride a horse, he usually drives a Jeep. But in "Dead Pool", I put him in a boat during a flood. Here's how that story starts:
“Cactus, we got a floater here!”
James ‘Cactus’ Early mopped a splash of water from his face as he pulled the tiller on the outboard. The Riley County sheriff drove his john boat in the direction of the voice, sloshing his craft across the current of the receding Big Blue River that in the past days had backed up Manhattan’s main street, ten feet deep where he was.
“Whaddaya think?” he called out to his search partner, the county coroner, a real doctor and surgeon who had a far better boat than Early.
“A woman,” Doc Grafton called back. “Must have got caught in the eddy by the corner of the building and slid out into the alley.”
The last of the rescues had been made two days ago, people who had come downtown when the gathering deluge–eighteen inches of rain in some areas over the past weeks–roiled out of the Big Blue’s mouth, when the cries of “flood” moved from house to house. Businessmen and their employees did what they had done in more years than they liked to remember. They made a dash for the downtown, watched the muddy water inch up over door sills, then worked like frightened ants, moving merchandise, furniture, and records to the upper floors of their buildings. Now Early, Grafton, a city policeman, and two firemen patrolled in a private flotilla, inspecting damage, seeing whether they had missed anything in earlier sweeps. Other than odd pieces of furniture and cases of beans and peas from the Hamilton Grocery that hadn’t got moved in time, all anyone had found were two drowned dogs and a cat, the cat a firehouse pet.
Grafton, short necked and chubby from too much good eating, had managed to back his Cris-Craft into the blind alley. He now leaned across the stern with a gaff, hooking at the coat of what Early could see, from the length of the hair floating on the water, was indeed a woman. He lashed his john boat to the coroner’s and scrambled across the gunwale.
“Give you a hand there?” he asked as Grafton pulled the floater close.
“Yeah, let’s see if we can haul her in. You grab one shoulder, I’ll get the other.”
Early dug the fingers of one hand into the shoulder of the coat and, by stretching, got his other hand under the woman’s arm. “Gawd, she smells of fuel oil.”
“Whole alley does. Water here’s greasy with the stuff. On three now . . . one, two, three!”
The men lifted. They hauled. Early slipped and fell backwards, and the body came over the stern on top of him.
“Sorry about that, Cactus,” Grafton said as he rolled the dead woman off the sheriff, to the side and onto her back. “Oh Lord.”
“What is it?”
“I know who this is. Sue Trimble, Sam Trimble’s girl. This is gonna break his heart.”
The sheriff pushed himself up. He raked off his storm hat and again mopped at his face and mustache. “What the heck was she doing down here?”
“Shouldn’t have been here at all. She used to work for that insurance man–what’s his name?–office on the second floor, right around the corner. He fired her last week.”
Early, on his knees now, with the lightest touch, moved the woman’s soaked hair away from her face. “Aww jeez, I’m surprised you could recognize her, nose mashed in like that.” He rolled the woman’s lips back. “Cut up on the inside of her mouth. Teeth broken out.”
His fingers played over the chin. “Busted. You think the water could have slammed her into a telephone pole or something?”
“Possible.” Grafton said lifted a coat sleeve, and a dead hand twisted at an odd angle. He felt along the wrist. “Damn, it’s broken.”
The coroner/surgeon let the hand down and felt his way along the other wrist. “Oh God, it’s broken, too.”
“You don’t suppose,” Early said. He brought his hands up in front of his face, crossing one wrist over the other.
“Had to be. Cactus, this was no accident. She was trying to protect herself.”
“So she saw it coming.”
“I’d bet on that one. I noticed something when she was still in the water. Didn’t think about it then. Help me roll her over.”
The bottom of a boat, even the bottom of a Cris-Craft, offered precious little room to work over a fish of this size, yet the lawman and the coroner managed. Grafton took a penlight from his slicker’s pocket. He leaned down and shined the light over the back of the woman’s head. He parted the hair and parted it again. “See this?”
“Cuts in the scalp. Not real deep. Blood’s washed away. No surprise there.”
“Gimme your light,” Early said.
He waggled his fingers, and Grafton laid his penlight in the sheriff’s hand. Early spun the light around. He aimed it over the coat at the mound of the woman’s shoulder blades. Something, like a small diamond, threw back a glint of light. Early picked at it. He got the bit in his fingers and examined it more closely with the penlight’s beam.
“Glass?” Grafton asked.
Early turned the small shard. “From the thickness, I’d say standard old window glass, and I do mean old. You see the wave line in this piece?”
“Uh-huh. Not particularly helpful.”
“Think about it. Cuts in the back of her head. Glass imbedded in the her coat. She came through a window backwards.”
Now Grafton raised his hands in front of his face, his wrists crossed.
Early sat back on his haunches, the receding flood waters lapping at the sides of the boats. “That had to be it. She was standing with her back to a window, trying to protect her face when someone hit her for all he was worth.”
“Coulda been a woman.”
“All that damage, I doubt it.”