Detective Dawson leaned back in his chair, the old wood groaning under his weight. He rubbed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose before looking at her again.
“Chrissy, it just don’t make no sense.”
“Well,” she sniffed, “that’s what happened.”
Dawson took a long look at the woman across from him. Even after this many years she still had it, but “it” was starting to fray at the edges. Time doesn’t touch tall, but it had definitely etched the lines a little deeper into her face, graying the roots of her hair while gravity tugged at things that seemed blasphemous to tug at on a woman like her. She’d still do, though, and rumor was she still did for a few bar regulars when Derrick got hard up for cash.
But not tonight. Tonight, Derrick was keeping the other stiffs company down in the basement while Dawson tried to sort out exactly who had killed him. Given the bruises she always seemed to carry on the left side of her face, Chrissy McNeil was the prime suspect. Nobody would have blamed her, either–the judge would have let her walk–but even being found holding the murder weapon, she kept insisting she hadn’t done it, that she’d never pulled the trigger.
And in Dawson’s opinion, she wasn’t taking Derrick’s death too hard. Sure, there’d been tears, but those’d seemed just perfunctory. Practiced, even. Chrissy had no lamentations to wail about the passing of the man she’d spent the last six years with.
But then again, Dawson couldn’t really think of anybody who would shed an honest tear for Derrick.
Chrissy jumped a little at a knock on the door, and Dawson stood as his C-O walked in. They shook hands and the detective slid his chair over to his boss.
“Chrissy, this is Sergeant Alex Tyson. He’d like you to tell him what happened tonight.”
Chrissy rolled her eyes. “I’ve told y’all about it three times already!” she said.
Tyson put on his best ‘I truly care about you and your problems’ face and leaned in. Dawson took a moment to admire his boss. He’d had spent years trying to duplicate the effect but his ‘I care’ always seemed to get crossed with ‘about getting the fuck out of here.’
“Ma’am. Mrs. McNeil,” Tyson started, compassion oozing out like jelly off toast.
“Miss. Miss McNeil. I wasn’t married.”
“Sorry. Miss McNeil. I know you’re tired. It’s been a long night for you and I understand that the process can be frustrating. But we want to do our best to catch the men responsible and to do that…” Tyson cocked his head at Chrissy as he set a hand on top of hers and squeezed. “…we need your help.”
Chrissy chewed her lip as she measured up the officer in front of her. Dawson held his breath. Tyson just smiled sadly and pulled his hand back.
“Will you help us?” he asked.
“Fuck,” Chrissy muttered. “Fine. But I want a smoke first.”
“Not a problem. Detective Dawson will escort you outside.” She raised an eyebrow at Tyson’s easy acquiescence.
“And a coke,” she added
“And a Snickers.”
Tyson’s cool concern almost cracked under her sudden sense of power, the corner of his mouth fighting to contain a smirk, but he reined it in and nodded. “Not a problem, I’ll have an officer fetch that for you. Dawson, if you would?”
As he followed her back into the station, Dawson caught the occasional amused look from his fellow officers after Chrissy had walked past. A few winked, a few were trying not to laugh, and that prick Detective Blythe was just egging them on. Once Chrissy had passed, he drew two invisible guns and started firing at Dawson from the hip. It was about as mature as the finger Dawson gave him before turning into the interrogation room.
Sure enough, before Chrissy’s chair sat a can of Coke and a Snicker’s bar. Tyson had also brought another chair in for Dawson while they were out, and Dawson made himself comfortable while his superior took charge.
“If you’re ready, Ma’am, once more from the beginning, please.”
By 3 AM, most of Red Bluff was buttoned up. Even being rodeo weekend, the street in front of the bar was deserted. No one walked down the sidewalks, no drunks staggered home, and all the young deviants had been chased indoors long ago.
And no one heard the argument going on behind the bar. ‘Argument’ might be too generous a term. What no one actually heard was Derrick taking swings at a sobbing Chrissy. She cowered against the passenger door of his ancient blue Toyota, the windows still fogged from their quick fuck before the fight broke out. Using a hand still clutching grubby, sweaty fives and tens, he tried to pry Chrissy’s own hands away from her face to hit her again. When she fought him off, he grabbed a handful of her hair and yanked her sideways.
For a brief second she thought she was going to fall off her heels, but she caught the side view mirror with one hand for balance. Chrissy clutched at his wrist with the other, trying to relieve the pulling on her scalp. He shoved the clutched money against her face and she whimpered as he shook it.
“This is all you fucking have for me? An entire god damn town full of drunk, lonely cowboys and this is the best you could do? Fuck, I don’t even know why I bother keeping…”
Derrick stopped talking as the sound of approaching feet cut through the silence of the night. He turned in time to see a half-dressed man run straight past him, past the car, and dive into the darkness behind the dumpster. He let go of Chrissy’s hair and she slunk to the ground, sobbing, as he stalked towards the dumpster.
“Oi, Fuckface, what do you think you’re doing?”
Fuckface, for his part, didn’t answer, but also didn’t come out of hiding. Derrick started to charge in after him when there were more footsteps, and he wheeled around, itching for the chance to fight someone, anyone. Puffing out his chest like a prize rooster, he squared at the five armed men coming straight for him, daring them to begin this fight. The corners of his mouth tugged down and his jaw clenched as they split around him instead, running past the car and joining the first man behind the dumpster.
As they raced past, Chrissy caught a look at them in the sickly yellow glow of the security light. They were all shirtless and wore some kind of red leg wrap. Each carried a weapon that had been gathered along the way–a shovel, a broom handle, sticks, a fireplace hatchet. The man leading the charge had a headdress of eagle feathers, and they all wore strands of beads that bounced off their exposed chests with every step. She recognized them, clearly…
“Indians,” Sergeant Tyson said and looked to Chrissy for confirmation. She nodded slightly as she picked at the plastic on her pack of Camels.
“Wintu. They were part of the parade earlier, you know, for the Round Up. Had a big banner and hopped around like they was stompin’ ants. That’s how I recognized ’em.”
Tyson managed to keep a straight face and nodded.
“So these natives, these Wintu, come running past you, wearing headdresses and beads…”
The Wintu out of sight, there was a moment of silence behind the bar. They hadn’t made for the brush that lined the river the bar sat against; Chrissy and Derrick would have heard them cutting through the trees. Everyone just sat very still, instead, waiting and trying to process what had just happened.
Chrissy watched Derrick’s face change, as if he had just been personally insulted. He was whiskey’d up and invincible, ready to take on all six of the newcomers, and they’d completely ignored him. Uncharitable, sure, but Chrissy couldn’t help but hope she’d luck out and Derrick would be mad enough at the men behind the dumpster to lay off her for the night. He huffed once like a bull, puffing out his cheeks, and started stalking towards the edge of the security light’s reach.
“They went that way!”
The shout caught both of them off guard and Derrick stopped in his tracks once more. A clatter of hooves followed, growing into an echoing roar as the sound bounced between the walls of the bar and the next building. Jaws agape, Chrissy and Derrick watched six more men–six Stetson-wearing, horse-mounted men–round the corner and stop as they found themselves before an audience.
Chrissy thought the way they rode, for cowboys, was rather peculiar–reins in one hand and saddle horn in the other. Too drunk to sway with their mounts, they seemed to have opted for clinging to their saddles for dear life.
In the lead was a man Chrissy recognized. He’d led the parade, following Mayor Rosan’s car, on the same dapple grey gelding he rode now. Johnny Hayes? Fayes? She couldn’t remember exactly but they’d announced him as a bull rider, one of the big names of this year’s Round Up. He was to be matched up in a for-show event against Downey’s latest Red Rock wanna-be bull, Driving Miss Disaster, on Saturday night.
Right now, however, Johnny just looked drunk and dangerous. A revolver stood out, black and menacing, from the waistband of his Levi’s, and his gelding dancing nervously beneath him.
Chrissy stopped talking and glanced at the door as an officer stepped in. The officer nodded at Dawson before giving a note to Tyson and slipping back out. Dawson watched Tyson’s eyes as they widened, though from amusement or shock, he wasn’t sure. Tyson snorted softly when he finished and passed it to the detective. Tyson watched Dawson read the note in turn, one eyebrow raised and eyes almost twinkling with humor.
Saint Elizabeth’s General, One Indian, Gunshot Wound, was all that is said.
“So where were we?” Tyson prompted Chrissy. “I believe the Indians were hiding in the dark, and the cowboys had just ridden up.”
Chrissy glared, but continued.
Johnny Hayes-or-Fayes rode straight up to Derrick and wheeled his horse a quarter turn, putting Derrick about a foot away from his right stirrup. The bull rider looked around suspiciously before leaning down to the standing man.
“D’jou see ’em? Them Indians? Which way did they go?” The whole time Johnny spoke, his gaze never stopped darting around the parking lot, watching for an enemy trying to get a drop on him.
Derrick, meanwhile, was trying to laser holes in Johnny’s face with his eyes. If he’d been pissed before, the arrival of the cowboys had him seeing red. To make matters worse, Derrick hated nothing more than someone just assuming they were cool with him; you had to earn the right to talk to Derrick Hock.
So instead of answering the question, Derrick grabbed Johnny by the lapels and pulled him from his horse. Once the cowboy’s feet had slipped the stirrups, Derrick threw him to the ground. The man’s head bounced off the pavement hard enough to make his eyes roll.
Johnny sat up and looked like he was trying to figure out where his horse went. He grabbed awkwardly for the black Stetson that had tumbled off and landed at Chrissy’s feet, making her squeal and pull her feet back.
Derrick seemed to take exception to the cowboy groping at his woman. He dropped on Johnny and began trying to punch him into the pavement.
That was when the true fight broke out.
As the other cowboys dismounted to come to Hayes-or-Fayes’ rescue, the Wintu seized their chance. With Derrick on the bull rider, they had the cowboys outnumbered. Someone gave a shout and they charged the rodeo men, bringing shovels and sticks and broom handles down to bear on the cowboys. Johnny and Derrick were forgotten on the ground as the men clashed all around the battered Toyota, throwing punches and ducking blows as best they could in the dark. Chrissy curled tighter against the front wheel and covered her head with an arm, screaming when the Wintu with the hatchet buried the blade in the front fender of the car.
“You said Johnny, though? The bull rider, Johnny Day?” Tyson interrupted, looking up from the notes he was taking. Chrissy smiled at them and nodded enthusiastically.
“Yeah, that’s the one! Day, the ‘Rebel of the Rodeo’ they called him.” She looked relieved that they were finally starting to get it. Tyson looked meaningfully at Dawson, who nodded and excused himself.
“Okay, so an APB out on Johnny Day, bull rider, may or may not be on a horse… chasing Indians,” Garcia, the officer who’d delivered the note about the gunshot native, said. She could barely contain her glee at such a juicy order and stared at Dawson like he was missing the joke.
“Just put it out, Amanda” Dawson said. He sighed and stepped back into the interview room, where Chrissy was getting back into the story.
“So they were all beatin’ the shit outta each other while Derrick kept beatin’ on Day…”
Chrissy tried to curl into a tighter ball as the fight went on around her, hoping no one would decide she was involved with either side. The hatchet-wielding Wintu pulled his weapon free of the car and looked for the thickest clump of people. Finding it, he swung wildly and charged a pair of cowboys fighting side-by-side. One caught sight of the incoming attack and stepped sideways, throwing up an arm to block the weapon.
Too late, the native realized he was actually going to hit somebody and tried to pull the blow mid-swing, but the cowboy’s dodge put him directly in the hatchet’s new path. Panicked, the Wintu let go and the blade flew free, rotating wildly in flight. It clipped the cowboy on the elbow and sliced into his forearm, rotating around the meat of his arm before clattering to the pavement behind him.
Both men stood still at the sight of the blood streaming down the cowboy’s arm. The bleeding man looked confused by this turn of events, while the native looked horrified. They looked at the hatchet, at each other, and back at the cut.
“Oh, shit,” the Wintu said. He took a quick survey of his tribesmen, still duking it out with the rodeo men. “Fuck guys, let’s get out of here!” he shouted. The two closest took notice and together, they grabbed the rest and sprinted for the cover of brush behind the bar.
The cowboys gave a cheer and yelled after the retreating Wintu, making sure to include a few very unkind words about their homelands and mothers.
Derrick, however, was oblivious to the victory. It didn’t take long before Johnny’s friends realized this stranger was still trying to punch their fearless leader out of existence. They rushed to their comrade’s aid, two of them grabbing Derrick under the arms and lifting him away, even as he tried to keep swinging at the bruised and pissed off bull rider.
Johnny Day propped himself up on one arm and slipped the other into the waistband of his Levi’s. Never tearing his eyes from Derrick, he pulled out the 1911, all cold black metal that seemed to swallow the yellow alley light as soon as it hit. His friends, the ones holding Derrick, seemed just as shocked as Chrissy at the sight of the piece. They dove for cover as Derrick froze wide eyed, just feet away from Johnny.
Johnny didn’t even have to aim. All he had to do was pull the trigger.
“And he just shot him,” Chrissy finished. “Pulled the trigger, bang, dropped the gun, got back on his horse and they all rode away.”
“Into the sunset,” Dawson muttered, and coughed when Tyson glared at him. “I mean, down Antelope, right? Sunset is on the other side of town…”
They looked at him like he was crazy.
“Sergeant Tyson?” Garcia interrupted from the door. Both cops stepped outside to speak with her.
“The gun checks out,” she said. “Registered to Jonathon Clive Day. He and his buddies managed to get into it with some bikers, too, and got picked up. They should be here any minute.”
“Good work, Garcia. Come get me when they get here and get animal control around to deal with the horses if it hasn’t been done already.” Tyson paused a moment to shake his head. “Fucking cowboys and Indians.”
Dawson pinched his nose again.
“So I guess we have her sign the statement and book Day on homicide.” He looked to the Sergeant for confirmation.
“It all seems to hold water. She didn’t do anything.”
Dawson had the door half open when a crash from the front rang through the building, followed by shouts from officers and another voice, one that had a slight southern twang to it.
“That’ll be our cowboys I bet. Can you finish up with her while I handle this?” Tyson didn’t wait for a response before jogging off with Officer Garcia towards the source of the commotion.
“Everything checks out,” Dawson said, stepping back in the room. “We’ll have your statement here in a few minutes for your signature and you’ll be free to go. Can I get you anything while you wait?”
“I need a smoke.”
“Really, ma’am, it’ll just be a few and then you…” He stopped talking when she glared at him. It had been a long night already with the rodeo in town and he just didn’t feel like having this fight. Nodding, he held the door for Chrissy as she stepped out and followed her through the station, which was taking on a warm glow as the sun rose slowly over the town.
On their way past the front, he tried to get a good look at the infamous native-hunting cowboys. Sure enough, Detective Blythe and Sergeant Tyson had Johnny Day himself, one eye swollen shut and nose freshly busted, pinned against the wall as they walked past. His face was turned towards them and he gave a huge, goofy, gap-toothed grin when he saw Chrissy.
“Hey! Hey guys!” he yelled to his buddies. “Look, it’s that crazy bitch from earlier, the one who shot the guy that punched me!”
The room grew eerily still as everyone turned at once to look at Chrissy, wide-eyed in the sudden spotlight. She shot a glance at Dawson, his jaw on the floor like he was trying to catch a fly, and she took off running. Her high heels threatening to spill her on the tile with every step and she had her arms outstretched, almost as if she believed reaching the door first would buy her freedom.
Even with the head start, she was no match for him. Three long strides and Dawson had her tackled to the ground. The cowboys whooped and hollered their approval as he cuffed her, Day himself chuckling and muttering, “Oh damn!”
Dawson fucking hated rodeo weekend.
By the time the cowboys had sobered up, given their statements, got booked, and all the proper paperwork had been pushed, the sun was high. The beer was sure to be flowing at the fairgrounds, fueling what would be another long rodeo weekend night. From the statements the cowboys gave, most of Chrissy’s story was true, except for where Johnny had lost his gun when Derrick pulled him off his horse. No one saw Chrissy grab it, but they all saw her shoot Derrick after he got pulled away from Johnny.
Dawson sat for a moment, rubbing his eyes, trying to find the motivation to shuffle to his car and head home for a few hours shut-eye before he was due back in time for the fun to start again. Eyes closed, he heard Garcia and Tyson on their way out and flagged them down.
“Hey, Sarge!” he called. “What happened to the sixth?” Tyson looked at him puzzled for a moment. “Chrissy said there were six. Johnny said it was him and five buddies, but patrol only brought him in with four others. So where’s the sixth?” The older officer nodded.
“Scalped.” He looked Dawson right in the eyes when he said it, not even cracking a grin.
“Not even.” Tyson looked conflicted about how to feel, but was dead serious as he spoke. “He got pushed into the chain drive on one of those boys’ bikes. It tangled up in his hair and ripped his scalp clean off. They flew him straight up to Mercy to try to reattach it but I guess it was almost hamburger after a few turns ’round the gears.”
“I hate rodeo weekend,” he grumbled, and Tyson laughed.
“Get some sleep, Dawson.”