Authors: Janice Hamrick
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For my parents and my children, who mean everything to me
FAMILY AND FIREARMS
The day Eddy Cranny got himself murdered started bad and went downhill from there … especially for Eddy. My first indication things weren’t going well was waking to the unmistakable snick of a break-action shotgun snapping shut.
I’d been lying in bed in a pleasant half-drowsy state, just listening to the murmur of voices rising from downstairs and thinking that I really ought to get up and help with breakfast preparations. Mornings at the Smoke Quartz ranch were the best part of the day even in November when the chill breeze carried with it the faint echo of far-off northern winters, but the frost of morning usually gave way to mild sunny afternoons. The light from the single window on the far wall slowly changed from soft gray to gold, illuminating three sets of bunk beds in the big room. From my position in the bottom bunk nearest the door, I could see the only other occupied bed, on which an unmoving lump under a mound of feather blankets told me that my cousin Kyla was still fast asleep. The other bunks would be occupied by evening with an assortment of cousins of varying degrees, all under sixteen, and probably none too happy to have two adults bunking with them. They would just have to get over it. This Thanksgiving weekend, the Shore family was holding a reunion in honor of my uncle Herman’s ninety-fifth birthday, and every Shore in the state of Texas—and quite a few from beyond—were in town to celebrate.
I slid out of bed and through the door, closing it behind me as quietly as I could. Downstairs, another door opened and then shut just as gently, a sure sign that some of the family were already moving to the porch to drink their coffee and watch the birds fly to water as the sun broke over the horizon. In the bathroom, I slipped on sweatshirt and jeans and pulled my hair into a ponytail as quickly as I could, already anticipating strong coffee and homemade biscuits. I had just come out onto the landing again when I heard a shout, a crash, and then the unmistakable sound of shotgun getting ready for business.
Gripping the banister, I took the stairs two at a time and ran for the kitchen, which is not as brave as it sounds. On a Texas ranch, at least outside of hunting season, the primary purpose of a shotgun is predator control, and the primary predator is the western diamondback rattlesnake. It would be unusual to see one on a November morning, but occasionally a snake slithered inside seeking warmth and reappeared at an inconvenient time. My expectation upon rounding the corner into the kitchen was to find someone in a standoff with a serpent. What I actually saw was my uncle Kel staring down the barrel of a 12 gauge pointed directly at the narrow chest of his son-in-law, Eddy Cranny.
Which meant I hadn’t been far off, although it wasn’t very flattering to the snake.
Eddy stood with hands half raised, his face as white as paper, his body stiff as day-old roadkill. A skinny weasel of a man, Eddy had thinning dishwater hair and the watery eyes of an overbred Chihuahua. Give him another minute and he’d roll on his back and piddle the floor, a not unreasonable reaction considering the brick-red color of my uncle Kel’s face. Kel was a big man, tall, brown, and muscular from years of hands-on ranch work. The last man who would need a shotgun to subdue someone like Eddy Cranny, whom he could have simply picked up and shaken like a terrier killing a rat. In all the years I’d known Kel, I’d never seen him raise a hand to another living creature, but now he was so angry that the arm supporting the shotgun trembled visibly. I felt my heart begin to pound in my chest.
At the kitchen table, Kel’s daughter Ruby June huddled low and small in her seat, hands over her eyes as though she couldn’t bear to watch her father shoot her husband. I couldn’t help thinking that she would have done better to put her fingers in her ears. If Kel actually pulled the trigger in that enclosed space, we’d all be deaf for days and Eddy would be little more than a red mist on the cabinets. Uncle Kel regularly won the Lion’s Club sharpshooting tournaments, but he wouldn’t even need to have his eyes open to hit Eddy at that distance and with that weapon.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noted Kel’s business partner Carl Cress and one of his ranch hands standing slack-jawed near the refrigerator and knew there would be no help from that quarter. From the radio playing softly on the kitchen counter, an obnoxious voice began spouting something about low, low prices. I snapped it off.
“Uncle Kel,” I said, keeping my voice low and quiet. “Has Eddy been bothering you?”
Kel quivered, but didn’t speak. At the sound of my voice, Ruby June raised her head, and I saw with some shock an angry red welt high on her cheekbone. She’d be sporting an impressive shiner within a few hours, and I no longer needed to ask Kel why he wanted to kill Eddy.
Taking another step closer to Kel, I started again, “You can’t shoot Eddy in the house, Kel. Think about the mess. You’d never be able to get the curtains clean.”
At this, Eddy swallowed visibly, pale eyes darting to me in one incredulous and horrified glance.
I went on. “And consider how hard it would be to explain in court. You’d have to hire a lawyer. You might even miss the winter dove season if the trial dragged into December, which it would since you know how slow these things are. He’s just not worth it.”
At the last bit, Eddy nodded vehemently. He probably would have nodded at anything I said, and after all it could hardly be the first time he’d heard that particular statement.
Another few seconds ticked away, and then as though awakening from a dream, Kel drew in a shuddering breath and lifted his head from the stock of the gun. The tip of the barrel still pointed squarely at Eddy’s midsection, but Kel’s finger no longer hovered over the trigger. The look in his eyes should have made Eddy run for the hills, but Eddy had never yet managed an appropriate response to any situation.
“Eddy,” I suggested, “go. Now.”
Eddy took one final glance at Kel’s face, then fled. The door banged behind him, followed a few seconds later by the roar of an engine and the crunch of gravel spurting under tires.
My aunt Elaine appeared in the doorway wrapped in a fluffy robe, coffee mug in one hand, empty plate covered in toast crumbs in the other.
“Where’s Eddy off to in such a hurry?” she asked through the screen, trying to balance plate on cup so she could open the door. “He almost knocked me down.”
No one answered her, and her cheerful expression turned to one of puzzlement and then concern. Taking another step, she moved past the refrigerator and finally saw her husband, the shotgun still gripped in his shaking hands. Her eyes widened in surprise, but in one fluid movement, she set the plates on the counter, took the gun from her husband, and set it in its usual place beside the door. Taking Kel’s hand, she led him outside like a child. The screen door slapped shut behind them.
Carl Cress stirred at last. He was a big man, about forty years old, whose narrow hips and ample gut vaguely reminded me of John Wayne, assuming John Wayne had somehow been possessed by the unholy spawn of a used-car salesman and revival tent preacher. Carl was my uncle Kel’s business partner and the two of them together owned a herd of some thousand or so beef cattle. I suppose it was my own suspicious nature that made me keep an eye on my purse whenever he was around.
“Guess we’ll be on our way then. I’ll catch up with Kel some other time,” he announced to no one in particular.
Which was just as well because no one answered. He and his ranch hand Manuel followed Elaine and Kel out the door, Manuel holding the door so it would close quietly. Manuel was Carl’s polar opposite, a small man with work-hardened hands and a soft voice that, on the rare occasions he used it, would have pleased even a cranky librarian. Now he gave me a sheepish look before following Carl to their pickup truck.
Alone in the kitchen with Ruby June, I found my own hands starting to shake with the reaction. Opening cabinets at random, I finally found Elaine’s stash of baggies, filled one with ice cubes, wrapped a towel around it, and handed it to my cousin. She took it without a word, pressing it to her eye as I poured us each a cup of coffee and sat down.
A single tear slipped down Ruby June’s cheek. She was a pretty little thing, who couldn’t have been much older than nineteen and looked younger than the kids I taught in my high school history classes. With some surprise, I realized I didn’t know her well. A ten-year age difference meant she’d been too young to have much in common with my brothers or with me on our summer visits to her home. We’d been kind to her, in the careless way of teenagers, occasionally taking her with us in the truck or letting her join us when we went fishing, but never really feeling more than a casual interest in her. I’d attended her wedding last year, and considered that by giving her a toaster oven and refraining from telling her that she was being an idiot for marrying so young, I’d more than fulfilled my cousinly obligations.
“He didn’t mean to, you know,” she said abruptly, rubbing the tears away from her bruised face with the knuckles of a small clenched fist.
I didn’t say anything.
She flushed pink, then grew pale again just as quickly. Drawing breath, she tried again. “He isn’t like that. He wouldn’t hurt me on purpose.”
“What is he like then, Ruby Juby?” I asked quietly.
A little smile twitched at the corner of her lips at the old nickname. “He’s not like us—not like folks who have good families, I mean. His daddy is meaner than sin, and his older brothers aren’t much better. Eddy never says or does the right thing at the right time. Like then. He didn’t mean to hit me, it just happened. He’s clumsy, and he feels awful about it after.”
Sounded like a classic abuser to me, and hearing her defending him while her eye darkened and swelled made me sick to my stomach. Telling her so wouldn’t do any good, but I had to try.
“It doesn’t matter why he does it or how bad he feels after or how many times he promises to stop. Even one time is once too many. And you’re going to have to do something about it if you don’t want your dad to kill him. And I don’t mean the threatening, kick-his-ass kind of kill. I mean really, truly kill him.”
“Daddy should stay out of my business,” she burst out suddenly. “I’m a married woman now. I can do what I want. He’s always trying to tell me what to do.” She gave me a defiant stare.
I frowned. “Ruby June, your dad just saw a man hit his daughter in his own house. I think that makes it his business. You can’t honestly expect him to look the other way.”
“I told you, Eddy didn’t mean to. And Daddy never gives Eddy a break. He never even tries to understand.”
“Again, I’m not sure what there is to understand. That shiner seems pretty self-explanatory to me.”
“He doesn’t hit me. Besides, even if he did, it’s still my business.” Now she sounded sulky, like the rebellious teenager she apparently still was.
“Then you need to handle it. If you’re going to be an adult, you need to act like one. And adults don’t let other people hit them.”
“Yeah,” she said, but she didn’t meet my eyes.
I was trying to think of something useful to say to her when she cast me a sidelong look, and asked, “You ever done anything stupid, Jocelyn? Something you wish you could rewind and do over?”