A Complaint from Harvey

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Robert Bennett


I'm blue…
Photo Credit: Stewart Chambers

I’d copied the words from the back of a small, quart-sized paint paddle before I handed it over to Sheriff Joe Baxter. But studying the encryption now, sitting at the kitchen table, I can see Harvey’s handwriting had been better than mine, but the message is unmistakable:

em
yals
ot
gni-
yrt
si
eloh-
ssa
tuo
deg-
giw
emos

The front side of the paddle stated, in bold blue lettering, EARNWRIGHT’S BUILDING SUPPLY, and it hadn’t taken long to decode the message, but if you’d just murdered somebody and your heart was racing, you might miss the fine, cultured nuances. That’s what Harvey must have been banking on.

The entire story, and the ensuing tragedy, actually started decades earlier, but the more pertinent parts only developed over the last six months.

*

It had never been a closely-guarded secret that Harvey Earnwright married Bunny Taylor for her father’s money, but they seemed to get along. A generation earlier, folks would have said Bunny’s problem was an insatiable sweet tooth. She was the heaviest kid in class when we graduated eighth grade, and the pounds continued to pile on through high school and college. She never lost an ounce after any of her pregnancies—two girls and a boy—and at the local supermarket she’d cruise around on a motorized cart, her flesh restrained by the vehicle’s back and armrests.

As folks began to notice her gasping and wheezing, they’d speculate she probably wouldn’t live long. It was Harvey, however, who met with an early death and everyone was shocked to hear it.

Harvey and I belonged to the shooting club, but we were more academic about the sport than other members. They’d talk of long-ago game shots, near hits and misses, while we would discuss muzzle energy, breech pressure, and ways to flatten trajectories. I would work up loads for rifles and try them out at the range, but Harvey would still hunt game from time to time, and that’s what led to his undoing.

On the first day of deer season he often went to Eight Dollar Mountain, but this year he went to some property of Bunny’s up around the headwaters of Williams Creek. It was heavily timbered; Harvey always said the healthiest deer lived under the big evergreens. He knew how to read trails and signs, never wanted to wound an animal and have it run off, and he always took care there was high ground to backstop a bullet if he missed. When he didn’t come home that night, Bunny called me, then some other shooters, and when that didn’t lead to answers, she called the sheriff.

I went out to help search. We found his body the following morning; he’d been shot in the head. Authorities on site thought he’d tripped and discharged his rifle, and termed it a hunting accident. But the whole thing didn’t add up to me, so the following morning I went in to see Joe Baxter. He’s been the sheriff here since before I could remember.

“Harvey was the most careful guy I knew around guns,” I said, as he handed me coffee in a Styrofoam cup.

“Seemed like it,” Joe replied, “huntin’ with that old Marlin, usin’ iron sights. Not many folks go out equipped that way anymore.”

“He didn’t take risky shots, Joe. He used a 45-70 so the bullet wouldn’t ricochet off a rock and take out a windshield half a mile away. Besides, I was the first one to find him, and that entry wound didn’t look nearly big enough to have been made by a 45.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I saw that, too.”

“They find the bullet?”

“They’re out there lookin’ now,” he said.

I drove by the Earnwright house on my way home, but there were other cars in the driveway. I didn’t stop.

I called the sheriff the following morning. I wanted to know if they’d found the slug.

“We found a bullet,” he said.

“Which means?”

“We found a fresh bullet hole in a small fir about fifty yards west of the body,” he explained. “We cut a plug out of the tree and sent the plug to a lab in Eugene.”

“If Harvey had fallen on his own gun,” I told him, “the bullet would have gone up in the air. There’s no way it could have hit a tree.”

“It couldn’t have anyway,” he said. “Earnwright’s gun hadn’t been fired that day.”

The following morning Bunny pulled up into my driveway, followed by two young men in a U-Haul truck. She got out and made her way to the house with the use of a cane. I went to greet her.

“Bunny,” I said, “I’m so sorry about Harvey. I—”

“I brought Harvey’s shooting stuff to you,” she interrupted. “He’d want you to have it.”

“What about Willy?” I asked. Willy was their ten-year-old son. “Won’t he want Harvey’s—”

“When Willy turns twenty-one,” she said, “if you want to give these things to him, that’s up to you. As for now, I don’t want them in the house.”

I nodded and went out to help unload the truck.

Everything of value was in a large steel gun safe. Until the door was opened there was no way to know what was in it. I didn’t think Bunny would know the combination, so I called a locksmith and made an appointment for him to come out that afternoon.

Then I went back down to the sheriff’s office.

He was civil and offered me coffee. “The medical examiner says the entry hole measures 6.5 to 7 millimeters,” he said, “and the lab says the bullet diameter is point-two-seven-seven inches.”

“A two-seventy.”

“Yeah.”

“So where does that take us?” I asked.

“Right now we’re calling it a hunting accident,” he said. “We’re assuming someone with a two-seventy fired a round off into space, and it traveled, unimpeded, until it made contact with Harvey Earnwright’s head.”

It seemed like kind of a stretch to me.

“By the way,” he said, “there are some things at the medical examiner’s that need to go to the family. Do you want to take them?”

I told him I would, and went to pick them up. Everything was in one small box. I took it home, thinking if Bunny didn’t want the gun stuff, she probably wouldn’t want these things either. With the exception of a wallet and pocketknife, there was nothing but clothes.

The last thing I pulled from the box was his hunting vest. I laid it on the coffee table, and that’s when I noticed the paint paddle—a small, quart-sized paddle. I pulled it out, wondering what would become of Earnwright Building Supply. When I turned the paddle over I saw the cryptic message, written with a fine point, felt-tipped pen. Turning it upside-down and sideways the solution to the message jumped out at me: SOME WIGGED OUT ASSHOLE IS TRYING TO SLAY ME.

Harvey must have written it as he lay on the ground, under siege, so the shooter would have discharged more than one round, which negated the official theory of death by a hunting accident. I reproduced the message on a sheet of paper, put the paddle back in the vest pocket, and took the whole thing to the sheriff.

“What now?” is how he greeted me.

I put the vest on his desk, pulled out the paint paddle, and said, “Look at the back.”

“It’s gibberish,” he said.

I picked up a pencil and pointed to the words as I read—backwards and upside-down.

“Holy shit,” he said.

“Anybody find a felt-tipped pen out there?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I’d better send some folks back to the site,” he said.

“You might look for more slugs,” I told him, “now we know there are more. Did you find out what the rate of twist was on the last one?”

“Why, does it matter?”

“Ninety percent of all two-seventies will have a one-in-twelve twist,” I said, “but some custom rifles and Weatherby’s have a one-in-fourteen twist. It could help nail down the rifle.”

But that’s where the investigation bogged down. They didn’t find a felt-tipped pen—so we knew the killer came up to examine the body. They did find another bullet, which confirmed what we already knew, and the lab said the rifle had a one-in-fourteen twist, but there was no clue as to who might have done the shooting, or why.

But then I saw Bunny emerging from a local restaurant with a guy I’d never seen before. It seemed strange—Bunny had always been a stay-at-home eater. Later, I saw the two of them motoring down East Avenue in Bunny’s car; the stranger was driving.

The following day I went to the local elementary school and asked the principal if I could talk to Willy Earnwright. He agreed, and Willy confirmed what I already suspected. There was a man staying at the house; his name was Jim Dutton.

I went back to Joe Baxter.

“Here’s what I think happened. First, this Dutton guy scouts around until he finds an odd couple—for lack of a better term—a man who has married for money, and a woman who married a trophy husband, so to speak. He then knocks off the husband and, after a time, he puts the bum’s rush on the widow. He’s never had any contact with either of them in the past, so no one would suspect him. If he’d been having an affair with the wife before the murder, he’d be suspect number one, but he moves in after the fact.”

“That’s pretty far-fetched,” the sheriff said, but he agreed to look into the possibility, and to bring Jim Dutton in for questioning.

Two days later, I called Joe Baxter to find out how it went with Dutton.

“Not his real name,” Joe told me. “Name is James Gilchrist; he’s done time for embezzlement. He’s still on parole.”

“How about the rifle?” I asked

“He got real squirmy about that. We’re keeping an eye on him, hoping he’ll lead us to it.”

That afternoon, I ran into Bunny and Jim Dutton at the supermarket. She was whizzing around in an electric gizmo and he was getting things that were too high for her to reach.

After she introduced us, I informed her that the sheriff had re-opened the investigation into Harvey’s death. “They’ve got a lead on the gun, and Joe mentioned something about a felt-tipped pen.”

Dutton’s eyes acquired a look of desperation; I’d struck a nerve.

The next afternoon I spied the wideness of Bunny Earnwright on a bleacher, watching a Little League game in which Willy was pitching. I walked across the grass to talk to her.

“Where’s Jim?” I asked.

“Packed his things and left in the middle of the night,” she said. “I don’t know what got into him.”

I shook my head at the marvel of it all.

“He’ll be back,” she confided. “He told me he loved me.”

I patted her hand where it rested on the crook of her cane. “I’m sure he will,” I said, and turned to leave. Bunny is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known. It was awful this had to happen to her.
pencil

Robert Bennett is a regionalist writer from Oregon. Much of his material is centered around the Pacific Northwest. Email: trombone2[at]hotmail.com

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