Hunter’s Dance: A John McIntire Mystery #2

Hunter’s Dance: A John McIntire Mystery #2

Autumn in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula means hunting season, and the fall of 1950 finds most everyone in St. Adele township hunting for something—deer, grouse, uranium; love, redemption, escape; a story, ...

About The Author

Kathleen Hills

Kathleen Hills spent the first forty years of her life in rural northern Minnesota before leaving for the real world ...

Read an Excerpt

I

 

Trust not the dance; many a foot slides lightly across the polished floor while the heart is heavy as lead.

 

Constable John McIntire squinted through the brew of cigarette smoke and the dust brought forth by a couple of hundred stamping feet to consult the clock above the door. Eleven-oh-five. Past the halfway point at least. He yawned and lounged back into the wall. Wall leaning was his job, after all, and, being of lanky build, he flattered himself that he did it well. He slid down another vertebra length. If he let his eyelids droop a little, the murky tableau before him blurred even more. Bodies swayed and gyrated, looming large as they came near, diminishing as they were whisked away to obscurity in the pale glowing haze. It gave the scene a surreal Dante’s Inferno sort of quality. But these whirling specters were accompanied by no Paganini with a violin. They romped to the strictly metered rhythms of Frankie King and his Polka Princes.

The music slowed and the dancers with it, strolling sedately with measured tread, to erupt a half minute later   in another frenzy of flying skirts and stomping boots. The Butterfly, a dry-land version of Crack the Whip set to music, where entertainment value is measured in bruised toes and dislocated shoulders. McIntire aimed what he hoped was a encouraging smile in his wife’s direction as she skipped past, clinging for life to the arm of the surprisingly nimble Doctor Mark Guibard. He fingered the empty glass in his hand and mused on what a bottle of Seagram’s and an accordion could do for a bunch of phlegmatic Scandinavians and Finns. It was inconceivable that these whooping masters of Terpsichore were the same men who, if you met one of them in town tomorrow, would gaze intently toward the horizon, scratch, grunt out a few monosyllables about the weather and how it might affect the killing of deer or the felling of trees, and be on his stolid way.

Terpsichore. McIntire rolled the word around in his head and wished that he had the guts to speak it aloud.

Well, come to that, the cavortings of his lumberjack neighbors were no more remarkable than his own part in the festivities. If, a year ago, some seer had told him that tonight he’d be leaning against this wall with a badge on his chest keeping watch over the herd, it would likely have given him a mild chuckle. Had he gotten even the slightest glimmer that such a circumstance truly awaited him, he might have taken the easy way out with a leap off the Houghton bridge.

Frankie and the Princes bent their backs to a final downbeat and the thunder faded to a rumble. Dancers held their ground and fanned their faces, shifting from foot to foot in anticipation of the next round. Out of the corner of his eye McIntire spotted Arnie Johnson headed in his direction, threading his way through the crowd like a trout swimming upstream. It was evidence of his desperation that he felt no urge to flee  at Johnson’s approach. Even The World According to Arnie would be a welcome distraction tonight.

“Bump?” Johnson extended a hefty brown bottle, his hand strategically placed over the label. McIntire held out his glass to accept a measure of Arnie’s generosity.

“Where in hell did all these people come from?” he asked.

“Ya, nice turnout.” Johnson’s sparsely thatched head bobbed in an emphatic nod. “Well, the weather’s been so good, and we got all them uranium hunters hanging around. Out looking for a little excitement, don’t you know?”

The band cranked to life again, a polka this time, only slightly less boisterous than the previous selection. The din in the hall was sufficient to defeat a lesser storyteller, but Arnie valiantly sucked in his breath and shouted out, “I remember back in, oh…I guess it musta been better’n ten years ago now, thirty-eight or thirty-nine, before the war, anyway, same kinda thing, good weather, big turnout. People came from over in Ishpeming, Houghton, even a bunch down from Marquette. Fishermen, miners, loggers on one last toot before heading out for the woods.” He stretched up on his toes to give McIntire’s shoulder a conspiratorial punch. “Maybe even a hunter, eh?”

Johnson was particularly animated in the telling of this tale. McIntire held his breath for the climax. A move prompted less by suspense than by his proximity to Arnie’s firewater-laden exhalations.

“Well, like I say, same thing like this, that day started out piss-warm. Hell, it was like the middle of Joo-lie! But before the night was out, by golly if we didn’t have three feet of snow! It was four days before the plows got through, and half that crew ended up stuck right here.” He wrapped his lips around the neck of his bottle, flung back his head, swallowed, and smacked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. McIntire hastily lowered his glass.

“Sounds interesting.”

“You bet.” Johnson jerked back as a shoe from an energetic Cinderella flew past his chest and hit the wall. “And I tell you this for goldarn sure, you lock up a gang of miners and loggers for three-four days without much to eat, but plenty to drink by God, and plenty scared girls, and…well, let’s just say the lawyers and parsons were kept busy that winter.” Arnie paused for McIntire’s dutifully appreciative chuckle and tipped up his bottle again, tilting back his head and swallowing like some kind of barnyard fowl. “Now there was a Deer Hunters’ Dance to remember.” He embarked on another vigorous round of head-bobbing, basking in the recollection, before asking, “Anybody giving you trouble tonight?”

“Not so far.”

Johnson shrugged away his disappointment. “Ah well, the night’s young yet. People’re just starting to get oiled up.”

His assessment of the situation was reinforced by a shrill scream that sliced through the cacophony and halted musicians and dancers alike in mid-polka. Within seconds the thuds, grunts, and curses issuing in through the open windows sent them all into action once more. McIntire barely made it out the door ahead of the stampede. He rounded the dark side of the hall and strode toward a cluster of pale-faced adolescents who fell silent and backed away like a flock of startled sheep at his approach. At the center of their circle a stick-thin youngster with lank black hair obscuring the upper half of his face, and blood pretty much covering the lower, struggled to rise from the frost-slicked grass.

McIntire stepped forward and seized the upraised arm of a sturdy youth lunging in for another blow. After a single brief attempt to free himself, the young man stood still. The injured boy slipped to the ground again, grabbing at his ankle with fumbling movements. McIntire grasped his bony shoulder and yanked him to his feet. He shuddered and swayed but remained erect. Blood spurted from his nose, and McIntire released his hold long enough to pull a handkerchief from his pocket and thrust it toward him. The boy glared and wiped his sleeve across his face. His gasp told McIntire that the nose was probably broken.

Damn. Now what? McIntire’s first impulse was to give each of the combatants a healthy swat on the rear, send them packing, and get back to his wall leaning. He had absolutely no wish to know the details of this altercation. But, from what he’d seen, it was more than the usual hormone-driven shoving match. Not to mention that he had the entire community and then some standing at his back, probably even now taking bets on what action, or inaction, their constable would take. He tightened his grip on each antagonist’s arm and leaned toward a group of shivering, wide-eyed girls. “Shoo!” They jumped and drew closer together, but held firmly to their ringside position. A muffled giggle came from somewhere in the dimness.

McIntire gave up and dragged the two into the cloakroom. He swept a collection of scarves and mittens off a wooden bench and shoved them down next to each other. They immediately moved to opposite ends of the seat, folded their arms, and sat staring straight ahead.

McIntire took a deep breath. “Okay, what’s this all about?” His question was received with the silence he’d expected.

“You been drinking?” If they hadn’t been they were likely the only non-imbibers over the age of twelve on the premises.

“You don’t have to be drunk to show a goddamn redskin his place.” The apparent assailant growled his response. He then abruptly swapped his belligerent pose for a more nonchalant attitude, stretching his stubby legs in front of him and speaking with a smirking confidence. “But if, in doing so, I’ve created a disturbance, I sincerely apologize. If there’s been damage done, I’m sure my family will take care of it. It needn’t concern you.”

Would that it needn’t. McIntire took his time dragging a chair from the corner and seated himself to face his prisoner. The boy reached to remove a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket but halted at McIntire’s glare.

“What’s your name, son?”

He sat up straighter and locked his eyes on McIntire’s. In the light from the ceiling bulb he appeared older than McIntire had first guessed, eighteen or nineteen, maybe. He was stocky and muscular, with a glint of humor in his light brown eyes that almost served to soften the pretentious sneer. “Bambi Morlen,” he replied. “How unfortunate that we had to meet under these circumstances.”

Bambi? Good lord, no wonder the kid had learned how to throw a right jab like that.

Bambi wiped his hand on his muddied shirt and extended it to McIntire. “And you are?”

McIntire ignored both the hand and the question. “Are your parents here?”

The response was an appropriately deerlike snort. Bambi abandoned his David Niven persona. “Are you nuts? My old man wouldn’t be caught dead in a hick place like this.”

“Do you live around here?”

His nose wrinkled as if McIntire had suggested that he occupied a basement apartment in the privy. “I live in Connecticut. My family summers here in Michigan, at the Club.” McIntire had no doubt as to the residence in question. “Club” meant only one thing in St. Adele, but he was perverse

enough to ask, “And just what club would that be?”

Bambi smiled, showing dimples and perfect white teeth. “Oh, I’m sorry. How thoughtless of me. I was referring to the Shawanok Fishing Club, but of course you would have others. To which do you belong?”

McIntire could see that he was no more match for Bambi at not-so-thinly veiled derision than his other prisoner was at fisticuffs. He turned his attention to the “redskin.” Lord, did people outside of the movies really use that word?

This particular redskin had picked up some unfortunate soul’s scarf and wiped enough blood off his face for McIntire to recognize Marvin Wall, grandson of George Armstrong Wall, known to the masses as “Walleye” and to McIntire as the SOB who had so inconsiderately died and passed on to him this millstone job of township constable.

“Is your dad here, Marve?”

“Adam dropped me.” Marvin spoke his brother’s name with a note of pride that bordered on reverence and lifted his battered chin when he added, “I’m living at his place now. But he went home already.”

“Well, as soon as you tell me what this was all about, you can both go, too.” McIntire turned back to Bambi. “You might as well come out with it. I don’t suppose your old man will be overjoyed if I have to call him out to a hick place like this…or to the county jail.”

“Ask Karen Sorenson, she’s the one that asshole’s been bothering.”

A girl. Hell, what else had he expected? So the fight was glandular-based after all.

McIntire heard the opening pulses of a lively schottische and wished fervently to be among those prancing around the room. Not that as constable it would be prudent to consume anywhere near an amount of alcohol sufficient to get him out on the floor for a schottische. Another penalty for being a civil servant.

He prayed for strength. The last thing he wanted to hear was a blow by blow report of the alleged bothering, particularly not from the defender of the young lady’s honor. Did his position oblige him to ask the girl herself? He recoiled at the prospect of such a tawdry inquiry.

“Did Karen Sorenson tell you she was having a problem?”

“She didn’t have to, I’ve got eyes in my head. And I can tell when somebody’s not wanted.” He turned an acid gaze on Marvin Wall. “Too bad I can’t say the same for the goddamn redskin.”

McIntire clenched his jaw. According to his watch, he’d been closeted with the two for close to fifteen minutes. Surely that fulfilled his civic duty. “You got a car?” he asked.

Young Master Morlen positively sniffed. “What do you think?”

McIntire motioned him to his feet. Bambi rose slowly, flexed his fingers and brushed a few flecks of dried grass from his sleeve. As he crossed to the door, Marvin Wall casually stretched a leg into his path. Bambi stumbled, righted himself, ignored Wall, and preceded McIntire out.

“Well, get in that car and get out of here,” McIntire said. “Don’t let me catch you in any trouble again. And,” he added, “stay away from Marve. You just might find out he’s not so defenseless as he seems.”

What looked suspiciously like a complacent smile flitted briefly across Bambi Morlen’s face before he said a formal “good evening” and disappeared around the corner of the building.

McIntire sucked in a few lungfuls of unsullied air before returning to the fusty cloakroom. Marvin Wall still sat on the corner of the bench, but his posture had gone from defiantly erect to a dejected slump. His arms remained folded, and he’d wedged himself back among the heavy overcoats that hung on the wall, no doubt to conceal himself from the bevy of revelers who had suddenly found some pressing need to visit their outerwear. McIntire herded the onlookers out and sat down next to him. It was time he addressed the reason he’d felt compelled to blow up this apparent molehill into, if not a mountain, at least a good-sized knoll.

“All right, Marve, hand it over.” “What?”

“Whatever it is you have in your sock.”

Marvin pulled up the muddy cuff of his baggy twill pants, stretched back a wide rubber band, and extracted a leather-sheathed knife. He handed it to McIntire without argument. McIntire drew the knife from its sheath and felt his heart thump at the sight of the lethal five-inch blade protruding from the intricately carved bone handle. A puukko to his Finnish neighbors. He controlled his urge to shake the kid until his hair fell out, and regarded the swelling nose and crusted blood that decorated his impassive face. “Dr. Guibard’s here. We’ll get him to take a look at you before you go. Do you know somebody that can take you home?”

He already knew the answer to that. He’d warned Bambi Morlen to stay away from Marvin, but what could he say in a similar vein to Marvin himself? Steer clear of Bambi and his friends, and, while you’re at it, stay away from all the other young people, too, and most of the older ones, for that matter? McIntire knew well what being…different was like, but also knew that the alienation he’d experienced at various times throughout his life, that still arose from time to time, was nothing compared to the ostracism suffered by the likes of Marvin Wall. Marvin’s attempts to find friends among the white youngsters of St. Adele were unlikely to meet with anything but misery. He couldn’t tell the kid that. Anyway he was no doubt finding it out for himself.

“We’ll get you a ride back to your brother’s.” McIntire flipped the knife over in his hand. “This could have gotten you a whole lot worse than a sore nose, Marve.” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and dealt him one more blow, this time a little below the belt. “It’s just as well that your brother’s gone home. He wouldn’t have been proud of you tonight.”

Marvin stiffened and moved away. “Adam Wall never lets people push him around,” he said, “and that’s not the only knife in the world.”

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