MINISTERIAL AID
Written by Craig Johnson
Narrated by George Guidall

  The Millennium: January 1, 2000—6:20 A.M.

I was driving south on I-25 and kept sneaking glances through my half-closed eyes in hopes of seeing those first, dull, yellow rays of daylight crawling up from the horizon.

My county in northern Wyoming is approximately seven thousand square miles—about the size of Vermont or New Hampshire—and it’s a long way from one end to the other, especially in times of crisis, so in my line of work it pays to have a substation.

Powder Junction, the second largest town in Absaroka County, straddles the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains and the Powder River country and is forty-five minutes of straight-as-an-arrow driving from Durant, the county seat. This little settlement of five hundred brave souls is where I subject at least one of the deputies on my staff to some of the most bucolic duty they’ll likely ever withstand in a lifetime of law enforcement.

I didn’t make it down here very often—in fact, I hadn’t made it much of anywhere since my wife, Martha, had died a few months earlier. The reason I was here, very hungover and very early on New Year’s Day, was because I owed Turk Connally, the lone member of my Powder Junction staff, a paycheck. I hadn’t gotten it to him on Friday, which was payday, because it was New Year’s Eve. The reason I was driving the hundred miles round-trip to hand-deliver Turk’s check instead of mailing it was that I had gotten into an altercation with the county commissioners over the price of stamps. Since they pay for my gas, I thought I’d teach them a lesson.

As I drove along, with a thrumming headache, I began wondering to whom it was I was teaching that lesson.

Turk generally slept late but especially the morning after a holiday, so I knew he wouldn’t be at the office. I unlocked the door of the old Quonset hut that served as our headquarters south and left his check on the desk.

I was on my way out when the rotary-dial phone rang. I knew that after three rings the call would be transferred to the rented house where Turk lived, so in the spirit of the season I decided to cut the kid a break and answer it. “Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department.”

The voice was female and uncertain. “Turk?”

“Nope, it’s Walt.”

There was a pause. “Who?”

“Walt Longmire, the sheriff.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Walt. I must’ve dialed the Durant number . . .”

“No, I’m here in Powder Junction. How can I help you?”

She adjusted the phone, and I could hear another voice in the background as she fumbled with the receiver. “It’s Elaine Whelks, the Methodist preacher down here, and I’m over at the Sinclair station by the highway.” There was another pause. “Walt, I think we’ve got a situation.”

* * *

My head pounding, I drove the short distance through town and under the overpass past the entrance to the rest stop and turned into the service station. I noticed a late-model Buick parked at the outskirts of the lot over near the sign that advertised gas at $1.54 a gallon to passing motorists, a price that would definitely teach the commissioners. It was still mostly dark as I parked between a tan sedan and a Jeep Cherokee, climbed out of my four-year-old Bronco, which was adorned with stars and light bars, and trudged inside.

There were two women holding steaming Styrofoam cups of coffee who were seated on some old café chairs to the left of the register. They both looked up at me as I stood by their table.

“Happy New Year.”

They said nothing.

“I’m Walt Longmire.”

They still stared at me, but maybe it was my bathrobe.

“The sheriff.” I glanced down at the old, off-white, pilled housecoat, a gift from my newly dead wife. “I wasn’t planning on making any public appearances today.”

The older woman in the purple, down-filled jacket extended her hand. “Elaine Whelks, Sheriff. I’m the one who called.” She looked at the robe again and then quickly added, “I knew Martha through the church, and I’m so sorry about your loss. She was a wonderful woman.”

I squeezed the bridge of my nose with a thumb and forefinger and gave the automatic response I’d honed over the last couple of months. “Thank you.”

The younger woman, heavyset and wearing a Deke Latham Memorial Rodeo sweatshirt, rose and smiled at me a little sadly. “Would you like a cup of coffee, Sheriff?”

I nodded my head and sat on one of the chairs. “Sure.”

The older woman studied me, and she looked sad, too; maybe it was just me, but everybody seemed sad these days. She dipped her head to look me in the eyes. “I’m the Methodist minister over at St. Timothy’s.”

I nodded. “You said.”

“How are you doing, Walt?”

The throbbing in my head immediately got worse. “Hunky-dory.”

Her eyes stayed on me. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen your hair this long.”

I pushed it back from my face, and it felt like even the follicles ached. “I’ve been meaning to get it cut, but I’ve been kind of busy.”

She changed the subject. “How’s Cady?”

I laughed but immediately regretted it.

“Something funny, Sheriff?”

My daughter was in law school in Washington and had been in Crossroads to keep me company over the holidays. I shrugged, thinking that if I could get this over with quick, I could go home and back to sleep, sleeping being a part-time occupation lately. “We had a fight last night.”

“You and Cady?”

I nodded. “She got mad; went back to Seattle.” Breaking off the conversation, I looked out the window. “Maybe you’d better tell me what it is you need my assistance with.”

The preacher sighed and then gestured toward the other woman, who was on her way back to the table with my cup of coffee. “She called me this morning and said that Jason, the young man who works nights, left her a note that a woman was parked at the end of the lot.”

Liz set the large cup in front of me along with a bowl of creamers and some sugar packets; I didn’t know her, so she didn’t know my habits. “Black is fine. Thanks.” I took a sip—it was hot and good.

“We generally don’t pay very much attention to these types of things. People get tired and pull off the interstate; maybe they feel more comfortable over here with someone around than at the rest stop—a woman especially.”

I pulled my hair back again—I was going to have to ask my old friend Henry Standing Bear for a leather strap if I didn’t get a haircut pretty soon—and sipped the coffee, dribbling a little on the table. “Uh-huh.”

“But she was still here this morning when I opened up.”

I set my cup back down. “I see.”

Liz glanced over my shoulder toward the parking lot. “She came over about twenty minutes ago and filled her tank—used the credit card machine and then pulled back there again.”

I glanced behind me, eyeing the vehicle. “She ran it all night?”

Elaine nodded her head. “That’s the only way you’d be able to stay out there, as cold as it is.”

“Local or out-of-state plates?” They both looked at me blankly as I turned my cup in the coffee I’d spilled. “Did you talk to her?”

“I did.” Liz pointed at the minister. “And then I called her.”

Looking back at Elaine and then over to Liz, I thought about how in some instances my staff and I also contacted the local clergy to provide assistance to needy travelers. “She needed ministerial aid?”

The two women looked at each other, then the pastor turned back to me. “She says she’s waiting on the Messiah.”

I laughed. “Aren’t we all?”

Elaine leaned in close but then retreated a little, probably from the smell. I hadn’t been bathing regularly, being so busy sleeping. “I’m serious, Sheriff. She says she’s supposed to meet Him. Here. Today.”

I wasn’t sure if I’d heard her right. “Jesus?”

“Yes.”

“Jesus.” I sighed, glancing around trying not to cast aspersions, but it was hard. “Returning after two thousand years and He chooses the Sinclair station in Powder Junction, Wyoming?”

“Apparently.”

I ran my hand through my beard. “Well, I guess I’d better go talk to her.”

As I stood, Elaine held out a roll of breath mints. “Maybe you should have a few of these . . . for the coffee, you know?”

Liz touched the stained sleeve of my bathrobe but only briefly. “And, Sheriff?” She looked out the window. “She has a knife.”

* * *

There are twenty-four counties in Wyoming, and each one’s assigned number sits in front of Steamboat, the bucking horse that is the symbol for the state on the longest-running license plate design in the world. Absaroka, being the least populated, gets twenty-four—the number that was on the Buick—so it was not only in-state but also in-county. Stumbling across the snow-covered parking lot in my moccasins, I approached the car, exhaust clouding the air on the driver’s side.

The woman was elderly, probably approaching eighty years of age, dressed in a pair of sweatpants and an oversized parka with fake fur around the collar.

Standing there on the hard-packed snow, I tapped on the window.

It startled her, and I could clearly see the butcher knife clutched in her hands as she turned to look at me. Her face was wet from tears, one of her eyes was swollen shut, and I was betting she had a full-blown headache to match mine. She stared at me the same way the ladies in the convenience store had.

I watched my breath cloud the window between us as the wind lifted the hem of the bathrobe. “Hey, could I speak with you for a moment?”

She sat there with her mouth a little open and then began fumbling at finding the window button, but when she did, it only whined a little and then pulled at the rubber weather seal at the top—frozen shut.

I gestured toward the passenger-side door. “How ’bout I come around and get in?”

She nodded, and I ambled my way around the four-door and pulled on the handle—it too, frozen shut. Unwilling to take no for an answer, I put all six feet five inches and two hundred and thirty pounds behind the effort and almost took the door off. I quickly climbed in and slammed it shut behind me.

It seemed warmer in the car, but not by much. The radio was on some AM station, and a guy was screaming about it being the Millennium, and therefore the end of the world, and about salvation and a bunch of other stuff. I didn’t think my head could hurt any more than it already did, but the radio was so loud that the pain escalated. I reached up, turned the thing off, and looked at her. “Sorry, I can’t take that crap.”

She stared at me with her mouth still hanging open.

I was ready to rest my head on the dash but figured I’d better see what was what first. I stamped the snow off my moccasins onto the rubber floor mats. “Lot of snow.”

She nodded.

I gestured toward the weapon in her hands. “Mind if I have the knife?”

Without hesitation, she handed it to me, and I placed it on the floor by my feet. I turned back to look at her, but she was the first to speak. “You . . . You’re bigger than I thought you’d be.”

It seemed like an odd thing to say, especially since I was pretty sure I didn’t know her. “I get that a lot.” She seemed to want more, so I added, “From my father’s side.”

She nodded, studying me. “I understand.”

I straightened the collar of my robe. “I apologize for the way I’m dressed, but I really wasn’t planning on going out today.”

“That’s okay.”

She started crying, and I felt a little empathetic twinge. “I’ve had some problems of my own as of late . . .”

She nodded enthusiastically, wiping the tears away with the back of a hand aged with spots and wrinkled skin, careful to avoid the wounded eye. “Me, too.”

I held my fingers out to the heater vents, stretching them as a matter of course, buying time till my head stopped hurting enough so that I could concentrate. “I guess that’s what this life is all about, getting from one trouble to the next, at least in my job.”

She turned in the seat. “I would imagine; and you get everybody’s problems.”

“Pretty busy, especially during the holidays.”

“Yes.” Her eyes shone. “Everybody thought I was crazy, but I said you’d come.”

I looked around and yawned, the popping in my head sounding like gunshots. “Well, when we get a call . . .” I sat there for a moment longer, looking at her, and then reached a hand out and touched her cheek. “Tell me about this problem.”

She ducked her head away but then reached up and took my hand, holding it in her lap like she had held the knife. She didn’t say anything, and we just sat there, listening to the Buick’s motor running and the fan of the heater. “He doesn’t mean to do it.”

“Uh-huh.”

“But I forget things.” She sobbed a little. “I just don’t remember like I used to.” She stared at the dash, the instruments glowing a soft green.

* * *

It was a modest home on the outskirts of town, a single-level ranch, the kind that can contain a lot of rage. There was a yellowed-plastic, illuminated Santa in the yard, and I was surprised that when we met at the front of the car, she looked at it and then at me and said, “I hope you don’t mind.”

Wondering what she was talking about, I glanced at the jolly old elf and decided not to judge. “Um, no. I’m a big fan myself.”

Her spirits appeared buoyed. “Oh, good.”

Oddly, she took my hand again, and we walked up the shoveled walk to the front porch, a gold cast emanating from a needless bug bulb. As we stood there, she threaded her fingers into her parka and produced a prodigious key ring.

Suddenly, the door was yanked open, and a bald man with a Little League baseball bat in one hand was yelling at the two of us through the storm door; another wave of pain ricocheted around in my head.

“Where the hell have you been? Do you know there’s no damn cigarettes in this house?” Peering through heavily framed glasses, he glanced up at me. “And who the hell is this?”

Her head, having dropped in embarrassment, rose as she clutched my arm. “This, Ernie, is our Lord and Savior.”

I stopped pinching my nose in an attempt to relieve the pain and turned to look down at her. She smiled a hopeful smile, and then we both turned to look at her husband.

He stood there for a moment staring first at her, then at me, and then back to her before leaning the baseball bat against the doorjamb. “Jesus H. Christ.”

She smiled and nodded. “That’s right.”

I smiled—it seemed like the thing to do.

He pushed open the storm door, reached out, grabbed her hand, and half yanked her into the house. “God damn it, get in here before you wander out into traffic.”

He tried to close the door, but I caught it and held it open. He struggled, but I figured I had him by a hundred and fifty pounds. His eyes had a panicked look. “You’re not coming in here.”

I took the aluminum frame in my other hand and pulled him through onto the porch. “Nope, you’re coming out here.” I looked in at the elderly woman and smiled reassuringly, holding up my index finger. “We’ll be just a minute.”

She nodded and gave me a little wave.

I turned to the old man, who had shuttled toward the corner of the porch like a sand crab. He looked uncertain and then spoke in a low voice. “Look, if you’re a hobo and need some change . . .”

I shook my head.

He studied my bathrobe, even going so far as to check my wrists for a medical bracelet. “If you’re from some loony bin . . .”

I took my hand down and leaned on the other side of the door. “Do you know who I am?”

He clutched his arms in an attempt to ward off the cold. “Well, I know you’re not Jesus Christ.”

“I’m Walt Longmire, the sheriff of this county.”

He adjusted his glasses and leaned in, peering through my beard and hair, finally leaning back and nodding his head. “So you are.” On more solid ground, he smirked. “I hear tell you’re a drunk.”

I looked out in the yard toward the east where the sun was still struggling to shoot a beam over the frozen ground of the Powder River country. “Is that what they say?”

His teeth were starting to chatter now. “Yeah, it is.”

I stretched my jaw in a wide yawn again and tried to feel the cold, but it just wasn’t there; in all honesty, I just wanted to feel something, anything. Maybe that’s why I’d drunk so much after Cady left last night. “Well, they might be right.” I straightened my robe. “My wife died a couple of months ago.” I threaded my fingers through my beard and felt crumbs in there. “It wasn’t a perfect marriage by any means; we fought, about stupid things—when our daughter should go to bed, the color of the mailbox, money . . . But she was the best thing that ever happened to me.” I took a deep breath and exhaled, watching the twin clouds of vapor roll across my chest like a cartoon bull. “Maybe the best thing that ever will.”

He glanced at the closed door and then at the house slippers on his feet.

I flicked my eyes to the door as well. “She seems nice.”

He nodded. “Esther, her name is Esther.” He automatically stuck out his hand. “And I’m Ernie—Ernie Decker.”

I shook his hand and noticed the swelling and bruises. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Decker.”

He quickly tucked the hand back under his arm. “We’ve hit a rough patch these past few months.”

“Well, at least you’ve got her to have a rough patch with.”

We stood there for a while longer, then I pushed off the doorjamb and started toward the steps; I stopped on the second to turn and look at him, my head dropped, hair covering my face, and I was pretty sure that even from this distance, my voice was vibrating his lungs: “You hit her again and I’ll be back, and this time it won’t take me two thousand years.”

I walked down the shoveled path and driveway, took a left on Main, and struck off back the couple of miles toward the highway. After a moment, the tan Oldsmobile that had been parked at the Sinclair station pulled up beside me, and I heard a window whir down.

“Walter?” I stopped and turned to see the Methodist preacher leaning across the seat to look up at me. “I thought I’d follow you and see if you needed a ride back to your truck.”

“Thanks.” I continued to watch for the sunrise as I tightened the sash on my robe. “But I think I’ll just walk.”

She paused for a second. “Are you all right?”

“Yep.”

“How is the woman in the car?”

Watching the skyline still flat as a burned, black pancake, I chewed on the skin at the inside of my lip. “I think she’ll be okay.”

“She seemed awfully confused.”

Just then, I thought I might’ve caught sight of that first ray that shoots over the edge of the earth like a hopeful thought, and maybe, just maybe, I might’ve felt something. “Well, like the rest of us . . .” I sighed. “She’s just waiting on something.”


 

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