We pulled Jared Blake’s car out of Possum Lake on a scalding afternoon in July of ‘56. We’d had a drought that summer—worst in 50 years, the old-timers said. That’s why Mary Pritchard spotted the roof just above the water. The lake was usually pretty deep along that stretch of road several miles out from town.
Bob Pritchard hauled the car out with his big farm truck. I stood on the bank and watched it come up—a rusted wreck, pre-War. I was a young sheriff, but I’d seen a lot overseas. So I didn’t holler when I saw what was in the front seat.
“Guess we’d better let Zeke handle it,” I said to my deputy, who looked sick.
Zeke the coroner was an old-timer, and right away he said,
“I’ll bet it’s Jared Blake.”
“Before your time.”
“Any kin to old Jeb?”
“Yep. Ever heard of the Prodigal Son?”
“Well, that’s what we all thought about Jared Blake. But this prodigal’s not coming home.”
I didn’t want to tell Jeb Blake about his son. Except for his ranch hands, he lived all alone on a huge spread west of Possum Lake. First time I met Jeb, I thought he hated the Law—but then I found out he hated everyone. He didn’t talk, he growled, and his face looked like rough stone with a sneer carved on it.
I drove out to the ranch alone. Jeb’s house looked a lot like him: big, gray, square, ugly. No trees around. Hardly any windows.
Before I got out of the car, Jeb was there. I let him yell for a while—he thought I’d come about taxes—and when he paused for breath I said,
“I’m not here about your tax bill, Mr. Blake. We’ve found your son.”
He bared his teeth and spat.
“My son? That good-for-nothing weasel...!? Come back, has he, expects me to forgive and forget? Well, I’m not...”
“Mr. Blake,” I interrupted, “you don’t understand.”
I told him about finding the car. And he stared at me, and I couldn’t tell what he was thinking.
When I’d finished, we stood still, both of us, for about a minute. The air was still and dry and hot. Somewhere off in the distance, I could hear Blake’s ranch hands shouting at each other.
“Better come back to town with me,” I said at last.
“Guess so,” said Jeb, and we got into the car.
The whole way to town, he didn’t say one word. I never liked small talk, so I didn’t mind. I wouldn’t have known what to say to him, anyway.
When we got back, Zeke told me what I’d expected to hear. No evidence of foul play, he said. Accident, most likely, and the boy had been trapped and drowned.
He put something on my desk that looked like it might’ve been canvas—ruined now, of course, wrapped around a soggy mass of something. Jeb Blake made a noise, but I didn’t look at him until Zeke went out and closed the door.
Before I could start asking questions, Jeb said,
“Yep.” Jeb looked straight ahead, but not at me. “Jared had ideas... newfangled notions about running the ranch. I didn’t wanna listen... so he talked about heading out West. He had his own car, but I didn’t think he’d go. And then...” His mouth moved strangely. “And then it was the end of the month, and... he went to take the bank deposit, all the cash from the safe... Cold it was that day, icy... but when he didn’t come back...”
“You thought he’d stolen the money and run away?”
“Yep. That’s what I thought.”
I looked down at the mess on the desk, and saw it for what it was: a wad of paper money, mashed together, rotted, ruined.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Blake,” I said, my throat dry. “Anything I can... do for you?”
“Wish you could give me back the 20 years I hated him.” Jeb still didn’t look at me. “It’s been a long, cold winter...”
Strange thing to say in the middle of July. But I knew what he meant.
“You’re right,” I said, “but it’s summer now.” I wasn’t talking about the weather, either.
Jeb sat there a long time. Then he said, almost to himself,
“My Jared... he was a good boy...”
His mouth moved in an odd sort of way. Maybe I was wrong—but it sure looked like he was trying to smile.
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