EVAN BURNETTE AND THE SERPENT’S VENOM
By cj petterson
Evan Burnette’s cell phone went off at the same time he started twisting the hickory handle of the claw hammer through a hoop at the fence post to tighten the wire and re-balance the gate. He peeled off his thick leather glove, plucked the phone out of his belt clip, and checked the name on the display.
“Hey, Boss.” Evan expected to hear the voice of his wrangler boss, Lou Kildeer. Instead it was Steve Carradine, the owner of Rancho LaCascabel, the cattle spread everyone called La Bel.
“Evan, where are you?” Steve asked, his voice terse.
“At the loading pens in the north pasture. What do you need?” Evan wiped the sweat off his brow with his sleeve.
“Sander’s had an accident at the cabin.”
“Better get over here.”
Evan threw the tools into the back of the pickup. What’s Steve doing at Dad’s? Thirty minutes later, his tires skidded to a stop in the gravel at his father’s cabin. He jogged past idling County Sheriff cars, hesitated a second next to the covered bed of the coroner’s pickup truck then took the porch steps two at a time.
The house smelled of burned coffee, and something he couldn’t identify put a coppery taste in his mouth.
He strode into the kitchen where Sheriff Dan Merton stood in a hushed conversation with Steve Carradine and Mitchell Hargreaves, the local medico who, when necessary, also acted as the coroner.
The sheriff’s two deputies, Bradford Neil and Johnnie Slaughter, were raising a gurney that held a blue body bag.
Evan’s eyes were drawn to a wide pool of deep red liquid on the colorless linoleum under the table. He inhaled a gasp.
Carradine intercepted him. “Evan, I’m real sorry.”
“Snake bite,” Doc Hargreaves said.
Evan ran the zipper on the body bag down as far as the second button on his father’s shirt.
“You might not want to do that,” Merton said.
Evan pushed aside the blue bag and stared at his father. “Aw, Dad,” he groaned.
Sander Burnette’s ashen face had multiple pairs of swollen and bloody holes on his cheek and neck.
“He must’ve fallen into a nest of rattlers,” Merton said. “They struck him almost a dozen times.”
Evan looked at Doc Hargreaves. “He would’ve called for help. Why did it take you so long?”
“His cell’s on the kitchen table there,” the sheriff said and pointed. “Not working. He must’ve let the battery die.”
Evan swallowed hard then rubbed his hand over his face. “How’d you find out?”
“I stopped by, to say howdy, and found him,” Carradine said.
“Snake bite’s not what killed him,” Doc said.
Evan’s face asked the question.
“He would have been going into shock, about to pass out,” Doc said. “It looks like he decided to take control of how he died.” Doc cleared his throat. “Sorry, Evan. No easy way to say this. He slit his wrists.”
Evan looked again at the floor. The taste of copper in his mouth had come from the drying blood. “There’d be no reason for him to do that,” Evan said. “Antivenin could’ve saved him.
The coroner shook his head. “He had a dead phone. With him not being able to call for help, that’s not likely. He took too many hits. He knew it’d be a slow and very painful death.”
Hargreaves laid a gentle hand on Evan’s shoulder. “I’ll have to do an autopsy.”
“You said he—”
“I know, but the law says I have to do an autopsy in circumstances like these. You go on home, now. I’ll get somebody over here to clean up,” Doc said and swept his hand toward the kitchen floor.
“No,” Evan said. “I’ll do it.”
The look in Evan’s gray eyes quieted Doc’s protest. He turned and nodded at Bradford and Johnnie. “Carry him on out to the truck. I’ll be there directly.”
Evan let his hand trail over his father’s body as the EMTs rolled the gurney through the doorway.
“I’m real sorry for your loss, son,” Doc said softly, put on his Stetson and walked out.
Sheriff Merton slipped a small note pad and ballpoint pen into his shirt pocket, buttoned it down then cleared his throat. “Saying I’m sorry doesn’t say enough, Evan. Sander was a good man and a good friend. You let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
Evan collapsed into one of the wooden kitchen chairs, his eyes fixed on his father’s blood. After a few seconds, the sheriff patted him on the back and left.
Evan, suddenly intense, rummaged around in a desk drawer and found the family portrait taken at Risen Son Baptist Church when he was twelve. He touched his fingers to each face.
Three years ago, his mother drove away with his younger sister and never returned. Sheriff said she’d taken a curve too fast and rolled over. If they’d been wearing seatbelts, they wouldn’t have been ejected, but the ten-year-old pickup wasn’t equipped with the safety equipment. He’d closed his law practice in Colorado Springs and came home to Hobarth, Nevada, to be near his ailing father. Working as a ranch hand for Steve Carradine at LaBel was a return to his youth when he’d worked side by side with his father on this land that had once been theirs.
Evan sat down in the saddle-brown leather chair his father kept in front of the picture window that framed the dusty green sage and Ponderosa pines in the distance. Propping his boots on the ottoman, he gazed, unseeing, at Sander’s favorite scene. He pressed the photo hard to his chest while silent tears dripped off his chin. “Damn it, old man. What were you doing?” Then he broke down and sobbed uncontrollably.
The cabin was dark when Evan stirred from the chair. Flipping the switch on a lamp, he placed the photo back into the drawer. He skirted the mahogany stain on the floor and filled a three-gallon bucket half-full of cold water at the kitchen sink and poured in a stream of bleach. He threw cupped handfuls of water on his face, and scoured off the dirty tracks of his tears with a rough towel. He used a scrub brush on the legs of the table and chairs before carrying them to the porch. Then he threw the water of the floor, grabbed the mop from behind the door, and began to clean up.
He scrubbed the floor twice. While it was drying, he sat on the porch and toyed with the dead cell phone. It’d taken a lot of convincing to get his father to agree he needed a cell phone in case of emergency. Evan had instructed Sander on its use and had programmed his own cell number as number one on the speed dial. Cracking the back, he discovered the battery pack was gone. I didn’t think you knew how to open this thing.
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