A Friend of a Hero
The gravel road forked unexpectedly and Neil Shannon slowed his convertible. On each side orange groves blocked his view, although to the right a steep hillside of dun-colored rock rose above the treetops. On that same side was a double gate in a graying split-rail fence.
He was about fifty miles northwest of Los Angeles, lost in a maze of orchards and small farms that was split by abrupt ridges and arroyos.
Neil Shannon got out of the car and walked to the gate. He was about to push it open when a stocky, hard-faced man stepped from the shrubbery. "Hold it, bud ... what do you want?"
"I'm looking for the Shaw place. I thought someone might tell me where it was."
"The Shaw place? What do you want to go there for?"
Shannon was irritated. "All I asked was the directions. If you tell me I'll be on my way."
The man jerked his head to indicate direction. "Right down the fork, but if you're looking for Johnny, he ain't home."
"No? So where could I find him?"
The man paused. "Down at Laurel Lawn, in town. He's been dead for three days."
Shannon shook out a cigarette. "You don't seem upset over losing a neighbor, Mr. Bowen."
"Where'd you get that name?" The man stared suspiciously at Shannon.
"It's on your mailbox, in case you've forgotten. Are you Steve Bowen?"
"I'm Jock Perult. The Bowen boys ain't around. As for Shaw, his place is just down the road there."
"Thanks." Shannon opened the door of his car. "Tell me, Jock, do you always carry a pistol when you're loafing around home?"
"It's for snakes, if it's any of your business." He tugged his shirttail down over the butt of a small pistol.
Shannon grinned at him and put the car in gear. Scarcely three hundred yards further along the gravel road on the same side was the Shaw place. Marjorie Shaw saw him drive through the gate and came out to meet him.
The man who followed her from the door had a grizzle of gray beard over a hard chin and a short-stemmed pipe in his teeth. He looked at Shannon with obvious displeasure.
There were formalities to be taken care of. She read the contract standing by the car and looked at his private investigator's license. Finally she raised the subject of money.
"Let's not worry about that right now," he told her. "Johnny Shaw was a friend of mine, I'll do what I can for a couple of days and we'll see where we are. I'm warning you, though, on paper his death looks like an accident. I'm not sure there is much I can do."
"Come in, and I'll fix you a drink."
As he turned to follow he caught a tiny flash of sunlight from the brush-covered hillside across the way. Then he glimpsed the figure of a man, almost concealed. A man interested enough in what was going on to watch through binoculars.
Shannon glanced at the older man. "You're Keller? How about it? Did Johnny have any enemies?"
"Ain't none of my affair and I don't aim to make it so," Keller replied brusquely. "I'm quitting this job. Going to Fresno. Always did figure to go to Fresno."
Marjorie Shaw was Johnny's sister, and though Shannon had never met her, he and John Shaw had been friends since the days before he had joined the police force. They had first met on a windy hillside in Korea. Now John was dead, his car crushed in a nearby ravine, and his sister thought that he had been intentionally killed.
The inside of the house was dim and cool. Shannon sat on the plaid sofa and listened to the girl moving about the kitchen. The door to the Frigidaire opened and closed; there was the sound of a spoon in a glass pitcher.
"After you called" — he spoke to her through the doorway — "I checked the report on the wreck. There was no indication of anything wrong. The insurance investigator agreed with the report. Clark, who investigated for the sheriff's office, said it was clearly an accident. Driving too fast or a drink too many."
She came in carrying a pitcher of iced tea and two glasses. "I didn't ask you out here, Mr. Shannon, to tell me what I've already heard.
However, Johnny did not drink. Furthermore, he was extremely cautious. He had never had an accident of any kind, and he had been driving over that road two or three times a day for four years. I want it looked into. For my peace of mind, if nothing else. That's why I called you. Johnny always said you were the smartest detective on the Los Angeles police force."
"We'll see ... I'm not with the police force any longer."
After the iced tea Marjorie Shaw drove Shannon out to the site of the wreck. They cut across the property on a dirt track and headed to where the county road came over the mountain from town. Emerging from Shaw's orange groves, they cut along the base of the hill. Although the car threw up a large cloud of dust, the track was well graded, and in the places where water drained, culverts had been installed. Obviously, Johnny Shaw had worked hard on his place and had accomplished a lot.
Marjorie pointed off to one side. "Johnny was going to dam that canyon and make a private lake," she explained. "Then, he intended to plant trees around it."
The canyon was rock-walled but not too deep. Dumped in the bottom were several junked cars.
"Did he intend to take those out?"
"Johnny was furious about them. He insisted the Bowens take them out, and they said that if he cared so much he could take them out himself."She paused. "This could be important, Mr. Shannon.... He tried to take it up with the county but the sheriffs and commissioners are all friends of the Bowens. I was with him when he went to the courthouse. They all got in a big fight and Johnny told that county commissioner that he would go to the DA if that was what it took and they got real quiet. After that we left. I was angry for Johnny and I didn't think about it much, but that's why I called you ... it wasn't two weeks later that Johnny died."
"He mentioned the DA?" Shannon asked.
"Yes, why would he do that? Over junked cars, it doesn't make sense!"
"Unless he knew about something else and was making a threat."
"That's what I thought, but what could it be?"
"Well, if it has something to do with his death it's something that either someone in county government or the Bowen brothers don't want known."
The Bowen brothers ... Shannon thought ... and their buddy Perult who carried a gun inside his shirt.
They turned out onto the county road and within minutes were at the curve where Johnny had run off the cliff. She stopped the car and he got out. The afternoon shadows were long, but down below he could see the twisted mass of metal that had been Johnny's car.
"I'd like to go down and look around. I'll only be a few minutes."
At the edge of the road, starting down, he paused briefly. There was broken glass on the shoulder. Bits of headlight glass. He picked up several fragments, and the ridges and diffusers in them were not identical. Pocketing several, he climbed and slid down the cliff.
Examining the wreck, he could see why Johnny had been killed. The car had hit several times on the way down. The destruction was so complete that the sheriffs had had to use a torch to cut the body out. Surprisingly enough, one headlight was intact. Two pieces of the glass he had picked up conformed with the headlight pattern. The others did not.
The police and ambulance crew had left a lot of tracks, but there was another set that stood off to the side, and they turned off down the canyon. In two places other tracks were superimposed upon them.
Curious, he followed the tracks down the canyon where they met with the tracks of someone who had waited there.
He was back beside Johnny's car when there was a sharp tug at his hat and an ugly whap as something struck the frame and whined angrily away. Shannon dropped and rolled to the protection of some rocks. In the distant hills there was the vague echo of a gunshot.
It could have been a spent bullet ... from someone hunting or shooting targets in the hills. Yet he knew it was nothing of the sort. That bullet had been fired by a man who meant to kill or, at least, warn. If he tried to get back up to the road, he might be shot.
He glanced up. Marjorie Shaw stood at the cliff's edge, looking down. "Get into the car," he called, just loud enough for her to hear, "and drive to the filling station on the highway. Wait there for me, in plain sight, with people around."
She looked pale and frightened when he got there a half hour later. His suit was stained with red clay and he showed her his hat.
"I called the sheriff," she said.
They heard the siren, and Deputy Sheriff Clark drew up. It was he whom Shannon had talked to about the accident.
He chuckled. "You city cops!" he scoffed. "That shot was probably fired by a late hunter, maybe a mile off. Now don't come down here trying to stir up trouble when there's no cause for it. Why would anyone try to kill someone investigating an accident?"
"What do you know about the Bowen outfit?"
Clark was bored. "Now look. Don't you go bothering people up here. The Bowens have got them a nice little place. They pay their taxes and mind their own business. Furthermore, the Bowens are rugged boys and want to be left alone."
"Didn't Johnny Shaw complain about them once?"
Clark was annoyed. "Suppose he did? Shaw was some kind of a hero in the Korean War and he came out here thinking he was really going to do big things. He may have been quite a man in the war, but he sure didn't stack up against Steven Bowen."
"What's that? They had a fight?"
"I guess so, seein' that Johnny Shaw got himself whipped pretty bad. I think Steve got the idea that Shaw was throwing his weight around over those junk cars, comin' on high and mighty because he had a medal or two. They went at it out back of the hardware store in Santa Paula. I offered to take Shaw's complaint afterwards but I guess he was too proud."
Marjorie turned abruptly and got into her car, eyes blazing. Shannon put a hand on the door, then glanced back at Clark. "Tell me something, Clark. Just where do you stand?"
Clark was beside their car in an instant. "I'll tell you where I stand. I stand with the citizens of this community. I don't want any would-be hero barging in here stirring up trouble. And that goes double for private cops. The Bowens have lived here a long time and had no trouble until Shaw came in here. Now, I've heard all about these scrap cars and who wants who to tow them out of there. But I looked into it and there is nothing to prove that they ever belonged to Steve Bowen or anyone else on his place. If you ask me, that and this investigation of the car accident are just examples of city folks getting wild ideas and watching too much of those television shows."
Three days of hard work came to nothing. Shaw had no enemies, his trouble with the Bowens was not considered serious, at least not killing serious, and as the Bowens had defeated Shaw all down the line, why should they wish to kill him? Of course there was that mention of the DA, but no one seemed to know what it meant.
The fragment of headlight glass he checked against the Guide Lamp Bulletin, then sent it to the police lab for verification. The lens, he discovered, was most commonly used on newer Chrysler sedans but was a replacement for other models as well. He filed the information for future reference.
His next step was to talk with other farmers in the area. He drove about, asked many questions, got interesting answers.
The Bowens had two large barns on their place, which was only forty acres. They had two cows and one horse, and carried little hay. Their crops, if stored unsold, would have taken no more than a corner of the barn ... so why two large barns?
Market prices for the products they raised did not account for the obvious prosperity of the brothers. All three drove fast cars, as did Jock Perult. At nearby bars they were known as good spenders. Some of the closest neighbors complained of the noise of compressors from the Bowen place and of their revving up unmuffled engines late at night, but these questions were soon answered — the Bowens built cars that they raced themselves at the track in Saugus and around the state at other dirt-track and figure-eight events.
At the county courthouse he researched the Bowen property, how long they had owned it and how much they had paid. While he was looking through the registrar's records a young man peered into the file room several times and had a whispered conversation with the clerk. The man had the look of someone who worked in the building, and Neil Shannon took a quick tour through the hallways on his way out. He spotted the young man sitting at a desk typing in the office of a particular county commissioner ... a county commissioner who happened to be a neighbor of the Bowens.
Late at night — he was taking no chances with stray bullets this time — Shannon took a bucket of plaster back over to the crash site. While he was waiting for his casts to dry, he walked along the moonlit wash and into the canyon that Johnny had wanted to dam. The old rusted cars lay stark in the moonlight, and he used a pencil flash to examine them. One was a Studebaker and the other, not so old as he'd imagined, was a Chevrolet. Neither had engines; he searched hard for the Vehicle Identification Numbers on the body and could not find one on either car ... they had been carefully removed. He pulled parts, the few that were left, off the Chevy and examined them carefully. They should have had a secondary date code on them, but every plate had been removed, the rivets meticulously drilled out.
He met Marjorie Shaw for a drink in Santa Paula. "Little enough," he replied to her question. "Steve Bowen is a good dancer and a good spender, left school in the seventh grade, wasn't a good student, likes to drink but can handle his liquor. Likes to gamble and he drives in amateur races a little. Not sports cars ... the rough stuff."
"So you think I'm mistaken?"
He hesitated. "No ... I don't. Not anymore. I think your brother discovered something very wrong with the Bowens or their place. I think he was killed to keep him from causing trouble. Now that I know about the racing it fits too well; who better to force someone off a mountain road than a man who drives in demolition derbies!"
"Johnny once told me that the less I knew the better. That knowing about what went on out here could be dangerous."
"He was right. Keller knows it, too. I think that's why he is going to Fresno."
"Oh! That reminds me. He said he wanted to talk to you."
"I'll go see him." Shannon paused. "You know, Bowen was away from here for about six years. I wonder where he was?"
They left the bar and Shannon walked her to her car. They were standing on a side street when Steve Bowen walked up. Turning at the sound of steps, Shannon ran into a fist that caught the point of his chin. He was turned half around, and a second punch knocked him down.
"That'll teach you to mess around in other people's business!" Bowen said. He swung a kick at Shannon's face, but Shannon rolled over swiftly and got up. He ran into a swinging right and a left that caught him as he fell. He got up again and went tottering back into the car under a flail of fists. When he realized where he was again, he was seated in the car and Marjorie was dabbing at his face with a damp handkerchief.
"You didn't have a chance!" she protested. "He hit you when you weren't looking."
"Drive me to my car," he said.
Turning around a corner they stopped at a light, and alongside were Steve Bowen and his brothers. They were in a powerful Chrysler 300. The heavy car was stripped down for racing, and from the way the engine sounded they had hot-rodded it for even more horsepower. They looked at Shannon's face and laughed.
"Stop the car." Shannon opened the door and got out, despite her protests.
Ignoring the three, he walked to their car and studied the headlights.
One had been replaced by glass from another make of car. When he straightened up, the grins were gone from their faces, and Joe Bowen was frightened.
"I see you've replaced a headlight," Shannon commented. "Was there any other damage?"
"Look, you...!" Tom Bowen opened the door.
"I'll handle this!" Steve Bowen interrupted. "You're looking for trouble, Shannon. If the beating you got didn't teach you anything, I'll give you worse."
Shannon smiled. "Don't let that sneak punch give you a big head. Is the paint on this fender fresh?"
There was a whine of sirens, and a car from the sheriff's department and also one of the city police cars pulled up.
"That's all, Shannon." Deputy Sheriff Clark stepped out. "It looks to me like you've had yours. Now get in your car and get out of town. You're beginning to look like a troublemaker and we don't want your kind around."
"All right, Clark. First, though, I want to ask if Tom has a permit for that gun he's carrying. Further, I want you to check the number on it, and check the fingerprints of all four of them. Don't try putting me off either, I'll be talking to the DA and the FBI about why certain vehicle identification tags are missing and who's been bought off and who hasn't. Bowen, by the time this is over you're going to look back in wonder at how stupid you were when you refused to tow those cars like John Shaw asked!"
Clark was startled. He started to speak, and the Bowens stared angrily at Shannon as he got back into Marjorie's car.
They drove off. "I've talked a lot, but what can I prove?" he said.
"Nothing yet.... The Bowens could explain that broken headlight, even if the make checks out perfectly. What we need is some real law enforcement and a search warrant for those barns."
"What's going on? What are you talking about?" Marjorie asked.
"Hot cars ... and I don't mean the kind you race."
Keller was not around when they rolled into the yard, but there was a telegram lying open on the table, addressed to Shannon. He picked it up, glanced at it, and shoved it into his pocket.
"That's it! Now we're getting someplace!"
Shannon seemed not to hear Marjorie's question about the contents.
The message had been opened. Keller had read it. Keller was gone.
"Hide the car where we can get to it from the road, then hide yourself. No lights. No movement. The Bowens will be here as quick as they can get away from Clark. I don't have a thing on them yet, but they don't know it. Push a crook far enough and sometimes he'll move too fast and make mistakes."
There was little time remaining if he was to get to the barns before the Bowens arrived. They pulled the cars behind the house, and Shannon made sure that Marjorie locked herself inside and turned out the lights. Then, careful to make no noise, he descended into the canyon and followed the path from near the junked cars through the wash and then an orchard to the barns back of the Bowen farmhouse.
By the time he reached the wall of the nearest barn, he knew he had only minutes in which to work. There was no sound. There were two large doors to the barn, closed as always, but there was a smaller door near them that opened under his hand. Within, all was blackness mingled with the twin odors of oil and gasoline. It was not the smell of a farmer's barn, but of a garage. There was a faint gasping sound near his feet, then a low moan.
Kneeling, he put out a hand and touched a stubbled face. "Keller?" he whispered.
The old man strained against the agony. "I stepped into a bear trap. Get it off me."
Not daring to strike a light, Shannon struggled fiercely with the jaws of the powerful trap. He got it open, and a brief inspection by sensitive fingers told him Keller's leg was both broken and lacerated.
"I'll have to carry you," he whispered.
"You take a look first," Keller insisted. "With that trap off I can drag myself a ways."
Once the old man was out and the door closed, Shannon trusted his pencil flashlight.
Four cars, in the process of being stripped and scrambled. Swiftly he checked the motor numbers and jotted them down. He snapped off the light suddenly. Somebody was out in front of the barn, opposite from where he had entered.
"Nobody's around," Perult was saying. "The front door is locked and the bear trap is inside the back."
"Nevertheless, I'm having a look." That would be Tom Bowen.
The lock rattled in the door and Shannon moved swiftly, stepped in an unseen patch of oil, and his feet shot from under him. He sprawled full length, knocking over some tools.
The front door crashed open. The lights came on. Tom Bowen sprang inside with his gun ready. But Shannon was already on his feet.
"Drop it!" he yelled.
Both fired at the same instant, and Bowen's gun clattered to the floor and he clutched a burned shoulder. Perult had ducked out. Shannon stepped in and punched Tom Bowen on the chin; the man went down. With nothing to shoot at Shannon put two rounds into the side of one of the cars just to make them keep their heads down and ran out back.
He was down in the canyon before he found Keller, and he picked the old man up bodily and hurried as fast as he could with the extra weight.
He was almost at the house when Keller warned him. "Put me down and get your hands free. There's somebody at the house!"
Marjorie cried out and Shannon lowered Keller quickly to the ground, and gun in hand went around the corner of the house.
Shannon saw Steve Bowen strike Marjorie with the flat of his hand.
"Tell me," Bowen said coldly, "or I'll ruin that face of yours."
Perult came sprinting in the front gate. "Hurry, boss! Tom's been shot."
Shannon stepped into sight and Perult grabbed for the front of his shirt, and Shannon lowered the gun and shot him in the thigh. Jock screamed, more in surprise than pain, and fell to the ground.
"Fast with the gun, aren't you?" Steve Bowen said. "I suppose you'll shoot me now."
"We're going back to your place," Shannon said, and then he whispered to Marjorie. "Get on the phone and call the district attorney. After you've called him, call the sheriff. But the DA first!"
"What are you going to do?" Marjorie protested.
"Me?" Shannon grinned. "This guy copped a Sunday on my chin when I wasn't looking, and he beat up Johnny, so as soon as you get through to the DA I'm going to take him back to that barn, lock the door, and see if he can take it himself."
Twenty minutes later, Neil Shannon untied Steve Bowen and shoved him toward the door with his gun. They reached the barn without incident. Inside, Shannon locked the door and tossed the gun out of the window.
Bowen moved in fast, feinted, and threw a high, hard right. Shannon went under it and hooked both hands to the body. The bigger man grunted and backed off, then rushed, swinging with both hands. A huge fist caught Shannon, rocking his head on his shoulders, but Shannon brushed a left aside and hooked his own left low to the belly.
Getting inside, he butted Bowen under the chin, hit him with a short chop to the head, and then pushing Bowen off, hit him twice so fast, Bowen's head bobbed. Angry, the big man moved in fast and Shannon sidestepped and let Bowen trip over his leg and plunge to the floor.
Bowen caught himself on his hands and dove in a long flying tackle, but Shannon moved swiftly, jerking his knee into Bowen's face. Nose and lips smashed, the big man fell, then got up, blood streaming down his face.
Bowen tried to set himself, but Shannon hit him with a left and knocked Bowen down again with a right.
Stepping in on Bowen, Shannon got too close and Bowen grabbed his ankle. He went down and Bowen leaped up and tried to jump on his stomach. Shannon rolled clear, got up fast, and when Bowen tried another kick, Shannon grabbed his ankle and jerked it high. Bowen fell hard and lay still.
There was a hammering at the door. Shannon backed off. "You're the tough guy, Bowen," he said, "but not that tough." Bowen didn't move.
The door opened and Clark came in followed by several deputies and a quiet man in a gray suit.
To the assistant district attorney he handed a telegram. "From the FBI. I checked on Bowen and found he had done six years in the federal pen for transporting a stolen car. I wired them on a hunch. I think you'll find that they were paying off certain people in county government to be left alone."
"Hey, now wait a minute!" Clark protested.
"Shut up," Shannon snapped. "They'll be looking at you, your boss, and a couple of commissioners, so you'd better start checking your hole card!
"Johnny Shaw got suspicious when he tried to get the county to make the Bowens move those derelict cars. He found out enough and Bowen ran him off the road. The headlight glass was a Chrysler lens and Bowen drives a 300. Perult and Steve Bowen walked over to the wreck afterwards to be sure Johnny was dead. The tracks are still there, but I made casts of them to be sure."
Steve Bowen moaned and sat up.
"Come on, Steve," Shannon said. "I think we're all going to have to go to Ventura and answer a lot of questions."
Bowen winced as he stood up. "You broke my ribs," he growled.
"Count yourself lucky. If these boys hadn't come I'd still be at it. You beat up Johnny Shaw ... he carried me out of a firefight in Korea when I was wounded. There were shells going off everywhere and he'd never even seen me before. They gave him a medal for it. Now, he wasn't a big guy like you, he didn't know how to box, and he'd become a medical corpsman because he knew he couldn't bring himself to kill. But when the chips were down he did what was necessary."
Shannon took a deep breath. "Plead guilty," he said. "Because if they don't have enough evidence to put you away, I'll find it. No matter how long it takes."
They were led to the waiting cars, and with the ambulances in the lead and Marjorie following, they headed for Ventura.
Excerpted from May There Be a Road by Louis L'Amour. Copyright © 2002 by Louis L'Amour. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.