A knock on the door woke Mercer from sleep. He opened the door a crack, enough to see Sheriff Parkham huddled against the cold with his hat pulled low against the wind and snow.
“Good morning,” Parkham said.
“Morning, Sheriff,” Mercer said. He opened the door and welcomed him in. “Get you some coffee?”
Sheriff Parkham shook his head no. He thumbed back his hat and stepped inside.
Mercer led him into the kitchen where they sat at a round table. Parkham set his hat atop the table. He eyed the empty whiskey bottle on the kitchen counter next to the coffee pot then he looked back to Mercer.
“I’m not drunk,” Mercer said.
“Never said you was.”
“I know it.”
“I can’t have you out there working for this county drunk.”
“I know it.”
Parkham leaned forward, placing his elbows on top of the table. “Did you at least water it down with coffee?”
“Yeah,” Mercer said and smiled like it hurt. The drinking had cost him his marriage and nearly cost him his job once and most likely would again.
“I thought you quit the bottle when Alice left?”
Mercer shook his head, said, “It only got worse after she left.”
They sat silent a moment, the clock in the other room ticked. Parkham rose from the chair. “It’s Ray,” Parkham said. “He accidently shot himself hunting.”
“Jesus Christ,” Mercer said.
“He’s out there now in the woods. Bleeding everywhere but in his body.”
“Is there an ambulance out there?”
Parkham coughed into his hand and nodded. “He won’t go with them.”
“Shit,” Mercer said. “Does Alice know?”
Parkham shook his head no and said, “He’s asking for you.”
Mercer found Ray propped against the trunk of a giant oak. Ray opened his eyes when he saw Mercer and he tried to talk. Blood ran from his mouth. Mercer knelt and took his old friends hand in his. The Mossberg shotgun lay in the bloodied snow.
“You’re going to be okay,” Mercer said.
“I’m dying, man,” Ray said, his voice strained.
Mercer raised the flannel shirt and blood ran freely from the hole and melted the snow.
“How bad is it?” Ray mumbled.
“Not bad at all.” Mercer lied.
He looked into Ray’s eyes and suddenly thought of Alice. And how’d she left him for Ray all those years ago. It still hurt. He had a chance now to make things right.
Mercer eased Ray’s head into the crook of his arm. Ray’s breathing was ragged and his shallow breath stamped the cold air. Mercer put his hand over Ray’s mouth and pressed down, hard until Ray’s eyes went blank.
He pulled the truck into the gravel drive and cut the engine and stepped down from the cab.
Alice opened the screen door and Mercer handed her Ray’s camouflage hat. There was dried blood crusted around its brim. Mercer hadn’t been able to scrape it all off. She took the hat and stared at it for a long time then began to cry.
“He didn’t suffer,” he said.
“Come inside,” she said, wiping her eyes. “It’s too cold out here.”
“I can’t,” he said. “Ray loved you, Alice.”
He leaned forward and kissed her softly on her cheek then he stepped off the porch into the falling snow and walked down the long gravel drive with his head hung low against the windblown snow.
And she stood on the front porch with her dead husband’s hat in her hands and his hunting dog sat perched by her feet. Wind blew up the driveway raising white snow to twirl and bend in the gust of wind. The porch light above the door was lit and it shone dully in the oncoming darkness. The old dog stood and wandered into the yard and down the drive until it stopped altogether. Then it turned and looked up at Alice and barked. She remained standing as she watched Mercer, a man she had loved long ago, a man she could love again because she had never stopped loving him, walk into the waning light. She clutched the hat tighter against her chest before she finally turned for the door.