The Ridge: The Whisper of the Leaves - Chap. 20
Friday, March 12
Homer Lampkin did not have a single clue connecting Marshall Bentwood with the murders of Prichard and Lawrence. But he did have a gut feeling. And he had learned over the years to at least listen to those feelings.
The one thing he did know was concluded by the Arkansas State Police Crime Lab and that was that Lawrence had at least something to do with James Bentwood’s murder. Several fingerprints had been found on the poker which it turned out, was the murder weapon. Plus, his prints were on the barrel itself.
It was enough evidence to arrest him in the normal course of things, but someone had made that impossible. Someone who knew, and cared, about James Bentwood. And someone, for sure, who knew how to use a deer rifle. A Springfield 30-06 in fact. But it just so happened that there were probably more Springfields in Cross County than there were licensed deer hunters.
“Mornin’,” Ralph Barnes said to Lampkin as he came through the door. “Sorry I’m late.”
Barnes tossed his hat on the hat tree and sat down behind his desk.
“Any more word from the crime lab?” He asked. “Or when the State boys are comin’ back.”
“They sent word from Little Rock for us to gather all the information we can and send it to them. They’ve got some sort of big thing going on there right now and they can’t spare the people.”
“Figures. Shows ya how important they think we are.”
“They did send a ballistics report, though,” Lampkin said nodding at the set of stapled pages he was holding in his hand. “Came special delivery just a while ago. It looks like both of the shots came from the same gun.”.
‘Bout what we figured. So where does that put us?”
“Not a lot closer to an answer than we were unless we want to go out and test every gun in the county.”
“Where do we go from here then?”
“I asked around the last couple of days and no one has seen the Bentwood boy’s brother, Marshall, since Wednesday. Not since his brother’s funeral, in fact.”
“Ya really think he might have something to do with it?” Barnes asked. “I know he’s been trouble a lot of times, but getting’ into fights and murder are two different things.”
“That may be, but I want ya to follow up on it anyway,” Lampkin spoke like a teacher, “For one thing, he’s disappeared. For another, James Bentwood was his brother. Plus, he looks a lot like James. He is just the kind of guy who would do something about it. He’s one of the best shots around.....”
“Okay,” Barnes held up his hands. “I see what’cha mean. Ya want me to see if I can find him or go talk to his folks or what?”
“Both, but I think you’re gonna have to settle for talkin’ to his folks and brothers and whoever else’ll talk. If he did do it, I don’t figure he’s within a hundred miles of Wynne, probably a lot farther away than that. Anyway, just find out what you can.”
“You gonna call the State Boys and tell ‘em about this?” Barnes asked as he stood and took his hat off the tree.
“No! We can ask questions as good as they can! They’re not the only ones who know how to catch killers! If they don’t have time to help us, we’ll do it ourselves.”
Barnes nodded and was out the door.
In less than ten minutes he was at the Bentwood place. When he got out of the squad car, Buck was there waiting on him. After sniffing his knees and feet, he decided that this one was no threat and went back to his watch under the full front porch.
“Mornin’, Ralph,” Edna had opened the screen door and walked out. “How you doin’this mornin’?”
“Just fine, Edna.” Barnes and Edna had been on a first name basis for years. He had gone to school with Edna’s brother, Calvin Beacher and at one time they had been best friends. As a result, Barnes had spent a good deal of time at Edna’s parent’s house.
“I want ta tell ya’ again how sorry I am about James.” Barnes took his hat off and held it in both hands.
“Thank you, Ralph. Tell Margie thanks for the cake she made. It was wonderful.”
“I sure will,” Ralph said, accepting the thanks for his wife.
They were silent for a moment and Ralph noticed that James’ death showed on her face.
“Edna,” He was hesitant. “Eldon wanted me to come out and ask ya’ll some questions if you’re up to it.”
“What kind of questions?” Edna said and sat down in the porch swing while Barnes took a chair at the side of her.
“Well, you know we pretty well decided that it was the Lawrence boy that killed James.”
Edna nodded solemnly, looking only at the dish towel she kept folding and unfolding in her lap.
“Because of that,” He went on, “the whole town knows that he had what happened to him coming and if I wasn’t a cop, I’d be pattin’ the guy who did it on the back just like everybody else seems to want to do. But I am a cop and it’s my job to try to find out who killed him.”
She continued to nod and fold so he went on.
“Now everyone knows Marshall is one of the best shots in this part of the country,” He hesitated but Edna didn’t change her expression. “And rumor has it that he ain’t been seen for a week or so. Matter of fact, last time anybody saw him was the day Lawrence was killed. So, I guess what I’m askin’ is, have you seen Marshall? Do you know where he is?”
“Why you askin’ that?”
Barnes head jerked around, and he saw Carl standing at the bottom of the porch steps. When Barnes said nothing, Carl walked up the steps and repeated the question.
“I said, why are you askin’ about Marshall?”
“Well,” Barnes stood. “Like I was tellin’ Edna, nobody’s seen him for a few days and Eldon and I just wanted to ask him some questions.”
“Well,” Barnes said, getting his composure back. “I wanted to see what he knew about the Lawrence killin’ and.....”
“Cause there’s word that he might know somethin’ about it. Look, Carl, I know it’s hard after what ya’ll went through, but I’m just tryin’ to do my job.”
“Well, considerin’ it’s morn’ likely him’n his buddy killed my boy, ya think I’m really concerned ‘bout his killer bein’ found? If I knew who it was, I’d shake his hand. I.......”
Carl looked down suddenly when he felt Edna touch his arm.
“Carl.......please.” She said. He looked at her for a moment then nodded and turned back to Barnes.
“Look, Ralph,” Some of his tenseness now gone. “Like ya said, we’ve had a hard time round here the last couple of weeks. And it was especially hard fer Marshall. James and him were just a year apart and they were real close. So, to answer your question, no, Marshall’s not here. In fact, we don’t know where he is. All we do know is he had ta get away for a while. And since he is almost a grown man, we didn’t try to stop ‘im.”
Carl dropped into one of the porch chairs, suddenly exhausted.
“So, you don’t have any idea where he is?” Barnes voice had its authority back.
“Like I said,” Carl shook his head. “We don’t know.”
Barnes noticed that when Carl said this, Edna glanced up at him briefly then back at the dish towel.
“Do ya think any of the kids know where he went?”
“Naw, already asked ‘em,” Carl said. “Don’t know anymore’n me’n Edna do.”
Carl then slapped his hands on his knees, stood and reached out for Barnes hand.
“Ralph,” He said as he shook Barnes hand. “We’d like to sit around’n talk about this, but I gotta farm to run here. We need ta get back to work, don’t we, Edna?”
Edna nodded, stood up and smiled at Barnes then wrapped her arms around him in a quick hug. She quickly let go and walked back into the house.
Carl walked Barnes to his car.
“Ralph,” Carl said in a firm but gentle voice. “Marshall’s not the only one takin’ this hard. Edna just can’t stop cryin’.”
“I’m sorry,” Barnes said genuinely.
“I just wish you’d come straight to me if ya have any more questions. Can ya do that for me?”
“I’ll do my best not to bother her, Carl.” Barnes said as he opened the car door. Then he added as he was about to step in. “But I hope you do understand that we need to talk to Marshall. So, will you promise me that you’ll let me know if he shows back up or if ya hear from him?”
“I will, Ralph.” Carl nodded then turned and walked back toward the house and was inside before Barnes had gotten completely out of the driveway.
As he was going down the gravel road back to town, he saw Thomas in the field about half a mile past the house. He was behind a plow and Barnes saw that he would have to turn around near the road, so he pulled over and waited in the car. When he got close, Barnes got out of the car and walked out into the field toward him.
“Whoa,” Thomas called and lightly pulled back on the reins. Mule and farmer stopped in front of the waiting officer. “Mornin’ Mr. Barnes.”
“Mornin’, Tom,” Barnes smiled and reached out a hand which Thomas shook briefly after he had wiped his hand with his handkerchief. “I hadn’t had a chance to tell ya how sorry I am about James.”
“Thanks,” Thomas answered with a trace of a smile. “Appreciate it.”
“Uh,” Barnes hesitated, “I came out to see Marshall, but it seems nobody knows where he is. I don’t suppose you’ve seen ‘im have ya?”
Thomas shook his head slowly, “Marsh never was one to tell me what he’s doin’. Why you wantin’ to talk to ‘im?”
“Just routine questions,” He tried to sound casual as if talking to Marshall was just an afterthought.
“Well, I don’t know what to tell ya.” Thomas turned back to the mule. “Marsh’ll show up when he gets ready, I guess. Always has. Gotta get back to it, Mr. Barnes. Be seein’ ya,”
Thomas slapped the reins on the mule’s huge rump and began plowing again, leaving Barnes standing in the field.
“Did’ja get anything?” Lampkin asked Barnes when he got back to the police station.
“Naw,” Barnes said as he sat down. “They said they don’t know where he is, but I’m not so sure.”
“They said, they don’t have a clue. But I just gotta feelin’ that one of ‘em knows somethin’.”
“Well,” Lampkin said. “Let’s go ahead and send out a bulletin on ‘im. Just say he’s wanted for questioning and leave it at that. If ‘ya can figure out some way to get a picture of him, add that.”
Barnes nodded, “I’ll make it up ‘fore I go back out.”
As he said this, the police office door swung open, and Cubby Lawrence entered the room. It would have been easy for Lampkin, Barnes or anyone else to be intimidated by Lawrence. The name “Cubby” had been tacked onto him when he was a kid because of his burly size as well as the abundance of thick, black body hair even as a child.
The name no longer fit him though because he had grown far beyond the “cub” stage. He still had the body hair, but it was greying now and covered a six-foot five-inch frame that carried over 400 pounds. Then, to make the picture complete, there was his voice.
To call it gravely did not do it justice. It was more like gravel being crushed under the tracks of a bulldozer. And it was deep, with a still thick Georgia accent he had brought with him when he came to Arkansas thirty years before.
“Mornin’, Mr. Lawrence,” Lampkin said.
“Got anythin’ on muh boy’s killer, yet?” Lawrence had never been fond of pleasantries.
“No, sir,” Lampkin stood. “We’re still investigatin’, but we don’t have anything new to tell ya right now.”
“Well, what about that Bentwoood boy, the brother uh that’un ‘at got killed. Heard he’s got a mean streak ‘bout ‘im. Maybe he’s thinkin’ my Alvin killed’is brother. Ya talk ta’im yet?”
“We’re gonna talk to him real soon, Mr. Lawrence,” Lampkin said.
“Why don’t’cha just go pick ‘im up?”
“Well, right now we don’t know where he is. But we’re sure we’ll find him by tomorrow.”
“Okay,” His voice grew louder. “you boys may think ‘at’s good enough’n ‘at ya don’t have’ta be square with a Ridge’r like me, but ya bettu’ hear me now ‘cause I wan’cha ta remembuh somethin’. I know what ya cops thought’uh my boy. And I know ya think he killed ‘at kid.”
He took a deep breath which seemed to increase his presence, then he continued.
“But I tell ya this, whether he killed ‘at boy’r not, ya bettuh not slack off huntin’ for my boy’s killer. Cause I’ll guarantee ya I’m not. And if it is Bentwood, I’ll make ‘im show. And ya better hope I don’t find ‘im fo’ you do.”
Lawrence did not wait for a response but gave one terse nod signifying the end of the conversation and lumbered out.
Barnes continued to stare at the open door after Lawrence had left.
“Well,” He said. “Guess we know where he stands.”
“Did’ja have any doubt?” Lampkin snorted.