Retired California Game Warden

Buck

By Jim Wictum

 

The big black Labrador wandered around the yard looking, searching. Whenever a green patrol car pulled up to the house he would meet it eagerly, mouth open, tail flailing. Then his tail would slow to a gentle wag when he realized that it was not his friend, Jean “Sock” Jones.

Again he went over to the driveway where the patrol car was parked. He sniffed at the door handles. The scent of Jean was still there. Every day it grew fainter but it was still there and it made him feel better. But there was another scent, the smell of blood. He whined softly.

There had been more of the smell the night they took Jean away. Jean had been covered with it. There had been flashing lights and loud noises and people running and shouting. Men who reeked a sharp smell had taken Jean away in a car with lots of lights, a car that howled like a wounded animal.

The Lab walked to the head of the driveway. He lay down with his head between his paws and stared down the road. He would wait for his friend to come back. Then they would go on patrol.

* * * * *

It was warm for May, warm heading towards hot. The heat pressed upon the rows of wardens sweating in their dress uniforms. I was in the last row, the sixth. Bigfoot stood at parade rest directly in front of me. The heavy wool of his jacket was stretched tight across his back. A roll of flesh bulged over his collar. I watched a drop of sweat roll down the back of his neck to be absorbed by his collar. Six rows, over thirty wardens in each row. Over half the warden force was here for the funeral of Jean Jones, plus a few cops from other agencies.

The lawn in front of the funeral parlor was freshly mowed. There was the good smell of clipped grass, the smell of baseball diamonds. I wondered if Jean had played baseball.

Maybe, I didn’t know him that well. We’d worked together a couple of times. His had an odd background for a game warden. He’d taken his degree at U. C. Santa Cruz in philosophy; did his senior paper on John Stuart Mill. That’s not the usual background for a fish cop, but he proved that he could do the job.

Jean’s widow, Rose, came forward, supported by two wardens. She spoke simply, thanking us for coming, saying that Jean would have been proud. Then it was over.

Some of the wardens took off in their patrol cars. California is a big state and they had long drives ahead of them. Others gathered in small groups chatting with guys from other parts of the state, guys you saw only at funerals and retirements. One warden let out a loud braying laugh at something that was said, then cut it short, embarrassed.

I went over towards a group that included two wardens I’d known when we attended new warden training. As I walked up, I heard Bill Hopkins, a local warden say, “I heard they got the guy that shot Jean.”

“Good deal,” said Matt Foss, a warden from Humboldt County. He ran a finger under his too-tight collar. “I’d like to drop the pellet on him myself.”

“He’s some eighteen-year-old creep with a record as long as your arm,” continued Hopkins. “Picked him up this morning.”

“Well I hope they gas the punk,” said Foss.

“Get real,” said Bigfoot who’d joined us. “Eighteen, no witnesses. Maybe manslaughter. He’ll do a couple years at the Youth Authority. Be a big hero. Killed a cop.”

“That’s bullshit,” said Foss angrily. I figured he wasn’t mad at Bigfoot.

Hopkins turned to Foss who had been a corpsman with the Marines. “If he had a portable to call for help? Think it might’ve saved him?”

“Hell, I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not,” said Foss. He took a pair of sunglasses from his pocket and put them on. “It sure couldn’t have hurt.”

“Our radio system sucks,” said Hopkins.

“Heard it took five minutes of chatter for ’em to figure out who to call,” said Bigfoot.

“That’s right,” said the new warden, “They never did figure it out. Antioch P.D. had to tell them where the marina was.”

A young warden from Sacramento, a guy I didn’t know, spoke up. “Don’t quote me but the official line by the top brass is that it was Jones’ fault for not putting a tourniquet on himself.”

“You’re kidding!”

“What a line of crap!”

“Bastards!” said Bigfoot.

“Could a guy put a tourniquet on himself?” I asked Foss. “When he has an artery severed?”

“Maybe,” said Foss, “if he knew where to put the tourniquet and if he had something to make it out of and if he didn’t go into shock.” He shook his head. “But after he’s just been shot…”

Bigfoot nodded. “Something happens when you take a round. Tourniquet!”

I wondered if I could have calmly sat down next to a guy who’d just shot me and put on a tourniquet. I doubted it and I sure hoped I’d never have to find out.

A Southern California warden said, “I ran into a guy who used to ride a radio car in the same department when the boss was a cop. He said the boss had a reputation for always waiting for back-up on a hot call. And then backing up the back-up, maybe.”

“One of those.”

“Figures,” said Bigfoot.

Silence.

“How old was Jean?” asked the new warden.

“Thirty, thirty-one,” said Hopkins. “Something like that. Least he didn’t have kids.”

“Nope, just Buck.”

“Buck?”

“Jean’s Lab. Always had Buck with him.”

“I got a long drive,” said Foss. “See you guys around.”

“Yeah, me too,” said the Southern California warden. The group broke up.

“Let’s get the hell outta here,” Bigfoot said to me. We found my car. “Head out Highway 4,” he said as we got in.

We left Pleasant Hill and drove towards West Pittsburg, past the munitions depot full of open spaces between the bunkers. The grass was already khaki dry.

“I wanta see it,” said Bigfoot.

“See what?”

“Where it happened.”

“Where Jean was shot? Why the hell you want to see that?”

“I don’t know. Just do.”

“Yeah, I guess I do too.”

We drove past Shore Acres, a flat-roofed, cracker-box, single-family slum. We turned in at McAvoy’s Harbor.

A ramshackle bait and tackle store sat by the road. Four men lounged on the porch drinking cola out of cans. A skinny ginger cat skulked around a corner. The cat found something in a bait package that had fallen from the overflowing trash barrel. One of the men threw a can at the cat. The can spewed an arc of bubbling cola. It missed the cat, which ducked around the corner of the building.

“Not exactly the St. Francis Yacht Club,” I said. The rows of dilapidated sheds and berths were filled with unprepossessing craft in various states of sea-worthiness.

“That must be the marsh,” said Bigfoot. I parked the car. Off to our left lay a stretch of wetlands. Beyond the marsh you could see Suisun Bay. It was Navy property, sort of a safety zone around the munitions loading facility at Port Chicago.

Redwing blackbirds clung chittering from the reeds. In the distance, a marsh hawk cruised back and forth quartering the drier portions. The low-lying parts were divided by a grid of levees.

“Wonder why they put in these levees?” I asked.

“Who knows why the Navy does anything,” said Bigfoot.

“Yeah, guess so. But if it wasn’t for the Navy, this would be filled up and turned into an industrial park.”

“Over there,” directed Bigfoot. “There’s where Jean musta been parked.”

“What’s that?” At my feet I saw a pink circle spray painted on the ground.

Bigfoot looked at the spot. “There’s a clot of dried blood there.”

There was a trail of blood splatters from the place where Jean had been shot, each one encircled in bright pink spray paint. At first the splotches of blood were yards apart as though left by a running man, and then they began to weave. There were bigger stains where he had fallen. Then the pink circles were close together as he had crawled to his car and his radio.

We came to the place where it had happened. The area was trampled flat. Bigfoot started casting around, bending over, staring at the ground.

“So what do you see? Isn’t it a little late to be looking for sign?” I regretted the words as they left my mouth.

He didn’t answer, just looked at me. Of course he had to look.

“So what do you think happened?” I asked, mostly to apologize.

“Who knows? It’s all chewed up. Everybody’s walked all over it. Maybe they fought over the scumbag’s gun. Maybe the punk just up and shot him. Who knows.”

We walked out on the levees towards the Sacramento River, huge and slack-tide flat. We found a driftwood log and sat down.

Bigfoot stared out across the big river. “Wonder why we get so uptight when some punk kills a cop. Hell, I liked Jean, but I hardly knew him.”

“Maybe ’cause we know it could just as easily be us in the box.”

“Just as easy.”

For a long time, neither one of us spoke. The sun started to drop behind the hills of Marin, turning all gold against the offshore cloudbank. Nearby, a great blue heron stalked stiff-legged through the shallows.

“This worth a man’s life?” I asked.

“It’s the name of the game, Jocko,” said Bigfoot. He picked up a stick and side-armed it far out on the river. “We’d better get back to work. Let’s go catch a hoodlum.”

* * * * *

Buck was an old dog now. He had new owners. He spent less and less time lying and waiting with his great head between his paws. But he never forgot. Someday Jean would come back for him.

It took two people to lift Buck up onto the table. He was so sore and stiff that he could not jump up. A man who smelled strong and strange examined him, moving his legs. Buck winced.

The people around him talked. Then he felt a stinging prick. Someone was holding his paw. His aches eased away.

He was running free, not hurting. He could see Jean. His friend was standing by the patrol car. He opened the car door.

“Come on Buck,” he said. “We are going on patrol.”

Tail lashing, the big dog leaped into the blackness of the back seat.

 

From WARDEN BIGFOOT, K9 UNIT ORDY AND ME,
Available from Amazon print on demand.

 

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