It’s that time of year again, that time of night that gives me the kind of opportunity to give you something special. I hope you’ll be entertained by High Holidays; it’s a different kind of Christmas story because it doesn’t take place within the strict confines of what is seen as the traditional Christian holiday. I take liberties with the Longmire short stories in that they’re usually more of a character study than a mystery, which gives me a break from writing a story that has to have a murder. That said, I hope you enjoy it.
All the best to you and yours for the holidays—low, high, and in between….
See you on the trail,
We have a problem in the northern part of Wyoming, that part between the Bighorn Mountains and Yellowstone National Park; I call it people having been driven to the point of distraction. Our state is host to roughly twelve million visitors a year, and it makes for a few problems for those of us in law enforcement.
We have our share of people who drive off the road because they are mesmerized by the first view of the snow-capped peaks or visitors who try and pet the bears, ride the buffalo, and skinny-dip in the thermal pools.
I figure these activities are more prone to tourists, because they are strangers in a strange land; maybe it’s the excitement of almost getting to one of a number of destinations, or maybe it’s carloads of families who are so ready to kill each other after being packed into shiny metal compartments like prairie dogs for three days that they forget little details—like paying for the gas they just bought.
The gas drive-off is the most prevalent unlawful act that we get in our small niche of law enforcement at which point it falls to either those of us in the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department or the Wyoming Highway Patrol to pull folks over and inform them that they owe the Kum-And-Go $47.63. I guess it could be worse.
Generally people turn bright red, at which point we give them a blue warning ticket and ask them to return to the station and pay the green. Sometimes people are broke and don’t have the money so we provide assistance, but usually folks are happy to return with the officer and pay up; the service stations don’t press charges—no harm/no foul.
It was one of those situations that I happened to come upon on a beautiful September afternoon out on the by-pass. Santiago Saizarbitoria, the only deputy of Basque descent in my small posse, had detained a maroon Chrysler Town & Country pulling, appropriately enough, a U-Haul trailer adorned with the visage of state favorite, Buffalo Bill, and emblazoned with the words, Wild West—Cody, Gateway to Yellowstone National Park.
Few traffic stops in Absaroka County are worthy of the attention of two officers, but I was on my way back from a Saturday morning DARE talk with the bored detention students at the Durant high school, so I slid the Bullet in beside the Basquo’s unit and rolled down the window. “What’s up, Troop?”
Without looking at me, he gestured with a pen toward the vehicle in front of him “Drive-off from the Maverik convenience store.”
I glanced at the occupants. “I guess they decided it was convenient not to pay?”
“They seem harmless enough.” He shrugged and looked up at them. “I think they’re Amish.”
I ignored the Basquo’s attitude—he and his wife had been having a time with their son, Antonio, who still had his own ideas about regular sleeping patterns. “How’s life at home?”
He sighed. “I figure I’m getting about four hours of sleep a night and it’s killing me. I thought by now he’d be easier.”
My mind wandered to my daughter, The Greatest Legal Mind of Our Time, who was now a lawyer in Philadelphia. “Cady had colic one time and put Martha and me through the ringer; I know Vietnam POW friends of mine that didn’t have to go through that kind of sleep deprivation.”
Nodding, he continued to write up the warning ticket for the driver of the minivan. “I mean, I love him, but at two-o’clock in the morning I feel like disciplining him with a weed-whacker.” He glanced at the back of the trailer in front of him and then read from the license on his clipboard. “Jacob Aaron of Pahrump, Nevada.”
I thought about the town on the California border about thirty miles from Las Vegas. “Strange place to be Amish.”
“Maybe they’re rebel Amish, like those Hutterites up in Montana—you know, the ones in the Big Horn valley who drive cars and have cell phones.”
“Most of those are up in Alberta and Saskatchewan.” I thought about it. “Did you know that they were persecuted during WW I because they refused to fight and that four of them were imprisoned and two were killed in Leavenworth?”
He turned to look at me. “I was joking, Boss.”
Yawning, he gestured toward the Chrysler. “You want me to follow them back to the gas station?”
I glanced at the vehicle, but from this angle couldn’t get a clear view of them. “Well, if they’re men of God, I think we can trust them to drive the half-mile back and pay for the gas.”
He shrugged and continued writing. “You’re the boss, Boss.”
I pulled the three-quarter ton down into gear. “When you get off duty, get some rest.” Inching forward, I stopped by the driver’s side window of the Town & Country to chat with the bearded, darkly clad driver. “Sorry to have to pull you over, Mr. Aaron.”
He looked worried and even went so far as to take off his hat. “No, it’s my fault.” He gestured toward the man in the passenger seat. “Joseph went inside to get sandwiches and drinks and I thought he had paid for the gas.”
Joseph looked sullen, took another bite of his sandwich, and chewed through the words. “I thought you paid.”
I glanced behind them at the two in the back, similarly dressed. “On holiday?”
“Yes. We are seeing the Black Hills today. Hopefully.”
“It should be beautiful that way with the aspens and cottonwoods changing color.”
He nodded. “We hope so.”
“Well, happy motoring.”
I pulled the Bullet into reverse and backed up even with the Basquo. “They’re Jewish.”
He didn’t look up. “Really.”
“Yep. Hasidic I’m guessing from the dress and long sideburns,”
The intonation of his response was exactly as before. “Really.”
“You don’t care.”
He finally looked at me with red-rimmed eyes. “No, I don’t.”
“You know, part of the job is noticing things.”
“Like I said--get some rest.” I nodded to myself, pulled the Bullet back into gear, and started off, calling out to him. “I think you’ve been hanging around with Vic too much." Thinking about the wiseguy quotient working in my office, I drove past the lumberyard and noticed that I was low on gas, too.
Pulling into the Maverik, I slid the county card and began filling up my truck. As I stood there listening to The Girl From Ipanema droning from the overhead speakers and trying to ignore the placard on the top of the pump touting sale prices on Rainier beer, I watched as the van with the Buffalo Bill U-Haul Saizarbitoria had pulled over made the right on route 16 and headed east out of town.
I wondered what was going on and quickly clicked off the pump, hung it up, and called Sancho on my radio. “Hey, Troop, did you just cut the guys with the U-Haul free?”
“Were they coming over here to pay for the gas?”
“Well, they just drove by the Maverik headed for the Interstate like the Macy’s Day parade.”
Static. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
I fired up the Bullet and pulled through the pump island onto the road with my light-bar on but no siren. “Don’t worry; I’ll get ‘em. They’re probably lost.”
With the Chrysler safely pulled over again, this time at the I-90 entrance ramp, I climbed out and walked toward them, passing Buffalo Bill and running my hand over the single row of shiny, sheet-metal screws on the side of the trailer.
The man looked very embarrassed this time. “We can’t find the gas station.”
I glanced down the road. “About a half-mile back that way; it’s across from where you pulled out.” He turned and again gave an accusatory look at his passenger, who was now eating from what looked to be a chip bag. “If you want, you can just follow me back.”
He turned and dipped his head. “Of course. Thank you.”
I led them to the Maverik and watched as they parked in the shade next to the picnic tables beside Clear Creek. Joseph got out with a dark look, ducked past my truck, and went inside. I got out figuring what the hey, I’d take advantage of the Rainier on sale and grab an eighteen-pack for Gameday. The arch-rivals Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs game was tomorrow and my buddy, Henry Standing Bear, would be over to watch the AFC West titanic struggle—I would, as always, torment him with my beer of choice.
I sat my prospective purchase on the counter and stood behind Joseph. “Don’t forget to pay for the snacks as well as the gas.”
He nodded in a curt manner. The kid at the register tallied it up and gave him the total, which Joseph paid in cash from a wad that he re-secured with a thick rubber band. “Enjoy the Hills.”
He glanced up at me, nodded, and went out the door without a word. The counter jockey had ripped off the receipt and held it after him but finally dropped it on the counter as he took my twenty and pointed at the departing man. “Those Amish, they’re weird.”
I picked up the abandoned receipt and examined it.
They weren’t as happy to see me this time as I raised a hand to keep them from pulling away from the convenience store. “Mr. Aaron, I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions?”
He looked genuinely annoyed this time. “This is getting to be a bit much—I mean we paid for the gas. Is there another problem, Sheriff?”
“No, no, nothing like that. I just don’t get the opportunity to discuss different theologies very often and was wondering if you could answer a few quick questions for me.”
He glanced at the clock in the dash, avoided my eye, and made a definitive statement by reaching down to turn the key and firing up the van. “We are hoping to be in the Black Hills today.”
Ignoring the fact that the vehicle was running, I tipped my hat back and folded my arms on his window. “Oh, this won’t take long—you’re Hasidic, are you not?”
He nodded, quickly adding. “Yes we are, but…”
“I hope you’ll excuse my ignorance, but the Hasidim are Haredi or ultra-orthodox—one of the most conservative of Judaism, am I correct?”
“Now the Hasidem wear clothing that other Orthodox Jews can’t wear such as the tallit katan over the shirts, like some of you gentlemen are wearing now, whereas other Orthodox Jews have to wear them under their shirts with only the tzitzit hanging out, right?”
He studied my face. “You… You seem extraordinarily knowledgeable on the subject of Judaism for a Wyoming sheriff.”
I smiled. “Well, I had a Jewish girlfriend in college, and you’d be surprised what you can learn when motivated and with the right teacher.”
Nervously, he turned to his compatriots and then stared at the dash. “I see.”
I reached out and patted his shoulder. “Oh, I’m just showing off… But I do have just one more question, if you don’t mind.”
He nodded again, but this time with even less enthusiasm as he looked in his side mirror and saw Saizarbitoria’s unit pulling in behind him. “Uh… Anything we can do to help.”
“Well, if the Hasidim are the most conservative of the Jewish Orthodoxy—how is it you’re driving a car on the Sabbath?”
He took inhaled and then took a very long time to look me in the eye. “Excuse me?”
“It’s Saturday, Mr.Aaron, and even I know that it’s forbidden. As one of the thirty-nine types of work the Torah prohibits on the Sabbath isn’t starting a car a form of lighting a fire? I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but you hit the ignition, the engine burns the fuel…”
His mouth moved and finally something came out. “Oh, my. . . Umm. . . We’ve been traveling, and we must’ve lost track of the days.” He reached down and turned off the ignition. “Thank you for reminding us.”
“I know that some Orthodox and Reform Jews drive on the Sabbath for specific purposes such as going to synagogue, but the nearest ones are down in Cheyenne and up in Billings and since you said, numerous times, that you were going to the Black Hills today…”
He cleared his throat and mumbled something unintelligible.
I reached in across the steering wheel, pulled the keys, and stuffed them in my jacket pocket to keep my hands free. “Also, not only does this happen to be a Saturday and the Sabbath, but it’s also Rosh Hashanah.”
His eyes grew very wide.
“Happy New Year, Mr., Aaron, it’s the start of the high holidays.” I adjusted my Ray-Bans and placed the web of my thumb onto the hammer of my .45 Colt. “The Day of Judgment is to come.” I glanced back and watched as Saizarbitoria stepped from his unit and, walking behind their trailer, came up on the passenger side of the Chrysler. “In all honesty I probably wouldn’t have noticed myself, but it was on a holiday calendar up at the high school where I was doing a DARE talk with some of the wayward students who had to come in for detention on a Saturday. DARE is the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program; I’m not sure if it does a lot of good, but it gives me a chance to go in and talk to the kids and maybe convince them that there are better ways to spend their time.”
He didn’t move.
“Rosh Hashanah is the day of judgment pronouncement as I recall but not final until Yom Kippur, so you get ten days to alter your behavior, correct?”
I moved back, pulled the handle on his door, and swung it wide. “How about stepping out here with me for a moment?”
Sitting there with his seatbelt still attached, I guess he was gauging his options, but there really wasn’t any way out. Slowly, he unfastened the belt and turned, sliding from the vehicle as the man in the passenger seat reached down for something in the glove compartment.
Saizarbitoria’s Beretta .40 lodged behind Joseph’s right ear, his voice cool and calm as a set #6 bear trap. “Sheriff’s department—don’t you move.”
I walked the driver back to the U-Haul and thumped a forefinger on Buffalo Bill’s studded chest. “You see this extra set of sheet metal screws up near the bulkhead, Mr. Aaron?”
His shook his head and then dropped it to study his shoes.
“There’s no paint on them which leads me to believe that they were added, possibly to provide a hidden cavity within the trailer.” I stepped back and measured the cargo space with my eyes. “Now I’m guessing, but from the dimensions, I’d say it’s probably close to two hundred pounds of marijuana, which means you and your friends are facing felony charges of possession of controlled substance, possession of controlled substance with intent to deliver, and conspiracy with intent to deliver a controlled substance to the tune of well over a million dollars street value.”
Saizarbitoria brought the other men around the van and had them leaning against the side with their fingers laced behind their heads and their legs spread wide, a Glock 19 with rubber bands wrapped around the handle lodged in the back of his duty belt.
I turned the driver toward the U-Haul, his head against the sheet metal, Buffalo Bill looking down at him in haughty disdain. “You know, Mr. Aaron. . .” I attached the cuffs to his wrists and turned him around, smiling at him sadly. “You might’ve gotten away with it if your friend hadn’t bought the ham sandwich and the bag of pork rinds.”
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