Under The Cicadas

by Joseph Scott Kierland

Teddy finished cutting the weeds that had crept up the walk and into his old tomato patch behind the house. He hung the whacker in the shed, slipped out of his work gloves, and saw Cody coaxing the big bay through the far gate. The boy tied his horse to the end post, checked to make sure his fly was zipped, and lowered his new cowboy straw against the glare of the August sun. Teddy had told him to “stay away from the proceedings,” but he’d shown up anyway...in his cowboy boots.

Cody’s father had been one of Teddy’s political backers through a tedious eight years in Congress. Teddy had always counted on Old Fritz for that extra bag of money he needed to win an election. Fritz had it, gave it, and expected things for it. Teddy made sure the open cattle range continued as the modern rancher’s credo, and that water remained at what Fritz referred to as “a fair price.” When the old man died everyone assumed that Teddy would retire, become Mayor, and adopt Cody. Teddy kept the little house and the land Fritz had given him along the southern edge of the Schumacher ranch, became the town’s mayor, but never adopted Cody. No one did.

“Mr. Mayor,” Cody yelled across the yard. Teddy looked up in a faked surprise. “He here yet?” Teddy shook his head. “Think he’ll show?”

“If you showed...I guess he will.”

“I’m just surprised he’s not here...it’s getting late,” Cody said, ignoring the sarcasm.

“Lawyers are always late, son. They don’t like looking hungry. It’s undignified.”

A low cloud of dust rose along the outer road and Earl’s white 250 Ford truck rushed into view between the trees. The slow crescendo of clicking cicadas began to rise and their steady hum enveloped the yard. “Sure you want to hang around for this?” Teddy yelled over the cicadas’ clicking. “I’m just going to feel him out.”

“Thought I might help you push the load.”

“Nobody pushes Big Earl,” Teddy said, watching the white truck race up the dirt road while another wave from the cicadas rushed over them in the August heat.

“We’re giving him an awesome deal no matter how you cut it,” Cody yelled back, and headed for the house.

Teddy shook his head at the boy’s remark and waited for the white truck to pull into the driveway. Big Earl stepped out and sauntered across the yard. He walked with a slight stoop but Teddy still had to reach up to shake his hand. “Isn’t that Cody’s bay?” Earl asked.

“Certainly is,” Teddy mumbled, as their boots thumped across the porch. “Can I get you some iced tea?”

“That would do fine,” Earl said.

Teddy opened the small fridge behind the screen. “I can stiffen it up, if you’d like.”

“Just the tea,” Earl said, grasping the frosted glass before Teddy could pour any bourbon into it.

“Hope you don’t think I’m trying to talk you into anything here, Counselor,” Teddy said, lacing his own tea with the bourbon and ice.

“Hell no,” the big man said. “I figure you’ve got a lot on your mind these days and need some answers.”

Teddy liked that about Big Earl. He got right to the point. In his way he saved more sweat, grime, and bullshit than anyone he’d ever known. He cut to the bone by just speaking his mind. Most people in town were God-fearing Christians that believed in those pretty Biblical words printed on thin paper. They had put up with Earl’s straight talk for years because if they got into trouble it was Earl they wanted to defend them and they paid plenty for the privilege.

Big Earl never cared much about how the truth got to the table just as long as it managed to get there. Teddy respected that about the big guy and admitted that whenever the platter of truth showed up at his end he just passed it on to the person sitting next to him.

“I figure you’re looking for some free advice from a good defense lawyer,” Earl said.

Teddy gave out a big laugh and a short nod. “You’ve got me cold,” he said.

“This whole thing’s really up to you,” Earl told him.

Cody came into the room, glanced over at Teddy, and sat down. “What’re they saying down at the courthouse?” Teddy asked, ignoring the kid.

”That the whole thing’s about a few people having a meeting and forgetting to get a permit,” Earl said. “It’s just their way of trying to brush it under the carpet to protect you. Trouble is, it keeps blowing back out at them.” Big Earl laughed at his own joke and looked over at the kid, and said, “The fact that the meeting was held at two in the morning on federal property with over a hundred people attending is why it keeps blowing back out from under that carpet.”

“They can’t prove it,” Cody said, jumping up.

“Were you there, son?” Earl asked.

“Yeah, I was there,” the kid said, and seemed glad someone had finally asked him outside of the courthouse.

“Did anyone see you there?”

“Sure,” Cody admitted. “I invited a few people over to my ranch...private property. And I can prove it.”

There was an uncomfortable silence, and Big Earl finally said, “Several noteworthy witnesses say otherwise, including two ministers and a police officer. They say it was not your property and that the number of people that were there couldn’t possibly fit into your living room. That means the prosecutor will be questioning your ability to count...and to know where you are at any given time of the day or night.” The kid looked sullen and sat down again. “Even if what you say is true,” Earl went on, “this thing could turn into a circus. It’s close to that now. Why don’t you just pay the fine and hope the damn thing fades into everlasting County paper work?”

“If we do that then we admit we did it,” Cody said.

“They might just take it as a beau geste.”

The kid looked confused, and Teddy quickly asked, “You think they really might, Earl?”

“Don’t know. Paying the fine will at least take the smell off it a bit.”

The cicadas stopped their high clicking and the three men listened to the ice hitting the side of Earl’s glass as he took another slug of the cold tea. Earl leaned back and said, “There’s a firm down in Phoenix that specializes-”

“We don’t want outsiders in this,” Cody said.

“You ought to get the best, son,” Earl told him.

“We decided to keep it in the family,” Teddy said, glancing over at Cody. “Less publicity the better. But we wanted your opinion before we went any further.”

“I just gave you my opinion.”

“You don’t think there’s a lawyer here that could-”

“Call Phoenix and be done with it,” Earl insisted. “They have more experience with these things, and you’ll need that if Singleton is prosecuting.”

Teddy poured some more tea into Earl’s glass, and said, “Singleton’s given the case over to his assistant.”

“Singleton’s assistant isn’t ready for anything like this. He just got out of law school...barely passed the bar. He couldn’t argue a traffic ticket.”

Teddy watched the change of expression come into Earl’s eyes when he figured out they’d played a political card to keep the regular prosecuting attorney off the case. “Could be a break for your side though,” Earl admitted. “But be careful. These things can backfire.”

“How’s that?” Cody asked.

“Sometimes young enthusiasm goes a long way. The kid may be inexperienced, but he’s not dumb. He might dig a lot deeper than his boss. And if he gets together with one of those hotshot reporters on The Courier the whole thing could blow out of control. If that boy starts to dig he might find all kinds of things. Your relationship with Cody, how you got this house, and the ranch itself would be open for investigation.”

“That’s none of their business,” Cody said.

“Exactly,” Earl said. “There are lots of questions people don’t ask because they don’t want to hear the answers. But it’s situations like this that force them to ask those questions. It’s one thing to be thrown out of office, Teddy, but it’s something else if they throw the both of you in jail along with it. I think you should bring in the Phoenix boys,” Earl said again. “They’re straight and fast. They’ll do a quick plea bargain and it’ll be over.”

The room got quiet and Cody headed for the door in a rush. “Be right back,” he yelled over his shoulder.

“What’s that kid up to?” Big Earl asked.

“You got me,” Teddy said with a shrug. “He does the craziest things. I can’t figure him out anymore.”

“No one ever expected you to. He’s damaged goods and you know it.” Teddy looked up in surprise. It was unusual for Big Earl to reveal his hand like that. “Does he know how bad a situation he’s in?” Earl asked. “If he knowingly lied to a Grand Jury about where-”

“I think he’s beginning to figure that out.”

“Are you holding something back on me, Teddy?” Earl took in a deep breath. “Did you drag me out here to ask if I was up to taking your case?”

“I just wanted your opinion before we did anything.”

“I didn’t think anyone in this town gave a rat’s ass about my opinion...except in the courtroom.”

“This town doesn’t like hearing the truth, Earl. I’m different. I just don’t like spreading it around. Truth can be toxic to a politician.”

Earl finished his tea and listened to the cicadas. “How do you stand those bugs hanging over you like that?” he asked. “They’re so noisy I can’t hear myself think.”

“They show up a few weeks in the dog-days, make a lot of clatter, then disappear for the rest of the year.”

“They’re a goddamn menace,” Earl said.

“The old man gave me this property and I figure I got a pretty good deal,” Teddy said.

“Maybe. But an even better deal is to get the best lawyer you can and crawl out of this mess you’re in.”

“Are you that lawyer, Earl?” Teddy asked.

“In this town...probably,” the big man said, “but I still think you should make that call to Phoenix.”

“That’s an honest answer.”

“I happen to know the prosecution has pictures of the license plates of everyone attending that meeting. They know who was there because they were there. You broke the law and they caught you. It’s as simple as that.”

“I couldn’t resist,” Teddy mumbled. “There were a lot of votes out there that night.”

“Maybe, but the voters that weren’t out there are the ones that can vote you out of office for what you did.”

“That’s already been suggested. Someone’s trying to make an example of me. But it wasn’t like that. I was worried about Cody so I went along. Those ranchers down Dewey way got him convinced the Latino’s are taking over the county...and that the world will end if they do.”

“That crowd thinks terrorists and drug dealers are in their coffee beans.”

“That’s not all. Somebody’s been sneaking on to the ranches at night and gunning their cows. They don’t steal them...just shoot ‘em up and leave ‘em to die. It’s got them spooked.”

“Have they reported it?” Earl asked.

“Hell, no. They’re fighting mad and determined to take care of it themselves...and in their own way.”

“Hope there isn’t some stray fruit picker hanging around or their next meeting might turn into a lynching.”

“Jesus, I never looked at it that way.”

Big Earl saw a movement out the window. Cody was heading for the back door with a large white box. “What’s that kid up to?” Earl asked again.

“Damned if I know,” Teddy muttered in a low moan.

“He’s lied to a Grand Jury and been caught at it. Does he understand what that means?”

“I tried explaining it to him but he’s got his own sense of justice. His world comes cut and dried.”

“Like shooting cows?”

“Jesus, you don’t think—“

“You better find a law firm...and fast, Teddy.”

Cody burst into the room with the big white box under his arm. “Don’t want you thinking we dragged you out here just to pick your brain, sir,” he said to Earl as if he’d been rehearsing it in the back room.

Big Earl glanced at Teddy, put down his ice tea, and opened the box. A rush of smooth black material slipped out over his arm. Teddy knew exactly what it was but hadn’t expected Cody to go that far. He reached out to catch the material before it hit the floor and shoved a business envelope into Earl’s hand. “Congratulations,” he muttered. “Should’ve given you this earlier.” Earl stared down at the envelope and the material on his arm. “Read it,” Teddy said. “It’s signed and delivered.”

“The Governor’s office,” Earl muttered, opening the envelope and taking out the letter. “He’s appointed me the County’s new criminal-court judge.”

“Said he knew you.”

“Yeah, we suffered through law school together,” Big Earl said, refolding the letter and stuffing it back into the long envelope. “Too bad the Governor’s headed for jail. That’s what happens out here when you marry into money. You’re either thrown on a boring bank board and get caught fiddling with loan votes like he did, or you get elected and sent off to D.C. Either way...you lose,” he said, glancing at Teddy.

“We were the ones that recommended you,” Cody said in a rush as if he hadn’t heard anything Earl had just said. “Try it on, try it on,” the kid insisted, lifting the rest of the black cloth out of the box and holding it up.

“Thank you,” Earl mumbled, putting his arms through the large openings.

“You’ll get used to it,” Cody said, smoothing the purple stripes that ran up the edge of the bloused sleeves.

Teddy could see the suspicion creeping back into Earl’s eyes again. “I don’t know what to say,” the tall man mumbled, staring down at the robe that turned him into a judge.

“Don’t say anything,” Teddy said. “You’ve got the job and no one can take it from you.”

“That’s the system,” Cody said. “All legal like.”

Earl looked uncomfortable, shifting in the robe until it finally fell into place across his shoulders. “I better call Bobbie and tell her,” he said.

“Of course, use the phone in the bedroom,” Teddy said, pointing toward the back of the house.

When the bedroom door closed, Cody whispered across the room, “Who the hell is Bobbie?”

“His wife,” Teddy whispered. “You pushed too hard and too fast, kid. I told you I’d handle this but-”

“I don’t hear anything in there,” Cody said, moving closer to the door to listen.

“That’s ‘cause he’s not talking to anybody, so get away from that door. He’s in there trying to figure this thing out. Earl’s nobody’s fool. He picked up on that Singleton move like a hound dog, and you bringing in that goddamn robe just made things worse. I told you lawyers don’t like looking hungry. You can’t force something like this on a guy like Earl. Jesus, I had no idea he went to school with the Governor. He’s probably right about that bastard going to jail too. Harvard Law, my ass.”

“We just did him a favor, for Christ’s sake.”

“You don’t do favors for guys like Big Earl. You’ve got to make guys like that think they’re doing you the favor,” Teddy said, pouring more tea and hitting it with a large splash of bourbon. “Just leave me alone with him. Maybe I can salvage this thing.”

“I can’t believe he’s not on the phone in there,” Cody said, listening at the bedroom door again. “No Harvard guy turns down being a judge. It’s unpatriotic.”

“We’re sliding on black ice here, boy. And we been on it ever since you put that damn cross up at the meeting.”

“Those people take that cross stuff serious, Teddy. That’s why they were in their white robes. They love crosses. Besides, you said it was all about votes!”

“You didn’t have to set the goddamned thing on fire!”

“The guys on the fire truck told me it was okay.”

Cody heard something move in the bedroom and jumped away from the door, knocking over a small side table next to the stuffed chair. Magazines flew across the floor and Cody tried picking them up before Earl got to the door. The large man rushed back into the room with the opened robe swirling around him. “Think I’ll try some of that bourbon now,” he said, grabbing the bottle of Wild Turkey and pouring it into his iced tea.

“Did you get Bobbie?” Teddy asked.

“She didn’t quite believe it,” Earl said, gulping the tea. “She never liked the Governor and he knew it, so she can’t quite figure why he’d do something like this for me. She’s got this idea that they’ll assign me to this dumb Ku Klux Klan case that you’re tied up in. She thinks the whole thing’s going to be a fast trial. Open and shut.” Cody glanced at Teddy, but didn’t move. “What’s got her curiosity going is this first-time judge, first-time prosecutor thing. It puts the trial in an almost automatic appeal situation. Like the whole thing is being set up. Thrown to the appeals court down in Phoenix. That’s what the defense is counting on.” He gave out a sudden laugh, and said, “I forgot to mention the robe to her, Cody. Sorry about that. She would’ve gotten a kick out of it.”

“That’s all right, sir,” Cody mumbled.

“Of course, I could recuse myself and they’d have to appoint another judge,” Earl went on. “Or we could keep this little meeting of ours a secret...like it never happened.”

“That’s the best idea you’ve had all day,” Teddy said, glancing over at Cody picking up the magazines.

“I suppose we could work out some general terms right now and get that out of the way,” Earl said. “Bobbie’s been wanting to move out this way for a long time. I told her you had some ranch property up for sale at a great price, Cody. She jumped at it. Those six or seven acres of bottomland you’ve got tucked up against Teddy’s place ought to do fine. A thousand dollars an acre sounded pretty reasonable to her.”

“Hell, that bottomland’s worth a lot more than-”

“We’ll have to make the deal before the trial date’s set. She’ll pay cash, of course.”

“It’s a great spot for a house,” Teddy said quickly, trying to cover Cody’s confusion. “She’ll love it out here. Maybe I can even pick up a few horses for you.”

“That might make it messy. Everything’s got to be legal and at least look above board.”

“Of course,” Teddy agreed. “I’ll have the lawyers get the sale papers out to you immediately,” he said, smiling over at Cody.

Big Earl slipped out of the robe and folded it back into the white box. “Thank you, son. This was a beautiful thought...and kind of you,” he said, heading for the door. “I’ll go down and report to the courthouse with this letter while you get that land agreement postdated.”

“No problem,” Teddy said, stepping out into the yard with Big Earl under a crescendo of cicadas. “I didn’t have anything to do with this robe business, Earl,” he yelled over the cicadas’ clicking.

“I know,” Earl said, handing the white box back to him. “That kid will drag us all down if we let him. He’s crazy stupid. You think he bought that robe in the same place they make the Klan’s white ones?” Earl jumped into the truck before Teddy could answer. The low growl of the engine blended into the high clicking sounds over them. “Tell that kid I’ll buy my own uniform for the job. It comes with the territory.”

Earl’s truck started for the road and Teddy turned back toward the house with the white box under his arm. Halfway across the yard he saw Cody coming at him with the double-barreled shotgun. Teddy looked back toward Earl’s truck but it had already made the turn on to the main road. He made a quick run for the shed but Cody cut him off and Teddy raised the white box with the judge’s robe in it for protection.

Earl heard the explosion and thought he’d blown a tire, but the truck held the road. The clicking waves from the cicadas rose in a quick tremendous roar and he slowed the truck down to listen. When the shotgun’s second round came the clicking stopped in a deafening silence. Earl picked up speed, reached the main road, and made the turn for home to show Bobbie the Governor’s letter. After they discussed it he’d drive down to the courthouse and get his first assignment.