Man on a leash - By Charles Williams


Dawn was just breaking when he pulled into town after the late-night drive from San Francisco, and it would be hours yet before officialdom was astir. A boy in an all-night service station worried the spattered insects off his windshield while the tank was being filled and told him how to find the cemetery. It was about two miles south of the city limits, he said, and if he wondered why an out-of-state license wanted to visit Coleville’s burying ground at this strange hour, he made no mention of it.

Romstead wasn’t sure himself, since he had no flowers to deposit on the grave and would have felt too uncomfortable and self-conscious in such a lavender gesture anyway, knowing the Rabelaisian laughter this would have evoked in the departed. Maybe he simply had to see the grave before he could accept it.

Certainly Sergeant Crowder’s few facts over the telephone had sounded as improbable as a bad television script, and the big stud was indestructible anyway. Nobody who’d survived waterfront brawls, typhoons, picket-line battles, a lifetime of exuberant and extramarital wenching, torpedoings, western ocean gales, and fourteen months on the Murmansk run in World War II could have got himself killed in this plastic desert town on the edge of nowhere. And not merely killed, Crowder had said, but executed.

“Six ten,” the boy said. Romstead passed him the credit card. He made out the slip, imprinted it with the card, and then broke stride, looking up suddenly as the name struck him in the midst of this boring and automatic routine. He seemed about to say something but changed his mind, filled in the license number, and passed the clipboard in through the window. Romstead signed and drove out.

The business district was only six or eight blocks, with traffic lights at three of the intersections. South of it were several motels, all showing vacancy signs, a residential area of modest houses and green lawns, and then a highway maintenance depot and some oil storage tanks. For a mile or so beyond the city limits there were small irrigated farms on both sides of the highway, but after the blacktop climbed a slight grade out of the valley, he was in open rangeland again. Almost immediately he saw the cemetery ahead of him and slowed.

It was on the slope of a rocky hillside to the right, with a row of stunted cedars along the fence in front and a pair of fieldstone pillars framing the entrance. He pulled off and stopped, and when he cut the engine and got out, he was aware of profound silence and the odor of sage. It was full daylight now, the sky washed with pink and gold above the waste of flinty hills and desert scrub to the east, while to westward the thrusting escarpments of the Sierra stood out sharply in the clear desert air. The cooling engine made a loud ticking sound in the hush, and miles overhead an invisible jet drew its contrail across the sky. He sighed and shook his head as he walked over to the entrance. It was a hell of a morning to be dead.

The iron grillwork gates were closed but not locked. Then, when he was already inside and walking slowly up the avenue between the rows of graves, it suddenly occurred to him there was no way to identify it when he found it. There wouldn’t be any headstone yet. How could there be, since he was the only one to place an order, and he hadn’t even known about it until eight hours ago?

But surprisingly there was one. Just ahead and to his left was the raw mound of a new grave, the only one in sight from here, and when he approached, he saw the simple inscription chiseled into the granite slab at the head of it:



He walked over and stood looking down at this final resting place of what had possibly been the world’s most improbable parent, not quite sure what his feelings were. There was no profound sense of grief or loss, certainly, for a man he’d seen so few times in his life. It was more a sense of wonder, he thought, at all that vast energy’s having been stilled at last or the incongruity of prosaic burial in a country cemetery so far from the sea when anything less than a Viking funeral pyre would have been an anticlimax.

Mayo had asked him once about his relationship with his father. The question had