The Body in the Coulee

The body lay part way down the coulee, right before the slope turned shear and plunged to the creek below. The night had hidden it, but the arrival of dawn made its presence obvious. There were several sets of footprints from where the body lay to the road, clearly marked in the muddy spring ground. Even as the new day’s light revealed these details the first flakes of snow began to fall, wet and heavy. For a time the earth resisted their intrusion but eventually the storm proved too much and the ground turned white, covering over the tracks.

Wayne Johnstone was the one to find it later that morning. He caught sight of the red jacket out of the corner of his eye from the tractor where he was tubgrinding feed for the cattle. Thinking it was something that had come off of a passing car on the highway, he drove up to the fence of the pasture by the lip of the slope to see what it might be. Something in him recognized just what and who it was without really looking and he sat in the tractor, his hands clutching the steering wheel, feeling very cold. After a time he clambered down the hillside, now slick with the accumulating snow, to confirm his suspicions.

Half an hour later a police car drove slowly up the driveway in the main yard, pulling to a stop in front of the ranch house where a woman sat on the porch, a dog at her feet and a hood thrown over her head to keep off the snow.

“‘Hello Diane,” Martin said as he stepped out of the car.

She just nodded, “It’s down there by the coulee,” she said pointing. “You can take your car if you think it can make it through the mud.”

I’ll be alright.”

She paused, and then she said, “We called him. Wayne said I probably shouldn’t, but I had to.”

He nodded, “He’s down there now?”

Yeah.”

He drove on through the yard down the laneways, pens filled with cattle still with their winter coats on either side, until he came to the far pen that connected out to the pasture. He sat there a moment to gather himself and then stepped out of the car, putting on his hat to keep the snow off. The pasture was almost entirely covered over in white, ruining the scene no doubt. If the weather forecaster on the radio was correct his drive back to town would be interesting as well by the time he was through here.

He climbed into the pen and set off for the pasture, nearly losing a shoe in the mud as he went. It smelled rank, a winter’s worth of manure and urine thawed and filling his nostrils. The cows ambled, and the calves darted, out of his way as he went, the footing growing more solid as he came to pasture. Still, he was glad he had not been tempted to try his luck with the car. The last thing he needed to add to the day was conducting a murder investigation while his vehicle was being pulled out of a pasture.

When he came to the fence separating the pasture from the coulee he saw them standing down the ridge a ways, looking down at the body, wiping the snow from their eyes. He cleared his throat and swung over the fence as they both turned to him. He just nodded at them and knelt down by the body. The face was mostly blown away. He could see the outline of one eye socket and most of the jaw, bits of brain and skull. Her neck and chest were perforated with pellet blasts. The blood was that curdled dark color, clumping against her skin and the earth below. He sighed and stood up, turning to Leonard.

It’s her alright,” Leonard said. “That’s her jacket and shoes.”

Martin looked at Wayne, “Anybody else been down here but you two?”

Wayne shook his head.

Alright. Why don’t you and Leonard head back to the house and wait for me. I want to look around a bit. Cory should be here pretty quick.”

What’ll they do with the body?” Leonard asked, his tone odd.

He’ll have to take it into town. Botha will have to look at it. We’ll take care of it.” He turned from them and knelt again by the body.

The snow had already obscured whatever tracks were around, but it seemed clear to him that she had been dragged here from the road. There was not enough blood around her, given the extent of her wounds, to say nothing of what had happened to the rest of her head. Why then had she been left here where the body would be easily discovered. A few steps farther would have taken whoever had carried her to the lip of the coulee where gravity would have carried the body into the darkness and trees. Of course, if all this had been carried out in the dead of the night without the benefit of a vehicle’s headlights, assuming the perpetrators were concerned about drawing attention to themselves, then whoever it had been might have thought they were closer to the precipice than they in fact were.

He paced from the body to the road. The fence along the ditch ended before the coulee started, and he wondered briefly why Wayne hadn’t bothered to extend it. There were no tracks into the ditch, which was hardly surprising given the snow. He climbed onto the road, kicking at the damp blacktop. It curved just ahead along with the coulee, the two running nearly parallel briefly, before the road curved again to wrap around it. The snow was coming down so heavily he could not see beyond that.

He went back to the body, snapping on the rubber gloves he had brought as he went, feeling faintly ridiculous as he did so. Wiping his eyes clear of water and snow he gingerly turned what was left of her head towards him and pulled back her remaining eyelid. The eye beneath was cloudy and the body itself stiff with rigor mortis, no doubt helped by the temperature, which had hovered around the freezing mark for most of the night through to the morning.

Martin stood, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth thoughtfully, and started to pull his gloves off when he spotted Cory heaving his bulk over the fence and waved him over. The ambulance drive wandered over, his jeans tucked into his unlaced work boots, his jacket open to the elements as well. He was unshaven and, as he came up alongside, Martin caught a whiff of booze.

Late night?”

Oh,” Cory said with a wave of his hand.

You good to drive yet?”

I made it here didn’t I?”

Don’t make me put the fucking breathalyzer on you,” Martin said. “I’ve got enough shit to deal with without you cocking things up.”

Cory waved his hand again and turned his attention to the body. “Kristi Taid.”

Yes,” Martin said.

Cause of death shouldn’t be a problem anyway.”

No.”

Well, how you wanna do this? Bring the stretcher down from the highway, probably the easiest.”

Martin agreed and Cory returned through the pasture to where he had left the ambulance parked beside Martin’s car and then drove back through the yard and down the highway to where the coulee began. Martin met him there and they carried the stretcher down, moving the body onto it and then struggling back up the slippery ditch to the ambulance.

Take it in to Botha then?” Cory said, turning to head to the cab of the vehicle.

Yes,” Martin said. “And for fuck sakes Cory don’t phone anyone, don’t let anyone know. This is an RCMP investigation now.”

Cory didn’t reply, giving him another wave and then was on his way. Martin sighed and swore again under his breath. He stood and watched until the ambulance had disappeared into the snow that formed a wall to his vision on the other side of the Johnstone yard. He shivered and started on his way back to the yard, already thinking of the questions he would have to ask Leonard. 

From The Devious Kind by Clint Westgard

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