I wrote Prairie Justice shortly after the Murrah Building bombing in Oklahoma City. Being in the Oklahoma oil business for so many years, I've met a bunch of crooked oilmen and more than a few corrupt judges and public servants. This story, if my memory serves me correctly, is the first appearance of my cowboy detective Buck McDivit. Yes, Buck preceded my French Quarter sleuth Wyatt Thomas. Which character do I like the best? I have no answer to that question since the two are like children to me and I love them both. Hope you love Buck as much as I do.
Buck McDivit braced himself against a dump truck, staring at the deep hole in front of him. The broad scar was all that remained of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Glancing at his watch for the third time in as many minutes, he wondered why his new client had wanted to meet him here at dawn. Privacy, he guessed. The area was vacant, except for the ghosts of 168 recent victims. A scratchy voice behind him said, “Don't turn around. No need to see who I am.”
The sudden intrusion caught Buck by surprise. He lowered his arms that had shot toward the sky. “I don't recognize your voice, so I guess you're here on business.”
“Good guess,” the man said.
When the stranger's voice dissolved into a moist cough, Buck could smell his sour breath. He didn't turn around. The client wanted privacy and anonymity and expected him to comply with his wishes. The voice sounded familiar, despite what he'd said. He was trying to remember where he'd heard it when the man placed a sheet of legal paper into his hand. It was a mineral lease though dim light and morning haze precluded him from reading the document.
“You know what it is, hotshot. You were a lease broker during the boom; a City cop before that. You didn't become a P.I. until after the oil bust.”
“You know about me. What about you?” Buck said.
“Everything you need from me is on that lease, and in this.” He placed an envelope in Buck's empty hand. “Your retainer and a name. When you finish your investigation, I want you to give him a hand-delivered written report. Now give me five minutes to vacate the premises before you turn around.”
“That's it?” asked Buck.
“You're smart. You'll figure everything out.”
“Maybe, but a hint would be nice.”
When the man started to speak, morning air sent him into another coughing jag. When his damp hack finally subsided, he said, “Vengeance is best served on a cold platter.”
Five minutes later, Buck McDivit was alone again.
Noisy diners crowded the tables in Cattleman's Cafe. Buck didn't notice. He was too busy studying the lease while working on a plate of steak and eggs and side of lamb fries. Pushing thirty, he'd yet to consider the possible ill effects of too much cholesterol. A semi loaded with cattle screeched to a halt outside on the street.
The envelope contained ten Ben Franklin's and the name of a reporter for the local newspaper. The document provided a bounty of information. The term, date of execution, lessor, and lessee, and the legal description of the mineral lease. At this point, it all seemed meaningless. Somewhere amid typed details lay a mystery the unnamed client had already paid Buck a thousand dollars to solve. He finished his coffee and used one of the hundreds to pay the tab.
The mineral lease named Clayton Jones as its owner, his address the Lazy J Ranch. The ranch lay just outside Okarche. Buck cranked his Dodge Ram's big engine and headed up the Northwest Passage to pay Clayton Jones a visit.
A week had passed since wheat harvest. Now, rural roads were finally clear of combines and grain trucks. Buck liked it that way, nearing eighty as he reached the turn-off to El Reno. From there, he didn't have far to go. He found the Lazy J Ranch a few miles south of the Northwest Passage, just off Highway 81.
Fresh white paint graced the barns, sheds, and fence surrounding the property. This was a working ranch, a life-size replica of an Oklahoma Paint Horse advertising its main product. He followed the drive to a sprawling ranch-style house, parking beside a red Corvette with a vanity tag that said Tushie.
“Anyone home?” he called when nobody answered his knock.
He followed a manicured path to investigate a commotion in the backyard. There he found a young woman galloping a horse around several barrels. She didn't immediately notice him. When she did, Buck tipped his Stetson, waiting until she'd dismounted and tethered her horse to the fence.
“I'm looking for Clayton Jones. This his ranch?”
“You're at the right ranch, but Daddy's at the horse auction, over in Oklahoma City. Maybe I can help you.”
“Wish you could,” he said, returning her smile. “I think I need to speak with your dad.”
“Too bad,” she said. “Sure boring around this big ol’ place, all by myself and all.”
A cattle truck passing on the highway blasted its mournful horn as it disappeared over a hill. Too busy considering if her reply had a hidden meaning, Buck didn't notice.
“Oh, I'm not in any particular hurry,” he finally managed.
“Mama has peach pie fresh out of the oven. I'll fix a pitcher of iced tea to go with it.”
“You got yourself a deal,” he said, following her up the walkway to the house. “What's your name?”
“Buck McDivit. I like your jeans, Sheila. I'll bet your friends call you Tushie.”
The young woman didn't turn around, but he knew she was smiling and could almost feel her face turning red. Her jeans were tight, faded and shiny from wear, thin fabric almost nonexistent across the seat of her pants. When he dropped back for a better look, she yanked off her hat and used it to block his view. Her reaction sent them both into a convulsion of laughter. Stopping at the house, she shook her thick mane of wheat-colored hair, sat down on the back porch and thrust a boot toward him. It was then he first noticed her big green eyes and pouty lips.
“How about a hand, cowboy?”
Buck needed no goading, eager to revel in the young woman's attention. Once free of the boots Sheila led him into the kitchen, removed the pie from the oven and began making tea.
“I love this ranch,” Buck said.
“You like horses?”
“You bet. I live on a horse farm myself, over in eastern Oklahoma County. Thoroughbreds.”
“You own a thoroughbred horse farm?” Sheila asked.
Buck smiled and shook his head. “I wish. I help run the place and do a few chores. In exchange, the rich lady that does own it furnishes my office space and a place to live in the horse barn. I have my own pony, though.”
“What else do you do for the rich lady?”
Sheila giggled when he said, “Oh, this and that.”
Young Miss Jones seemed taken by Buck's wavy hair and brown-eyed good looks. After waiting until he finished his second slice of Mama's pie, she walked him to his truck.
“Where'd you say your daddy is?” he asked.
“Bidding on fall stock at the horse barn. Won't be back till late tonight.”
Ignoring Sheila's innuendo with some difficulty, he said, “I sure need to see him today and ask him about this.”
When he showed Sheila the lease, she said, “This is Grandpa's signature, not Daddy's. He's at Eischen's in Okarche.”
“A little early for lunch.”
Sheila grinned. “Gramps likes drinking beer and yakking with the customers. I guess you can do most anything you like when you're ninety.”
“That's a fact,” he said, climbing behind the wheel.
After starting the engine, he cranked down the windows to release the cloud of super-heated air trapped inside the cab. Before driving away, he gave Clayton Jones granddaughter an assessing look.
“Say, Sheila. How'd you like to go two-stepping Saturday night, or maybe take a moonlight ride down by the river?”
Sheila waved and said, “Sorry. I have a boyfriend.”
Buck wanted to spend more time with her. Find out if she did have a boyfriend. Next time, he thought. Today, he was in a hurry. Spinning his tires in the dirt, he headed north, burning rubber when he reached the highway.
He arrived in Okarche in five minutes. Eischen's bar, famous for its cold beer and Okarche Fried Chicken, lay a block off the main highway. The oldest bar in Oklahoma had closed only once since opening in 1896—the result of a recent fire. Now it had reopened. Its bright new awnings proclaimed it had returned better than ever. Buck found Clayton Jones sitting at the bar.
“You Mister Jones?”
“Who wants to know?” asked the old man in faded overalls.
The barroom was dark, air-conditioning icy cold. Clayton Jones hadn't bothered removing his cap, and Buck suspected he rarely did.
“Buck McDivit. Got a minute?”
When the old man smiled, Buck recognized a glimmer of his granddaughter's features. Jones raised his hand to get the bartender's attention.
“About all I got,” he said. “And not much left of that. Hey Johnny, bring the boy here a Coors, and another for me.”
Buck took a moment to savor the icy draw before showing Clayton Jones the lease. The old man slipped his reading glasses out of his overalls and perched them on his nose, squinting to read the document.
“Leased the minerals under the ranch to Darrell Lamm for fifty dollars an acre. He turned the lease to Winchester Oil for ten times that amount.”
“Sounds like you should have held out for more.”
“Might have, if I’d known about the gusher Winchester would find. Thousand barrels a day.”
“I don't mean soda pop.”
Buck reflected on the old man's answer and sudden change in demeanor. “Lamm wouldn't have any way to know that before he leased you, would he?”
Clayton Jones chuckled. “Son, you're pretty smart. Darrell Lamm's more than just an oil man; he also owns a bank. Guess who banks there?” Buck shrugged. “Seems I had a mortgage, and Winchester a seismic survey pegging the Lazy J as the hottest oil property in northwest Oklahoma. Lamm got a look at it while visiting their office.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don't, for a fact, but I have strong suspicions.”
“Sounds like Lamm got the best of both of you.”
“That's about the speed limit around these parts,” Jones said. “Far as I'm concerned, the only thing more crooked than an oil man is a banker. Lamm has both bases covered.”
Talk of Clayton Jones' crooked banker further exasperated the sudden ill effect on the old man's demeanor. When he closed his eyes and slumped against burled walnut, Buck signaled for two more beers.
“Didn't mean to bring back bad memories. At least Winchester drilled you a good well.”
The oil well immediately raised Jones' spirits, his smile restored by the time he'd finished his fresh draw. “I reckon you're right about that. I'd almost forgot about the damn lease, anyway. Winchester drilled the well while I was spending the summer with my daughter in Texas. With the royalty money from the well, I paid off the mortgage on my ranch and all the rest of my debt.”
“Then there's your silver lining,” Buck said.
“No thanks to Darrell Lamm. I'd still love to give him a little shot of reality.”
“Maybe you can. My client seems to think something's wrong with this lease. Mind taking another look?”
Clayton Jones didn't mind and reexamined the lease. Closer this time. Finally, he shook his head. “Afraid I can't help you. That's the lease I signed all right”
The news wasn't what Buck had wanted to hear. Finishing his beer, he patted the old man's shoulder. “Guess I better run over to El Reno and check the records myself.”
Clayton Jones stopped him before he reached the door. “Say, Buck, I don't see a wedding ring on your finger. You single?”
“Still holding out for the right woman,” he said, grinning.
“Why don't you give my granddaughter a call? I sure need someone to hurry things up if I'm going to see grandchilluns before I die.”
“Thanks, Mr. Jones. I'll keep that in mind.”
Buck saluted as he walked out the door. Kids were the last things that worried him as he headed south toward the Canadian County Courthouse. Pumping units and tank batteries lined the road. Black gold. Life's blood of Oklahoma. He passed a large building that gave him other thoughts.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes had constructed a huge bingo hall unlike any he'd ever seen. It looked like a Las Vegas casino, complete with flashing neon lights. He gunned around the last sweeping bend, finding the Canadian County legal complex near the center of El Reno.
Two new buildings, both labeled County Courthouse, sat a block apart. Buck took a chance and chose the closest building. Refrigerated air swept over him as he entered the new facility. The hall led him to a large open room that looked like a bank, complete with tellers. A prominent sign stated the kinds of business handled. Divorce, civil domestic abuse, domestic relations and issuing of process server's licenses. His favorite was beer, bingo and pool halls licensing. A friendly clerk informed him he was in the wrong building.
In the Hall of Records, he realized why his client had researched his employment history before hiring him. What other private investigator knew how to check records? Likely a bunch in Oklahoma City. Within ten minutes, he'd located the file copy of the lease Darrell Lamm had taken from Clayton Jones. He spent a moment browsing through the documents in the book before having a clerk make copies for him. Sitting alone at a booth in the corner, he studied the copied documents. Finally, he had it.
Once he realized the mistake in the lease, it stood out like flashing neon. Except it wasn't a mistake. Someone had altered Clayton Jones' lease with correction fluid, the culprit likely Darrell Lamm. He'd typed in a new date, adding six months to the term. All this he did before assigning the lease to Winchester Oil. The insinuation was clear—fraud and deceit, Lamm's motive to add value to an aging lease and make it more marketable. And maybe there was something else.
Buck broke all existing speed limits, blowing past cars and trucks as he raced down Interstate 40 toward Oklahoma City. He needed to reach the geologic library before it closed at five. He made it with ten minutes to spare, winking at Cyndi Gates the cute librarian as he hurried past the front desk. He found what he needed in a musty file cabinet.
Several geologists spoke to him in passing. He responded with only a salute, intent on looking at the completion report for the Winchester Oil #1 Clayton Jones. Like the old man had said, the well had blown in for more than a thousand barrels of oil a day. It had already produced a quarter-million barrels of oil. It was a hell of a well making Winchester Oil, Darrell Lamm, and Clayton Jones happy. But something was wrong. Now, Buck knew what it was.
According to the date on the report, Winchester hadn't begun drilling in time to save the lease. Clayton Jones hadn't noticed because he'd been in Texas that summer, visiting his daughter. Winchester Oil had drilled a well, a fabulous well, on an expired lease. Now, Winchester was producing and selling oil it didn't own. The company was guilty of stupidity and lack of due diligence, and Darrell Lamm of civil fraud. The severity of their crimes mattered little. When Jones found out, both would have the devil to pay.
After dropping off his story with his client's appreciative reporter, Buck exited the high-rise. At the front door lay a stack of the newspaper's latest edition. He stopped to glance at the picture on the front page. State Judge Indicted for Malfeasance, the headline read. Buck recognized the man in the picture.
Judge Henry Lang. He remembered the ousted judge's scratchy voice ruined by too many cigarettes. A Grand Jury had indicted him for taking bribes and rendering prejudicial court decisions. Buck didn't find it unusual that Darrell Lamm had instigated the investigation. For reasons unknown, their business relationship had gone awry, and Lamm had taken the judge down.
The reason didn't matter. Lamm had made a big mistake in calling for Lang's ouster. The Judge likely knew the location of many of the oil man’s skeletons. Instead of getting mad, he'd gotten even. If he were to go down, Lamm would go down with him.
Except for the companies and individuals that had paid big bucks for his decisions, no one would miss Judge Lang. As for Lamm, if he died tomorrow a telephone booth would suffice for all the people that would show up for his funeral. Tossing the newspaper back on the stack, Buck headed for his truck.
Right now, he had problems of his own—thirty hungry horses waiting for supper. Scattering gravel in the parking lot, he headed east. Maybe he'd call Sheila when he finished his chores; give her another chance to go two-stepping Saturday night. Maybe, but not before drinking an icy Coors and taking an evening gallop on his faithful pony.