Sargent, TX is a quiet town on the Gulf of Mexico where most of the residents are local and make a living off the weekend and holiday crowds of the boating and fishing enthusiasts. With low crime and a small-town appeal, it is the ideal place for someone to grow up and live. Deputy Clayton “Clay” Wood was someone who felt that way about Sargent. He grew up in there his whole life. His father was a Sheriff of the town, so he got to know the area a bit differently than other children. His mother left them when he was just a child for reasons his father never understood so he kept close to his father. He knew that when he grew up, he would join the Sheriff’s department and work with his dad. Unfortunately, when Clay was twelve years old, his father was accidentally killed by a drunk driver while he was on duty. The current Sheriff of Sargent, William Hayes, had known Clay since he was born and took him into his family and raised Clay as one of his own. Sheriff Hayes was just a Deputy then, but had grown up with Clay’s father so Clay was already considered family.
Clay never fully recovered from the loss of his father, so when he graduated high school, he joined the United States Marine Corps. He found a place that made sense to him and worked to get enrolled in the Scout Sniper School where he excelled. He went on to serve in that capacity for the next eight years, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He came home to Sargent, TX and was quickly employed at the Sheriff’s office to work with what he considered his “extended” family. They were happy to have him. He was 6’4” and weighed about 240 pounds, all muscle. His youthful face, blond hair, and blue eyes made him look much younger than his 27 years, which the other deputies would not let him forget. All kidding aside, he would be the first they would call if they needed a “presence” when it came to some altercations. Clay loved his job and the people that he worked with.
It was the last day of Labor Day Weekend and a majority of the crowds had left to go back home to nearby Houston, Austin, or San Antonio. It would still be pretty busy on the weekends for the next couple of months, but the work would be a lot less hectic. As was tradition in the Sargent, TX Sheriff’s Office, the last duty deputies would meet at Hookers Waterfront Bar & Grill to get burgers and a beer. Ten o’clock was the witching hour when they pulled up to their traditional table that was saved for them to place their order and enjoy the next day off. Clay was just settling into his chair and was sipping on some water that was placed in advance to the group’s arrival when a call came across the radio, “Boys, we have a noise complaint at Chamberlain Park on Canal Drive. It sounds like someone might be breaking into the bait shack again. Over.”
The four men looked at each other as to who would have their evening interrupted when Deputy Josh Talbot looked at Clay, and with eyes wider than his grin, “Looks like Wood has yet to partake in an adult beverage, making him the soberest of the lot to field this call. Sorry, brother, but this is on you. Besides, when they see your giant body get out of that car, they will either run or piss themselves”
Deputy Carl Hayes laughingly threw in, “Don’t they do both? It’s like the beet red hulk is coming to git ya’. I swear, since you hit puberty, you don’t tan… you turn different shades of red.” The whole table was laughing hysterically at this point as Clay was standing up, getting ready to go to the call.
Deputy Zed Perkins continued with the ribbing, “What do you mean ‘when’ puberty hit? Wood looks like he’s still holding out for his first man hair. If he wasn’t so tall, he could get a kid’s pass to movies.” These last comments even made Clay laugh out loud.
Clay looked at the three of the deputies as he slowly started walking to the exit and shyly said, “If I didn’t have to service your girlfriends as often as you service your guns, I could have a regular life.” They exploded with cheers at this as Clay walked out the door. “Dispatch, this is Deputy Wood. I am just around the corner at Hookers. I will be on site in just a moment. Over.” Chamberlain Park was just around the corner from Hookers, so Clay thought it would be a small break in the evening’s festivities, then he would be back celebrating the end of summer with his friends in just a matter of minutes.
When the three deputies finally calmed down from the laughter, Deputy Talbot looked at Deputy Hayes, “That had to have been one heck of a torturous life for that boy having to grow up with you in that house. I would have flunked out of school from either the paddling your dad would’ve given or from losing sleep just inventing new ways to torture that boy. He takes it so well.”
“Nah, when he moved in after his pa died, he was pretty quiet all the time. It was kind of sad, really. It was like we adopted a puppy that was achin’ for his pa. My pa kept him focused on Scouts and hunting; kept him close. I was a little jealous at first, but my ma gave me a talkin’ and explained what my pa was doin’. I bullied him a bit but he would just take it. Take it all. We bonded when Jacob Herring found out I was fooling around with his girl, Sara Parker. Hell, I was fifteen and she was the most gorgeous fiery red-head I did ever see. It wasn’t my fault she would rather spend time with me than with that giant goof, Jacob. Well, Jacob was older and bigger than me and I knew I was in for a beating. I earned it. He caught up to me after school one day and let me have it. After I had taken a couple of good shots… that I should have,” Hayes inflected for good measure, “Jacob wanted to humiliate me even more. That’s when Clay got involved. By this time, Clay was tall with the face of a boy. No one had really noticed how strong that boy had gotten; he just didn’ show it off. So, Clay gets between us and tells Jacob to let it go, that it was over. Well, that didn’t sit too good with Jacob… at… all. He took a shot at Clay that would have made most kids hide their face for a week. Not Clay, he just took it. Didn’t flinch. He told Jacob one more time to git. I mean, a boy takes a shot like that and gives ya the chance to run, you take ‘im up on that. But nope. Jacob just couldn’t do it. He went to take another swing at Clay, and Clay just hit him so hard that his nose popped like a tomato and he clear flew out his shoes. Really, ya’ll; out… of… his… shoes. I don’t think I ever seen anyone get hit that hard, even to today.”
“That was enough for Jacob’s friends to even think about messin’ with us no more. Clay told ‘im as much. I got what I earned but if they were gonna’ hold a grudge, that was what they was gonna’ git. He even told poor Jacob why he would get so ornery 'bout a girl that would go behind his back in the first place. Poor Jacob. That boy moved away soon after and never heard nuthin’ 'bout him since.”
Deputy Perkins, taking in the whole story, was looking for closure, “So, Josh, what happened to that girl Sara after all that?”
“Oh, well I got at back her the most… I married her.” The table burst into laughter again. “Yeah, we were on and off through high school. She went off to college to be a veterinarian, for horses, cattle. Her pa owned a ranch. So, she came back from school and you know how a woman can’t say no to a man in uniform. She begged me to make an honest woman of her and I humbly obliged.”
Deputy Talbot spit some of his beer out at mention of this and quickly turned to Deputy Perkins. “Well, that is one way to end that story. I was the Best Man at your wedding. I think the better way to say it was her papa found them playing doctor when they should have been playing veterinarian in the barn… after church… in their church clothes… with her nana waiting to see her after flying in from Kentucky. Needless to say, I think the begging came from Carl. At the end of a Winchester?” he asked while looking at Deputy Hayes who nodded and echoed agreement that it was indeed a Winchester. “Hell, even Carl’s dad, the Sheriff, said it would have been a justified shooting if he didn’t say he would marry her right away.”
“Turns out it was for the best,” Deputy Hayes conceded. “I just knew we was good fer each other. We passed the bathroom test back in high school. If that doesn’t mean yer meant fer each other, I don’t know what does.” Deputy Perkins looks inquiringly mouthing “bathroom test” at Officer Deputy Talbot. Deputy Hayes sees this and blurts out, “It’s when you see the girl of yer dreams drop the kids off at the pool in the same room as you and you don’t care. A lot of men have gotten divorced over that. Read that in a magazine once. It’s a scientific fact. Bathroom test.”
Deputy Perkins just laughs. “That is funny. You expect me to believe that you read.” And with that, they started drinking again and telling each other about the incidents with the people that had had to work through during the day. It wasn’t until about 45 minutes had passed that Deputy Perkins mentioned that they had not heard from Clay. “Deputy Wood, Deputy Wood. What is your 20? Over.” There was no answer as he waited for a count of 30. Again, “Deputy Wood, Deputy Wood. What is your 20? Over.” More silence. “Dispatch, Dispatch, this is Deputy Perkins. What is the last 20 from Deputy Wood? Over.”
“The last 20 was a check in at the Chamberlain Park. That was 30 minutes ago.” They all look at each other and hear the sound of the dispatcher paging Deputy Wood over and over. Deputy Hayes looks at the other two, “I better go over there and check. Maybe his radio is out. Or he’s busy lecturing someone on the ills of thievery. Radio check.”
Deputy Hayes had almost made it to the door when all three of their radios burst out in loud static then gun shots. Everyone in the restaurant sort of ducked and was shocked at how loud the shots were over the radio. “Officer down. Please help. They’re everywhere. They’re everywh-.” And with the last loud pop of a gunshot, the radio went silent. Hayes dashed out of the restaurant and to his patrol car to head over to Chamberlain Park with the other Deputies right behind him. In under a minute, all three deputies were on the scene, lights flashing, preparing to get into a fire fight. They drove all over the park and could not see any signs of Deputy Wood or of any gun fighting. They killed their sirens and searched the area, finding nothing.
Deputy Hayes got out of his car and knocked on the door to the house overlooking the park. An elderly man came to the door, clearly having been woken from sleep. Deputy Hayes thought that was odd with so many gunshots that would have just been fired. He asked the man about the gunshots or if he had seen anything that night. “Yes, I called you about an hour ago. Sounded like some kids were trying to break into the bait shop again. I heard a car arrive and I went back to bed. The noise was gone so I went back to sleep. Is there a problem?”
Deputy Hayes was at a lost. Clay was like a brother to him. He grew up with Clay. He quickly pulled out his cell and called his father, Sheriff William Hayes. He woke the Sheriff by the sound of his voice, and got the Sheriff caught up. “Alright, tell dispatch to see if they can get the GPS immediately so that we can find out where the car is. Also, see if they or any other county has received any complaints about gun shots. I will head to the station now. In the meantime, make sure you and your deputies are patrolling the area. I will get every man and woman we have out there working phones or patrolling. We’ll find that kid.”
Thirty minutes had passed when a call came in from Cedar Lake that they found a car in the middle of an intersection with a lot of spent bullet casings inside and outside of the car. Sheriff Hayes and the deputies speed over to the location about twenty miles from the original call. When they got there, they saw a few other Officers from Cedar Lake combing the area with flashlights.
The head Sheriff walked over to Sheriff Hayes to show him the scene. “Sheriff Hostetler, good to meet you. I appreciate you coming so fast. As you can see, there are several spent casings in the front and back of the car; they look like they were fired from a hand gun, same size as a police issue. Obviously, something was hit as there is black fluid on the dashboard. It doesn’t appear to be blood as it is somewhat corrosive, like acid, but not as strong. It’s still burning a little bit of the rubber. That’s that smell.” Sheriff Hayes was looking over the vehicle to see any other evidence that was not already pointed out.
“You can also see the spent shotgun shells everywhere. And here, under the car.” The Sheriff pointed to a shotgun that was half under the car. “This looks like one of your rifles. We checked, and the chamber was cleared. We put it back as we found it as this is now an active crime scene. We have been searching the area since we called you and we haven’t found anyone. It almost looks like your deputy was firing into the wind and just disappeared. We have a helicopter coming in from Houston to help with the search. We have also set up a perimeter on the roads just to make sure we check vehicles leaving the area. If your boy’s out here, we’ll find him.”
“Thank you, Sheriff... Hostetler.” Sheriff Hayes looked at the name badge to make sure. “If you don’t mind that me and my Deputies help you in the search? We have another ten that we can get here in the next twenty minutes, a couple with dogs. This is your backyard so tell me where you will be and let us know where we can go.”
“Absolutely, Sheriff. Were you close to the deputy?” Sheriff Hostetler pried, trying to gauge the urgency.
“Yes. Like a son. I am going to call the FBI on this if we don’t find something soon.”
By the time the sun came up the next morning, Sheriff Hayes had made the call to the FBI and was being interrogated, along with the three deputies that were with him that night, to be cleared as suspects. It was about noon that they were all cleared to look for Deputy Wood again. The search would go on for the next two weeks before the FBI recalled most of their resources, thinking that Wood may have just ran away without saying anything to anyone, in spite of the suspicious circumstances. The fluid on the dashboard was low toxic acid used in several commercial products, even batteries. There were no leads, no signs. Sheriff Hayes drove home one night after spending the day searching a trash dump for the body of Clay, but found nothing. Clay had completely disappeared, and he felt like it was his fault. He was supposed to take care of Clay. He promised Clay’s dad in the hospital he would see to him like a son. He pulled into his driveway at home and wept.