DELMORE O'SHAUGHNESSY had only been out of New York City twice since the war. Once, to give a lecture on pathological fire setters at an International Association of Arson Investigators convention in Atlantic City, and again to attend his sister's wedding in Poughkeepsie, New York. In order to visit his old war buddy in Elk Mountain, he had to fly direct from LaGuardia to Denver and change planes there for the short hop to Laramie.
From the window of his plane, Delmore O'Shaughnessy, whose idea of the west had never extended beyond New Jersey, saw spacious skies and amber waves of grain; he saw majestic purple mountains and vast fruited plains. And this child of the Lower East Side-this man who had fought and investigated fires in Manhattan's claustrophobic tenements and cramped luxury skyscrapers-was dumbstruck by the realization that this country, his country, was so big, so formidable, and so very much like the words of the song.
O'Shaughnessy was even more amazed after he arrived at the Laramie airport. He stood at the door of the plane, looked up, and saw how the sky sprung from horizon to horizon like some wild and crazy war hoop. Never before had he seen a sky so unencumbered by either skyscrapers or enemy aircraft.
"God damn gorgeous," he said, his eyes glued to the heavens as he started down the stairs. His friend Mortimer Nightingale was waiting for him there when his foot hit the tarmac. They collected his luggage, and as they walked to Mort's truck, they spoke softly of years gone by and of different skies ... ones from which bombs had fallen. Two hours into the trip from Laramie to Elk Mountain, they had finished with the past and were discussing the fire in the Nightingale barn and why Mortimer had asked his old friend to come.
DELMORE O'SHAUGHNESSY was a man of middle height, middle age, and middle weight. He had blue-gray eyes, thick white, southern-senator hair, and big calloused hands. He chain-smoked menthol cigarettes, carelessly tossing his stubs wherever he was standing, and talked non-stop, particularly when he was inspecting a fire scene. Occasionally, he interjected Yiddish phrases into his monologues to make a point, a habit he had picked up when he was sixteen and worked for a pickle vendor at the Essex Street Market.
When Delmore O'Shaughnessy looked at people or objects, his eyes latched onto them like suction cups on a window pane.
As he was being introduced to Billy, the fifteen-year-old felt those eyes latch right onto him.
"Come here, kid," the older man commanded.
The youngster stepped forward.
He was, O'Shaughnessy noticed, tall, gawky, angular, and eager. His face was full of freckles, there was dirt under his fingernails, and his hair was the color of dandelions. All of which confused Delmore O'Shaughnessy. He had no trouble understanding or anticipating the moves of fifteen-year-old boys who carried lead pipes and used switchblade knives. Ones who wore farm overalls, sheared sheep, and drove tractors, however, were as foreign to him as creatures from another planet.
"So you're the alleged perpetrator," the older man said gruffly, wondering if teenagers in Wyoming spoke English.
Billy looked down at his shoes.
"Some schlimazel in Connecticut thinks you burned down the barn because a year ago ... maybe less ... you burned down something else. A smoke house. An outhouse. Some house."
Billy's head jerked up quickly. "That was an accident. I was conducting an experiment and..."
"Yeah. Yeah. Tell it to the judge. Anyway, past history doesn't equal motive, and even if it did, motive doesn't tell you bubkas about how a building burned down. Only a putz investigates a fire by looking at a suspect's past."
Billy gave a quizzical look. "Is that good?"
He hadn't understood a word that O'Shaughnessy had said.
The fire i