Article — From the October 2008 issue

Standoff in Columbus

Guns, dogs and the language of totality

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The next day, Judy was at her library and I was in my office at Colgate, preparing to teach a seminar in the fiction of Thomas Hardy. My phone rang, and the sheriff was on the line. He advised me not to go home but to remain in my office where I’d be safe. The boy from the trailer next door—why was a school-age boy at home?—had grown determined to collect the cash reward that he or someone in the household had read about in The Pennysaver. He crossed the threshold of the muddy gravel hillside patch surrounding Cotton’s trailer. He went over to the big, confused puppy who shivered in the cold rain of late Wednesday morning. He patted the dog and began to work at his fastenings. The door of the trailer opened out, and Cotton stood on the porch above the boy and the dog. He lifted a shotgun to his shoulder and aimed it at the boy.

“You let go of my dog or I’ll kill you,” he said.

The boy backed away and ran home. He told his mother about Cotton, and his mother called the Sheriff’s Department, and the report about violent menacing with a firearm made its way to the sheriff himself. Inquiries about Cotton had yielded information about his outpatient treatment for an illness that included psychotic fantasies. “He’s supposed to be a nice fellow when he takes his medicine regular,” the sheriff told me over the phone. He then advised me again to stay where I was. I rang off to call Judy, urging her to stay at school. Each of us admitted that we had no intention of doing anything but going home.

Judy, who has a sense of direction, used back roads to get to our house. I cannot remember how I got through the roadblock, but I did, and soon we and Jake were in the kitchen. Meanwhile, the sheriff had pulled out all the stops. It was a combined State Police and Sheriff’s Department operation. Our road was more or less sealed off. A heavily armed Special Weapons and Tactics squad surrounded the trailer. A cherrypicker crane was used to cut off power to Cotton’s trailer. A negotiating team composed of a state trooper and Walter, the sheriff’s deputy, was in the dooryard of the trailer, attempting to convince Cotton to surrender. From our kitchen, we saw State Police cars and Sheriff’s Department cars racing past, splashing up red mud, their warning lights shimmering against the wet darkness of autumn trees and the soaked stones of the roadside. I think that hours passed, but perhaps they were only enormous minutes. We turned off the lights and crouched at the kitchen windows, as if we were under attack.

What was happening out of our sight at the besieged trailer was a partial success in the negotiation between the two-man team and Cotton. They apparently had talked him into approaching the top of his porch steps while they came slowly closer. He told them about Buddy, he told them about his brother on Long Island, and he told them about his drift, from Georgia and then up into Ohio, and then his arrival at this country road, an area his brother knew because he owned a patch of land at the other end of the road where he hunted in season for deer. And then Cotton bolted, driven to run by nothing Walter could later specify. He ran for his door, but the door opened out, and that took time to negotiate—turn the knob, pull the door, step back, and then step in—and they caught him and handcuffed him. They found shotguns and semi-automatic rifles in his trailer. They found something like 1,500 rounds of ammunition inside and, at cache points on a trail he had laid out from the back door up the hillside, more deposits of cartridges. Apparently, he had fancied one day making a stand, then escaping from cache to cache, firing as he went. At the far end of the escape trail, the authorities found nothing that suggested what he was defending or where he might try to go.

If you don’t go to school, you get punished. I stayed home, most mornings, to write, and I often had the dogs with me if I was outside in the time between working in my office in our barn and teaching, a half an hour away, at Colgate. “I seen him with his dogs,” Cotton told them later, at the Chenango County jail, where he was held and questioned. “He liked them. I knew he’d come after it if I could get a hold of one to stake outside, and then I’d see him and I’d put a few rounds in his chest.”

So he laid a trail of bait on the hillside across from our house. Jake followed it first, and he was captured—locked in a room in the trailer, we surmised. And he broke out. That’s Jake, who was indomitable except by time. He was bruised perhaps from being beaten by Cotton, but also, probably, from somehow forcing his way out of the trailer and struggling to get home. Junior was easier, more tractable, and Cotton had captured him and achieved his bait. I was to come find him, hence the long tether and his position of high visibility. Cotton had no desire to kill Judy, for she had done him no harm. Whereas I, he told the interrogators, was a Drug Enforcement Agency operative named Dick Busch, who had followed him from Georgia to Ohio to New York. And it was I whom he held responsible for the failure of certain unspecified authorities to pay him the unspecified monies he was due “on account of the accident.”

I often return to his language: “put a few rounds in his chest.” I think of the bullets punching through me and taking me down. I am as impressed by the casual locution—a few rounds, not a clip, but more than a single shot, and into the chest, multiple killing shots—as I am by Cotton’s need to see me dead. I was as important, I have often thought, as a man whose chickens ran loose at the foot of the road named for escaped slaves and their descendants; I was almost a minor murder in an unimportant place.

Cotton’s brother is a kind of a hero in this tale, I guess, along with Judy, who confronted an obvious dragon at his lair. And Jake, of course, is the star of any story he might figure in. Our road’s now paved with what they call oil-and-stone, a kind of coarse macadam, so the fine, red dust doesn’t rise and fall in plumes, and we rarely walk the road with our dogs because there’s a good deal of traffic. The Pennysaver arrives each Tuesday with its tidings of death, divorce, poverty, and occasional joy: “Wish ‘Buzz’ Broyard a Happy 60th Birthday Today!” You can buy a shotgun or rifle without a license at the Wal-Mart south of Norwich if you want, and it’s easy enough to get hold of 1,500 rounds.

Walter, the deputy, is typical of the people who figure in stories about military risk and sorrow; he was a poor, rural, relatively uneducated young man to whom the military was someplace to go where they trained and fed you during a vacant-feeling young manhood. He served two hitches in Vietnam, re-enlisting while still in-country, driven to do so, he later told his doctors and his therapy group, because he wanted revenge for the deaths of friends and comrades, killed in terrible ways.

He remembered all this again in piercing detail very shortly after he arrived at our door in a Sheriff’s Department radio car on the day of what the Norwich newspaper, The Evening Sun, called, in its headline, a standoff in columbus! We had peered through the kitchen windows, acquiring visual fragments—mostly glimpses of fast cars—while others in the area knew the details of the confrontation because they listened to the police band on their scanners, monitoring the radio calls between participants in the raid. After the long, long wait, the red-and-white car stopped at the picket fence in front of the house. Walter came out slowly, laboriously, and walked around to the rear door on the house side of the car. He opened it and worked around for a moment and then stood up, bearing in his arms a seven-month-old Labrador retriever. The dog stiffened, then leaped from him and, trailing the maroon moving-van strap, galloped up our stone walk and jumped into us. We were on our knees, making the ridiculous noises and childlike patting gestures that people extend to their dogs. His coarse fur was soaked through its lanolin insulation, and Junior shivered as violently as Walter, whose uniform shirt, beneath a yellow slicker, was soaked dark. I expected him to grin—the dog was grinning, when not gulping water from his dish or jamming his wet nose at one of us—but Walter looked solemn, and his eyes were surrounded by darkness.

We toweled off the dog, gave the deputy a towel, and, though he got drier, he continued to shake. We sat him down. We made him hot tea with plenty of sugar. We listened as he told of the boy, the shotgun, the mother’s call to the Sheriff’s Department, the confrontation, the negotiations, the flaring up of violence, and then the arrest. Walter knew that our dog had been tethered as bait and that Cotton wanted to kill me, but he didn’t yet know why. He shivered as he spoke, and we poured more hot tea. And after a while Junior responded to the crisis by eating a large bowl of kibble, Jake sniffing him suspiciously with an autocratic, disapproving authority. Walter, after a while, sat silently, looking down the distance of the kitchen table, apparently, perhaps out the window above the sink, where there was a giant spruce tree, and bird feeders that rocked in the wind and the rain. He made as if to leave, and we rose to thank him.

He tried to say that he was pleased that the dog wasn’t hurt, and that Cotton hadn’t been able to shoot me. He said some of the words but couldn’t say the rest. There were tears in his eyes. We reached high to pat his shoulders and back because words by then were equally unavailable to Judy and to me.

The backyard clothesline crosses stand. The ropes are frayed at the holes they’ve been threaded through, and they sag a good deal lower toward the ground, but they remain intact. Raymond Bagnall, owner of the field on which the Klan held its rally, died about eight years ago. His younger kin and some associates—they too scuttle when, driving by, you threaten discovery by headlights or the naked eye—moved into small trailers near his house, and there they remain, as do their wrecked cars, paper trash, and green garbage. The house was rented for a few years to a woman with two children; although the children rode to school on the yellow bus, the woman never left unless a tall man driving an old truck appeared, maybe once a month, to take her someplace and then bring her back. The house burned down a couple of years ago, and it serves, with its blackened, partial walls, as a container for sacks of garbage dumped alongside household wreckage—partial chairs, chunks of charred wood, twisted, blackened wires—that is a kind of monument to poverty and neglect and the rage that fired the display of don’t tread on me as well as the desperate strutting and partial ignition during the rally of the Ku Klux Klan. The well house, with its injunction but without its tubular superstructure, is almost invisible under vines and spiky brush and household debris.

Cotton was released on his brother’s recognizance, and after a couple of months he placed a for sale placard over his pet semetary poster. Judy, driv ing past, saw him carrying swollen green garbage bags—his household possessions, we assumed—to his brother’s black Jeep. And soon he was gone, his property sold and then his brother’s. He is on Long Island, we learned, and he is probably doing just fine; as long as he takes his medication, men who work odd hours won’t be mistaken for roving DEA officers, and household pets can safely roam. Walter, the deputy, took an emergency leave, we learned, some weeks after the standoff down the road. He had begun to relive the losses and the fears of his two Vietnam deployments, and he was unable to cope with his memories. He suffered a psychological break and was hospitalized. He was finally considered permanently incapable of law-enforcement work. Part of his therapy was to write a narrative about his service in Vietnam. It is a single-spaced document of some twenty pages of deeply felt, hard-won, gut-true narrative. It tells of terrible deaths and periods of harrowing tension, of deepest fear, and of losses from which a man could not recover. He asked that I be given a copy because of the work he knew I did. Writers were said to be interested in people, and he thought that I might wish to know about his life.

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was a longtime friend of Harper’s Magazine, passed away on February 23, 2006. He was the author of twenty-seven books, including The Night Inspector (Harmony) and A Memory of War (Norton).

More from Frederick Busch:

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