Sheriff Sam Beaudry knew when he was being watched. He could feel it on his skin, surpassing the threat of an itch from his over-starched brown and khaki shirt. Some people called it the creeps. For Sam it was the eyeball crawl, and it was taking place on the back of his neck, causing an increase in the pain his paperwork always caused him. This was what he got for sitting with his back to a window. But the square footage of the Bear Root County sheriff’s office permitted only two ways to arrange a desk, and putting his back to the door was never an option. That was how Wild Bill had gotten himself whacked, as every fan of Western lore knew well.
The chair’s casters squealed as Sam pushed back from the obsolescent typewriter, reached for his brown stoneware mug and rose with deceptive ease. The stiffness in his left knee would be walked off by the time he caught up with the eyeball’s owner. Never let ‘em see you limp. One corner of his mouth twitched as he took a moment to will the joint’s battered ball to cozy up to its warped socket. Or smile.
The mug was another deception. Coffee wasn’t what he was going for. It was bug-eyed surprise. He went out the front door, peered around the corner of the two-story brick building and silently drew his bead.
The boy sprang to attention, lost his grimy grip on the window sill, his rubber-soled footing on the ledge, and tumbled backward into Sam’s waiting arms.
“That means don’t move, Jim.” Sam lowered the sandy-haired spy to the ground and turned him around by his bony shoulders. “’Fraid I’m gonna have to take you in.”
“How could I freeze?” Jimmy Whiteside looked up, tipping his head way back. He squinted one eye, even though Sam’s shadow shielded him from the sun. “You ‘bout scared the crap out of me.”
“You keep that much under control, I might go easy on you.” Sam checked his watch. “School ain’t out yet. You’re breakin’ the law, boy.”
“I didn’t feel like going back inside after recess. It’s hot in there.”
“It’s gonna be a lot hotter this afternoon when you’re sittin’ in detention.”
The boy frowned. “What’s detention?”
“What do they call it these days when you stay after school for punishment?”
“Staying after school. But mostly I get time out in the principal’s office.” Jimmy grinned. “I’m only in fourth grade.”
“So you’re what, nine?” Sam laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder again. “In another year you’ll be old enough to do hard time in Miles City, you keep on peekin’ in people’s windows. Especially when you’re supposed to be in school.” He squeezed slightly, gave the small shoulder a friendly shake. “Hard time, Jim. You know what that means?”
Jim rolled his shoulder and backed away. “It means you’re trying to scare me.”
Sam chuckled. He’d learned the art from his father’s side. An Indian kid would know Sam’s line for what it was—teasing with a blunt edge—and wouldn’t have such a quick comeback. “Don’t look now, but your mom’s comin’.”
The boy had ball bearings in his neck. Sam wanted to laugh, but with both of them watching the little woman in white take a little hop-skip across a curbside puddle and hit the Main Street pavement with pure purpose, he worked against it. “I warned you, Jim. Talk about scary.”
Jim’s head swiveled again, sporting a scowl this time, all for Sam. “What do you mean by that?”
“That woman means business. If I were you, I’d go quietly.”
“Wherever she says.” Sam nodded, keeping it serious. “Hey, Maggie. We were just—”
“Sam, I’m so sorry.” She tucked a damp strand of honey blonde hair—escaped from her bobbing ponytail—behind her pixie ear. Her face was coated with a fine sheen, a testament to the workout her boy was given to putting her through. “Jimmy, I’m so upset. I thought we had an agreement.” She drew a deep breath and treated Sam to an apologetic smile. “He’s really interested in what you—” Hair secured, she planted small hand on sweet hip and drew down on the smile. “Mr. Cochran called me at work again, Jimmy. You can’t just wander off the school grounds like that. Now you’re in trouble with him and with me. And the sheriff, too.” She glanced up with that uncomfortable smile. “I’m sorry, Sam.”
“What about you, Jim?” he asked.
“Sorry.” His face went down all hang-dog, but it bobbed right back up guilt-free. “Carla Taylor said you shot a burglar this morning in the shed behind the Emporium. She saw you from the bus, and Lucky was barking like crazy.”
“Yep. That dog comes by his name honestly. He was lucky he didn’t get snakebit this morning.”
“Carla said she heard you tell somebody to give himself up.”
“Even a rattlesnake has rights.”
Maggie laughed softly—a warm sound Sam would have gladly kept going if he could think of another good line.
But disappointment claimed boy’s freckled face. “I thought maybe you had a prisoner in there. Or a dead body.”
“Nope.” Disappointment all around. “But I got a nice set of rattles, which I’d be glad to show you next time you come around to the office. But not if you’re climbin’ around the window, and not when you’re supposed to be in school.” He laid a hand on Jim’s shoulder. “You got yourself a double jeopardy situation here, Jim. I’m bowin’ out. Apologies accepted.” He nodded, reflexively raising his hand to the brim of the tan Stetson he wasn’t wearing. “Maggie.”
Safe on the steps of the Old County Building, which housed his office downstairs and his second-floor apartment, Sam watched little Maggie Whiteside march her big-for-his-britches son across the street. The boy deserved credit for silently suffering a mother’s hand-holding and hair-smoothing in full view of two stories of classroom windows, nodding dutifully in response to her words. Sam didn’t know anything about Jim’s father, but there must have been a father somewhere, and he must have been tall. Already a handful for a single mom, Jim didn’t get his height from Maggie. But she had the upper hand.
A nurse at the Bear Root Regional Medical Clinic, Maggie was the kind of woman who talked like she knew you when she didn’t, acted interested when she wasn’t, and laughed like she was enjoying herself most of the time. It was cute, but mostly for show. Sam didn’t know where she was from exactly—outside Montana there was only Back East and The Coast—but she’d only been living in Bear Root for about two years. Given time, she’d learn to cut the crap. Unfortunately, her kind of woman generally didn’t take the time in Bear Root. Two years was stretching it.
Sam reached for the old brass knob on the front door open just as one of the town’s two sirens shattered the calm mountain air. Distant, coming this way. Either alarm served to galvanize every resident, but the Rescue Squad hit home hard and fast.
Is it my kid? My wife? My brother?
Sam was still watching Maggie, feeling the alarm along with her, the call to duty. She lifted her head as though there was an odor in the air, and she glanced back at him. You smell that? It’s big. It’s bad. They connected on the shared instinct.
Sam pulled his keys out of his pants pocket as he headed for the brown car emblazoned with a big, gold star. He felt a little light-headed, but it was only because he wasn’t wearing his Stetson. Which meant he was out of uniform.
He started the car, flipped on the radio, noted Maggie’s quick pace cutting across the schoolyard grass and mentally gave himself a demerit.
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