Sheriff Boone Taylor, enjoying a rare off-duty day, drew back his battered fishing rod and cast the fly-hook far out over the rushing, sun-spangled waters of Big Sky River. It ran the width of Parable County, Montana, that river, curving alongside the town of Parable itself like the crook of an elbow. Then it extended westward through the middle of the neighboring community of Three Trees and from there straight on to the Pacific.
He didn't just love this wild, sprawling country, he reflected with quiet contentment. He was Montana, from the wide sky arching overhead to the rocky ground under the well-worn soles of his boots. That scenery was, to his mind, his soul made visible.
A nibble at the hook, far out in the river, followed by a fierce breaking-away, told Boone he'd snaggedand already losta good-sized fish. He smiledhe'd have released the catch anyway, since there were plenty of trout in his cracker-box-sized freezerand reeled in his line to make sure the hook was still there. He found that it wasn't, tied on a new one. For him, fishing was a form of meditation, a rare luxury in his busy life, a peaceful and quiet time that offered solace and soothed the many bruised and broken places inside him, while shoring up the strong ones.
He cast out his line again, and adjusted the brim of his baseball cap so it blocked some of the midmorning glare blazing in his eyes. He'd forgotten his sunglasses back at the houseif that junk heap of a double-wide trailer could be called a "house"and he wasn't inclined to backtrack to fetch them.
So he squinted, and toughed it out. For Boone, toughing things out was a way of life.
When his cell phone jangled in the pocket of his lightweight cotton shirt, worn unbuttoned over an old T-shirt, he muttered under his breath, grappling for the device. He'd have preferred to ignore it and stay inaccessible for a little while longer. As sheriff, though, he didn't have that option. He was basically on call, 24/7, like it or not.
He checked the number, recognized it as Molly's, and frowned slightly as he pressed the answer bar. She and her husband, Bob, had been raising Boone's two young sons, Griffin and Fletcher, since the dark days following the death of their mother and Boone's wife. Corrie, a few years before. A call from his only sibling was usually benignMolly kept him up-to-date on how the boys were doingbut there was always the possibility that the news was bad, that something had happened to one or both of them. Boone had reason to be paranoid, after all he'd been through, and when it came to his kids, he definitely was.
"Molly?" he barked into the receiver. "What's up?"
"Hello. Boone." Molly replied, and sure enough, there was a dampness to her response, as though she'd been crying, or was about to, anyhow. And she sounded bone weary, too. She sniffled and put him out of his misery, at least temporarily. "The boys are both fine," she said. "It's about Bob. He broke his right knee this morningon the golf course, of all placesand the docs in Emergency say he'll need surgery right away. Maybe even a total replacement."
"Are you crying?" Boone asked, his tone verging on a challenge as he processed the flow of information she'd just let loose. He hated it when women cried, especially ones he happened to love, and couldn't help out in any real way.
"Yes," Molly answered, rallying a little. "I am. After the surgery comes rehab, and then more recoveryweeks and weeks of it."
Boone didn't even reel in his line; he just dropped the pole on the rocky bank of the river and watched with a certain detached interest as it began to bounce around, an indication that he'd gotten another bite. "Molly, I'm sorry," he murmured.
Bob was the love of Molly's life, the father of their three children, and a backup dad to Griff and Fletch, as well. Things were going to be rough for him and for the rest of the family, and there wasn't a damn thing Boone could do to make it better.
"Talk to me, Molly." he urged gruffly, when she didn't reply right away. He could envision her, struggling to put on a brave front, as clearly as if they'd been standing in the same room.
The pole was being pulled into the river by then; he stepped on it to keep it from going in and fumbled to cut the line with his pocketknife while Molly was still regathering her composure, keeping the phone pinned between his shoulder and his ear so his hands stayed free. Except for the boys and her and Bob's kids. Molly was all the blood kin Boone had left, and he owed her everything.
"It's" Molly paused, drew a shaky breath "it's just that the kids have summer jobs, and I'm going to have my hands full taking care of Bob
Belatedly, the implications sank in. Molly couldn't be expected to look after her husband and Griffin and Fletcher, too. She was telling her thickheaded brother, as gently as she could, that he had to step up now, and raise his own kids. The prospect filled him with a tangled combination of exuberance and pure terror.
Boone pulled himself together, silently acknowledged that the situation could have been a lot worse. Bob's injury was bad, no getting around it, but he could be fixed. He wasn't seriously ill, the way Corrie had been.
Visions of his late wife, wasted and fragile after a long and doomed battle with breast cancer, unfurled in his mind like scenes from a very sad movie.
"Okay." he managed to say. "I'll be there as soon as I can. Are you at home, or at the hospital?"
"Hospital," Molly answered, almost in a whisper. "I'll probably be back at the house before you get here, though."
Boone nodded in response, then spoke. "Hang on, sis," he said. "I'm as good as on my way."
"Griffin and Fletcher don't know yet," she told him quickly. "About what's happened to Bob, I mean, or that you'll be coming to take them back to Parable with you. They're with the neighbor, Mrs. Mills. I want to be there when they find out, Boone."
Translation: If you get to the boys before I do, don't say anything about what's going on. You'll probably bungle it.
"Good idea," Boone conceded, smiling a little. Molly was still the same bossy big sister she'd always beenthank God.
Molly sucked in another breath, sounded calmer when she went on, though she had to be truly shaken up. "I know this is all pretty sudden"
"I'll deal with it," Boone said, picking up the fishing pole, reeling in the severed line and starting toward his truck, a rusted-out beater parked up the bank a ways, alongside a dirt road. He knew he ought to replace the rig, but most of the time he drove a squad car, and, besides, he hated the idea of going into debt.
"See you soon," Molly said, and Boone knew even without seeing her that she was tearing up again.
Boone was breathless from the steep climb by the time he reached the road and his truck, even though he was in good physical shape. His palm sweated where he gripped the cell phone, and he tossed the fishing pole into the back of the pickup with the other hand. It clattered against the corrugated metal. "Soon," he confirmed.
They said their goodbyes, and the call ended.
By then, reality was connecting the dots to form an image in his brain, one of spending a whole summer, if not longer, with two little boys who basically regarded him as an acquaintance rather than a father. And it was a natural reaction on their part; he'd essentially abdicated his parental role after Corrie had died, packing off the kidssmall and baffledto Missoula to stay with Molly and Bob and their older cousins. In the beginning, Boone had meant for the arrangement to be temporaryall of them hadbut one thing led to another, and pretty soon, the distance between him and the children became emotional as well as physical. While his closest friends had been needling him to man up and bring Griffin and Fletcher home practically since the day after Corrie's funeral, and he missed those boys with an ache that resembled the insistent, pulsing throb of a bad tooth, he'd always told himself he needed just a little more time. Just until after the election, and then until he'd gotten into the swing of a new job, since being sheriff was a lot more demanding than being a deputy, like before, then until he could replace the double-wide with a decent house. Until, until, until.
Now, it was put up or shut up. Molly would need all her personal resources, physical, spiritual and emotional, to steer Bob and her own children through the weeks ahead.
He sat there in the truck for a few moments, with the engine running and the phone still in his hand, picturing the long and winding highway between Parable and Missoula, and finally speed-dialed his best friend, Hutch Carmody.
"Yo, Sheriff Taylor," Hutch greeted him cheerfully. "What can I do you out of?"
Married to his longtime love, the former Kendra Shepherd, with a five-year-old stepdaughter, Madison, and a new baby due to join the outfit in a month or so, Hutch seemed to be in a nonstop good mood these days.
It was probably the regular sex, Boone figured, too distracted to be envious but still subliminally aware that he'd been living like a monk since Corrie had died. "I need to borrow a rig," he said straight out. "I've got to get to Missoula quick, and this old pile of scrap metal might not make it there and back."
Hutch got serious, right here, right now. "Sure," he said. "What's going on? Are the kids okay?"
Though they'd only visited Parable a few times since they'd gone to live with Molly and Bob, Griffin and Fletcher looked up to Hutch, probably wished he was their dad, instead of Boone. "The boys are fine," Boone answered. "But Molly just called, and she says Bob blew a knee on the golf course and he's about to have surgery. Obviously, she's got all she can do to look after her own crew right now, so I'm on my way up there to bring the kids home with me."
Hutch swore in a mild exclamation of sympathy for the world of hurt he figured Bob was in, and then said, "I'm sorry to hear thatabout Bob, I mean. Want me to come along, ride shotgun and maybe provide a little moral support?"
"I appreciate the offer, Hutch," Boone replied, sincerely grateful for the man's no-nonsense, unshakable friendship. "But I think I need some alone-time with the kids, so I can try to explain what's happening on the drive back from Missoula."
Griffin was seven years old and Fletcher was only five. Boone could "explain" until he was blue in the face, but they weren't going to understand why they were suddenly being jerked out of the only home and the only family they really knew. Griffin, being a little older, remembered his mother vaguely, remembered when the four of them had been a unit. The younger boy, Fletcher, had no memories of Corrie, though, and certainly didn't regard Boone as his dad. It was Bob who'd raised him and his brother, taken them to T-ball games, to the dentist, to Sunday school.
"Not a problem," Hutch agreed readily. "The truck is gassed up and ready to roll. Do you want me to drop it off at your place? One of the hands could follow me over in another rig and"
"I'll stop by the ranch and pick it up instead," Boone broke in, not wanting to put his friend to any more trouble than he already had. "See you in about fifteen minutes."
"Okay," Hutch responded, sighing the word, and the call was over.
Boone stayed a hair under the speed limit, though just barely, the whole way to the Carmody ranch, called Whisper Creek, where he found Hutch waiting beside the fancy extended-cab truck he'd purchased the year before, when he and Kendra were falling in love for the second time. Or maybe just realizing that they'd never actually fallen out of it in the first place.
Now, Hutch was hatless, with his head tilted a little to one side the way he did when he was pondering some enigma, and his hands were wedged backward into the hip pockets of his worn jeans. Kendra, a breath-takingly beautiful blonde, stood beside him, pregnant into the next county.
"Have you had anything to eat?" Kendra called to Boone, the instant he'd stopped his pickup. Dust roiled around her from under the truck's wheels, but she was a rancher's wife now, and unfazed by the small stuff.
Boone got out of the truck and walked toward them. He kissed Kendra's cheek and tried to smile, though he couldn't quite bring it off. "What is it with women and food?" he asked. "A man could be lying flat as a squashed penny on the railroad track, and some female would come along first thing, wanting to feed him something."
Hutch chuckled at that, but the quiet concern in his gaze made Boone's throat pull tight like the top of an old-time tobacco sack. "It's a long stretch to Missoula," Hutch observed, quietly affable. "You might get hungry along the way."
"I'll make sandwiches," Kendra said, and turned to duck-waddle toward the ranch house. Compared with Boone's double-wide, the place looked like a palace, with its clapboard siding and shining windows, and for the first time in his life, Boone wished he had a fine house like that to bring his children home to.
"Don't" Boone protested, but it was too late. Kendra was already opening the screen door, stepping into the kitchen beyond.
"Let her build you a lunch, Boone," Hutch urged, his voice as quiet as his manner. Since the wedding, he'd been downright Zen-like. "She'll be quick about it, and she wants to help whatever way she can. We all do."
Boone nodded, cleared his throat, looked away. Hutch's dog, a black mutt named Leviticus, trotted over to nose Boone's hand, his way of saying howdy. Ken-dra's golden retriever, Daisy, was there, too, watchful and wagging her tail.
Boone ruffled both dogs' ears, straightened, looked Hutch in the eye again. Neither of them spoke, but it didn't matter, because they'd been friends for so long that words weren't always necessary.
Boone was worried about bringing the boys back to his place for anything longer than a holiday weekend, and Hutch knew that. He clearly cared and sympathized, but at the same time, he was pleased. There was no need to give voice to the obvious.
Kendra returned almost right away, moving pretty quickly for somebody who could be accused of smuggling pumpkins. She carried a bulging brown paper bag in one hand, holding it out to Boone when she got close enough. "Turkey on rye," she said. "With pickles. I threw in a couple of hard-boiled eggs and an apple, too."
He took the bag, muttered his thanks, climbed into Hutch's truck and reached through the open window to hand over the keys to the rust-bucket he'd driven up in. Some swap that was, he thought ruefully. His old buddy was definitely getting the shitty end of this stick.
"Give Molly and Bob our best!" Kendra called after him, as Boone started up the engine and shifted into Reverse. "If there's anything we can do"
Boone cut her off with a nod, raised a hand in farewell and drove away.
After a brief stop in Parable, to get some cash from an ATM, he'd keep the pedal to the metal all the way to Missoula. Once there, he and Molly would explain things, together.
God only knew how his sons would take the newsthey were always tentative and quiet on visits to Parable, like exiles to a strange new planet, and visibly relieved when it was time to go back to the city.
One thing at a time, Boone reminded himself.