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Sheriff Sam Beaudry knew when he was being watched. He could feel it on his skin, surpassing the threat of an itch from his overstarched 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 plugged, as every fan of Western lore knew well.
The chair's casters squealed as Sam pushed back from the dependable old 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 an imaginary bead.
The boy sprang to attention, lost his grimy grip on the windowsill, 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 wasteasing with a blunt edgeand 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-blond hairwhich had escaped from her bobbing ponytailbehind 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 do. Everything you do." 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 hangdog, but it bobbed right back up guilt-free. "Carla Taylor said you shot a burglar in the shed behind the Emporium this morning. 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 softlya warm sound Sam would have gladly kept going if he could think of another good line.
But disappointment claimed the 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 exactlyoutside Montana there was only Back East and The Coastbut 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 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.
Lucky the Wonder Mutt learned fast.
It was his mistress who was a little slow on the uptake sometimes. But once Hilda Beaudry had the logistics figured out, Lucky's new trick was all but in the bag.
"Lucky, hit the lights."
The little black-and-white terrieralways a hit at Allgood's Emporiumjumped on cue, landed on the strategically placed footstool, and then sprang for the wall switch, hitting the target with his only front paw. Lucky could do more with three legs than most mutts could achieve on four. He didn't even need a command for the follow-up sit on the footstool. He perked his ears and waited prettily for his reward. Liver treats were his favorite. His long tongue curled around his nose as he whimpered.
"No, thank you. You're the one"
"Yip!" Lucky's ears stood at attention. He tipped his head and stared past Hilda.
She turned. A small shadow darkened the bottom of the general store's old-fashioned screen door. "Do I have a customer, Lucky, or do you have an audience?"
"Boy or girl?"
"Oh, good. Your favorite." The shadow shifted. "And with free cookies for the first five people to come to the store today
how many so far?"
Hilda made the thumb signal for speak four times. Lucky cheerfully obliged.
"They're chocolate chi-i-ip," Hilda sang out.
The door's spring chirped in response, and a little girl with a long, droopy brunette ponytail and huge brown eyes stepped within view, toeing the threshold with a white rubber sneaker bumper.
At Hilda's signal, Lucky sat.
The child lifted her prim, pointed chin. "Do I have to buy anything?"
"In this store, free means free." And at Allgood's, chocolate chip meant recent business had been brisk. Hilda had a special recipe. Not for the cookiesshe used the one on the chocolate-chip bagbut for the aroma. It was the scent that brought 'em in. She hadn't figured out how to bottle it, but the oscillating fan beside the kitchen window filled the air outside Allgood's Emporium with it.
"Come on in and help yourself. Two to a customer."
"But I'm not a customer."
It didn't really matter that the girl was holding the door open while she dithered betwixt and between, since spring hadn't sprung the worst of the flying insects yet.
Lucky's throaty warble came on the heels of Hilda's invitational gesture. "Introduce yourself and we'll become friends. Friends get three, but you have to take the third one home for later."
"We don't live here." With one hand behind her back the girl eased the door shut. "I've never seen a dog turn on a light. How come he only has three legs?"
"That's all he needs."
"Was he born that way?"
"I don't know for sure." Hilda put her hands on her hips and eyed the dog. "He was this size when he came to live with me, and we liked each other right off. We've never talked about our ages or what shape we're in. What you see is what you get." She looked up at the girl. "Does it seem warm to you? Lucky, turn on the fan for us, please."
The terrier needed three strategically placed stools small, medium, tallto reach the counter under the long pull-string on the ceiling fan.
The dimension of the girl's eyes rounded up to the next size. "Wow."
"Are you here visiting, or just passing through?"
"We came on the bus. We're staying at the Mountain Mama Motel. My mom likes the name, but I don't like the way that arrow blinks on and off at night. It keeps us awake." She stared at the plate Hilda had pushed under her nose, and then glanced up. Hilda nodded, but the girl needed more than a nod, more than a cookie. "My
my mom's really sick."
"Is it just the two of you?" The girl nodded. "How long has she been sick?"
"A little bit for a long time, but she's getting worse."
"Would you like me to go see her? I have a good friend who's a nurse. We can"
"My name's Star Brown." She took the top cookie, tasted it and daintily brushed a gathering of crumbs from her bottom lip. "My grandmother owns this store."
"I own this store, honey, and I really wish I had a granddaughter. But I'm afraid"
"Is your name Hilda Beaudry?"
"It is." Her name was painted on the sign above the overhang out front. Small letters, but she'd matched them to her father's and grandfather's names, which were still there with their dates as proprietors.
"We came here to find you. My mom says grandmothers are mothers, too. But just older because their sons and daughters are fathers and mothers now."
"I always wanted a daughter, but I only have sons, and they have no
" The child looked confused, disappointed, as though she was expecting someone who didn't show up or her goldfish had stopped moving. Hilda didn't like being the bearer of bad news. "Why don't we go check on your mother? We'll put up the BS sign. Back Soon."
"You're the only grand" Star went still at the sound of a siren.
"That sound says 'Make way for the Bear Root Rescue Squad.'"
"It's our ambulance." Hilda moved toward the door as another warning siren rose like a mating call to the first one. They screamed in tandem, coming on hard until they blew past the storeyeeee-ooooow whoop-whaaadrawing down on the end of Main. Not much left on that end besides
"Headed for the motel."
Star barreled through the screen door like a ball aimed at the last pin standing.
Hilda started after her but reversed course at the sound of scrabbling claws. "Leave it! Come." The dog did his three-paw jig across the threshold and passed his mistress. "Can't trust you for a minute with the smell of chocolate in your nose."
Hilda glimpsed the dropped piece of cookie on the floor as the door swung shut. She had that part of the job mastered. She could make a damn fine cookie. At the edge of the yard the girl's hair was swinging like a metronome as she sprinted into the street after the sheriff's car.
She couldn't be Sam's. Zach's, maybe, but not
Hilda's boot heels rattled down the wooden steps.
"Come on, Lucky. Follow that ponytail."