At three o’clock in the afternoon of January second, Coal Savage and the Mitchell family finished their seven-hour journey from Salmon to the University of Utah hospital in Salt Lake City.
They would be staying overnight, due to the length of time it would take to drive back to Salmon, and Coal would have liked to bring Virgil along on this trip, but he had gone back to school with the other children that morning, so the father-son outing Coal was planning would have to wait at least until the weekend.
On a good note, after church Sunday Coal had gone to Virgil’s room, now that Ray Christian had vacated it and Virgil had his realm back to himself, and he had sat down with him to have a talk. It hadn’t gone the way Coal would have liked, but he left his son’s room satisfied that at least his boy could see he was trying to make amends. Hopefully after he had some time to think about it, his feelings toward Coal would soften, and they could really talk things out and get something settled. Even if getting things settled meant finding a dog for Virgil to call his own, at this point Coal was willing to bend that far. Virgil had been too good of a son to let him drift away over such a thoughtless mistake.
On a whim, Coal had asked Connie what she thought about bringing Todd’s family to their home for some kind of New Year’s Eve celebration, which would also be sort of a celebration of Todd’s coming out of his coma. Of course Connie, the consummate hostess, was amenable to the idea, and Coal had fetched Jan Mitchell and the boys for a homemade spaghetti dinner, complete with salad and garlic bread. It was likely the best that family had dined in some time, and it filled Coal’s heart with emotion to watch them put away spaghetti like there was no tomorrow. Sadly, for them it had probably seemed at times like there really wasn’t.
Several times during the evening, Coal had caught one or the other of the Mitchell boys eyeing him, and toward the end of the night, when they were all growing really tired, little Jerry had ventured over and leaned up against his leg, resting one elbow on it. Coal took a chance and lifted Jerry up onto his lap, and the little guy went to sleep there against his chest. For quite a while, Coal was hardly able to swallow past the lump of emotion in his throat.
For some odd reason, it was also during that tender moment when Coal thought of Maura and wished they had invited her for their celebration as well. Maura seemed to be finding herself a new life, starting to go on dates and other things Coal had not foreseen, but he still missed her. Sometimes he felt like his heart was no longer complete, without Maura PlentyWounds’ almost constant presence in his life. As much as he hated to put himself emotionally out there, he wished now that he had called her to come over, and he wondered why his mother, who had always seemed so obsessed with Maura, hadn’t made that suggestion herself. Maybe she knew something Coal didn’t—and he sure was not going to ask. In truth, he was half afraid to find out.
All the fond reminiscences ended when Coal laid eyes on Deputy Todd Mitchell, sitting up in his bed with bandages wrapped like a turban around his head. Emotion closed off his throat. He had had a lot of mixed emotions on the trip down here with Jan Mitchell and the boys, and he had started to fear how he might react when he saw Todd. Fortunately, he had mulled it over enough to be prepared for this moment. It wouldn’t do for an underling to see raw emotion in his supervisor’s face.
Coal looked down at this deputy who had become . . . it seemed strange to think it . . . his friend. He wanted to make a snide or cute quip. He wanted to say something. But nothing came, and his throat was too tight to say it if it did. It was not that long ago when he thought he was seeing Todd dead on the floor of the Battertons’ house. And soon after that when he thought he would spend the rest of his life as a vegetable, at best. He never dreamed he would once more see the crooked smile that now came over Todd’s face.
“I guess you weren’t expecting to see me wearing a turban like some guru.”
Taken off-guard, Coal stared down at Todd for a few seconds. At last, he felt his face break into a grin. “A guru? What kind of stuff have they been letting you read in here?” He might have expected Todd to say something about looking like a genie, but a guru? Considering the popularity of actress Barbara Eden, who had played the leading role in the ever-popular I Dream of Jeannie before they ceased production in 1970, that would have made sense. Apparently, Todd was a bit deeper than Coal remembered.
The deputy laughed. He tried to keep eye contact with Coal but found he wasn’t able to. “So you came all this way down here just to gawk at me, I guess. The freak show?”
“You know it. Actually, I came all this way down here to kick your lazy rump out of bed. I don’t remember approving all this vacation time.”
Coal was playing around to hide his emotions. He wouldn’t admit that to Todd, and Todd, he knew, would be grateful.
Todd reached up his hand toward Coal, who eagerly took it and held on. The cursed tears that came into his eyes could not be helped, and he thought he should go out and get a pop or something before things got pathetic for both of them. And that darn Todd chose now to refuse to take his eyes off his boss.
“So . . . You think you’ll come back any time soon and try to carry your load?”
Todd dropped his hand and shrugged. His eyes, like his hand, fell away. “There’s a good question.”
Coal drew up a chair, blinking the last of the unbidden moisture out of his eyes. He was trying to think of something else to say when Todd broke in on his thoughts.
“I wish you’d brought your guitar down here with you. I need some good music.”
Coal blinked. “Now say that again?”
Coal chuckled and shook his head. “Yeah, okay, I heard you, but . . . How did you know about my guitar?”
“Funny man,” teased Todd. “Apparently you forgot how small that valley is. It’s all over town that you’re a crack musician with the voice of a mourning dove.”
Coal couldn’t hold back a laugh, but his mind whirled around in a bit of a daze. “All right. You got me. Where in the world did you hear about me singing? Really.”
“They were talking about it in Wally’s one day.”
Coal’s mind hit on a thought. Maura? Other than her and Connie, or maybe Jim and Betty, he couldn’t think of anyone in recent times who had heard him play and sing.
“Huh. Well, I didn’t bring it, so I guess your ears will get a reprieve.” He scanned the length of the sheet covering Todd and cleared his throat. “So . . . Seriously, when do they say you’ll be back on your feet?”
After a long, uncomfortable pause, Todd said, “My legs are still numb—from the knee down. My feet tingle pretty much all the time. They want to have me try to get up with a walker and try to move around, to see if the blood will start flowing down there and help it out. But Doctor Zane says it might be permanent nerve damage. They’re still trying to figure things out.” Todd sighed and looked down at his hands. “Coal, I—”
Now it was time for the emotion to well up in Todd’s eyes. Coal waited in silence.
Todd drew in a deep breath. “Man, Coal. I want to be back out on the road with my hat and gun on, driving through the valley. I want to see Salmon again.”
When Todd’s face screwed up as if in pain, and his emotions broke down, Coal lurched up out of his chair. “Hey, uh . . . I’ll give you some time, Todd.”
He got out of the room before Todd could regain his composure.
* * *
When two doctors went back into Todd’s room with a couple of nurses, Coal sat down in the waiting room with Jan Mitchell and her boys. Those little guys made Coal smile. Somehow, even in the rotten, rancid stink of the Mitchell home, Jan had managed to clean the little guys up and comb their blond hair down nice and neat. She had fixed herself up, too, and it was the first time Coal thought he had seen her wearing makeup. It wasn’t the best job in the world of applying it, but she had tried. Maybelline would give her high praise for that. She also wore a newer light blue dress with flowers on it of a darker blue shade. It appeared to have recently been ironed. Her shoes were white, and from what Coal had seen it was something new for Jan to look so well coordinated.
Coal was sitting there with three boys who seemed like no other boys in the known world because they were so quiet, when he glanced over surreptitiously and saw Jan Mitchell’s chin begin to quiver and her eyes well up with tears. She jerked her head the other way, which was the same direction her boys were sitting next to her, like a row of ducks, from biggest to smallest. Her shoulders began to shake, and Coal reached out emotionally and could feel the ache inside her. By now, he knew her well enough to know she was trying to hide her tears from him and at the same time wishing she could disguise them from her boys. But there was no hiding anything from that sharp six-year-old, Bud.
The little guy slowly reached out a hand and put it on his mom’s leg. Of course he couldn’t have known it was going to make her have to fight harder than ever trying to hold back her tears. She failed, and with her face squinched up like she was in dire pain, she fought to cry in silence.
Coal took a deep breath. He didn’t know exactly what to do, but he knew one thing: Jan Mitchell needed somebody. Almost shaking, he raised his right arm and wrapped it tightly around her shoulders.
The explosion of sobs from Jan took Coal by surprise as she turned to him and leaned into him, putting her right arm up around his neck.
He was helpless. As he saw four-year-old Toby come around in front awkwardly to join his brother in trying to comfort their mother, three-year-old Jerry crossed around in front of them all, and to Coal’s shock the one thing in all this raw show of emotion that managed to cloud his eyes with tears was when Jerry reached up and took Coal’s left arm in his little hands, and leaned his blond-haired head against him.
Later, when a tall, slender man with curly black hair, wearing a doctor’s coat, came into the waiting room, he found Jan Mitchell with one of her older boys on each leg, holding tight to her neck, and little Jerry asleep in Coal’s arms.
A warm smile crossed the man’s face, and he laced his fingers together in front of him. He started to speak in the accent Coal remembered from the phone call telling him Todd was starting to stir. He couldn’t place the accent, but he was sure it must be from somewhere in the northeast.
“I’m Doctor Zane. And of course, you have to be Sheriff Savage?” The doctor unfolded his hands and held one out to Coal that had long, slender dark fingers sprinkled with black hair. Coal took it and appreciated its warmth and strength. “And you would be Mrs. Mitchell. So nice to meet you.” It was plain that Jan had her hands too full to shake.
The doctor pulled up a chair and sat down in front of them, putting himself on their level. “I want you all to know how pleased we are that Todd is recovering so well. I have to be frank with you in saying we weren’t always very confident about seeing this kind of change. But I have to warn you that it might still be a while until he can get up and get around well on his own. We are still trying to figure out why he has such numbness in his feet. Now I have to ask something, and I know this is uncomfortable to talk about. If Mr. Mitchell has to stay with us for another month or so, or at least in a convalescent home, is this something that will present a crippling expense for you?”
The words hit Coal deep in the guts. The county would foot all of Todd’s medical bills, but that wasn’t going to do anything to alleviate the financial strain on his home from not having any wages.
“His medical bills are covered, Doctor. It happened on duty.” Coal didn’t address the wage issue. It was something he would have to speak of to Jan in private.
“Good. Good. Well, let me at least give you a little encouragement by telling you that although Todd has numbness in his legs and feet, it isn’t complete. He can still feel pressure and painful stimulus. And I know it doesn’t sound like much, but that is promising. He really has made great progress, and my hopes continue to be very high for him.”
That night, Coal put the Mitchells up in a hotel at the county’s expense. Then he sat in his room and numbed his mind watching George Peppard solve a crime on Banacek.
Wednesday, January 3
The next day, Coal busied himself around town stopping in at gun stores, book stores, and wherever else he thought would help him kill some time while Jan and the boys stayed at the hospital visiting with Todd. He came back right after noon with hamburgers to join them in Todd’s room for a last feast before parting.
After a tear-filled goodbye, the Mitchells filed out of his room. Coal was left standing there alone.
“I’m going to go into emergency hiring, Todd. I don’t have any choice. But I want you to know the second you’re back on your feet your job will be waiting for you.”
Todd nodded, trying to look calm. “Thanks, Coal. For everything.” No one was saying anything about his lost wages.
Coal drew in a deep breath. “I need you to know something else, buddy. I know you’re concerned about Jan and the boys. Don’t give them another thought. I’ll take care of them even if I have to do it out of my own wallet.”
He shook Todd’s hand and left because Todd could no longer speak, and he didn’t need to have Coal seeing any more tears.
As he walked down the hall to where Jan and the boys stood waiting for him, he knew in his guts that he had bitten off way more than his wages could chew, promising Todd that he would take care of his family. He had no idea how he was going to fulfill that promise.
But fulfill it he would, at any cost.