Coal and the Mitchell made it back to Salmon after two hours of driving in the dark, through the most dangerous part of the trip, where thick vegetation on both sides of the road sheltered herds of semi-suicidal deer that seemed to love frolicking back and forth across the highway from an hour before sunset to well after daylight.

He stopped in front of the Mitchell house and got out to open Jan’s door, and when the woman looked at him without speaking, then stepped close and embraced him, he felt another surge of emotion. They didn’t claim the Lord worked in mysterious ways for nothing.

After Jan, Jerry, who had only been awake for a few minutes, came to wrap his arms around Coal, and Coal scooped him up and held him for a while, squeezing him tight with a memory of the twins, who had been this size what seemed many years ago. As he set the little one down, he was surprised to see Toby standing there waiting for his turn. Toby, as a great big four-years-old, might not appreciate being picked up, but he squeezed Coal every bit as hard as his little brother had. Bud was the only one to stand off a bit, and Coal crouched in front of him and put out a hand. With a shy smile, Bud put his hand in Coal’s.

“Just a little harder there, Bud,” Coal advised, holding on. “You know, if you want to be big and strong like your dad, people will be judging you by your handshake your whole life.”

Bud took the advice well and squeezed harder, and Coal reached out and clapped him on the shoulder. “Now you’re talking! Good grip. Your dad would sure be proud of you. Now you’re the man of the house for a little while longer, so you make sure to keep your mom and these boys safe, all right?”

Bud nodded, doing his best to keep eye contact. On an afterthought, Coal looked at Toby and Jerry. “You two boys help him as much as you can, okay? Your mom’s got a lot to do now that your dad’s staying away for a while.”

He drove back down Courthouse Drive and onto Main, his heart full. He would never have wanted Todd or his family to have to go through anything like this, but there certainly had ended up being a silver lining to the thunderheads created by the experience. He had never foreseen growing close to Todd’s family, but he knew from here on things were going to be far different between the Savages and the Mitchells.

Coal was home early enough for a grand reunion with his family and the dogs. The dogs finally had to be put out, as they seemed to think Coal had been away for a month, and there would be no way to give his family proper attention until the dogs were set loose to run off some of their energy.

The twins were full of talk about their first day back in school. Katie and Cynthia were only a little more reserved about recounting the day’s activities, and little Sissy came over where Coal had sat down on the cowhide couch and stood quietly beside him for a few minutes. He pretended not to notice her for a time, afraid he would scare her off. But when finally she reached out her little hand and rested it on his thigh, he knew her turn had come.

“Hi, Sissy! Wow, it looks like you grew a foot since I left! You’re big!”

The shy smile came to the little girl’s mouth, and she looked down. But his warm voice and words prompted her to slowly add her other hand to the top of his thigh. Taking a chance, he said, “Can I get a hug?”

It was better than the magic of Christmas when little Sissy put up her arms, and he pulled her into his and held her close. When he was under control enough to open his eyes, they fell on Connie, who had sat down on the La-Z-Boy and was looking at him. He was pretty sure that with her own eyes so full of tears she could not even see him.

The only thing missing was a happy greeting from Virgil. All Coal had gotten out of him was a “Hi, Dad.” But no matter. He was going to fix that soon.

“Maura just left a little while ago,” said Connie, dabbing at her eyes.

The sound of the name made Coal’s heart give an irritating little jump. He wished it wouldn’t affect him like that.

“Yeah? What did she want?”

Connie stared at him for a moment. “What did she want? Well, I don’t know, Coal. Maybe just to say hi? Can’t someone visit without wanting something?”

Moms sure have the power to make their sons, no matter how old they might be, to feel foolish. He refused to reply, and he knew that would irk her. He almost hoped it would.

“I guess you don’t want to know how she is.” Connie had been silent for a minute or so, and a lot of the attention in the room by now was returning to the television. Sissy seemed to be completely content under the shelter of Coal’s right arm, and he relished in the feeling. This girl’s acceptance had been hard-won.

Coal shrugged his left shoulder. “She’s fine, right?” A typical man reply.

Connie made a disgusted grunt and got up to go to the kitchen. Coal could see her puttering around for five minutes or so, but as far as he could tell she was wiping down an already immaculate countertop and then cleaning a refrigerator handle that knowing her was probably not only spotless but free of a single germ.

After a while, he saw her pause, looking out the window toward the barn. She drew a deep breath, came back and sat on the brown chair again.

“You know, it would be nice if you at least called her sometime.”

Coal was looking at the television now. He had turned his attention to it in a hurry when he saw his mother coming back with new battle plans in her eyes.

Pretending he had barely heard her, Coal turned to her and stared for a few seconds, irritated that his mother was back at it again. He calmed himself down inside before he spoke, because he was dangerously close to grabbing the tiger’s tail, and he knew it. “Sure, I guess I will. But I think she’s been pretty busy with Jordan lately.”

Connie grunted. “Oh, Coal. That Jordan is a really nice boy. But that’s all he is. Maura doesn’t have feelings for him.”

This made Coal laugh. “Okay, Mom. Okay. I’ll call her.”

“It’s not really that funny,” Connie pressed. “What’s funny about what I said?”

“Nothing. It’s just you that’s funny, period. I’ll call her. Okay?”

Connie sighed. She held back a smile. “Okay.”

It took a long time for Coal finally to get Sissy to bed that night. Now that she had warmed up to him, she didn’t want to let go. He wished he could know what was going on inside her head, but he knew it made it harder for her going to bed in that cold, dark bedroom where all three of the girls slept when Katie and Cynthia both wanted to stay up a little longer and had earned that right by getting perfect grades in school.

Coal finally told Sissy he would lie down beside her in her little twin-size bed, and that was how he finally got her to go. As they lay there, with her head using his arm for a pillow, he had an inspiration, and he was a little proud of himself.

“Hey, Sissy? Do you want to know something?”

She looked over at him and nodded.

“I’m never ever going to go away, all right? I will always be here with you and I will always keep you safe, no matter what happens. No one will ever hurt you again.”

Sissy didn’t reply with words, but after a few more seconds, she snuggled up against him tighter than ever. That was all the response he could need.

After Sissy had gone to sleep, he went to Virgil’s room to say goodnight. He took the typical book out from under his sleeping son’s nose—an Ernest Haycox Western—and set it on the nightstand, pulling the covers up tight around his neck. With a sigh, he turned off the lamp. There would always be tomorrow.

Thursday, January 4

Coal spent Thursday playing catch up with the affairs of running a jail, along with a few phone calls of simple courtesy, and what some might refer to as “politicking,” which was ironic since the last thing anyone could truly say about Coal was that he was a typical politician.

He touched base once more with Elmer Keith and Rick Cheatum, to thank them for their part in recent events. He called Jim and Betty, just so they would know he was thinking of them, and he even called Judge Sinclair, who seemed surprised, yet genuinely pleased, to hear from him. He also made a phone call to Governor Andrus, to thank him for stepping in his time of dire need.

Once all of the “politicking” was out of the way, he dialed up Kathy MacAtee. He knew she would be home alone, if she were home at all, for all her girls would be back in school.

Hello? MacAtees.

Coal’s heart caught in his throat. “Yeah. Hi, Kathy. It’s Coal.”

Kathy emitted what Coal would have called a squeal of delight. Wow! What’s wrong, Coal? And by the way, I knew it was you the second I heard you.

He laughed. “So what do you mean what’s wrong?”

Just being a smart aleck. It seems like it takes something big for you to call me. Sorry, bad humor.

She couldn’t make the comment go away by playing it off. “Hey, Kathy. I’m really sorry. It’s kind of been a week from hell.”

You don’t have to apologize. I’ve heard all about it. You doing okay?

“I guess. I made friends with the wrong guy. Again. I can’t trust my judgment very much when it comes to people, I guess.”

No sound from the other end of the line for a few seconds. Coal realized he had left her an opening, and he hoped she would have the couth not to embarrass them by taking it.

The girls and I would love to see you, hon. Want to come over for supper?

Coal’s heart melted a little. He wanted to scream Yes! He had missed seeing Kathy, and he really longed for the way she and the fact of being in her home made him feel so close to Larry again. He guessed his family was just going to have to get used to his being involved with a lot of other people. He couldn’t always be home.

“I’d like that.”

Great! Tomorrow night?

Coal paused and thought. He had to struggle against his typical tendency to say yes too fast. “I’m going to be getting ready for a trip with Virgil. Could we do it next week? Maybe even on Monday?”

Sure. Monday. So . . . your favorite?

Coal let out a laugh. “No, Monday isn’t my favorite.”

Very funny. I meant do you want me to make your favorite food?

“How do you know my favorite?”

Well, I’m not as old as I look, hon. I still have a memory. Thick beef stew, so thick you can cut it with a knife, peach pie, and wheat bread straight out of the oven, right? With tons of butter.

He was still laughing. “Okay, you’re pretty good.”

And ice cold water.

“You got it right. Seven o’clock all right?”

Seven would be great. But you can come over any time before that if you’d like. You ought to see all the things these girls have King doing!

Coal hung up thinking of Larry, and Rowdy, and the good times he and his buddy had shared. He hoped Kathy wouldn’t get the wrong idea with him coming over, but he sure was glad to have her still in the valley. Without her, the Lemhi would never feel the same.

Coal had told Connie he would call Maura. He didn’t. Instead, he drove down to McPherson’s, hoping she would be at work.

He walked in smelling all the wonderful scents of a Western store, mostly leather and in this day’s case some kind of smoky incense—probably pine or cedar. It mingled with a hint of cigarette smoke and coffee.

The owner himself, Florin Beller, greeted him from the counter. “Hi, Coal. Can I help you?”

“Hi, Mr. Beller. You can if you can tell me where I might find Maura. Is she working today?”

“She sure is. She’s in the back.”

The doorbells chimed, and Coal turned. Apparently having the GMC out front wasn’t enough of a warning for some people, or else some people didn’t care. Jordan Peterson came to a stop a few feet in from the door.

“Hi, Jordan. What’s up?”

“Nothin’, boss. Just came in to get Maura.”

Florin Beller’s glance flickered over to Coal, then to Jordan. “She’s in the back, Jordan. She’s a popular girl today.”

Jordan must have caught his drift, and he met Coal’s eyes. “Did you come in to see her? I can give you a minute.”

A minute? thought Coal. What was a minute supposed to do? “No, buddy. I’m just going to pick up a shirt and head out. I’m getting tired of the same old wardrobe.”

Jordan grinned and looked at Coal’s shirt. “Yeah, I’ve seen that one on you a few times. Well, we’ve gotta get. See you later.”

The big deputy wandered to the back, and Coal could hear him and Maura speaking in low tones. He turned back to Florin Beller. “Well, show me to some double X shirts, would you?”

Beller took him to a rack of shirts that were either plain colors or simple plaids of dark or subdued colors, and Coal started sorting through them, pretending he really cared.

Soon, Jordan and Maura came threading their way up through the clothing racks, and Maura met Coal’s eyes. “Hello, Coal.”

He looked up pretending to just become aware of her presence in the store. “Hi, Maura. How’s it going?”

“Great. I’m on my lunch.” She paused, and her glance bounced to Jordan, then back into Coal’s eyes. She had something to say, and so did Coal. But there was too little time and too much pride.

Coal felt like he was back in junior high. “Well, I guess I’ll see you later.”

“See you later.” A cloud fell over Maura’s visage, and she turned and walked off with Jordan. He was walking too close to her. Was that because of Maura or because of him? He waited for Jordan’s arm to go around her waist. It didn’t, but he wondered if it did the moment they passed beyond the big windows.

After leaving McPherson’s, Coal had to get Maura and Jordan off his mind, so he set about putting into play a plan he had been thinking of all the way home from Salt Lake City with Jan Mitchell and her three boys. He went around to all the grocery stores in town and gathered up as much donated food as they would part with—which in some cases was quite a bit—and then stopped at a number of other businesses as well to ask for cash donations. He kept a list of where he had been, as he had intentions of going to every place in town in the next week or two.

Then, with a big smile on his face and a warmth in his heart, he drove up to present all the food, along with two hundred and fifty-five dollars in cash, fifty of it being out of his own pocket, to Jan Mitchell. That family was never going to starve in his town, not while he was still around to draw breath.

<<<<<< The Beginning |

Photo credit: Kirby Jonas (The featured photo is an actual shot of N. Barracks Lane, which is east of Salmon. In the book, it is known as Savage Lane.)

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