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Wanda Wilbur watched the paddle holster holding the grip-worn .38 Special slide onto the sturdy, sweat-stained leather belt. “You goin’ out? You been patrolin’ near every afternoon.” Wanda took off her Buddy Holly glasses. “Who my s’posed to talk to?”

“Well, Miz Wilbur, lack of an audience has never bothered you before.” He smiled to himself. That was a good one. “Missoura’s now the meth capital a the United States accordin’ to the Feds.” He grimace-smiled this time.  “Gotta keep the hopheads outa our backyard.”

Wanda nodded and clicked her tongue as she rearranged a large bobby pin in her hair. “Well, lucky for us, we got six-term Sheriff R.T. Barnes on the trail.”

The Sheriff ambled toward the fly-friendly screen door. “I’m gonna go cruise the river a bit. The wife calls, tell her I’ll be home for supper at six.”

Butler County had no towns over 200 people, so Black River, which crossed the county, had been the de facto activity center for as many generations as anyone could remember. It still was.

As the lone department cruiser crossed the rat-a-tat-tat bouncing boards of the canopied wooden bridge, it slowed so he could scan up and down the river for signs of miscreants. Nothing marred the tranquil shimmering of the flowing water and the forest of trees jutting out over the water, hanging onto the banks despite the earth being slowly eroded away by the winding and swirling currents below them.

He eased off the bridge, turning north onto the gravel road that roughly paralleled the riverbed. The artery had no name, but most called it River Road.

The car rolled to a slow stop next to a well-traveled path that ran down to Big Eddy, a popular swimming hole and party place on hot summer afternoons. He could hear laughing voices and giggles and the whoops of boys using the rope swing to show off.

The gabbing girls tanning on towels and the boys imitating Tarzan in their tighty whiteys didn’t notice him until he was among them.

“Tommy McFadden! Get over here!” Tommy turned at the voice he recognized and shuffled his feet toward the sheriff. “Tommy, by my count, you’re the only one here of drinkin’ age.” He made a show of scanning the scene. “And unless y’all is mighty hungry, those coolers there could hold ‘bout two cases a beer.” Tommy said nothing.

The Sheriff resumed. “I am forced by law to arrest underage drinkers and anyone who buys liquor for ‘em. So. I’m gonna take a little break here for a smoke. When I’m back on duty, if I see any full cans that haven’t been dumped into that river, y’all are gonna provide us a river detail.” The sheriff saved the county money by using lawbreakers as free cleanup labor and the teens hated that worse than being hauled in.

After the break and a thorough chastising later, the sheriff turned over the Chevy’s 450 and resumed his slow cruise. He tuned the radio to KLID Country. As his eyes came back up, he saw a flash of movement near the curve ahead as someone disappeared into the foliage. He reached the curve and got out to follow. Stepping carefully over and around poison ivy and dam’d sticker bushes, he worked toward the river.

When the sheriff broke through the brambles, he recognized the man stooped at the river’s edge. “Eh, Jody,” he called as he walked closer, “what brings you out here?”

“Aw, got me a litter a cats, Sheriff. You know, the damn critters go all feral on ya.”

The sheriff could now see Jody was holding a tied, burlap feed bag just under the surface of the water. It was moving.

“Jesus, Jody,” the sheriff was obviously uneasy, “that’s kinda sick.”

“It’s God’s way sheriff. Ya rather I shot ‘em or smashed ‘em with a ball peen?”

“Jeez. Maybe so. Drownin’ has to be a bad way to go,” RT said as he looked away. He changed the subject. “How’s Mama and Betty?” Jody’s wife and daughter.

“Mama’s good, but Betty’s feelin’ poorly. She’s eight months now. Never had a youngen before, so she’s a hormone rolly coaster.”

The sheriff grasped the excuse to leave. “I still got about an hour. Maybe I’ll go check in on ‘em.”

Jody didn’t turn from his task, but he said loud enough his voice echoed off the far bank, “That ain’t necessary, RT. You know I don’t like strangers at my place.”

“I’m no stranger, Jody, and don’t call me RT,” RT said as he hustled back toward the black and white.

He sped up to forty to put some distance between Jody and himself. Two lefts and a right put him on the dark, tunnel-like road that led to Jody’s and Mama’s house.

Before the Chevy stopped completely, it was surrounded by three pit bull mixes that didn’t bark; their bodies just paced back and forth while their heads swiveled to stay focused on RT and dared him to get out.

Mama came outside, corralled the canine guards and invited RT inside. As they stepped onto the uneven wooden porch together, “How you doin’, Mama?”

“Oh, gettin’ along, I guess.” Her fingers twisted together like they hurt.“ Things been kinda hard with Betty.”

“You take her to the Doc, or a hospital?”

“No, no. She’s here, in the back.”

“Think I’ll just step in for a minute,” as he walked toward the only closed door.

“Sheriff! No. She’s…she’s come up with a miscarriage and don’t feel like seeing no one.”

He slowed, but then turned the doorknob anyway and stepped into the bedroom. Betty was lying on her back in a bed barely big enough for her. The thin gray sheet covering her clearly showed her flat stomach. “How you handling things, Betty?”

She didn’t answer at first. Then, “Bad. Real bad.” She looked at Mama.

RT removed his hat. “If you don’t mind sayin’, in what way, Betty?”

“I lost my baby girl. Guess she was stillborn.”

“Really. Jody never said that.”

Mama nervously jumped in. “How’d you come to see Jody?”

“Well, I just talked to him down to Black River where he was drownin’ a litter a cats.”

Silence. Then, “Sheriff Barnes,” Betty quietly spoke as she stared at the floor, “we don’t have no cats.”


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