Home > Country Proud : A Novel

Country Proud : A Novel
Author: Linda Lael Miller


CHAPTER ONE


   SHERIFF ELI GARRETT gazed out his office window at the gently falling snow and sighed.

   Christmas was over—although it seemed to him that the holiday would roll around again in approximately fifteen minutes—and another New Year was just around the bend.

   Eli cupped his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair, still watching the snow and hoping this little skiff wouldn’t work itself up into a mega blizzard, burying some or all of Wild Horse County in plain misery.

   According to the weather app on his phone, it could happen. The meteorological jury was still out.

   If the storm materialized, he and his four deputies would be on round-the-clock duty, prowling the roads and highways for accidents and stranded motorists, checking up on shut-ins and crotchety recluses, hauling drunks out of snowbanks, hopefully before hypothermia set in.

   Like bar brawls, incidents of domestic violence rose over the holidays, given the preponderance of alcohol, but a few feet of the white stuff imprisoning people in their unhappy homes for an indefinite period would obviously exacerbate the problem.

   Same as most cops, Eli dreaded domestic violence calls above all others.

   His county was a relatively peaceful one, but he’d served in law enforcement since he’d graduated from the academy in Phoenix, first as a deputy and finally as sheriff, and he’d seen some crazy-assed shit.

   Once, he’d spent upwards of forty-five minutes standing in the weed-choked front yard of a run-down house, trying to talk a methed-up ex-con holding a gun barrel to the underside of his own chin into surrendering the weapon.

   Eli had told the poor bastard everything would be okay, which was a lie, since he knew a woman and several children were trapped inside the house behind the man, and there was no telling what kind of shape they were in. The offender was a felon in possession of a firearm, which was five kinds of illegal, and there would be drug charges as well as assault and God knew what else.

   Hell, the most liberal judge in the state, never mind the county, would have sent this waste of space straight back to the pen—this time, for good.

   Three strikes, you’re out.

   Fact was, Eli would have said—or done—damn near anything to get the woman and those kids safely past that pistol-wielding maniac and into the ambulance waiting just out of shooting range.

   “You don’t have to do this,” he’d said, for the umpteenth time.

   Eli hadn’t drawn his own weapon; a mistake, he supposed, since even a stoner could probably take him down before he pulled his revolver out of the holster, but he hadn’t wanted to ratchet up the tension, which already vibrated like a wire tightened to the breaking point. The two deputies backing him up were almost surely ready to shoot if the need arose.

   He’d taken a single step toward the man, hands dangling loosely at his sides, palms out. He was no grandstander, no hero—just a committed cop who wanted everybody involved to survive the episode.

   “Think about your wife,” he’d reasoned calmly, though he could feel sweat pooling between his shoulder blades. “Think about your kids. You want them to see you blow your brains out?”

   The man bellowed, maybe with rage, maybe with the pain of all he’d done to eff-up his own life.

   Sensing a stir behind him, figuring one or both of the deputies were about to make a move, Eli had growled, “Stand down. Do not fire your weapons.”

   He hadn’t taken his eyes off the suspect, and he saw a terrible rictus of a grin cross the other man’s face, followed by a gruff laugh.

   What happened next was surreal. It seemed to take place in slow motion; the air turned to a thick, pulsating fog and the ground felt spongy beneath Eli’s feet, causing him to sway slightly.

   The shot echoed in all directions and the dead man folded to the ground.

   Inside the house, the woman and the kids shrieked in horror.

   “Oh, shit,” Eli had murmured. “Shit.”

   The two deputies rushed past him, toward the house. The ambulance, parked up on the road until the shot was fired, sped down the driveway.

   Eli walked toward a nearby maple tree, stepped behind it and lost his lunch.

   Some hero.

   As it turned out, the woman had a pair of black eyes and a broken arm. The kids were thoroughly traumatized, but physically unharmed, as far as he knew.

   After the state police arrived, with their CSI team and the county coroner, Eli had returned to the sheriff’s department—the very office he was sitting in now—to write up the required reports. Then sheriff at the time, Dutch McKutchen, had been out of town that day, taking his wife, Clara, for her first round of chemotherapy, so he’d missed the action.

   Upon his return, Dutch made up for lost time by reaming out his “brain-dead idiot of a deputy” for the better part of half an hour. “When you approach an armed suspect,” he’d raged, “you have your weapon drawn and ready. You do not go into a situation like some fricking hotshot TV cowboy—you could have been killed!”

   After the lecture, Dutch had bought Eli a drink over at Sully’s Bar and Grill, told him not to come near the department until he’d been (1) debriefed by the appropriate state officials, and (2) cleared by an officially sanctioned shrink.

   Eli smiled sadly, remembering Dutch. The old man had died of a heart attack ten years ago, a month into his retirement, while fishing up at Flathead Lake.

   Deciding his thoughts had taken an unnecessarily grim turn, Eli lowered his hands, sat forward with a creak of the springs under his chair and stood.

   Given some of the problems he’d faced, he reckoned a potential blizzard wasn’t the worst thing that could happen in his county. Not by a long shot.

   Most likely, the storm would fizzle out before it did any real damage. Those weather people, in his opinion, were given to drama.

   Just the same, Eli felt a little uneasy.

   His sister, Sara, would say he was borrowing trouble.

   Dutch McKutchen would have told him to pull his head out of his backside and be grateful for all the good things in his life. Like his two best friends, Cord Hollister and J.P. McCall. And his job, which he loved, about 85 percent of the time. He had a fair amount of money put away, savings and an inheritance from his and Sara’s paternal grandparents, and he owned his house and a few acres of land outright.

   Had a good truck, too. Paid for, and still under warranty.

   And then there was Brynne Bailey, back home to stay.

   Brynne, his high school sweetheart. The girl he’d essentially betrayed

   Eli was thankful that she’d returned to the Creek, for sure. Never mind that she barely gave him the proverbial time of day, probably still carried a torch for the man she’d left behind in Boston. But she was here now, in Painted Pony Creek, Montana, running her parents’ popular restaurant and bar, Bailey’s.

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