Ohio newlyweds Steve and Heather have been looking forward to their honeymoon in a rustic bed and breakfast. Nestled in the remote Rocky Mountains of Montana the Thief Creek Inn seems just the place to relax and enjoy the peaceful and wildly beautiful surroundings. The violent Toomey brothers, on the run after their escape from prison, are looking for a secluded hideaway as well. Butch, the lumbering tattooed harelip murderer; Jesse James Toomey, the cruel leader of the gang; and JP are desperately trying to save the life of their younger brother, Tommy, when an accident brings them to the Thief Creek Inn. Innkeeper Mike Preston is a peaceful man who, with his wife, Annie, a nurse, bought the inn as a retreat from their stressful lives in Seattle. When the Toomey brothers show up, life is suddenly turned upside down for everyone at the Thief Creek Inn. As one reader put it, “This is an action-packed thrill ride!” Another claimed it to be “one of the best books I have read in a long time.” It’s a real page turner you won’t be able to put down till the last heart-stopping moment.
Copyright © 2011 by Jeremy Soldevilla
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Printed in USA
My thanks to Bozeman Police Detective David McManis for his technical advice; the Bozeman Ink Slingers — Sharon Dunn, Ellen Figura, Dennis Flath, Sue Geske, Frank Seitz, Kathy Tyers, Jamie Upschulte, Donna Wallace, Marci Whitehurst and Don Wolslagel; and especially my wife, Melissa, for giving me the freedom and encouragement to write.
d Loomis, the clerk at the Lewis and Clark Gas-N-Go in Lame Elk unlocked the front door and started the same old routine of opening the store he had performed for the last seven years. As if on autopilot, he flipped on the lights, turned off the alarm, made the coffee, hauled water out to the windshield washer buckets by the gas pumps, came back in, opened the cash register and counted the till, just as he’d done every morning for years. Just another day.
He leaned across the counter and scanned the store. Gum wrappers on the floor. Magazines askew. Yesterday’s papers unbundled and slipping from the bottom shelf to the floor. The wastebasket looked like it was having a bad hair day with trash and curlicues of register tape overflowing the top. He shook his head and sighed heavily. Doesn’t that night kid ever clean up before closing? Is it asking too much for him to do his job right? When I was in high school, I was glad to have a job, and I did what was expected of me. Didn’t leave a mess for the next fella. He shook his head and shrugged. Oh well. It’ll give me something to do. Mornings are so damn slow anyway.
He shuffled to the supply room, grabbed the broom and swept down each aisle. Then he brushed the dirt and trash out the back door. He straightened the magazines, bundled yesterday’s newspapers and cut the plastic strap on today’s papers. He adjusted his glasses and glanced at the headlines. Wonder what idiocy is going on out there. “Out there” — so far away from Lame Elk — his dinky town hidden in the far northwestern corner of Montana. There was never anything important to report locally except maybe the annual Spring photo of a bear or moose that wandered into town.
The big headline today shouted “TIGHT MONEY MAY MEAN NO TOWN FIREWORKS THIS YEAR.” That would be just fine with him. He liked to get to bed early anyway. Didn’t need to have all that noise disturbing his sleep. Let the kids shoot off their firecrackers and blow their dang fingers off. What else is going on?
He skimmed the other headlines — WESTERN GOVERNORS CONFERENCE IN HELENA; 3 ESCAPE DEER LODGE PRISON; GUN ACTIVISTS PROTEST IN GLACIER NATIONAL PARK. Now, that was something worth reading. Government’s always trying to take our guns away. Dang East Coast politicos. Over my dead body. He speed read the article, mumbling the words to himself. When he finished, he dropped the newspaper back on the stack and then arranged the papers on the shelf.
Loomis headed behind the counter and bent to pick up the wastebasket when the bell on the front door tinkled. He glanced at the clock. 7:45. That would be Colton Anderson. Right on time.
“Mornin’, Ed,” The young deputy greeted him as he strode to the coffee machine and poured himself an extra large cup. It still amazed Ed how scruffy little Colton Anderson had grown so tall and handsome. Probably the always crisp uniform made him better looking than he was, but still…
“Howdy, Colton. Whatcha got going on today? Passing out speeding tickets to the high school kids?”
Anderson took a healthy sip of the coffee and grimaced. “I ought to arrest you for false advertising. You call this stuff coffee? You drop a dirty sock in here or something?”
“Same free coffee you come in and drink every dang day. Quit your bellyachin’. You don’t like it, take your business somewhere else.”
“And where else would that be? You’re the only place open in the morning.”
“Well, I guess you’re stuck then, aren’t ya?” Loomis stuck his grizzled chin at the officer.
Anderson chuckled and picked up a newspaper and dropped it on the counter. He scanned the headlines as he fished two quarters out of his pocket. “Did you read this about the jail break in Deer Lodge last night? Says they haven’t had a prison break for twenty years.”
Ed craned his head, pushed his glasses up on his nose and peered at the article the deputy pointed at. “Nope. Didn’t read it. That’s all the way over in Deer Lodge. Ain’t got nothin’ to do with me. Boys are probably all the way to Mexico by now drinking margaritas and eating burritos in some cantina. I did read about them gun protesters over in Glacier, though. They aren’t going to be happy till we’re all defenseless. I say, let ’em try. Dang East Coast tree-huggers. No one’s taking our guns away.”
He wanted to go on with his usual diatribe about gun control, but he could see Colton was engrossed in the newspaper and not paying attention. He swept up the fifty cents and rang it into the register.
“Hmmm,” huffed Anderson as he finished the article and tucked the paper under his arm.
The old clerk wasn’t in a hurry to see him go. Colton was likely to be his only customer all morning except for the one or two who might grab some gas out at the pumps, but they rarely came in the store anymore. He wouldn’t have anyone to talk to but himself. “How’s Jack Tate treating you?”
“The sheriff’s cranky as ever. He’s almost as crochety as you, Ed.”
“Heck, Jack’s been cranky since grade school. He’s been good to you, though, huh?”
“I guess so.” Anderson turned to leave. “Well, Ed, you have yourself a good day.”
“I sure will. You too, Colton.” Just before the deputy reached the door, Ed called out, “Oh, and Colton?”
Anderson stopped and waited but didn’t turn around.
“You be careful out there.” Ed cackled at his own joke. It was a line from his favorite cop show from back in the ’80’s, Hill Street Blues. He doubted Colton even knew the program, but it tickled him to say it every morning as the deputy headed out the door. As if there was anything to worry about on the “mean streets” of Lame Elk, Montana.
The deputy waved goodbye with the newspaper in the air and left the store. Ed was still chuckling when the tiny door bell jingled as the door closed behind him.
Ed stuffed the overflow back into the wastebasket and carried it out to the dumpster in the back alley.
“Gol dang it!” he swore and slammed the wastebasket on the ground. The big metal lid to the dumpster was flipped up and there was trash strewn all over the alley. The dang kid left the padlock off the dumpster last night and a bear or a raccoon or some other critter must have gotten in there and had a field day with the garbage.
He walked around collecting trash and shoving it into the dumpster, cursing and mumbling to himself with every piece. From inside the store he heard the bell on the door tinkle as someone entered. He threw one more crushed cardboard box into the container and slammed the lid down. He slipped the padlock into the latch and made a mental note to have the kid come out and clean up the rest of the mess when he got there after school.
Ed re-entered the store and let the screen door slam behind him. On the way to the register, he glanced over the counter and saw that four men had come in. No one he knew. They strolled the aisles, picking up this and that, so he tidied up the counter while they shopped. He stuck some fresh hot dogs onto the rollers in the heated display cabinet. Of course, the kid hadn’t removed the old hot dog from the cabinet. He snagged the wrinkled wiener with the greasy tongs and threw it in the wastebasket and shook his head and sighed. He hung the tongs on their hook and took his place next to the register.
For the first time he took notice of the four men in the store.
e e e
At first glance, Ed was glad to see customers. He liked to chat with folks; find out where they were from and what they were doing off the beaten track in Lame Elk. In the Fall it was usually hunters. In the Summer it might be campers or tourists winding their way back to Oregon or Seattle after visiting Glacier Park. Winter was just dead. If it wasn’t for his old cronies stopping in to play cards in the long Winter afternoons, they might just as well close up the store. Except then no one would have any place to get gas. This time of year, it would likely be fishermen, which would mean bait sales and maybe fishing licenses. With nothing better to do, he liked to play a game with himself, trying to figure out where people were from and what they were doing in his little town.
The closest of the four men stood with his back to the counter, searching through the bags of snacks on the end cap in front of him. The other three wandered around further up in the store, loading up with various items. Take your time boys. We could use the sales.
“Everything on that shelf there is 25% off,” he said to the man’s back.
The fellow turned his head and grunted, “What?”
Ed raised his voice. “I said everything on that shelf is twenty-five percent off. Nothing wrong with it, we’re just trying to move the merchandise.”
“Yeah, I can see the sign,” the man grumbled, then turned back.
Just trying to help. No need to get snippy. Ed pushed his glasses up on his nose and squinted across the aisle, trying to get a closer look at the man. I’ll be damned, that ol’ boy’s missing an ear. Sure enough, there was a gnarled stump where his left ear should have been. On closer inspection, the side of the man’s face that he could see had a nasty scar running the length of his cheek from the ear stub to his chin. Bear attack? Car accident? Dang, that had to have been a rough one, whatever it was. Wonder what his story is.
His curiosity aroused, Ed scrunched his face and surveyed the three other men in the store. The fellow coming from the refrigerator section was huge. Maybe six foot four with tattoos covering both his arms. He had picked up two cases of Bud Lite, and balanced them with one hand while he grabbed a family size bag of Doritos and stuck it between his teeth. There was something not right about his face. Squinting for a better look, Ed noticed an odd shape to the man’s mouth. His lip was split clear up to his nose, exposing his top three teeth. A harelip. That’s what they call that. He recalled that the Fisher boy was born with one of them.
The Doritos bag behind the one the huge guy had chosen fell to the floor. Rather than pick it up, he kicked it out of his way. The old man opened his mouth to tell the big lug to pick it up, but on second thought, said nothing.
A prickly feeling began to crawl up the back of Ed’s neck. He didn’t like the looks of these two. But, heck, they were buying a lot of stuff, and Lord knows the store could use the money. Still, it paid to be on your toes. Out in the boonies, near as they were to the rez, it wasn’t unusual to get some rough trade even at this hour of the morning. After being held up five times in the past two years he tended to be hypersensitive to suspicious looking characters like these. He fingered the butt of the revolver he kept on a shelf under the counter below the register. They better not mess with me.
To his right, a third man with a rusty red mullet strolled down the snack aisle. He wore an orange tee shirt, black jeans and scuffed along in unlaced army boots. He loaded up a plastic shopping basket with two boxes of doughnuts, every bag of beef jerky, and two cans of beef stew. “Tommy!” he yelled to the one at the front of the store.
Ed shifted his attention to the boy by the door. The kid leaned against the ATM machine, leafing through a Hustler magazine. He was decidedly younger than the other three. He had freckles, big ears and a shock of unruly red hair with a cowlick poking up from the middle of his head. The boy looked to be about nineteen and reminded the clerk of Alfred E. Neuman from Mad Magazine.
“You want some of them vi-eenna sausages?” the Mullet called across the store. Tommy appeared too engrossed in the magazine to look up. “Tommy, you dumbass. Do you want these?” He held up the little can and wiggled it.
“Hell, yeah,” the boy responded. “Grab me some mustard too, JP.”
The clerk observed them closely, and stored their descriptions in his head in case he’d need to file a police report later. Probably no need, but he’d learned his lesson in the past. The kid was Tommy. The Mullet was JP. Tommy. JP. Ed repeated the names in his head, burning them into his memory. On closer inspection he determined that the four men were probably brothers. They all had similar red hair, tiny pig eyes, pock-marked faces and a shared ugliness that didn’t speak well for their parents.
The earless one strolled to the counter. He was one ugly looking jasper. His face looked like he’d lost an acid fight. Ed judged him to be a boxer who had taken more falls than he’d won. Maybe that explained the missing ear. His blob of a nose had been broken more than once, and he had beady eyes just like the others. Upon closer inspection, Ed was surprised to note that the color of the man’s eyes were grey — like those of a wolf. He’d never seen grey eyes in a human before. They were cold and blank. Lifeless. A bleak chill ran down his spine.
The skin around the man’s eyes was puffy, as were his cheeks which were rosy with broken blood vessels. The most shocking thing about him, though, was the gnarled stump on the side of his head where his ear had once been. A six inch scar carved its way from his missing ear to just above his chin. As he approached, a sharp tang stung the clerk’s nostrils. It wasn’t just the man’s pungent body odor. It smelled like evil.
He placed two beefy hands on the counter and gave Ed a broad grin. There was a gap in his smile where two side teeth were missing. Ed took a step back. He cleared his throat and quickly composed himself. “Good morning. Can I help you?” He noticed a slight squeak in his voice.
“You most certainly can,” the man said with false amiability. His voice was deep and gravelly. It reminded the clerk of the low growl of a grizzly bear, protecting her cubs like the one that he had run across while hunting up in the Beartooths last Fall. As frightening as that had been, he somehow felt more threatened by the fellow standing in front of him now. “Gimme a carton of Marlboros and four bottles of Jack Daniels.”
The two other men drew up behind the earless one and set their groceries on the counter. The one called JP left the basket on the counter and strolled to the front door where he leaned against the magazine rack, folded his arms, and peered out onto the parking lot as if he was looking for something. Turning his attention back to Earless and Tattoo, Ed saw they both were looking intently at him. Once again, the hair on the back of his neck came to attention.
His hands trembled slightly as he put the cigarettes and the bottles of liquor next to the basket. He punched the prices of each item into the cash register, bagging them as he did. Might be needing that gun after all, he thought, and tried to calculate how long it would take him to pull on these boys if he had to.
The younger one, Tommy, pulled a couple of the cheesier girlie magazines from the rack and brought them to the counter. “Get these too, Jesse.” He grinned at the earless one. Jesse. Jesse — earless. Ed’s brain stored some more data. Jesse, Tommy, JP and the Harelip. He repeated the names several times in his head. Leering like that, Tommy was the spitting image of Alfred E. Neuman. The clerk tried unsuccessfully to stifle a nervous chuckle.
“What’s so funny? You laughing at me?” The tattooed man with the harelip, squinted at him with one pig eye, speaking with that nasally way harelips talk.
“Nothing,” said Ed, shifting his gaze away from the boy and back to the groceries. “I was just thinking with all that beef jerky and the Jack Daniels and stuff, you boys are going to have an interesting day. You going fishing, or camping or something? We got bait and licenses if you need ’em.”
“That’s none of your frickin business.” The threatening tone of the harelip’s statement lost some of its power and came out almost comically due to his garbled speech impediment. Once again Ed found himself stifling a giggle.
The harelip glared at him and one eye twitched. Ed bit his lip.
“Whoa, take it easy, Butch,” said Jesse, putting a calming hand on Harelip’s shoulder. “The man didn’t mean no harm. Did you, old man?”
Butch. Butch — harelip. Tommy, JP, Jesse, Butch. “Course not. Sorry. I was just making an observation, that’s all. Around here fishing and hunting is about all there is to do.” Ed managed a bit of a smile. “Well, if that’s it, I’ll ring you up.” He looked at the screen on his register and added, “And, looks like you boys filled up at pump number four, right? Let’s see…” he tapped the total button and the register drawer popped open with a ding. “The damage comes to one hundred and ninety-three dollars and eighty-seven cents.”
From his position by the door JP called, “Blue light just went by.”
Tommy and Butch swiveled toward the front, but Jesse kept his gaze on the clerk. Even though he felt a weakness in his old knees, Ed remained focused on Jesse, and once again touched his index finger to the metal handle of his pistol.
Tommy turned with a wild-eyed look to his brother and said, “Shit, Jesse.”
Still looking at Jesse, Ed said, “Will that be check or credit card? We still take cash too.”
Jesse turned and patted his rear pocket. “I seem to have forgotten my wallet. Butch, you want to pay the man?”
Harelip smirked. “Sure, but I need my change first.”
Ed could hear and feel each beat of his heart, pounding in his ear. His fingers inched across the pistol’s handle. “Your change? Excuse me?”
With a quick movement, Butch drew a gun out of his waistband. “I’ll take what you have in the register, old man.”
The clerk’s voice remained steady. He’d been here before. He inched his hand away from the pistol and slowly placed both hands palms down on the counter. “Now listen, son. You don’t want to do this.”
Jesse spoke up. “You’re mistaken, old man. We do want to do this. And trust me, my brother is not a man you want to disappoint. Now, empty the till into a bag and hurry up.”
Butch pulled back the hammer on his gun and sneered. “Yeah, don’t disappoint me.”
“Where’s that blue light, JP?” Jesse called out.
“Long gone. Probably already at the donut shop pounding down his second chocolate covered.” JP chuckled at his own joke so hard he snorted.
“Look, boys,” said Ed with a slight quiver in his voice now. “I got less than a hundred bucks in the register. I don’t want no trouble and neither do you. So why don’t you just leave the groceries, walk out, keep the gas, no charge, and I’ll forget you were here.”
Jesse reached across the counter and grabbed the clerk by the shirtfront. His breath was as evil as his body odor. “You don’t understand. You see, we need these things and we have no money because we have just escaped from Deer Lodge where Butch here was doing life for murdering a family in Livingston and another fellow over in Three Forks. Now, believe me when I tell you, he has no problem killing you right now. I would prefer he didn’t, because it might attract the sheriff who just drove by. But,” Jesse’s voice took on an icy tone and his grey eyes narrowed, “if you don’t put the money in that bag right goddam now, I’ll kill you myself.”
A bead of sweat ran down the clerk’s face and his bladder let go, staining the front of his green work pants. His voice shook and his breath came hard. “Alright. Here –.” With Jesse’s hand still gripping the front of his shirt and his heart pounding, he took the few bills from the register and shoved them in the bag of groceries.
“Tommy. Butch.” said Jesse, “Grab the groceries and let’s go.”
The boy scooped up the two bags. Butch tucked the pistol back in his belt and picked up the cases of beer, and they headed to the door.
Jesse released the clerk and said, “Do you have a cell phone?”
“Good. We took the liberty of cutting your phone line before we came in. So, don’t think about calling the sheriff. But I’m afraid I’m going to have to tie you up so we have enough time to put some space between us. I guess I should have had you charge us for this roll of duct tape too.” He shook the roll of grey tape at the clerk and started to come around the counter.
As soon as Jesse moved in front of the fly-specked cabinet displaying greasy hot dogs, taquitos and fried gizzards, Ed drew his pistol and fired at Butch, the one with the gun. The explosion shook the windows of the convenience store and Jesse dropped to his knees. The shot missed Butch and struck the boy, Tommy, in the back. He screamed and lurched forward, dropping the groceries. Vienna Sausage and beef stew cans clattered across the checkerboard linoleum.
Butch let out a hellish roar that turned Ed’s blood to ice water. “You son of a bitch,” cried Butch. He dropped the cases of beer, and in one move, pulled his gun, turned and fired at Ed. The impact of the bullet knocked the old man back against the display rack behind him. Packs of cigarettes cascaded down on top of his head. What the hell? He looked disbelievingly at the opening in his chest. Thick dark blood dribbled down his shirt front. Dang, look at that hole. I’m shot. But it don’t even hurt. Those sonsabitches. Those goddam sonsabitches.
“Tommy!” called Jesse as he dashed to the boy’s side.
Still wondering about his lack of pain, Ed looked up and saw JP take in what was happening, then run to the car and start the engine. He reached across and opened the passenger door, then pushed the seat back forward. “Come on,” he yelled. “We gotta get the hell out of here.”
Ed reached for the cleaning cloth and pressed it to his wound. The scene playing out before him swam dreamily as if he were watching it on a movie screen. Butch and Jesse caught Tommy by the armpits, dragged him outside and stuffed him into the back seat of the car. Butch got in the rear with him while Jesse jumped in front.
Gotta stop them. Ed’s adrenaline pumped through his system like a jackhammer and pushed him from behind the counter. He began to be more aware of a deep pain rising from within him. His breath was harder to draw. With his gun in one hand and the other clasping the bloody cloth to his chest, he zigzagged to the front of the store. It felt as if he moved in hazy slow motion, almost like it wasn’t even his body. His eyes stayed focused on the punks, but everything in his peripheral vision was a blur.
He lurched against a shelf and candy bars and packs of donuts tumbled to the floor. His vision went dark and he had to shake his head to get his sight back. He reached the door and stumbled outside as the red Mustang peeled out of the parking lot. Mustang, he stored in his brain. The pistol felt as if it weighed a hundred pounds as he tried to raise it and fire. Before he could get a shot off, a sharp hitch stabbed his chest, and he caught a last breath. Ed Loomis tumbled dead against the bundles of firewood for sale and collapsed to the ground. As he hit the sidewalk, the pistol fired and ricocheted off the pavement, striking the bottom of the retreating car.
The dirt and gravel thrown up by the car’s rear tires settled over the old clerk’s prone body like a dusty shroud.
he sunlight inched its way up the eastern side of the mountains and broke over the ridge, sending warm rays onto the soft pink eyelids of Heather Kimble who was snuggled up against her new husband, Steve. The heat from his body and the warm quilt covering her made her feel toasty and safe. But her nose was cold from the crisp and fragrant breeze wafting its way through the fir trees and into their bedroom window. She blinked awake and for a moment was confused about where she was.
It certainly wasn’t back home in Ohio. She squinted out the window and caught her breath. The soaring snow-capped mountains and dark green Douglas firs outside were a far cry from the endless cornfields and flat farmlands she was used to. This place was glorious. Breathtaking. She inhaled deeply, savoring the fresh clean air. A broad smile spread across her face.
When Mrs. Preston picked them up at the airport last night she was so exhausted from everything. Twelve months of planning the wedding; one month of stressful final arrangements, cancellations, and last minute squabbles with her mother, her friends and Steve; the wedding itself – the beautiful wedding. Then there was the crazy reception where she ate too little and drank too much. Before she knew it, her girlfriends swept her away and got her dressed and packed for the honeymoon. They almost missed the flight out of Columbus and barely made their connection in Denver. As Steve waited at the baggage carousel at the airport in Kalispell, she fell asleep on the bench. She woke to Steve shaking her. Their bags sat next to an attractive older woman who introduced herself as Annie Preston, their host. She remembered Mrs. Preston was wearing a leather skirt, a plaid shirt and cowboy boots and had her hair in a long braid, but beyond that she couldn’t call to mind any conversation with the woman. She dimly recalled getting in the green van with the Thief Creek Bed and Breakfast sign on it, but everything from that point on was a blur, except for the blissful comfort she felt as she sank into the blessed softness of the big log bed.
Heather sat up, stretched and took another deep breath of the marvelous mountain air. The view outside her window was spectacular. Craggy mountains reached high into the fluffy white clouds that dotted the amazing cornflower blue sky like giant cottony sheep. It was late June, but there was still plenty of snow along the ridge. Spiky green trees covered the bottom two-thirds of the mountains and the final third was made up of giant boulders, gullies and shale fields. Magnificent. She sighed a happy sigh.
The bedroom walls were constructed of logs decorated with cowboy paraphernalia – spurs, a battered old high-crowned hat, a coiled lariat and rough framed pictures of rodeo riders, cowgirls and buffalos. A large bouquet of what Heather assumed to be local wildflowers exploded in brilliant yellows, lavender, orange and reds from a pottery vase on the dresser.
It was all too wonderful. They were finally here in Montana, married and on their honeymoon. “Yeehaw!” Heather yelped.
Steve woke with a start. “What? What the….” The look of shock on his sleep-creased face made Heather burst out laughing.
Steve rubbed his eyes and ran his hand through his tousled black hair. “What the hell, Heather,” he grumbled.
“Good morning, Dr. Kimble, my husband,” Heather said, giving him a playful poke in the ribs.
“Ugh,” Steve grunted and dropped back on to the pillow. He shaded his eyes from the brilliant sun now fully above the mountains. “Good morning, Mrs. Kimble. What time is it?”
Heather glanced at the digital clock next to the bed. “It’s almost a quarter to seven, sleepyhead. Quarter to eight back home. Come on. Get up. We can go for a quick run before breakfast.”
Steve got up on one arm and squinted at his wife. “A run? Really? Honey, I’m sorry. After yesterday, I’ll be lucky if I get out of bed today.”
“You have to get up. We’re going horseback riding today. Remember? It’s beautiful outside and Montana is a beautiful place. And we’ll feel beautiful after our run.”
Steve grinned and said, “You’re already beautiful, Sweetheart. I’m the luckiest man alive. But I’m also the tiredest man alive. Go for a run, Babe. I’m going to catch a little more shut-eye before breakfast. I’ll run with you this evening. I promise.”
Heather pouted dramatically then leaned over him and shook her curly blonde hair in his face. “Okay, lazybones.” She threw back the quilt and hopped out of bed. The cold air felt like someone poured a bucket of ice water over her naked body. She clutched herself and pranced to her suitcase. “Brrrr,” she shivered. “I’m all goosebumpy. Look.”
She turned to see that Steve was already admiring her body and grinning lewdly.
“I think you should come back to bed. Now,” he said. “I’ll warm you up.”
“Too late,” she said. “You missed your chance. Maybe you’ll get lucky after breakfast before they pick us up to go riding.”
Steve groaned and pulled her pillow over his head.
Heather turned and examined herself in the mirror. She was proud of her body. She had to admit she was very hot. As a physical trainer and karate instructor she needed to stay in excellent shape. She admired her firm breasts, her flat stomach, and then turned to check out her tight round buns. Not an ounce of body fat. Her arms and legs were well-toned. It took a lot of effort to stay in such great shape, but she loved exercise, working out in the gym, hiking, running, rock climbing, biking. Indoors or outdoors, she could spend hours happily sculpting the beautiful machine that was her body as well as helping others achieve their physical goals.
Heather slipped into a pair of running shorts and pulled a light pink sweatshirt over her head. She laced up her New Balances, wrapped a rubber band around her hair and ran her ponytail through the back of a pink baseball cap.
“My God, you’re hot. Please come back in here,” Steve whined from the bed. He threw back the quilt and she saw that he was more than eager to have her join him.
“Well, good morning, Doctor!” Heather’s big blue eyes widened at the sight. Ignoring his offer, she hiked her leg up onto the top of the dresser and stretched her calves, well aware that she was torturing the poor guy. “Sorry, Hon, but I’m all dressed and ready to go. I’ll see you when I get back.”
Pouting, Steve threw the comforter back over himself. “Well, you’d better hurry.”
She laughed, bent and kissed him. “I love you,” she called as she let herself out of the room.
“Love you,” Steve grumbled back.
The hallway walls of the old inn were covered with framed pictures — aged sepias and black and whites of rodeo riders on bucking broncos and cowboys branding calves. Heather admired the Charles M. Russell prints and original oil paintings of Indians and fur-capped mountain men. What a wild and wonderful place, she thought to herself.
She bounced down the stairs two at a time, eager to start her run. She leapt from the last two steps to the entryway just as a man came around the corner holding a steaming carafe of coffee and nearly collided with him.
“Oops,” he chuckled and pulled the coffeepot out of the way.
Heather’s cheeks reddened. “Excuse me. I’m so sorry.”
The man smiled broadly. He had a kind and rugged face, longish grey hair with a short ponytail tied in the back. A small splash of coffee stained the front of his plaid shirt and a few drops dappled his blue jeans. “Not a problem,” he laughed. “Occupational hazard. Soon I’ll be splattered with bacon grease and eggs. You must be Heather. I’m Mike. Nice to meet you. Looks like you’re headed for a run.”
Heather shook his hand. “Oh, you’re Mr. Preston. It’s nice to meet you. ”
“Please call me Mike. Sorry I wasn’t up to greet you and Steve last night. I was working on my darn truck until late. Never did get it running. Annie woke me when she got back from picking you guys up at the airport, but I’m afraid I was too lazy to get up. Where’s your new husband? Are you running away from him already?”
Heather chuckled and pointed her thumb up the stairs. “Steve’s still up in bed. It was a long day yesterday. I thought I’d get a quick run in before breakfast. Do I have time?”
“Oh, sure. You two are our only guests this week. How long a run are you going for? You know, we’re at eight thousand feet here. If you’re not used to it, the altitude can do a number on you.”
“I’ll just take a short run. Is half an hour okay?”
Mike smiled and nodded. “Breakfast will be ready when you’re done with your shower. Don’t forget that the wrangler from the Double J Ranch is picking you two up at ten.”
“I know. I’m so excited. I’ve always wanted to go horseback riding. And it’s so gorgeous here in the mountains.” Heather checked her watch. “I better get going. I like trail running. Are there any trails around here you’d recommend?”
“There are lots of trails around here, but, I’d suggest you stick to the road. Wait a minute.” Mike held up his hand, then disappeared into the kitchen. He re-emerged with a thin black canister and handed it to her. She crinkled her nose questioningly.
“Here. Take this with you. It’s bear spray. I saw a black bear with her cubs in the timber up behind the inn yesterday. She’s been hanging around foraging for a couple of weeks. You probably won’t run into her, but stay on the road. And keep alert. It’s springtime and the bears are hungry and feisty. ”
Heather took the spray can with wide eyes and gulped. “Maybe I shouldn’t go.”
The innkeeper smiled and said, “Don’t worry. Enjoy your run. You’ll be okay. The bears are more scared of you than you are of them. It’s not likely you’ll see them. It doesn’t hurt to be cautious, though. If you need to, just point the can at the bear and press this trigger. Aim for the eyes. And whatever you do, don’t try to outrun them. They can run up to thirty-five miles per hour. If you come across one and the spray doesn’t chase it away, some people say you should lie down and play dead. Others say you should call out to it and make a loud noise. Stand as tall as you can and make yourself look as big as possible. Black bears prefer to avoid humans and will generally try to avoid getting involved with them, unless it’s a sow protecting her cubs.”
Heather inspected the can in her hand and hesitated before reaching for the doorknob. The excited adrenaline she felt earlier at the prospect of her run had turned to a touch of nervous anxiety. She looked back at Mike with a furrowed brow and one questioning eyebrow raised.
“Go on now,” he said and opened the door for her. “I’ll have a great breakfast waiting for you when you get back.”
She gave him a wan smile, then turned and gripping the bear spray tightly in her hand, jogged up to the road, craning her head in all directions as she went.
nnie Preston heard the ambulance take the corner off Main and watched it drive up Second Street to the clinic. The siren was on, but the vehicle moved at regular speed. She had heard the Sheriff’s car and the ambulance tearing down Main Street earlier and was curious what had happened. It looked as if she was about to find out.
“Emma,” she called over her shoulder. “You need to get out here.”
“I’m in the bathroom.” Emma sounded annoyed, as usual.
“I know, but they’re bringing someone in and I could use your help.”
A heavy sigh. “Alright, I’ll be out in a minute.”
Annie heard the toilet flush as the ambulance came to a stop out front. The two EMTs exited, swung open the back doors and pulled the stretcher out. The legs of the stretcher unfolded and the men wheeled it toward the clinic doors. Their movements were unhurried and Annie felt a nervous lump drop in her stomach. Now what, she thought.
Emma emerged from the bathroom reeking of cigarette smoke. As she came out, she flipped the light switch off but left the exhaust fan whirring. Annie bit her lip to keep from telling her for the thousandth time that if she was going to smoke she’d have to do it outside, not in the bathroom.
Emma peered out front while she dug in her uniform and adjusted her bra strap. “Who is it?”
Annie shook her head. “I don’t know. Come on. Get the door.”
The two women pulled open the front doors and the EMTs rolled the stretcher by them. The sheet was pulled up over the patient’s face and a large blood stain spread across the top of the sheet.
“Back there?” the EMT gestured with his head to the examining room.
“Yes,” said Annie. “Who is it?”
“Ed Loomis. Gunshot to the chest. He’s dead.”
“Oh my God. Ed Loomis?” gasped Emma clasping a hand to her ample bosom.
Annie pictured the old clerk chattering behind the counter at the Gas-N-Go. He was a bit of a curmudgeon, but a harmless coot, just another Lame Elk character. Why would anyone shoot him? “What happened?”
They rolled the stretcher into the middle of the examining room and unbuckled the holding straps. “Robbery,” said the older EMT. “Sheriff said they cleaned out the register and shot old Ed. He was lying outside the store with a gun in his hand. Musta chased after them. Carl Jurgens was across the street in the hardware store and said he heard the gunshots and saw a red Mustang taking off down Main Street.”
Emma waddled to the head of the stretcher and pulled back the sheet. “Poor Ed,” she said and shook her head.
The EMTs took up positions at the top and bottom of the stretcher and were about to lift the body onto the examining table when there was a commotion out in the lobby.
“Just a minute,” said Annie holding up her hand. She went out to the front desk where she saw a rancher in dusty jeans holding a dirty rag around his hand. He paced up and down cursing under his breath. Another younger cowboy watched him anxiously and rushed over to her as she came round the corner.
“Can I help you ?” she said.
The young man bobbed his head. “My dad cut his hand real bad. His thumb’s just hanging there.”
The older man strode over to her holding out his wounded hand. Annie gently unwrapped the oily rag and saw the deep cut across the base of his thumb. A flock of butterflies rose in her stomach and fluttered around her heart, but she maintained a calm voice and carefully re-wrapped the bloody hand.
“Just a moment, please. I’ll be right with you.” She hurried back to the examining room where the two EMTs stood waiting by the stretcher.
“Emma,” she said, “have these men take Mr. Loomis to the back room for now. I’m going to need this room for the man who just came in.”
Emma led the EMTs down the hall with Ed’s body. Annie wiped her hand across her forehead and blew a loose strand of hair from her face. It’s going to be one of those days. She took a deep breath, tucked her hair behind her ear and headed out to the front desk.
“Okay, she smiled, “would you like to come with me?” The grimacing rancher and his son crossed the lobby and followed Annie to the examining room.
he Toomey brothers’ Mustang barreled down the state highway at top speed. JP drove and had the accelerator jammed to the floor. He hadn’t slowed down since they’d left Lame Elk. From the passenger seat Jesse James Toomey watched his brother with concern. JP was hunched over the steering wheel. The veins on his hands and his knuckles bulged as he gripped the wheel like he wanted to strangle it. His eyes darted from the road to the rearview mirror and back. Jesse thought of saying something to JP to slow him down, but he himself was feeling anxious about their situation. He turned his focus on the road ahead and tried to block out the anguished moans of his brother, Tommy, writhing in pain in the back seat.