“So we gonna talk about what really happened last night or what?”
“Not a word to Kate, you hear me?”
“She’s pretty sure to notice that bullet hole in the door when your truck gets towed to Circle P today.”
“Truck’s comin’ to town for Milt to dig the slug out and see if we can get some forensics off it. Is Mac here?”
“He was still in his office when I got here.”
“Well good mornin’ gentlemen. Thought I might find you here. I miss anything?” Young entered Truett’s office as Carl left to get Mac and flopped onto the leather sofa.
“No. Just got here. You didn’t say anything to Lacey, did you?”
“I said a lot of things to Lacey but none of them were oh by the way, Truett got shot off the road and rolled down an embankment last night and if it hadn’t been for Harry finding him, he might still be laying at the bottom of that ditch covered in snow.”
“I told Kate that bull’s mostly dog.”
“Well, he found you, licked your head until you came to and then his little bell led us to you. You need to change any plans you might have had about killing that bull for Katie’s science project. He saved your butt.”
“I saved his butt like always and you and Harry happened to be there.” Carl and Mac had returned and sat in the chairs facing Truett’s desk.
“I think Smokey might get a little credit too. Damn that horse has great legs.”
“Sounds like I’m way behind on somethin’. Care to fill me in?” Mac propped his right boot on his left knee and leaned back in his chair.
“After I left here last night, I went to Double J like I intended and was following an old path we used to take to Circle P looking for Harry.”
“Katie’s bull,” Mac clarified.
“Yep. Haruto. I was rotating the spot into the brush as I drove. Snowin’ like hell. Couldn’t have been goin’ more ‘n about ten miles an hour. I had the window down some in case I heard Harry’s bell. Off to my left, through the brush, not on any road or trail, I’m blinded by poacher lights. High up. Maybe a Hummer. Next thing I know the tank swings out next to me and bumps my truck off the road. I rolled a couple times before the bottom. Before I could clear my head, I heard voices, a gun shot, and a car door slam. Then the lights were off me and I heard a vehicle drive off. I was able to get the drivers door open but I pretty much fell out of the truck. Then I’m not sure. Next thing I know is I hear Harry’s bell jingling and a huge wet tongue licking my head.”
“That’s the scene I walked up on,” Young added.
“I was checkin’ the truck to see if Truett was inside. I saw the bullet hole when I brushed the snow away,” Carl finished.
“Sounds like a good thing that bullet wasn’t aimed any higher if that window was down.”
“No lie, my Friend. But why? What would anyone be doin’ out there in a blizzard? Nothin’ to rustle out that way. And why shoot at me AFTER running me off the road? There’s nothin but brush and bad pasture on that side of the ranches and all of it’s covered in two feet of snow.” Truett rubbed his head and eyes, bone tired from a sleepless night and side steppin’ Katie’s questions.
“It was a 223 cartridge fired from an AR-15 pistol.”
“So armor piercing ammo from an automatic pistol?” Truett stood next to Deputy Milton Mays as Milt peered into a microscope.
“Yep, but the striations aren’t clean. I don’t think we’ll be able to trace it without another one to compare it with.”
“Well why don’t I just jump back in the truck and go park in my pasture like a sitting duck again and maybe we can get another one for comparison!”
“Certainly not your average poacher or rustler. And as you’ve said, there’s nothing out there to steal anyway. I went out to the site this morning while your truck was being set up and towed. I didn’t find anything but tire tracks. I think you were right about it being a Hummer. I casted but the snow and ice compromised the mud, so again, no clean prints.”
“You seen a Hummer around here?” Truett was rubbing his forehead and eyes in frustration.
“No. None registered in the county either. Dixie ran a check.” Milt was doing his best.
“So where did it come from and where did it go? And most of all, WHAT was it doing? Is somebody hunting me?”
“I think you should consider the possibility and take precautions.”
“I don’t know what I need protection from.”
“Maybe Katie needs to put a bell around your neck too. Make it easier for Harry to find you next time.”
“Very funny, wiseass. Did you have Dixie check AR-15 pistol registrations?”
“I did and there aren’t. None. Nada.”
“I’m goin’ over to Truvie’s. If you see Carl, send him over.”
“Uh, want me to walk with you?”
“What, we’re goin’ steady now? No. I don’t need a bodyguard. Find me something I can use. And, Milt?”
Carl slid into the booth across from Truett at the diner. “Milt says you’re lookin’ for me?”
“He tell you about the cartridge?”
“He did. Don’t sound like it’s gonna do us much good and I have never seen a Hummer around here.”
“I’m tryin’ to think who I’ve tangled with lately and other than the mayor about her country club project, I can’t think of a soul.” Truett raised his eyebrows in confusion.
“Ophelia Evans is still in town.”
“I don’t get the Evans vibe off this. She’d just walk up and shoot me and swear it was justifiable.”
“Hey, Sugar!” Shell and Katie entered the diner and spotted the men’s booth in the back.
“Hey Honey, shopping?” Carl moved over on the bench to make room for his wife.
“Katie needed a few things from Walgreens so I drove her in.”
“How’re you feeling, Gorgeous?” Truett smiled for the first time since leaving the ranch this morning.
“Better today. I think Miss Diane was right. I’m not resting enough and the stress of the pageant and Harry goin’ missin’ was just too much.”
“Listen, about finding Harry last night. I need to tell you something but I don’t want you worryin’ too much.”
“Uhoh. Did Sam tell you about the letter?”
“Why don’t you go first. I interrupted you.”
Truett turned toward Katie as she wedged herself into the booth. “Kate?”
“Fine, but I’m sure it’s just some prank. When I went back to Circle P last night to change for the pageant, I walked over to the barn to see if Harry had come back. There was a note on his stall saying he had been kidnapped and we would hear back about demands. But it had to be a prank because you found him.”
“So the little escape artist freed himself.” Carl smiled at Truett.
“They weren’t after me. They’re after Harry.”
“Who’s after Harry?” Shell smiled innocently taking a sip of Carl’s coffee.
“Where’s the note, Baby?” Truett asked Katie, relief flooding his voice.
“I threw it in a drawer in the kitchen after I told Sam about it. He and Diane had come over to get some soup pots. He told me not to worry and to let you handle it, but there was nothing to handle cause you found him.”
“Where is Harry now?”
“Locked up over at Double J. After his run-in with Aunt Esther we thought it was best to leave him over there for a few days. At least until she gets her hair done and her suit cleaned.”
“I saw him before I left to pick up Katie. He’s not getting out of THAT stall. Carly uses it for Billy the Kid Goat. THAT goat is Houdini, but he hasn’t busted out of that stall not one time since Chase reinforced the walls and changed the gate from a latch to a lock and key.”
“Speakin’ of Chase, isn’t that him?” Katie nodded toward the far corner of the diner where Sam and Truvie kept the “private” table.
“Yeah, but who’s the brunette?” Shell’s eyes followed Katie’s nod.
“I need to get back to the station, Darlin’. See you tonight.” Truett kissed Katie and stood, Stetson in hand.
“I better go too, Babe. He’s lost without me.” Carl grinned at his own joke, pecked Shell on the cheek, and stood to follow Truett.
” Wait! What about what’s goin’ on back there?” Shell nodded at the back table where the unknown brunette sat. Chase had just strode past their booth without so much as a ‘how’s things?’”
“Not my business. Or yours.” Carl leaned down and kissed the tip of Shell’s nose.
“Oh, Carl?” Kate touched his hand. “I forgot to tell Truett. I rode out early to see where he went off the road in case Harry wanders that way again. If y’all haven’t already done it, you better get it towed on in. I think kids may be using it for target practice.”
“We’ll get right on that, Kate.” Carl opened the diner door and followe I’llTruett down the street.
Shell rose from their booth and began gathering her purse and coat.
“Where you goin’? I thought we were gonna have pie?” Katie asked wistfully.
“We are,” Shell answered. “Back there.”
“Well that puts a whole new spin on things,” Carl said catching up to Truett. “Where you headed?”
“I’m going home and get that note out of the drawer for Milt to dust but I’m not hopeful. Then I’m going to trailer Harry from Double J to Luther’s for the time being.”
“I’m off so I’ll ride along. Whadda you make of Chase and that woman?”
“None of my business.”
“Katie says tell you if you haven’t already, you need to get your truck towed. Kids are using it for target practice.”
“Good. Let her think that. Let’s take your Rover.”
“You embarrassed to drive the squad?”
“No, but there’s still ice and snow.”
“Yeah. Right. Fine, I’ll drive.”
“Wait. Milt’s waving at us.”
Deputy Milton Mays jogged up to the passenger door as Truett lowered the window.
“I may have a lead on that ammo. Maybe even the automatic pistol. Dixie ran some bulletins and alerts this afternoon. El Paso posted some warrants that reference stolen armor piercing ammunition and automatic pistols and rifles being confiscated from a drug smuggling operation out of Mexico across the border at El Paso. Specific warrants against members of the Mendoza cartel. After the bust in El Paso, some of the ammo and weapons were stolen out of an evidence locker. Local cops think the cartel stole them back.”
“What does Katie’s bull have to do with a Mexican cartel?” Truett said aloud.
“Just seemed a mite coincidental that we’ve never heard of the ammo or the weapons in Evans County and suddenly they come up twice in one day.”
“Yeah, I don’t much believe n coincidences. Thanks, Milt. Let Dixie know we’ll be on the radio until Mac’s back on tonight. And, would you let Mac know what you just told me?”
“You got it.”
“And, Milt? Hang around if you want some overtime tonight. I’m going to be bringing you some note or letter that Kate found in Harry’s stall last night. Maybe you can get something off it.”
“Sure thing. No reason to go home to an empty house. I got some studying to do anyway.”
“We’ll be back.” Truett raised the window as Carl drove out of the Sheriff’s lot.
“Give us back what your bull took or else.”
“Reading it again doesn’t make it make any more sense.” Truett stared at the piece of paper Katie had found in Harry’s stall.
“What could Harry have possibly taken from anybody?” Carl stood over Truett’s shoulder staring at the baffling note.
“So Harry somehow took something from somebody and then the somebody took Harry, but Harry got away from somebody. Is that what I’m to get from this?” Truett was shaking the note at Carl.
“I have no idea, but that somebody has a mighty big vehicle and a mighty big gun, and it was pointed your way.”
“Was it? Or was Harry already down in that ditch when they bumped me off the road and they were shooting at him?” Truett was grasping at straws.
“In any event, let’s go move Harry over to Luther’s. I don’t think the little guy is safe.” Carl stood up from the stool he’d perched on.
“Yeah, call Luther and I’ll hook the trailer up to Katie’s truck.”
“I have another thought. What if they took Harry. Harry got away from them. They went looking for Harry. You got in the way. They slowed you down by pushing you off the road and then they CAME BACK here and left that note?” Carl raised his eyebrows at Truett.
“Somehow that makes sense. I like it. But we’re back to what do they think Harry took?”
“Here’s another thought. WHERE would Harry put anything? It’s not like he has thumbs and a backpack.”
“He’d eat it.” Truett looked at Carl. “He’d eat it. They took Harry so they could hold him and wait for it to come out.”
“And now WE’RE gonna wait for it to come out?” Carl didn’t like the turn this investigation was taking.
“Hell no. MILT is gonna wait for it to come out. HE’S the forensics guy. Don’t bother calling Luther. Let’s go arrest Harry.”
“You’re gonna put Katie’s bull in jail?”
“How ya want me to fingerprint ‘im, Sheriff?” Dixie Johnson was planning to get a lot of mileage out of this story at Bingo tonight.
“Well just throw the pad on the floor and I’ll walk him across it.” Truett was leading Katie’s bull calf, Haruto, down the cell block by a rope. The bell around Harry’s neck was tinkling with every step.
“Well at least hold still until I can get his mug shot. How tall you reckon Harry is?” Dixie couldn’t contain herself.
“Keep it up, Deputy Johnson, and YOU will be babysitting him tonight.”
“Better her than me.” Milt spoke under his breath.
“What was that, Milt?” Truett closed the door to Cell 8 behind Harry.
“Hey! Did you really want four hay bales brought over here?” Young Knight stood in the back doorway holding a hay bale between his gloved hands.
“Well hello, little brother.” Deputy Carl Knight came down the corridor from the administrative offices. “What have you been up to today?”
“Well I thought I’d seen it all until I saw Harry in this cell. Let’s see Outlaw Annie is in town. Lacey’s store flooded downtown in pink foam from something called bath bombs. Chase had an allergic reaction to the foam and Annie hosed him down in front of the diner. Oh yeah, they’re married. And then I get a call from Dixie about delivering hay to the jail.”
“Were they married before or after she hosed him down?” Carl asked.
“Before. Why is Harry in jail?”
“Milt is going to wait for him to poop,” Carl smirked.
“What’s so special about Japanese bull poop?”
“Might hold a clue as to why somebody shot at Truett,” Carl explained.
“You know? This day is just getting weirder. Maybe I’ll just go back over and let Lace continue my education in ladies bath essentials.” Young headed out the door for another bale of hay.
“Don’t just stand there. Go help ‘im,” Dixie admonished the other men.
“Anything?” Truett stopped by the Sheriff’s Station on his way to meet Katie and the kids at church Sunday morning.
“If by anything you mean anything unusual, then no.” Deputy Milt Mays was shaving in the locker room at the station preparing for church himself.
“So how about anything at all?”
“Oh yeah. Plenty of at all. Just nothing you were hoping for. I’ve strained for plastic, paper, metal…nothing. I’m running some analysis for substances. I’m assuming you were particularly interested in a drug panel?”
“I was leaning that way.”
Milt rinsed his face and reached for his towel. “Then you can straighten up. Nothing. No trace of narcotics. Just regular old…excrement.”
“Well now what? I mean I was actually concerned that a baggie or something would bust inside him and kill him.” “And Katie would kill you.” “
“Crossed my mind. It made so much sense last night. What else could Harry have taken from anyone and how?” Truett was rubbing his eyes in frustration again.
“I do not know but somebody better get him out of here and muck out that cell before Dixie gets out of church.”
“Yeah. I’ll load him in the trailer after church. I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to trick Young into cleaning up. Graciela’s son is in town. I’ll send him over from the diner. I’m sure he can use some pocket money at school.”
“I’m sorry, Truett. I thought for sure we were on to something.”
“Thanks for trying, Milt. See you at church.”
“Thanks, Luther. I’ll bring him home soon as I can.” Truett and Carl had driven Harry out to Luther’s family’s ranch for safekeeping.
“No problem, Tru. He’s safe here. I’m sorry you didn’t get better results. But, I have another idea if you’re up to a shot in the dark.”
“I definitely don’t want any more shots especially in the dark, but I’m open to ideas.”
“Too soon for shot jokes?,” Luther laughed at his old friend’s discomfort. “Well, let me look him over but I read about something recently where a bovine was used as a drug “mule” not by having her swallow a bag, but by stitching it under her skin.”
“Wouldn’t Milt have noticed that?” Carl asked.
“Not necessarily. Depends on the location and the um, seamstress.”
“I’m back to why Harry? Even if we find something, why use Harry? I could see him accidentally stealing something by eating it but someone purposely using Harry to transport something?”
“Now wait a minute,” Carl interrupted Truett’s rant. “Try this out. For whatever reason, while everyone was busy with the pageant at Double J and away from Circle P, someone for lack of a better word, “operated” on Harry and Harry being the escape artist he is, got away from them. You interrupted their search for him and since then he’s been under our surveillance and lock and key. Maybe, stay with me here, maybe they were trying to find him and bring him back to Circle P when you got in the way.”
“For what?” Truett was still struggling to follow Carl’s reasoning.
“Give me time, I’m gettin’ there. Isn’t Harry scheduled to go to Austin next week to that fancy lab for testing by the state guys? Maybe, they needed to get something to that lab and a prized Japanese bull with special DNA being treated like royalty is their ticket in.”
“That’s a lot of maybe.” Truett stared at his Deputy.
“At the risk of being a smartass, MAYBE not. Look here.” Luther, an Evans County Paramedic, pointed around an almost invisible protrusion on Harry’s lower right flank. Sure enough, black stitches outlined a small pouch cut into Harry’s black hide. “Milt wouldn’t have thought anything about this. It looks like any other bump on a bull’s ass.”
“Well I’ll be damned. What do we do? Remove it, or…track it?” Truett smiled. He loved a good hunt.
Dixie Johnson stuck her head in the open door of Senior Deputy Mac McClain’s office. “Truett, that new reporter from the Chronicle is waiting in your office.”
“You ready?” Mac asked Truett.
“I hate election years. Ready as I can be.” Truett rose from the chair in front of Mac’s desk and strode down the hallway behind Dixie.
I: Good morning, Sheriff Price. Thank you for sitting down with me this morning.
T: My pleasure, and welcome to town, Ms. Carmichael.
I: Thank you very much. Sheriff, how long have you been the Sheriff of Evans County?
T: Five years
I: Is there a term limit in Evans County?
T: You plannin’ to run against me?
I: (laughing) Absolutely not! From what I hear, you are unbeatable.
T: Well, the last election, I ran unopposed, so you have to take that into consideration.
I: And why do you think you were unopposed?
T: Well, first your term question. Terms in Evans County are for three years. I’m allowed one more term, for a total of nine years. Then someone else must serve a minimum of two years before I could be re-elected. As for being unopposed, this is a pretty quiet county in a remote area. There’s not a lot to draw an outside candidate to Evans County.
I: What about another local candidate?
T: There’s a few very capable people who would serve the county well.
I: If I’ve done my homework correctly, you came to the position after the former Sheriff passed away suddenly?
T: Yes, heart attack. I was the Senior Deputy at that time.
I: I believe there was also a very influential mayor and perhaps some indication of corruption in the county at that time?
T: There was. That mayor is also gone and yes, following an investigation it was determined there had been some politically and judicially corrupt individuals who are also no longer in the county.
I: That former mayor is dead, correct?
T: He is.
I: And you killed him?
T: No, Ma’am, I did not.
I: Ah. But one of your Deputies did kill him. Is that right?
T: Right or wrong, it is correct. The mayor was armed and in the act of committing a felony and threatening an officer of the law.
I: Can you elaborate further on this incident?
T: I probably could, but I won’t.
I: Am I to assume you also are unwilling to elaborate on the subsequent death of that mayor’s son?
T: You are correct in that assumption.
“I apologize, Sheriff, but Carroll County Sheriff Turner is holding for you and says it’s urgent.” Dixie’s voice over the intercom was a welcome chance at respite from the new reporter.
“Ms. Carmichael, I’m afraid we’ll need to continue this at another time. If you’ll please excuse me?” Truett stood, walked around his desk, raised his arm toward his open office door and gestured for the young woman to take her leave.
“Certainly, Sheriff.” Ms. Carmichael reluctantly gathered her things and stood to leave. “I do have many more questions for you, so I hope we will be able to reschedule at your earliest opportunity.”
“I’ll make it a priority.” Truett closed the door behind her and walked back to his desk.
Punching the intercom button before the blinking line with Sheriff Turner, Truett barked, “Dixie, Mac, step in here, please.”
“Price,” Truett spoke into the receiver.
“Mornin’, Truett. Jeff Turner here. I’ve got some information you may find useful in your bull investigation. It involves Ophelia Evans.”
As Dixie and Mac stepped into Truett’s office he said, “You’ve got my attention, Jeff. Can you hold just a minute?”
As Truett placed Sheriff Turner on hold, he looked up at his Deputies and said, “Get me everything you can find on Lynette Carmichael and, Dix? Call Carl in. My gut tells me somethin’s up with that woman.”
“Thanks for holding, Jeff. Whatcha got?”