Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Build a Tree

Bradford Pear Tree





Build a Tree



I drove through town today and noticed that many of the early blooming trees are

actually blooming. Maybe a bit early but not that bad. I saw several white blooming Bradford

Pear trees and a couple of the pink blossoms on some purple leafed plum trees which are usually

the first to bloom here in our high desert country. I know people are seeing these beautiful trees

and are going to the plant nurseries asking for them. But do they really think about what they

are doing before they buy and then plant their new trees?

Many people look at growing a tree as they would raising a child or caring for a pet. They think

they have to sweet talk the tree, play music for it, pet it and give it special TLC. For some people

this might be the proper approach for growing trees and plants, but not for us builders.

Don't just plant that new tree or shrub. Build it. Many people seem to be afraid of the idea of

growing or raising a plant. I worked in a plant nursery for many years, hearing so many people

complain that they couldn't grow anything. I heard comments saying they didn't know why they

were buying a tree as it probably wouldn't grow. I would tell them, “Have confidence in yourself

and build that tree.”

The dictionary defines 'grow' as 'start to increase in size, develop, to reach maturity, to

expand'. The dictionary defines 'raise' as 'to cause to move upward, to make greater in size, to

build'.

To Build! To develop or expand. Maybe we should stop thinking of growing or raising plants,

but of building plants.

The same people who say they can't raise or grow plants, frequently, are builders. These are

people who are architects, and engineers, people who build homes, offices, and bridges. Or

they are mechanics, who build or repair cars and trucks. They can be carpenters, who build or

make furniture, and they may be electricians who build or develop computers. We even 'build' our

children, or we hope we are building them into good people.

I can grow a tree, but I would be lost trying to build a computer, as many computer people would

be growing a tree. All of us can do one thing better than another, but we can all try to build something.

Trees are really easy to 'build' if you will just give yourself and the tree a chance. We build lots of

things, including trees, shrubs, vegetables, and houseplants as well as those computers, and homes.

So the next time you start to plant that new tree, think of it as a building project.

First you excavate a hole. You want it twice as wide and twice as deep as the pot the tree is in. You

build a proper foundation by adding several good shovel fulls of peat moss and compost to the soil

you dug out of your hole. Mix it all well and put a couple of shovel fulls back into the hole. Now pull

the tree out of the pot and put it in the hole. (Yes, I have heard of people who didn't take the tree out

of the pot before planting it. No, it will not grow that way.) Now use your water hose to fill the hole

with water all around the tree. As the water soaks in add the rest of the soil mixture to the hole around

all sides of the tree, tamping it down some as you layer it in. You can compare this project to baking

a cake – a baker builds a cake by adding the right ingredients together to make a cake. Instead of milk,

butter, eggs, sugar, and flour you are mixing water, peat moss, compost, maybe some light fertilizer

like root stimulator. Remember don't give it very much fertilizer or you will burn the tree and it won't

grow or build right, if at all. You wouldn't want to put to much sugar or oil into your cake, would you?

Water the tree again after you have all the soil mix in the hole. You will want to water it well every day

for the first couple weeks and then every other day for another couple of weeks working down to about

every three days for the summer or more often if it is really hot and especially if you see the tree looking

droopy. Now you don't want it standing in water but keep it damp for the first summer. The next summer

you shouldn't need to water it near as much.

I recommend adding a stake to your tree so that it can be helped to support its self when the wind

blows or someone accidentally pushes against it. Make sure the stake is not tied to tight to the little tree. If

the ties are to tight they can cut into the truck of the tree causing it to not breathe right. Yes, your tree

breathes. It breathes in carbon dioxide and breaths out oxygen. The same kind of oxygen you breath. So

not only will your tree look pretty as it grows it will help you breathe. You in turn will help it to breathe.

All plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen.

Remember, this isn't one of those quick, one day projects, like painting a room, or even a project that

takes a couple of months like building a house. It is an expanding, on-going, never-ending project similar

to raising a child. Over the years the tree will grow, expand, and mature because you will add the re-

quired amounts of water, fertilize, and mulch, as well as the occasional repair or removal of a branch that

forms wrong or doesn't look good. Your tree will require cleaning and repair just as your home does, or

your car or computer. But it will give back so much. Not only will it give you oxygen but it will give you

pretty blossoms to look at in the spring, leaves for shade in the summer and colorful fall leaves. Or if you

are planting an evergreen tree like a pine or spruce it will be green all year for you.

Next time your looking for a new project, give it a try. Build a Tree.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Morning Glories







Good Morning Glories


It's almost spring time. I love planting seeds and watching them grow and bloom. Here is one of my favorites.

Good Morning, -------Glory,” is one of my friends favorite greeting, and morning glories are one of my favorite flowers. They are fantastic, easy to grow vines that have masses of large heart shaped leaves and big, bright, eye-catching blossoms that really do seem to shout “good morning.” I've spent many an early morning with a good cup of coffee watching these delicate flowers unfold to the sunrise, all the while knowing each one will be gone by mid-afternoon. But not to despair, as there will be another group opening the next morning.

I plant morning glories. I plant them in every corner, in every spot in my yard that doesn't already have something else growing there. I plant them to grow on the picket fence bordering my front yard, and so they will grow on the post supporting my mailbox at the corner of the driveway. I like to have the climbing the trellis on the corner of the patio. I don't have a very big vegetable garden but there are usually several volunteer morning glories on the garden fence. I had had mounds of them along the edge of the lawn, and climbing trees and even up shrubs and roses.

As a child I resented having to do any yard work but I quickly learned to admire the fast growing vines with their large leaves and beautiful flowers. I was taught to grow them as a child and let my son grow them when he was a small child. The seeds are large enough for small hands to be able to see and hold, and the plants develop fast enough that children can begin to understand how plants grow.

Last summer I read everything I could find about growing morning glories and decided to do some experimenting with them. I bought as many different kinds as I could find seeds for and planned to grow them in the ground and in pots. Morning glories or Ipomoea come in several different colors. Heavenly Blue is the all time favorite, its blue flowers being four to five inches across. There is, also, Scarlet O'Hara in red and the white Pearly Gates. The three make a beautiful red, white and blue showing for the Fourth of July. Other colors include shades of pick and purple and some that are striped.

These vines are considered annuals, meaning they only last one summer season. Sometimes they come back from the many seeds the flowers produce, but it is usually best to reseed to get the colors you want. Starting plants from seed can be done either directly into the ground after all danger of frost is over or they can be stared about six weeks ahead of time in peat pots that can be put directly into the soil of the flower bed without disturbing the plant roots. The plants don't do as well if grown in plastic pots and then pulled out as they don't like having their roots disturbed. When planting either in the ground or in pots they should be planted ½ inch deep after being soaked overnight or for about four hours in water. I found it is not necessary, as some books and seed packs recommend that the seed should be scarified or nicked with a small file or fingernail clippers before soaking. If you do decide to do this hold the seed between thumb and forefinger and nick the pointed end. Avoid damaging the rounded end as that is where the plant embryo is located.

Morning glories are called twiners, meaning they go round and around the first upright support they come in contact with. They have growing tips that are very sensitive to tell them where to climb. Strangely enough, they usually move in a counter-clockwise movement. If the tip finds a horizontal or lengthwise object, it will try to avoid it and “feel” for a vertical object to climb. And climb they do. They try to climb on anything but do best with a little help. Chain link or open wooden fences work well, as do trellis, lattice, and even chicken wire. Special nails or hooks with glue can be used on cinderblock walls and houses, along with a grid of criss-crossed string. They grow very quickly, reaching twelve to fifteen feet in a season. In World War 11, in parts of southeast Asia, morning glories were used by the British to camouflage ammunition dumps and gun emplacements because they grew so fast. You can use them to screen unsightly garbage cans or fences or your neighbors yard.

Remember that morning glories don't like rich soil that has been heavily fertilized. Living in New Mexico I already knew they did well in our hot, dry climate with its poor soil. They should do well anywhere they don't get to much water. I add a little compost from my organic compost pile to the area I want to grow the flowers in, but not as much as you would with most flowers, trees, and shrubs. Don't add any fertilizer, either, or you may find you have nice long vines with wonderful leaves but no flowers. The same with watering your morning glories. They prefer low to moderate watering and will rot and die quickly if over watered.

I have never been overly bothered with any kind of insect pest on my morning glories, which is great for us organic gardeners. No spraying, or bug picking. I did have a friend who said she had some problems with powdery mildew in humid weather. I have not encountered this problem.

If you think you want to try growing morning glories but don't want a vine, I have several seed packets for plants in a dwarf or bush style. They are usually pink, blue, or red with a white throat, and are very showy in pots or hanging baskets.

After you have planted your morning glory seeds, sprinkle a packet of portulaca, cosmos, or marigold seed in your flower bed or large container. These annual flowers will add more color and take about the same care and watering. I planted sunflowers with some morning glories. The sunflowers provided support for the vines and the blue and gold mixture of flowers was very colorful at the end of our long hot summer when everything else seemed to have weathered and dried out from the heat.

I'm searching the seed catalogs for new verities and color for this year. Hope you'll try a morning glory garden, too.




Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Rockhounding


    
 
 
 
 
 I guess I've been a rockhounder (is there such a word) since I was born. I guess it was born and bred into me. My granddad, Andy Boyd Green became a prospector when he moved from Texas to Silver City, New Mexico. He had a turquoise mine for a while and I still have a few pieces of the turquoise he got out of his mine and made into jewelry or buttons for my mom. At different times he worked on several different gold mines. Not that he made much doing it. Prospecting is not a 'get rich quick' way of making a living for most people. It is hard work moving dirt and rocks looking for those tiny, little grains of gold, silver or what ever you are looking for. My mom was, also, an avid rock collector. Didn't matter if it was valuable or not as long as it was either pretty or interesting. My dad got into the rock collecting when he and my mom married and they past on this love of rocks to my sisters and I. We, in turn, passed it on to our husbands and our sons.
    Like this poem says other rocks can be just as addicting to collecting as gold can be.
    I have never really looked that much for valuable rocks just the ones I liked. Most of my rock collection has come from New Mexico in the areas of Silver City, in Grant county and in the Jemez Mountains, as well as near my home in Rio Rancho. I have been lucky in finding a lot of crystals, geodes, onyx, Apache tear drops, odd shapes of concretion, fossils, and one of my favorites petrified wood. Not all petrified wood comes from the well known Petrified Forest. Here on our New Mexico deserts we have lots of petrified wood if you know what you are looking for. I have found a couple of small pieces.
   Most of the rocks I have found have been small rocks up to those about the size of my hand. Another words what ever I can pick up and usually put in my pocket. But then there are those huge boulders that I see and really wish I could bring home but there is no way. When I find those kind I just take lots of photos and put memories of the places where I find them in my mind. I remember once on a hike we found a very large lava rock, I would say it was about 5 tons worth, and it was shaped like a giant frog with it's mouth open. Of course I didn't get a photo of that one. I know about where it was in the Jemez Mountains but I have never been able to find it again.
   If you collect rocks eventually you find your self buying a rock tumbler so you can have lots of small polished rocks. I did that a few years ago. Rock tumblers are VERY noisy but the polished rocks are nice. You can fill clear vases with them or give them as gifts.
  I do have a few rocks that I have bought from rock shops. You will find shops that carry almost any kind of rock you could want to buy here in our southwestern states. They are interesting places to explore as you never know what you might find. And usually the one you want is expensive to buy.
   If you do decide to go rock collecting make sure it is legal to pick up rocks where you are. If on private land ASK first. On public land, in our national forests, deserts or such make sure you know what the rules are before you pick up that cute little rock.
  Here is a little poem that I found a copy of in my moms things when I was sorting through them.
Hope you enjoy it as I did.
 
 
 
 
 
Rockhounding



I think that there shall never be

An ignoramus just like me

Who roams the hills throughout the day

To pick up rocks that do not pay

For there's one thing I've been told

I take the rocks and leave the gold



Over the deserts wild or mountains blue

I search for rocks of varied hue

A hundred pounds or more I pack

With blistered feet and aching back

And after this is said and done

I cannot name a single one



I pick up rocks wherever I go

The reason why......I do not know

For rocks are found by fools like me

Where God intended them to be



Author Unknown

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Crystal Clear

This is a short romance story of Crystal who is running from her abusive ex-husband and in desperation has robbed a store so she can feed her daughter. She is caught by a sheriff, but the store doesn't press charges and gives her a job. Just as Crystal is feeling like she might have found a good life after all her ex-husband finds her and kidnapped her 5 year old daughter during a snow storm. Crystal and the sheriff must fight the storm as well as the kidnappers to try to rescue the little girl.






Crystal Clear



1.


The narrow, two-lane road wound and twisted around the mountain making Crystal force her eyes wide open and concentrate hard on her driving skills as she negotiated the difficult and dangerous highway. She suspected that it was a highway that could be bad to drive even in good weather and this snow only made it worse. The headlights of the car showed steep cliffs on the left side of the road and then long abrupt, drops down into the canyon on her right. Row upon row of evergreen trees, draped in a white blanket fell behind her as she drove around the continuous bends and curves of the road. She was positive that there hadn’t been a stretch of road that ran straight for more than a hundred yards in the past twenty miles. Crystal was used to driving in snow, having spent the past two years in Denver, Colorado, where it snowed frequently, but she was worn out, and just plain tired of always having to run and look over her shoulder to see if her ex-husband Tony was there behind her.

The moon shining down on the freshly fallen snow caused everything to be lit up like a scene out of a travelogue or more to Crystal’s way of thinking, from a horror show. Yes, it was pretty, but it also had a surreal feeling to it that was on the verge of being scary. The wet, white stuff was stuck to everything. The road, trees, bushes, and the rocks, and everything else in her sight. There wasn’t a lot, just a couple of inches at most, but it was enough to make driving on the mountain road very difficult, especially in the old Toyota.

Crystal thought about the car. She thought about how she needed an oil change, and new spark plugs, and that was just the beginning of what the car needed. She wondered how long before one of the bald tires blew. Most likely the spare didn’t even have any air in it. And the brakes. They had been squealing a bit when she had to use them going down the steep hills. Would they hold if she really needed them?

And it wasn’t just the car that needed aid. She was wearing her last pair of clean jeans, tee shirt and sweatshirt. She knew Hannah was, too. And the little girl could use a new pair of shoes. Her tennies has seemed a bit tight the past few days. Her daughter was growing so fast, she thought. And her own shoes weren’t even worth mentioning. She was going to have to find a way to wash some clothes as well as finding a way for Hannah and herself to take a bath.

She looked at the dashboard clock and remembered it wasn’t working. Her watch said it was 4:36 AM. She had been driving since early the evening before without a rest except for a brief stop at a rest area once. Soon the slight sliver of moon that glowed down through the snow clouds would be gone and the sun would be making its way up into the sky, to light up another day. That is if it could shine through all the dingy clouds and falling snow. Crystal spared a second’s glance at her daughter, Hannah, who was sleeping peacefully in her safety seat in the backseat of the car. How she loved her daughter. She would do anything to keep her safe and away from Tony.

To her relief the snow stopped falling and slowly the sky turned lighter in the east, the clouds disappearing as the first pink blush of a faint sunrise was seen between two distant mountain peaks. Crystal coached the car up the last winding section of road to the top of the tall mountain they were climbing. Reaching the top Crystal had a quick view of the distant Pine Knot range of mountains. According to her map the Pine Knot mountains were just to the south of a small town called Bear Creek. Crystal hoped that the town would have someplace like a rest area where she could take a break and maybe find a cup of coffee. She let the car begin the steep drop down the switchback that would lead eventually to the small town of Bear Creek, again driving slowly and carefully on the treacherous road

Minutes later she drove around a turn to glimpse several deer standing in the road just as a bright shaft of sunlight broke over a tree-lined cliff, hitting her directly in her eyes with it’s blinding light. Automatically Crystal stepped on the brake. The little Toyota slammed to a stop, only to began sliding off the pavement and into the dirt and gravel shoulder of the road. Crystal’s hands froze to the steering wheel, as she tried to winch it around to get the car back on the road. She was unable to get it to turn back to the pavement but neither did it go any farther than the edge of the road. The car engine had died and the vehicle had stopped so that Crystal had a perfect view of the deep, terrifying snow and rock filled chasm that lay below the road.

“Mommy, Mommy,” wailed the little girl in the back seat. She began to cry softly. “What happened?” she asked.

Hannah’s cries brought Crystal back to her senses. She took several deep breaths and pried her fingers off the steering wheel. Unfastening her seatbelt she twisted around until she could lean over the seat and see that Hannah was all right. “It’s all over now, baby,” she reassured the child. “It’s okay now. There were just some deer in the road. Their gone now. We’re okay.” She was reassuring herself as well as Hannah. Turning back around in the seat, Crystal willed herself to quite shaking as she restarted the car and drove on down the road for a few more miles until she found a small picnic area where she could pull over for a while. By that time Hannah’s tears had stopped and they were out of the worst of the fresh snow that had fallen on top of the high mountains.

“I’m hungry and I need the bathroom,” Hannah was whining.

Hannah had never been a whiner, thought Crystal. She had always been such a sweet, loving child. She was smart, and always wanted to learn new things, she was playful and mischievous, but she never did anything to get in trouble. Crystal realized the trip had been as hard on Hannah as it had been on her, if not harder. The little girl could not understand why she had been jerked out of the calm world she understood into one of traveling day after day, farther and farther from her home. Crystal wondered if she was doing the right thing. Yes, she was sure she was. It had to be the right thing to do. If she could get far from Denver, she and Hannah would be safe again and could start their life over once more. Hannah! She had told Hannah that they would be playing a game from now on. That Hannah would have a new name, as would she. She would use Crystal, a name she had always admired instead of her given name of Chrissi. They had agreed to shorten Hannah’s middle name of Elizabeth to Lizzy. Hannah had thought it was fun, but Crystal was having a hard time remembering to call her daughter Lizzy.

She got out of the car, and let Lizzy out. She put her hands on the small of her back and straightened, bending back enough she could stare up at the early morning sky with now only a few wisps of clouds floating across it. A hawk drifted on the air currents. It screamed once then began a dive that quickly took it out of sight behind a distant mountain. And to think, thought Crystal, that just a few hours earlier the sky had been covered with heavy gray clouds and it had been snowing. It was an amazing change in such a short length of time. Crystal was very glad it had stopped snowing but it was still cool and chilly, so she put on her coat and helped Lizzy put on hers.

“Mommy,” asked Lizzy, “can I use that bathroom. I have to go real bad.”

“Sure, Honey,” answered Crystal. She took Lizzy’s hand and led her to the small public restroom provided for use at the picnic area. Afterward they took a moment to watch several chipmunks scampering around on the rocks and picnic table. Crystal was glad to see Lizzy laugh at the antics of the tiny animals.

They returned to the car, and Crystal searched through a small ice chest and a box of snacks. She was horrified to realize that there were only a few cans of juice, along with a little chunk of cheese, a few crackers, a banana, and an apple. While Lizzy worked her way through the banana, and a part of the cheese, and fed her crackers to the chipmunks, Crystal only had a can of juice. She wanted to save as much as she could for her daughter. But what she wouldn’t give for a good cup of hot coffee.

After their break, Crystal re-installed Lizzy in her carseat and made sure she could reach her favorite toy, a once white teddy bear named Flower, plus her backpack with it’s assortment of books, crayons, paper and a tiny, handheld electronic game designed especially for preschoolers. That done Crystal slid into the drivers seat and opened her purse, pulling out her wallet so she could check through it to see how much money she had left. She knew it wasn’t much, but all she could find were two one-dollar bills. She searched through every compartment and hide out spot in her wallet, and then in her purse. She only came up with and additional seventy-eight cent. This can’t be right, she thought as she searched again. But there wasn’t any more. How was she ever going to able to feed Hannah – ah – Lizzy and put gas in the car?

Crystal sat there for several long minutes, her mind in turmoil, as she went over and over things in her mind. What could she do? Finally she turned the key and the Toyota cranked over. Crystal pulled back onto the road with tears streaming down her face, but she made no sound as she cried as she didn’t want to alarm Hannah-Lizzy, the little girl she loved more than her own life.



Shane Buckner entered the small hometown restaurant, hung his Setson and jacket on the corner coatrack and straddled one of the stools at the counter and yawned.

“Morning, Sheriff,” said the waitress, pouring an aromatic cup of coffee and then setting it in front of the lawman.

“Mornin’, Gail,” said Shane, as he slowly added sugar and then real cream from a small chrome pitcher to his coffee. He was having trouble waking up this morning. He had been called to Frenchy’s Bar to break up a fight at 1:00 AM. He had managed to get a few more hours of sleep from four to six, but it hadn’t been enough. He stifled another yawn.

Gail smiled, and asked, “Rough night?”

“Yeah.”

“We got fresh eggs. How ‘bout a couple with some bacon and hash browns?” She asked. “I heard ‘bout that brawl at Frenchy’s from some construction workers earlier. Guess they were there, too. Must have been some shin-dig?”

“It was,” agreed Shane. “And I’ll take that breakfast.” Another yawn escaped, as he scrubbed his calloused hand across his face and up through his dark brown hair.

“Comin’ right up,” Gail wrote down the order, ripped it off her notepad and handed it through the window to the cook in back. A few minutes later she sat a heaping full plate in front of the sheriff, along with a side plate of toast. She refilled his coffee cup and went to do the same for her other customers. Shane buttered a piece of toast, cut up his eggs and bacon and had eaten about half his meal when the door slammed open.

“Shane, we’ve been robbed!” yelled John Milton. “The store’s been robbed!”

Oh, no, thought Shane. It’s to early for this. He wondered what kind of a stupid person would rob a gift shop at 9:00 AM on a Tuesday morning in April. Instead of voicing his thoughts out loud, he grabbed for his hat and asked, “When?”

John talked quickly as he led the way back outdoors. “Just now. I was just opening the door. Had just put two hundred dollars in the register and opened for business. She just walked in. Said she had a gun, and her pocket was all pointy like she was holding a gun in it, and said she would use it if I didn’t give her all the money.”

“Did you give her the money?”

“Well, yeah, sure I did. All two hundred.”

“What about Marcie?” Shane was asking about John’s wife.

“She was right there, too. She seen it all, too. Same as I did.” The couple, in their late fifties, ran a small gift and floral shop combined with about an acre of nursery plants.

Shane came to a sudden stop. “You said ‘her’. John, was it a woman?”

“That’s right. A woman. Girl really. Had on a baseball cap. Pulled down real low, with a stocking over her face, and a heavy jacket on. But it was a woman. I’m sure of that. Got in an older Toyota car and went west. Only been just a few minutes. Why don’t you see if you can catch her, ‘stead a standin’ there talkin’ ‘bout it?” demanded the storeowner.

Realizing he actually might still be able to catch the thief, Shane ran to the four-wheel-drive Blazer he used as a police cruiser. “You didn’t by chance get the license plate number,” he yelled back at John.

“No,” he called over the noise of the Blazer’s engine starting, “but there was a little girl in the back seat lookin’ out the window. Oh, and it was a dingy, dark blue color.”

Not daring to speculate on the situation, Shane drove swiftly west out of the little town, actually a village, of Bear Creek, and caught the two-lane state road that connected Bear Creek to a series of even smaller towns, until it reached Lewiston, Idaho.

Grabbing the mike off his radio he called in to his office, alerting Trish Neerwood, his deputy and dispatcher. He explained the situation briefly then told Trish to send Carl Mendez, another deputy on patrol duty, east and then south in case the thief had doubled back through town. Trish said she would.

Shane, driving only at the speed limit, was reluctant to turn on his red cop lights or siren yet. Unless he actually caught sight of the blue Toyota there was no need. It had begun to spit a light mixture of snow and rain, and he didn’t want to be the cause of any un-necessary accidents. He knew the light or siren would cause everyone to gawk at him, and the police car, which could cause an accident in the inclement weather. Then he saw a small, dark blue car. At first it was just a dark dot, and could have been any small dark colored car. As he drew closer he could tell it was a Toyota and was hopefully the one he was looking for. He flipped on the lights and siren, the sound filling the air, causing the blue car to speed up. Then surprisingly it began slowing down, and then it turned down an unpaved side road, apparently still attempting to make a get-a-way.


Breath held and heart racing, Crystal stepped down on the gas petal and pushed the little car as fast as it would go, but something seemed to be wrong with it. What now she thought. Why wouldn’t it go any faster? It couldn’t even seem to reach the speed limit. She heard the ear splitting, piercing wail of a police siren. She glanced in her rearview mirror and saw the flashing red lights on top of a Blazer. Again she tromped down on the gas petal and for a moment the car responded with a surge of speed, but just as suddenly it slacked off, it’s speed dropping rapidly. She glanced in her mirror again. The police car was almost upon them. What should she do now? She had done such a stupid thing. She had been desperate, but what should she do now? The car slowed some more. Crystal spotted another road, a mud, and snow covered dirt road, leading north into the trees. Maybe she and Lizzy could hide in the trees. Oh, why had she done such a stupid, stupid thing. 

The little car struggled on for another hundred yards, and then it gave up. It quite completely. Crystal turned the key. The starter whirred, but the motor didn’t respond. She jumped from the car and jerked open the door, and pulled a now thoroughly confused and frightened Lizzy from her carseat, just as the police car came to a fast, sliding stop behind the Toyota. They never had a chance to try to make it to the trees.

“Mommy, what’s wrong? Why does that cop car have it’s light on?” asked Lizzy starting to cry again. Crystal wanted to cry, too, but instead she stood trying to be brave.

“It’s okay, Hannah,” said Crystal, but when she looked up she saw a big man in a tan police uniform standing tautly, legs spread slightly and holding a huge revolver pointed directly at her. He had to be at least six feet tall, and a very solid powerful looking two hundred pounds. He appeared to be hard muscled without an ounce of flab on him. He had a tough angler face with a mustache that almost covered his mouth, a mouth held in a firm straight line, a mouth that probably never smiled. Fiercely intense, dark brown eyes held her pinned beside the car.

“Don’t move!” commanded Shane, and Crystal did as he said. “Now turn loose of the child and put both hands on top of the car. Do it very slowly.”

Shaking with fright Crystal did as he had instructed. Lizzy slid an arm around her mom’s leg and held on tightly. She had jammed her thumb in her mouth and was sucking on it, something she hadn’t done for several years.

Shane advanced until he stood behind the woman. “Don’t move,” he repeated, although she was stiff as a board. He didn’t like the idea, but he knew he would have to search her for weapons. He would have preferred if Trish had been here to do it, but she wasn’t, so he might as well get it over with.

Sliding his pistol into it’s holster, he pulled out a pair of handcuffs, snapped one onto the blonde woman’s right wrist, then brought her hand down, and behind her back, then brought her left hand down beside it. He felt her slim body shudder as he snapped on the other half of the handcuffs.

Crystal bit her lower lip to keep from crying as she bravely faced the county sheriff before her. It was her fault she tried to tell herself. He was only doing his duty, his job. She had been the one who had been dumb enough to think she would get away with robbing a store. What now? What would happen to her and especially to Hannah Elizabeth now? She flinched as he lightly felt of her backside and legs. What was he doing? Then she realized he was searching her for weapons. When he was finished he turned her to face him.

“Don’t hurt my Mommy!” screamed the little girl as Shane continued to search the woman. The child swung a fist at his belly, while still holding to her mothers’ leg. She aimed at him again and this time hit him in the knee. A small tennis-shoe clad foot snaked out and thudded into his ankle. Shane knelt down and took the girl by the shoulders to calm her. He tried to be gentle with her but she began to struggle harder, her long brown braids swinging.

“Leave my daughter alone!” demanded Crystal seeing the cop grasp Lizzy. Even with the handcuffs on Crystal shoved at the big man squatting by the five-year-old, with her knee. Not really expecting her to try anything while handcuffed Shane wasn’t expecting it as she kicked him in the left eye.

“Oh—ch!” He stood quickly. He caught both her wrists with one hand and swung her around to face the car again, while his other hand slid around her waist to hold her still. As wild as her daughter she kicked backwards slamming her heals into his shins, forcing him to pinion her legs with his. “Stop it!” he yelled at the woman and the screaming child that was beating on his buttocks. “Just Stop It!” He took a breath. “I don’t intend to hurt you. Neither of you. Just be still.” As the woman continued to struggle he could feel her womanly shape pressed up against him as he held her between himself and the hard metal of the car. Gradually she gave up, as did little girl. Breathing heavily all three of them stood still for several long moments. Shane knew his eye was starting to swell where she had kicked him. He could feel the woman heaving for air, her chest rising and falling, and could feel the moment that she gave in and collapsed against him. Slowly he released her, although part of him didn’t want to. For just a brief moment he appreciated the feel of her pressed against him.

Crystal didn’t want to give up but knew she had to, but at least she had got one good swift kick in. She hoped she had given him a huge black eye. And that it really hurt. The big cop held her pressed relentlessly between himself and the rigid Toyota. The man’s body felt almost as hard as the metal of the car. His body felt big and tough as if made out of iron. There was no question in her mind that he could hold her there all day if need be, while simply ignoring the crying child that was pounding her small fists on his legs. And for a single second Crystal wondered if he wasn’t enjoying holding her there. Finally, slowly he removed his right arm from around her waist but continued to hold onto her wrists as he again turned her to face him.

“I will not hurt your mom,” he said to Lizzy again. The little girl had given up and now stood with her thumb back in her mouth as she leaned up against her mother with big tears rolling down her face. She was quiet now, not even making any noise as she cried the big wet tears.

Shane put a hand to his left eye and felt it gently. Yes, it was swelling and he was sure it would be a doosie of a black eye. He looked at his prisoner, saw her watching him feel his face and quickly dropped his hand. He hesitated a moment as he got his thoughts in order, then asked. “Where’s the gun?”

Blankly Crystal looked back at him. “What gun?” she asked. Without a hat her hair had come down to frizzle around her neck and was becoming damp from the sprinkle of rain.

The cop sighed. “The gun you used to hold up the gift shop?” Was the woman stupid or what, he wondered.

“Oh,” said Crystal sheepishly. “I don’t have a gun.”

“Then what did you use? A knife?” He hated it when prisoners were evasive like this. “John said you had something in your pocket that you said was a gun.”

“I – I – didn’t. I – I just – wanted him to think I did.”

Tired of the game he demanded harshly, “What was it?”

“A – a – stick,” she said softy.

“A stick!” Shane wondered if she was trying to fool him.

“It – its still in my coat pocket. In the car.” Crystal nodded at the Toyota; she had slipped out of her coat while driving as she was sweating so much from freight after her desperate deed.

Only then did the Sheriff notice that the woman didn’t have a coat on and was beginning to shiver. Although he should have, he thought, he had been able to feel her curves and – and – and everything all to well when he had been trying to subdue her. He almost felt himself blush at the thought. Although why he should at his age and having been a cop as long as he had certainly had him puzzled.

Shane looked into the vehicle and saw a heavy ski jacket, a cap that said ‘Denver’ on it, and the leg out of a pair of panty hose. Picking up the jacket, he felt the pocket. There was something in the right one. He reached a hand in and pulled out a stick. It was about six inches long and as big around as the barrel on his gun. He sighed again, in exasperation, keeping the stick he draped the jacket around Crystal’s shoulders.

Again he took a moment to stare at his prisoner and the child. Finally he asked the girl, “What’s your name?”

“Lizzy,” was the prompt answer, spoken around her thumb. “I’m five years old. What’s your name?”

Crystal had to almost smile at her daughter. Lizzy was still playing the name game as Crystal had told her to, so they could begin their new life. She had never imagined it would be jail for her, and, most likely, a foster home for Hannah – or rather Lizzy.

“Glad to meet you Lizzy. Yeah, you look like a Lizzy. And to answer your question, my name is Sheriff Shane Bucker.”

Lizzy cocked her head to one side. She was calming down some with the simple question and answer game from the Sheriff. “Are you going to arrest us, Sheriff Shane?”

Shane wasn’t sure how to answer the little girl. Yes, he was going to arrest her mother. But how did you tell a small child without getting her more upset than she already was.

Deciding to avoid the question for the moment Shane looked back at the woman. “And yours?”

“Crystal,” she said, although it probably wouldn’t matter what name she used after he finger printed her. “Crystal Madsen.”

“Any ID?”

“In my purse.”

He got her purse and extracted her wallet after finding it buried under several bundles of one dollar bills, some tens, and a large amount of loose change, as well as a roll of quarters. He assumed it was the money she had stolen. In the wallet he found a Colorado drivers license with the woman’s picture on it. Although when it had been taken she had had light brown hair. Now it was a honey blonde. The address was for Denver and the name said Chrissi Marie Smyth.

“You said Crystal Madsen. This says Chrissi Smyth.”

She looked him straight in the eye, and wondered why bother to lie, but her fear of her ex-husband was even greater than her fear of this cop and jail. The police and jail hadn’t kept Tony from finding her in Denver, had they? “Madsen is my maiden name. I just got divorced. I go by Crystal instead of Chrissi.”

The Sheriff hesitated a moment looking deep into her eyes. Crystal was right, her blue eyes were hard as a clear blue crystal stone. As he watched her, her eyes were beginning to shimmer, ready to overflow with tear. Tears she wasn’t allowing herself to cry. Her face was streaked where some of the tears were escaping and running down the narrow, thin face surrounded by a mass of frizzy blonde hair. At the moment it seemed she didn’t look a lot older than her five-year-old daughter. “Crystal Madsen or Chrissi Smyth, I have to inform you that you’re under arrest for robbery and I have to read you your rights.” He proceeded to recite the well-known lines. “Do you understand?”

Crystal nodded. Still handcuffed, Shane took her arm and helped her into the back seat of the Blazer and fastened the seat belt. Going to the other side he started to help Lizzy in beside her mother.

“I want Flower,” said the little girl.

“Flower?” repeated Shane in puzzlement.

“Her teddy bear,” explained Crystal.

Shane looked in the car and found the ragged, white toy bear. He saw a doll, too, and gave them both to Lizzy. Then as an after thought he put the color books, crayons, and a few other toys he saw into the bright red backpack and gave it to the child, now seated by her mother. She had fastened her seat belt herself.

Removing the stitch John had thought was a gun, the piece of pantyhose, and the ball cap as evidence to go along with the purse full of money, Shane placed them all in several large, clear plastic bags. Taking another look at his prisoner, and her daughter, he opened the trunk of the car. Finding two suitcases he took them out and then added them to the cruiser. He knew he would have to find someplace for the child to stay and she would need her things. Getting in the Blazer, Shane called Trish on the radio to let her know he was on his way in. He also asked her to call Bruno’s Garage so the wrecker service could pick up the broke down Toyota. Again he felt his on-coming black eye, as he wondered what he had got himself into. In a moment he had started the Blazer and headed back to town.



2.

On returning to Bear Creek, Sheriff Shane Buckner pulled up and parked in front of the Sheriff’s office and jail. He sat in the drivers seat a moment, deep in thought, while the woman and her daughter waited in the backseat. Shane knew what to do with Crystal Madsen. He would hold her here until he could take her to the county jail in Clearwater. But what about the little girl, Lizzy? He knew eventually she would be placed with a foster family, until a relative or legal guardian could be found. But in the mean time he couldn’t just keep her at the jail. Who could he get to take care of her? He knew it needed to be a woman. He wondered if Trish would do it.

Just as he opened the car door several people ran up. The owners of the store that had been robbed, John and Marcie Milton were the first to speak. “Did you catch her?” they asked together. It was the same question that was on the lips of nearly everyone in the crowd around the truck.

“Did you get our money back?” asked John.

“What about the little girl?” asked Marcie as she tried to peer into the Blazer?

Shane pushed the driver’s seat forward, and helped Lizzy from the police truck and then went around to the passenger side to get Crystal out. She avoided looking at him and almost stumbled. He took a firmer grip on her arm, helping her to stay upright. He could feel her slight trembling, and knew she was afraid. But he thought she should be after what she had done. She had done wrong. She was a criminal. He tried telling himself he didn’t have any sympathy for her, but it didn’t seem to be working.

He directed her into his office with Lizzy, John and Marcie following. John shut the door in the face of the rest of the group of people that were trying to get in with them. “Ain’t none of their business,” he mumbled.

Nodding at a chair, Shane told Crystal to sit while he dropped the plastic bags of evidence on his desk.

Lizzy, still clutching her teddy bear, leaned against her mother. Crystal leaned toward her and whispered to her. “Don’t worry, Hannah. Everything is going to be fine.”

“Well,” demanded the tall, thin, older man with the big white mustache. His face was almost hidden by a large brimmed western hat, like the Sheriffs. “Did you get our money back? And how did you get that shiner of a black eye?”

“Yes,” answered Shane, as he removed his Setson and dropped it beside the evidence. He ran a hand through his dark brown hair messing it up worse than the hat had.

“Well, can I have it back?”

“Not yet,” said Shane.

The older man paced three steps across the room and back. “Well, how can I run the shop?”

“We’ll manage,” said Marcie, patting her husband on the arm. She was a plump, gray-haired woman, motherly but with a determined look about her. “We’ll use the spare change for now. You can make a withdrawal from the bank until Shane says we can have the money back.” Turning to Shane she asked, “May we have a receipt for it, Sheriff? And what happened to your eye?”

Shane smiled at her practical way of looking at the situation. It was just like her. “Of course, Marcie.” He ignored her question about his injured eye. He could tell his vision in it wasn’t what it should have been. It would probably be swelled shut in a few hours.

While Shane hunted for a receipt, Crystal looked around the Sheriff’s office. It was very small compared to what she remembered about the big police station in Denver and the one in San Diego. There was the desk she sat beside that had a nameplate saying Deputy Carl Mendez. There was one other desk and in the far corner sat a woman with headphones on presiding over the dispatchers console, while she watched the prisoner with a disgusted look on her face. Crystal knew the woman didn’t like her.

Crystal noticed that most of the furnishings had an old west look to them, almost like antiques. Wooden desks and chairs, and a railing between the desks like she had seen in old Western movies. There was a high bar-like partition at one end near the door with a row of chairs like the one she sat in under a window. Evidently it was the waiting area. At the back of the room was an office with a large picture window and a glass door to allow the occupants of that small office to watch what was going on in the bigger area that she were sitting in. Printed on the door was the lettering – Deputy Sheriff Shane Buckner. She could see a desk piled with papers surrounding a computer.

Next to the Sheriff’s office was a heavy wooden door with a small barred window set in it. Crystal shuttered as she realized it probably led to the back where the jail cells were. She jerked as a fax machine rang and began spitting out papers. Regardless of the old west look to the place it still had modern equipment in it.

John walked over in front of Crystal. “Young lady, I got just one question for you. Why? Just why did you have to go and rob my store?” He put his hands on his hips and stood towering over her as he glared down at her. Crystal tried to shrink herself smaller, while she looked down at the floor almost hoping it would open up and swallow her, so that she could get away from the overbearing man.

“John, leave her alone. You’re frightening her,” commanded Marcie in a soft but firm tone of voice.

John uttered an oath and walked a few steps away.

“And watch your language. There’s a child present.”

Shane had found the receipt and was making it out, but he listened closely hoping to hear the answer to John’s question. He really wanted to know the answer, too. Crystal certainly didn’t look like anyone he would have suspected of robbing a gift shop or committing any kind of a crime, and usually his instinct was pretty good on things like that.

Still in that same soft voice Marcie asked, too. “Yes, hon, why did you hold us up?”

Crystal looked up at John a moment but couldn’t hold the older man’s stare. She dropped her head to look into the big blue innocent eyes of her daughter. Against her will she answered the question truthfully. “I needed to buy food for my daughter,” she whispered.

Marcie swept across the room to stand by John. “Oh, my. Is that the truth? Did you just need money for food?”

Crystal still wouldn’t let the tears come that threatened to spill from her eyes. She remained stiff and calm. “Yes. I needed the money for food and gas for the car.”

Shane broke in. “Well, that old piece of junk isn’t going anywhere till it’s fixed and now your going to jail. Didn’t you think about what might happen before you robbed John’s shop?”

Crystal shook her head in answer, and a tear managed to leak out of the corner of her left eye.

“What now, Shane?” asked Marcie as she accepted the receipt the Sheriff handed to her.

“Well,” said Shane, “ I’ll keep Ms Madsen here until I can take her to Clearwater where she can be arraigned and held for trial.”

Crystal turned to the lawman, “But – but, what – what about my daughter?”
“I’ll have to take her to Clearwater with you. Then she’ll be turned over to

Child Welfare and put into a foster home, until your relatives can be located and someone assigned as a guardian for her.”

“No!” Crystal cried out, attempting to stand up with her hands still cuffed. “I don’t have any relatives.” Better for Hannah to be in a foster home than maybe end up with Tony or his family.

Shane was surprised at her outburst, as were John and Marcie. “Everyone has relatives of some kind,” commented Marcie.

“Don’t think you’ll have much say in the matter now. Involving your child in the commission of a crime just about guarantees you’ll never have custody of her again.” Shane was appalled that anyone would implicate such a sweet little girl as Lizzy seemed to be in a robbery and all for such a small amount as two hundred dollars. “You ready to make a statement? Since you just confessed to the crime.”

At his words Crystal dropped her head again. Another tear leaked out of her eye and trickled down her cheek, causing her to wipe it away quickly on her shoulder, as her hands were still handcuffed behind her back. How could she tell anyone why she had been running away and why she had taken the chance of robbing the store? The police hadn’t been able to help her before so why should they now?

“Trish,” the lawman turned to his deputy and dispatcher, “can you or anyone you know of take care of this little girl until I get all this paperwork done and I have a chance to take her and Ms Madsen to Clearwater, either this evening or tomorrow.”

“Don’t look at me, Sheriff,” said Trish throwing up her hands. “I don’t know much about kids and besides, I don’t get off duty ‘till late this evening, either.”

“Do you know anyone that could take her for today?” asked Shane. “I hate for her to have to sit around here all day.”

“Don’t know. Let me check around. Maybe my mom – Yes, Carl, I read you.” She continued to talk to Deputy Mendez. It seemed that since the thief had been apprehended he was going to take a coffee break.

Marcie spoke up, “Ummmmm – Shane? It might not be right but – I could take care of the little girl today.”

“Now, Marcie, we have to run the store. You can’t work and watch the child.” John turned to Shane. “Besides wouldn’t it be – well, say, some sort of – of conflict of interest for Marcie to take care of the girl of the woman who robbed us.”

Shane nodded in agreement. “Yeah – it probably would be.”

“I’ve done it before,” said Marcie, referring to the couple of times when she had become an impromptu baby-sitter for Shane. Once in a child neglect case and another time when a couple had been injured in a car accident and needed someone to care for their children while they were both in the hospital. “She certainly doesn’t need to be here.”

“Thanks for the offer, Marcie, but I’ll find someone.” Shane sat down at the desk and began filling out a form. Unconsciously his hand touched his check below his black eye.

“Come on, Hon, we need to get back,” said John as he took his wife’s arm and started to guide her out of the office. At the door she turned back. “Young woman, I have a question. You said you don’t have any relatives. Where do you and your daughter call home? Do you have a job? What kind of work do you do?”

Everyone wondered why Marcie was asking the questions. John spoke up before Crystal could think about answering. “Well, a course she don’t have a job. If she had, she wouldn’t a been robbin’ no gift shop for a piddlin’ little amount like she did.”

Marcie ignored John’s outburst. “Would you satisfy my curiosity and answer my questions, please.”

Crystal knew if she didn’t answer Marcie it would make her even more curious, and she knew the Sheriff would be asking the same things, and she would have to tell him. There was no reason not to. She just didn’t plan on saying anything about Tony.

We used to live in Denver. I’m – well, between jobs right now. There’s none of my family left.”

“That’s what I thought,” said Marcie as she turned to leave.

Oh, no, John thought to himself, as he followed her. He knew only to well Marcie’s habit of adopting strays. Stray kittens, stray puppies, stray kids. Yeah he remembered when he had even been one of her strays, even though that had been a long, long time ago. Yeah, he remembered when he had been going from town to town trying to keep out of trouble, and get a decent job. It has been Marcie’s folks that had held out there hand to him, offering him a job. Next thing he remembered was when he and Marcie got married. The couple went out the door.

Shane began taking information from Crystal. Name – Crystal Madsen. Address – none, phone – none, next of ken – none. He saw Lizzy was still standing by her mother. He realized suddenly just how harried and drawn the woman and her girl looked. It seemed as if this woman had fallen as far as a human being could fall and still try to hold her head up. He thought of how it was to not have a job, a home or family and be pushed to the point that she had committed a crime to try and feed her child. The least he could do was fix her a cup of coffee. He could use one, too. He stood and walked to where a coffee pot sat on a cart, and poured two Styrofoam cups full. Next to the cart was a small refrigerator. He added milk and sugar to one cup. “Ms Madsen, how do you take your coffee?”

Surprised at his generosity Crystal stuttered. “Ah – ah – cream and sugar.” She wondered how she would drink it with her still cuffed behind her back.

Shane fixed the second cup, and then poured another cup full of only milk. Want some milk, Lizzy?”

Lizzy looked at her mom. Crystal nodded. “It’s okay, baby, you can have it,” and the girl grabbed the cup, downed the milk, then looked at the Sheriff.

“More?” he asked, chastising himself for not having offered the kid something to drink sooner.

“Yes, please.”

Shane filled the cup again, and then took the two coffees to the desk. Taking a set of keys from his pocket, he said. “Stand up.” Crystal stood, and to her relief he unlocked the cuffs and dropped them on the desk.

Even though the cuffs hadn’t been tight Crystal couldn’t resist rubbing her wrists and arms. She sat back down, picked up the cup and sipped her coffee while Shane did the same. Lizzy climbed into another chair and sat there clutching her teddy bear.

“Trish,” said Shane. “Please have Carl pick up some hamburgers and fries on his way in. For everyone.”

An hour later, stuffed with a hamburger, fries and a milkshake, Lizzy dozed in her mother’s lap, as Crystal signed the hand written statement she had made.

“Crystal, I have to put you in one of the cells in the back. There’s a couch in my office you can put Lizzy on.” He stood up. “Come on.” For some reason Shane didn’t want to have to lock up Crystal Madsen. It felt like the wrong thing to do, but he knew he must.

With a sigh, Crystal shifted Lizzy in her arms and stood up. She walked to the office and gently laid the sleeping child on the old vinyl-covered couch. She dropped a quick kiss on the top of Lizzy’s head, then allowed Shane to escort her through the heavy barred door. She noticed how the lawman seemed to tower over her. The top of her head barely reached to his shoulder. He exuded power, his taunt muscles pushing at the fabric of his uniform shirt. She caught the faint hit of soap and a spicy aftershave that he must have put on early that morning. He was definitely a he-man type of guy. The narrow passageway forced them to walk close together and Shane’s hand on her arm made it seem even more intimate, until she felt the faint bump against her back of the weapon he wore at his waist. The gun seemed to produce an extra chill into the air. The cement floor made her aware of the whisper of her tennis shoes and the thump of each of the Sheriff’s booted footsteps. She felt as if she was being lead away to a life of doom. She almost laughed. Her life had been doomed from the day she had been born. This was just the culmination.

There were only four small cells, two on each side of a walkway down the center of the room. “Sorry, we’re not really set up for woman prisoners. In fact, we really don’t get many customers at all. Few drunks now and then, is about all.” Shane knew he was trying to cover his nervousness at having to lock up a woman as he opened a cell door, and motioned Crystal in, locking the door behind her. Hurriedly he turned to go back to his office.

Crystal looked around her. The floor was unpainted cement. Block walls had some graffiti, but not a lot. Medal bunkbeds stood on one side of the cell. There was a lumpy mattress but no sheets or blankets. A cracked, stained sink and a commode were on the other side. She noted a full roll of paper towels and another of toilet paper. Crystal was sure Shane had been right when he said the jail wasn’t used much. At least it seemed clean, even if the air did seem a bit stale. Silence surrounded her and she shivered, pulling her jacket close around her. She sank down on the lower bunk, dropped her face into her hands and cried silently, but desperately for a long time.



By the time Lizzy woke Shane had contacted several people about taking her for the afternoon but everyone had turned him down. To make matters worse several things had come up that would keep him from taking Crystal and Lizzy to Clearwater any sooner than the next day sometime. He would have to find a place for Lizzy to stay the night. With no one else to turn to he called Marcie. At least he knew she would be safe and well cared for with the older couple.

“Of course I can take her in for the night. The poor little thing, she must be so frightened,” came Marcie’s disembodied voice over the receiver.

“All right,” said Shane into the phone. “I’ll bring her over to the shop.”

“No need for you to do that, Shane. We’re not real busy. John can handle things long enough for me to run over and get her.”

A few minutes later Marcie picked up Lizzy who still clutched her teddy bear. They left with Marcie promising Lizzy she could see the kittens a stray cat had recently given birth to at the nursery behind the gift shop. Marcie knew it was going to be an upsetting and trying time for the little girl.



Shane was just unlocking his office door the next morning when Marcie and John arrived at the jail with Lizzy. “I hadn’t planned on leaving for a couple of hours,” said Shane, “but I guess she can stay here until then.”

“No, Sheriff, that’s not why we’re here. Lizzy can stay at the store today, but John and I have been talking and we have a proposition for you.” Marcie spoke to the child. “Lizzy, you stay out here for a few minutes while John and I talk to the Sheriff. Okay?”

“Okay, Marcie,” agreed Lizzy and she climbed into the chair her mom had sat in the day before. She stared intently at the deputy at the dispatch desk, who tried to ignore the child.

Shane let the older couple enter his office ahead of him wondering what was going on. He was sure he wasn’t going to like it. Marcie had called him Sheriff instead of his given name and John was way to quiet. “Have a seat.” His friends were beyond doubt up to something.

Marcie and John sat together on the old couch; John with his Setson balanced on his knee. “Shane, this ain’t my idea,” he said.

“But you agreed with me,” said Marcie. “Shane, I really like Lizzy, and I got her to talk to me quite a lot yesterday. Um – Shane? Do you know if Lizzy’s mom ever did anything else that was against the law?”

“She says she hasn’t. I’m running a check on her, but haven’t got anything back yet.” Shane wondered again where the conversation was going.

“I don’t think you will. Lizzy says the same thing. From what she says they have lived in a series of small, cheep apartments and Crystal has had mostly low-pay, go-no-where waitress or cashier jobs. Ah – me and John – oh, - we don’t want to press charges against her for the robbery. Ain’t that right, John? - - John?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” John ducked his head and didn’t look at either his wife or Shane. He sill wasn’t sure if he should go along with Marcie and her wild idea.

Surprised Shane leaned back in his chair. He certainly hadn’t expected this. “Well, it’s not just up to the two of you, now. A crime was committed. Someone could have been hurt. It could have been either of the two of you, or Lizzy or some innocent bystander.”

“Yeah – but no one was, except for you, Shane and your eye, but you’re tough. And the money was all recovered,” now it was John’s turn to try to convince the Sheriff. “And the gun wasn’t really a gun. It was a stick. Right?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Shane hesitated. He wondered again what John and Marcie were up to, and then he guessed. He knew their habit of taking in strays and unwanted kids as well as they did. Heck, wasn’t he one of those stray kids.

“Son, I don’t want to began to tell you your business,” Shane smiled. Marcie had been trying to tell him about how to be a lawman for a long time. Ever since he had decided he wanted to be on. “But, it don’t look like it would do anyone, least of all Lizzy, any good for Crystal to go to jail. Just cost the county and state a lot of money. – now John and I thought if we could take a bad situation and make it good without it costing any money or Crystal having to go to jail, it would be better for all concerned. Don’t you agree, Shane?”

Shane let out a breath he didn’t know he had been holding. “Marcie, you’re not talking me into agreeing to anything until I hear the whole thing. Spit it out.”

Marcie slid forward on her seat next to John, hands on her denim-clad knees. She wore a blue western shirt with the name Wild West flowers on it. John wore basically the same thing. They were in their work cloths, as was Shane in his tan colored Sheriff’s uniform. “All right, here it is. John and I been thinkin’ ‘bout hirin’ someone to help at the store. George is good for watering plants and heavy work, but you know how useless he is at helpin’ the customers. I need someone who can be a cashier and do sales. Who can handle money and maybe help me figure out that new-fangled computer. I thought Crystal might be just the right person. That is if she wants the job.”

Now Shane chuckled. “You want to hire the woman that robbed your store to be a cashier. To count your money?”

“My words exactly, son,” said John, shaking a finger at Shane and Marcie. “What did I tell you, woman.” Now he seemed to be taking the Sheriff’s side.

Marcie turned to her husband. “You agreed with me, you old goat. You know you did.” She turned back to Shane. “Well, will you let me offer her a job?”

Gently Shane tipped his chair forward from its leaning position. How could he explain the situation to the well-meaning couple? “No, Marcie, I can’t. Crystal Madsen did wrong. She committed a crime. She has to stand trail for it. But since she admitted her mistake maybe the judge will go easy on her. I can’t say for sure but I can ask him to.” He hoped that would be enough to satisfy Marcie. But he could tell by the look in her eye that it wasn’t.

She stood up bringing herself up to her full height of all five feet and two inches. “Maybe your right Shane Buckner, but what your doing is wrong, too. She left the office. John stood, put his hat on, shook his head slightly at Shane and followed her out.

Shane stood at the open front door, leaning against the doorframe, watching John and Marcie help Lizzy into their van. Marcie looked back. “Give me a call when you want me to bring Lizzy back over to go to Clearwater.” She buckled the child into the carseat, then turned back to look at the Sheriff again. “Think about it, Shane. Just think about what we offered.” She got into the passenger seat and John drove away.

Shane continued to stand there surveying the main street of Bear Creek. He was responsible for Bear Creek, and the surrounding area. Head Deputy Sheriff assigned here by Sheriff Turner in Clearwater. Shane had worked hard to get the position in his hometown of Bear Creek. After collage he had attended the police academy and then managed to be hired by the county. First a year as a rookie on patrol in Clearwater, and with a few more years under his belt, here he was in Bear Creek where he wanted to be. And all the time with the encouragement of John and Marcie Milton.

Bear Creek was a small village set on the edge of the mountains named after a slashing, sparkling creek that ran through the middle of the town. Shane had heard the legend of how a prospector had found gold in the creek but had been chased off by a big bear and had never been able to kind the gold again. The old prospector had appropriately named the creek Bear Creek and the town had sprung up around it. It was springtime and it was surprisingly warm today after that bit of cool rain yesterday. Back then, a hundred years ago, Bear Creek had begun as a booming mining town that had gone bust in just a short time. The miners had left but several ranchers and some small farmers had discovered the beautiful little valley set in the Pine Knot Mountains and kept the little village going. Now it was basically a ranching community, but the past few years the tourist had began discovering it.

There were several cars and pickups parked up and down the short street where a few years ago there would have only been one or two. Shane noticed several groups of sightseers ambling along the sidewalks, talking and laughing as they shopped in the several gift shops that popped up along the main thoroughfares in the past few years. He saw one group enter the Wild West Gift Shop. John and Marcie could use the business.

Wintertime actually saw more tourist come to Bear Creek. A couple of businessmen had bought out part of the Harper Ranch and built the Thundercloud Ski Resort. It was small, as ski resorts went, but Shane understood it was making a profit. It brought more money into the town, too. There were several new motels out on the edges of the town, as well as some new gas stations, café’s, and one new bar and lounge. But those kind of businesses brought more crime, too, making Shane’s job harder.

It was springtime now and it was surprisingly warm today after that bit of cool rain yesterday. The sky was bright blue with only a couple of wispy clouds still hanging around. The air smelled fresh with just a hint of a breeze, bringing the faint odors of the lilacs that were just beginning to bloom and the smell of fresh baked bread and pastries from Gail’s Café and Bakery where Shane liked to eat.

The Sheriff thought back to the first time he had seen Bear Creek. He had been fourteen, hitch-hiking his way across the country, picking up an odd job here and there, just enough to be able to eat. A typical run-a-way, only no body cared that he had left home. He barely remembered his mother. She had died in a car wreck when he was six. At thirteen he had taken all the beatings he was going to take from his abusive father. He hit the road and never looked back. Some how he had wound up here in Bear Creek, Idaho, panhandling on Main Street. He had been hungry, trying to beg or steal enough for a hamburger when he was a woman overseeing the loading of bags of feed into the back of her pickup at the feed store. Figuring her for a soft touch he approached her.

Hey, lady, you got a dollar?” he had asked not quite making it a belligerent demand. He stared at her seeing a slightly dumpy woman, in ranch clothes, somewhere in her late thirties. Yeah, she had better be afraid of him, he had thought, or no tellin’ what he might decide to do.

She had looked him over as he stood there in his ragged tee shirt and jeans, and wore out tennis shoes. “Sure,” she said.

He had thought to himself that he was getting to be real good at picking the right people to ask for money. It wasn’t such a bad life after all.

Then she had continued in her soft even voice. “But would you mind giving these guys a hand, first? You know you really should work for your money.”

Most of the street kids Shane had met wouldn’t work for the handouts they received and Shane had become almost as bad, even having picked a pocket a time or two when he couldn’t get money any other way. Something about the way she spoke to him and said he needed to work for his pay caused him to blush inwardly and be ashamed of himself for what he had become. He and the woman looked each other straight in the eye. He realized hers were smiling, wanting him to make the right decision. And he did. He nodded and picked up a bag of feed and heaved it into the back of the pickup.

Afterward she had given him not just one dollar but five and as he thanked her and turned to leave she had startled him by asking a question no one else had ever asked. “Need a job?”

Somehow Shane had found himself working on the Milton Ranch, living in their home, and going back to school. He had never seen or heard from his father since he had left home, nor did he care to. The Melton’s had become his family. John and Marcie had talked to the courts and become his legal guardians through a foster family program. At first Shane had found everything about actually being part of a real family very strange but after a few months he found he liked it. There was an older son, Brett, and a daughter, who were already in high school when Shane moved in. They readily accepted him as a younger brother.

He owed everything he was to John and Marcie. They had pulled him off the streets, given him a home, and straightened him out as far as what was right and what was wrong. They had helped him through college, and stood by him in his course of a career. Shane was sure if they hadn’t taken him in he would have ended up in prison or worse.

Shane returned to his office, his thought going back to his problem of Crystal Madsen. He remembered the look in her eyes. Beautiful, deep, clear blue eyes. Like the crystals she had been named for. But he also remembered how miserably lost and alone her eyes had looked. He remembered the shine of her hair. How it framed her oval-shaped face. How she had stood proud and tall, but forlorn and dejected, as he arrested her. And he remembered the sad eyes of a small child that knew she was loosing her mom. Shane had made it a point of not going back into the cell area after he had locked Crystal in hers. Somehow he hadn’t wanted to see the woman he had arrested. Hadn’t wanted to see how alone and abandoned she had looked when he had left her.

Now he picked up the report he had filled out about the robbery, read them through, then shuffled them as he thought some more about Crystal and Lizzy. He thought about John and Marcie and about himself and the job he had sworn to uphold here in the town of Bear Creek and county of Clearwater. He sighed, leaned back in his old, creaky chair, closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead trying to figure out what was his best course of action. He knew what his mind said was the right thing to do, but deep in his heart was another answer to the problem.

The chair came back down with a thud when he realized that he had not faxed the report to Sheriff Turner in Clearwater yet. He picked up the papers and started for the fax machine in the other room. Then he stopped. Hesitated. Turned back. He could fax them later. He dropped the papers into the basket on top of his desk. He would think about the situation a bit longer.

Oh, Hell, he thought. Why not. Marcie and John had made this same decision once, why shouldn’t he. He headed for the jail cells in the back. He was going to offer Crystal Madsen a choice. A job or jail.



3.

It was Sunday and the combination gift shop-nursery that made up the Wild West Shop was closed. Crystal stood in the laundry room of the ranch house washing clothes, drying and folding them. Over the past several weeks Crystal Madsen’s life had changed tremendously. She had been just as shocked when Sheriff Buckner had told her of the job offer by the Milton’s as she had been when she had realized she was being arrested for robbery.

She had been given another chance.

Of course the job and new life had come with lots of conditions. She was on probation. Not a normal probation overseen by a judge, but one regulated by sheriff Buckner and her new employers. Crystal knew if she set one foot out of line by even so much as one inch she would go back to jail, or at the least be taking a chance on having Hannah – er – Lizzy taken away from her. But Crystal had no wish to do anything to jeopardize her new life. She thought it was a far better life than she had ever experienced before.

She had a job, a place to live, and most importantly she had her daughter, and it seemed very, very doubtful that her ex-husband Tony could find her here in Bear Creek. Certainly he would never expect her to be in such an out of the way place. Tony would consider this as a hick town out in the sticks, where Crystal would never go. To Tony’s way of looking at things the city was the only place to live.

She poured laundry soap into the washer, then added a load of hers and Lizzy’s clothes. She considered her job as she sorted a pile of Lizzy’s small socks. It was hard work at the gift shop and a new experience but she was learning to enjoy it. She had never worked with plants before and she was amazed at how many different kinds there were. So many, many different plants, some for houseplants and some for landscaping yards. And then there were all the fruit trees. Each small tree so beautifully decorated with white, or pink spring flowers that would turn into fruit later on. Since it was spring it seemed everyone was wanting to start gardens and wanting bedding plants like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cabbage and squash. And then there were the racks and racks of packages of seeds. A big part of her job was to continually replace the packages of seeds as they were selling so quickly.

Even Marcie was planting a garden out back of the nursery. She had shown Crystal and Lizzy how to turn the ground, working in fresh compost and fertilizer. She had shown them how to plant the different kinds of vegetable seeds, along with a lot of flower seeds. When all danger of any more freezing nights seemed to be gone they had planted the baby starter plants. It had been new and surprising to Crystal. She found she really enjoyed the art of planting and raising all the different kinds of plants. It had been like being shown a new world that she hadn’t know had existed before. It was so amazing and still was a bit mind boggling that a new living little plant could come from each and every seed.

Marcie had turned over one small area to Lizzy so the little girl could grow her very own garden. Lizzy worked diligently at the project. Planting, watering, pulling weeds, even talking to the young plants, and having to show everyone each seedling as it came up. She seemed especially anxious to show them to Sheriff Buckner each time he stopped by.

To Crystal it seemed that Lizzy wanted to prove to him that everything was going well and that she and her mom weren’t planning on getting into anymore trouble with the law. Crystal wasn’t sure just how much Lizzy understood about the whole situation, but she had certainly been on her very best behavior lately.

To Crystal her new job seemed like a dream come true, even knowing that the Melton’s and the Sheriff were watching every move she made. Although she worked hard and still had a lot to learn, her pay was better than she felt she had any right to expect. Especially considering the Milton’s were letting her stay at their home until she could afford an apartment in Bear Creek. They had given her a bedroom in the basement, moving in a cot for Lizzy.

She had felt a little strange when she had learned it was the same room that had been Shane’s when he was a boy. Marcie had told her that the two bedrooms in the basement, and the joining bathroom, had been used by Shane, and her son, Brett, when the boys were in high school. Later it had been a get-away for the boys when they would come home for the weekends.

One last pink sock matched to its mate and Crystal piled the socks and Lizzy’s other clothes into a clothesbasket. She stepped from the laundry room to the kitchen and went down the stairs to the basement bedroom where she put the clothes in the proper dresser drawers.

As she put away the clothes she thought of how each evening, when the shop closed, she and Lizzy and the Milton’s drove to the Milton Ranch a few miles south of Bear Creek. John helped Marcie at the store but preferred working on the small ranch. As much of the time as he could he would leave the shop to return to finish some task or chore at the ranch. He told her several times how he was glad she was helping Marcie now so he could work at the ranch. Although claiming to be simi-retired he kept a small herd of Hereford cows, and to Lizzy’s delight there were five horses, as well as several dogs and numerous cats.

Crystal had been dismayed when the Sheriff came out to the ranch several times a week just as he also dropped into the store as often as possible. At first she had thought it was because of her, until she learned that he had lived there as a teenager and came to help John with the work. At first Crystal had dreaded each of the visits to the store or the ranch by Shane. As soon as he would arrive, even if see didn’t actually see him, her pulse would race and she would start searching her mind for anything she might have done that he would consider wrong, even though she knew there hadn’t been anything he could accuse her of.

Then, without realizing it, she began looking forward to Shane’s visits. She wouldn’t admit she was drawn to the lawman. He was good looking, in a rugged sort of way. At age thirty, there was just the beginning of crows’ feet around his eyes, and his face was tanned from years in the sun. Clean-shaven, except for his mustache, he always seemed to have a shadow of a beard by the end of the day. She guessed him to be an easy six feet tall, and about one hundred eighty pounds. His hair was a dark brown, with just a hint of waviness to it with one lock continually falling down over his forehead. He frequently made an unconscious gesture to brush that fallen lock back up where he wanted it to stay. His eyes were a matching deep, rich brown, and Crystal felt as if he could see and feel her every thought each time he looked at her. But then he would smile and laugh, and it was as if a ray of sunshine had suddenly appeared on a rainy day. It was easy to see that Lizzy liked him, but it was a wonder to Crystal since her daughter had never been close to any of the men she had known in her few short years. She had been seemingly terrified of her father and grandfather from the day of her birth. It had been the same toward any other man she had met. Now she treated Shane and John as if they were old friends. You would have thought they had always been part of her family.

Yes, Crystal admitted to herself, it was like a family. A real family. The kind of family you read about in storybooks. Her and Lizzy, John and Marcie, and Shane. And there were other new friends. There was Shane’s deputies Trish and Carl, plus other people in the town, like Gail at the café. Today John and Marcie were awaiting the arrival of their oldest son and his wife and their two small children for a visit.

Returning to the laundry room, she picked up a basket loaded with wet sheets and headed outdoors. Marcie had insisted she hang them outside on the clothesline. She said that the sheets smelled better that way. Crystal would never have hung anything outside in the big city where she had lived. If she had and it wasn’t stolen, it would have smelled of pollution and car exhaust and she would have had to rewash them.

She looked around her as she hung the sheets, again amazed at the spring breeze, blue skies, the sight of newborn, white-faced calves learning to play in the far pasture. A colorful red rooster flew to a fencepost and crowed, telling the world he was ‘king’. “You stay away from these sheets,” commanded Crystal to the bird, as she put the last clothespin in place.

The sound of a vehicle coming down the gravel driveway and then the slamming of car doors caught her attention. She walked around the house to meet them. She was a bit nervous about meeting them but John and Marcie had told Lizzy about Dawn, their granddaughter, who was Lizzy’s age. Crystal hoped the children could be friends. She knew Lizzy needed more children her own age to play with. But she was leery, too. Would the parents want their child playing with the child of a woman who had robbed a store? Crystal knew that the Milton’s had spread a story around town that the so-called robbery had really been just a misunderstanding, and most of the towns people seemed to have excepted it, as John and Marcie were well liked by everyone. But Crystal thought that maybe they would have told their son the truth.

The car had stopped in front of the house. Car doors opened and a man and woman got out to greet Marcie and John. Talking baby-talk nonsense Marcie took her grandson out of his carseat. The baby cooed, waved his arms, and tried to grab his grandma’s nose and glasses. A small girl pulled at her grandma’s skirt as she prattled about what she had been doing at preschool.

John watched Marcie and the children fondly, then when the girl ran to him, he picked her up and gave her a big hug.

Lizzy came out of the front door of the house where she had been watching TV. She quickly went to her mom, leaned against Crystal and watched shyly as the new little girl was hugged and tickled by her grandpa. Crystal could feel Lizzy’s nervousness. She felt as shy as her daughter acted.

Seeing Crystal and Lizzy, Marcie called them over and made introductions. The tall, blonde man, looking so much like John, was Brett, and the pretty, petite dark-haired woman with him was his wife, Kaitlin. The children were four-year-old Dawn, and six-month-old Logan.

John took Brett off to show him the new calves, and within minutes Dawn and Lizzy were playing and on they’re way to becoming fast friends. Relived Crystal watched as they ran off to play on a swing set under a huge tree in the back yard.

See,” said Marcie, as she, Crystal and Kaitlin drank ice tea, while sitting in lawn chairs around a small white, wood table near the kitchen door. It gave the two young women a clear view of their two daughters playing nearby. The spring day had become very warm and the women all had on short-sleeved shirts and skirts, while the girls had on tank tops and shorts. “Didn’t I tell you they’d hit if off.” The two girls sat in the grass playing with Wiggles, the black and white kitten that Crystal had allowed Lizzy to adopt. The kitten seemed delighted at the extra attention, chasing a ball one minute, and then laying limp in the arms of one or the other girl as it was lugged or hauled around.

Yes, Mom, you were right as usual,” said Kaitlin, as she set Logan on a blanket she had spread on the thick, green lawn. The baby promptly rolled onto his belly, raised up on his hands and knees and rocked back and forth. “He’s just thinking about crawling,” bragged Kaitlin.

They grow up so fast,” said Crystal, thinking of when Lizzy had been a baby. She was glad Marcie had been right about the girls. Brett and Kaitlin hadn’t said anything about her big mistake of robbing the store. If they knew the truth they weren’t making a big deal out of it. In fact Kaitlin seemed extremely shy and quiet, but you could tell she loved her family and in-laws very much.

It was about that time when the big Chevy Blazer with the county seal and Sheriff written on the side pulled up. As usual Crystal’s heart did a flip-flop and her blood seemed to run cold and then heat up to the point her face felt flushed. Why she felt that way every time she saw Shane she wasn’t sure but she hoped no one noticed. Was it fear of the Sheriff or was it something else?

Lizzy and Dawn raced to the vehicle with shouts of “Sheriff Buckner,” and “Uncle Shane,” respectively. Today Shane was wearing ordinary civilian clothes that consisted of jeans, western shirt and boots, instead of his sheriff’s uniform. Crystal thought he didn’t even look or seem like a lawman when he was dressed in his ‘cowboy’ clothes as Lizzy called them.

Shane gave Dawn a big hug while Lizzy hung back. Next he turned his attention to his nephew for a moment, finally giving Kaitlin a peck on the cheek.

What’s this,” he said as the kitten reached up with its front feet, and then climbed up to his blue-jean clad knee where it hung tightly. Shane disentangled its claws and it meowed at him before it began to purr as he stoked its soft fur. Crystal couldn’t help noticing how his well-muscled thighs pushed against the tight denim material and how small the kitten seemed in his big, strong hands. He was differently well built. He reminded her of pictures of lumbermen, or – well a cowboy or a horseman with those big wide shoulders that narrowed to the flat belly, narrow waist and slim hips. In a sense she guessed he was a cowboy. At least when he worked on the ranch.

Lizzy had watched Shane with her kitten. Finally she said, “He’s mine,” and held out her short arms for the cat.

Shane handed it down to the girl. “Well, he sure is a fine kitten. You take good care of him, Lizzy.”

Oh, I will,” she assured him. She hugged the kitten to her, letting its hind legs dangle but it didn’t seem to mind.

She named him Wiggles, Uncle Shane. That’s a strange name,” said Dawn.

Shane tipped his hat up so his dancing brown eyes weren’t shaded. “Wiggles? Why, I kind a like it. Seems to me all kittens do a lot of wiggling. And so do little girls.” With that he reached out and tickled each child briefly, causing them to get a case of the giggles.

Shane walked to the table, where the women sat, and took a seat.

Ice tea?” asked Marcie. Without waiting for an answer she poured a glass from the frosted pitcher and handed it to him.

Thanks,” he replied.

Brett and Dad are down at the pasture admiring the calves,” commented Kaitlin.

Don’t blame ‘em,” said Shane. “John’s got a good looking bunch this spring.” He turned to Crystal. “Good to see you Crystal. Glad you let Lizzy have the kitten. All kids need a pet.”

We never lived where we could have one before. I never had any pets before either, so Lizzy and I are learning together. So far he’s been lots of fun for both of us.” Crystal glanced down at her hands, unable to hold his gaze. She was still always afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. Had it been wrong to admit she had never had a pet? Animals were everywhere here on the ranch and at the store. It seemed as if pets were a big part of life for everyone in Bear Creek. Everyone she met had a dog or cat or both. What would he think of her now that she had confessed she had been lacking in the pet department. Quickly she added. “Things are diffidently different here and in Bear Creek compared to where we lived in the city.”

Where did you live before?” asked Kaitlin.

Mostly Denver,” answered Crystal, wanting to avoid the subject. She had said the wrong thing again. Now Kaitlin was asking questions. “I really like it here a lot better.”

That’s good,” said Marcie as she stood up. “Cause we like having you here, and hope you plan to stay.”

I hope I can,” said Crystal with such a fierce determination that Shane looked at her thoughtfully. “I hope to stay as long as I can.”

I think I’ll go in and see what we might fix for this hungry bunch of hooligan’s for lunch,” commented Marcie as she entered the backdoor.

Kaitlin picked up Logan. “Young man, I’ll bet your hungry, too.” She nestled the baby on her hip and followed Marcie.

Shane and Crystal sat in companionable silence for a few minutes watching Lizzy and Dawn play. For once Crystal didn’t feel as if she had to be so careful about everything she did or said. For once she forgot to be anything but herself. Shane thought he might get to like this Crystal. She didn’t seem quite as lost and vulnerable now as when they had first met. Mentally he shook his head at the thought of that first meeting. He still wondered how he had let Marcie talk him into letting her have a job at the Wild West Gift Shop. He must have been crazy. “Do you really like it here?” he asked.

Yes,” answered Crystal without even thinking about how to answer. “Like I said, it’s so different. There’s no smog, or pollution, or noise. That’s the best things. You can breathe and hear yourself think. You can almost hear the grass and trees grow.” Crystal laughed. “I guess I’m really getting into this nurseryman thing. I always feel like I’ve really accomplished something at the shop when I’ve been able to help someone pick out the perfect plant for his or her home or the perfect tree for their yard. Slinging hash as a waitress or working as a cashier in Wal-Mart just wasn’t the same.”

I think I understand what you’re saying. I always wanted to be a cop, I guess, but being a cop in the city is a lot different from here. I had to work long and hard for the promotion to deputy sheriff of Bear Creek, but it was worth it. I still have my boss Sheriff Turner in Clearwater that I have to report to, but most of the time I’m on my own to take care of things as I see fit.” Now why did I say that, thought Shane thinking of how he had made the decision to let Crystal go.

Crystal looked deep into the dark eyes that were looking into her blue ones. “Is that why you didn’t hold me for the robbery?”

Part of it. I realized it was your first real step into crime, and I remembered back to when the Milton’s had taken me in and give me a second chance. I hadn’t actually robbed a store but I had stolen food in stores and once some guys’ wallet. I still feel guilty about it. And, like you, I was tired, hungry and desperate each time. The Milton’s showed me a better way.”

Marcie told me about you.”

Shane smiled. “I’m sure she did, and Kaitlin was another of her ‘strays’.”

Oh?”

Yeah. Kaitlin had it pretty rough, too, as a kid, same as I did, and – as I would imagine you did. That’s why I decided to give you another chance. Marcie’s never been wrong yet.”

Tears pooled in Crystals eyes, but she didn’t want to cry. “Thank you,” she said softly. She wondered how she would ever be able to thank all these wonderful people for all their help. She jerked as Shane stood and his hand fell gently on her shoulder. She felt an incredibly breathtaking warmth run from the Sheriff’s hand to surround her. Surely it had been her imagination.

Come on. Let’s go get some lunch.”


Later that evening Brett and his family left to drive back to there home in Lewiston. Crystal had finally persuaded a very tired Lizzy it was time for bed, where she fell asleep almost instantly clutching both Flower, her teddy bear and an equally tired Wiggles, the kitten. Needing a breath of fresh air before going to bed herself Crystal stepped out onto the back porch. She could hear the faint whisper of voices from the living room where Shane, Marcie and John were. She stood a moment staring up at the almost full moon and the multitude of stars that twinkled across the sky.

A slight breeze ruffled the forgotten sheets on the clothesline. In the dark they looked like friendly ghosts waving to her. With a sigh Crystal retrieved a basket from the laundry room. It wouldn’t take but a few minutes to take down the sheets, fold them, and put them away. Better to do it now than in the morning when she would be getting ready for work. She popped the first few clothespins of the line and dropped them in the bottom of the basket. She reached for the next ones.

Let me help,” said Shane from right beside her.

Surprised, Crystal dropped several clothespins. Both she and Shane bent over to pick them up and bumped heads. Shane caught her arms and helped her keep from falling as they both laughed. “You all right?” he asked.

Yes. I guess so. You’ve got a hard head,” said Crystal as she rubbed her own head.

Seems I’ve been told that before, and I think you’ve got one, too.” Shane messaged his own head.

A bit embarrassed Crystal drug a sheet off the line. One at each end, she and Shane proceeded to fold each sheet in half, then in quarters, and then end to end until each sheet was a small, neat white square in the basket ready to be put in the linen closet. When they had finished Crystal stood hands on hips and looked up at the sky again.

That’s another thing the city doesn’t have. Stars. They’re so beautiful.”

Oh, their there. In the city. You just can’t see them because of all those manmade artificial lights. Stars are differently better to look at. I remember missing them when I lived in the city. From here it feels as if you can see out into space for a million miles or so.” Shane held out his hand. “How about a walk?”

Crystal took his hand and they walked slowly down the path that led to the barn. On such a warm night the horses had been left out in the corral next to the barn. One nickered at their approach, and leaned his head over the fence. Shane reached out and petted the big, bay nose.

Hi, Duke, how you doin’, big guy?” Earlier that day Shane had taken the time to saddle one of the older mares and let Lizzy and Dawn take turns riding her.

Crystal timidly reached up to pet the big horse, too. She had been afraid of them when first introduced by Marcie. Like most children, she had wanted one as a small child, but life for her hadn’t included a cat or dog, let alone a horse, so she had been very unsure of herself around them at first. She was still hesitant with the horses, but was proud of the way Lizzy had taken to them. The little girl was getting better with her riding every time she rode. Crystal had overheard John telling Marcie he was looking far a gentle pony to buy so that Lizzy and Dawn could have something more their own size to ride.

How about a ride?” asked Shane breaking into her thoughts.

Now? Tonight?”

Shane laughed. “Well we could, but I know your tired and we both have to get up early to go to work tomorrow, - so – how about tomorrow evening, before dark?”

Crystal continued to pet the horse. “All right.” She wasn’t sure if she really wanted to. She had ridden once when John had helped her, but she knew she still had a lot to learn. She wondered if Shane realized she didn’t know very much about horses and riding. She tried to think of some excuse to get out of going riding with him, but nothing came to mind. “I have to look after Lizzy.” It was a flimsy excuse but she had tried.

Oh, I’m sure Marcie would like after her for an hour or so,” countered Shane. It was exactly what he had expected her to say. It seemed to him she did everything she could to avoid him. He had been surprised when she had let him help her fold the sheets.

And why, he asked himself, had he even offered to take her riding. He knew she didn’t know how to ride. Why did he want to take a city woman riding? Or anywhere else for that matter. Yeah, she had been avoiding him but he had been avoiding her, too. Or at least he had thought he was. But hadn’t he made a point of checking up on her at the store and here on the ranch? He certainly didn’t have to check on her that often. Not two or three times a week. Why had he been doing it? It couldn’t be because he enjoyed being near her, could it? Well, he had made the offer of the horseback ride. He would just have live with it if she accepted.

Still Crystal hesitated to answer. Why would the Sheriff want to take her riding? Was he looking for some flimsy reason to haul her off to jail again? Surely that couldn’t be the reason. So why? Surely he couldn’t really want just be with her, couldn’t enjoy her company. Was he maybe trying to make a casual date with her? Was she fixing to accept? Did she want to accept? Should she except? Or would it just get her into more trouble? Crystal had spent the last several years staying away form men. She hadn’t dated, hadn’t dared too. After her experiences with Tony she had been afraid of men. Besides she hadn’t risked staying put in any one place long enough to meet anyone before. Was she staying to long in Bear Creek? She knew she didn’t have any choice but to stay. Not with the law watching her this closely.

Unconsciously Shane reached out and ran his hand behind her neck, letting it nestle in her hair as he gently stroked her neck. Today he was discovering that he really liked her and liked to be with her. He wondered what she would think if he told her that he liked her. At least she hadn’t drawn away from his touch. She tipped her face up just as his mouth came down and his lips claimed hers in a long, but soft kiss. Shane felt has if he were a teenager experiencing his first kiss again. It was heady, and exhilarating. Finally he pulled away. Neither of them said anything as they gazed at each other for another long moment.

Crystal took a deep breath trying to bring her thought under control. She was sure she had never experienced a kiss like that before. This one had taken her breath away and left her stunned. It had caused a flash of heat to run up and down her spine, and she was sure that she was blushing. She had a thought that she was glad it was dark and Shane couldn’t she her red face.

“Uh – I guess – uh – we better call it a night,” whispered Shane, still in awe of what had happened. He hadn’t known he was going to kiss Crystal. Hadn’t planned or expected it. But he was glad he had.

“I guess so.” Crystal, too, was unsure of what to think. Shane’s kiss had been soft, warm and reassuring, as well as making her head spin. And it had been so long since she had been kissed. As she thought of it she couldn’t remember ever being kissed like this before. So tantalizingly, so sensuous. The kiss had made her feel like a real woman; instead of the plaything Tony had always made her feel like. She took another deep breath and let it out slowly. Don’t rush into anything she thought. Don’t ever rush into anything again. Remember Tony. Remember Tony.

As all the confusing thought raced through her mind she and Shane walked back to the house where they parted. Now it seemed as if they were both embarrassed by the handholding, the kiss, and the upcoming date for the horseback ride. Now they made it a point not to touch each other.

“Good night,” said Shane gruffly as he quickly got into his truck, started it and pulled away.

“Night,” whispered Crystal, as she watched. She lifted a hand briefly in a sort of wave and wondered if he had even seen it. She couldn’t see any sign of him looking back at her at all. He certainly had no reason too.

Crystal lay for a long time while many wild and crazy thoughts whirled through her mind. Could she be falling for this tall, handsome lawman? Of course not. It had only been one kiss. She had to admit, she liked him, but she had to remember Lizzy. Hannah Elizabeth. Her daughter was what was important right now. Keeping Lizzy safe and away from Tony. Letting her grow up happy. That had to be Crystal’s priority for now. She kept telling herself she had to remember Tony and everything that had happened to her before she had come to Bear Creek. She was sure that her experiences with Tony were more in the way that life was normally. Love stories and that storybook ending were far storybooks and not for her. And surely lawmen didn’t make for storybook endings. Lawmen were just as hard, cruel, and ruthless as Tony had been. Shane probably was too. Remember how he had been the day he had arrested her. He had been all lawman that day. There had been nothing soft or reassuring about him then. So how could he have seemed that way tonight?

Maybe her mind had just been playing tricks on her. Maybe it had just been the spring air, the moon and the stars that had made her want to think of romance. Maybe it would be best if she forgot about romance and remembered her mission in life was just to take care of Lizzy. If she did her job right with Lizzy then maybe Lizzy would know a good life when she was grown. That had to be Crystal’s priority for now.

She listened to the soft sounds of her daughter on the cot next to her bed. She could hear the tiny breaths, the sound of bedclothes rustling as Lizzy turned over. The sound of the faint rumble of the purring kitten. Sweet sounds, perfect sounds. Never mind about Sheriff Shane Buckner and romance. Only Lizzy was important. Only Lizzy. Finally Crystal dozed off.


Shane too had trouble sleeping. His thoughts on Crystal Madsen. She was a pretty woman. Although he didn’t think she knew or realized it. He remembered her soft, long, honey blonde hair, and her clear blue eyes. Her pert little nose, and that sweet mouth just made for kissing. But he couldn’t help remembering she had robbed the store. Did he want to get involved with someone who had committed a crime, even if she had been desperate to feed her child? Even if he had decided to give her another chance. Plus Shane had a feeling there was something else. Something Crystal wasn’t telling him. Something she was hiding. She wouldn’t talk about her life in Denver. She had mentioned San Diego once, too, but had been even more vague about that. Was she running from something, someone, some crime she had committed there? He wanted to know what she was running from.



4.
Spring slipped into summer and without realizing it Crystal and Lizzy became part of the population of the town of Bear Creek. Crystal worked hard at the Wild West Flower and Garden Shop right alongside of Marcie and John. She learned more and more about plants and horticulture, finding it satisfying and rewarding. In her previous life she would have never considered working in a nursery. Now she discovered it was almost as if she had been missing a vital link to like itself. She began to realize just how important plants and trees were to the world and to herself.

Lizzy was thrilled to be able to eat carrots, radishes and tomatoes from her little garden. Before she had refused to eat raw vegetables and not very many even if they were cooked. Crystal was amazed to find they actually did taste better than those from the grocery store.

This day a Mrs. Hodgens had spent a long time picking out some houseplants. Crystal had been very patient with her indecisive customer and was now taking a well-deserved break. She took a walk back through the nursery to the garden checking for other customers she might help and wondering where Lizzy had wondered off to. It had been so generous of Marcie to let her bring her daughter to work with her. So far Lizzy had been very well behaved. She never bothered the customers or Crystal when she was working. The little girl seemed to find many quiet, unobtrusive ways to amuse herself. It was yet another plus in they’re new life here in Bear Creek

Marcie didn’t have a garden at her house. She depended on the one she raised at the nursery to supply most of the fruits and vegetables that were eaten at home. Not only did they get to eat what they raised, the garden at the nursery provided a place for the customers to see what could be raised easily in the Bear Creek area. Marcie’s garden was known far and wide as a masterpiece of art. Do to her and John’s care it always looked perfect. No weed would ever dare set foot in it. The garden had a large verity of plants in it. Tomatoes, corn, turnips, carrots, peas, beans, cabbage, and squash. In addition there was a berry garden where one could find not only strawberries, but blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and huckleberries. Surrounding the garden John had planted several dwarf fruit trees. Crystal was looking forward to when the cherries, peaches and apples would be ready. But right now it was the strawberries that were producing the best. Each day they would pick several handfuls. Marcie had told everyone that morning to please try not to indulge, as she wanted to save the strawberries to make a pie for the potluck dinner and dance that evening. Now Crystal had just found Lizzy and Sheriff Buckner picking berries.

Lizzy, you shouldn’t be picking those,” chided Crystal. “Marcie wanted to make a strawberry pie for the potluck tonight.”

O-tt – o,” said the little girl looking as if she might start crying. Her fingers and mouth were stained with strawberry juice and there was a juice stain across her bright pink tee shirt. Crystal also noticed that Lizzy’s white shorts had dirt on them from where she had been sitting on the ground. How had she gotten so dirty today? But then her own clothes, the typical jeans and tee with Wild West Gift Shop on it, weren’t all that clean.

My fault,” spoke up Shane. “It was my idea to try them.” He reached down and picked a large, juicy berry from where it had been hiding under several big, green leaves. He held it out to Crystal. “Try one.”

Crystal noticed the sparkle in his eyes and the slight red smear at the corner of his mouth. He reminded her of any other boy caught red-handed doing something he knew he wasn’t supposed to do. And Shane knew better. He was the Sheriff.

Come on,” he offered the berry again. “One won’t hurt. Then we can pick the rest for that pie.”

Crystal couldn’t resist either. She took the succulent fruit and bit into it. Juice squirted in her mouth and ran down her chin. She smiled as the taste of the berry was better than she had expected, even if it was messy. She pulled a tissue from her apron pocket to wipe at the juice.

Here, let me,” Shane took the tissue and cleaned her check where the juice had spurted. His warm fingers lightly brushed her check, causing a flush to rise to her face. It seemed he let them linger much longer than necessary before handing the tissue back to Crystal. “Are you going to the dance tonight?” he asked in a husky voice.

I – I guess so,” she answered with a catch in her voice too.

The little community of Bear Creek seemed to like to hold dances at the high school, picnics in the park, arts and crafts bazaars at the churches and anything else that could be thought of as often as possible. It seemed there was always something going on.

Well, then you and Lizzy better promise to save me a dance,” he teased.

Lizzy, hearing her name, chimed in, “I don’t know how to dance.”

And your how old?” asked Shane looking down at the charismatic child.

Five,” said Lizzy solemnly. “I’m almost six, and I get to go to school this fall.”

Five, almost six. I can’t believe your almost six and don’t know how to dance. Well, I guess I’ll just have to teach you. That is if it’s all right with your mom.” He turned to Crystal.

Oh, Mom, can I? Can Sheriff Shane teach me to dance?” Lizzy said excitedly jumping up and down and pulling at Crystal’s elbow.

I guess so, honey. If he really wants to.”

Shane tipped his hat back and hooked his thumbs in his belt loops, on his uniform pants. “It would be my pleasure, ma-am, to escort you two ladies to the dance, and teach Lizzy how to dance,” he said affecting more of a western drawl than he normally had. “But first I think we need to find a bucket and pick the rest of these strawberries for Marcie.”

Unsure of what to wear, Crystal had consulted with first Marcie and then with Trish and Gail only to discover that just about anything went at the local dances except formal wear. Trish and Gail had both told her that they would be wearing the typical jeans and western shirts. It seemed to almost be a standard uniform for everyone in the area, weather they actually lived and worked on a ranch or not. Marcie said she was going to wear a denim skirt and white lace blouse that she was fond of.

Jeans and a shirt was what Crystal had planned on wearing until she had decided to do some window shopping at a small dress shop down the street from the nursery. She had made another new friend at the dress shop, and came away with a new dress. She decided it would be perfect for the dance.

She studied herself in the mirror for a minute after dressing. The dress was perfect. It was a blue chambray shirtdress with just a small amount of turquoise and white flowers embroidered on the collar and scattered randomly about on the skirt. Hose and sturdy white sandals completed the outfit. Her fresh washed, honey blonde hair had decided to behave its self and waved down around her shoulders, as she had wanted. She had put on just a touch of makeup and lipstick, with a light caress of perfume. She hadn’t wanted to overdo. But then she never did. Makeup and perfume were luxuries she had never been able to afford, nor had she ever wanted to use them very much. But something wasn’t right.

She couldn’t put her finger on it, but for some reason she didn’t look quite right. She stared at her face harder and then saw what it was. Her checks weren’t drawn as thin and tight as she had always remembered them to be. And the dark circles that had always underlined her eyes were gone. When had it happened? When had they disappeared? Not that she wasn’t glad that they had. She had always hated the pinched face look that she had always seen every time she had looked in a mirror. She had always thought she looked as sad and lonely as she felt. Now that look was gone. She realized she had gained that extra five pounds her thin body had needed and her eyes looked brighter. It hadn’t taken much, but it was just enough to give her a little bit more self-confidence. It was a great feeling.

Turning with a whirl of her skirt Crystal headed upstairs where she knew Shane was waiting.


Shane seemed to agree with her choice of clothes as he whistled and grinned when he saw her. Her touch of self-confidence was showing as well, and he liked everything he saw. He almost wished they were going on a more private date instead of a family outing. “You sure do look nice, Crystal. You’re gonna be the envy of every woman there, and all the guys are gonna get in a fight to see who gets to dance with you. Then I won’t get to ‘cause I’ll have to play cop and break up the fights,” he teased.

Crystal found herself giggling at his joke, and felt like a silly schoolgirl on her first date. “You don’t look so bad yourself, Sheriff.” She couldn’t help but admire Shane in his black denim jeans and a fancy gray western shirt. Thankfully there was no tan uniform tonight.

Lizzy skipped into the living room from the den where she had been playing and Shane took a moment to admire her as well. She really was a cute kid. She had on a pink dress with buttons down the front in the shape of kittens. Her long hair, the same shade of blonde as her moms, was pulled into two ponytails, one on each side of her head. And she was barefoot.

That sure is a cute dress you got on, Lizzy. I thought your mom was going to be the prettiest gal at the dance but I guess I was wrong. I think you just might take the cake after all.”

Lizzy looked at him suspiciously, placed her little hands on her hips, took a step back, and finally spoke. “What do you mean I’m gonna take the cake. I not going to take any bodies cake.”

Crystal and Shane burst out laughing. “When I say you’re going to take the cake, it means you should get a prize for being the cutest girl at the dance,” Shane explained.

Oh,” said Lizzy. “Then I’ll take a cake as my prize.”

Okay, Lizzy. We’ll go to the dance and if you’re the cutest girl there I’ll get you a cake. Deal?” Shane stuck you his hand.

Lizzy grabbed his hand and shook it. “Deal,” she agreed.

Noticing her bare feet Shane said, “But you won’t win no cake if you don’t put some shoes on.”

Crystal sighed in exasperation. “Elizabeth, where are your shoes and that pair of white tights I told you to put on? Come on lets find them.” She turned to Shane, suddenly afraid of what he might think because Lizzy wasn’t ready. She remembered how Tony had always thrown a fit if she and Hannah weren’t ready to go when he thought they should be. “I’m sorry I thought we were ready. I’ll have her shoes on in a minute.”

Her nervousness became obvious to Shane. “Hey, it’s no problem. We got plenty of time. Relax. I’ll help you find her shoes.” He wondered what had happened to upset her, and hoped it wasn’t something he had done or said. Sometimes it seemed just the least little thing could cause Crystal to close up, take on a hard but fragile look, as well as take on that expression that said ‘I know I did wrong but please I’ll do anything to make up for it’. Yes, Shane realized that she was still concerned about having robbed the store, but that had been several months ago. It had been a mistake, but he thought she had more than made up for it by taking good care of Lizzy, working hard at her job, and helping Marcie at the ranch. Maybe it would help if she could get her own place to live in. Maybe she felt to obligated to the Milton’s since she was living in their house. He would talk to them about it, and start looking for a cheep place for her to move into.



Soon the lost shoes had been found and reinstalled on Lizzy’s feet, and the three-some headed for the potluck and dance in Shane’s pickup. They had arrived just as it was starting. Marcie and John had gotten there earlier and had set out her strawberry pie as well as a pot of chili beans and the platter of raw vegetable and dip that Crystal had contributed. Of course the veggies had come from the garden at the nursery. Shane had seen to it they each had a plate full of fried chicken, the chili beans, corn on the cob, and several different casseroles. They topped it off with a piece of chocolate cake and, of course, a slice of strawberry pie.

Stuffed with all the good food Crystal watched while Shane took Lizzy to the dance floor, and attempted to dance with her, He bent over and Lizzy stretched up as far as she could. Then she tried standing on his toes, and when that still didn’t work, Shane held her in his arms and whirled her around to a fast polka, which had Lizzy laughing in enchantment.

Crystal saw John and Marcie on the dance floor along with others she knew like Trish and Carl, Shane’s’ deputies, plus lots of customers from the nursery.

When the dance ended, Lizzy ran up to her mom and grabbed her hand. “Mom, that was fun, but now it’s your turn. Shane wants to dance with you now.”

Shane stood in front of her, one hand held out in an invitation. Shyly Crystal took it and let him lead her to the dance floor where the musicians had just started a slow waltz.

You dance well, “ said Shane, his hand on her waist. He could tell she was nervous and wanted to put her at ease. “Almost as well as Lizzy,” he teased which caused her to giggle softly. He liked to hear her make the soft giggle; it was such a pleasing sound. He enjoyed dancing with her, enjoyed holding her in his arms. Her dress showed off her slim figure to full advantage. The blue color being the perfect accent for her blue eyes. Deep, dark, wondering eyes tonight. Eyes that he felt like he could look at forever. Eyes that he decided were mesmerizing him.

At the end of the dance, Crystal took a second to study him. It had been so delightful, so wonderful dancing and being held by him. She wondered if he had enjoyed it as much as she had. “Thank you, sir. I enjoyed the dance, and you dance very well, too. Almost as much as Lizzy.” Her teasing caused him to chuckle. It was true thought Crystal. He did dance well, much better than she did. Even in his heavy cowboy boots he had moved easily and lightly. She hoped they would dance again before the night ended.

As if reading her thought he took her back into his arms and moved back onto the dance floor as another dance started. This time it was a faster paced dance and soon she was laughing and gasping for breath but having so much fun.

After another dance he returned her to their table and asked Marcie to dance. He followed that with a dance with Trish and then Gail from the café. First John, and then Carl pulled Crystal onto the dance floor, and then she lost sight of Shane. She wondered where he went as she danced with an older rancher who was a frequent customer at the store. Between dances she was drawn into various conversations about a large verity of subjects including politics, recipes, the weather, cattle and horses and the other local gossip of Bear Creek. Everyone seemed to want to meet her, and find out her opinions about everything.

A couple of hours later Crystal settled a sleepy Lizzy in a special room set aside with cots, and blankets for tired children and presided over by a couple of grandmas and a few teenage girls. As she returned to the auditorium someone touched her arm and spoke her name. She turned to see Shane standing beside her.

I wouldn’t mind another dance with such a pretty lady,” he said. “If she’d care to join me.”

Crystal smiled up at him. “How can I refuse a compliment like that?”

Shane took her hand and lead Crystal onto the dance floor as a slow waltz began. He held her lightly but firmly one hand at her waist the other continuing to hold her hand. He looked deep into her blue eyes and her into his brown ones as they drifted slowly around the room to the sound of the music. Neither seemed to notice the crowd of laughing, noisy people dancing around them. They were totally absorbed in each other. Shane was aware of the subtle perfume that Crystal wore, of the flutter of pulse in her wrist as he held it, and the warmth of her back where his palm pressed against her. Unthinking he pulled her closer.

Crystal was, also, well aware of the pressure of Shane’s hand on her back, of his nearness, of the slight tough of his long legs against hers. She smelled his powerful masculine sent mixed with a hint of cologne. For a moment it made her weak in the knees, and she thought once that she really should get away from him. But she couldn’t back up from him. Couldn’t just pull away and leave. As if he could since her thoughts held her a bit tighter. He wouldn’t let her go, and she really didn’t want to.

The dance ended, and another began, and then another, but Shane and Crystal didn’t notice. They just kept dancing. With a soft sigh, Crystal closed her eyes and laid her forehead gently on Shane’s shoulder. He dropped a kiss into her hair and then sought out her mouth for a quick kiss, trying to remember that they were still on the dance floor with people everywhere around them. Then the music stopped and the magic spell was broken.

As they pulled apart and started walking over to where John and Marcie sat, neither of them noticed the short, scruffy, little man watching them futilely as he grabbed a plateful of left over food and then backed into a darkened corner to eat it and continue watching the room.

It was while they were carrying an exhausted Lizzy and empty pie tins and other things out to the trucks that Crystal thought she caught sight of someone she knew. It wasn’t anyone from Bear Creek, she was sure. He just didn’t act like a local. Then her heart stopped and her blood ran cold. No! It couldn’t have been. Eddie had been one of Tony’s friends. What would he be doing here? Taking a deep breath Crystal shook her head. Common since told her it had just been some stranger who reminded her of Eddie. Eddie would never have left San Diego. There was no since in getting upset. Bear Creek certainly wasn’t any place Tony or Eddie would ever be caught in. Surely they had given up looking for her by now.


5.
The well-dressed young woman entered the Wild West shop and looked around appraisingly. She took another few steps and picked up a hand blown glass vase to examine it. Then put it back in its spot on the shelf.

Marcie looked up from where she was going over some inventory lists. “May I help you?” City woman, she thought, a tourist. Had to be a tourist. She was wearing high heels, stockings, a sleeveless pink sundress, a little bit too much makeup, especially that bright red lipstick, and the perfectly coffered hair. It all pointed to tourist. And if she didn’t miss her guess, thought Marcie, that blonde color wasn’t natural, either. It was a very, very pale blonde, but with dark roots showing.

“No – ah – just looking,” the woman finally answered. Her heels click-clacked on the tile floor as she slowly circled the room stopping to look at several displays. She watched as Crystal came from the back carrying a large bucket of cut flowers, opened the door to a flower cooler and placed the new flowers in their proper containers in the cooler. Roses, carnations, gladiolas, baby’s breath, and ivy. “Hi,” said Crystal, noticing the woman watching her. “Need some flowers? These just arrived. Their nice and fresh and there are some lovely colors.”

“Um – yes – I guess I do,” she pointed at the flowers. “Some of those pink carnations and some baby’s breath, and two of those red roses.”

Crystal selected the requested flowers adding a string of green ivy leaves. “I’ll wrap them at the counter. Do you need a vase?” She went to the counter where Marcie worked on her papers with the customer following.

“No – no vase,” said the woman. She seemed nervous and unsure of herself. She shivered slight and ran her hands over the goose bumps on her arms.

“You need a sweater with that little bit of a dress,” commented Marcie. “You never know with these September days. One day can be warm and the next cold. It can even change from hour to hour.”

“So I’m finding out,” said the woman. “I’ve got a sweater in my car.”

Crystal had reached under the counter and pulled out a sheet of pre-cut green tissue paper. She laid the flowers on it and wrapped the stems, allowing the flower heads room to stick out, then slipped a rubber ban on the bottom to help hold them together. “Anything else,” she asked.

Lizzy ran into the store, running up to Crystal and hugging her around the waist. “Hi, Mom.”

Crystal ruffled her daughter’s hair. “Hi sweetheart. How was school?”

Lizzy dropped her backpack on the counter. “Fine. I made pictures for you and Marcie.”

“I’ll look at them in a minute.”

“Okay.”

“Oh, what a cute little girl. Ah – no. That’s all. Just the flowers,” said the woman in answer to Crystal’s question. She continued to stare at Lizzy.

“Thank you. She’s my daughter. She just started school And so far she like it.” Crystal moved to the cash register and rang up the purchase, then accepted the required amount of money and returned the woman her change. With a last look at Lizzy the woman left the store at a fast walk.

“Strange one,” said Marcie returning to her work.

“Yes, she was, but she looked kind of familiar,” said Crystal. She saw that Lizzy was already getting out a stack of drawings to show to her and Marcie. “How about a snack, Lizzy? Marcie do you want a soda or something?”

“Naw – or – maybe. Anyway I don’t think she’s from around here, and I know just about everyone that lives in Bear Creek. Probably just a tourist. Yes I would like a soda.”

A shiver shook Crystal slightly.

“A ghost walk over your grave?” asked Marcie, quoting the old saying. “Or was it a goose?”

“I guess so,” said Crystal as she turned to follow Lizzy to the back. She hoped the customer had really just been a tourist, and that she wouldn’t be back. She wasn’t sure she would like that woman.

“Can I have a sandwich? I’m hungry,” asked Lizzy.


“Well?” Tony blurted out the question as soon as Georgie entered the motel room. “Did you see her? Did you find the bitch?”

The blonde dropped the flowers on the bed. “Yeah, yeah. I saw her. Her and the kid.” She opened a suitcase and yanked out a sweater and pulled it on. “Old biddy, tryin’ to tell me what to do,” she muttered.

“What did you say?” asked Tony.

“Nothin’ to concern you.”

“Everything concerns me. Especially if it concerns that ex-bitch-wife of mine.”

“What’s wrong, Georgie? You cold?” asked Eddie from where he sat by the TV. “Not like San Diego, here, is it? See, Tony, I told you I saw the bitch, and your kid, at that dance. Here in this berg. Would you believe that?”

“No, it’s sure not San Diego,” agreed Georgie, “and I’ll sure be glad when we can leave. How ‘bout it, Tony? Let’s go on somewhere else. At least a bigger city. This place is a drag. Don’t even have cable.” She entered the small kitchenette, and returned with a large, water filled, plastic soda cup from a local fast food place. She gently placed the flowers in it attempting to make an arrangement. She pulled out one of the red roses and stuck it back in another spot in the container, only to have it fall back to its original place. With a shrug she placed it on a dresser.

“What the hell’s with them things?” asked Eddie. “You know I’m allergic to flowers. Throw ‘em out.”

“No way. I bought them. They’re mine. They stay.”

“Then it was really her?” asked Tony again.

“Yeah, it was her. Like in the pictures. Only she’s dyed her hair and let it grow out.”

“Yeah, like someone else I could name,” growled Eddie.

“ I heard that,” said Georgie and threw a TV Guide magazine at him, catching him on the arm.

“Ouch! Georgie! Watch what your doin’.” He threw the book back at her.

“I am watchin’, you asshole. I’m watchin’ you act like your same idiot self.”

“That’s enough,” commanded Tony. “Quit acting like a couple of half-wits. Which you are. Is she workin’ at that place.”

“Yeah, she waited on me. The kid came in from school, while I was there.”

“School. My kid’s already old enough to go to school? And I ain’t even got to know her yet,” said Tony. “Well, well. Maybe that’s a good thing. Might be the break we been lookin’ for. I knew that was her. Even with that new hair do, and them sunglasses. Good old Chrissi. Tryin’ to hide out in this hick town and I found her anyway.” He laughed sardonically.

“When we leavin’, Tony?” begged Georgie. She walked over to the stocky built man and sat on the arm of his chair. She ran a hand through his short, straight black hair. “I can’t take much more of this place.”

“We ain’t leavin’,” said Tony, pulling Georgie into his lap. “This is as good a place as any to lay low for a while. ‘Sides. That bitch is gonna pay. She put me in jail. She’s got to pay for that.” He made a fist with one hand and struck the palm of the other, making Georgie jump up. “And the kid. She’s my kid. I want her back.” He stood up and paced the floor. “That bitch can’t take my kid.”

Georgie pouted. “But Tony, what you want with a kid. She wouldn’t be nothin’ but trouble. We don’t need no kid to be havin’ to take care of.”

“That’s right, Tony. Georgie’s right. We don’t need no kid around,” put in Eddie. “ She don’t even like you, Tony. Or she didn’t last time you say her. Don’t figure its changed none.” He stood, turned on the TV and flipped through the channels coming to rest on a talk show.

“She’ll learn,” said Tony. “She’ll learn to like me.” He went to the window, pulled back the closed curtain and looked out. “She’ll learn, if I have to beat in into her.”

Georgie sidled up to him. “I like you, Tony. I like you real well. Especially when you start talkin’ real mean like that. Why don’t you and me do some more of that talkin’ in the other room?” She reached up and planted a wet, slobbery kiss in his ear. “Come on with me, honey?” She took his hand and led him into the adjoining room.

“Sh – it,” muttered Eddie, as he turned the TV up louder.




6.

A light rain had fallen all day the day before, and part of the night. Now the sun was coming up to shine on a new day. It was shining brightly, causing each drop of water, on each green grass blade to sparkle with a brilliance only nature could produce. All seemed silent as Crystal and Shane rode down the trail. It seemed to be an unearthly silence. Why it should be so deadly quiet was both bizarre and unwarranted. Only in nature, through Crystal, only in earth’s natural environment where the encroachment of man had not been allowed to happen, to feel as if she was the first person to ever set foot in this location. Only here, on an Idaho mountain, at the break of a new day, after a delivery of new life from the previous days rain. Crystal could not believe the quiet, the solitude, the privacy, isolation and seclusion she felt here this morning. But yet she knew there was life all around her. Life in a different since than she, a woman always surrounded by buildings, noise and humanity had ever known. She was amazed to realize she wanted to know more. Much more. Her training at the nursery had opened a new door for her. Here in the forest was a chance to really get to know and understand the great out-of-doors.

The quiet and Crystals’ inner musings were broken when she heard the scream of a pair of blue jays announcing their presence to the forest. Then she could hear the dull thud of the horses’ hooves on the damp leaf and pine needle covered ground. From somewhere came the chatter of a squirrel.

Crystal sat loosely but firmly in the saddle, held the reins in her left hand and ran her right hand down to pet the gray mare’s neck. After she had got over her initial fear of the large animals she had quickly learned to ride.

She and Shane had hauled the two horses to the end of the paved road high in the mountains in John’s stock trailer pulled behind Shane’s pickup. They had saddled the horse and began their ride along this dirt road that lead farther and higher into the mountains.

Crystal took a deep breath of the fresh-washed mountain air. It was cool and invigorating. For one of the few times in her life, Crystal felt completely at ease, but at the same time she felt full of energy, vibrating with the perception that she was glad to be alive. Was it the nature and the mountains that did it, or the newfound ability to ride the huge animal under her? Or was it the fact that Shane was there with her. Could it be a combination of everything?

She noticed a cluster of purple asters still blooming, even though fall was rapidly pushing summer into the past and winter would soon be her. The leaves on the aspens had turned to gold and each time the wind touched them a handful would drift down to cover the ground. At the moment they hung, absolutely still, as no breath of air stirred. Here and there a drop of rainwater slid down a leaf or pine needle to finally land on the ground.

Crystal sat deeper in the saddle and pulled lightly on the reins to stop her horse by one small pine tree. A cluster of needles each held a large raindrop on its’ tip. Crystal stared into one, and it reflected her face back at her like a mirror. Over her refection’s shoulder she could see Shane’s face, as he, too, had stopped to admire Crystal as she delighted in the tree and the forest.

Crystal turned and looked deep into Shane’s chocolate brown eyes. She smiled and let out a pent-up breathy sigh. She knew in her heart it was going to be a wonderfully beautiful day.

Shane smiled in return, more than glad that he had persuaded her to come with him for a weekends outing. “Come on. We have a long ways to go yet.” He lifted Duke’s reins and the big bay horse walked on.

Clucking softly to Lavender, the dapple gray mare she rode, Crystal followed. She patted the muscled shoulder and thought about what Marcie had said. She had named her mare Lavender after the herb. The sent of lavender was supposed to have a relaxing, calming effect on people. Marcie said that horses could have the same effect on us if we would let them. Crystal was beginning to think she might be right. The two big, well-trained animals exuded a strength and serenity that they silently communicated to Crystal and Shane. Lavender dropped her head, snatched a mouthful of grass from beside the trail and followed after Duke.

Shane and Crystal rode farther and farther into the rough, rock and boulder sewn mountains, crossing several huge meadows, and winding through hills covered in trees. They ate lunch by a small lake, where a family of ducks swam over to get a handout of breadcrumbs.

It was mid-afternoon when Shane pulled Duke up at the edge of a stand of aspen. Crystal halted Lavender beside him. She looked across another meadow and saw an old cabin on the far side. “Who lives way out here?” she asked.

We can for tonight, if you want,” answered Shane.

Oh,” said Crystal in a small voice. “I thought we were camping out.” When Shane had suggested the trip, Crystal had felt some alarm and apprehension. What would it be like, camping all alone, with this big, handsome man? Should she tempt fate that way. She had to admit she was attracted to him, and he seemed attracted to her. But did she really want it to go any farther? Did he? Now the same worries came back to mind. A cabin could make the evening even more intimate. Was she ready for that?

Well, if you really want, we can camp out, but the ground can sure get hard and cold before morning. Me, I think I’d rather have a warm fire in a woodstove and a soft bed with a roof over my head.” He clucked to the horse and stared across the meadow.

As Crystal followed, she had to agree. When Lizzy had heard about camping she had wanted to try it, so Marcie had initiated Crystal and Lizzy into the adventurous pastime. They had donned backpacks and hiked about a half mile past the pasture where John’s cows were to a pretty spot by the river. Marcie had showed them how to build a fire, fish for their supper with willow poles, using just a hook and line attached to the pole. They learned to clean, cook and eat what they had caught. Lizzy had actually caught a fish. She had been so excited at being able to sleep under the stars she had hardly slept at all. So the three of them had sat up very late listening to the night sounds. They had heard an owl hooting and a coyote howling, as well as other small night animals rustling in the surrounding bushes. They had even told some not-to-scary ghost stories.

As they approached the cabin, Crystal thought it had a strange shape. It was long, but not very wide. As they got closer, she realized it had a rounded roof, but then someone had added a slightly peaked, second roof from aluminum sheeting. It certainly wasn’t what Crystal would have thought of as a romantic get-a-way cabin.

They splashed across a creek and rode to one end of the cabin. A small porch extended out about six feet from the door with short railings around it. Shane and Crystal dismounted, tied the horses to the rail and stepped onto the porch. Shane had pulled a flashlight from the pack behind his saddle. “Some fool left the door open,” he muttered, when he saw that the door was ajar. He pushed it farther open, and stepped through. “Guess I better check it our first for any unwanted guests.”

Oh, dear. Do you really think there might be someone here?” asked Crystal. She had a quick thought of some kind of crazy, mad man or even a murderer holed up here.

Shane did have his pistol at his waist as he normally did, but he didn’t even pull it our as he grinned back at her. “Yeah, like skunks, or maybe a bear,” he said as he entered the cabin. He was making light of the situation, but he knew that wild animals could and would use an open cabin if they got a chance, but it was usually just mice, or chipmunks, or birds.

Crystal stood at the door and pecked into the darkened enterer. She heard Shane’s footsteps as he advanced from one area to another, the flashlight beam flickering over and under the musty smelling furniture, walls, and windows. In just moments Shane was back. He laid the flashlight on a small end table, picked up a coal oil lantern and shook it. There was a sloshing sound. He got a match from a box on the table, struck it, and lit the lantern. After adjusting the wick he hung it from a hook on the wall. He jerked open the curtains covering a series of small windows.

It looks like an old train car,” exclaimed Crystal as she got her first decent look.

It sure is,” said Shane. “Come take a look. Uh – no bears hiding under the beds, or none that I could find.”

Crystal had forgotten about the chance of wildlife guests, and was excitedly investigating the converted train car. The entrance way was like a living room, with an old sofa, the end table, a rocking chair and in one corner a modern free standing round wood stove. Along the wall dividing this room from the next was a bar with cabinets under it and a large mirror above it. An elegantly carved wooden frame surrounded it, and the design had been continued around all the windows, the doorframe and anywhere a curly-que could be added. There was a bookcase filled with old paperback books and magazines. Crystal thumbed through them catching a date – 1973 – over twenty-five years ago. In some ways it remembered her of the fancy train cars seen on some of the old western movies.

A long hall ran down one side of the car with more small windows. Two doors opened into small bedrooms, each with two bunkbeds, a small closet and built-in cupboards.

Who does it belong to?”

Belongs to Roy Hutchins. He owns a ranch near here. His dad, or maybe it was his granddad; had this old car hauled in here, back in the 1920’s. Made it into a hunting cabin for himself and his guests. Roy lets me use it, now and again.”

At the other end of the train car was a tiny dining room. There was a cheap Formica-top table and chairs set and a lovely old wooden desk with a drop-leaf front. On top of it was an antique radio that that wouldn’t work since there was no electricity.

In the last room was a kitchen. There were cupboards and an old sink with a curtained front. There was what Crystal took to be the original wooden icebox with a more modern but still old refrigeration beside it. A small apartment style electric range under one window.

Was there electricity all the way out here?”

No,” explained Shane. “But there is a generator on the back porch, but I won’t start it for just one night. We’re roughing it, remember,” he laughed. As he reached to take her in his arm there was a strange, rattling noise, and a low growl, followed by a chattering noise.

Ouch!” gasped Shane as the noise filled the tiny, cramped kitchen. Shane pushed Crystal out of the way as an angry and frightened porcupine emerged from under the sink, the curtain catching on the animal’s spine covered back,

It stomped it’s small front feet, squealed, chattered, and growled, as it lashed it’s tail, and threatened the two people that it took to be intruders to it’s home.

Crystal had backed as far as she could into the one small corner and managed to scramble up onto the kitchen stove. She was trembling in abject terror at the hostile wild animal. She had refrained from actually screaming at the sight of the creature but burst out in a shrill voice. “Aren’t you going to kill it? Shoot it. You’ve got to do something.”

No. Crystal calm down,” he told her over the growls of the animal. “I’m not going to kill it.” Shane reached a long arm over the cornered porcupine and slowly opened the back door. Seeing a way out the porcupine wattled out and down the steps leaving a trail of quills. The last they saw of it, it was disappearing into the trees. Crystal hoped she had seen the last of it.

And don’t come back,” commented Shane after the unwelcome guest, as he looked down at this leg. From the calf to the ankle of his left leg was a collection of several dozen porcupine quills.

Oh, Shane. Your leg.” Crystal scrambled off the stove, concern for Shane written all over her face. “Wh – what do we do about your leg?”

Quickly searching through several drawers, Shane found a pair of pliers and a small first aide kit. Handing them to Crystal he hobbled to a dining room chair. Crystal laid the pliers and first aide kit on the table, unsure of what to do. Shane took the pliers and began removing the quills in his pants leg.

Crystal could tell it was difficult for him to do, especially when he tried to reach the back of his leg. “Let me,” she said and reached for the tool. “I may be a city girl, but I think I can help.”
Shane let her take the pliers and she began the tedious job. There were tiny short quills and long ones. Light in color, but dark tipped with a tiny, fishhook-like barb on the end where they had entered the material that made pulling them out more difficult. Many had barely penetrated the heavy denim jeans that Shane wore. His boot had stopped a lot from entering the skin, but a dozen or so had gone deeper, causing Shane to wince, groan and cuss as Crystal pulled them out.

Finally all the quills were in a small pile on the table. Crystal helped Shane ease his boot off and roll his pants’ leg up high enough they could see the actual damage. There was a series of small wounds dotting his lower leg, many with a streak of blood running from them.

Directed by Shane, Crystal got the canteen from her saddle, and used a bandana from her pack to wash Shane’s leg. Opening the first aide kit, she found alcohol, gauze pads, and iodine. Again she cleaned the small wounds, this time with cotton soaked in the alcohol, causing Shane almost as much pain as pulling the quills had been. Next she dabbed iodine on each one, again causing him to sputter and curse.

“Be still,” she commanded. “I know it hurts, but your making me get this stuff everywhere but where you need it.” The iodine was streaking his leg an orangish-red.

“Well, hurry up. That stuff burns like fire.” It wasn’t just the iodine that was burning Shane’s skin. Every time Crystal’s fingers touched his leg a different kind of fire went through him. He looked down into her earnest face as she knelt at his side, and doctored his leg. She was so intent she was biting her lower lip. “It’s not worth it,” he whispered as he reached a finger and caressed her jaw and lips.

She jerked at his touch. “Wh –wha – t?”

“It’s not worth you biting your lip like that. It’s just a few porcupine quills. “I’ll live. Honest.”

Crystal, too, had felt a warmth and tingling as she had tended to Shane’s leg. She had tried to ignore it, but when he had brushed her check it was like a jolt of electricity went through her. “I – I – wanted to make sure I did it right. Don’t porcupine quills have a poison in them?”

“Not really. If you don’t get them out, and clean the area good, they can cause a lot of infection, but I think you’ve done a good job.”

“What was it doing inside?”

“It found the open door. Porcupines are notorious for invading cabins that aren’t used much, looking for food and places to hide. They love anything salty. I should have looked better.” Shane was mad at himself for not checking better. It could have been Crystal who was in the way of the animal when it attacked.

“Well, maybe we should head back so you can have a doctor look at it?”

“No way. I came up here to show you the mountains, and do some fishing. I’ll be all right. I’m just glad he got me instead of you.” Shane really was very thankful he had been standing between Crystal and the porcupine. He pulled on his sock, rolled down his jeans and eased on his boot. “Now, I’m going to see if I can catch some trout for supper. Care to join me? I’ll even bait your hook.”

Crystal closed the lid of the repacked box of first aide supplies. Dropping the pile of quills, and used gauze pads in a plastic trash bag she found. “I’ll bait my own hook, thank you just the same. I am quite capable of doing that much,” she countered rising to the unspoken challenge.
“I heard Lizzy caught a fish but you didn’t.”

“She certainly did.” Crystal was proud of Lizzy’s catch, even if she hadn’t caught one. The little girl had been very excited and thrilled.

“Well, it’s time you did.”



Only limping slightly, Shane unsaddled the horses, turning them into a corral, with a shed in it that was near the cabin. Unused for some time, the corral had a fair stand of grass in it. Enough to keep the horses happy for a while.

Helping haul the saddles and gear into the cabin, Crystal unrolled a sleeping bag on a bunk in each of the two rooms, first checking the mattress thoroughly for any other inhabitants. Although there had been mice at sometime, they seemed to be gone now. When she was finished she returned outside.

From Shane’s pack came two collapsible fishing rods and a small box of hand tied trout flies. He extended the rods and tied a fly on each. He demonstrated to Crystal how to throw the line, and then laughed at her as her first throw had to be disentangled from a clump of willow trees. After that she was able to manage several reasonably decent throws so leaving her to practice at a wide spot in the creek, he walked on down a little farther to another place. That way there was less chance of getting their lines tangled together and a better chance of each of them catching a trout.

Shane tossed his line out a few times then let the line float out across and then down the tiny creek. He looked back to see how Crystal was doing. He smiled at her awkward casting. She would try using one hand to cast then real in the line and then try two hands to cast, and again real in the line. Shane took a quick breath when he noticed something else about Crystals fishing techniques. In the warm afternoon sun, she, like Shane, had shed her jacket and then her flannel shirt and had on only a thin light blue tee shirt. Shane had gazed into her lovely eyes often enough to know that the tee shirt came close to matching the blue of her eyes. But what really caught his attention was the way the shirt stretched and pulled tautly over her small, but firm breasts each time she raised her arms to cast her fishing line. His glance traveled on down to her trim waist, and down farther to how her jeans fit her softly rounded bottom and long legs.

Concentrating on Crystal he threw his line again and nearly lost his grip on the fishing pole when a trout grabbed the bait. He didn’t realize Crystal was watching him as he played the fish.

She observed him a he had her. His dark hair curled under the edges of his hat, one lock dangling over his forehead. His gray shirt stretched over a nice set of muscles, his chest tapering to a flat stomach and well muscled thighs. With little effort he had set the hook in the trout and then pulled the flopping, shimmering fish onto the bank. Crystal laid down he road and ran up to him with an excited cry. “You caught one!”

“Yeah, not to bad,” said Shane holding up the fish by its gills for Crystal to admire its rainbow striping, as it glittered in the sunlight. “Now it’s our turn, and then we can eat.”

“Then we may very well starve,” joked Crystal, “I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of how to throw the darn thing.”

“Sure you will,” Shane unhooked the trout and tossed it far enough up the bank where it couldn’t get back into the water.

He handed the rod to Crystal then stepped behind her and guided her hands to hold the rod properly. He helped her make several practice casts until she was able to do it with more ease. “Relax. Your way to stiff,” said Shane.

Crystal tried, but it was differently hard to relax when a big, handsome, muscular man had his arms around her. She sinced that Shane was as stiff as she was and when his hand accidentally brushed her breast they both seemed to freeze for a long heart beat while neither of them said anything.

Shane dropped his hands to Crystal’s waist and turned her so they faced each other. She let the fishing rod slip to the ground unnoticed. The line was still dangling in the water while the colorful, red and yellow, hand-tied fly floated with the current. Wordlessly Shane and Crystal let blue eyes meet brown eyes. Shane lowered his head and his lips met hers in a long, lingering kiss. Gradually it deepened, and he grew bolder probing her mouth with his tongue, tasting the sweetness, while she tasted him.

He ran his hands up and down her back. Crystal’s hands, too, reached around Shane, exploring, and learning the breath of his chest and muscles full of strength and power.

There was a splash behind them, as another fish jumped and then the sing of fishing line unrolling off the rod and real. The rod flipped up, whacking Crystal on the shin. She and Shane jumped apart and grabbed for the rod. Shane caught it just as it started to slide into the creek.

“Hey, here’s your fish,” he handed the rod to Crystal.

She took it, and said, “What do I do?”

“Reel it in, turn the crank on the real.” Shane wanted Crystal to pull the fish in by herself but his hands kept going out toward the rod wanting to help, and urging her on.

Crystal started turning the little handle on the real as fast as she could. Shane toughed her hand, “But easy. Do it firm but easy. Let him get tired so he doesn’t get away.”

Doing as Shane instructed, Crystal brought in her first trout. Shane picked it up. “Nice one,” he complimented her.

“But it’s smaller than yours.”

“Yeah, maybe a little, but it’s legal size and your very first Idaho trout.”

“My very first trout or any fish ever.” Crystal was proud of herself.

Together they cooked supper over an outdoor rock grill located near the backdoor of the converted railroad car. Crystal thought the fried trout the most delicious thing she had ever tasted, while the baked potato and can of beans weren’t half bad either. Maybe it had something to do with being in the outdoors, alone except for the company of Shane and the horses.

The sunset lit the sky with a pink glow, that quickly faded, leaving them in darkness, while the stars appeared one by one, then by twos and threes, and dozens, finally by uncountable hundreds. As they sat on an old stump by the fire, hand in hand, Crystal was amazed at the music of the evening. Crickets chirped nearby, from the stream could be heard the call of several different frogs, including some very loud bullfrogs. A night bird called, and a horned owl hooted.

An unidentifiable, harsh whistle pierced the evening solitude. “What was that?” asked Crystal pulling her jacket tighter around her.

“An elk. Probably a few cows and calves feeding out in the meadow. Momma’s calling their youngsters. Didn’t sound like a bull.”

“Oh.” Crystal had seen lots of deer but had yet to see it’s larger cousin the elk. They certainly made a strange noise. It seemed to be out of someone’s nightmare. She shivered again.

Shane stood. “Cold? Let’s go inside. I’ll start a fire in the fireplace so we can stay warm tonight.”

“Yeah, I am cold a little,” admitted Crystal reluctantly.

Now that the time had come, she was unsure of herself, and of Shane. Had he brought her here because he enjoyed her company or strictly as a way to get her in bed with him. She undoubtedly had enjoyed sharing the day with him, but she was confused about her feelings toward Shane. She liked him and that kiss by the creek had been wonderful. Yes, she had to admit she was more than attracted to him. But even so, should she let it continue? Maybe it had been wrong to come. A slight breeze ran down the valley, whispering through the trees, raising goose bumps on Crystal’s arms. She rubbed her hands up and down them for a moment.

“Look – Crystal. There’s two bedrooms and four bunks. You can have your choice. I’ll take the other. I would never push you into anything. I – I just wanted to bring you up here, to share this wonderful place with you. So – what say we go in, get warm and just get some sleep?”

Crystal took the hand Shane had extended to her. “It is wonderful, isn’t it?” She followed him into the cabin and sat on the old couch while he lit the lantern. Then he started a fire in the fireplace. Shane winced as he sat down on the opposite end of the couch. “How’s your leg?” Crystal asked. “Do you need more iodine or antibiotic cream on it?”

“No, I don’t think so. It’s sore and getting stiff, but I think I’ll live.” He grinned at her, and his eyes sparkled. “That sure was one mad, scared porcupine.”

“I was scared, too,” acknowledged Crystal. “I still think you should see a doctor when we get back.”

“I’m fine, but I will see the doc. I can just hear John and Marcie and the town now. I’ll never live this one down. I can see the headline in the newspaper – Sheriff brought down by crazed porcupine.”

Crystal giggled. She knew he was right. In the small town everyone would hear about Shane’s run-in with the quilled-rodent. “I hope Hann – Lizzy – isn’t giving Marcie to much trouble,” she said.

I’m sure their having a great time. Um – Crystal, why do you do that? Call your daughter Hannah and then change it to Lizzy?”
Crystal ducked her head and looked into a darkened corner of the room. She jumped slightly when a log in the fire popped. She knew she had to answer or Shane would be more suspicious, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell him about Tony. She wanted to, but not yet. “Oh, it’s nothing. Her name is Hannah Elizabeth, and as a baby I called her Hannah, but now she and I wanted to change it to Lizzy. I decided I liked it better.”

Okay. – What did her father prefer?” It was the first time Shane had ever voiced a thought about the little girl’s father. He had thought a lot about it, but had always refrained from actually asking, as much as he had wanted to.

He – he doesn’t know, and wouldn’t care if he did,” lied Crystal.

You never told him you were pregnant?” What was it that made Shane keep probing? It was none of his business really. Maybe he had just been a lawman to long.

Crystal avoided a direct answer. “It was over between us before even I knew.” Well, at least that was the truth, although I did leave a lot unsaid, she thought.

Shane decided to back off. “Hey, no problem. It’s none of my business.” He stood, added wood to the fire and banked it for the night. “I’m goin’ to get some sleep. See you in the morning.”

“Yes,” said Crystal. “I’ll see you in the morning.” She watched him thoughtfully as he disappeared down the hallway and into one of the tiny bedrooms.

Crystal lay stretched out on the lower bunk of the room next to Shane’s. She looked at her watch again. She had been laying here for an hour, tossing and turning, unable to sleep. Yes, she was tired after the long horseback ride, adventure with the porcupine, and fishing but she couldn’t sleep. She wondered if Shane was sleeping. What was he like when he was sleeping? Was he more calm and unperturbed when sleeping? What was he dreaming? Did he snore? She hadn’t heard anything from the other bedroom. She hadn’t bothered to undress, had he? She felt the heat rise to her face as she imagined what he looked like naked. Was he tanned? She was sure his muscles must ripple and swell even when he was relaxed in sleep.

She shook her head to clear the unwelcome thoughts of a naked man and sat up. She heard the muted roll of distant thunder. She walked barefoot down the hall, and opened the front door to let in some fresh air. She took a deep breath. The air was softly scented with the first drops of rain. In the east a half moon was on the rise while dark clouds floated over its face.

When he walked into the room and realized Crystal was already up Shane made sure to shuffle his feet and clear his throat enough to let Crystal knew he was up, too. “Couldn’t sleep, uh. Me, either.” He eased up beside her and looked out the door. “Um,” he filled his lungs with the rain-scented air. “I like the smell of rain,” and he liked the way Crystal smelled, too. She smelled faintly of vanilla perfume, and an herbal shampoo, and a different smell, a woman smell.

“Crystal?” he breathed her name as he eased an arm around her waist. “I sure like the way you smell,” he whispered huskily as he leaned toward her and lifted a strand of her hair, then ran his fingers through it, lifting the blond hair, smelling it, and letting it fall to cascade over her shoulders. His head dipped and his lips caught hers. “Ummmmmm, and I like the way you taste, too.” She didn’t pull away as he explored her mouth and then kissed her neck and the hollow of her throat, then moved back to her lips, one hand continuing to massage the back of her neck, playing with her hair.

Crystal, too, was investigating, tasting, her arms around Shane’s neck, feeling his heavy, dark hair, smelling the light scent of aftershave, and his own individual man smell. She was even enjoying being tickled by his mustache. She had never kissed a man with a mustache before.

Shane wasn’t wearing a shirt, and Crystal ran her hands down his long arms, learning their feel. They play of those strong muscles that she had been dreaming about so recently that now held her lightly, but firmly. She encircled his waist and pulled him to her, laying her head on his shoulder, where she stayed unmoving for several long minutes, listening to his heartbeat, while he listened to her shallow breathing.

The boom of thunder grew louder and the rain fell faster. She shivered, as Shane held her back to his chest. The wind blew through the open door, cooling both of them. Shaking Crystal leaned deeper into the curve of Shane’s arms.

It was early the next morning when Crystal awoke from a deep, satisfying sleep. She still lay curled next to Shane. She snuggled closer, wrapping an arm around his waist, her thoughts flying in all directions.

Shane’s eyes opened and Crystal saw they still smoldered with passion. Last night had only been a taste of what they wanted from each other. Both realized they had never felt this way before. It was a long time later when they finally left their small bed, dressed and started coffee to go with a light breakfast of cereal bars.

While sipping on her coffee, Crystal opened the front door. “Oh -, it’s beautiful,” she gasped at the sight that met her eyes.

Last night’s rainstorm had turned into an early snowfall. Although only a couple of inches, at most, it was a wet heavy snow and it clung to everything. Every rock, and blade of grass, every twig, and pine needle. The morning sun caused the pristine, pure whiteness to glisten and sparkle. It was like a picture from a fantasy wonderland.

Shane joined Crystal at the door. “Yeah, it sure is pretty, but it won’t last long. It will be mostly melted by this afternoon. Then it will be mud.” Already they could hear a steady drip-drip from the roof of the railroad car.

From the corral came the snort and whinny of Duke and Lavender, as the horses played and pawed at the snow. Across the meadow Crystal saw several deer knocking the snow off the tall, brown grass so they could graze. Then she realized the animals were larger than the deer she was used to seeing. She asked Shane and he assured her these were the elk she had hear about. Something caused them to raise their heads and stare at the cabin. Maybe it had been the sound of their voices or maybe the smell of wood smoke. Suddenly the bull, a massive animal with a huge rack of antlers, moved his small harem back into the trees, leaving only their tracks in the snow as proof that they had been there. They were just as majestic as Crystal had heard. She was glad to get to see them.

They fed grain to the horses, packed their gear, and saddled up, and closed up the railroad car cabin. Crystal took time to stand by the stream and watch a fish jump. She was thinking what a wonderful time she had here with Shane. If only all of life could be this perfect. Her day dreaming was interrupted when a wet snowball splattered against the back of her shoulder, part of it stinging her cheek and some of the cold stuff sliding down the back of her neck. The result was that the next ten minutes were spent in a wild snowball fight, ending with both Shane and Crystal in each others arms, breathless from the exertion.

The rest of the day was spent in a long slow horseback ride back to where they had left the truck and trailer the day before. Shane led the way, taking many a backward look at the tall, slim woman who rode behind him. Every time the trail would widen, he would let her come up beside him so they could hold hands as they rode. He liked the smile on her face. There was a new shine in her eyes, a new lift to her head. She seemed to stand taller, with a proud happy look. He was pleased to know he had helped her achieve more poise, and self-assurance. He hoped she continued to be this confident.

Shane considered the situation. He hadn’t felt this way about a woman in a long time. Maybe never. Well, definitely never. He briefly considered the short romance he and Sharon had while in collage. He had been sure she was the love of his life. They had become engaged, set a date for the wedding and then the day before Sharon had returned his ring, by way of a friend, and he had never seen her again. At first he had been devastated, but then had been relieved. He had realized that what he felt for Sharon had never approached what he was felling for Crystal.

But a shadow fell over his thoughts as he remembered how he and Crystal met. He had arrested her. Shane still felt there was a lot that Crystal wasn’t telling him. His lawman’s training came to the front and he determined that before he allowed their relationship to progress much farther he would try to check out her story to find out more and find out what she was running from. He was sure she was afraid of something in her past.

Crystal, too, had been considering how she had become involved with a policeman. Her faith in the police and all of the judicial system had been lost over the years. When Tony had beaten her the police had never done much about it. Oh they had issued a restraining order, but it had never done any good. She had seen a cop send Tony to jail for dealing drugs, when Tony had quite giving the man enough drugs to keep his habit going. The cop had even used Crystal’s testimony to convict Tony, and as far as she knew he was still a cop and a drug user.

Then the prison had allowed Tony to escape, and he had found her in Denver. Afraid of Tony and not trusting the police to help, she had run again, only to be arrested by Shane when she had been so desperate and frantic enough in her worry over Lizzy as to try to rob Marcie’s store.

She was grateful to John and Marcie for their faith in her and for giving her another chance. She had never really understood why Shane had gone along with them. Could he really be a true good guy? Could she count on him for help if, by some chance, Tony were to find her here in Bear Creek? She surely hoped so.

She felt the heat of his fingers through the leather of their gloves and looked up to see that silly, sappy grin on his face. She wondered if she could really be falling in love with a lawman. A sheriff. And did he love her


7.


The next week passed quickly, but Shane and Crystal had no time to spend with each other. Crystal found herself running the nursery and gift shop virtually alone, as Marcie and John were both down with bad colds. When she wasn’t working at the store, she was taking care of the two older people and Lizzy at the ranch house. By the end of the week Crystal was sure she had never been so tired and overworked. But she had been told repeatedly by the Milton’s that they were so glad to have her to run things while they were sick.

The one bright spot had been when she had sat down one morning to drink a cup of coffee and had taken the time to glance at the small, local paper. Apparently someone had informed the editor about the Sheriff’s experience with the porcupine. There was a long article on the front page about how the local policeman had been unable to capture an escaped villain, who had holed up in a remote cabin. It was comically written all in good fun, as Shane and the editor were friends. Shane had taken the jesting good natureredly, but had wished the whole incident could have been kept quiet. It did cause Crystal to realize just how public Shane’s’ life actually was.

The Sheriff, too was tired and irritable from over work and lack of sleep. Since Halloween there had been an increase in the petty crime in Bear Creek and the county. At first he had blamed it on a few rambunctious teenagers playing Halloween tricks that were getting out of hand. There had been clothes stolen off of clotheslines, chickens and eggs stolen from henhouses, and rotten eggs thrown at cars and windows.

But this past week things had gotten worse. There had been a series of break-ins at several remote farmhouses and some of the more affluent homes in town. Not only food and liqueur had been taken but small valuables, like jewelry, watches, cash, papers for stocks, bonds, a coin collection, and a few very valuable, but small antiques. Now the mayor, and town council were coming down hard on Shane to catch the thieves and put an end to the robberies.

The Sheriff cruised through the parking lot at the school complex. He had just finished a short talk at the high school hoping to put a damper on the robberies, and to get someone to come forward with some information on who was doing them, if it was being done by school kids. The major was sure it was, but Shane couldn’t convince himself. The high school was small, only about two hundred kids, and Shane knew almost all of them at least by sight. He had done the speech, which he hated to do, but really didn’t feel that it was any of the teenagers he was talking to. He felt it was more likely some of the local young adults, or even some newcomers to the area.

Leaving the high school area he made a pass by the middle school and then by the grade school. He waved, smiled and spoke to lots of kids, teachers, and parents. It was part of the job. He wanted to be seen and, if possible, liked by the educational community.

Seeing a small figure waving and jumping up and down he eased the police vehicle to the curb. “Hi, Sheriff Shane,” a small face poked through the window.

Hi, yourself, Lizzy. How’s school?” He was pleased to see the little girl and glad to stop and talk to her. She had entered a soft spot in his heart, too. Leaning to love Lizzy had been as easy as learning to love her mom.

Schools’ great,” answered Lizzy. “I drew a picture of your police car in art class today.” She unfolded a piece of construction paper to show Shane her drawing.

Why, that’s really good,” said Shane as he took the paper and looked at the odd shaped, squarish, crayon figure that he assumed was supposed to be the Blazer he sat in.

You can have it, Sheriff Shane,” Lizzy generously offered.

Shane felt a strange lump in his throat, as this once shy, stand-offish child who was now coming out of her shell, gave him the crumpled drawing. School was really helping Lizzy start to discover a while new world, as Bear Creek and the Wild West Flower Shop were helping Crystal. Shane had come to think that whatever Crystal’s life had been before, most of it hadn’t been very good.

Except for Lizzy.

Well thank you, Lizzy.” He had a catch in his voice. “I’m honored. Thanks. Can I put it up in my office?”

Sure.”

He looked at the girl. “Hey, how about a ride to the store?”

Yes!” yelled Lizzy, picking up her backpack that lay at her feet on the sidewalk, and dumping it through the window, then opening the door, she slid in, and fastened the seat belt. She was always thrilled to be allowed to ride in the police cruiser.

A woman stopped by the truck. “Any problems, Sheriff. I hope you’re not arresting one of my best students?”

Shane recognized Lizzy’s teacher. “No, Mrs. Hammand. Lizzy gave me the picture she drew of my police cruiser, and I said I’d give her a ride to the store where her mom works.”

Okay,” said the teacher with a smile. She had seen Shane give Lizzy a ride several times before and knew it was all right. “She you tomorrow, Lizzy.” She turned and went back to the last of a group of children that were boarding a school bus.

As the Sheriff pulled away from the curb, three spaces back an older, gray Buick car did the same. It kept a discreet distance from the cruiser as it followed.

Damn and double damn,” muttered Tony as he pounded a fist on the dashboard. “I wanted to get her today.”

Take it easy, Tony. We’ll have another chance. Maybe tomorrow.” Georgie tried to calm Tony as she maneuvered through the traffic.

It better be soon. I’m getting’ damn tired of this piss-ant sized town. I want to get out of here.”

Me, too, honey. Me, too,” echoed Georgie, as they watched the lawman park in the small parking lot in front of the Wild West Flower Shop. He, and the little girl got out of the truck and entered the store.




Lizzy burst into the store, “Hi, Mom. Sheriff Shane gave me a ride. I drawed a picture of his police car. He liked it. I gave it to him for his office.”

That’s nice, but keep it down, Lizzy. I’m busy right now,” said Crystal as she continued to ring up purchases for a customer. “I’ll fix you a snack in a minute. Put your things away.” Lizzy dropped her backpack by the counter and ran for the back of the store saying something about watering a plant. Crystal looked up to see Shane watching her and again felt her heart go flip-flop at the sight of the big, handsome man. “Hello, Sheriff.” Now Crystal didn’t worry if she had done something wrong to get on the bad side of the lawman when he came to the store. Now she was glad to see him as a friend, and – well – she had to admit it – as a lover.

Shane tipped his hat to her. “Ms. Madsen.” He stood and watched as she waited on several more customers. When the shop was empty Crystal picked up the forgotten backpack and stepped into the small kitchen at the back of the store. Shane followed.

Crystal took down a jar of peanut butter, another of grape jelly, and opened a plastic bag of bread, taking out several slices. Shane rummaged through the drawers for a knife.

Um – a – I – haven’t been able to get time to see you since – a – since – last weekend,” mumbled a now tongue-tied Shane. He hadn’t been this bad an hour ago when he had given a speech. But that had been part of his job, and he had been talking to a bunch of teenagers. This was the woman he was beginning to have very strong feelings about.

I – um – understand. With Marcie and John ill, I’ve been busy, too.” Crystal spread peanut butter and then jelly onto slices of bread. Now she was unsure of her feelings and what to say to Shane. She had wanted to see him so much but now that he was here beside her she wasn’t sure what to say. Wasn’t this the man she had so easily talked to and made love with less than a week ago? “Want one?” she asked.

Yeah – sure,” agreed Shane. Crystal fixed another sandwich and then one for herself. It was something to do.

Shane watched this utterly feminine woman doing such a mundane chore as fixing sandwiches and thought how beautiful she was. How he wanted to brush back the lock of hair that lay across her forehead, almost in her eyes. Her lovely, crystal blue eyes. How he wanted to kiss her lips, lips that were red because she was biting the lower one. He could see just the flash of a white tooth. Then he realized he hadn’t just thought about it. Crystal was in his arms and returning his kisses. Shane slid a hand behind her neck to caress the smooth skin sending a slow electric tingle down Crystal’s spine. Her hair brushed his hand sending an exquisite, erotic shiver up his arm.

Crystal slid her arms around his waist as he pulled her tighter to him.

Mommy,” came a call from the front. “Is my snack ready, yet, and there’s a lady wanting some flowers.”

Crystal’s check came in contact with something cool, hard, and sharp as she jerked at the sound of Lizzy’s voice. She opened her eyes to see the Sheriff’s badge on Shane’s chest, and she stepped backward quickly, pulling away from him.

She gathered up Lizzy’s sandwich and returned to the front of the store. He’s still a sheriff! He’s a policeman, a cop! Crystal’s brain was telling her. She didn’t want to be attracted to Sheriff Shane Buckner, but her heart was trying to convince her otherwise.

Shane stood a moment in the small kitchen wondering what had made Crystal pull away from him, as if he had suddenly had become fiery hot. He was sure it hadn’t just been Lizzy’s call or the waiting customer. He picked up the sandwich Crystal had made for him and took a big bite from it. He was suddenly determined to find out what had caused Crystal to run away from her previous life. He was determined to break through her shell, become her friend, and maybe a lot more. He was sure their one nightstand wasn’t enough. He wanted to be with Crystal every day, from now on.

It was becoming crystal clear to Shane that he was madly in love with Crystal Madsen.





Over the next couple of weeks Shane kept busy. It hadn’t been hard to get her fingerprints and send them off. Nothing came back on them. But that only meant that she had never been fingerprinted. Some of the feelers he had sent out to Denver and San Diego on Crystal Madsen and Chrissi Smyth came back, but with very little information. But the Sheriff considered that to be good in many ways. At least she wasn’t wanted anywhere. Then a friend in San Diego called and told him that a woman named Chrissi Smyth had been married to an Anthony Smyth, a local drug dealer and small time thug. Her testimony had helped put Smyth in jail, but during a transfer from one jail to another facility, Smyth had managed to escape. There had been a rumor that he had gone to Denver.

Shane was sure Chrissi Smyth and Crystal Madsen were one and the same, although his friend said that Chrissi Smyth’s maiden had been Chrissi Hall, and he didn’t remember a daughter. The story was that Smyth had been abusive to his wife so it only stood to reason that Chrissi Smyth had run from her husband and changed her name. But why wouldn’t Crystal tell him? He could understand her being afraid of her ex-husband, but he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t win her complete trust.

Shane hung up the phone just as Trish came to the office door. “There’s a ruckus down at Frenchy’s Bar and Carl’s busy with a fender bender north of town. It’s the middle of the afternoon. Guess someone’s tryin’ to get an early start.”

I’ll handle it,” agreed Shane as he stood, picked up his hat, and jammed it on his head. He had been looking for an excuse to get out of the office. If trouble kept piling up he’d be forced to ask for another officer to help out, and that wouldn’t look good. The city had been talking about adding on a couple of town policeman. Maybe now was the time. He’d try and talk to the mayor about it. He hated to have to involve politics with being a law enforcer, but the two seemed to run hand and hand.

He ran the lights and siren on his way to the bar with hopes that the siren would calm down any brawlers before he arrived, and so he could get there quickly. There were only a few cars in the parking lot when he arrived. Leaving the cruiser, he pushed open the door and entered the dimly lit bar.

He leaned against the bar and looked around. The owner-bartender came to stand opposite him. “Heard you might be having some problems, Frenchy?” said Shane.

Was earlier,” Frenchy answered in a thick accent. “Few of the boys was arguin’ over a football game. Its settled now.”

Good,” said Shane. He took another long look around the bar.

Glad you came anyway, Sheriff. You comin’ ‘round kinda helps keep trouble down. Have a drink while you’re here?” asked Frenchy.

I’ll take a cup of coffee,” answered Shane.

Frenchy picked up a cup, set it in front of the Sheriff and poured from a pot sitting on a hot plate behind the bar. The brew was black and thick, as if it had been made hours before, and there was no offer of cream or sugar.

The bartender served several other customers, and then came back to the Sheriff. “More coffee?”

Shane laid a hand over the cup briefly. “No. Thanks. But – who were the guys trying to start trouble?”

Can’t say,” said Frenchy. “Never heard any names other than Tony and Eddie. They been hangin’ ‘round, some lately. That’s them over in the corner.” He nodded at a far table.

The Sheriff didn’t look in the direction indicated by Frenchy. “Who else was involved?”

Norman Stark, and them Reamer brothers. Their trouble makers, but they didn’t start it this time.”

Shane knew who Frenchy was talking about. He had had them in jail more than once for disturbing the peace, and drunkenness. “Un-huh,” Shane turned over the information in his mind. He dug in his pocket and laid change on the bar for the coffee, then stepped back from the counter and began a quick swing through the bar. He spoke to a few people. He was making his presence known; hoping a walk through would keep any more trouble at bay.

On the way out the door he spoke to Frenchy. “Anymore trouble, give me a call.”

Will do, Sheriff.



On the way back the Sheriff spotted a small figure skipping down the sidewalk, and as she reached the Wild West Gift Shop he had a thought and pulled in, too. Rolling down the cruiser window he called to Lizzy. “How about a ride to the Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone?”

Yeppp----eeeee,” yelled Lizzy.

Well, go ask your mom first. Tell her she’s invited, too.”

Marcie sent them on their way, and minutes later Shane, Crystal and Lizzy were sitting in the police vehicle licking ice cream cones. Shane was amazed that such a small thing could have the little girl so excited. He smiled indulgently at her, and Crystal, when Crystal tried to calm her daughter and clean up the ice cream that some how had been smeared across the police radio.

As Lizzy finally sat quietly in the seat to finish the rest of her cone, Crystal considered what she was doing. Here she was going out for ice cream with a very handsome man, in – of all things a police car. A shiver ran through her at the thought, as she remembered the first time she had ridden in this very same vehicle when Shane had arrested her last spring. So much had changed since then. She gazed fondly at Lizzy and then at Shane only to find him grinning at her. Again she wondered could she and Shane really have a relationship, but then she told herself don’t worry about the future, just enjoy today. That was what Lizzy seemed to do. She took everything day by day, moment by moment, and a ride in a cop car to get ice cream must be the ultimate experience for a six year old, according to the way her daughter was acting. Smiling back at Shane and then breaking into spontaneous laughter with them, Crystal forgot to worry and just enjoyed herself.



8.

The first big flakes of snow were coming out of the darkening sky as the last bell of the day rang. A small flood of children flowed from the building, excited more than usual at the thought of the first major snowstorm of the year. Lizzy filled her backpack with several pages of homework and her first grade reader. She scurried out into the crowd. She and her friend Cheryl walked out of the schoolroom and down the hall and out the school doors. They were talking and laughing together and with several of their other friends.

Lizzy’s teacher, Mrs. Hammand was directing her charges in their respective ways home. “Cheryl, hop on the buss, and Lizzy, you go right on down to the flower shop. Don’t play along the way. You don’t want your mom to worry about you. Button your coat. Davey ……..Suzie……” she droned on.

Yes, Mrs. Hammand,” answered Lizzy, ignoring the command to button her coat, as she skipped across the street to begin the two block walk to the store. “Bye, Cheryl,” she turned to wave at the little girl, who waved back at her through the school bus window. She didn’t mind walking in the snow that was just beginning to lay on the sidewalk. She thought it was kind of fun.

A gray car pulled to the curb beside her. “Hey, Hannah,” called the man in the passengers seat. “Need a lift?” he asked.

No,” said Lizzy as she edged away from the car and the man she didn’t know. “I don’t know you.” She saw another man driving the car. “I can’t ride with people I don’t know, and besides my name is Lizzy.” She started to walk on down the street.

Sure you do, girl. I’m your daddy. And your name is Hannah. You can take a ride from me.”

Surprised and startled at being called Hannah after so long and at what the man had said about being her daddy Lizzy stopped walking and stared at the man. “My mom says my dad went away a long time ago and won’t ever be back,” she voiced her unsure thoughts.

Well, I did go away, but I’m back now,” said Tony harshly as he opened the door, grabbed the bewildered Lizzy and pulled her into the car with him. Lizzy gave a loud scream before Tony’s large hand effectively cut off the rest.

At the sound of Lizzy’s scream Mrs. Hammand looked up to see the man jerk Lizzy into the car and the car speed off. She gasped in astonishment and then ran into the building to tell the principle and call the sheriff.

The snow came down harder, and the wind picked up to whisper and whistle through the now deserted schoolyard.



Shane stood at the fax machine, waiting no it to quit spitting out the last of several sheets of paper. Tentatively Shane picked them up, but hesitated at reading them. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what they said. Several days before, after a tip from a friend in San Diego and using what little information he had about Crystal Madsen and her daughter, the Sheriff had sent that information to Denver, Colorado and again to San Diego, California. Now that he had the results in his hand, he was leery of looking at it.

Shane retreated to his office, sat down at his desk and finally started reading. His friend had been right but theses were the official papers, not just rumors. The information was startling, but Shane was relieved to find that the law had never wanted Crystal. It was her husband – or rather her ex-husband – Tony who was the criminal.

Before he could finish, the buzzer on his desk sounded and Trish’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Sorry to bother you, Sheriff, but one of the teachers at the grade school just phoned in about a student being kidnapped.”

Kidnapped?” questioned Shane.

Yeah, that’s what she said, - uh – Sheriff? – Uh – it was Crystal Madsen’s daughter that was taken. Little Lizzy.”

Instantly Shane was on his feet. “I’m on my way. Have that teacher meet me in front of the school. And Carl. Have him meet me there, too.” He grabbed his hat and was out the door, as Trish keyed her mike to contact Carl.


Crystal ushered several customers out the door into the snow filled air, then turned to Marcie. “Marcie, can you handle things for a few minutes? I’m going to see if I can find Lizzy. No doubt she’s playing somewhere, and has forgotten the time.” She wasn’t really worried about her daughter, but she should have made the short walk from the school to the store by now.

Sure, Crystal. It’s snowing. First real snow this year. She’s just dawdling along the way. But you go find her. I can handle things here.”

Crystal had pulled on a jacket and had her hand on the door when a snow-dusted Shane pushed it open from the other side, almost knocking her down in his rush. “Is Lizzy here?” he demanded.

Uh – no – I – was just going to look for her.” Crystal was startled by Shane’s attitude. “What’s wrong?”

Shane took a deep breath. He always hated this part of his job, having to tell someone about an accident or other tragedy to a loved one. It was even worse this time since it was Crystal he was telling. He took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. “Um – Crystal, - a teacher – Lizzy’s teacher, Mrs. Hammond, reported that she was – a – grabbed and pulled into a car – then it took off.”

Oh – o. No!” whispered Crystal. Her face paled with the shock.

Thinking she might faint, Shane put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “Don’t worry, honey. We’ll find her. Maybe she just went home with a friend.” Shane tried to reassure her.

No,” said Crystal. “I’m sure she didn’t. I’ve always told her not to go with anyone without letting me know first. And – and she hadn’t asked to go with anyone.”

Shane was sure Lizzy hadn’t gone with a friend, either. Especially from what Mrs. Hammand had said, but he had to cover all bases, and it would give Crystal something to do. “Could I get your to call around and check with her friends.”

While she did that, Shane organized a search, calling in all his two part-time deputies and a handful of local volunteers made up of teachers and parents with John directing them.

Crystal hung up the phone from calling the last of Lizzy’s friends that she could think of. “Marcie, can you think of anyone else. I can’t.”

No, Hon. I sure can’t. Oh, did you try the Turners?” The shrill sound of the phone ringing cut her off.

Crystal grabbed the receiver hoping against hope it would be Lizzy. “Hello,” she said. Her face became even paler than before as she listened to the voice at the other end. A voice she knew only to well, that she had thought she would never hear again.

Well, well, Chrissi, my darling wife. How nice to hear your voice again. Guess what, darling?” There was a long pause. “I have MY daughter, Hannah. She is mine, you know. Now don’t come lookin’ for her. Won’t do you no good. We’ll be long gone. Oh, and Chrissi, if you or that hick cop do come lookin’ for her – well, she just might end up dead.”

The phone line went dead, and Crystal burst into tears as she sagged against Shane.



As Tony hung up the pay phone receiver a wide grin of glee split his face. He slid back into the passenger seat of the car, letting in a flurry of snow as he did. “Man, what I wouldn’t have given to seen that woman’s face when I told her I had the kid.”

I want my mom!” yelled a hysterical Lizzy from the back seat.

Tony whirled around on the seat and pointed his finger at the child. “You shut your mouth. Just keep it shut.” He wiggled his finger, as Lizzy cringed and tried to shrink into the seat. Now just sit there like a good girl and you and me will get along just fine. You might as well get it through your head. You ain’t goin’ back to mommy. You done seen the last of her. You don’t be good and keep quiet I’ll see to it your mommy ends up dead. You understand?” Not expecting or getting an answer from Lizzy he turned to Georgie who sat in the other corner of the back seat filing her nails. “You make sure she behaves, Georgie.”

Georgie, dressed in black leggings, and a huge, black knit, pullover sweater never missed a stroke of her nail file. “No way, Tony. She’s your kid. You wanted her. You take care of her. Was she mine, I’d just send her packin’ back to mommy.”

Yeah,” whispered Lizzy. “Send me packin’ back to mommy. Please.” No one seemed to hear her.

She ain’t yours. An’ you do what I say, too.”

Georgie didn’t respond, and Lizzy just pulled her jacket tighter around her as she settled in her corner. She whimpered softly as tears over filled her big blue eyes and began to run down her checks where they dropped onto her coat. She sniffed and wiped at her runny nose with a small fist.

Be quiet kid,” said Georgie sternly, “we’ll both be better off. Tony can be a mean one when he gets like this.” But to herself Georgie had another thought. She figured that one of these days she was going to get to be the mean one and show Tony what she was really made of. Yeah, one of these days she would really show him what she was made of and who was really the boss. And she didn’t think that day was very far off.

Women,” snarled Eddie as he pulled away from the phone booth, nosing the car out into the street. The old car slid as Eddie tramped on the gas petal. He hit the brake and spun the wheel making the skid worse.

Damn it, Ed. Watch what your doin’,” complained Tony. “I don’t want a end up in a wreak.”

Eddie peered out through the flaying windshield wipers. “Well, if you think you can do any better, Tony, you can drive. Hell, I ain’t used to drivin’ in this kind of shitty weather.” He eased the car forward. The snow came down harder as the gray Buick left the edge of Bear Creek and turned east. “You sure we want to go this way?” Eddie asked.

Yeah, I’m sure. That hick town sheriff won’t think to look this way. He’ll figure we went south or north. We’ll go east, then go south. And we gotta find somewhere we can find some money and some grub. Maybe hold up a gas station or liqueur store. Something easy, then we’ll start lookin’ for something bigger. And we gotta find a different car. Something that will go better in this damn snow.”

Ah, come on, Tony. I want a go back to San Diego, or maybe LA,” grumbled Georgie.

Sounds good to me,” agreed Eddie.

No,” snarled Tony. “I go back to San Diego, I’m takin’ to much of a chance of getting caught and I ain’t about to go back to jail.”

They continued on down the two-lane country road, almost forgetting about the small child who lay curled in a corner of the seat silently weeping as she wondered why these strangers had taken her away from everyone and everything she knew and loved.

The snow fell harder, almost obscuring the landscape. There were only a few other vehicles on the road now. Only the occasional person who had been caught out and hadn’t reached home, or a safe destination yet. Eddie flipped on the radio, but couldn’t get much other than static and a few garbled transmissions, one of which said something about the bad snowstorm, but the three people paid it little heed. Being from the west coast they had very little experience with snowstorms and didn’t seem to care. That is until they came to a crossroad.

Eddie slowed the car to a crunching halt on the snow packed road. “Which way?” There was no traffic, and the few tracks in the snow were almost filled with white stuff as fast as it was falling. They couldn’t see any directional signs.

Go left,” said Tony.

Now, Eddie, if we’re going east you need to go straight,” said Georgie, as she began to realize they might be miles from a town or major highway. “That’s what I remember from lookin’ at that map.”

Will somebody make up they’re mind,” whined Eddie.

I think left will take us north,” said Georgie in a small voice. She was becoming concerned.

I said go left,” Tony commanded.

I ain’t so sure,” said Georgie, as Eddie swung the car to take the left hand road.

Shut up, woman,” muttered Tony. He wasn’t sure, either, but having always made the decisions for the three of them he did so now. Nor was he about to say he might be wrong, and they should go straight. “’Sides all roads lead somewhere, didn’t they, and one is as good as another until we get for away from that hick town of Bear Creek. ‘Sides I never did see any bears there. I always wanted to see a wild bear. I never did. Maybe this will be my lucky day for seein’ a bear.”

Exhausted from crying, Lizzy dozed in her corner. The wind blew, swirling the snow against the gray car, and back and forth across the road, leaving some spots bare and piling up the snow in others. The road continued on, winding and twisting, climbing higher, and higher into the mountains. The trees were becoming thicker and closer together. They saw no other vehicles, and only a couple of houses that looked like abandoned summer homes. Several times the car spiraled sideways as Eddie plowed the Buick through snowdrifts. Each time the two men cussed each other, the old car, and the weather. From the back seat there was only silence as Georgie watched with dispassion and Lizzy dozed. Now and then she would awaken to look around but was afraid to say anything, afraid one of the adults would start yelling at her again.

Eddie was going slower and slower with each passing minute as the snow got worse. Tony had cussed him several times for not going faster. When a clear patch of highway appeared Eddie pushed down on the gas petal, demanding more speed from the Buick. It sped up, flying down the road for a hundred yards or so, and then it hit a slick spot of black ice. The front end slid to the right. Eddie hit the brakes, and pulled on the steering wheel, causing the car to swap ends, and then donutting a full one hundred and eighty degrees. A full circle. Eddie flipped the wheel back the other way, pumped the brake once, then in his fright he tried to stand on the brakes. The next moment the old car slid around again to come to an abrupt stop in a snow filled ditch.

Lizzy cried hard. Tony yelled obscenities at Eddie, the snow and everyone and everything. Eddie sat stock still, his hands still locked on the steering wheel. Wide-eyed, Georgie, too, mouthed a string of cuss words.

Tony pushed open the car door and tramped around to the drivers side. Opening the door, he pulled Eddie out, dumping him in the snow. He slid into the car, while Eddie squalled at the unexpectedness of being shoved into the cold white stuff.

Just let me drive the damn thing. Since you can’t seem to,” said Tony, as he restarted the engine. Trying to get the car back onto the road, he slid the gearshift from drive to park to reverse several times. All he succeeded in doing was digging the tires deeper into the snow. Finally he gave up in frustration. Only a wrecker was going to get the Buick out of the snowdrift-filled ditch. Or spring time.

Knew I should have stayed in California,” muttered Georgie, as she climbed out of the car. She shivered and fought the snow that was seeping into her fancy jogging shoes, and soaking through the thin leggings she wore with her long wool, sweater tunic and short wool coat. “There’s a house over there.” She waved her hand to indicate the cabin almost obscured in the still falling snow. She retrieved her purse and a heavy bag from the car, and then extracted a small, but deadly looking gun from her purse. She started walking toward the house. She was tired of doing things Tony’s way, now she would do things her way. Today would be the day she let Tony know she would be the boss from now on.

Shrugging his shoulders in resignation Eddie stuffed his chilled hands into his jacket pockets and stomped after her.

Come on, Kid,” said Tony to Lizzy as he opened the trunk of the car and pulled his own bag from it. Lizzy hesitated, unwilling to leave the still warm car. Putting his head through the door that Georgie had left open, he yelled. “Get out!”

Grabbing her backpack, Lizzy scrambled out of the car. She was glad her mom had heard the weather report that morning and had insisted she wear her rubber boots over her tennis shoes, and her snow pants over her jeans. She had on a warm, insulated nylon jacket, and heavy gloves in the pockets, which she pulled on. But warm clothes didn’t make up for short legs and Lizzy was unable to keep up with Tony. Twice he stopped and tried to hurry her on. Finally he reached down, swung her into his arms and followed after Georgie and Eddie. They went up the driveway that lead to the house.

On reaching the front porch, Georgie knocked on the door of the small home with the butt of her pistol. After a moment she pounded on the door again. A few seconds later it was opened a crack. A tall, thin, elderly man peaked out. “May I help you?” he asked.

Yeah, old man, you sure can,” said Georgie, as she pushed open the door waving her gun in the face of the man. He stumbled back and out of her way, fright and puzzlement on his face.

Wha-what do you want?” he asked.

Eddie had followed Georgie into the house and Tony, carrying Lizzy was right behind him. Setting the child down the men stomped off their feet onto the living room carpet. Wet spots developed rapidly in the warm room as the snow melted.

What do we want?” mimicked Georgie. “A little hospitality would be nice.”

Yeah,” agreed Eddie. “Some hospitality for your guests.” He waved an arm. “That’s us. We’re your guests. We got stuck in the ditch. So – o – o, guess we’ll be your guests ‘till the storm is over.” He giggled.

Unless,” spoke up Tony. “That is, unless you got another car or truck or something we can – well – lets say borrow, and we’ll get on out of here.”

The older man looked from one to the other of his ‘guests’, including the little girl who stood quietly staring at him. He wondered why people like these would have a child with them. They certainly didn’t seem like normal parents, or what he considered normal parents. But then you never knew about young people these days. But he still thought they were out to rob him and steal his truck. Right now he was thankful it was broke down. His thoughts quickly ran to his own family. He was relieved that his son, daughter-in-law, and their two small sons had decided to remain in town with other family members when the storm had hit.

He pointed to Georgie and her gun. “You don’t need that thing. Your welcome to stay. Ain’t none of us goin’ no where ‘till this thing blows over. My old truck is out yonder; behind the barn, but it don’t run. Water pump’s blown. Most likely be a snowplow out tomorrow. Then we an call a wrecker, to get your car out.” He looked at the child again. She looked familiar. “Your little girl might like something to eat and drink. I’ll fix some coffee.” He hoped to avoid any more threats, like the gun, by offering food and lodging. He was sure they were up to no good. And his arthritis was acting up something awful, which was a good indication that this storm was going to be a bad one.




He didn’t see any chance of them leaving before it played its self out.

“Yeah, Pops, you do that. Make some coffee, and fix some hot food,” said Eddie. He took off his coat and slung it over a nearby chair. “You got any beer?”

“No. My daughter-in-law don’t allow no booze in the house, cause of her two youngin’s.” said the man. He thought about the bottle of whiskey hidden in his bedroom. He hoped they wouldn’t find it. If they got liquored up it could only make matters worse. He tried to be friendly. “I’m Beau Preston. Who might you folks be?”

“Well – Beau – who we be ain’t none of your business. You just do what we say and you won’t get hurt. Anyone else here?” asked Tony.

“No,” answered Beau. He headed for the kitchen. His only thoughts were of keeping these people happy so that they wouldn’t decide to hurt him. He was just an old man and couldn’t do much. And even if he had been younger he would have figured it was best to just try and keep these crooks happy until they could leave. He looked back at the child, who was still watching him intently. Beau was sure he had seen her around Bear Creek. He would like to find out more about these people. Maybe he could get some information out of the girl. He sure didn’t want to try to get it from the other three. “Hey, little girl, would you like a grilled cheese sandwich?” he asked.

“Yes,” she answered softly.

“Well, come on in the kitchen with me. I’ll see if I can’t rustle up some hot cocoa for you, too.”

She looked at Tony once, then with a high held head, and a proud look on her face, she marched into the kitchen after the old man. To Beau’s surprise none of the others stopped her. They just continued to stand in the living room grumbling at each other for ending up in the ditch and stuck here.

In the warm, old-fashioned kitchen Beau poured water into an electric drip coffee maker, added a filter and the coffee. He turned it on, and as it started dripping reached up to take down several heavy, white, pottery mugs. One he filled with hot water from the sink tap. From a cupboard he took down a package of instant cocoa mix. He tore of the tip, dumped it in the hot water, took a spoon from a draw and stirred it briskly.

Lizzy had climbed into a chair at the small table. Beau set the cocoa mug on the table in front of her.

I fix cocoa for my grandsons,” said Beau. “They like it with marshmallows. You want some?”

Uh huh,” Lizzy nodded her head, and when Beau laid a half empty package of marshmallows on the table she took off the twist-tie holding the bag closed and placed three marshmallows in the hot liquid in her cup.

You got a name, youngin’?”

Lizzy.”

: “A – Lizzy. You and your folks from around here or you just passin’ through?”

“They are not my folks. Or – I don’t think they are. The one man says he’s my dad, but my mom always said my dad went away.”

The odor of coffee circled through the room as the last drops dripped into the glass pot. “What you doing out with them in this storm, then?”

“They took me from the school today, and this is the first time they stopped and let me out.”

Beau had been pouring coffee into four mugs. He set the pot down with a thud. “They took you from the school? They took you against your will?”

Lizzy wasn’t sure what he meant. “I – I guess so. I was walking to the store where my mom works and they just grabbed me and threw me into their car.”

Beau shook his head in disgust. What was the world coming to? What horrible plans did they have for this little girl? And for himself?

Tony appeared at the kitchen door. “That food ready yet?” he demanded.

“Ah – no, but the coffee is.” He offered Tony a mug, which he accepted.

“Any sugar?”
Beau set a cut glass sugar bowl and a spoon on the table. Then took a matching cream pitcher from the refrigerator along with cheese and the making for the sandwiches. Slowly he began assembling them.

Tony sat in the chair opposite Lizzy and watched as Beau greased a cast iron skillet, heated it and added two sandwiches to toast. “So, old man, where the hell is this place anyway?”

The man surely wasn’t from around here, thought Beau, as he looked at the man. He saw a buzz-cut haircut, baggy clothes covering bulging muscles that spoke of hours in a gym. The man had big blunt hands, soft hands with no calluses, and clean nails. Beau was sure Tony hadn’t down much real work in his life. He flipped the sandwiches in the skillet. “Your ‘bout twenty-five miles northeast of Bear Creek. Don’t know what your doin’ way out here. Ain’t much out here. Couple of small ranches and a few small farms like this one. This ain’t much of a farm anymore. I’m retired now.” He placed the sandwiches on two saucers, giving one to Tony and one to Lizzy. He jumped when Eddie spoke from the kitchen door.

Got another one, Pops?”

Not yet. Be ready in a few minutes.”

Eddie reached over Lizzy’s head and took the sandwich. “I’ll just take this one. The kid can wait for the next one.”

What did you find?” asked Tony around a mouthful of food that he washed down with some coffee.

Eddie paced around the kitchen, prowling through the cupboards as he finished his sandwich in four large bits. “Not much,” he answered Tony. “Looks like someone else lives here, though. Huh, Pops?”

My son and his family come out to visit on weekends. When the weathers good,” said Beau. He fervently hoped that his son didn’t come back before these people left. He didn’t want them to know that others actually lived here.

Where’s Georgie?” asked Tony.

Ah – she went back to get something from the car. Her make-up or something.” He pulled a bag of corn chips out, ripped them open and crammed a handful in his mouth.

Beau could have sworn the kitchen was shrinking, with all the strangers in it. How long would they stay? The weather service had said the storm might last for a day or two. So for it hadn’t been too bad. At least not the way local people would look at it. They still had electricity and phone service. He wished he could have a little privacy. He’d call the sheriff. Shane Buckner would know what to do. That was it. He knew he had seen the girl before. At the plant nursery. Her mom worked there, and he thought he had heard that Shane was dating her. He placed another sandwich in front of Lizzy. “Eat up youngin’.”

The kitchen became more crowed as Georgie came in. She, too, grabbed a sandwich and a cup of coffee, and began to eat. “There’s an old truck in the barn. Had a key in it but I couldn’t get it to start.”

Told ya, but ya didn’t listen. The water pumps out, and I got the battery disconnected, so I didn’t forget and just jump in it an’ take off.”

Shut up, old man,” spit out Georgie. “I found something even better. Snowmobiles. There’s two snowmobiles in there.”

So,” said Eddie and Tony together.

Snowmobiles,” continued Georgie excitedly. “Snowmobiles go better in snow than cars, you dim-wits. We can take them to the nearest highway or town and - ,” she looked at Lizzy and Beau. “you know – borrow – a decent car or truck.”

You mean steal one?” corrected Eddie.

Well, of course that’s what she mans,” said Tony crossly, “but I sure as hell don’t know how to drive one of them snow things. Do you?”

It’s easy,” said Georgie. “I had a friend who had some where I grew up in Minnesota. You can learn in just a few minutes.”

Hey, Pops. What’s the best way out of here? Not to Bear Creek, either. We done seen enough of that burg. We want a go south or east,” asked Tony.

Beau stared at the younger man. Then without a blink or muscle twitch he lied, hoping against hope that they would believe him. “You can go south about a hundred miles an’ there’s Grangeville. Or you can go back south ‘bout ten miles an’ then head east ‘bout two hundred miles or so into Montana. But you can go north and it’s only ‘bout fifty miles to Coeur d’Alene. There’s a few small places between here an’ there you might find – er – transportation.”

Eddie piped up. “I heard of the Coeur d’Alene place. It’s supposed to be a big town.”

And we went to Grangeville one day, and it weren’t much,” said Georgie.

Long way to Montana,” said Beau. “Snowmobiles won’t make it that far on one tank of gas.”

Tony looked up. “How far?”

On one tank of gas,” Beau stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked at the floor as if thinking. “I reckon, if you're lucky, ‘bout seventy or eighty miles. Snowmobiles ain’t make for long distance travel, like a car.”

The three child-nappers looked thoughtfully at each other. Tony tipped his chair back. He looked out the windows at the now almost dark sky. “Tomorrow morning. The snowplow and wreaker don’t come tomorrow, we’ll try them snowmobile things. See if we can get to Coeur d’Alene. Tonight were the privileged guest of Pops, here.”

Lizzy and Beau said nothing, only looked sadly at each other


9.

At the Sheriff’s suggestion Crystal and Marcie had spent the night at Shane’s apartment. Nether of them had managed to get much actual sleep. Mostly they had sat around, or paced the floor waiting for word of Lizzy. Giving up on even trying any more, Crystal took a long hot shower. She put on the same pair of jeans she had worn the day before, but appropriated a tee shirt from Shane’s dresser draw. She entered the kitchen to find Marcie already there pouring both of them a fresh cup of coffee.

She took the cup Marcie offered her. “Thanks.”

We’ll need plenty of the stuff today, I think. Considering neither of us had much sleep. I’m sure John and Shane had even less.”

They sat at the table, sipping coffee. They both kept glancing at the phone on the counter expecting, hoping, and waiting for it to ring. Through the window they could see snowflakes swirling down in the glow of a streetlight. There had to be at least two feet of the stuff on the ground. Rarely a car would pass by, crunching its way through the new snow. Under different circumstances it would have been a beautiful sight to Crystal. Tears filled her eyes and ran down her face. Where was Lizzy? Where was her baby? Had Tony provided her with a warm bed to sleep in? With food to eat? When would she see her daughter again? Would she ever see her again?

Finally Crystal could not stand to remain in the apartment any longer. She stood, went to the living room picked up her sweatshirt and pulled it on. Then she slipped into a pair of snowboots that sat by the door.

“Where are you going?” asked Marcie.

“To the Sheriff’s office. I can’t wait here any longer.”

“It’s only a few minutes after six. It’s still dark outside.”

“I know, Marcie. But I have to do something. Surely Shane will have heard something by now.”

“If he had, he or John would have called.”

Not saying anything else Crystal reached for her nylon jacket.

“Wait, Crystal. Let me get ready and I’ll go with you. Johns’ there, too. I’m sure they can use all the help they can get.”

The two women walked out into a still dark morning with just a hint of dawn on the horizon. The sky was heavy with the ominous snow clouds that carried a promise of more snow to come. The snow that had fallen the night before crunched under their feet as they walked down the sidewalk and got into the van. She and Marcie hoped and prayed there would be some good news about Lizzy soon.

They were greeted at the office by the weary, tired faces of John and the two night deputies, Ron and Harris. John wrapped an arm around Marcie, gave her a big hug and then included Crystal. “You women should still be asleep.”

“We gave up on trying,” said Marcie. “Has there been any word?”
“Nothing yet,” said John as he rubbed his tired eyes. He had been up for twenty-four hours now. “Shane called in the state boys, and ever cop in the area has been helping, but with the snow ---well we haven’t had any luck so far. The roadblocks are still up. We can hope they stopped somewhere for the night and will be on the move again soon.”

“Where’s Shane?” asked Crystal.

“He was exhausted. I got him to lay down on the old couch in his office and I think he’s asleep. Don’t wake him.”

“Good,” said Marcie. “He’s going to need all the rest he can get for what’s ahead of him today. We all will. You look exhausted, Johnny. Why don’t you go to Shane’s apartment and catch a nap. Crystal and I can help here. We can answer phones and make coffee if nothing else.”

“Yes, John,” echoed Crystal, patting the older man’s arm. He did look all in. “Marcie’s right. Get some rest. Carlos and Trish will be here soon to take over. We won’t wake Shane.”

Marcie gave her husband another hug and a peck on the cheek. “Go on now. Take the van. It’s right outside and still warm. Everything will be fine.”

Trish and Carl came in to relieve the night crew a bit early, as they were worried about Lizzy, too. They took over answering the phones and radio, confirming with the roadblocks and different patrols that no one had seen any sign of the gray Buick, or Lizzy, or Tony. Crystal had given Shane a brief description of Tony after he had called her the day before. He hadn’t responded to her succinct story of why she was running from Lizzy’s dad. She had kept it as short as possible while giving him the pertinent information.

They all sat and listened to road crews on the police radio that were telling of the treacherous roads they were trying to clear, and passed on messages to those who needed to know about snow packed roads, downed phone lines, electric lines, and other more minor problems caused by the storm. Thankfully there didn’t seem to be any medical emergencies to have to respond to.

Crystal made coffee and sat and worried, and remembered. Hannah Elizabeth, her daughter, was only six years old. But in those six years she had so many wonderful memories. Actually seven years, she realized, considering the almost year of being pregnant. She had known her daughter long before she was born. There had been the miracle of the birth itself. The pain and agony followed by the wonder of actually seeing and holding Hannah for the first time. Of watching and feeling her as she fed at her breast for the first time. There had been the first year of smiles, laughter, and tears. Watching her sit up, crawl, and walk for the first time. Crystal remembered learning with Hannah how to explore the world from a toddlers view. And just recently there had been that first day of school, and the new experiences that went with it.

Oh, please, prayed Crystal silently, please let my baby be safe. Let the police find her and bring her back to me. Here Crystal’s hopes dropped even more, as her bad memories of cops and how they were unable to help her when Tony had threatened her and Lizzy. Those same cops had been unable to even keep him in jail. How could they find a small child that had been kidnapped?

She had to remember it was Shane that was heading up the force of policemen that were looking for Lizzy. She kept telling herself that these were a completely different bunch of men that were looking for her daughter. She was sure that Shane was doing all that he could to find her. She had been more than willing to tell him everything that had happened to her in San Diego after she had married Tony and discovered that he was nothing more than a drug dealer and criminal. Telling Shane her story of having to run from Tony when he escaped prison was no problem if it would help him find Lizzy.

It was 7:30 when Shane reappeared from his office, yawning and stretching, as he tried to wake up. “Why didn’t someone wake me,” he asked.

“You needed some rest,” answered Marcie. “We need you to be able to do your best, and that means rest and food occasionally. There’s sausage and biscuits, boiled eggs and doughnuts from Gail’s Café. Now eat.”

It was as Crystal was handing Shane a second cup of coffee to go with his breakfast that the phone rang.


Tony sent Lizzy off to sleep in one of the bedrooms that belonged to a child. She didn’t fuss or complain. She was way to tired for that. She simply crawled into the small bed, and pulled the covers up over her. A stuffed dog, large and fluffy, had been tossed there previously. Tentatively she pulled it to her, then grasped it securely in her arms and buried her face against it. Her tiny body jerked convulsively several times as tears poured onto the toy dog. Gradually they subsided. It was just too much for the six-year-old and she feel into a restless sleep.

Beau was sent to his bedroom and told to stay there. Fully clothed he lay in his bed for many long hours wondering what the next day would bring. He considered trying to escape and walk into town, but knew he would never make it. He figured he might be able to get out of the house without the stupid, idiot city yahoos from knowing he was doing it but he was more afraid of the storm than he was them. The snow was deep, and it was cold and it was a long way to town. At least twenty miles. Even if he could cut cross-country. Of course he might be able to make it to the Kiplan farm, but that was at least five miles and he doubted if his old legs could make it that far either. He eased out of his bed, and slowly opened his closet door. Taking his time he reached onto the shelf above the hanging clothes and wrapped his gnarled fingers around the bottle of whiskey that he knew was there. He stood in the closet and took several deep, burning swallows of the liquid. Moments later he replaced the bottle and slide back into his bed. Sleep claimed him rapidly.

At daybreak he awoke to the sounds of arguing from the three kidnappers. Rising he left his bedroom, and went to the kitchen, his entrance almost unnoticed by the three. Coffee was already made so he helped himself to a cup. He stepped to the back door, pushed the curtain covering the window in the upper portion of the door and looked out. Snow. At least two feet covered most of the ground, and it was still falling, although not as hard as the night before. A slight wind blew, swirling a smattering of snowflakes against the window.

“Hey, Pops, when will that snowplow be here?” asked Tony.

“Can’t say,” answered Beau, still looking out.

“It’s getting late, Tony, we need to get out of here,” said Georgie. “Snowplow won’t pull that car out. ‘Sides we can be long gone on those snowmobiles before it ever gets here.”

“What do I know ‘bout snowmobiles?” asked Eddie, with a look of disgust. He went back to slurping down the bowl of cornflakes he was eating.

“Their easy,” said Georgie. “You just start them up and go. Easier than drivin’ a car.”

“They better be for Eddie,” chimed in Tony. “He sure can’t drive seein’ as how he ran off the road into that ditch last night.”

“Think you could have done any better?” demanded Eddie. “Next time you drive.”

“Enough,” cut in Georgie. “I’ve heard enough of this arguing between you two. Old man, them snow sleds are gassed up, aren’t they?”

“Yep,” agreed Beau.

Georgie stood up from her seat at the table. “Then I’m goin’ a get ready and head north for the nearest town on one of them sleds. You guys can do what you want.” She walked out of the room only to return seconds later. “Old man, you best find me a snowsuit and some good boots. And food. Rustle me up some stuff can be eaten on the road. Chips, candy, cans of beans. That kind of stuff. And a thermos of coffee. – Move it.”

“There’s a bunch of boots in the laundry room. Snowsuits hanging in that closet over there.” He nodded at a closed door next to the one leading to the laundry room. While the woman went in search of cold weather clothing, Beau moved to a cupboard, took out a plastic bag and placed several small cans of meat, beans and fruit in it. He added some crackers, and a can opener plus some plastic eating utensils. He scrounged for a big of chips, and a big of hard candy as well as some chocolate bars. He filled a thermos with the rest of the coffee. By the time he had finished Georgie was back, a silvery-gray snowsuit slung over one arm and holding a pair of matching snowboots that belonged to Beau’s daughter-in-law. Beau had hopes the other two would go with her, and most of all he hoped they would forget about the little girl still sleeping in the bedroom.

“Okay, okay, okay,” said Tony. “We’ll do it your way, Georgie. But you better be right about them damn machines.” He stood up. “Eddie get you and me some of them spaceman suits, too.”

Muttering his objections to leaving a nice warm house for the cold outdoors Eddie, never the less, did as directed. “What about Pops and the kid?” he asked from the depths of the large closet.

“The kid goes with us,” said Tony. “I don’t care ‘bout the old man.”

“Kill him,” said Georgie casually as she shrugged into the snowsuit. “We don’t need him squealing on us. Have the cops on our trail again soon enough as it is with that kid. – Just leave the kid. We don’t need her, either.”

“Yeah,” agreed Eddie, as Beau cringed. “Kill both of ‘em. Get ‘em out of our way and we can stay right here.”

“No, I’m still in charge here,” responded Tony quickly. “We aren’t killin’ nobody. Don’t need more problems. We take my daughter. Just tie up the old man, and cut the phone line.”

Beau snorted in disgust. They had fallen for the snowmobiles and his false direction on how to get over the mountain, but could they really be planning to take that little girl with them? Could Tony really be her father? What kind of man would kidnap his daughter, then take her out in this snowstorm again. He felt he had to try again. “No, please, leave the little girl here. I won’t tell nobody you was here. Just leave the girl. You don’t need her.”

“Shut up,” yelled Tony, as he leaped from his chair and backhanded the old man. “Or I may change my mind about you, Pops, - Sit!” He pointed at a kitchen chair.

Shaking with fear and rage at being able to do nothing to help Lizzy and himself, Beau sat in the chair. A trickle of blood dripped from the corner of his mouth.

Eddie tossed Tony a length of heavy cord that had been hanging on a hook in the laundry room. Tony tired Beau’s hands together then wrapped it tightly around his chest and the back of the chair. He used the rest of the cord to tie Beau’s legs and ankles to the chair legs.

You comfortable, Pops? Your goin’ a be sittin’ in that chair for quite some time. May be a while before anyone finds you. May be a few days, or a week or two or three,” joked Eddie. “May be so long before anyone finds you that you won’t be worth findin’.”

Georgie walked over to where a phone hung on the wall. She took off the receiver and then removed the base from the wall. From a drawer she took a small paring knife and slid it under the wires and sliced through them. She cackled a laugh. “Yeah, what a way to go. Just waitin’ while tied to that chair.”

The thought of dying while tied to a chair didn’t sound like much fun to Beau as the others seemed to think it was, but he knew that probably within a day or so if not sooner his son would be back so he wasn’t as worried as he pretended to be. He just hoped these people were gone before Ben did get back. Especially if he had Laura and the boys with him. And he just wished they’d forget about Lizzy.

But Tony hadn’t forgotten. He reappeared with a small set of boots, and a snowsuit that belonged to one of Beau’s grandsons. He dropped them by the table, and left the room. Moments later he was back dragging a bewildered, still half-asleep Lizzy after him. She looked as if she would burst out crying at any second. He placed a bowl, spoon and a box of cereal and a carton of milk before her on the table. He even poured a glass of juice from the refrigerator. “Hannah you have to eat. We’re leavin’ in a few minutes.”

A couple of tears leaked out of the corners of her eyes and drifted down her face. “Be brave, youngin’. Be brave,” said Beau to the frightened child.

Lizzy gulped at the lump in her throat and rubbed a fist at her eyes. She poured rice crispies into the bowl, poured milk over them and even managed to take a couple of bites and sipped at the juice.

“That’s good, Lizzy. You got to keep your strength up. You just remember your mama and the Sheriff are gonna do everything they can to find you.” Beau kept talking to her, trying to calm her and get her to eat. He was sure she was going to need all the strength a little girl could have for the coming ordeal on the snowmobiles. Now he wished he had found some way to keep the kidnappers from taking the sleds. He wondered if Lizzy could make it up on the mountain in this storm. He certainly hoped so.

“Come on, Ed, lets get the sleds ready while ‘Daddy’ feeds his baby girl’,” said Georgie in a sarcastic voice. She and Eddie left by the back door, letting in a gust of the cold air on their way out.

Lizzy tried to eat some more cereal but gave it up and laid down the spoon.

“You through?” asked Tony.

“Yes,” whispered Lizzy.

“Then put on that suit and the boots.” Tony was putting on the ones he had selected for himself.

Lizzy didn’t say anything, but did as Tony requested. He had to help her pull up and fasten the suit and the boots. A few minutes later they followed Georgie and Eddie out the backdoor, leaving Beau sitting in the sudden silence that their leaving caused. Silence that was soon broken by the roar of a snowmobile coming to life. Beau wanted to kick himself for taking the time last week for getting his two big Yamaha machines ready for winter. He had put in new sparkplugs and filled them full of gas. He had wanted to be prepared for the first big snow. He gave a deep sigh and a couple of cuss words, as he waited to hear them leave the yard and head up the road. A few minutes later they did, the sound of the sleds gradually fading.

Beau didn’t wait any longer to begin the slow process of rocking the chair and inching his way across the kitchen floor. He went slow and careful, fearful of turning over and not being able to get back upright. It was slow, hard work, and Beau was soon panting from the exertion. Sweat was running down his forehead and into his eyes, but he never lost sight of his goal. On the counter was the paring knife Georgie had used to cut the phone lines. She had laid it down on the counter and forgot it.

He finally made it, but was unsure of how to proceed next. He took a couple of deep breaths and calmed himself inwardly while he studied the situation, debating how to proceed. There seemed to be only one way.

Planting his feet as solidly as he could, he stiffened his knees and managed to sort of stand up with the chair still tied to him. Laying his head on the counter, he used his lips and teeth to pick up the knife by its handle. Just as he got it firmly in his mouth, his legs gave out and he sat back down with a thud. He sat a moment and let his muscles stop shaking while continuing to hold the knife in his mouth.

He raised his hands as high as he could and lowered his head and began sawing at the rope around his wrists. It took a long time, but finally the rope parted. When it did Beau dropped the knife in surprise. But the knife landed in his lap. Again taking his time he worked his right hand until the circulation had returned and then he began cutting the cord wrapped around his body and the back of the chair. With that done he cut the rope that encircled his ankles and the chair legs.

The relief he felt at being free again was unbelievable. He stood but kept a hold on the counter top until he was steady enough to walk. Beau had only one destination in mind. The living room. But when he got there he sputtered in frustration at the sight of the phone cord ripped from the wall. Turning he quickly went to his son’s bedroom. “Please,” he pleaded, “not for me. For the little girl.”

The small miracle came to be. The kidnappers had missed the phone in Ben and Laura’s room. A causally tossed shirt had covered it. For once Beau was thankful that Laura wasn’t always a spotless housekeeper. His hands shaking he dialed the Sheriff’s office. Next time Ben offered to get him one of those little cell phones he was going to except it. He had always thought he was to old for those new fangled gadgets. But right now he could have used one.

Crystal listened as Shane took the phone call, knowing from the look on his face it had something to do with Lizzy. Shane seemed to know the caller as he asked several terse questions and listened carefully to the answers, even making several notations on a piece of paper. Finally he said, “Beau, I’m going to send a deputy out to take your statement. And thanks, Beau. You kept your head and did a great job.” He hung up.

“Shane?” asked Crystal. “Did someone find her?”

The Sheriff didn’t answer her, but pushed buttons dialing another number. He spoke into the mouthpiece asking for a helicopter. He frowned as he talked and looked out the window. Then he hung up again. “Trish, is the road plowed out to Beau Preston’s place.

“Probably be a couple of hours yet, Sheriff. It’s not high priority.”

“It is now. The kidnappers and Lizzy spent the night there. They left Beau tied up, but he got loose. They took his snowmobiles and headed north into the national forest.”

Crystal grabbed Shane’s arm. “Snowmobiles. Lizzy has never ridden a snowmobile, - and why did they go into the forest? Shane, we have to go get her. She can’t be out in the mountains in this kind of weather.”

“Calm down, Crystal.” He pulled her to him to give her a hug of reassurance. “At least we have a starting point now. Somehow Beau convinced them that was the fastest way to get to a big town. He had hoped they wouldn’t take Lizzy with them, but they did. At least we know she’s alright.”

“What do we do now, Shane?” asked Marcie.

“I called for a helicopter, but they say the storm is supposed to come back and they don’t know how long it can stay up, but they will do the best they can.”

“But what can we do?” asked Crystal. “I have to do something. I can’t just wait her.”

Shane drummed his fingers on the edge of a desk as he thought, then ran his fingers through his still uncombed hair. “Yes, you can, honey. You have to, but I’m going to go after them. Carl?” He raised his voice. “Carl. You got a snowsuit and boots.”

“Yeah, boss, sure I do.”

“Go home and get them. I’m going out to the ranch and get John’s snowmobiles. You and I are going after those three. We’re going to get Lizzy back.”

“Shane,” Crystal was almost begging. “Shane, you have to let me go with you. Lizzy needs me. I’m her mom. She’ll be so scared.”

Marcie patted Crystal on the arm. “I’m sure she is scared and needs you, Crystal. But what Shane and Carl are going to do will be rough and very dangerous. They don’t need to have to be looking after you as well as Lizzy. Stay here. Let them do their job. They’ll get her back.”

“Marcie’s right, Crystal. Please stay here. I don’t want to have to worry about you, too.”

Crystal leaned her head against Shane’s shoulder. She seemed almost week with worry over her daughter. She felt she needed the strength that seemed to radiate off of him. “All right,” she stammered, her voice slurring with dejection.

“Good girl,” said Shane, and he gave her a quick kiss on her forehead before rushing out the door.



10.


While Shane and Carl were gone Marcie, Trish and Crystal put together a pack with survival gear for them. They got a thermos of coffee, some canned and dried food and several bottles of drinking water for the two men to take with them. It wasn’t long before Carl was back and within the hour Shane drove up in front of the jail. Behind his truck was a small flat bed trailer carrying four Arctic Cat snowmobiles. Carl jumped into the passenger seat of the Blazer and they took off.

Minutes later they had caught up with a large truck with a snowplow attached to its front bumper. It was making good progress as it cleared the road to the Preston farmhouse. It sent a high plume of snow into the air to fall on the shoulder of the road as it made it’s way slowly cleaning the small two-lane highway of the snow. Keeping a good distance back so they wouldn’t interfere with its work, Shane followed the snowplow. It was frustrating to have to take it slow while the plow worked but he knew it was the best way. If he attempted to go around the plow and through the deep snow he would only get stuck.

A short time later the snowplow swung out a few feet to avoid the gray car half buried by snow in the ditch to the side of the road. Not much farther on the big truck made a ponderous turn so it could began the return journey on the opposite side of the road. The driver gave a short, sharp, toot of the horn as the truck passed the Sheriff in the Blazer with the trailer load of snowmobiles behind it.


“Trish,” asked Crystal, “where is the Preston farm?”

Marcie looked up from where she had been flipping through an old magazine. “John and Beau Preston have been friends for a long time. Beau’s a mite older even than John and me. He’s been in and out of the store several times. I’m sure you’d remember him if you saw him.”

“I think I might know who he is. His son Ben comes in to, I think.”

“That’s right. And Laura and their two boys.”

“Beau’s place is east of town,” Trish told her and pointed it out on a map on the wall. Crystal thought it might be on the road or near where Shane and she had spent the night in the old railroad car/cabin.

She paced around the small Sheriff’s office, poured a cup of coffee, took one sip, sat it on a desk, and returned to pacing. Moments later she grabbed her jacket off the coat rack by the door. She turned to speak to Marcie and Trish. “I’m going for a walk. I can’t stay here. Might go down to Gail’s Café. I have my cell phone but if Shane calls let me know, please.”

“A walk will be good for you,” said Marcie, as Crystal went out the door. Marcie gave a big sigh, and began cleaning up the left over breakfast containers and coffee cups.

That poor woman. I sure hope they find her little girl soon. I don’t know what I would have done if one of my babies had been kidnapped.”

“I know,” said Trish. “I don’t have any kids yet and things like this make me think that I never will just so I don’t have to ever experience it.”

Marcie glanced at the clock. It read exactly nine o-clock. “I hate to leave but I guess I should open the store, although I don’t expect to have much business today.”

“Okay, Marcie, I’ll see you later.”

“Let me know if Shane calls in with any good news. I have my phone, too.”

“Sure will.”

The snow didn’t want to let up yet. Dark clouds hung over the small town, obscuring the sun, and a cold wind blew. Crystal trudged through the snow and ice on the sidewalk, past several people just now getting to work and cleaning off sidewalks. She thought of the Wild West Flower Shop. Would Marcie open up? She was sure she wouldn’t be able to do any work today. She hoped Marcie could handle the store by herself. With the snow there probably wouldn’t be many customers.

Crystal turned at the corner and into the small parking lot where Shane and his deputies parked and any one who had business at the Sheriff’s office. She leaned against a Jeep Wrangle, letting her thoughts wander. She wondered if Shane and Carl were at Beau’s farm yet. Did they have the snowmobiles unloaded yet? Were they speeding down the snowpacked road after the kidnappers? Who were the others kidnappers, besides Tony? Would Beau Preston know who they were?

The wind chilled her, and she pulled her jacket closer around her, and paced across the lot and back again. She was trying to figure out what she could do to get Lizzy back. Who had taken her baby girl? How Tony found her? Again?

She stopped by the Wrangler. It was John Milton’s new vehicle. He was so proud of it. He had taken Marcie to the big city a few weeks before to help him pick out a new car to replace his old pickup truck. The Jeep had all kinds of special features, a stereo with a CD player, air conditioning that certainly wasn’t needed yet, power steering, power brakes, four wheel drive, and a bright metallic paint in a pretty bronze color with a black top.

And – and – it had keys in it. As Crystal stared at the Wrangler she realized that in all the excitement John had left the keys in the ignition and the door unlocked. She opened the door, and slid into the plush bucket seat on the drivers’ side. A twist of her fingers and wrist and the small vehicle started. It sat there purring contentedly.

Crystal pushed the shifter into reverse and backed out of the parking spot, then shifted to first and eased out of the lot and out onto the snowy street. She had a quick thought of how John would react when he realized she had taken his brand new little Jeep. He wouldn’t be pleased, not at all. First she had robbed his store, and now she was steeling his car. But she didn’t care. She would just have to deal with John and the consequences later. The Wrangler was the perfect transportation to use to go find Lizzy. It had a full gas tank, good tires and most important four-wheel drive.

It was only a block down the street to the sporting goods store. As she passed it Crystal thought about what she might need in other equipment. If she was able to find Lizzy, she considered the possibility that they would have to be on the run again. It took only minutes for her to stop and buy a snowsuit for herself and Lizzy, boots, and gloves. She added sleeping bags, and a sack of freeze-dried foods.

Returning to the Wrangler she drove north out of town. Her destination the Preston farm. Leaving the town, Crystal turned onto a county road. She was glad the snowplow had already cleared the road. It was still slick in places but the snow was now piled on the sides of the road. She came to the intersection, took the left hand road and continued. She knew Shane wouldn’t like it when he found out what she was planning. Even though she had no idea how she would be able to accomplish it.



After the snowplow continued, Shane drove up to where it had turned. He had seen the strange looking snowmobile tracks coming down the Preston driveway. The plow had covered them over for a short distance on the road, but where it had turned the two snowmobile tracks were again clearly seen where they had gone on down the road.

The trailer holding Shane’s snowmobiles was a large one for carrying four of the unusual machines. Each machine had two skis in front, with an engine positioned over them and covered by a hood. A rectangular seat almost hid the wide rubber track that rotated round and round as it pushed the skis in front of it. In front of the seat were the handlebars, a windshield and the mileage gages. There were running boards for the rider to brace his or her feet on.

Shane had brought all four snowmobiles rather than take the time to drop two of them off, even though it was only he and Carl that would be going after the kidnappers. Now, with Carl’s help he unfastened two snowmobiles from their tie down straps and pulled off their canvas covers. Next the two men each grabbed onto the rear end of a snowmobile and drug it backwards off the trailer, causing the trailer to tip up in front and down in back as it was supposed to do for loading and unloading the machine. With a little more effort two of the machines were sitting on the ground.

Carl was panting with the exertion. He paused a moment as he leaned on one sled. “Sure wish these things had reverse. How much do they weigh? The one’s I’ve ridden before weren’t this big.”

“Yeah, they are heavy. Their not the biggest sleds made but they’re close to it. They’ll weigh in at about five or six hundred pounds each.” Shane nodded toward the snowmobiles still on the trailer. “And that one up there on the left. It’s a little fancier. It’s got reverse.”

“You think maybe we should take it and leave one of these here?”

Shane grabbed hold of one of the sleds again. “I plan on it. Help me get this one over out of the way.” The two men drug it to the side. Then with a turn of a key and a couple of pulls on the starter rope the other one roared to life. Stepping on board Carl eased the snowmobile around the trailer and the Blazer until it was sitting on the unplowed section of the road.

He walked back to the trailer to help Shane, but with electric start and reverse Shane already had the big, green machine on the ground. He drove it over to sit beside the black one.

He followed Carl back to the Blazer, and both men pulled out snowsuits and boots. While they wee putting them on Beau Preston walked up. He had hiked down the long driveway when he had seen the Sheriff drive up. “You think you can catch them, Shane?” he asked by way of a greeting.

“I’m sure going to try. Beau, are you sure you’re all right? I’m sorry you had to get caught up in this mess,” said the Sheriff stomping into his boots and setting a foot on the trailer to lace and tie first one and then the other thickly padded, waterproof boot. They were warm but a bit awkward to walk in. “Beau are you sure that Lizzy was alright when they left? I'm glad you were able to help take care of Lizzy last night. And what else can you tell be about those two men and the woman.” He picked up a helmet, a backpack, and a pair of saddlebag packs for the snowmobile.

“I’m fine, Shane. It’s that little girl I’m worried about. She was all right when they left here. But it’s sure gonna be some nasty weather to have a child out in.” He looked up at the ominous, gray clouds hanging low in the sky.

They looked up as another police car pulled up. Tim Harris stepped out. “Howdy, Sheriff,” drawled the young deputy.

“Tim, glad you’re here. I want you to take Beau’s statement about what happened. You know Mr. Preston, don’t you?” Shane turned to Beau. “Beau, this is Deputy Tim Harris.”

“Howdy, Mr. Preston.” Tim stuck out his hand and shook with the older man. “Sorry to hear about what happened. You all right now? If you need medical attention, I’ll be glad to take you into the doc.”

“No, thanks, Deputy. I’ll be fine. I can handle a lot more than what them three can hand out. No. I’m just worried ‘bout Lizzy.”

“So aren’t we all, Beau,” said Shane. “Tim, get Beau’s statement, and fingerprint the house and see if we can get any prints on the kidnappers. Make sure to take Beau’s prints so we can eliminate them. Then hang around here until you hear from me or the office. There’s not much chance, but they could come back. Keep an eye out for them. I’ll have my radio and my cell phone on. Let Trish know if there are any problems, as well as me. We may get into some really rough country where the cell phone can’t get out or receive calls, so remember to keep in touch with her as well. Oh, and check out that Buick. Look for any kind of ID. Registration and such. Most likely it’s stolen. Fingerprint it as well.”

“Sure thing, Boss.”

“Carl, let’s go.” Shane placed the saddebag pack on the snowmobile, and put on his helmet, while Carl did the same. Within minutes the two men on the two powerful sleds were disappearing down the narrow unplowed road, following the tracks left earlier that morning.




11.


Continuing down the plowed half of the road Crystal saw and passed the snowplow as it was making it’s way back toward Bear Creek. Many long minutes later Crystal finally came to where the gray Buick sat stuck in the ditch. She bit her lip fighting back the tears and fury she felt at the people who had endangered her daughter by driving under such dangerous conditions.

She saw the Sheriff’s Blazer with the trailer attached, still holding one snowmobile with another sitting beside it. She turned her attention to the road leading into the forest. She let the Jeep idle as she looked over the situation. The snow wasn’t that deep and she did have four-wheel drive. She inched onto the first part of the unpaved road. No problem. Feeling a little braver she eased on down the road. Again, no problem. As she continued on down the road she wondered why Shane and Carl had chosen to use the snowmobiles when the Jeep seemed perfectly capable of traveling the snowy road. Wouldn’t it have made more since to use the Blazer, she thought? Pushing that thought out of her mind she continued to follow the snowmobile tracks. She was determined to go on. She had to find Lizzy.

But as Crystal drove farther and farther into the forest the snow became deeper. It became harder to get through the snow. She was glad that Shane had taught her how to use the four-wheel drive in a vehicle as she had never even head of it before she came to Bear Creek. She found she was fighting the steering wheel, shifting to four-wheel drive and then into four-wheel-low, as the going got worse. Progress was slow for the lightweight Wrangler that fought harder and harder to go on forward. She had a momentary thought that a heavier truck would have been better than the Jeep but she didn’t have one.

In places the wind had drifted the snow. Crystal and the Jeep managed to force their way through several piles of snow but one final drift was more than the Jeep could handle. Only a quarter of the way through and the Wrangler powered out. Crystal backed up and tried again, making a few more inches of progress but that was all.

In frustration she yanked the shifter into reverse and hit the gas, but the sudden speed caused the wheels of the little vehicle to start spinning, slipping and sliding on the slick surface. Before Crystal realized what was happening the Jeep was sideways in the road and then sliding off the edge.

Gasping in fright Crystal knew without thinking that it was a steep slope and a long ways to the bottom, with lots of trees, interspersed with a scattering of large boulders and logs. She tried to shift back to first, missed and caught third, as she hit the gas petal again. The engine raced, the wheels spun. The whole vehicle tilted to the left, causing Crystal to yelp in fear and then miraculously the Jeep righted itself, only to slide farther and faster down the slope. It came to a sudden, jarring halt as it hit a large tree growing by a huge boulder.

Crystal’s eyes were closed, and she took several quick breaths as she sat in the seat of the jeep at the odd angle. Would it stay put or was there more to come? Crystal opened her eyes, and looked first up the hill and then in the rear view mirror. Relief flooded over her at the size of the tree and rock that was keeping the Wrangler from continuing its journey down the mountain.

Moving in slow motion she unfastened her seat belt and opened the door. The Jeep didn’t budge. Crystal practically fell out into the snow, grabbing onto a small tree to help her stand upright. Still shaking at the thought of how close she had come to winding up at the bottom of the steep slope, Crystal snagged her snowsuit and boots and a backpack stuffed full of survival gear and food. With her arms loaded she struggled back up the hill to the road.

When she reached the road she leaned against a tree long enough to catch her breath. When she was breathing normally again she put on the dark blue, one-piece suit and then dropped to the ground to pull on the boots. She left her high-topped tennis shoes where they fell. She made another trip to the Jeep to retrieve her purse and a few other items. Back at the road Crystal felt ready to continue following the snowmobile tracks. If only she had a snowmobile. Now she knew why Shane and Carl had opted to use them.

Snowmobile! There had been two snowmobiles left at the trailer. Surely she hadn’t come that far. A mile or less, she figured. With determination she headed back the way she had come. It was a rough, hard struggle in the snow. Crystal was thankful for the packed ruts left by the Jeep. It made the going at least a little bit easier. Finally she trudged up to the trailer, and the snowmobiles. But now that she was here what did she do?

How did you start the thing? Then handlebars had to be for steering. Maybe it was similar to the ATV Shane had taught her to ride last summer. Dropping her backpack Crystal looked it over. She saw the key and gave it a twist, but where was the start button like on the ATV?

“What you doin’, Missy?”

Crystal screeched and jumped as if stung at the sound of the gruff voice. She had been so engrossed with trying to figure out how to start the snowmobile she hadn’t heard anyone come up behind her. Turning around she found herself confronted by an older man and behind him was one of Shane’s deputies. Harris she thought his name was.

“Oh!, um – a -,” she didn’t finish. She just stood there staring at them.

“Ms. Madsen, how’d you get out here?” asked the deputy.

“She drove,” cut in Beau. “That was you, wasn’t it? That I saw drive by an hour or so ago. What happened to the Jeep?”

“Jeep?” echoed Tim.

“I – ah -.”

“You buried it, didn’t you? Wondered what dummy was takin’ that fancy Jeep Wrangler up the road. Figured you wouldn’t get far.”

“I didn’t see no Jeep,” said Tim, taking off his hat and scratching his head.

“Of course you didn’t. You was fixin’ your breakfast and messin’ with them papers, when she done went by,” said Beau. They were leaving Crystal out of the conversation. “Yeah, you was fussin’ with them all-fired important papers when I mentioned it.” He turned to Crystal. “You walk back, Missy?”

“Yes,” answered Crystal. “The – Jeep slid off the road.” No one asked her who’s Jeep it was, so she decided to leave that part out for now.

“You wasn’t hurt, was you?” asked Beau.

“No. No I’m all right. Just out of breath from walking back.”

“What you doing with the snowmobile?” asked Harris.

Before Crystal could answer, Beau asked a question of his own. “You that little girl’s mama? Lizzy your kid? I sure wish I could a done more for her. I really thought for a while they’d leave without her, but they took her with ‘em. I sure am sorry.” Beau ducked his head, shaking it slightly side to side. “But the Sheriff knows what he’s doin’. He’ll get her back.”

“Yeah,” agreed Tim. “The Sheriff will get her back.”

“I want to thank you for everything you did for Lizzy while she was here, Mr. Preston.” She bent over the snowmobile again. “Well, how do you start this thing?”

“See that handle attached to that light rope. Well, you give it a yank,” Beau demonstrated by pulling on the rope, but all he got was a sputter, “and keep yanking.”

Three more pulls and the snowmobile started, the noise making Crystal back up a step. Beau let it run for a minute and then flipped the key, causing instant silence.

“They are loud,” commented the deputy.

“Yeah,” said Beau. “That’s one of their worse problems. They’re real easy to drive, though. Just use the handlebars, like with a motorbike. You got to lean and move with the machine. You ever ride a bike, Missy?”

“Sure,” said Crystal. “When I lived - ,” she hesitated, “before I moved to Bear Creek.” She had ridden a bike. Tony had had one for a while. She and Beau eyed each other. He continued to point out how to handle the snowmobile, and reminding her she should wear a helmet. He made a point out of letting her know there was one in the Blazer. Did he know she had been planning to take the sled and go after whoever had kidnapped Lizzy? Was he trying to tell her how to drive the snowmobile so she could?

“Do you know who has my daughter?” asked Crystal as she walked up to the house with Beau and the deputy.

“Well, now lets see. One guy was named Tony. He seemed to be the leader, and the other was named Eddie. Then there was a woman named Georgie. Now that there woman could be one mean b - - , ‘scuse me, person, if it came down to it, I think. Oh, and that Tony fellow said that the little girl was his kid. That so, Missy?”

Crystal didn’t answer as she absorbed the information. It hadn’t come as any surprise that it had been Tony and Eddie. Deep down she had somehow already known. She had been sure it was his voice on the phone the day before. But how had they found her again? And who was Georgie? She had to find them and get Lizzy back no matter what lengths she had to go to. She sneaked another look at the snowmobile.

“Hey, will you look at that,” she and Beau heard Tim say.

They looked around to where Tim was standing by the snow-buried Buick. Since Tony had left the keys in it, Tim had done as told by the Sheriff and was looking for evidence. He had opened the trunk and found a cardboard box. He pulled out several things. A coin collection, deeds, stocks, and other important looking papers, along with several missing watches and valuable pieces of jewelry. They were all things that had been reported missing or stolen recently.

“That there looks like the coins that Duncan McCutchon had stolen. Guess you can add robbery charges to that kidnapping, huh, deputy,” said Beau, looking over Harris’ shoulder, as was Crystal.

“Guess so,” agreed Tim as he put everything back into the box and closed the trunk lid. He pocketed the keys. “Guess I’ll just leave all that stuff right where it is for now. Safe a place as any. And I figure the Sheriff will want to see it in there.”

At the house Crystal let Beau pour her a fragrant, steaming cup of coffee, and she couldn’t resist when he offered to fix her one of his famous cheese sandwiches. Again he told what had happened while the kidnappers and Lizzy had been in his home.

Afterward Beau and Tim Harris went to the living room to watch a ballgame. Crystal tried to watch but within minutes she found herself pacing from window to window. Returning to the kitchen, she heard the two men each rooting for a different team. A friendly argument arose about the qualities of different players.

Engrossed in the game they didn’t notice when Crystal slipped back into her cold weather clothes and out the back door. The snowmobile started with the first pull of the rope. Tim raced to the door in time to see the sled with Crystal on it disappear up the road.

Beau sundered up behind the deputy, laying a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “Let her go, son, let her go. That’s her baby girl out there and she has to go after her. It’s something she has to do. If’in I was a might younger I’d go with her.”

“Maybe I should go with her.”

“Maybe, maybe not. I sure can’t be tellin’ a deputy what to do. Might be best if you raise the Sheriff. Let him know that Crystal’s headed his way. Might want to let Trish know at the office, too.”

Tim grabbed his phone and punched in the number of Shane’s cell phone. It rang several times then the disembodied voice came on telling him that the person he was trying to reach was unavailable or out of the service area. He would try again later, he thought as he called Trish to update her on what was happening. Maybe the Sheriff would be in a better area to receive his phone call later on.

At first Crystal felt stiff and unsure of herself on the black Arctic Cat snowmobile. By the time she was passing by the Jeep Wrangler she had relaxed enough to learn how to move with the machine. The right hand grip was the gas and the left grip the break. And much to her delight they were heated.

It was a matter of swaying, shifting and leaning with the sled, and watching out for the bumps. Once she felt the rear end fishtail as she took a bend around a few trees and she hit a drift a little to fast, causing the snowmobile to take to the air for a second.

Thankfully the jump only caused her to get about a foot off the ground. After that Crystal made sure not to go over drifts or any other area she couldn’t see well at too fast a rate of speed. She didn’t want to end up going over off the road as the Jeep had.

It wasn’t hard to find where to go. Four snowmobiles had already been over the road and in the fresh snow the tracks were distinct and easy to find. She went on following the tracks, as the afternoon grew longer. In the snowsuit and helmet she didn’t notice the cooling wind or the menacing clouds and the darkening sky. Her only thought was of Lizzy. Lizzy abducted by Tony. Was she still with him? Was he caring for her? Keeping her fed and warm? A tear leaked from her eye to roll down her cheek. “No!” she whispered. “NO! I won’t cry.” Crying would make it so she couldn’t see where she was going. And she had to see.

Squaring her shoulders and giving herself a hard, mental shake Crystal went on through the fine swirling flakes that landed and clung to the snow that was already there.



12.



The Sheriff and Carl were making good time, pushing themselves and the snowmobiles. Shane was sure they were gaining. He could feel it in his gut. Instinct and his quick glances at the tracks of the other snowmobiles told him the kidnappers weren’t adept at driving the snow sleds.

Beau had told Shane that the kidnappers thought they were going to Coeur d’Alene, and he thought they really had believed him. He had, also, hoped that they would leave Lizzy with him. He said if he had know they would take her he wouldn't have miss-directed them. They wouldn’t realize they were going deeper and deeper into a national forest. So far they had managed to stay on the main road though the forest. He doubted they had known when they had left the paved road for a dirt road, due to the snow cover. Even the Forest Service signs were almost unrecognizable, snow covered as they were. Again he doubted if the three city slickers would have known that the signs indicated many hundreds of square miles of forested mountain, deep, treacherous canyons, with rivers and creeks running through them. When night came it would be unbelievably cold without proper shelter. There were no motels, restaurants, or gas stations in the forest. Did they know or even think about that? Did they know what to do to survive the night? Shane wasn’t concerned too much about Tony, Eddie, or Georgie, as he had learned their names were. But he was very worried about Lizzy.

Shane knew he had to catch up with the kidnappers and get Lizzy back before night fell.



The two snowmobiles sat in the middle of the forest road. Or at least what the kidnappers hoped was still a road. It was hard to tell exactly where the road was with all the snow on it. Lizzy sat on one snowmobile, while her three captors stood in front of them arguing about which way to go. It had been an on-going argument for several hours now. In front of them the narrow road seemed to fork. It was not the first time they had made a decision on which way to go since leaving the Preston farm. A helmet dangled from Georgie’s hand. Tony and Eddie had thrown theirs down in the snow. Lizzy took off her small child-size helmet that belonged to one of Beau’s grandsons. “I’m hungry, and I want a drink. And I want to go back to my Mom. I don’t like it out here. It’s cold.” The three adults ignored her. “I’m thirsty. I want a drink,” demanded Lizzy. She was very scared, and tired, and on her way to being a very fussy child.

“Shut up, kid,” yelled Georgie, who was getting as jittery as Lizzy.

“Give her something to eat,” said Tony, also getting quite apprehensive, but it was the wrong thing to say.

Georgie turned livid, and snapped back. “Like I keep saying. She’s your kid. You take care of her.” She stomped off down the road a ways and stood there, first staring back the way they had come and then off in other directions. She stubbed her toe into the snow and dug down to dirt in several places.

“Let’s take a break, ‘fore we star shootin’ each other,” said Tony, for once thinking half-ways sensibly. He went back to the snowmobile, and dug into a saddlebag pack for a thermos of coffee. He unscrewed the cap, poured in some coffee and offered it to Lizzy. “Here, kid. Drink up.”

“I don’t like coffee!” she shouted, and began to whimper.

Tony was frustrated at not knowing how to be a parent to the child. “We ain’t got nottin’ else, ‘cept some water. You got your choice. You don’t drink it, I will.”

Lizzy took the cup and made faces as she sipped at the coffee. She accepted the granola bar Tony handed her, along with a cellophane wrapped cheese stick. Nerves calmed as everyone munched snacks and drank the last of the coffee.

“How much farther do you think?” asked Eddie from where he sat in the snow under a tree.

Georgie threw down a granola bar wrapper and watched as it fluttered away in the slight breeze that whispered through the trees. She stood and did a few simple stretches to try and help relieve her cramped muscles. Riding the snowmobiles had been more strenuous for all of them than they had expected. “I think we might have been conned. That old geezer was lyin’ when he said this was the best way. I think we’re out in the middle of nowhere. The road ain’t even paved now. Nothing under the snow but dirt.”

“Yeah, I think you just might be right, Georgie,” said Eddie as shook out the last dregs of coffee from his cup. He was always inclined to agree with anything anyone else said.

“This road has to go somewhere,” said Tony. “All roads eventually go to a town or at least a house.”

“Yeah, but which way,” moaned Eddie. “You think we’re lost.”

“No we ain’t lost, you wimp. But a lot of these forest roads just go farther and farther into the woods and I think you have to just turn around and go back out the same way you went in. And I hate to bring this up but we done used up ‘bout half the gas in them sleds already,” said Georgie trying to explain to the two men who had never been out in country like this before. It had even been a long time since she had.

Tony was packing away the thermos. He handed Lizzy her helmet. “Put that on, Hannah. We’re goin’ on. We’ll take the right hand road. We’re bound to come to some kind of town soon.”

“I don’t want to.” Lizzy threw the helmet down in the snow.

Tony picked it up and yelled at her. “I said, Put it on.”

“Shit,” muttered Georgie. She was sure he hadn’t understood a word she had said.

“’Sides,” he continued, “we can’t go back. Bound to be cops waitin’ for us.”

“I hope so,” cut in Lizzy. “I hope Sheriff Shane arrests you. I sure hope he does.”

“Oh, shut up about that there Sheriff friend of yours,” yelled Eddie.

“And like I said before, I ain’t goin’ back to jail. You two can come or stay. Don’t make no never mind to me. Put your helmet on, Hannah. Don’t make me have to say it again or I’ll tan your bottom good.” Tony put on his helmet, while Lizzy put on hers. Tony had to help her fasten the chin strap.

“You’re crazy. You know that, Tony. I don’t know why I ever came here with you. Your just whacked out crazy.” But Georgie pulled on her helmet, and straddled the other snowmobile.

“Wait for me,” said Eddie, as he grabbed his helmet up from where he had dropped it and pulled it on, only to jerk it off and try to rake snow out of it. He hadn’t taken the time to make sure it was sitting upside down so the snow couldn’t get in it. As he fumbled with the still wet helmet, he looked back over the open field they had recently crossed. “Hey, there’s someone back there,” he yelled.

Tony and Georgie looked back, too. There were two snowmobiles at the edge of the forest on the far side of the clearing.

“Let’s go,” yelled Tony. “It’s gotta be cops.” He yanked on the start rope and the machine roared to life. He straddled the seat and hauled Lizzy on in front of him. He gunned the throttle and took off, with Georgie doing the same, while Eddie jumped on behind her and tried to stay on.


Halting at the edge of a thick stand of spruce trees to scrutinize the open meadow before continuing, the Sheriff and his deputy tried to get tired muscles to relax by standing up on the running boards and shaking their hands and arms. Each pushed up the visor on his helmet. Carl pulled a small pair of binoculars out of his pocket.

“There!” exclaimed Shane, as he heard a shout and spotted the other two snowmobiles. He saw one person standing and two others sitting on the machines. Where was Lizzy? As he watched one snowmobile was started and began to move, then the other, with the person standing leaping on behind one of the drivers. As they sped off Shane and Carl chased after them.



The field was well over a thousand yards, giving Tony and Georgie a good lead on the two cops who were racing after them, but still Tony was determined to get farther away. He opened the throttle some more making the snowmobile feel like it was almost flying on top of the snow.

Lizzy, sitting in front of Tony had one hand wrapped around a strap that ran across the front of the seat, and the other hand gripped a handful of Tony’s snowpants. Even though he wasn’t really holding her, the velocity of the wind kept her pushed against Tony’s chest, while his arms were on each side of her as he held onto the handlebars. Once or twice his left hand, came off the brake long enough to steady her. Lizzy was really scared now. She wanted to scream and she wanted to cry but could do neither as the snowmobile continued to race across the snow and farther into the forest of dark, dreary looking trees.

More and more trees came into view in her limited vision through the helmet and then disappeared; more emerging and disappearing. It was all very frightening. She glimpsed a large rock outcropping once, and thought she saw a deer. She thought someone might be chasing them because Tony was going so fast. Faster then he had before. Maybe it was the Sheriff. It had to be the Sheriff. Sheriff Shane was her friend, and she was sure he would rescue her from these mean people. It was this thought that kept her hanging onto Tony and the snowmobile as it raced on.

As scared of the cops as Tony was he couldn’t help but be exhilarated by the ride on the snowmobile. Georgie had been right, they were easy to ride. But still he had that nagging doubt that they were headed nowhere fast. Did that old man send them the wrong way? Damn, but he hoped a town appeared soon. There had to be a town, didn’t there?

It was becoming a struggle for Georgie to keep up with Tony. She had remembered the fun of riding snowmobiles as a teenager, but then she hadn’t been racing for her life. And Eddie hanging on behind her didn’t help. He had one hand gripping the strap on the seat and the other around her waist, squeezing her, as he desperately fought to stay on. His feet pushed at her feet as he tried to brace himself on the running boards. Once she jabbed at him with an elbow, yelling at him to quit squeezing her so tight but he never heard her over the noise of the snowmobile and wouldn’t have cared if he had heard her. She glanced back and saw the two snowmobiles still behind her and grasped the gas lever harder trying to go faster.



Shane and Carl tried to cut the distance between themselves and the criminals ahead of them. Shane’s cop instinct told him that it was the kidnapers, and not just some adventurous snowmobilers out to enjoy the first snowfall of the year. He was sure they still had Lizzy with them even though he couldn’t see her.

Cutting corners off the road, he and Carl zig-zagged through the trees and slid around turns when they couldn’t cut through the trees. They raced over open areas reaching speeds of forty and fifty miles per hour, then slowing quickly to go between tress and to jump over logs and snowdrifts.

They made progress, but not enough. They were better drivers but the others had to long a lead. Shane had a quick remembrance of the snowmobile races he had watched on TV. He knew this wasn’t quite as fast or rough but those didn’t have life or death as the trophy.

A few hundred yards father and the two lawmen could only watch as the second snowmobile went into an uncontrollable skid, flipped onto its side and slammed into a snowdrift with a log hidden in it. The driver managed to stay with the machine but the passenger flew off to collide with a large pine tree where he lay unmoving.

Georgie only spared Eddie one quick look as she up righted the snowmobile and another for the rapidly approaching policemen. A quick jerking pull on the rear-end of the machine had it back onto the road again. Georgie gave the starter rope a pull. Even with it’s hood cracked and a bent ski the snowmobile started up. She was kneeling on the seat as she gunned the engine and sped off just as Shane and Carl slid to a stop. They pulled their pistols but neither fired, as they didn’t want to kill the person who might know where Lizzy was. They both had the thought that the little girl could easily be right in line with the bullets if they were to shoot. They couldn’t take that chance. Georgie never slowed down. She just poured more gas to the sled to get more speed as she rushed after Tony.

Eddie lay on the ground, moaning and crying with pain. Carl hunkered down beside him and ran his hands over the snowsuit. “You got any weapons hid out in there?” he asked.

“No,” screamed Eddie as Carl touched his arm. “My arms busted. You be careful. OH – o – o. You gotta get me to a doctor.”

“In good time, fella. In good time. We gotta find a little girl first. You gotta name?”

“Ed – Eddie,” said the man with clenched teeth against the pain of his broken arm.

Shane had been busy at the snowmobiles. Now he came to stand over Eddie.

For a moment he stared down at the short, thin, weasel-faced man who appeared to be about thirty years old. His face was drawn and pale with the pain of his injury. His washed-out blue eyes looked weary and almost sad. Without a word, he eased the man’s snowsuit open then his heavy flannel shirt away, exposing the injured arm. Eddie continued to moan and groan and complain as Shane examined the arm, then bandaged and splinted it.

“Ah, quit your belly-ackin’,” said Carl. “It ain’t bad. Didn’t even break the skin.”

“Now,” said Shane, “I’m going to have Carl take you back to town and a doctor. But first you’re going to tell me why you took Lizzy and where you and your friends are taking her to.”

At the mention of a doctor Eddie had cheered up slightly, but when Shane asked about Lizzy Eddie started struggling to stand up. “No way, man. I talk, Tony’ll kill me.”

“I tell you what – Eddie - ,” Shane grasped him by the collar of his snowsuit, bringing the small-time crook face to face with himself. He spoke in a soft voice that freighted Eddie worse than yelling would have. “Eddie, you best start talking, now, or I might just decide to break your other arm, - for starters.”

And Carl had to add, “You should a seen the last prisoner the Sheriff interrogated. He was in the hospital for a month.” Actually Carl had never seen Shane ever lay an unnecessary hand on a prisoner before. He knew Lizzy’s kidnapping had Shane very angry and upset. He was, too.

Shane tightened his grip on Eddie, and let one big hand drift lightly down the mans injured arm. Eddie whimpered and seemed to try to make himself smaller. “The little girl, is she alright?” asked Shane.

Uh – oh – sure – she’s okay. What ever you say, Sheriff. Tony took the kid - ‘cause he said she was his daughter, - and he wanted her, - and he wanted to get back at his ol’ lady, Chrissi, - and me and Georgie just went along with him, - ‘cause we wanted to leave this rat-hole-town, - that Bear Creek, - and it didn’t look like Tony would leave no other way, - not without the kid – do you see?”

Rat-hole-town?” muttered Carl. Bear Creek was his home and he liked it. It wasn’t a rat-hole-town.

What’s Tony’s last name? And Georgie’s?” asked Shane.

Tony Smyth and George Anna Bullard. Georgie is Tony’s girlfriend. I think. Sometimes – she is – anyway. They have lots of fights.” When the Sheriff turned him loose Eddie fell sideways into the snow and shirked with pain as it jostled his broken arm.

Hands on his hips, Shane considered the situation. He needed to continue after Lizzy. He knew he shouldn’t go on alone but he also knew he had to send Carl back with Eddie. It seemed he didn’t have a choice. “Carl, you take – this,” he gestured at Eddie, “on back to Bear Creek. You probably won’t make it to town before dark, so just get an early start and come back here tomorrow. Unless you hear from me before then.”

Can’t do that, Boss. Can’t let you go after them two by yourself.”

And bring Tim back with you.” Shane sighed, putting a hand on his friends shoulder. “Take it easy, Carl. I don’t plan on doing anything stupid. I’m hoping to be able to catch up and just keep an eye on ‘em tonight. Make sure that Lizzy is safe. I’ll wait for you and back up before I try to make any arrests.”

Gonna be a cold night,” commented Carl.

Yeah,” agreed Shane, “and I hope they got enough smarts to find a little shelter, and build a fire to keep Lizzy warm. I’ll try and keep in contact with you or Trish on the radio or cell phone.” He strode back over to the electric start snowmobile, turned the key, pushed the button to start it, put on his helmet, and stepped on the sled.

Carl watched as Shane took off. He hated to let his friend go by himself, but didn’t know how to stop him. He would have done the same, if it had been his call to make. He shook his head in frustration, then pointed a finger at Eddie. “You give me any trouble, any trouble at all. I’ll leave you out here to freeze. You understand?”

Yeah, yeah,” mumbled Eddie, as he fumbled with the helmet. As he was only able to use one hand Carl helped him put it on.

As Carl turned the snowmobile to make the trip back he yelled a warning to Eddie over the noise of the engine. “Be a wise idea if you hang on back there. You fall off, I’d be tempted to leave you lay.”




13.

Crystal had no idea how long she had been riding on the snowmobile. It seemed like forever. She wondered if she was going the right way but there were diffidently snowmobile tracks stretching out down the road in front of her. Worried about Lizzy and Shane, she pushed on. Once she noticed a raven in a tree. It flew along beside her for a ways, cawing loudly.

Slowing at the entrance to a large meadow, Crystal came to a halt. For a brief moment the snow seemed to let up and the sky turned brighter as the sun tried to burn through the clouds. Crystal noticed it seemed to be fast approaching the last of its journey toward the western horizon, which meant it was late afternoon. A lot later than she had thought it was.

She looked back across the meadow to see a snowmobile coming across toward her. At first she was afraid it might be one of the kidnappers, and looked for a place to hide, but before she could really think about it, the sled was beside her. It was with relief that she recognized Deputy Carl Mendez, as he took off his helmet. The man sitting behind him sagged against Carl’s back.

Hold your own self up,” snarled Carl standing and stepping off the machine. He was looking at the woman on the other snowmobile, not sure who she was.

Crystal removed her helmet. “Carl, am I glad to see you. Where’s Shane? Have you found Lizzy?”

Crystal? What are you doing out here?” He recognized the snowmobile as one of those he and Shane had left at the Preston place. “Uh – no. We haven’t found Lizzy yet. I – I’m sorry,” he apologized at her crestfallen look. “We did however catch this here crook. He was one of those that took her, but he has a broken arm. Fell off a snowmobile and hit a tree. Gotta take him in to the doctor. Shane went after the other two.”

How far ahead is Shane?” asked Crystal.

Most likely a couple of miles by now.”

I’m going after him.”

No, ma’am. I can’t let you do that. It’s dangerous. You need to come back with me. Bad enough Shane’s out there alone.”

Don’t try to stop me, Carl.” She was glaring at Eddie now. “Eddie? It is you, isn’t it? Is Tony with you? Did Tony take Hannah? It was him wasn’t it? That – that damn – damn -,” she couldn’t go on. She was now sure who had kidnapped Lizzy. Why, oh, why hadn’t she been more careful? Why had she thought it all right for Lizzy to walk back and forth between the school and the store? Her fury and rage at Tony and his friend making her see red she jumped off her snowmobile and began to beat at Eddie with her fists. As luck would have it she hit him several times on his broken arm causing him to scream and duck away from her which resulting in his falling off the sled into the snow. She continued to pummel the man until she was out of breath and Carl managed to pull her off the miserable little man.

“That’s enough, Crystal. Stop it. Beating up on this idiot isn’t going to get Lizzy back. Just take it easy.” He held onto Crystal until she seemed to have calmed enough that he figured Eddie would be safe. Then he turned her loose. Eddie lay in the cold snow whimpering and cussing.

“Okay, Carl, you’re right. But don’t try to stop me now. I know my ex-husband Tony has Lizzy now. And she is going to really need me. I’m not going to let that son-of-a-bitch have her. I’m going on.” Before Carl could do anything to stop her, Crystal started her snowmobile and took off.

Carl watched her, knowing there wasn’t anything he could really do to stop her, since he had Eddie to take care of. He reached into a pocket and extracted a walkie talkie police radio. It crackled softly. Turning up the volume he pressed the sides and spoke into the mike. “Sheriff. Sheriff Buckner, you read me. Come in, Shane.”



The Sheriff slowed his snowmobile and turned it off. Reaching into the inside of his snowsuit he pulled out his radio, and listened. He wasn’t sure he had really heard anything or not over the engine noise. It had been more of a feel of a vibration of the little radio. “Carl, was that you?”

“Shane, we got more problems. I just saw Crystal Madsen. Apparently she drove out to Beau’s place and took one of those spare snowmobiles. She’s following you. I couldn’t stop her. Not with this prisoner to look after.”

“Damn,” muttered Shane, as Carl’s words sunk in. “All right, Carl. Wasn’t much you could do. I’ll wait here ‘till she shows up. I’ll decide what to do then, I guess.”

“Okay, Shane. Oh, and she recognized this here fella as Eddie, a friend of her ex-husband, Tony. She knows now that it actually is Tony that kidnapped Lizzy. And she’s really pissed off.”

“I don’t doubt it, Carl. I’m not to happy with the bastard either.”

“You keep in touch with me, Shane. You need any help give a yell.”

“Will do, Carl, if I can. You know how these things work, or don’t work. All depends on fate in these mountains. You keep in touch with Trish at headquarters.”

“Will do.”



The sun dipped lower in the sky, as did the darkening clouds. The few snowflakes spiraling down out of the sky grew in number. A pair of coyotes trotted out of the woods and stopped to smell the strange snowmobile tracks before they crossed them. Their alert ears caught the sound of another machine and they disappeared into the thick trees and brush just as Crystal came around a turn. Unknowing, she crossed their tracks and continued on.

Moments later she caught sight of another snowmobile in front of her. Recognizing Shane standing beside it, she slowed, then came to a stop. She could since the anger in the lawman, as she removed her helmet, and she didn’t give him a chance to protest her being there. “Don’t say what your thinking, Shane, I had to come. Lizzy is my daughter. My responsibility. It’s my fault she was taken. If I had been at the school to pick her up this wouldn’t have happened. I had to come.”

Whatever Shane had been going to say never came out, as he comprehended the guilt that Crystal was feeling. He understood that she did think it was her fault that Lizzy had been taken. He put his arms around her and pulled her close, giving her a quick kiss on the forehead. “No, honey, it’s not your fault. Don’t think that way. Even if you had been there they would probably have taken her anyway. And you or someone else might have gotten hurt, if you had tried to stop it.”

Crystal shivered as she curled into Shane’s arms and against his strong, warm body. It felt so right, so good for him to hold her. She just wished that Lizzy was with them so they could hold and protect her. “But I love her so much, and I don’t think I could handle it if something happens to her or I never get to see her again.”

“Don’t talk like that. Of course you love her. So do I. And we will get her back safe and sound.” He held her a moment longer, then continued, “but you shouldn’t have come out here. It’s dangerous. You saw Eddie with his broken arm. I don’t want that to happen to you, or worse.” He didn’t say he was wasting precious time with her as the kidnappers were escaping with Lizzy. He didn’t know how he was going to persuade her to go back. And it was getting late. Could she get back to Beau’s farm before dark? No, he didn’t think so. And at the thought of her going back by herself, he changed his mind. He wouldn’t send her back. What if she got lost or hurt? He would never forgive himself.

As if reading his mind, Crystal said, “I won’t go back. If you try to make me, I’ll just wait ‘till you go on. Then I’ll follow. I have to find her, Shane. I have to.”

And Shane was sure she would follow him, so maybe it was best to keep her with him, so he would know where she was and that she was safe. Suddenly he found himself as protective toward Crystal as she was of Lizzy. And his protectiveness of Crystal just naturally had to include Lizzy. “All right, Crystal. I can’t send you back alone, and I have to go after those two, and Lizzy. Do you think you can keep up?”

“Yes,” answered Crystal nodding her head. She was tired, but she knew she had to or else go back, and there was no way she was going back without Lizzy and Shane.

A gust of wind pushed at them and threw snow in their faces. Shane looked up at the sky. Aloud he voiced his thought. “It’s only about three o-clock, but it will be dark soon. Wonder if they’ll try to go on or try to find some shelter for the night. Snowmobiles have good headlights but they’re not used to driving them and they have to be getting tired, as well as low on gas. If they stop for the night - - ,” He didn’t continue. If they stopped. If they found shelter. If he could find them. If he could get Lizzy away from them. No, not if, - when. But for now all they could do was go on.



Tony had slowed and stopped again. He had worked out at the gym in prison but since he had escaped he hadn’t done much. Now the strenuous day on the snowmobile was taking its toll. It had been even harder on him since he had Lizzy on the seat in front of him. Georgie pulled up beside him. He got off, took off the helmet, and stretched trying to relieve his cramped and sore muscles. Again he was looking down the road trying to decide if they should go on or go back or just what they should do. Unmoving, Lizzy sat slumped on the seat of the snowmobile, as did Georgie on hers.

Finally Georgie stood, removed her helmet, placed her hands on the small of her back and rubbed. “What now, Tony?”

Tony shook his head. “Cops are behind us and we don’t know what’s in front. We should a come to a town by now.”

“Yeah, but we ain’t Maybe we should find a place to camp for the night. Rest up some. See if we can find a town tomorrow.”

“Camp?” exclaimed Tony angrily. “Camp. Out here. It’s cold, it’s dark, and we ain’t got much food, - I ain’t never camped before.” He admitted. “Aren’t there wild animals like bears, or lions, or wolves? That hick town probably ain’t named Bear Creek for nothin’. Bet there’s lots of bears around here.”

“Can’t say I like the idea, either, but I think – well, we might be a little bit turned around. That old man sent us the wrong direction for sure.” Georgie didn’t want to say ‘lost’, “and as it’s almost dark it would be easier to find our way out of here in the daylight, tomorrow. Don’t you think?”

“Well, do you know how to make a camp? Build a fire? We have to have a fire, or we’ll freeze.”

“Yeah, I can build a fire. Let’s go on a little farther, and find a place more sheltered than this. Maybe in some rocks.” She was trying to remember what her parents had taught her as a girl back in Minnesota.

They put on their helmets and got back on the snowmobiles. Tony was tired and having Lizzy in front of him made it more difficult to maneuver the sled. This time he moved her to the rear of the seat and sat in front of her, hoping that would help. “You hold on tight, Hannah. You hear.” He didn’t think to consider how tired Lizzy was.

This time Georgie led, but at a slower pace as she looked for a place to camp. Tony followed with Lizzy trying desperately to hang on, her tiny hands at his waist, gripping his snowsuit. They went on for a mile, then two, as darkness settled in around them. The headlights of the snowmobiles were casting weird, spooky shadows to each side of the road. Shadows that caused Lizzy to be more frightened than ever.




The big grizzled bear stood in the trees, head lifted, as he smelled the smells, and listened to the sound. All was not well in his forested land. There were sounds and smells that didn’t belong. Once again people and their machines had invaded his home, but the bear was slow to react.

He had spent the long summer and fall eating, and eating so he could survive the winter that had finally arrived. Earlier that day he had found the remains of a deer killed by a mountain lion. Now after eating the one last large meal, he was slowly making his instinctive way to his den hidden deep in the woods. In the den he would sleep the long, deep, hibernation sleep that all bears in the high country slept.

As the snowmobiles came toward where the bear waited near the road the, huge animal sat down and leisurely scratched one ear. Snowflakes drifted softly down to land in his thick silver-tipped fur.





Crossing another small meadow Georgie sped up some, Tony following. Lizzy did her best to keep her hold on Tony but she was exhausted. Back into the woods there were rough spots where the snow had drifted. Tony hit a bump and the snowmobile fishtailed, sliding back and forth before he could straighten it out. He never noticed when Lizzy slid off and landed in a pile of snow.

She sat up slowly and watched the two snowmobiles disappear down the road. She stood up and took a few tentative steps in their direction. There was no way she could catch up and she knew it. It was difficult just walking the few steps as the snow reached to her knees. Shaking with cold and fright Lizzy sat down in the middle of the road. First she whimpered, then started crying, but was too tired and scared to cry long. Quickly the night settled around her as she sat there not knowing what to do. Sitting in the soft pile of deep snow Lizzy dozed fitfully.

Unnoticed the huge bear, large even for his kind, watched the child. He listened to her whimpering, and smelled her human smell along with that of the snowmobiles. He knew from experience that humans could be dangerous, but this one didn’t act like others he had seen and encountered. It just sat there unmoving.

Lizzy didn’t know how long she had sat there in the snow. It could have been minutes or maybe much longer when she thought she could hear the distant hum of a snowmobile. She took off her helmet so she could hear and see better. She wondered if the bad people were coming back for her. She hoped so as she didn’t want to be alone in the forest, but then again she hoped it was someone else. Someone like Sheriff Shane or maybe even her mom. “Mommy,” she whispered.

Not knowing what else to do she stood on the road and waited, not even sure which way she had come or which way Tony and Georgie had gone. Snowflakes fell, like large white feathers, decorating her hair and clinging to her eyelashes. She tried to brush them away, but others fell to take their place. After many long moments she could see the headlights of the snowmobiles.

Going at a rapid pace as they followed the tracks highlighted by the headlights of their snowmobiles Shane and Crystal could see very little in the dark off to either side of the road. Shane was thankful for the tracks, as he was sure that without them he might not have been able to follow in the dark and at such a quick pace. He wondered if they would catch up to them soon or if they would go on all night. He knew they would have to stop sometime if for no other reason than they would run out of gas. He hoped they would stop soon as he was getting tired and was sure that Crystal was, too.

At the sudden sight of the child standing in front of him, Shane squeezed the brake handle tightly and pulled the handlebars to the right causing the snowmobile to skid and throw a plume of snow into the air. Crystal’s reaction hadn’t been as quick and her sled whacked into the side of Shane’s before it came to a full stop. Both snowmobiles ceased their rumbling roars.

Struggling to keep his seat after Crystal had run into his machine, Shane still had the forethought to reach a hand into his snowsuit and pull out his pistol as he tried to see into the dark in case Tony or Georgie were lurking nearby. They could be using Lizzy as bait to get them to stop, for whatever reason only they would know. His eyes slowly adjusted to the dark but he could see nothing that looked dangerous. He reached up with one hand and removed his helmet.

Crystal hadn’t seen Lizzy standing in the road and jarred by the impact of the two sleds it took her a moment to realize what had happened. When she finally did see Lizzy she screamed with delight, ripped off her helmet, and ran to her daughter, pulling her into her arms.

Now that they had their helmets off, Lizzy was able to recognize her two rescuers. “Mom, mommy,” she shouted, hugging Crystal tightly around the neck, as Crystal knelt in the snow, holding her, and both cried with relief.

Shane continued to stare into the dark forest, while watching the reunion between Crystal and Lizzy. He had a feeling something wasn’t quite right, but he couldn’t tell what. Just as he decided there was nothing to see other than trees, and snow he made out a form standing in one of the darkest areas. But it wasn’t human. It was a bear. A very big bear.

The bear watched the humans, his head swinging slowly from side to side. He lifted one big paw then sat it back down. He grumbled softly to himself.

It has to be a grizzly thought Shane. Only a grizzly would be that big. He looked at the pistol in his hand. Suddenly it seemed no more effective than a peashooter would be. He eased his way over to stand between Crystal and Lizzy and the bear. “Crystal,” he spoke softly and slowly. “I hate to break this up, but I’d really like it if you and Lizzy would get back on the snowmobiles. Now.”

Shane’s very urgent tone alerted Crystal to the fact there was danger of some kind. She looked up and saw the bear. “Oh – o,” was all she could say.

“Don’t run, just walk. Do it now.”

Crystal picked up Lizzy and set her on the snowmobile, then got on behind her.

The bear walked a few steps closer, the snowmobile lights illuminating him, causing snowflakes caught in his fur to sparkle like crystals. Crystal gasped a breath at the sight. Lizzy didn’t make a sound.

Shane did not want to have to shoot the big bear. He just wanted it to go away. Shooting it with the handgun would most likely just make it mad.

The bear circled them, its black nose twitching as it smelled the people and the snowmobiles. To Shane it seemed more curious than aggressive, but then it took a step nearer and stood on its hind legs, towering over Shane’s six-foot height. On impulse, as the bear came back down on all fours, Shane raised his hands high over his head and yelled as loudly as he could. Crystal quickly followed his lead, standing and shouting at the animal. The bear snorted and shook its head, and ran into the trees a few feet.

“Start your snowmobile,” commanded Shane.

Crystal grabbed the pull rope and pulled, but nothing happened. She pulled again. Quickly Shane picked up Lizzy and set her on the other machine. He hit the start button and it roared to life, causing the bear to back farther into the trees. With a swift movement he reversed the machine a few feet, then turned it straight with the road again.

Returning to Crystal, he glanced quickly at the snowmobile. In the excitement of finding Lizzy and the slight collision of the two sleds, Crystal had apparently bumped the red kill switch mounted between the handlebars. Shane pulled it back up. One, two, three, pulls and the snowmobile started. The helmets lay in the snow, but no one thought about them in the confusion.

“Get going,” yelled Shane at Crystal, waving her on down the road. “I’ll take Lizzy with me.” Crystal guided the snowmobile around the other one with Lizzy on it.

“Mom,” shouted the little girl, afraid her mother was leaving her.

“It’s all right,” said Shane in her ear, as he straddled the seat behind her. “We’re going to be right behind her.” Lizzy sighed in relief as they quickly caught up with her mom, who had taken a couple of quick looks back to make sure Shane was following with Lizzy. The little girl finally felt safe as she nestled against Shane, and they sped down the road.

Standing at the edge of the trees, the grizzly watched the snowmobiles leave. His big head shifted back and forth almost as if he was puzzled by his encounter with the people. As the noise of the engines finally faded, the wild creature turned to continue on his way. He knew winter had arrived and that he should be sleeping deep in his den. 




14.

Having found Lizzy changed Shane’s plans completely. There was no pressing need to continue after the kidnappers at this time. In fact he couldn’t, not with Lizzy and Crystal to take care of on a cold night in the middle of the forest. As much as he wanted to arrest Tony Smyth and Georgie they would have to wait for a better time and opportunity. For now he had to find shelter for the night. Crystal kept speeding down the road wanting to get as far from the bear as possible, not thinking of the possibility of running into another bear or worse Tony and Georgie, or who knew what kind of danger. Following Crystal, Shane sped up and when they broke into a small open area he raced forward, caught and passed her, giving her a quick thumbs up and wave as he did. In another half mile or so he slowed to a crawl for a ways, finally he stopped then made a left hand turn down a vague, blurry trail, while Crystal wondered if he knew where he was going.

The narrow path was rough, and tight for the snowmobiles to make their way over. It took all of Crystal’s strength to maneuver her machine between the trees that were barely wide enough to allow the snowmobiles to pass between them. With the snowsuit on, her body was warm, but without the helmet her head, face and ears were freezing. She knew Shane was equally cold. She could only hope that Lizzy, sitting in front of Shane, was better protected from the chilling wind, and snow. When she was ready to give up Crystal saw Shane make a right angle turn and there was another road. Now able to increase his speed on the wider road, Shane shot forward for a ways finally pulling over into a snowy clearing and stopped.

Exhausted, Crystal was more than glad to shut off the noisy machine. After dismounting she ran to check on Lizzy who she found was sleeping in Shane’s arms, head on his shoulder.

“Come on,” he whispered to her.

It wasn’t until then that Crystal realized there was a rather good sized A-frame cabin sitting at the edge of the clearing almost hidden by the surrounding trees. They walked to it.

“Who lives here?” asked Crystal. There were no light on and no vehicles around, making her think no one was at home.

“Not sure,” answered Shane, “but I don’t think anyone’s here.”

“Then won’t the door be locked?” Crystal’s thoughts had quickly jumped to a nice warm place to stay for the night, but they couldn’t if no one was there.

“Probably,” said Shane. First he knocked. When there was no response, he tried the door, proving himself and Crystal correct. It was locked. Handing the still sleeping Lizzy to Crystal he pulled a small flashlight from his pocket, flicked it on and inspected the door briefly. Then he flashed the light over the boarded up window. Small bolts held plywood tight to the walls. “I’ll check out the back. Be back in a minute.” He disappeared around the corner of the cabin, leaving Crystal and Lizzy standing there. Moments later he was back. “The backdoor is boarded up like all the windows. Guess no one comes here in the winter.” Turning back to the door he leaned against it experimentally.

Get back,” he cautioned Crystal. She stepped back a few steps.

Shane, also, stepped back two steps. Then with a quick rush he kicked the door. He kicked again. Then hit it with his shoulder and the wood around the latch gave way letting the door swing open. Sweeping the light around the room, Shane moved into it with Crystal following. To Crystal it seemed colder in the cabin than it did outside. Shane flipped a light switch. Nothing. “I’ve no idea where the power box might be or even if there is electricity to it. But tonight it’s shelter. Un, I’ll see to it that the door gets fixed latter.” He smiled trying to cheer Crystal with a joke. “Wouldn’t want the Sheriff to get arrested for breaking and entering.”

Still flashing his light around the cabin, Shane saw a large, old-fashioned coal oil lantern sitting on a very modern kitchen cabinet. He shook it slightly and could hear a slosh of lamp oil. On the cabinet lay a box of kitchen matches. Striking one Shane pulled up the glass globe and lit the wick. He adjusted the flame so it wouldn’t smoke.

With the lantern lit, Crystal could see the interior of the cabin and realized it had the most up-to-date conveniences. Everything except the power to run them. The large front room was a combination kitchen and living room with everything in it’s place and spotless. A toaster, blender, coffeepot and microwave were lined up on the cabinet. The refrigerator door was propped open with a short stepstool, to keep it aired out, and not a scrap of food was left in it. Pillows were fluffed and straight on a sofa with a southwestern design to the fabric. Two recliners were covered with cotton Indian style blankets. A small brass candleholder sat in the exact center of a crocheted doily in the center of the coffee table. A TV and a stereo were enclosed in a white birch wood entertainment center. The walls were real pine logs, the floor of oak parquet, with several braided rugs scattered around. In one corner a black cast iron woodstove sat the required safe distance from the wall. Nearby a woodbox was neatly filled to the top. Shane opened the door to the stove, finding wood already laid in it, so he struck another match and lit it.

Crystal laid Lizzy on the sofa, and she and Shane made a quick inspection of the two small bedrooms and a bathroom.

“Home, Sweet Home,” muttered Shane, as he returned to the front door. Since he had forced it open, it wouldn’t say shut so he wedged a dining chair under the doorknob. A check of the cupboards revealed a good supply of canned goods, and finally pans. He opened a can of pork-n-beans, dumped them in a pan and set it on the woodstove to heat. “Crystal, sit down, honey. Your ready to drop. I’m going back out to the snowmobiles. I want to put ‘em up closer to the cabin and get our gear.” He removed the chair he had propped against the door and went out.

“Be careful,” cautioned Crystal as she sank into a recliner. She was tired, she realized, but also exhilarated now that she had Lizzy back and they were safe in the cabin. Even if they had needed to break in. She heard a snowmobile start up and move to a position next to the cabin. Then the other one did the same thing. Moments later Shane had returned, carrying the rest of their gear and covered in snow.

He dropped the saddlebags on the floor. “It sure is startin’ to come down out there,” he said as he brushed off the layer of snow that he had acquired in the few minutes he was outside. Again he jammed the chair against the broken door to keep it shut.

Crystal roused herself and searched the bags, removing a thermos of coffee, and poured the remaining two cups into mugs she found in the cupboard. It was only luke-warm but tasted delicious. “Shane, I’m so glad you knew where this cabin was.”

“It was really just a guess. I wasn’t sure, but thought there was a few cabins in this area. I tried to call out with both my cell phone and the walkie-talkie radio but couldn’t get anything but static. If I’m right I think this cabin kind of sits in a canyon between two big mountains. Tomorrow we’ll take the snowmobiles back to Beau Preston’s. That is if we have enough gas.” By now the wood stove was beginning to put out some heat. Shane added a couple of sticks of wood and stirred the beans.

“And if we don’t?” asked Crystal, apprehension in her voice.

“Don’t worry. Carl will be coming back in the morning.”

Crystal was still concerned. “What if we run into that bear again? And we don’t have our helmets. We left them with the bear.”

Shane laughed at her little joke. “That was my fault. I guess we should have taken the time to grab them, even if we hadn’t put them on for a while. But I wanted to get away from that critter as fast as possible. And I doubt that bear has much use for helmets. I’ve ridden without a helmet before. As long as we’re careful we’ll be okay. Maybe just a bit cold on the ears is all. And hopefully we’ll be able to find them. And as far the bear – well, he’ll probably be long gone. Considering the time of year and as fat as he looked he’s more than likely hunting for a den for the winter.”

Crystal had taken off her snowsuit as had Shane. Now she stood by the stove warming herself as she drank the coffee. “I should have thought he would have already been hibernating.”

“Most times they are by now. Guess this one was taking in the snow scene first.”

A small voice spoke from the sofa. “I hope the bear don’t come back. And I don’t want Tony or Georgie or Eddie to come back, either. I don’t like them.”
Crystal crossed to the couch and knelt beside it taking Lizzy into her arms. It was the first time she had had a chance to speak to her. “Did he hurt you, sweetheart? Did he hit your or – or – anything?”

Shane listened intently for Lizzy’s answer, not sure what to expect. What kind of a man was Tony anyway? He had kidnapped his daughter. Did he really want her, or was he just wanting to hurt Crystal for leaving him? What kind of man would kidnap a little girl away from her mother, even if he was her father, and would he hurt her?

“No, mom. He didn’t hurt me. I was just really, really scared.” She hugged her mother hard to her, with Crystal hugging her back. “Especially when he left me alone back there where the bear was. You know, where you found me.”
“Yes, Lizzy,” said Shane. “Why did Tony leave you there?”
She ducked her head hiding her face as if she had done something wrong. “I – I don’t think he knew. I – I fell off the back of the snowmobile. Dumb, huh. He put me behind him when we took off. I – I got so tired and I – I just couldn’t hang on anymore, and fell off. I – I don’t think he knew.” By the end of her statement she was whispering. “You – you’re not mad at me because I got tired and fell off, are you?”

“No, of course not, baby,” quickly answered Crystal. “I am not one bit mad at you. I am mad at Tony. I’m sure you did the very, very best you could.” She hugged Lizzy to her and kissed her forehead.

“Didn’t the woman, Georgie, see you fall off?” asked Shane. In his mind he was making a case of not only kidnapping, but child endangerment, abandonment, neglect, and anything else he could think up.

“No. She was in front of Tony on another snowmobile. She didn’t know either.”

Shane couldn’t think of any way to charge them with sheer stupidity, but he could hope they were spending a very cold night wherever they might be. In fact he decided they might have done Lizzy a favor by not realizing she had fallen off, since he and Crystal had found her. But, remembering the bear, he hated to think what would have happened if they hadn’t found her when they did. Yes, he would differently charge them with child endangerment, and abandoning her.

“I’m hungry. Where is this place?”

“It’s a cabin that Shane knew of, and we have beans heating,” answered Crystal.

“Is that all?”

“Well, let’s see.” Shane got another pan and poured a bottle of drinking water in it. “When this heats you can have either instant coffee or hot chocolate.”

“Hot chocolate.” Was the quick answer. “Beau fixed me hot chocolate, too. He was nice. Is he all right? I think those bad people hit him.”

“Yes, they did, but he’s fine,” explained Shane. “Beau was a big help in our finding you.”

“I liked him.” Lizzy said quite emphatically.

“So did I,” said Crystal. “When we get back you can go visit him and thank him for being nice to you.” She had rummaged in the cupboards and found soda crackers, canned chicken soup and deviled ham, along with canned peaches. It was a simple meal, but filling and more than Crystal had expected after the experience of the long, hard day. Especially here in the middle of what she thought of as wilderness. She would have to find a special way to think Beau Preston and the owners of this cabin, if they could figure out who they were.

It was only minutes after she had eaten that Lizzy was curled up asleep on the sofa again, her head on Crystal’s lap, while Crystal softly stroked her brown hair. She watched Shane build up the fire for the night and reinforce the broken door with a recliner he pushed in front of it, instead of the small chair. At least they would hear anyone trying to break in.

“Crystal, we better get some sleep, too. Come on,” Shane slipped a hand under her hair and rubbed the back of her neck, then bent down and kissed her. “Come on,” he repeated, “there’s a big bed in the other room.”

“But – but what about Lizzy?” whispered Crystal.

“She’ll be fine, right here.”



The temperature dropped, while bigger, fatter snowflakes came down faster and faster. Georgie had stopped when she saw a jumble of large boulders. She had been thankful for a littered mess of tree branches that had broken off when a tree had fallen across one of the boulders a long time before. It would provide good firewood for the night. A rat’s nest under another large rock supplied tender to start the fire. Tony hadn’t been any help. He had picked up a couple of pieces of wood, then stood and watched while Georgie built a small fire near a large flat rock, surrounded by other boulders, and a few trees.

“Can’t you make it bigger? I mean like put more wood on it,” he complained, as he shivered, arms wrapped around himself.

“No,” yelled Georgie. “If we’re not careful we won’t have enough wood to last the night.”

“Well, can’t you like find some more?”

“You want more wood, Tony. Get off your butt, and get out there and find it. Not me. I’m tired. I’m getting some rest.”

“Maybe we should go back and find Hannah.” Tony had been surprised when they stopped to find his daughter was gone, but Georgie hadn’t cared.

“I told you before. You want to go back, you go ahead. If she couldn’t hang on, that’s her tough luck. I’m glad she’s gone. We didn’t need no kid, no way.” She lowered her voice. “Not sure I need you, either.”

“What was that?” asked Tony, even though he really had heard her.

“Nothin’. Just nothin’. Most likely them cops done found her by now, anyway.” Georgie had no idea weather the cops had found Lizzy or not, and didn’t care. She had only said that to try and get Tony to shut up.

Tony hoped so. Hannah was his daughter and he had wanted to take her away from Chrissi. He had wanted revenge, but he had no desire to go back and find her in the cold and dark. He had always considered himself a brave person, but this big, wild, western, mountain country was scaring the pants off him. Hannah would just have to fend for herself, since she hadn’t been able to hang on to him and the snowmobile. Maybe she had even done it on purpose to get away, he thought. Yeah, that had to be it. She had known the cops were right behind them. Maybe she had even seen them, and she had jumped or fallen off the snowmobile on purpose so that she could get away. The more he thought about it, the more Tony was convinced that was the way it had happened. Hannah was differently with the cops now. He didn’t have to worry about her anymore.

He pulled some snacks out of his backpack and munched on them while Georgie did the same. Soon both of them wrapped themselves in some light blankets that they had stuffed into the packs and tried to get some sleep. The cold kept them from getting much rest. The fire would burn low so one or the other of them would add some more fuel to it. Tony swore he would never get himself into such a fix again.




The big grizzly had continued on with his search for his den, forgetting about his encounter with the humans. Finally he stood on a ledge next to a huge pine tree. He worked his way partway down the steep trail, putting each big paw slowly and firmly in place before he moved the next one. He stood and sniffed the air several times; snowflakes matting to his coat as more and more fell from the dark sky. At last he located the entrance to the cave almost hid by a thicket of scrub oak brush. He pushed his way in. It was just big enough for the large, forest creature to turn around, which he did several times. It was dark inside; smelling of the dry oak leaves that made a thick, warm bed for him. The wind whipped the snow outside the cave but didn’t find it’s way inside. The bear lay down pillowing his head on his big paws. His eyes closed, and with a big sigh his breathing became deep and even. Winter had claimed him.





Shane kissed Crystal again, turning it into a long, deep satisfying kiss. Then he helped her slide a pillow under Lizzy’s head and tuck a blanket around her. “Come to bed,” he said, as he picked up the lantern and disappeared. “Come to bed with me, Crystal, please.”

Unsure of what she should do, but knowing she had to have rest to be able to face the coming day, Crystal made her way to one of the bedrooms. She found Shane already there, removing his boots. She made a vague gesture toward the other room. “Um – I’ll – use the other one.”

“No – please, honey,” Shane stood and took her hand. “I love you, Crystal. You and your daughter. I want both of you to be part of my life. Will you, Crystal? Will you share your life with me?” Shane hadn’t thought out what he would say. It was totally unplanned. “Will you share this bed with me, Crystal?”

Crystal didn’t have to think about her answer any more. “Yes, Shane. Yes. I’ll share my life and my bed with you, if you’re sure you want me. If you’re sure you want us. Hannah Elizabeth and me.”

“I do, Crystal. I love you both. I love you so very, very much.” Shane assured her by pulling her close and kissing her. It was the only way he knew of to convince her.

Crystal couldn’t believe it. She was in love with Shane, a lawman. She was in love with a sheriff. “I love, Shane Buckner,” she said as she kissed him back. His mouth claimed hers.

The lantern gave a soft glow to the room, and just enough light they could see each other and the old wooden bedstead, with the pile of soft blankets on it. Crystal feel into a deep sleep under the think, pile of blankets, held snugly in Shane’s arms. She woke once to the howling of the wind. Slipping from the bed she went into the other room to check on Lizzy, who still slept soundly on the sofa. Quickly she returned to the bed and Shane’s arms where she fell back to sleep.

The wind picked up and whistled through the trees. Tony jerked awake at the sound, Georgie still asleep beside him. They had gone to sleep leaning against a large log. Even in the snowsuit, Tony shivered. He placed another piece of wood on the fire, and then another. The snow hissed as it came down into the fire.

Earlier he had heard an owl, or that’s what Georgie had said it was. He hoped she knew what she was talking about, when she had said nothing much would be out in a storm like this. Tony figured he shouldn’t be, either. He wondered if morning would ever come. And if it did, what then? What had they gotten their selves into, out here in this God-forsaken place? Would they ever get out? It couldn’t be soon enough for him.

The snow came down harder, draping the forest with a thick, white blanket of white, and covering all the snowmobile tracks that had been made the previous day.



15.

A dim gray light was trying to dispel the gloomy dark, and for a few moments Crystal was confused as to where she was when she woke. Slowly, then quickly her memories came back. She thought about Lizzy being kidnapped by Tony and the chase through the forest on the snowmobiles the day before. But more importantly she remembered finding Lizzy and then Shane declaring his love for her and her for him. Could she really be in love with a cop? Yes, she was. She reached for him, thinking he would still be beside her in the bed, only to discover it was Lizzy. At some point Shane must have left and either Lizzy came to her or Shane had put her in the bed with her mom. So where was Shane?

She eased from the warm bed so as not to wake Lizzy. The cool air of the room caused her to shiver and shake as she quickly pulled on her clothes. The door to the room was open and the sight of Shane on the couch, asleep, gently snoring reassured her.

The fire was almost out, so Crystal opened the door and added two good-sized chunks of wood. When she looked up Shane was sitting up watching her.

“Mornin’,” he greeted her. With her long hair dangling down her back and a sleepy-eyed look on her face he thought she looked like an actress out of a western movie, here in this small cabin, putting wood in the old-fashioned stove. And most of all she had a very kissable look to her. So he did just that. He stood and gave her a long, satisfying kiss. Satisfying to both of them.

Finally Crystal broke away long enough to return his greeting. “Good morning,” and she crossed her fingers that it really would be a good one. “What caused the change in sleeping arrangements?”

Shane pulled Crystal down on the sofa with him. “I got up to add wood to the fire, and Lizzy woke up. She wanted you, so I sent her into the bedroom. I didn’t have any choice but to take the sofa. I missed you.” He nibbled at her neck and ear.

“I missed you, too. But I’m so glad we have Lizzy back with us. And thank you for giving up the bed to her.”

“Yeah, me, too. I mean I’m glad we found her. And it’s no trouble to give up my bed for her. I’m sure she really needed to be with her mom after the ordeal she must have been through for the pass couple of day. I could wring the neck of that Tony fella. If – I mean when I catch him, I’ll make sure he stays in jail for a long time.”
“I think I could do more than wring his neck. But I guess I’ll have to let the law handle it, even though the law sure couldn’t handle it before. Not to change the subject, but is it still snowing?”

“Don’t know. I haven’t looked. I’d much rather look at you. But shall we?” Crystal had blushed at Shanes’ words. She couldn’t imagine any one finding her worth looking at. Shane stood up and pulled on his jeans over his thermal underwear, then he and Crystal moved the chair so they could peek out the door.

The cloud cover was still heavy but the snowfall had slacked off with only a few white flakes drifting down here and there. But the storm had left about another eighteen inches of snow on the ground in most places and in other places the drifts were a lot deeper. One drift against the cabin was a good four or five feet tall. Ice cycles hung from the eves, caused by the warmth of the woodstove causing the snow to melt and then the water had refroze as it tried to run off the roof.

“Well, how about we fix some of that instant coffee and a little breakfast out of the canned stuff we found. Then we can head back for Bear Creek,” suggested Shane.

“Sounds good to me,” agreed Crystal.



Georgie awoke to loud snoring and a heavy weight on her. She punched Tony in the ribs. “Get off me.” He had helped keep her warm but he was getting awfully heavy.

Tony groaned, shook off snow and cussed Georgie, the cold and the world in general. He picked up a stick and stirred the coals, got a flame going and piled on the last of the wood they had collected.

Georgie got out a bottle of water, only to find it frozen. She chewed on some very cold jerky and a granola bar, as she held the bottle over the fire trying to thaw it.

“Got any more?” asked Tony.

“Get your own,” she snapped, huddling as close to the fire as she dared. “Who do you think I am anyway? Your slave or something. Well you better think again.”

Sometime later, as the fire died down the two would-be kidnappers gathered up their few things and, after several tries, got the snowmobiles started. The skis and tracks were frozen to the ground and they had to do a lot of pushing and pulling to break them loose.

“Which way?” asked Tony. “Think we should go back to look for Hannah?”

“Hell, no,” answered Georgie. “I ain’t goin’ back. You can if you want. She’s your kid. Most likely them cops got her anyway. I’m goin’ on. Find a town. There’s got to be one soon.” Opening the throttle of the snowmobile she threw a plume of snow at Tony as she took off.

With one last look back the way they had come, Tony followed her. He thought he should go back and look for Hannah but he didn’t have what it took to go by himself, so he followed Georgie. Like she had said the cops would have found her by now anyway.

Several miles down the road they came to another fork. For whatever reason Georgie took the left hand side. Later she took another left and without realizing it the road lead around several curves and down a long straight stretch then across several meadows. Without being aware of it they had almost gone in a circle.

Suddenly, lacking any warning, the snowmobile Georgie was riding died. It went dead still in the middle of the road. Staring at the fuel gage, she cussed all things that ran on gas.

What’s wrong?” asked Tony.

Georgie literally snarled at him like a trapped lion. “It’s out of gas, you idiot.”

Tony looked at the gas gage mounted on the gas tank right in front of his seat. “This one’s almost empty, too,” he muttered. He didn’t want to think about what it would be like out here in the damnable wilderness with no way out but to walk. He hung his head in despair. How had he let Georgie convince him to leave the old man’s farm on the snowmobiles?

Don’t do no good to sit here,” Georgie pulled the nearly depleted pouch from the machine and got on behind Tony. “Let’s get as far as we can on this one.” Neither of them looked back at the other snowmobile as they left it.

As far as they could get wasn’t very far. Within a couple of miles the snowmobile sputtered and then coughed, then it, too, quite. After another yelling match at each other, the two set off down the road. They still had hopes of finding either a settlement or at least some farms or country homes where they could get some kind of transportation that would take them back to a civilized city. They had only walked a couple of hundred yards when they realized just how difficult it was to walk in the deep, fluffy white stuff that surrounded them. Huffing and puffing they began to sweat inside the snowsuits that were designed for riding snowmobiles, not hiking. They struggled on at a slower pace to conserve energy, but it looked to be a long trek to the nearest place that could be called civilized.

Entering a stand of trees, Georgie leaned against one to rest and catch her breath. “Listen,” she hissed at Tony, who had dropped to his knees by another tree.

I don’t hear a damn thing.”

Shut up and listen.”

Now Tony heard it, too. An engine, a motor of some kind. “Come on,” he struggled up and they continued on.

I smell smoke, too,” said Georgie. “Must be something up ahead. Maybe a town.”

At the edge of the trees was a small clearing and both of them could see an A-frame cabin, smoke drifting from its chimney. Beside it were two snowmobiles, with a man bending over them, apparently inspecting them.

Well, well,” said Tony grinning, “We got a house and transportation.” He reached into his snowsuit and pulled out a gun. Georgie did the same.



There was only a slight breeze, but the gray, lead-colored clouds scuttled across the sky in a hurry. The sun tried to shine through the clouds but managed only a dim, cold light. It was not going to be a bright, beautiful day but Shane didn’t care. The storm could have still been going full blast and he wouldn’t have cared. He was so happy he felt like he was floating on air. He wanted to sing, and shout for joy because Crystal had said she loved him. And just as important was the fact that he could admit to himself and Crystal that he loved her and Lizzy.

He whistled a simple, tuneless sound over and over as he started each snowmobile, broke out the frozen skis and tracks, and checked over the engines. He wanted to get started back to Bear Creek as soon as possible. Raising the hood on one machine. Shane gave a tug to the clutch belt, checking the tension. He thought he heard someone walk up behind him but didn’t pay any attention as he expected it was Crystal. That is until he felt a hard shove to his back. “Hey,” he yelped in surprise and turned around. “All right, Crystal, don’t get pushy, I’m almost - ,” he stopped speaking at the sight of a man and a woman standing behind him. Both stood with feet slightly spread, and each held a pistol in their right hand pointed directly at him. Shane was sure he knew who they were, although this was the first time he had actually seen them.

For the space of five heartbeats no one said or did anything, then Tony cackled a strange laugh. “Weren’t expectin’ us, were you, Marshal.”

Sheriff,” corrected Shane. “I’m just a county sheriff. You really don’t need those guns. We can talk this out.”

Sure we can, - Sheriff,” put in Georgie. “Just as long as you understand we’re takin’ those snowmobiles.”

Sure.” Shane had no qualms about agreeing to their taking the machines, as long as they didn’t go into the cabin and find Crystal and Lizzy. “Take the snowmobiles. Go.” He raised his hands slightly in a passive gesture.

Not yet, Mister Sheriff. You got a fire in that cabin. Maybe food. Yeah, you got some food. I’m hungry, and you can cook for us,” said Georgie.

Tony glanced at Georgie as she turned to go to the cabin, and Shane saw his chance. He sprang at Tony, grabbing his gun hand and together they fell into the snow, rolling and struggling, snow flying in all directions. They fought for possession of the weapon. They struggled back to their feet. Shane drew back a fist and hit Tony on the jaw, and Tony returned the punch. Shane threw another at Tony hitting him hard in the belly. Tony doubled over, and Shane grabbed the gun away from him.

A shot rang out and Shane dropped the gun as a numbness enveloped his whole right arm and hand.


At the sound of the gun shot, Crystal had darted out the door, to stop short at the sight of Georgie holding a gun pointed at Shane. Shane was standing very still, while Tony scrabbled in the snow for the other gun. Crystal’s heart speeded up at the sight; thumping loud enough she was sure Tony could here it.

Lizzy, too, had run to the door but at the sight of Tony and Georgie slipped back to hide behind Crystal.

Stay back,” said Crystal, using one hand to hold Lizzy behind her, she shielded the girl with her body.

Now, having found the gun, Tony was on his feet, laughing sardonically at the look on Crystal’s face. “Well, now, if it ain’t my darling wife, - and my kid, too. How do you like that?”

Ex-wife,” spit out Crystal.

Get inside,” commanded Tony, waving the gun. “You, too, Sheriff. Good shootin’, Georgie.”

Not good enough. I was aimin’ at his head,” said Georgie, as she fell in behind Tony, who was following Shane into the cabin after Crystal and Lizzy.

Shane moved stiffly, his arm held at his side. He could feel the blood running down his arm and soaking into his shirt and snowsuit. The numbness was turning to a white-hot, burning pain.

Crystal turned to look at Shane, asking with her eyes what she should do. What they should do. Now she noticed that Shane looked pale and seemed to be in pain. “Shane, are you all right.”

I’ve been better.” He unzipped the front of the snowsuit and slid it off his broad shoulders. He was careful not to let it drop lower than just above his waist. His right arm was soaked in blood from just below his shoulder down.

Oh, no. You’ve been shot,” Crystal was appalled at the sight of the blood. Was Shane going to die? Would he be all right? And how would they get out of this mess so they could get him to a doctor? She took a deep breath to try and steady her nerves. She knew she couldn’t fall apart now. Not in front of Tony and Georgie. And she had to help Shane.

Don’t worry,” said Shane, as if aware of all her unasked questions. “I don’t think it’s broken. Bullet just passed through the muscle. See if you can find something for a bandage. Got to stop the bleeding.”

Georgie had been watching Crystal and Shane. “Now ain’t that cute. The little woman wanting to play doctor with the big, bad cop. Leave him alone. I like to see a cop bleed. You got any food around here. Hey, you Chrissi, you bitch. Fix some food.” She prowled through the cupboards, gun still held in her hand.

Over there,” said Crystal pointing at a cabinet door, but ignoring the command to leave Shane alone and fix some food. She pulled out a drawer she remembered seeing some kitchen towels in, took a handful and returned to Shane.

Fighting dizziness and nausea, brought on the pain and sight of the blood, he had sank onto one of the recliners. He knew he had to stay alert so he could get Crystal and Lizzy out of this mess, but he was having a hard time of it. Crystal folded a pad of towels, and Shane held them in place as she tied another tea towel around his arm to hold the makeshift bandage in place. She didn’t know what else to do for the time being.

Lizzy had curled up into a corner of the sofa. She looked as if she wished she could just sink into the big, soft cushion and disappear. Crystal was keeping an eye on her and had murmured a few hopefully reassuring words to her.

Tony had watched Crystal help Shane, and had dabbed at a trickle of blood from his cut lip where Shane had hit him. Now he, too, sat on the couch by Lizzy. She whimpered as he pulled her to him. “Hi, Kido. So how did you get here after jumping off the snowmobile?”

Leave her alone!” demanded Crystal. She started to go to Lizzy. The sight of Tony holding her daughter was almost too much.

Easy,” whispered Shane, his good hand holding Crystal back from attaching Tony. “You don’t want to make him madder, so that he starts shooting or something.”

I didn’t jump,” said Lizzy in a surprisingly defiant voice. “I fell, and Mom and Sheriff Shane found me. You,” she looked him right in the eye, “didn’t come back. You - didn’t care that I fell off.”

Tony laughed at the little girl’s bravado. “Chrissi, darling, if you’re through playing nurse, be a good little wife and do like Georgie said, and fix us something to eat.” He pulled Lizzy tighter to him. “That is if you know what’s good for you and this kid, - and that there Sheriff.”

Go ahead,” said Shane. “Do what he says.”

Georgie had pulled out some canned meat and crackers. Around a mouthful she added, “Yeah, bitch, be a good little wife-y and fix some food. Cup of coffee would taste real good. Oh, and don’t worry about the cop. He ain’t gonna be around long enough to be needin’ any food.”
“We don’t have any water left for coffee,” said Shane. “Unless you melt snow.”

Georgie, get off your butt and get a pan of snow and melt it,” commanded Tony. “Make sure it’s clean.”

Reluctantly Georgie did as told, making it plain she only did it because she wanted some coffee.

Crystal opened another can of beans and upended them into the pan she had recently washed with melted snow water. She opened a can of corn to go with the beans. Georgie returned with the biggest pan filled with snow. She added several chunks of wood to the almost dead fire.

Chrissie, darling, hurry it up,” said Tony. “We’re hungry, aren’t we, Hannah?”

The little girl looked at the man who had his arm around her. “No, I’m not hungry. And my name is Lizzy. Don’t call me Hannah again.”

Tony laughed his awful laugh. “You got spunk, kid. I’ll give you that. Just like your old man, huh? Just like me.”
“Old man?” asked Lizzy. “What old man?”

Me, darling. I’m your old man. Your daddy.”

Lizzy tried to pull away from Tony but he held on tight. “You’re not my Daddy. He’s dead. Let me go.”

Leave her alone, Tony. Please. She doesn’t know about us.” Crystal had stepped closer to the couch pleading with her ex-husband. “I never told her about you. I said her father had died.”

What’s the matter, Chrissi? You ashamed of me. Didn’t want my daughter to know her daddy was a crook? That she had a jailbird for an old man. Well, she knows now, don’t she. And I’m gonna take her with me. She’s gonna be just like me, aren’t you, kid?”

No! I don’t want to be like you.” Lizzy struggled in her father’s arms.

Please, Tony, leave Lizzy here, and just go. Go! We won’t try and stop you.” Crystal was almost begging.

Georgie shoved her gun in Crystal’s face. “Hey, bitch, you leave Tony and the kid alone and tend to the food like you were told. ‘Sides we can’t just go. That there cop knows to much.”

So far Shane had stayed out of the conversation, if such it could be called. While everyone’s attention was off him he had slipped his hand into the snowsuit, unsnapped the little leather strap that held his pistol in place and closed his hand over the butt of the gun. It had been pure luck that neither Tony nor Georgie had though about searching him for a weapon. They certainly didn’t seem to be the smartest crooks he had ever known. Now he decided to try and defuse the situation a little. “Take it easy, Crystal. Don’t push. Just do what they say and fix the food. That water melted so you can make some coffee yet?”

Georgie wheeled around, now pointing her gun at Shane. “Stay out of it, Po-lice-Man. Just stay out of it, ‘fore you temp me to put another bullet in you,” she yelled at him. Turning back to Crystal she commanded, “Make the coffee.”

Shane could tell Georgie was at the point of doing something desperate and dangerous. She seemed to be getting more nervous by the second.

Crystal set out some plates, and silverware and then put the food on the table. She was scared, angry and furious at what was happening. By sheer luck she and Shane had managed to get Lizzy back and now it looked as if they were going to loose her again. She wanted to do something, anything, to get the upper hand. To find some way to get the guns away from Tony and Georgie, so that Shane could – could do what? Arrest them? Shane was hurt. She didn’t think it was life threatening, that is if he could get medical attention. But she knew that wouldn’t be until they could get control of the predicament they were in. Maybe a cup of coffee would calm everyone’s nerves, as Shane seemed to think it might. Maybe after eating Tony and Georgie would just leave. She set out five coffee cups, heavy mugs with a western design of howling coyotes on them. Crystal was sure she, too, would have howled at the frustration of it all, if it would have done any good. She spooned instant coffee into four cups and a package of hot chocolate for Lizzy. Picking up the heavy pan of melted snow water, she poured the first cup.

Tony stood up. “Over here,” he said and as he moved to the table, he jerked on Lizzy’s arm to make her go with him. At the rough treatment, she cried out.

Don’t hurt her!” yelled Crystal.

Lay off. Don’t be so rough with the kid,” shouted Shane, half rising from the chair.

Stay put, Sheriff,” commanded Georgie, swinging her gun in an arch to cover the whole room.

Shane almost pulled his gun, but hesitated. A shootout wasn’t the answer. Crystal or Lizzy could and most likely would be hurt. His heart told him to do something, but his brain and police training stopped him, saying it could only make things worse. But he knew if Georgie started shooting he would have to. He sank back down into the recliner.

But Crystal had had all she could take. She had taken too much from Tony in the past, and had run to far to get away from him. When Tony yanked Lizzy again, she attacked him, hitting and pummeling him with her fists. Tony backhanded her hard and she fell to the floor, knocking over a kitchen chair. When he hit Crystal, Tony had released Lizzy and she had scuttled out of the way, hiding behind the sofa. Crystal’s head rang from the blow, tears sprang to her eyes, and she could feel her cheek start to swell.

Shane couldn’t hold back any longer. He lunged at Tony, throwing a punch that landed on Tony’s jaw and had Tony windmilling backwards to trip over the chair Crystal had knocked over. Georgie yelled wordlessly, and fired a shot that whizzed past Shane’s head to bury its self into the wall.

Crystal sprang to her feet and looked wildly around for a weapon. With little thought she grabbed the pan of still very hot water and threw it at Georgie. The hot water radiated out to drench Georgie and the pan struck her gun arm. She dropped the gun, her hands flying to the burning pain on her face, where a large amount of the water had landed. Now she screamed from the agony of the burning water.

The gun lay on the floor at Georgie’s feet. Crystal threw a fast right fist into Georgie’s midsection. With a whoosh of air she sat down. Crystal grabbed up the gun and holding it with both hands pointed it at the kidnaper where she cowered on the floor, whimpering from the pain.

Shane knelt on the floor, holding his arm and trying to get his breath back. The momentum of the punch he had hit Tony with had caused him to fall down. Now he struggled up. He saw Crystal holding Georgie at gunpoint and Lizzy peeking over the back of the sofa. But no Tony. Just an over turned table and an open door. And the sound of a snowmobile starting up and leaving with a roar.

Crystal, tie her up and stay here. I’m going after Tony.”

Shane disappeared out the door before Crystal could answer. She wondered how he would manage with his injured arm, but knew she had to stay and care for Lizzy while holding Georgie for the Sheriff. She hoped he would be all right. For some reason she remembered that Shane had said Carl would be back this morning. She hoped it would be soon, and that he would know where they would be. They could sure use his help.



As he raced out the door, Shane struggled back into the top half of his snowsuit that still hung around his waist. With difficulty he started the other snowmobile, thankful it was the one with the electric start, so he didn’t have to pull on a starter rope, and took off after Tony. At first it was hard to steer the machine with the injured arm, but when he caught sight of the fugitive in front of him, he forgot about being hurt and sped up.

Sheriff and lawbreaker raced down the snowy road, snow plumes spraying out from behind each machine. Tony went faster when he glanced back and saw Shane behind him. He fishtailed around corners, slipping, sliding. He would let up on the gas to take the turns, and then hit it harder on the straight stretches.

Shane glanced at the speedometer. It read forty miles per hour. Seconds later it was at fifty, and still it crept up. Fifty-three, fifty-seven. At sixty Shane let off the gas, while Tony seemed to be flying on down the road. Loosing sight of Tony, Shane continued on at a fast but safer rate of speed. He swung around another long bend and up a slight hill with a hard left hand turn at the top. As he made the turn he noticed the snow was churned up and the snowmobile tracks disappeared to the right and down a steep slope. Breaking hard, Shane slid to a stop.



After Shane had left the cabin, Crystal had hesitated a few moments while still holding the pistol on Georgie. Georgie sat on the floor whimpering about the burns she had sustained from the hot water Crystal had thrown at her. What could she use to tie up the woman, thought Crystal as she darted a look around the cabin.

Lizzy, are you all right, honey?” she asked.

Y – y – es, Mom.”

Honey, I need you do something for me. Over in that top draw, under that microwave, are a pair of scissors. Walk behind me and get them, please, Lizzy.”

Okay, Mom, but why?” Lizzy did as her mom told her to. “Now what?” she asked holding out the scissors.

Uh – uh – see that lamp. Make sure it’s unplugged.” Lizzy checked by pulling on the cord until she found the end. “Now cut off the electric cord. Cut it up by the lamp part.”

Lizzy looked at Crystal as if she thought her mom had finally gone completely crazy. “Mom?”

Just do it, Lizzy.”

Lizzy shook her head in wonder but cut the cord off the lamp.

Now bring it here.”

Lizzy handed the cord to Crystal. Georgie, now quiet, offered no resistance when Crystal laid the gun on the table and wrapped and tied the cord tightly around her wrists. Only then did Crystal let out a big sigh of relief.

Crystal spent several long minutes reassuring and calming Lizzy and herself, and fixed each of them a cup of the hot chocolate, letting Lizzy have a handful of cookies with the drink. It seemed to Crystal that Lizzy had come through the gun battle and fight better than she had. Lizzy was all excited that they had captured Georgie and had her tied up.

She didn’t want to get to close to Georgie again in case she should try to get away or do something equally stupid. She knew Georgie wouldn’t have done it for her, but she couldn’t sit there and not help the woman. From what she could see the burns were just superficial, but she couldn’t tell for sure. Making an ice pack out of a towel, she filled it with snow, and handed it to Georgie.

Georgie just sat holding the cold, wet towel to her cheek where the worse burn was. Finally she cleared her throat and said, “You were the smart one, Chrissie. Yeah, you were the smart one. Tony ain’t nothin’ but trouble. You left him, I didn’t. Now look what it’s got me.”

Crystal didn’t have a reply. She was at a loss for words. What could she say to the woman who had helped kidnap her daughter. She, at least, had had enough since not to get involved in any of Tony’s criminal activities, although, she should never have had anything to do with him right from the start.




Pulling his gun, he stepped off the machine and eased over to where he could look down. At first he didn’t see Tony or the snowmobile. Then he spotted the sled on it’s side braced against a large rock with Tony pinned under it. As he watched, unable to do anything to stop it, the snowmobile slid around the boulder, and with nothing now in its way, went faster down the slope, still on it’s side. As it slid it dislodged snow, dirt and small rocks. Tony screamed and fought but his leg was still caught under the machine. Within seconds the snowmobile was almost to the cliff edge. From Shane’s view it looked as if the cliff dropped off for hundreds of feet straight down, and that there was no way the sled or Tony could keep from plunging over. But as it hit a small flat ledge, the snowmobile flipped back upright and stopped. It tetter-tottered on the ledge but it stayed put.

Totally panicked, Tony scooted on his rear end to get farther away from the snowmobile and cliff edge. Shane was afraid Tony would some how still cause his snowmobile to go over the cliff. “Take it slow, Tony, real slow.”

Shane realized he could hear approaching snowmobiles. Seconds later Carl and Tim came to a halt by Shane. “Howdy, Boss,” called out Tim cheerfully. He and Carl surveyed the situation quickly. “I got a rope,” said Tim. “Let me pull that feller up.”

I’m sure glad to see you guys.” Shane was more than willing to let his two deputies take over.

You all right, Shane?” asked Carl, noticing that his friend was favoring his arm. “And where is Crystal? And the little girl? What about them?”

Yeah, I’m all right, Carl. Crystal’s back down the road at a cabin, holding our other prisoner.” He filled in the facts for his friends while they hauled Tony back to the road. Carl made a quick call to Trish to let her know what was going on, and to ask her to have a helicopter sent to pick up, first the prisoners, and then the wounded Sheriff. Quickly the three lawmen and their very quiet, subdued prisoner stated back to the cabin.

Shane had a silent wish that his snowmobile would stay where it was until he could return with a wrecker and wench to pull it up. There were places in the forest even snowmobiles didn’t want to go, and over the edge of that cliff down to the bottom of that deep canyon was one of the places to draw the line at.



The sound of snowmobiles caused Crystal to try to prepare for the worse in case it was Tony returning to try and take Lizzy again. She picked up the gun and pointed it at the door, but Lizzy ran to open it.

“Sheriff Shane,” she cried out, jumping up and down in delight. “Look, Mom, he caught Tony.”

Crystal was just as thrilled to see Carl, and Tim with Shane. Tony was between them in handcuffs. He limped heavily and there were scratches on his face, but Crystal could have cared less. She ran past her ex-husband to the Sheriff, who gathered her into his arms and gave her a big kiss.

Shane entered the cabin with Crystal on one side of him and Lizzy on the other. A quick glance told him Georgie wasn’t seriously hurt, nor was she going to be any kind of a problem. At least not for the time being. She and Tony seemed completely defeated. Shane dropped into a chair. He suddenly felt totally exhausted, and his arm throbbed painfully. His hand shook slightly as he accepted a cup of coffee from Crystal.

Again Crystal made more coffee. This time for Carl, Tim, and, again Tony. She didn’t think she would ever be able to face another cup of instant coffee again. It would always remind her of this day. She watched Shane sitting with his head laid on the back of the recliner, eyes closed. Her heart flip-flopped at the thought of how much she loved him, and how close she had come to loosing him. She laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently.

Setting the cup of coffee he still held on the end table beside him he reached up and grasped her hand. He wondered how soon before he could ask her to marry him. He wanted it to be a more private, special time and place. Certainly not where Tony and Georgie could hear it.

Lizzy placed her small hand on Crystal’s and Shane’s. “Can I sit with you, Sheriff Shane?” She didn’t wait for an answer, but climbed into his lap and put her arms around his neck.

“You sure can, Lizzy. I’d like that,” answered Shane in a soft voice as he hugged the child back. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Tony watching the three of them with an expression that could only be described as a mixture of pure jealousy mixed with disgust.

Moments later the sound of a helicopter landing near the cabin caught the attention of everyone.



16.

Marcie thought her surprise wedding party and reception was a success as she watched all the guest eating good food, dancing, and enjoying themselves. She was especially pleased when she saw Shane and Crystal dancing on the improvised dance floor in the small barn. She and her friends had set up tables for the food, and hay bales for places to sit and eat or gossip. She turned to John. “Well, I didn’t think we would ever get those two married.”

“What do you mean, woman. It’s only been ‘bout two weeks since Shane proposed to her. Only three since them crooks took Lizzy. Shane’s arm ain’t completely healed up yet.”

“Doesn’t look to me as if he’s having any problems with it,” said Marcie as she watched Shane holding Crystal as they danced. He hadn’t let her out of his sight once since the wedding ceremony.

Crystal and Shane had said their vows in front of the local justice of the peace early that afternoon. Trish and Carl had stood up with them along with Lizzy. They had opted for having only John and Marcie and a few other close friends there for the ceremony. Crystal still wore her wedding dress, a satin dress in a light dove gray color trimmed in white lace. Shane was sure she couldn’t have looked more beautiful. And Crystal was sure Shane couldn’t be more handsome than in his dark gray western suit, white shirt, black boots and hat.

Lizzy had stated that her cute pink dress was way to frilly and fuzzy but she had agreed to wear it anyway. She still wore it now as she ran and played with several of her friends. Marcie was sure it would never be clean again, as it had several streaks and splotches of different kinds of food, and more than it’s share of just plain dirt on it now. Her hair that had been so carefully combed and pinned up for the wedding was now a tangled mess, with even a few pieces of hay for decoration. But that was all right. After what the child had been through it was so good to see her laughing and playing.

Shane and Crystal had been surprised to arrive back at the ranch for supper to find a lot more friends gathered for a barbecue, along with a huge wedding cake, and a pile of wedding gifts. Marcie and John had planned it without their ever getting a hint of what was going on.

Gradually the noise subsided as everyone left, and the newlyweds got ready to leave. Shane had taken a week off and he and Crystal were going on a honeymoon at a nearby lake resort, but Lizzy couldn’t understand why she couldn’t go.

Retreating to the bedroom, Crystal changed into a new cashmere sweater and silk dress pants with a matching jacket. She kept rubbing the single gold ring that encircled the third finger of her left hand. There was a matching one on Shane’s left hand. As she dressed and hung the wedding gown in the closet, she mused over her life, especially the past several months. From a city girl in the slums, to the wife of a drug dealer, to a woman on the run from an abusive husband, and then to almost becoming a criminal herself when she held up the gift shop. That was where her life had really made a drastic change. She had met Shane Buckner. He had given her one more chance at a decent life. And now she was Mrs.
Buckner, his wife. How could anyone be so lucky?

When she returned to the living room she saw Shane had changed back into his regular flannel shirt and jeans. Her eyes lit up and glowed again at the sight of her husband. She knew she would love him forever.

A very tired Lizzy watched them put their suitcases in Shane’s truck. “Why can’t I go?” she wanted to know for the um-teenth time.

“Lizzy I already explained to you. It’s what people do when they get married. Shane and I will be back in a week and then the three of us will do something very special together. Okay?”

“Okay, Mom,” said Lizzy with a sigh that made her seem older than she was.

“Hey, hotshot,” said Shane, “while we’re gone you think about what you want to do.”

“I already know. I want to go snowmobiling and I want to learn to ski.”

A look of horror flashed over Crystal’s face. She had been sure Lizzy would be afraid of snowmobiling and dislike anything to do with snow forever. “Are you sure? There’s lots of other things we could do.”

“Sure, I’m sure. I really liked snowmobiling. Except for the falling off part. And that didn’t hurt, just the being by myself hurt. But next time I want to drive one myself,” answered a very confident Lizzy.

Shane burst out laughing. “Okay, hotshot, but think about it anyway. And another thing. While we’re gone you decide what name you want to be called. Hannah, Elizabeth, or Lizzy. Or maybe Beth.”

“Yes, honey, that’s something you need to decide on. We’ve had enough name changing. I’m going to keep mine as Crystal.” It was what Shane had wanted, too.

“Oh, I already decided. I’m going to change my name to something really different. I heard a name on the TV that I really liked. I’m going to change it to Jane. Jane Doe. I like that name, don’t you?”

“O – oh – o,” echoed Shane and Crystal together. Neither knew how to respond to that.

Stepping in to temporally solve the problem Marcie and John ushered Shane and Crystal into the truck and they and Lizzy waved them off to begin they’re honeymoon and new life.



The End