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Sheriff Cole Walker shifted his aching butt in the saddle and flicked the reins. “Come on, Scout. We’re home.” He urged the horse onto the hard-packed dirt street of Cold Creek.
He left Scout with the Smithy and crossed the street, pausing briefly to stretch his long legs. Opening his office door, he breathed in the heady aroma of the fried chicken and biscuits left on his desk by Old Baldy. The cook at the Sundance Saloon really knew how to do up chicken, all tender and smackin’ good. Licking his lips, he headed for the food basket.
He pulled up short. “What the ….?” Thumbing back his Stetson, he stared at the half-eaten chicken pieces and crumbs littering the desktop and floor. “Who the heck ate my lunch? Someone’s sure in for a passel of trouble.”
Cole checked the two jail cells in the back room. Still empty. Maybe a hard-luck case decided to sneak upstairs to his living quarters and get cozy at his expense. He took the steps two-at-a-time.
“Dang it! This sure galls me after spending two nights sleepin’ under the stars.” The steps groaned as he stomped back downstairs. He jammed his hat on the wall-peg by the door then ran his fingers through his sweaty dark hair, not relishing the notion of fetching more food in this heat. Baldy would probably ring his ears off, too. He’d rather starve than listen to the old coot, no matter how tasty his chicken and fixin’s.
Something shuffled under the desk.
The hair on the back of Cole’s neck prickled. He drew his six-shooter and worked his way over slow and easy like then leaped in front of the desk. “Come out you dang thief, or I’ll pump you full of lead.”
He bent his knees, his eyes glued on the darkness under the desk, the gun steady. Two small eyes focused on him. His heart smacked the bottom of his ribs and his stomach jumped up to meet it. He jerked upright and backpedalled—fast. “Who let a critter in the office? Someone playing a joke?”
Cole settled his finger on the trigger. Any critter was a menace, clear and simple. He still had the scar on his butt from his pa’s hound dog when he was a little mite to prove it. And, he didn’t even want to think about the time Widow Cox’s cat wouldn’t come down from her apple tree. When he had reached for the cat, it lunged and buried its claws into his chest. Cole had bellowed like a wounded mule and fell into the blackberry thorns below, ripping his new shirt to shreds. Uh-uh, critters didn’t cotton to him, nothing but bad luck and a heap of trouble.
Six-shooter firmly gripped, he hunkered down and peered under the desk again. Soft brown eyes in a little face blinked back. The animal chattered and poked out its head.
Cole steadied his pistol. His mouth popped open. “A monkey! Here in Kansas?”
The monkey screeched and covered its eyes with tiny hands.
Wiping the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, Cole eased back on the trigger.
The critter peeked at him from between small fingers then curled into a quivering ball on the plank floor. Cole stepped back to the wall, crouched, gun held steady on the bundle of fur. A shiny metal collar encircled its neck. “A pet? Who in tarnation would take to owning a monkey in these parts?”
He took a deep breath to settle his nerves and eyed the broom propped in the corner. Maybe he could swoosh the varmint out the door. He didn’t have to get close to it, and he had a fast draw if needed.
Eyes never leaving the monkey, he stood and slid his back along the rough wall, his shirt rasping on the wood. He made his way slowly past the grimy window and snatched the broom. Cole holstered his gun, sidled over to the door and opened it wide, the piercing August sunlight almost blinding him.
He swallowed hard. “Come on fella, get outta here!” The bristles sent the animal screeching and scurrying to the back room toward the cells.
Cole lightened his steps and peered around the corner. The menace was hanging onto one of the jail bars.
Wielding the broom handle like a spear, Cole poked at the animal. The monkey hissed, baring his teeth. Cole yelped and scooted backward until the bars rammed into his hip. The creature screamed and raced back into the front room. Cole followed hot on its tail.
Dang. He ran under the desk again and the door’s wide open. Cole peeked at the monkey huddled in the dark kneehole. “If you don’t get out that door and get lost, I’m gonna have to shoot you. You understand? Now get! Shoo!” Cole flapped his arms like a wounded bird trying for flight and stomped on the floor, making a ruckus. No luck.
He leaned on his long handled weapon, sighed, then slid his hand down the wood handle and sat on the floor. He didn’t trust the monkey worth a dang. Critters belonged outside, not underfoot—especially under his foot. But, what if it belonged to some youngster? He couldn’t stand the thought of some snot-nosed tyke crying his little heart out and badmouthing the big bad sheriff who shot his pet.
A rumble from his stomach reminded him the varmint ate his lunch. Now he’d have to wait till suppertime for a decent meal. Sweat pooled under his arms, his shirt stuck to his back. He needed a smoke …bad.
Cole reached into his shirt pocket and took out his makings. He laid the broom tight to his thigh. Unsteady hands lost some tobacco but he managed to roll a cigarette and light it. He had to think up a way to get this unholy terror out of his office.
The monkey peered at him, blinking his eyes pathetically. It crept from under the desk. Cole held his breath and inched his hand toward the broom. The monkey somersaulted, stood straight, and clapped its hands. Cole swore the little thing was grinning. It somersaulted again then hopped up and down, clapping.
Cole snapped his fingers. The monkey chattered, nodded its head, then did another tumble. After a long drag on the cigarette, Cole snapped his fingers again, his right hand never far from the broom, or his holster. The creature sat on the floor, tilted its head, and stared at him. Cole evil-eyed him back while he ground the butt out on the floor.
A biscuit lay next to the wall. Cole threw it at his foe. The monkey made a quick one-handed grab, blinked, and gnawed on the crust. The thing did look a little scrawny.
“When you’re done eating my lunch, will you leave?”
The monkey looked up and shook its head.
“Huh? If I pack you a lunch, will you leave?” Again, the monkey blinked and shook its head. Cole’s chest tightened and he put his hand on the warm grip of his pistol. “If I shoot at you, will you leave?” The monkey shrieked, ran under the desk, and hid its eyes with its hands.
“Who are you shooting at, Cole? And why in the world are you sitting on the floor?”
His head snapped up and he found himself sinking into the sweetest blue eyes. Mattie Wells grinned, deepening the dimples in her cheeks.
Honey curls caught his eye, right next to that string bean of a dandy, Thaddeus Preston, owner of the Sundance Saloon. The man wore a fancy blue shirt with pearl-like buttons. His shiny dark hair was parted in the middle and slicked back. He held a straw hat, and he was sure flashing a lot of teeth at Mattie. Her laughter sent heat curling to Cole’s stomach. He strode over and tried to muster a smile, but his lips were too stiff.
“Oh, Cole, there you are.” Mattie slipped her arm through his, her touch sending little jitters up his shoulder. “I was just telling Thaddeus that I brought plenty of food and invited him to join us. It seems he has many wonderful tales to tell about the early territory here, and I love learning about the history of places.”
Dang, he’d left his gun with Sully. He nodded to Preston and glanced down at Mattie. “I reckon…if that’s what you want.” But he didn’t have to like it one bit. The man was greasier than a wheel on an axle and known to be a smooth talker with the women. Cole had been in the Sundance Saloon enough times to drink sarsaparillas and get a sniff of the skunk’s ways.
Preston’s hand shot out and shooed something away from Mattie’s head. “See, the bees take to honey.” He flashed more teeth. “I can’t let that insect sting your lovely skin.”
Cole looked around. He didn’t see a bee—anywhere.
Pushing wisps of hair from her face, Mattie smiled. “Why, how thoughtful of you,
Thoughtful my butt. Cole swallowed his anger.
These two characters make a fun pair.