Read The Shining Badge Online

Authors: Gilbert Morris

The Shining Badge (24 page)

“Sure, but it’s more than that.”

Ruby tried to frown. “You’ve got nothing to do but go around watching women to see if they’re depressed?”

Moon picked up the coffee, drained it, then put it on the table and shoved it to one side. “You need to get out more.”

“And do what?”

Moon clasped his hands together and squeezed them. “What about Jack Edington? You used to go out with him once in a while.”

“Not interested.”

“And Ben Latimer. You went over to the state fair with him.”

“Wasn’t interested.” Ruby got up, disturbed by the conversation. Walking over to the table that held the coffeepot, steaming atop a hot plate, she poured herself a cup of coffee. But when she turned, she was surprised to find that Billy was standing right behind her. He moved so softly for such a big man that she hadn’t heard him approach. “Don’t worry about me, Billy,” she said.

“I do worry about you,” Moon said. “And I know what could get rid of the blues for a woman like you.”

Ruby stared at him skeptically. “What’s that?” she demanded, leaning back against the table, effectively increasing the space between them.

“A hug.”

Ruby had wondered for some time when this was coming. The other deputies had made passes at her, and she had cut
them off frigidly. Now her eyes glinted. “Oh, and I suppose you’re volunteering for the job.”

“A man does what he’s gotta do.” Moon smiled suddenly, and humor gleamed in his dark eyes. “It’s a man’s duty to spread sunshine and cheer.”

“I’ve had lots of volunteers for that.”

“You think I’m kidding, but a hug will do wonders for you. I’ve been working on this theory a long time, and here’s what I finally figured out, Ruby. Four hugs a day are necessary for survival.”

“Only four?”

“Well, it takes eight for maintenance and twelve for growth.”

Suddenly Ruby laughed. “You’re a caution, Billy!”

“Listen, now, I worked hard on this theory. But I think it’s important who you get the hug from. For example, a hug from a man’s son would be worth about twenty from his mother-in-law, I figure. And I think it differs from area to area, depending on community standards.”

When Ruby saw that Billy made no move toward her, she relaxed. A smile turned the corners of her lips upward, and she said, “And you’ve been administering some of those therapeutic hugs to Maisy down at the Elite Café.”

“Well, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it,” Billy said and shrugged modestly. “I tell you what. Why don’t we go out and eat tonight, and while we’re eating, I’ll explain my theory more fully.”

Ruby considered this and for a moment was tempted to say yes. She was attracted to this man, but still she hesitated. It wasn’t because Billy was Indian. She cared little about the opinion of some small-minded people in this town. No, her hesitancy had more to do with men in general. Ruby had survived a hard marriage and had built up a wall against men. She said, “I . . . I don’t think so. Thanks for asking, but you know I’m suspicious of men.”

“I noticed that,” Billy said. “You just haven’t known the right one.” He turned and started for the door.

After he left the room, Ruby stood, still staring at the door.
He sounds all right, but he’s a man, and he’ll take advantage if he can.
Something about her thought displeased her, and she shook her head and went back to the ledger and began to write.

****

Jimmy Duo was playing solitaire with a greasy, worn deck of cards. One of the cards was missing, so he had made a three of diamonds out of a piece of cardboard. The sunshine streamed through the barred window like bars of pale gold, and Jimmy hummed under his breath, looking up only when he heard the outer door open and close. When Sheriff Winslow came to stand in front of his cell, he smiled and nodded. “Good morning, Sheriff. How be you this mornin’?”

“I be fine, Jimmy. Was breakfast good?”

“Best ever! If you don’t do anything else as sheriff but hire a good cook to take keer of us, then I say you done good.”

Jenny stood there smiling at Duo. He was a pitiful man to her but always cheerful, and she made it her business to stop by every day to give him a word of encouragement. The ravages of drink had lined his face, and he was thin almost to emaciation, for when he was not in jail he spent every dime on wine or alcohol in some form. He had even drunk wood alcohol, he had told her once, and it had nearly killed him.

“I wish you had a better life, Jimmy.”

Duo looked up surprised. “Do you, Sheriff?”

“Yes, I do. You’re not an old man. You’ve got a lot of years ahead of you.”

“Not if I keep on drinkin’ wood alcohol.” Duo smiled cynically. “But I don’t reckon I’ll try that again.”

“Do you have any family?”

“No, I ain’t got nobody.”

“Not even a cousin or an uncle? Someone like that?”

“Somebody put me on the porch of a Methodist orphanage in Cincinnati, Sheriff. No note or nothin’. Just left me there like I was a bottle of milk or somethin’.”

“Was it hard in an orphanage? I’ve heard bad stories.”

“Well, since I never knowed nothin’ else, I couldn’t say. They never beat me or nothin’ like that. You know what I missed most when I was a kid?”

“What was that, Jimmy?”

“Nobody ever told me I done good. When I was a kid I used to work hard around the place, and all I wanted was for somebody to say, ‘Good job, Jimmy.’ ”

“But nobody ever did? Not even one?”

“Well, they was a lady there that cooked. I carried the wood in for her stove and kept her box filled. She’d say, ‘Thanks, Jimmy, you done good.’ Made me feel just right.”

The bleakness of his story saddened Jenny. “How’d you get the name Jimmy Duo?”

“I picked it out myself. They called me John Smith, and I didn’t like that none. So when I got to be twelve years old, I was reading this here book about a detective. His name was Jimmy Duo. I don’t even remember who wrote it now—but I liked it. It sounded good and tough and short and was easy to spell. So I called myself Jimmy Duo. That’s what I’ve been ever since.”

“I’d like to see you stop drinking. I know that might be hard for you.”

“It ain’t hard. It’s impossible! You think I ain’t tried, Sheriff? I tried lots of times, but it don’t never work.” A sad light touched Duo’s eyes and he shook his head. “Reckon I got good intentions, but I always go back and start drinking again.”

“Have you ever thought about becoming a Christian?”

“I don’t see as how God needs no drunks in His church.”

“But I think God could help you if you’d just trust Him. I’ve heard lots of men and women too testify about how they drank until they got converted, but then God took away the desire, or He helped them endure it.”

Duo looked down at the cards before him. He put his forefinger on the three of diamonds and pushed it around slowly. He was silent for such a long time that Jennifer finally said, “What’s the matter, Jimmy?”

“You see that card?” He held up the piece of cardboard. “That ain’t no real card. All the rest of them, they’re alike. But this one was missing, so I made one, but it’s just kind of an imitation. I reckon that’s what I am, Miss Jenny. Just kind of an imitation feller.”

Sorrow filled Jenny then, and she realized that the world was full of people like this—with no purpose, no hope. Finally she said quietly, “I’d like to help you, Jimmy.”

“You done helped me already, Sheriff, just showin’ an interest and gettin’ us a good cook. We all appreciate it.”

Jenny wanted to say more, but she felt unable. She thought suddenly,
I’ve got to get someone here who can talk to Jimmy. Maybe Clint. I’ll ask him to come by and visit and witness to this man.
Aloud she said, “Well, Jimmy, Noah’s fixing up a good lunch. I’ll come back and we can eat together.”

“That’d be prime, Miss Jenny. You do it.”

****

The sun had dipped beneath the western horizon, casting shadows that made the mountains look like humps of dusky elephants. Jenny glanced at them and then, on impulse, pulled off the main road, steering the car through the high, dead grasses that had grown up on the old logging road. Towering walnut trees rose on each side all the way down to the river, forming a canopy that shielded the earth from the September sun. The squad car bumped over the ruts that had been made during the previous winter and had baked over the summer into a surface almost as hard as concrete.

The road bent itself sharply around a group of tall river birch, and Jenny stopped the car, then shut off the engine. The silence seemed to fall upon her, and for a moment she simply sat there holding on to the steering wheel. Finally
with a sigh she opened the door, got out, and walked toward the river. She remembered coming here for a late swim and the embarrassment that had followed when her picture had been taken by one of Al Deighton’s reporters for
The Daily Standard.
It all seemed long ago, and as she walked slowly along the bank, the thought came to her that troubles were relative. At that time she had been so humiliated she could hardly bear to get out of bed and face the sly grins from the men of the county. Now the death of Kermit had made that seem small and insignificant.

The late afternoon sunlight filtered down through the tops of the birches, giving the place a cathedral atmosphere. A frog uttered something that sounded like
Yikes!
and wildly leaped into the river. Jenny caught a glimpse of him as he disappeared and sent concentric rings around the clear water that lapped the bank. She stood for a moment watching the rings until they were smoothed away by the slight current, then moved over and leaned against a tall water oak. The silence seemed to soak into her, and she watched the river for a while as it flowed by, its sibilant whisper the only sound.

The stillness was broken by a sharp chattering, and she looked up to see a dapper gray squirrel peering at her from around the edge of the oak. She smiled and murmured, “I didn’t mean to invade your territory. You’d better start gathering nuts. It’ll be winter soon, and you’ll be hungry.”

The squirrel gave a frisky twist of his tail, then made a wild run up the tree to disappear into the upper branches. Jenny thought how she had changed since coming to Georgia. She would never have talked aloud to herself in those days in the city. There were too many people around, and she would have felt embarrassed. Now, however, there was no sense of embarrassment, and she simply stood there, mostly thinking of Kermit. The time went by as slowly as the water flowed past her in the river, and she was startled when she heard her name being called. Quickly she moved away from the tree and turned to see Clay Varek walking along the side of
the bank. He came up to her and smiled, then said, “I didn’t expect to find you here.”

“Oh, I just wanted to stop and unwind a bit.”

“I saw you at the funeral, but it wasn’t a time to speak.”

“It hurt me bad, Clay.” Just the memory of Kermit’s face as she had seen it, still and without animation, swept over her. She turned away, unable to face him, then bent over and picked up a stick. She swished it through the air, then tossed it in the river and watched it float downstream.

“It gets to you. I felt the same way when my buddy died. There’s nothing much to do for it except hurt.”

“Why, that’s the way it is!” Jenny said and turned to face him. “I cried like a baby after that funeral.”

“I know. I saw you and Dixon leave. It was a hard thing.”

“I went to the scout award ceremony where Bing’s grandson got his Eagle Scout badge. Bing was looking forward to that . . . and so was his grandson.”

“That must have been tough.”

“All I could think of was if it weren’t for me, Kermit would have been there. He was so proud of that boy! It was almost the last thing he said to me. So I felt I had to go.”

“It’s the kind of thing you’d do, Jenny.”

When Jenny did not reply, Clay studied her. He noticed that her eyes were a deep green color that seemed to have no bottom. Her lips were pressed tightly together, but he noted that they were shapely. Her hair was pinned into some sort of tight knot, but the brightness of it, as always, drew his eyes. He had never seen such bright red hair in all of his life. Although he did not mean to do so, he glanced down and admired the clean-running physical lines, the lovely turn of her throat, and the curve of her shoulders and waist. Suddenly she turned and caught him looking at her, and he saw her lift one corner of her mouth in a humorless grin. Then he saw tears fill her eyes. For all of her inner strength, at that moment she seemed helpless, and as her tears spilled over, he murmured, “Maybe I can help.” Stepping forward, he put his
arms around her, and she simply leaned against him, putting her face against his neck. Her body trembled, and he heard the muted sobs, but she recovered quickly.

“I did the same thing,” he said as she stepped back and pulled a handkerchief out, “when John Summers died. But you’ve got God, haven’t you? I didn’t even have that to hang on to.”

Jenny was embarrassed. She thought,
That’s two men I’ve cried all over and that’s enough.
She put the handkerchief back, controlled herself, and asked, “Why haven’t you ever found the Lord, Clay?”

“I guess it just wasn’t in my family. None of them were Christians that I knew of.”

Jenny, once again, felt her helplessness. She had felt it with Jimmy Duo, and although she wanted to say something about her faith, she found it very difficult. “Getting to know Jesus isn’t a family affair, I don’t think, although it helps to have believing family members. It’s not too late.”

Clay’s face suddenly grew tight. “I think it is,” he said. He turned and said, “I have to be getting back.”

Jenny watched him as he disappeared and knew she had touched some part of him that had long been sealed. She slowly made her way back to the car, wondering why she seemed so incapable of communicating the Lord to anyone. When she started the car, she sat there for a moment, ruminating on the strangeness of Clay Varek, then shook her head and drove out of the shadows.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

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