Read The Shining Badge Online

Authors: Gilbert Morris

The Shining Badge (5 page)

Clay Varek was watching the two carefully, and then finally he nodded as if satisfied and began to jack up the truck.

Jenny soon found that the child was not at all shy once she had assured herself that all was well. Between taking pieces of candy, Jenny asked her questions, and she answered freely enough.

“How old are you, Jamie?”

The little girl held up two grimy fingers.

“Two? What a big girl.” Then, feeling guilty even as she formed the question, Jenny asked, “Is your mama inside?”

Varek, by this time, had let the truck down and had heard the question. “She doesn’t have one,” he said gruffly.

“Oh,” Jenny said. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to be nosy.”

“Didn’t you?”

Jenny rose at once and handed the rest of the sack of candy to Varek. “There, Mr. Varek, give these to Jamie.”

“I’m sure she’ll find a use for ’em.”

“And thanks for fixing my truck.”

“No trouble.” Varek looked down at the ground for a moment and was silent. Jenny wondered what he was thinking, and finally he lifted his head and met her eyes. “I was wrong about the gun. Sorry about that, Miss Winslow.”

“It’s all right,” Jenny said. “I shouldn’t have come into the house.” She turned and climbed into the truck, then started the engine and drove away. When she looked back, Jamie waved at her, but the man did not move. He simply stood there holding the child.

****

“There’s no woman there as far as I can tell,” Jenny said. She had been cornered at once by Kat and Hannah, and she had explained her visit. She had left out the incident about the gun, but for some reason Kat was suspicious.

“He’s probably a criminal and kidnapped that baby. Every baby has a mama!”

“Not always,” Hannah said gently.

“Well, I’ll spy on them!”

“No, you won’t!” Hannah said sharply.

The door opened at this point, and Clint walked in. “What’s happening?” he asked, then listened as Jenny told him about her encounter with Clay Varek. “Sounds a little odd. A man and a baby and no woman. But I’ve got some bad news.”

“Bad news? What is it?” Jenny asked quickly.

“It’s Sheriff Beauchamp.”

“What’s happened to him?” Hannah said.

“He was with some of his officers over in the north part of the county. They were raidin’ a still and there was shootin’. The sheriff was killed. Got him right in the heart.”

“How awful!” Jenny said. “He was such a nice man.”

“Yes, he was.”

“Well, who’ll be sheriff now?” Kat said. She accepted death, at least in theory, more readily than the adults, who were all shaken by the news.

“That’s right. There’ll have to be a new sheriff.”

“There’s an election in two months, but the county commissioners have temporarily appointed Max Conroy.”

Jenny blinked with surprise. “That man? Why, he’s awful!”

Clint stared at her thoughtfully. “Yes, he is, but he’s the sheriff at least until the next election—and he’s pretty sure to be elected.”

CHAPTER THREE

A Time to Be Born

Lewis Winslow sat rigidly upright in the cane-bottom rocker, staring at the paper in front of him. He had been trying to put his problems out of his mind by reading the newspaper, but there seemed to be no comfort there.

The headline on the front page declared that the body of the kidnapped son of Charles and Anne Lindberg had been found in the woods only a few miles from the Lindberg home. Lewis lowered his head and murmured a prayer for the Lindberg family. Then he turned the page and read that Al Capone had entered a federal penitentiary in Atlanta the week before. The organized crime leader would serve eleven years for income tax evasion. Lewis shook his head, thinking,
All the evil that man has done, and all they get him on is tax evasion? And why in the world did they have to send him down to our state?
Sighing, Lewis turned the page again and read an article about the nation’s desperate economy. The Depression, which held America in a grip of iron, seemed to get worse every day. As the nation headed toward the summer of 1932, the Depression had reached its lowest point yet. Twelve million people were unemployed and eighteen million were on relief. It was a Presidential election year and few had any doubt about Hoover’s chances of winning another term. Will Rogers summed up the mood of a nation: “If someone bit an apple and found a worm in it,” he joked, “Hoover would get the blame.” Lewis had seen a hitchhiker on the
road, dressed practically in rags and holding up a sign that said, “Give me a lift or I’ll vote for Hoover.”

Hoover’s name had actually become synonymous with the word
Depression.
His name had entered the language in a rather dark fashion.
Hoovervilles
were the shantytowns of the poor and dispossessed. Hobos and tramps sleeping under bridges covered themselves with
Hoover blankets,
which were nothing but yellowed newspaper.
Hoover hogs
were wild rabbits consumed as food, while shoes with holes in them were
Hoover shoes,
and broken-down shells of automobiles pulled along by mules were called
Hoover cars.

Disgusted with his president and deeply concerned about the plight of his country, Lewis folded the paper and laid it in his lap, leaning his head back to put the country’s problems out of his mind and concentrate on his own. He had not been sleeping well of late, being very concerned about the approaching birth of the baby. All of his other children had been born under prosperous circumstances. There had been doctors from prestigious medical schools, the most modern hospitals, and every medical advantage. Things were very different here. Yes, there were country doctors, and even a small old-fashioned hospital in town, but Lewis would have felt better if he could provide Missouri with the best possible care. Not that she would have wanted it. She planned to have Doc Peturis deliver the baby right here in her own home.

“Lewis . . . ?” Missouri Ann had come into the room wearing soft shoes, making an entrance so quiet Lewis hadn’t heard her. He got up at once and started to speak, but she beat him to it. “I think, Lewis,” she said calmly, “you’d better go for Dr. Peturis.”

Lewis started, and when he spoke his voice was constricted by the tightness of his throat. “You mean . . . you mean the baby’s coming?”

“I think it is.” There was a calmness in Missouri Ann completely lacking in her husband. She smiled and came over to stand beside him, moving carefully as if she carried
something infinitely precious. “I think it would be best if you send Jenny to get him.”

“Here, sit down. How do you feel? Are you hurting?” Lewis shot the questions at Missouri so quickly that she laughed. “I’m fine, but I’d feel better if Doc Peturis was on his way.”

“Here, you sit right down and don’t move!” Lewis steered Missouri Ann’s bulky form to the rocker, sat her down in it, then brushed his hand across his face in a nervous gesture. “I’ll send her right now,” he said, then turned and literally dashed out of the room.

****

Jenny was staking beans, using green cane pulled from beside the river. It was a hot day late in May, and sweat had soaked through her clothing. She stopped, pulled a handkerchief out of the pocket of her apron and mopped her face with it. For a moment she stared at her hands and then smiled, thinking of how work had hardened them since she had left New York. She was rather proud of herself, having discovered that she could stand up to the hard, physical work—she who had never done anything more strenuous than attend a ball or, perhaps, play a game of tennis.

Something suddenly struck her in the legs, and she looked down to see Stonewall, who had stayed with her all morning. He plopped himself down on her feet and looked up, his tongue lolling as if he were grinning at her.

“Get off of my feet, you monster. You must weigh two hundred pounds!” Jenny shoved the huge dog away. Then she picked another cane that had been trimmed to the right height and, stooping over, pushed it into the soil next to the emerald green seedling. As she worked steadily down the row, she thought of Clay Varek. He had been on her mind often since her encounter with him, and for some reason, she felt a great curiosity. All of the other people in her world had little niches that they fit neatly into, but Varek was different. Something about him puzzled her, and she thought
of the gun that had appeared almost magically in his hand. His quickness to draw his gun disturbed her, but then she remembered the child and how protective he had been. This was a puzzle, and she said to herself, “Where’s his wife, I wonder, if he has one. There’s something wrong about a man raising a baby alone. . . .”

“Jenny—Jenny!”

Hearing her name, Jenny turned to see her father running awkwardly toward her. His hair was blowing in the slight breeze, and his eyes were wide. “It’s Missouri! The baby’s coming!”

Jenny immediately dropped the cane she had in her hand and went to meet Lewis. “Did she say it was for sure?”

“I don’t know. She just said to get the doctor. I want you to go get Peturis.”

“Now, calm down, Dad. Hannah’s here, and you two can take care of Missouri.”

“I know, but I want you to hurry.” Lewis ran both hands through his hair and gripped it, as if he were trying to lift himself off the ground by pulling it. His eyes were wide, and Jenny had never seen him look so disturbed. She knew at that moment how very much in love Lewis was with Missouri Ann, and she felt glad for it. Patting his shoulder, she said, “You go back to her. I’ll change clothes.”

“He may not be at his office.”

“If he’s not at his office, he’s gone to visit a patient. I’ll find out where he is, and I’ll bring him back.” She gave her father a slight push, saying, “Now, you go back to Ma. She needs you.”

****

Jenny saw the steam rising out from underneath the hood of the truck and muttered, “Blast! I’ll have to get some water!” The old Studebaker was reliable for a truck of its ancient lineage, but the radiator was a problem. Usually whoever drove it carried a gallon of water along, but Jenny had forgotten
that in her hurry. When she reached down beside her, she saw that the jug was empty and remembered she had forgotten to fill it up.

“Come on, truck, you can’t quit now!”

She glanced along the side of the road, hoping for a creek or a pond left over from the spring rains, but the spring had been hot, with fewer rains than usual, and she saw nothing. Finally, up ahead, she saw a shack off to one side of the road. She knew the Valentine family lived there. She remembered how Noah Valentine had been abused by Max Conroy in the general store.

The house was not painted, but the yard was clear, and Jenny saw Noah’s huge form working in a garden out to the side. She pulled in, and when he came up to the window, she said, “The truck overheated. Can I get some water?”

Noah nodded and smiled. “Yes, ma’am. The well’s around back. I’ll fill it for you.”

She drove the truck around behind the house, which was a long, low structure of two sections with a passage between, all covered under one roof. It was called a dogtrot house, Jenny had learned, because the dogs usually stayed under the shade of the roofed passageway during the hot summers. Jenny shut off the engine and got out as Noah lifted the hood. He reached out and touched the radiator cap, then jerked his hand back. “She mighty hot, miss. Better let it cool down for a mite ’fore I pour the water in.”

“I’m in a big hurry,” she said, then added, “My name’s Jenny Winslow, by the way.”

“Yes, ma’am, I knows that. I’m Noah Valentine.”

Jenny smiled and said, “I’m glad to know you, Noah.” She looked at the truck and asked, “Why can’t we pour the water right in?”

“ ’Cause that might bust the engine. When it’s hot like that you need to let it cool off just a little bit. You in a mighty big hurry?”

“Yes, I’m going for the doctor. My stepmother’s having a baby.”

“Is that right!” Noah said, “Well, I tell you what we do. We’ll pour in just a little bit of water at a time.” He reached in the hip pocket of his faded overalls, pulled out a crimson bandana, and removed the radiator cap. He went over to the well, pulled up a bucketful of water, and picked up a gourd that had been carved into a drinking vessel. “Here,” he said, “we give it just a little bit. Not much.” Carefully he let a thin stream of water down into the radiator, and the steam boiled up. “She mighty hot,” he said, “but we’ll get you on your way pretty soon.”

Jenny knew little about black people. She had been afforded little contact with them in New York, mostly with servants in one form or another. Now as she stood there dwarfed by the huge black man, she thought of how the sheriff had vilified him in public. Noah Valentine was big enough and obviously strong enough to crush most men, including Conroy, but he had simply stood there helplessly. A quick pity ran through Jenny at the thought of what it must be like to be at the mercy of others. “How are the crops coming along?” she asked.

“Just fine, ma’am. The cotton’s gonna do real good this year. I notice you ain’t put none in.”

“No, we don’t know enough about farming to do that. My brother-in-law, Clint Longstreet, knows how, but we thought this year we’d just put in some sorghum and a huge garden so we’ll have plenty to eat this winter.”

“That might be best. Ain’t gonna get much for cotton this year the way things is.”

The two stood there talking, and Jenny was impressed with the gentleness of the man despite his awesome size and obvious strength. She lifted her head and turned, saying, “Someone’s come, I think.”

“I’ll just go see who it is, Miss Winslow. You keep pourin’ this water in there just a little bit at a time. It’s coolin’ down right nice, but we don’t want to bust that engine.”

Jenny took the gourd and obeyed Noah’s instruction, pouring in a little at a time. She was glad he had been there, for she would probably have filled it up with cold water and perhaps ruined the engine. As she poured the water, she heard voices but could not make out the words. She saw that the steam was not rushing out of the engine now, so she quickly filled the radiator, then replaced the cap. The impulse to thank Noah came to her, and after she put the hood down she stepped around the side of the house. She saw a police car out in front with
Sheriff’s Department
printed in white letters on the side. She did not step out in view but for some reason kept herself concealed. Glancing back, she saw that the truck was hidden behind the house and something of what was happening before her set off an alarm in her head.

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