“Ooof-f-f!” The breath exploded from his shocked and rather bloated body as photography buff Dotus Grimes folded in the middle. His attacker, eighty pounds his inferior but bull strong and quick as a rattler’s strike, drove him backward over the baby cliff. Down and out the pair of them sailed, dropping their combined 440 pounds six vertical feet before crash landing in Bre’r Rabbit’s favorite raspberry bramble. “Agh-h-h-h-h!” The fat man screamed as a high volume of short thorns decorated his Pillsbury Doughboy body, scraping lines of fire across hands, exposed shins, and a face already replete with the broken veins of a lifelong alcoholic. “You sonofa–!”
“Good thing you stopped before the last part.” Brian Colton flip-rolled off of his flabby client, clearing the bramble’s edge with inches to spare. “I don’t take kindly to people insulting my mother.” His own hands bore a few scratches, but the idiot had taken the brunt of the raspberries’ revenge. As he should have.
“What did you think you were doing?” Grimes managed a hybrid tone, somewhere between a whine and a snarl. “Are you crazy or what? I should sue your backwoods Montana buttocks, buster. I should! Maybe I will!”
A deep whoof! sound drew Brian’s attention. The fuming man with more money than sense didn’t even notice until the guide’s extended arm and forefinger induced him to turn, finally perceiving the huge black bear standing on the edge of the little bluff, looming over them with fury in her dark eyes. “Shoo!” Grimes shouted, scornful and dismissive yet suddenly fearful beneath his thick layer of condescension. “Go away!” His voice turned shrill in the middle of his commands. The bear ignored him, swinging its massive head to stare at the calm guide.
“It’s okay, Cindy.” The taller man spoke quietly, a voice of reassurance to a friend. “I took care of it.” The bear snorted once, turned away, and was gone.
“Cindy?” The thorn-scratched man was incredulous. “You know that monster?” He’d finally managed to scramble clear of the bramble, though not without garnering additional thorn-scratches here and there. “I should sue you both. Better yet, shoot the bear and sue you. Or, hey, I got this. Shoot you and sue the bear. Get some payback for being attacked by my own employee for no reason, sucker blocked off a cliff into thorn bushes. How’d you like that, anus puppet?”
Anus puppet? Brian Colton had been called a lot of things in his life, but anus puppet was a new one. “You haven’t been acting like a man who cares much about facts, Mr. Grimes.” He hadn’t been acting like a man at all, but saying that in so many words probably wouldn’t be a good idea. This was the real world, not the UFC where a good glare and bouts of trash talking were expected, even approved. “But I’m going to point out a few anyway. One, you ignored my very specific instructions to never, ever get between a mama bear and her cub. Two, you scared that baby up the tree while I was busy escorting your niece back to the main trail so she could find her way back to camp. I told you right off that harassing wildlife for any reason is unacceptable. Three, I just saved your life.” Dotus Grimes, CEO of Grimes Enterprises, king of the rubber tire recyclers, tried to interrupt. Colton rolled right over him. “Yes, I do know that bear and she knows me.”
“What do you mean, you saved my life?” The city man’s adrenaline spike was no more than a ten penny nail now; he was coming down fast. The dozens of scratches, none deep–raspberry thorns aren’t long though they are numerous–were clamoring for attention. He was still angry and knew how to nurse a grudge, but the Dermoplast spray can of antiseptic/anesthetic in the first aid kit was calling his name.
“There wasn’t time for me to warn you by yelling. Human yelling makes Cindy Bear extremely nervous anyway; one good shout could have made her unpredictable. Plus, she’s fast. Black bears can crank it up to thirty miles per hour, but I had the angle and knew I could reach you a step or two before she did. It was close.”
“You like to gave me a heart attack. Really.”
“If I hadn’t done what I did, Cindy would quite possibly have eliminated your heart altogether. Really.”
“I didn’t hear a thing. Didn’t hear either of you coming.”
“No, you were so laser focused on taking pictures of that poor, scared little baby bear, you wouldn’t have heard a freight train blowing its whistle.”
“You could have shot the bear.”
“What, pop an innocent mother with a wheelgun to protect your fat tuches? I’d rather have shot you.”
“That’s a threat. I’ll see you in jail.”
“Bull puckey. You want to test that in court, bring it on. Courtrooms don’t bother me. Been there, done that, got the decision.”
Grimes clearly wasn’t used to having his bluster whipped back into his own bulbous-nosed face. He didn’t like it, but most of all he was thrown off balance. This backwoods Montana hick wasn’t afraid of him, his size or his wealth or his power. The recycled rubber magnate had been a bully since kindergarten, but like any good bully with a lick of I.Q., he knew when he’d run into a buzzsaw. Time to fold his tent, though not before attempting one final barb. “I want my money back, and then I’m outa here. You should know, I intend to put out the word, give you a bad review on every social media site. You’ll be tweeted out of business, believe me.”
One corner of Colton’s mouth quirked up in a crooked smile reminiscent of Harrison Ford. “Knock yourself out. Please. Before I do.”
“What about my money? I want my money.”
“My office will send you a check for half of it.”
“I want it all. Cash. Now. Give it to me, and Lolly and I will be on the first flight out of Great Falls.” He couldn’t wait to get back to Indiana where people knew him. Knew their proper places.
“Obama wants Trump out of the White House, but that’s not happening, either.”
Grimes kept grumbling, complaining, demanding, whining, and snarling by turns, but he stumped his flabby body all the way back to camp without stopping to rest. His pretty niece heard the story. His side of it, anyway; Colton didn’t have anything more to say. She rolled her eyes when her uncle’s back was turned, tossed the guide a saucy wink, and made sure the mountain man got a good look at a bit of extra sway in her hips as she helped load up the little trailer behind the four wheeler. By the time they made it back to his truck, his burner was on high.
Back in Pelt, he dropped them off at the Old Baldy Motel and headed for his office, relieved to see the last of them as the big man wheeled their rental Lincoln Continental out of town twenty-three minutes later. Lolly had rubbed up to the guide every chance she got, confessing the oh-so-surprising truth that she wasn’t really the CEO’s niece, that Lolly was short for Lolita, and that she really, really appreciated a real Montana outdoorsman being their guide. She’d have been fun in the sack, but the girl was a predator, a sexual velociraptor. Scary. Might even be jail bait. Certainly an STD candidate.
Brian Colton shuddered. Bear encounters didn’t spook him. During his time as a pro MMA fighter, opponents in the octagon hadn’t scared him. But girls like Lolly tickled his terror bone, made him want to run for the hills, peeing his pants as he went. She was not the sort of girl a Colton boy would take home to meet his mother. She was the sort who would make him cry for his mother.
At the far end of Main Street, a whopping mile and three eighths from Colton Guide Service aka CGS, the Buck County Sheriff’s building squatted in stark contrast to the rest of the town. Far from being Montana’s smallest county in square miles–Silver Bow held that dubious honor–Buck did have one of the smaller human populations, 1,147 rural souls according to the most recent census. Not that the census was any more accurate than the daily weather forecast. Sheriff Casey Colton estimated that tourists added as many as six hundred traveling types during peak summer months, with out-of-state hunters doing the same when the fall hunting seasons for deer and elk rolled around. Deputy Harlan Clark took an opposite tack, pointing out that deep freeze winters dropped the number considerably as transient meth cookers migrated south to warmer climes. It was harder for strung out addicts to get away with home invasion burglaries when residents were in their dwellings more hours than not.
Not that Buck County lacked a serious meth problem any day of the year. Casey’s term in office had a couple of years left, but the three meth cookers his department had busted in the last eighteen months ensured his reelection. It wasn’t all that hard to catch them, he’d explained to his brother. After all, their lab of choice was usually an old mobile home tucked as far out of sight as possible, and the sheriff had encyclopedic knowledge of the county’s population as well as an impressively efficient group of informants on tap. What was challenging, then? Why hadn’t his predecessor had any luck in shutting down the cookers? Simple. It took a lot of work to build a case that would hold up in court before taking down a lab, and the former sheriff, Don Barbour, was so lazy he wouldn’t cross the street to buy a newspaper.
Freshly showered and shaved, wearing his second best pair of jeans and his cleanest dirty shirt, Brian Colton strolled into the law enforcement building. Rhonda Pascoe glanced up from a pile of papers she was studying, waved him on with a flick of her fingers, and bent back to her work. Casey’s office was situated halfway down the hallway leading to the jail. But it wasn’t the sheriff who was sitting behind the antique mahogany desk.
Brian pulled up short, staring. “Who are you?” Alarm bells, the sort that wake up fast at the sight of anything unexpected, were ringing between his ears. The fellow looked to be about fifty, with dark hair graying at the temples, droopy hound dog jowls, and one eye built higher in his face than the other. That high eye stared off somewhere to the right, though the left one met his visitor’s gaze squarely. Hazel eyes, tending toward blue at the moment. A nose that had obviously been broken, probably more than once. By contrast, Casey Colton was thirty-two, the youngest sheriff to ever hold office in Buck County. He had a full head of wavy brown hair just like his brother’s, a somewhat square face with firm skin, an unblemished aquiline nose, and brown eyes that pointed in the same direction.
“I might ask you the same,” the intruder remarked without apparent concern.
That voice. “What–Case?”
“One and the same. You’re back early.”
“Yeah, the client–wait a sec. You don’t get to change the subject that easy. How on Earth…?”
“Close the door and have a seat.”
Brian did, collapsing bonelessly into his favorite old but pristine leather covered recliner. He’d tried to get Casey to sell it to him. His older brother had set the price at $10,000. It wasn’t worth that much.
“You remember I asked you to go to Mardi Gras with me?”
“Yeah. I wasn’t interested.” For a number of reasons. Sheriff Casey Colton loved crowds, loved tomfoolery despite his chosen career in law enforcement, to which he’d returned after Brian quit the octagon. The younger Colton, despite being a talented mixed martial artist competing in front of intense crowds, preferred crisp, clean air and open country.
“You should have come along. I met some good people down there, including the local sheriff. One of the street vendors was selling these.” He reached behind his head, up under the hairline. There was a soft, icky sort of sucking sound and the mask split open, allowing Casey to lift it free of his face. Hair, skin, wayward eyeballs and all, it came off in one slithery piece. Slithery except for the hair, which made it look like some small, fur bearing critter had mated with a Jell-O pancake. Or maybe a glob of snail slime.
“Yeah. This thing is high tech, but it needs a skull to make it happy.”
“Got me. I have no idea how it works. But it does. No idea who makes it. There’s a little stamp next to the control tab here, says Party Faces LLC, and under that, Made in America. That’s all.”
Brian scratched his chin, thinking. “What made you buy it?”
The sheriff shrugged. “Curiosity. That, and local law enforcement in New Orleans is worried. It’s could be a real problem. Put one of these on, and your own smartphone won’t know you any more. No facial identification software will pin you down. They’ve already tested these against every national database there is. Not one match, not even a wrong person indicator. As near as they’ve been able to determine so far, this thing is somehow able to read your face, then randomly alter every key measurement. It has to be computer driven, but they haven’t found anything like that.”
“Possibly. The sheriff I talked to said they haven’t brought in any scientists who could make that determination.”
The answer was obvious. Brian got up from his chair, grinning. “Magic.”
“Could be.” Casey Colton was a natural skeptic, but he realized anything a man didn’t understand could be called magic. Cave man see airplane? Magic.
“I’ve got to get going. Just wanted to let you know, in case Dotus Grimes shows up to file a complaint against me. The man doesn’t listen. He got between Cindy Bear and one of her cubs. I had to tackle him out of the way before Cindy could get there to tear him a new one.”
One corner of Sheriff Colton’s mouth quirked upward. “So, gratuitous body slam?”
“He sees it that way. Especially after we launched into a raspberry patch.”
Casey was openly struggling to contain his amusement. “And of course he landed first and you landed on top of him.”
“Couldn’t be helped.”
“Of course not.”
Jane hadn’t expected to see him so soon, but she wasn’t all that surprised, either. Mostly, she was too busy getting her six kids to wash behind their ears before sitting down to supper. Adults could wait. Brian had already called Kate Jansen; she was on her way.
With her herd of hooligans settled and digging in, Jane gestured for Brian to join her on the porch. The youngsters could eat by themselves, once she got them started. “So Kate’s on her way?”
“See that dust yonder?” Jane’s closest neighbor usually drove like a wild woman, barreling her one ton Dodge down the gravel road like the Dukes of Hazzard, straightening the curves and flattening the hills. “I’d say she’ll hit your driveway in three minutes and fifteen seconds.”
“I say two minutes, forty-eight seconds.”
“You’re on.” They slapped palms. Whoever guessed closest got to choose the position when they got down to business.
Kate’s truck geared down, passing the gateposts at three minutes and one second. Jane called out as the Dodge rolled to a stop, “The kids are at table.”
“You won, huh?” The stocky rancher, alone these past three years, gave Kate a smile and a two-finger salute.
“By a lousy second,” Brian grumbled.
“Doesn’t matter by how much, stud, as long as she won.”
Without further ado, the couple climbed into Brian’s rig and headed farther down the road. “Mind if we stop ad Dad’s for a minute?”
“Nary a bit, hon. I got you back two days early; complaining about a few minutes with the Lothario of Loon Lake would be just plain petty.”
Brian chuckled. There were no loons anywhere near Loon Lake. The “lake” was more like a three acre slough renowned for its mosquitoes, though the lothario part was disturbingly accurate. The old goat had been sixty when his younger son was born. Mom hadn’t minded being his third wife and forty years younger than her husband. Bonnie Jessica Colton even accepted Casey as her own, not a stepson, but coming home from the hospital to find the horny old devil in her own bed with her own aunt and her cousin had been the straw that broke the camel’s back. She was Bonnie Sharbeck now, living in the Colorado mountains, in Estes Park, married to Champ Sharbeck. Champ hadn’t been much of a stepfather, but the U.S. Fish & Wildlife supervisor had never cheated on his wife, either.
Carl Colton’s “empire” amounted to sixteen acres that looked like sixteen hundred, surrounded as it was on three sides by one of the huge ranches and bordering County Road 17. It was beautifully situated in open, rolling terrain with no neighbors visible. A majestic blue heron lifted off from Loon Lake when Jane got out of the truck to open the barbed wire gate. Birds of all sorts frequented the little wetlands project; Brian had to give his old man that much. He drove through and waited for his girlfriend to latch the gate. City men might have considered this less than chivalrous, but country folks understood the rule. The passenger gets the gate unless said passenger is too young, too old, too disabled, or too drunk.
Without knocking, Brian opened the door and they walked into the house like they owned the place. That was another rule. Carl was in the living room, holding a newspaper but looking over it, not at it. He’d found Deal or No Deal reruns on an obscure cable channel; his eyes were glued to the television. There’d be no nonviolent way to get his attention until the next commercial. In the kitchen, a young girl was happily peeling potatoes, humming to herself as she worked. He knew her. One of Tom and Katy Kurrit’s kids. She’d still had animals in last year’s 4H competition at the county fair, but Brian supposed she was probably eighteen. Just barely legal. What was her name? Ah.
“Suzie,” he greeted the teenager while taking off his hat. Another rule, though less enforced these days, what with most people his age ignoring the old tradition.
“Hi, Brian! Jane!” Oh, great. The kid was one of those who ended every sentence with an exclamation mark. “Can you stay for supper? I hope so! There’s plenty!”
“No, we can’t stay. Just wanted to let Dad know we stopped in.”
“Okey dokey!” Suzie’s finger’s never stopped flying. The Kurrits were good people, raised their kids right. Peeling complete, she was already cutting the spuds into chunks, easing them into a pot of water on the stove. Mashed potatoes for Carl’s supper, then. The old man didn’t count a meal as complete without bread, meat, and potatoes, fooey on the vegetables and full speed ahead. “It’ll be a while till the next commercial! There just was one!”
Jane caught Brian’s eye. They had no intention of waiting around, making small talk with this horribly perky child until the next commercial. “Tell him we stopped by, would you?”
They kept silent until they were back on the gravel road. Four more miles to home. “Can you believe that?”
Jane laughed. “The question is, Bri, can you? That’s the fun of going to see your Dad. You never know what you’re going to get.”
“True enough.” Brian should his head. All his life, the old man had been like that, yet it was still hard to comprehend. “Suzie should still be blowing bubble gum, and then again, last month he had a woman cooking dinner for him, she wasn’t eighty-seven but had to be in her seventies at least. White hair, a walker, and a cane, and still she was waiting on the old buzzard and looking contented in the process. Casey doesn’t get it, either. I don’t think we ever will.”
“Don’t get what?” Jane was done laughing but still had a twinkle in her eye. “Why he does it, or how he does it?”
“Um…both, I guess.”
“Honey,” she patted his thigh, “your Dad just plain loves women. He’s always careful to avoid jail bait, ever since that thirteen year old had him fooled, what was that, ten years back?”
“Eleven. He came mighty close to going to prison that time. Even closer to getting beat to death or shot. Her father was not pleased.”
“No, he wasn’t. And yet your daddy sweet-talked his way out of it, both with her family and with the court. He’s just how he is. One of the great mysteries of the universe. I’m sure you’ve noticed, he’s kept a lot of females happy. You should be proud of him. You’re half Carl Colton yourself, you know.”
“Can’t deny it, buster. I’ll tell you what, you make me happy.”
“Aw-w-w-w.” He might make this woman happy, but he was determined to avoid becoming his father no matter what the cost. With the strength of mental discipline honed by his truncated MMA career, he shut off every stray thought that tried to intrude. No pondering idiotic clients like Dotus Grimes. Forget the Party Faces LLC mask that had Casey so enthralled. Refuse to worry about the ancient satyr who’d sired him. Tonight he was cooking, and mashed potatoes were not on the menu. Fried chicken breast with Basmati rice pilaf and oriental vegetables. Carl “Old Goat” Colton wouldn’t be caught dead eating a sissy meal like that, which suited Brian just fine.