Tap-tap… tap-tap… tap-tap…
Sheriff Paul Travis woke with a jolt. For a second he didn’t know where he was.
Tap-tap… tap-tap… tap-tap…
Shelly Fabares crooned about Johnny Angel from the radio, which added to his confusion. Then his mind cleared. “Dammit!”
He wiped his mouth with the back of a hand, and grabbed the phone off the hook. Cursing the slowness of the dial as it rolled back, he spun the numbers in. He glanced up at the clock.
Tap-tap… tap-tap… tap-tap…
“Come on, come on,” Travis muttered. He tugged the collar away from the damp folds of his neck. “Judy?” he said into the phone. “She’s here. I know it ain’t due for thirty minutes, but she’s here.”
Travis listened for a moment and then put the phone back on the receiver and hauled himself out of the chair. His stomach overflowed his belt, obscuring the buckle completely. A dark patch showed where he’d rested back against the leather seat, and he pulled the clammy shirt away from his skin. He reached over the desk and turned the dial on the radio, silencing it.
A furled umbrella rested in a wooden stand and Travis lifted it out with one hand, caught it neatly with the other. He took a pace toward the door, then stopped, his head cocked, listening. He stepped back three paces, and kicked the air-conditioner with his heel. The fan stopped altogether. He sighed, kicked the unit again, and waited, tapping the umbrella on the floor in time with the sounds that had woken him.
Tap-tap… tap-tap… tap-tap…
The fan lurched into motion and Travis still waited. It gathered speed and cool air began to flow into the office. He gave a small nod of satisfaction. Dry heat rolled over him as he opened the door. He hurried through.
Tap-tap… tap-tap… tap-tap…
He struggled with the umbrella, but finally got it open and raised it above his head. The glare reduced in this partial shade, and he hurried down the steps. The old woman was standing at the bus stop. Pacing on the spot, her high heels tapped out the message: the Greyhound was coming and she was waiting. White-haired and frail, she clutched a brown handbag to her chest as she shifted from foot to foot. The blue dress she wore was threadbare thin, and red lipstick marked her mouth too generously.
Travis lifted the umbrella over her. The woman started, then looked down at the shadow it created, her head moving back and forth as she gazed at the circle it cast. Travis was reminded of birds he’d seen at the beach, jerky little heads constantly moving, spindly legs hurrying, as they rushed along the sand when the waves receded.
The woman’s feet stopped their marching and a deep frown bit into the wrinkles on her forehead. She looked up at the umbrella, stared at it for a moment, and then turned to Travis. She blinked rapidly for a few seconds. The frown disappeared, and a smile lit her face.
“Bobby’s coming home,” she said, firmly.
Travis sighed. “Yes, ma’am.”
She looked at him a second longer, then turned to peer down the road. Her heels resumed the staccato rhythm. Travis sweated patiently in the heat. He knew it wouldn’t make a difference if he spoke to her or not. Her heels stopped and she turned to Travis again.
“Where’s Sheriff Woodward?” she asked, her eyes fixed on him.
“He retired, ma’am.”
She blinked at him a few times, then smiled again. “Bobby’s coming home,” she said, with a small nod.
She turned away and the tapping started up again. Travis shifted the umbrella to the other hand, and grimaced as he rolled his free shoulder up and down to release the tightness. The heels quickened, and Travis looked down the road where the woman gazed intently. Heat haze and emptiness stared back at him. Then the Greyhound swam out of the distortion, rounded the curve and headed their way. Travis stepped closer, ready to grab her if she stepped out in front of the bus.
The woman glanced up at Travis, and he couldn’t bear the look of excitement that filled those wide eyes; the big smile, the clutching hands that wrung the life out of the handbag.
“Bobby’s coming home,” she said, loudly.
Travis didn’t reply. With a squeal of brakes, the Greyhound pulled up at the stop. There was a hiss of hydraulics and the door swung open.
“Sioux Waters!” called the driver. “Next stop, Grand Forks!”
The old woman was almost running on the spot, and her head and shoulders jerked from side to side as she peered into the bus, trying to see. The driver nodded to Travis. Travis tried to avoid his eye, and nodded back.
A passenger walked down the aisle of the bus, and the old woman began making small, excited noises in her throat, like a kitten mewling, her body twitching in time to her heels. As the passenger stepped into view she froze in place, and Travis tried not to look at her. But he did. The vitality dropped away from the old woman like a tent collapsing; her shoulders drooped, her face fell, and he thought she was going to crumple to the ground. Travis readied himself, but the old woman glanced past the passenger, who now stood on the bottom step. Travis could see nobody else was getting off. She looked up at the man.
“Is Bobby with you?” she asked, in a quavering voice. Travis could hear all the hope and the longing and the yearning in that question, and he had to swallow hard to stop his eyes misting. The passenger glanced at Travis, with a question in the look. Travis shook his head minutely.
“No, I am sorry,” replied the man. “Perhaps he is on the next bus.”
The woman stared at the passenger for a second, and then turned to Travis. “Bobby’s on the next bus,” she said, and the smile was back.
“Yes, ma’am,” Travis said. She turned away and the passenger stepped down from the Greyhound. He wore dark glasses against the glare, and held a battered case in his hand. Travis nodded his thanks to the man and held the umbrella over the old woman as she made her way up the steps. The doors of the bus shut with a hiss, and it lurched into movement. A trail of black smoke swirled in its wake as it departed.
“Momma!” The call came from across the square, Travis saw Judy hurrying toward them. The old woman squinted. “Who’s that?” she asked Travis.
“It’s Judy,” he said.
The inquisitive look disappeared from the old woman’s face. “Judy!” she said, suddenly animated. “Bobby’s on the next bus. I must tell her.”
Judy ran up the steps. Aged about forty, brown hair tied back in a bun, she wore an apron, and a white blouse. A red badge showed her name.
“I’m sorry, Travis,” Judy said. “There’s only me in, today. I couldn’t get over any quicker.”
“It’s okay,” Travis replied.
The old woman’s heels had started once more. “Bobby’s on the next bus!” she exclaimed to Judy.
“I know, Momma,” Judy said. “Come over to the diner. We got plenty of lemon cake, and I’ve made coffee the way you like it.” Judy wiped her hands on the apron and took the umbrella from Travis. She squeezed his arm as she took it. “Thanks, Travis,” she said.
Judy took her mother’s arm and steered her back down the steps. Travis watched them cross the road. The bus passenger walked up to Travis and turned to look. “Who does she wait for?” he asked. He had an angular face, what Travis would call a roman nose. He thought he looked familiar, but couldn’t place him.
Travis sighed. “Her son Bobby,” he said. “Died in the war. She’s been here every week for seventeen years.”
They watched mother and daughter enter the diner. Travis turned to the man. “I’m Sheriff Travis. I want to thank you for what you did.”
“It was nothing,” the man replied.
“Well, it helped,” Travis said, and he meant it. “Can I help you at all?”
“I am looking for lodgings for three or four nights.” A soft-spoken voice, with an accent Travis couldn’t place.
“Lodgings? Well now, you have two choices, Mister. The Red Lodge Motel over on Main Street has rooms, or the Broken Cross Ranch takes in paying guests. I can show you where they are, in my office.”
Travis ushered him in to his office, and was pleased to find it cooler than when he’d left. He indicated a faded map on one wall. “We’re here, and Main Street is right here,” he said, pointing with a pudgy finger. “Out east is the Broken Cross. It’s a ways out of town.” He shrugged. “Don’t get too much call for tourists round here, just the truckers passing through. Unless you count the Doris Day fans, some years back, looking for Calamity Jane.” Travis grinned.
The man smiled. “I am researching antiquities, ancient sites.”
“Antiquities? Ain’t nothing like that round here, Civil War was all we got.”
“I am looking for older sites,” said the man.
“You mean Injun sites?”
“My university is most interested in ancient civilizations.”
“Civilized..? You ain’t calling them lay-about, good-for-nothing drunks civilized are you? Hell, the only trouble we get round here is from those ignorant savages when they get all liquored up and beat the living daylights out of each other.” Travis snorted. “Civilized!”
“Yet they settled this land before you, did they not?” the man asked, calmly.
Travis flushed, and deliberately looked him up and down. The man stared back at him, and Travis rested his hand on his holstered pistol.
“Where you from, Mister?”
“A long way from here,” replied the man. His calmness was infuriating.
“Europe, ain’t it?” Travis demanded. “I can tell by your accent.”
“Yeah, and let me tell you something, Mister. I was with the 116th Infantry. We fought our way from Omaha beach all the way to the Elbe River to liberate Europe from the Nazi jackboot.” He leaned forward, punctuating his words with an outstretched finger. “I lost friends on the way, so’s you could be free today, to tell me about ‘civilized folk’.”
The man removed his glasses and stared into Travis’ eyes. A moment flashed, like a lightning strike, and Travis froze in place. His eyes dulled, became lifeless. The man took what he needed.
“You need to sit down, Sheriff.”
Travis turned slowly, as if wading through treacle. He found his way to his chair, fell back into it.
“You will see nothing.”
Travis’ eyes closed. The man opened the drawers of the desk, checking through papers, searching. His movements were quick and he glanced up now and then, looking out the window. He lifted a paper. It was a ‘Wanted’ poster with an artist’s drawing and it showed a reasonable likeness of him. His face tightened, and he tore the poster twice, folded the pieces and shoved them into his pants pocket. He replaced his sunglasses.
“Open your eyes.”
With a jolt, the light returned to Travis’ eyes. He shivered and he looked up at the man, slight puzzlement on his face.
“Lodgings?” the man prompted.
“That’s right! There’s two choices. The Red Lodge Motel over on Main Street has rooms, or the Broken Cross Ranch takes in paying guests.” He frowned, uncertain. There was something he couldn’t remember. “It’s a ways out of town, though.”
“I wish to see more of your country before returning to Europe. Which would you suggest?”
“I knew it!” Travis’ grin was triumphant. “I couldn’t place your accent, but I knew you weren’t from around here.”
The man smiled, expansive. “Have you ever been to Europe, Sheriff?”
“Hell, yes. I was with the 116th, we fought all the way from Omaha beach to the Elbe river.”
The man nodded, understanding. “We owe you so much,” he said. Travis’ chest swelled with pride. “Did you lose many friends?” continued the man, gentle.
“You have the time, Mister, you stop over at the memorial in the square. There’s an Honor Roll contains the names of some of my best buddies.”
The man turned and looked across the square at the memorial. “I lost my family to the Nazi jackboot,” he said. “If it had not been for you, I doubt I would be here today.”
The grin on Travis’ face broadened. The man turned back and held out his hand. Travis wiped his palm on his pants as he stood, and took it. The man’s palm was cool and he gripped Travis’ hand firmly.
“We can never repay you,” the man said.
Travis shook his hand, more moved than he cared to admit. “Well, them goddam commies need to be held back, that’s why we’re allies, now.”
“You are right.”
Travis sat back down and pushed the chair back from the desk. He felt happier than he had done in a long time. He loosened his collar, the damp folds of his neck escaping the restriction easily.
“I am in need of rest,” the man said. “How soon can I get out to the Broken Cross Ranch?”
Travis laughed. “You won’t be able to rent a car from Jake’s garage until they open tomorrow, if you want to get around. Tell me where you want to go, I’ll see to it for you. There ain’t nothing can touch the Black Hills in the summer. Leastways, if you avoid the Reservation, that is.” The man looked at him. “Them damn Sioux injuns,” said Travis.
The man’s head came up a fraction. “I heard they drink to excess.”
“Excess?” Travis laughed uproariously. “If it ain’t moonshine making them blind and puking their guts out, then I’m an Irishman.”
“Are they all that way?”
“Most of ‘em. Over on the North Ridge there’s some who hold to the old ways, dancing and whooping it up.”
The man nodded, looking into the distance for a second. Then he smiled at Travis. “How do I get to the Broken Cross Ranch?”