Sheriff Cole Winters liked the early morning hours when the small town of Deerville, Kentucky was just waking up. It was hot for mid-May and his favorite trees had been blooming for about a week. Dogwoods and redbuds brightened the scenery. There were a few daffodils and hyacinths left, making the air that came through his open window smell like his grandmother's garden.
Thinking of her garden reminded him of the puppy he'd left whining at the door. Festus was a delight and he couldn't believe he'd waited so long to get the little demon. Cole had always wanted a dog, but never thought seriously about getting one until he'd been called about someone dumping a litter off by the road. He smiled, thinking about the little girl who'd called and demanded he come out and help them puppies.
He drove through the streets, not worried too much about crime. Usually, at this hour, he and Judieanne were the only two awake. The lights of the Daily Diner were on as he pulled up and stopped his cruiser in front. Knowing the coffee would be hot and delicious, the biscuits light and tasty, and the bacon just right, he hurried inside for his breakfast.
The bell over the door let Judieanne know that he was there, so by the time he slid onto his usual stool at the counter, his coffee was right there, the aroma making his mouth water. There was something to be said for routine.
"Morning, Judieanne. You haven't had any more trouble out of the Hawkins boys, have you?" Cole asked, watching her through the window into the kitchen. Her speed and efficiency always amazed him. There were no wasted movements as she worked. With one hand she turned the bacon and with the other she pulled down a plate, setting it on the side of the stove where it would warm up and keep his breakfast nice and hot while he ate. He knew his eggs would be perfectly cooked, yellow runny, white not. While the bacon was transferred to a paper towel to drain, she reached into the nearby refrigerator for his favorite strawberry jam. His stomach growled and he blushed, hoping she didn't hear it.
"Now, there's no sense in growling at me, Cole Winters. I'm working as fast as I can," she teased him, then turned serious. "No, I haven't had any more trouble. I was glad you were here, but I could've handled those two punks."
Judieanne Daily was from somewhere up north, as she said, so she referred to the rude brothers as punks instead of rednecks. Cole didn't know exactly where she was from as she'd only told him she was from the north and she was hoping to find the famous Southern hospitality she'd heard about. She'd inherited the diner from her grandparents, both killed in a car accident, leaving the town without their favorite hangout and eating establishment and her with somewhere to go when she said she needed it most. He didn't ask for more information. If she wanted to share more with him, she would. He didn't pry unless there was a reason for his needing to know.
"I know you can handle yourself, Judieanne, but there's no reason you should have to put up with that kind of talk and behavior. You let me know if it happens again, you hear?" Cole hated prejudice of any kind. He knew about being different and having to cope with slurs and sometimes outright hatred. Why couldn't people just get along and let others live their lives without having to endure mistreatment because of differing beliefs, sexuality, or skin color in Judieanne's case?
"I have to let people know I can take care of myself or they'll keep testing me, won't they? I have Granddad's old bat in here and, if I had to, I could use it. I'm used to the trash talk. Don't worry about me. Where's the rest of the guys this morning?" She set his food in front of him and moved to wipe down the already clean counter.
"You interested in anyone in particular?" Cole teased her. He hoped she was thinking about one of his best deputies, Marshall Baber. More than once, Cole had thought the two would make a striking couple. Judieanne could have been a model on any runway in the country. She was damn close to six feet tall with a fantastic body with curves in all the right places. Her skin was light brown, about the same color he made his coffee after adding a couple of healthy dollops of cream to it. With wide-set dark brown eyes and a mouth full of bright white teeth covered by luscious thick lips, Judieanne was stunningly beautiful.
"Don't you start teasing me this early in the morning or I'll take that plate right away from you. You know I don't have time for no man. Not interested. Men are too much trouble and not trustworthy to boot. Present company excepted, of course." She grinned at him.
"Of course. I'm sorry for teasing you," he said, sopping up the last of the egg yolk with a biscuit. "Brad and Sully have the day off and Carl will be in later. Marshall is meeting me at seven at the office. You be nice to him, now, Judieanne, he's shy. He's a good man and I'm lucky he decided to stay here and work instead of going back to Cincinnati with the rest of his family. I like him a lot." Cole wasn't just talking. He meant every word. Marshall was his best deputy and he was lucky he had him at the office.
"Fine. You go ahead and like him. If you like him that much, why don't you make a play for him?" Her eyes got big and she laughed when he jerked his head up and started to say something. She continued chuckling as he put jam on the last biscuit, keeping his eyes down as if intent on the task.
"See, it's not the same when it's you in the hot seat, huh? That'll teach you to come in here trying to be a matchmaker this early in the morning. Now, eat your food while I get to work. And, by the way, it doesn't make sense to leave a tip bigger than the bill." She turned her head up and stalked to the kitchen.
"I can leave any size tip I want to. It's a free country." He laughed when he heard her muttering back there.
"Hey, how's the puppy? If you come by here before you leave for the day, I'll send some good scraps home with you. I know what the little ones can safely have. I'm just offering, you don't have to, but it's a shame to waste some of the stuff I throw out. In the city, I'd have sent it to a shelter. I can't believe they don't have needy people here." Judieanne sounded amazed.
"What city?" Cole asked.
"I'm sorry. I really wasn't prying. It was just instinct," Cole said.
"Relax. It's no secret. I hated my life there. I'm better off here. I like the quiet and the slow pace of life here. Less shootings, less cruelty, and I might just end up happy here." Judieanne had come to stand at the window to look out at Cole as she admitted her satisfaction with the move to Deerville.
"I'm glad. I'll try to keep it so you're happy here."
"I appreciate that, Officer. You coming by for lunch today?" She smiled brightly at him. Did she even know how beautiful she was when she grinned like that?
"Can't. I have to go out to the Bonners' place and check on them. I'm worried about Mrs. Bonner. She's due to deliver her seventh child and I think she's having trouble with this one, but Dodge doesn't want to take her to the doctor. He says she ought to know how to pop them out by now. Some people need to be gelded," Cole said, shaking his head at the backward ways of some of his people.
Judieanne disappeared from the window and came through the swinging door to the right of it. She handed him a small thermal bag. When he raised his brows, she held up her hand and said, "Just take it. It's a sandwich and some potato salad. There's a cold pack in there to keep it safe for you." She started to turn.
"You don't have to do this. I'll be glad for it, though, when I'm nearly to the county line and there's no hope for a good meal. How much?" Cole asked, reaching for his wallet.
"On the house. It looks like we've adopted each other, and we both take care of those we care about. Now go on and don't forget to come by for the pup's food." She headed back to the kitchen.
She stuck her head back out and asked, "What kind of name is Festus? It sounds like a seeping wound." She shuddered.
"Festus is a great name. You're too young to know about Festus, but he was a great character on an old TV show. He was the sheriff's sidekick."
"You gonna deputize him?" she teased him.
"When he's learned enough, I might." He gave it right back.
"The town's waking up and there'll be people in here wanting breakfast soon. Now get outta here."
Hours later Cole sat in the shade on a side road, eating his lunch and thinking about the Bonners. Dodge had been out hunting and it seemed like there were tiny children everywhere, all under school age. Karen, the expectant mother, was doing laundry. The dryer wasn't working so she was hanging the clothes on the line out behind the house. To Cole, she appeared entirely too small to have birthed twins, twice.
Cole had spent a good hour helping her with it. He hung up the heavy items, jeans, overalls, blankets, etc. She looked like she was about to drop any minute. He told her again that if she got into trouble she was to call him. When she tried to tell him that her husband would get mad, he told her to let him deal with Dodge. If she had a bad delivery she could die out here and then where would Dodge and the rest of the children be? Finally, she nodded, promising to memorize his number in case she needed to call.
After finishing his lunch, he headed for his place to check on Festus, see what the little terror had ruined now. When he pulled in his driveway he could see the curtain swaying in the front window. Little squirt had been on the couch again. He hurried in and saw that the little dog had managed to pee on the pad instead of the floor.
"What a good boy!" Cole took the dog over to the pad and let him smell it and continued to praise him. He followed that up with a treat and a trip out the back door to his fenced yard, letting the dog go to run frantically around, peeing here and there as if having to mark the whole yard at one time. Cole laughed as the floppy-eared mutt came flying toward him and was surprised when Festus jumped up. He caught him in his arms and spun around.
"Whoa! Where'd you learn that? I hope you don't get a whole lot bigger or we'll both go down. It was pretty cool, though." Cole nuzzled the puppy's neck and laughed when Festus tried to lick his face. "Nope, not the face. Yuck. I can't understand how people let their dogs lick their faces and their mouths. I've seen where that tongue's been. Yeah, that's a boy. Lick my hand. I can wash that and be gone. Hey, you've got goodies coming from Judieanne tonight. You'll like that. Let's go in. I've got to go back to work."
Cole put the dog down and they went back inside. He gave Festus his favorite rawhide bone and headed back to work.
It was about an hour before the end of his shift and he was in his office talking with Marshall. It was a slow day and he had just commented on how boring it was when all the work was caught up and nothing was going on. The phone rang and Marshall answered, "Weston County Sheriff's Office."
Cole watched Marshall's eyes widen and he stood, knowing something was up.
"Yes, ma'am. We're on our way." Marshall dropped the phone and looked at Cole who was already walking to the door.
"What?" Cole asked.
"Mrs. Bonner. Dodge came back in drunk and got mad when supper wasn't ready and some of the kids were crying. She's bleeding and scared and he's yelling in the background," Marshall said, following Cole and locking the door to the small square building on the main street of the town.
"Call Doctor Creason at the hospital and tell him I'm bringing her in and to expect problems with the delivery. I knew there was something wrong with this one. She hasn't looked right. She didn't say anything about him hitting her, did she?" Cole was gearing himself up for whatever they were getting ready to face.
"No, but I don't think she'd say in front of the kids and he was yelling for her to put the damn phone down. We need to hurry," Marshall said.
"Both cars. One of us might need to keep control at the house while the other takes her in. I hate domestics." Cole would rather face drugs or punks out for trouble than get between married people, especially when one was a drunken, redneck fool. Cole hated the way some people stereotyped Kentuckians as hillbilly rednecks, but really, Dodge was the epitome of redneck-ness.
Both he and his deputies used ear buds and cell phones as well as the radio. He could see Marshall talking as he pulled out. Cole was right behind him and they sped toward the Bonner place. He said a quick prayer for Karen's health and the whole situation.
He noticed that Marshall cut the lights and siren about a mile from the Bonner home. That was smart; no sense in making Dodge any madder than necessary. They both pulled up and Cole turned his car to make it easier to get Karen into the back seat if he needed. He could hear chaos in the house as they headed for the door.
Cole knocked loudly and yelled, "Mr. Bonner. This is Sheriff Winters. May we come in?" He was trying the polite route, but if they were refused he'd kick the door in if he had to in order to check on Mrs. Bonner. There was no way Karen Bonner would have called if she hadn't been scared for her baby.
The door was jerked open and Dodge Bonner stood there, blocking their entrance.
"We don't need you here, Sheriff."
"Maybe not, but a call was made and we're required by law to check it out. May I see your wife, Dodge? Come on, you don't want anything to happen to her and the baby, do you?" Cole wanted to push the man out of the way and get inside where it sounded like all six of the other children were crying and he could hear Karen trying to calm them down.
"Dodge...please..." Karen's voice came, over the sound of the screaming children. Eerie, the way her quiet plea could be heard over that cacophony.
Dodge looked like he wanted to slam the door in their faces, but he stood back and Cole and Marshall rushed in. Cole went straight to Karen and saw the strain on her face. Two of the smallest children, both girls, were standing and holding on to her legs as she sat on a kitchen chair. Cole could see small streams of blood down her legs. She was whimpering very quietly in fear, but clearly not wanting to frighten the children more.
"Karen, you know you're going to have to get to the hospital as soon as possible, don't you? Marshall can stay here with the kids and I'll take you in myself. Dodge, I'm not telling you what to do, but I'm taking your wife to the clinic. You can stay here with your kids, or you can ride in with us, but get a move on."
"I don't know why she has to go anywhere. She's had six kids already. She ought to be able to just spit this one out like the others. I don't like other people up in my business. She's..." Dodge stopped only when Cole interrupted him.
"Dodge, shut up! She's going to lose this child if you don't move and let me get her some help. I can deliver a baby, but this is not a normal delivery. You going or staying?" Cole had had it with the damn fool.
"I'm supposed to leave my kids with this--this ni...uh, hell." Dodge shut up again when he saw the anger on Cole's face at the racial slur Dodge was smart enough to cut off.
"I got this, Cole, you all go on. I think you need to hurry. Dodge, can you bring me some clean towels?" Marshall had nodded his head toward where Karen was continuing to bleed. She watched the ridiculous drama play out while she needed immediate help.
For once, Dodge did as directed and got some towels from the room off the kitchen. Marshall gave one to Cole to put on the car seat and the others to Dodge. Cole didn't give Dodge a choice in the matter. He moved to Karen, helped her up a little and then picked her up and placed her in her husband's arms. Dodge's eyes got big and he looked from his wife to Cole, suddenly appearing unsure of what to do.
"Let's go. You hold on to her and cushion her ride and I'll get you there as fast as I can," Cole said, heading out the door.
Behind him, he heard Marshall say to the wide-eyed children, "Hey, guys, you want to see the pretty lights and hear the loud siren? I bet he's gonna turn it all on. Here you go, sweetheart, come here, it's okay. Hey, you too, I can hold you both. Come on, let's look out the window while the nice sheriff takes your mom to get some help. You all wave now. See those lights going round and round. Oh my, isn't that loud? I can..." Cole heard no more as he slammed the door and sped off.
"My kids be all right with that guy back there?" Dodge asked, over the noise of the siren.
"That man, Deputy Marshall Baber, is one of the nicest men I've ever met. Your kids will be fine, Dodge. How's she doin'?" Cole couldn't take his eyes off the road to see.
"She's quiet. I think she's bleeding faster, Sheriff. It looks like a lot of blood back here." Dodge finally sounded concerned. Cole had no sympathy. Karen could have been helped before now if Dodge wasn't so damned contrary and backward. You'd think they lived up in the hills and didn't know about the world. Hell, the man had a satellite dish. He wasn't as much backward as he was just a redneck idiot.
Cole sped up as he got closer to town and could use the back way to the hospital, getting there faster than going straight through town. He swung around in front of the big doors and was glad to see a gurney there with two nurses standing ready to help.
In a matter of minutes, Karen had been taken back to a room where a doctor was waiting to see what could be done. Cole drew Dodge over to the counter and told him to answer all the questions that the woman there asked him. Cole hurried back to the room where they were working on Karen and stepped in for a moment to tell them what he knew about the situation, his fears about her having a hard time through this whole pregnancy.
Cole answered a few questions of his own, telling them that yes, she had been working, doing heavy housework, that morning even. He explained about helping her with the laundry when he checked on her earlier. They were told about the number and ages of the children at home now. Brows were raised, but nothing was said. Cole left them to their work.
Taking out his cell, he called Marshall to see how he was doing and what he needed.
"Hey, Cole." Marshall's voice was soft and calm.
"It's quiet. What did you do, hit them in the head?" Cole joked.
"Poor things. I fixed them all some Pop-Tarts and milk. They were exhausted. The oldest has been helping me. I've changed diapers and put on a cartoon but kept it low and before long they were all out. I've got both the babies on me now. They cling a lot. No wonder, huh? Happy home." Marshall sounded put out with the situation, but quite able to handle his part of it.
"What should I do to help you? Who do you think we could call to come help out? I don't know how long Karen will be here, or how much help Dodge would be if he came back there. Maybe someone from the church?" Cole knew well that in small towns when there was a problem and someone needed help, it was usually the church people who stepped up.
"If you could go by my house and pick Sissy up I'd appreciate it. She's perfect for this and has already packed a bag. I've called another couple of ladies my mom was friends with. It'll work out. We're gonna need some food, though."
"I'll get Sissy and take care of the food situation. I'll call Judieanne and see what ideas she can come up with too. All of this is as soon as I find out about Karen," Cole said.
"How is she?" Marshall asked quietly.
"She was bleeding heavily on the way in. Even Dodge sounded concerned. Idiot. This could have been avoided." Cole tried to be reasonable, but he hated to see people suffer and in this case it could have been prevented. He kind of knew that before this was all over he wasn't going to be able to keep his mouth shut. Dodge Bonner had a few lessons he needed to learn.
After talking to Marshall, Cole called Judieanne at the diner and told her what was going on. He didn't even have to ask for her help. She immediately said she'd pack up some food to take out there until some shopping could be done for them. She correctly guessed that neither he nor Marshall had eaten since lunch and it was now getting pretty late.
"I'll close early and meet you there. Don't worry about supper. I'll bring enough for everyone." Judieanne was bucking for sainthood in his book. He was getting kind of hungry.
"Marshall said he called some of the ladies from your church to help and he said that his sister, Sissy, was going to stay and help with the children. I'm picking her up in a few." Cole was feeling better about the situation with everyone pitching in.
"I bet it's Miss Margie, Miss Mable, and Miss Agatha. They're the first ones anyone thinks of when there's an emergency. They'll get things running smoothly until Karen can get back and on her feet. How is she, Cole? Did she lose the baby?" Judieanne sounded hesitant, but sympathetic.
"Not sure yet, but I'm afraid for her. Oh crap, there are people running into her room. I've got to go. I'll see you soon and thanks so much."
"You don't need to thank me, Cole. You're the one with the biggest heart in Weston County."
"Shh, don't be spreadin' those rumors now," he teased her. "I've got to keep my big bad former-soldier, tough-sheriff reputation."
"I think you do all right. Go on now and let me know if I can do anything else," Judieanne said before hanging up on him.
Cole stayed out of the way, but he waited to see if Karen was going to be all right. While he stood there he saw Dodge heading for him just as there was a commotion at the door to Karen's room. A parade of nurses, techs, and machinery accompanied Karen's bed as it was rolled down the hall toward double doors that said "Surgery."
"Where are they taking her?" Dodge said, hurrying up. "What's happening?"
The doctor stopped as he was bringing up the rear with a chart in his hands. He glanced between the two men.
"Sheriff," he said and nodded to Cole, then looked at Dodge and asked, "Are you Mr. Bonner?"
"Yes? What's wrong with her? Why is she going in there?" Dodge pointed to the surgery doors.
"Your wife just might be in the process of losing your baby, sir. I'm hoping she hasn't lost too much blood to save her, too." The doctor's words and his expression were serious.
"You're kidding! What do you mean lose her? She's just having a baby. She's had six of them. You better not let her die in there, you hear me? She's got six kids at home and..."
The doctor, Jack Creason, stared at Dodge like he wanted to punch him. Doctor Creason looked at Cole as if to say, "Get this idiot out of my face or I won't be responsible." Cole read him perfectly, understood the sentiment, and agreed wholeheartedly with it. But he had to stay professional.
"We'll do our best for your wife. The fact that she's had seven kids in the last five years might be why this pregnancy is tearing her apart. I don't have time for this now. I've got to get scrubbed up and see if I can stop the bleeding and save either, but hopefully both, of them."
Dodge tried to splutter more angry words, but Cole grabbed his arm and led him toward the waiting room where he pushed him down into a chair.
"What's the matter with you, Sheriff? You got no call to be slingin' me around like that. I got rights," Dodge said belligerently.
"What about her rights, Dodge? She's been pregnant ever since I've been back from the war. Come on, even I know that a woman's body needs time to rest and repair itself after a pregnancy. Having so many, as close together as she did is dangerous to her health. I hope she makes it through this." Maybe it wasn't his place to condemn Dodge for his negligent treatment of his wife, but he couldn't seem to stop himself.
He went on with his righteous rant. "You haven't even asked how your other six children are, Dodge. You have six kids under school age, which means that she, while being heavily pregnant, had to take care of that many kids as well as fetch and carry for you, since I'm sure you don't help her at all. There's no way that someone as far along as she is should be doing heavy housework." Cole thought he better shut up.
"If she don't, who's gonna do it?" Dodge was honest-to-God serious.
"Really? You're going there? You! Jesus, Dodge, you're supposed to love her and take care of her. Looks to me like she's the only one in this marriage doing any loving or caring for! In all the times I've seen you all with the kids, I've never seen you holding any of them. I just don't get you, Dodge." Cole did stop this time.
"Hell, bunch of girls. I only got me one son. I was hopin' this one was going to be another boy."
Cole gave up. "Yeah, well, you just made my point. I tell you what, Dodge. You stay here and wait to see if either one of them is going to live and I'm going to make sure the other six are taken care of for the next few days. I'm betting Karen won't be coming home right away." Cole had to get out of there before he took a swing at the damn fool.
"You're leaving me here? What am I supposed to do just sittin' here?" Dodge appeared to be totally freaked at the thought of being left there.
"I've got a good idea for you. Find the chapel. Pray." Cole wanted to add, "you son of a bitch", but figured that would take away from the point he was trying to make. He stomped out to the reception desk where he told the woman on duty to have Doctor Creason call him at the number he gave her and let him know how Karen was as soon as he got a chance.
Time to pick up Sissy and head out to the Bonner home. He'd rather be on diaper duty than spend any more time with Dodge Bonner, candidate for father and husband of the year. Cole was thankful that there'd been no other calls while all this was going on. Both he and Marshall were officially off duty now, so anything that came in would be handled by the new shift. His being off duty didn't mean he wouldn't be called back in, though. It was a frequent occurrence.
Cole smiled as he pulled into Marshall's drive and saw Sissy waiting at the door. She was out the door, had it locked, and was coming to the car with her suitcase before he was completely out of the vehicle.
"Hurry up, Sheriff Cole, I got to take care of them babies. They need me real, real bad. Marshall says right now I'm their only hope till their poor mama gets home from the hospital. Uh..." She stopped when she reached the car and looked at him and then at the car, saying, "I don't have to sit in the back, do I? I want to sit up in the front with you. The front seat is for good people and the back seat is for bad ones. I know that."
"Of course you can ride up front with me. Let me put your suitcase in the trunk. Tonight the back seat was used to take Karen to the hospital and I might need to do some cleaning back there." He didn't want to go into detail about the blood loss.
Sissy surrendered her suitcase to him and he stowed it away before helping her settle in the passenger seat.
"That was a big suitcase, Sissy. Did you bring all your clothes? It sure was heavy. I know how women are about their clothes," he teased her.
"No, silly. I got books and some toys and cookies for the kids out there. I can read the little books. Marshall helps me with the bigger ones and he reads to me sometimes, but I know all the little stories. I just brought them so they can see the pictures too," Sissy said earnestly.
"You're going to be great with those children, Sissy. They need a lot of attention right now. They're such sweet, beautiful little ones. You're in danger of falling in love with all of them, you wait and see."
Cole had a really warm spot for Sissy. Marshall had told him that she was two years older than he was and after their parents died a few years ago, she had moved in with him and she took care of the house and cooked for him sometimes. Sissy was mildly mentally challenged and was happy and content keeping house for her brother. Marshall said she couldn't really hold down a job, but she was productive and helpful and everyone loved her sunny disposition and caring manner.