Big Sky River

By: Linda Lael Miller

CHAPTER ONE

SHERIFF BOONE TAYLOR, enjoying a rare off-duty day, drew back his battered fishing rod and cast the fly-hook far out over the rushing, sun-spangled waters of Big Sky River. It ran the width of Parable County, Montana, that river, curving alongside the town of Parable itself like the crook of an elbow. Then it extended westward through the middle of the neighboring community of Three Trees and from there straight on to the Pacific.

He didn’t just love this wild, sprawling country, he reflected with quiet contentment. He was Montana, from the wide sky arching overhead to the rocky ground under the well-worn soles of his boots. That scenery was, to his mind, his soul made visible.

A nibble at the hook, far out in the river, followed by a fierce breaking-away, told Boone he’d snagged—and already lost—a good-sized fish. He smiled—he’d have released the catch anyway, since there were plenty of trout in his cracker-box-sized freezer—and reeled in his line to make sure the hook was still there. He found that it wasn’t, tied on a new one. For him, fishing was a form of meditation, a rare luxury in his busy life, a peaceful and quiet time that offered solace and soothed the many bruised and broken places inside him, while shoring up the strong ones.

He cast out his line again, and adjusted the brim of his baseball cap so it blocked some of the midmorning glare blazing in his eyes. He’d forgotten his sunglasses back at the house—if that junk heap of a double-wide trailer could be called a “house”—and he wasn’t inclined to backtrack to fetch them.

So he squinted, and toughed it out. For Boone, toughing things out was a way of life.

When his cell phone jangled in the pocket of his lightweight cotton shirt, worn unbuttoned over an old T-shirt, he muttered under his breath, grappling for the device. He’d have preferred to ignore it and stay inaccessible for a little while longer. As sheriff, though, he didn’t have that option. He was basically on call, 24/7, like it or not.

He checked the number, recognized it as Molly’s, and frowned slightly as he pressed the answer bar. She and her husband, Bob, had been raising Boone’s two young sons, Griffin and Fletcher, since the dark days following the death of their mother and Boone’s wife, Corrie, a few years before. A call from his only sibling was usually benign—Molly kept him up-to-date on how the boys were doing—but there was always the possibility that the news was bad, that something had happened to one or both of them. Boone had reason to be paranoid, after all he’d been through, and when it came to his kids, he definitely was.

“Molly?” he barked into the receiver. “What’s up?”

“Hello, Boone,” Molly replied, and sure enough, there was a dampness to her response, as though she’d been crying, or was about to, anyhow. And she sounded bone weary, too. She sniffled and put him out of his misery, at least temporarily. “The boys are both fine,” she said. “It’s about Bob. He broke his right knee this morning—on the golf course, of all places—and the docs in Emergency say he’ll need surgery right away. Maybe even a total replacement.”

“Are you crying?” Boone asked, his tone verging on a challenge as he processed the flow of information she’d just let loose. He hated it when women cried, especially ones he happened to love, and couldn’t help out in any real way.

“Yes,” Molly answered, rallying a little. “I am. After the surgery comes rehab, and then more recovery—weeks and weeks of it.”

Boone didn’t even reel in his line; he just dropped the pole on the rocky bank of the river and watched with a certain detached interest as it began to bounce around, an indication that he’d gotten another bite. “Molly, I’m sorry,” he murmured.

Bob was the love of Molly’s life, the father of their three children, and a backup dad to Griff and Fletch, as well. Things were going to be rough for him and for the rest of the family, and there wasn’t a damn thing Boone could do to make it better.

“Talk to me, Molly,” he urged gruffly, when she didn’t reply right away. He could envision her, struggling to put on a brave front, as clearly as if they’d been standing in the same room.

The pole was being pulled into the river by then; he stepped on it to keep it from going in and fumbled to cut the line with his pocketknife while Molly was still regathering her composure, keeping the phone pinned between his shoulder and his ear so his hands stayed free. Except for the boys and her and Bob’s kids, Molly was all the blood kin Boone had left, and he owed her everything.

“It’s—” Molly paused, drew a shaky breath “—it’s just that the kids have summer jobs, and I’m going to have my hands full taking care of Bob....”

Belatedly, the implications sank in. Molly couldn’t be expected to look after her husband and Griffin and Fletcher, too. She was telling her thickheaded brother, as gently as she could, that he had to step up now, and raise his own kids. The prospect filled him with a tangled combination of exuberance and pure terror.

Boone pulled himself together, silently acknowledged that the situation could have been a lot worse. Bob’s injury was bad, no getting around it, but he could be fixed. He wasn’t seriously ill, the way Corrie had been.