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  • Mark Wm Smith

Short Story: Desert Miles, Scene 1

A four-foot tall dust devil skipped across Main Street, stuttering for a moment between Miles Thurman and the Law. It bobbed and weaved with the expertise of a boxer. Juneau poked his damp nose at a loose candy wrapper caught in the whipping updraft and barked.

Miles placed a soft palm on his churning gut. He turned toward the drug store, away from the sheriff. The thought of confronting his father vis-à-vis the retreat curbed the dodge.

Early spring’s miniature tornado ducked its head, danced thirty feet down the gutter, and collapsed into a late morning memory.

Sheriff John Mentz stood on the sidewalk in front of the Bullhead County Bank, big and dangerous. At five-foot-seven, Miles always seemed to be looking up. The sheriff’s tall, broad frame made Miles feel soft and round, a chubby, domesticated pet surviving the high desert on the goodwill of others. Mentz, however, was a grizzly foraging the sagebrush desert beneath the shadow of the dry mountains, most alive when hunting or taking down prey.

The sheriff focused on his new, sleekly shaped deputy.

Miles halted at the curb, feeling a slight tremor.

Neither officer noticed the disturbance, nor did they look his way.

Miles surveyed the street for confirmation of an earthquake, slowly realizing the sensation had come from within his body. He coughed, and shook his head to throw off the tremble.

Both sheriff and deputy turned.

“Miles.” Sheriff John Mentz smiled, a one-sided, closed mouth grin meant to corral comfort and fear in the same yard. He shifted his front bear leg to place it off the curb, jauntily crossing his arms. Mentz had been practicing for sheriff since the sixth grade, when a bully had Miles pressed into the schoolyard fence and Mentz sent the petty criminal running for Teacher. But the desert heat warped things. When John’s dad was killed ten years ago, Miles became the enemy.

“Sheriff.” Miles turned toward the athletic blonde standing next to John Mentz.

Her tan uniform bore a sharp crease. A black nylon pistol holster glistened as coldly as the semi-automatic under the flap. Next to Sheriff Mentz’s Colt Six Shooter in its worn leather holster, this gun made her look even younger than Miles’s guess of twenty-eight or nine.

“Deputy,” he said, dipping his chin.

The woman briskly presented her hand. “Myrna Riley.”

Miles grasped it. The discomfort of his palm pressed against the soft, attractive female twitched up his arm. He pulled free.

“Miles Thurman,” he mumbled.

Juneau landed his front paws against Deputy Myrna Riley’s thigh, licked the back of her hand, and ruffed.

“Down!” Miles popped his beagle lightly between the ears.

Myrna Riley smiled. She bent to pet the dog. “Thurman,” she said to Sheriff Mentz, whose gaze did not leave Miles’s face. “That’s the bank owner’s name isn’t it?”

Mentz’s mouth opened enough to show a couple of teeth. “This is Harold’s boy. Miles sells insurance.” He drug the word into a contempt.

Miles shrank a foot. He stepped onto the sidewalk next to the two lawmen and squared his shoulders. “You’ve got Whittling Jim locked up?”

Myrna Riley stood and her uniform resumed perfection.

Juneau walked figure-eights between their legs before lying down on the sun-warmed concrete.

Sheriff Mentz continued staring into the space where Miles had been standing. His words came monotone and measured. “Looks like Jim killed that kid from Walla Walla out to Konnelig’s property last night.”

Miles unconsciously grabbed the sheriff’s sleeve. “That’s crazy!” Hard triceps flexed beneath Miles’s palm. He let go.

Deputy Myrna Riley moved into the street. The sheriff shifted his gaze around her, refusing to look at either her or Miles.

Riley tilted her head to one side, her face glowing like a cactus flower. Changing topics, she said, “Did you draw those landscapes hanging in the drugstore, Mr. Thurman?”

Sheriff Mentz harrumphed. “Miles doesn’t do much hunting, or fishing, or such. He likes to draw pictures of bushes and hills.”

Lifting her chin, Riley said, “Good drawings, though.”

Mentz turned his head slightly and stared at Miles, jaw muscles pulsing. “Expecting some financing from Old Whittling Jim, weren’t you Miles?”

Miles glanced at the sheriff’s silvery rodeo buckle. “He offered to put up the money for Konnelig’s.”

“Guess he’ll need that money for legal fees now, Miles,” the sheriff said.

Miles felt that truth bite into his chest. He looked up.

Sheriff John Mentz sported a full grin.

Miles’s stomach went empty. Whittling Jim’s loan was the only money he could get around here. The small and shrinking community of Crystal Waters, Idaho, sprang like an oasis out of hardpan desert. Since 1942, it had been the watering hole for Sawtooth Air Base ten miles west. Miles recalled the Base commander words from just yesterday. “We have to shut her down, Miles. Pentagon can’t hold onto her with our limited mission. Sorry. Hope your military clientele doesn’t leave you high and dry ….” Miles could feel his body drying up, shriveling like a sagebrush, roots pulling free from the parched ground. A good wind, and he’d be gone.

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