Deputy Jensen Jackson was not particularly important. He knew that.
He was simply too young to be important. Or, at least, too young for someone from his social circles and economic circumstance to be important. That was fine. That was how the world worked.
But he did WORK for people who were important. Old Sheriff McCarter, of course, but “Mac” McCarter had stopped trying to elevate his own status, or those who worked for him, long before Deputy Jackson came along. Assuming, of course, he had ever made such efforts.
Deputy Jackson did assume that.
But Old Mac simply spent too much time hanging out with unimportant people to be a ticket to betterment. Oh, sure, being trusted by people on both side of the tracks — as well as townies, ranchers, drillers, hunters, natives, and even truckers — was useful when it came to policing. Deputy Jackson assumed that was why Mayor Gauge put up with Old Mac — he kept things quiet. And, it meant Mayor Gauge never had to worry about the sheriff looking to move into his job. Old Mac just ran in the wrong circles for that.
Mayor Bill Gauge very much ran in the right circles. When it came to being important in the town of Virtue, Oklahoma, Mayor Gauge defined the right circles.
So if the mayor called up and said “Jensen, my fellow… ” and it pleased Deputy Jackson that the mayor always called him ‘Jensen,’ “… I am having some folks over at the Boomer Barn, and I’d sure like if you were there to keep an eye on things.” Well then, Deputy Jackson would be there, keeping an eye on things.
He was not, in any formal sense, “on duty” when he stood near the mayor and his associates at the Boomer Barn. He was in uniform and thus, under Old Mac’s rules, couldn’t get a drink even though the Barn’s owner, Amos Lauren, would happily have given the deputy a free glass like he did for Mayor Gauge and whoever was sitting with the mayor. At least, Deputy Jackson was sure Amos would slide him a liquor-by-the-wink (as Apache County was dry) if he was out of uniform while keeping an eye on things for the mayor.
It had never come up.
Mostly, he just stood a bit away from the bar, in his tan and brown uniform, with his belt and holster and badge, between most of the Boomer Bar’s main room, and the leathertop table in the back corner where Mayor Gauge talked to folks and got things done. It was unofficial, of course, but efficient. No rules of order, no minutes of each meeting, no snoops, no party officers, at least unless the mayor invited them.
The government, people in Virtue said, was in town hall. Solutions came from the leathertop.
The mayor normally told Deputy Jackson who to expect so he could wave them to the leathertop, as Jackson knew everyone in town and most everyone important in the county. If anyone not on the list wandered up, the deputy stared at them until they got skittish and wondered away. If they seemed important enough that the mayor might want to talk to them even if they weren’t on the list, Jackson cleared his throat to get the mayor’s attention.
That was keeping an eye on things.
As a result, Deputy Jackson was surprised when Peg Shaw walked into the Boomer Barn, wearing her waitressing uniform and apron, kicking red dust off her boots, and then marched straight toward him. He was even more surprised she had a big, white cloth sheath hanging from her apron, with a knife stuck in it. His surprise grew only slightly more when he realized she was carrying a shotgun.
Shotguns were more common in Virtue than 12-inch-long knives.
She wasn’t pointing the gun at anyone, and she seemed calm enough. And Peg had been a law-abiding citizen her entire life, 32 years in town. There were stories that her mother had been a bit nuts, had maybe used grandpa Shaw’s tractor to run over a whole heard of razorbacks in ’31, but whenever the question had come up Old Mac always said that was, after all, not illegal
And while Peg was mostly a waitress at the “Ranch 66” diner by the highway, she had been known to step up and cook if the regular staff got sick, or had to go help family who lost a home in a tornado. Her family were ranchers and butchers going way back, so it was no shock she could cook. And, he recalled, when he had seen her running the Ranch 66’s grill once, she had been sporting that same cloth sheath and knife.
So Deputy Jackson could envision some odd scenarios where she needed to run an errand over to the Boomer Barn, and just happened to have a foot-long knife and a shotgun when she did them. And, honestly, those scenarios seemed more likely than Peg Shaw meaning to harm anyone at the local dance and social hall, so he didn’t feel the need to grab his gun or yell orders.
When it was clear that she was headed toward the leathertop, he decided his plan was simply to stare at her until she went away. Whatever she thought she needed from the mayor or his guests, Peg Shaw clearly was not important enough to skip the list.
That plan worked fine, right up to the moment Peg walked up to him, and matched his gaze.
“Peg,” he said casually, to remind her that even though she was a few years his senior and they weren’t friends, he had the position to use her given name.
“Jensen,” she replied even more coolly. Deputy Jackson had no idea what that was supposed to remind him of, but he suddenly felt like he had in elementary school, when Mrs. Floyd has asked him what 11 times 13 was, and he hadn’t known, even though he was supposed to know by then.
Her gaze became uncomfortable. If she found his stare in any way disconcerting, she wasn’t showing any sign of it. His sureness in her unimportance wavered. She also, he realized, had a book under one arm. It was a ragged, uneven thing with what seemed to be magazine pages and newspaper clippings and loose typed pages, all stuck hodge-podge between it’s covers. There were tabbed pages as well, and he could just read three of them, with tabs marked “breakfast,” and “desserts” and “therianthropes.”
It was, of course, rude to stare at a woman for this long. And it would be rude to suggest she go back out, or that she shouldn’t be wandering around with a big knife and shotgun. That was the only reason Deputy Jackson turned away from her gaze and pointedly cleared his throat at Mayor Gauge.
The mayor looked up, annoyed. His eyes flickered at Jackson, and then over to Peg Shaw. And then, to the deputy’s shock, the mayor looked concerned.
“Peg Shaw. You on the clock?”
Jackson’s eyes bounced back and forth between the mayor and Peg, and he felt his jaw relax a bit.
Peg’s voice was still cool. “I am, mayor. I need a minute.”
“It’s not a great time, Peg.” The mayor waved at the five men sitting at the leathertop with him. The most important of those was Bruce Shane, one of the wealthiest ranchers in the tri-county area. While most of the other men present seems as perplexed as the deputy (though none of them had either the annoyance or disdain Jackson would have expected from such a circumstance), Shane’s expression was as grim and serious as the mayor’s.
“Sorry, mayor. It can’t wait. Not unless Mr. Shane thinks he has cattle to spare. There’s already a truck rig missing, and it’s got to be belly coolers…”
The mayor held up a hand, which forestalled Peg finishing the description of whatever couldn’t wait.
“Gentlemen,” the mayor’s voice was calm, “forgive me, but a civil servant’s first duty must be to his constituency. We can finish this discussion another time. Bruce, can you stay?”
Peg walked past Jackson without any further invitation, and all the men not named Bruce stood from their chairs around the leathertop, and walked away without any grumbling.
Deputy Jackson was, as always, thrilled the mayor called him by his last name, and even more thrilled to be included in anything important enough to interrupt the major’s normal plans. He almost started to walk toward the table.
“Go get Old Mac, will you? Let him know there’s a Shaw Problem, and that Peg is here.”
The deputy swung his leg, which had been about to carry him toward the leathertop, in an arc he was sure looked natural and intended as he began walking toward the door. He heard a thump behind him, and the rustling of pages.
Peg’s voice followed. “There are signs, which ‘Nan Micah made note of back in ’04 here on her rules for boiling poke salad…”
Jensen hurried a bit, to go get Old Mac.
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