Under Wyoming Skies: Prologue & First Chapter

Prologue: Home on the Range

"There it is, Mom!" Lauren said.

Off in the distance, blue-gray in the late afternoon haze, we could see the Devils Tower. I nudged my horse over next to Lauren's and reached out for her hand. "Yes, honey, there it is." We sat on our horses gazing at that extraordinary piece of rock rising out of the Wyoming ground, its shape based on a Native American legend: The Great Spirit heard the prayers of two Indian girls fleeing from a bear. They climbed onto a rock so the bear couldn't catch them. When the bear started climbing up the rock, the Great Spirit lifted the rock out of the ground. The huge bear tried to claw its way up the rock, leaving deep gouge marks in its sides. The rock rose higher and higher, so high that the bear could not reach the girls. There it stands to this day.

We had seen the monument in the movie, found it on the map, and then planned to stop and see it as we drove along Interstate 90 on our way to the ranch. But my cousin Paul was planning to meet us and lead us to their cabin, and we were short of time. "We'll go see it while we're here," I said to Lauren. "It's only about ten miles from here."

"It looks closer, doesn't it?" Lauren said.

We sat there for a while, and then my horse snorted and pawed the ground. "Let's head back. Heather's probably already getting dinner ready."

Lauren looked at me. "Are we really going to stay out here, Mom?"

I took a deep breath, turned my horse, and we started back toward the cabin at a slow trot. "We'll see." I smiled at Lauren, and she looked at me quizzically. Then she grinned, nudged her horse into a faster pace with her knees and hollered, "Come on, Mom, I'm hungry!"

I nodded and urged my horse forward. A month ago Lauren had only been on horseback a few times, years ago when she was much younger, and already she was riding like a pro, thanks largely to the lessons that Paul and Heather had provided for her and Roy. Not to mention what she had learned from her new friend Kimi, the charming young Cheyenne Indian girl, daughter of the couple who worked the ranch with Heather and Paul. Kimi was a superb horsewoman, and she had taught Lauren a great deal.

Lauren's question—are we going to stay out here—was a good one. Here I was, forty years old, divorced, with two wonderful children and a good job awaiting me back in Pennsylvania, almost two thousand miles away. A little over a month ago I was looking forward to a vacation with my children, the first real one in several years. True, for a week each year for the past few years we had gone to the beach in Delaware, where my uncle had retired. But this was different. This was a real getaway—I had persuaded my boss to give me the entire month of July off. I was due back in ten days.

Lauren and Roy Junior would be entering their senior and sophomore years in high school. Their grandmother Wanda, my dear mother-in-law who had stayed living with us after the divorce because she didn't want to leave her only two grandchildren, was expecting us to return. She had decided not to join us on the trip to Wyoming because she didn't want to sit in the car that long. Our options were clear: We could pack up and return home, and everything would return to normal. Or we could stay. You would think that Lauren, a typical teenager and my wonderful daughter, would be in a state of mini-rebellion at the thought of staying in Wyoming, leaving her friends and classmates. She was looking forward to college, thinking about going to Penn State, where I had gone. But she had fallen in love—with horses, of all things—and she adored life on the ranch, helping Paul and Heather with the chores, riding out each day in search of stray cows, and helping care for the horses in the stable, in addition to assisting Kimi in giving riding lessons to children. Amazing.

And Roy Junior, half bonkers and out of his head over the charming Kimi, who had started treating Roy something like a younger brother. Heck, I thought I was going to have to drag him back to Pennsylvania by the scruff of his neck, or so I felt about a week ago. Now I wasn't so sure; I had begun to think that maybe he could stay here in Wyoming, learning to be a cattle rancher perhaps. Could I really go off and leave my son here? More to the point, could I stay? Could we all stay?

We had perhaps a week to decide, and as I mulled over the possibilities, I had to go back and sort out the reasons why we were here, why I had decided to take a month off. Although it was not my intention to do so, I had distanced myself and the kids from our comfortable life—and the miles we had traveled to get here were nothing compared with the distance I had traveled emotionally in the brief space of three weeks. I found myself wondering how it had happened.

"What are you thinking, Mom?" Lauren asked as she waited for me to catch up. She had slowed her horse to a walk as we approached a shallow gully.

I smiled at her. "Everything. I've been thinking about everything, sweetheart."

"And?" The look in her eyes said she really wanted to know. So did I.


I heard the phone ringing and slowly came awake. I squinted at the clock on the nightstand—it read 5:30. Wrong number, I hoped. I sat up and put my feet on the floor. Tony Donatelli managed our Pittston store. &quoBut it kept ringing. "Hello?"


"Yes?" I mumbled.

"It's Tony. I thought I'd better give you a call."

"What's going on, Tony?"

"I'm at the store. We've got a fire going here."

"My God, what happened?"

"We're not sure where it started. An alarm went off, and the fire department got here pretty fast, so they've got it under control."

"How bad is it?"

"Bad enough. I don't think we'll be able to open tomorrow, but it's too early to tell."

"Stay there, Tony. I'll get there as fast as I can."

"Gee, Kelly, I don't think you can do anything. The firemen won't let anybody go in yet."

"Maybe they will by the time I get there. Anyway, I'd better have a look. See you in a few minutes."

My daughter Lauren was standing in the doorway. "What's going on, Mom? I heard the phone."

"There's a fire in the Pittston store," I said as I dressed hurriedly. "Make sure Roy's up on time, okay?"

"Sure, Mom."

"And you can get yourselves breakfast, I guess."

"Geez, Mom, I'm seventeen. I know how to make breakfast."

"I'm sure you do." I finish dressing, kissed Lauren and headed for the door.

The Fallon hardware store in Pittston was the newest of three stores owned by Arthur Fallon. The main store was in Wilkes-Barre, where I was the general manager of all three stores, but I had managed the Pittston store for two years when it first opened. There was probably nothing I could do about the fire, but I wanted to see for myself what was going on. I drove fast—there was not much chance I'd be stopped by police, but if I was, I was confident I could tell them why I was in a hurry. I smiled as I imagined the conversation.

"Where you goin', lady, to a fire?"

"Yes, officer, as a matter of fact I am."

I had the car radio on a news station listening for anything about the fire, but it was too early for that. The fire department had the street blocked off in front of the store, so I parked across the street and got out. Tony was standing next to a fireman, and he waved to me. The main front door had been propped open, and wisps of smoke and steam were coming out.

"Hey, Kelly, glad you came. This here's Ron Mickelson, Fire Chief of Pittston."

I held up my hand. "Kelly McKinnon, Chief. I'm the manager of Fallon Hardware in Wilkes-Barre."

"How do, ma'am. We got the fire out, but we need to make sure everything's secure before we let anybody go in."

"Of course."

"I think it's mostly stock that was on fire, and I doubt there's any structural damage." I nodded.

"We probably won't be able to open today," Tony said. "If we seal off the damaged area, we can probably keep the rest of the store open, wouldn't you say so, Chief?"

"I don't see any reason why not, as long as there are no signs of damage to the building itself. We should be able to get inside and take a pretty good look within an hour or so." The chief glanced at his watch. "Some of your stock may have water damage, but you'll probably have to sort that out for yourselves. Our guys will help you clean up."

"I appreciate that, Chief," I said.

Tony nodded to the restaurant across the street that had just opened. "Coffee?"

"Sure, why not?"

"Chief, can I bring you something?" Tony asked.

"Black coffee, if you don't mind, Tony. Thanks.

We sat in the front window of the restaurant watching the firemen go in and out as we sipped our coffee. "I'm glad you called me, Tony. I'll be able to give Arthur a first-hand report."

"I can't imagine what caused it. We had some new machinery installed in the lumber department, so maybe that was the problem. Maybe something wasn't connected properly."

"You're a good manager, Tony, and you've been with the store a long time. I'm sure Arthur won't hold you responsible."

"I appreciate that, Kelly. You've always taken care of me." He lifted his coffee cup in a toast and smiled. We finished our coffee, Tony picked up a cup to go for the chief, and we went back to watch the rest of the cleanup. It was about 6:45 when the chief told us we could go in and look around. The smell of smoke and the chemicals that had burned was still strong, but as we surveyed the area of the fire, the damage didn't look as bad as I thought it would. Most of the store was still intact, and the smoke damage probably would be minimal. Our initial feeling was that we would be able to open within a few days, once we got the damaged section closed off. Lumber was one of our most active areas, and we would lose sales, but I was sure the insurance would help out with any losses.
We finished looking over the damage, and Tony asked a couple of the employees who arrived early to make some signs for the front door saying that the store was closed temporarily because of fire. We went to his office and talked for a while about what we would do next. I thought about calling Arthur on my cell phone, but it was still pretty early—Arthur was getting on in years, and he usually didn't arrive at the main store until around 10 o'clock.

"I'll call Arthur as soon as I get back to Wilkes-Barre," I said. "Just let me know what's going on, okay? I should think two or three days would be plenty of time to get ready to reopen."

"We'll just block off the fire area with some plywood. We should probably get the insurance people to come in and take a look as soon as we can."

"Sure. I'll call them as soon as I get back to the main store." I stood and shook hands with Tony. "Don't worry, we'll be okay."

"Thanks for coming, Kelly. I really appreciate it."

"Not at all."

Arthur Fallon owned the three hardware stores in Wilkes-Barre, Pittston, and Hazleton. I've been with Fallon Hardware for almost twenty years. The store where I first worked was the original Fallon store in Wilkes-Barre, and my boss Arthur was the son of Wilbur Fallon, who built the first store. I majored in marketing at Penn State, and when Arthur was getting ready to open a second store in Hazleton, my husband Roy persuaded him to hire me because he was going to need advertising to attract people to the new store. Roy was in construction, and his company did a lot of business with Fallon. He and I weren't married at the time, but we were moving in that direction. Because of the business he did with our store our paths crossed often.

So I became the advertising department for Fallon Hardware. I started with newspaper ads and eventually expanded our campaign into radio and television spots. A year after it opened, the Hazleton store was almost as profitable as our main store in Wilkes-Barre. Because I needed to know a lot about the store for my advertising job, I learned a great deal about the hardware business to go along what I learned about marketing in college. I guess I made a pretty good impression on Arthur, because when he decided open a third store in Pittston, he asked me to manage it. Business in that store had started slow, and since my advertising campaign seemed to help the Hazleton store, he thought I could run the Pittston outlet.

Before too long I had the Pittston store just about as profitable as the other two, and after two years Arthur brought me back to manage the main store in Wilkes-Barre as a replacement for the manager who was retiring. Tony was the assistant manager in Pittston when I left, and I recommended to Arthur that he promote Tony into my spot. Tony had started full-time work right out of high school, but he studied business at a community college, and he really knew his stuff. He was older than I was, and not having a degree, I think he was concerned about his future. When I secured the promotion for him, he was very grateful, and we have remained friends as well as business colleagues ever since.

When a big chain hardware store company started maneuvering to open a store in our area, Arthur decided to promote me to be general manager of all three stores. He knew that we would have to do some advertising to counter what the chain would be doing, and with my background, he thought I would be able to keep them at bay. We had to work really hard to compete with the big guys, the national chains, and I did that. I visited the other two stores regularly and talked with the managers about everything from product placement to hiring practices, to arrangements with our local contractors and with all our customers. My motto for all our stores was quality: quality in-store appearance, quality treatment of customers, rapid delivery of large orders and attention to detail, and especially, quality treatment of employees. Fallon pays good wages, offers first-rate benefits, and is known as a pleasant place to work. The employee turnover is low, and my assistant manager, Tom Wellborn, always has a stack of job applications to choose from when we need to hire someone. I'm proud of the work I did during my time with Fallon, but it took its toll.

Roy was two years ahead of me at Penn State, but we didn't start dating until we were both back in Wilkes-Barre, where we had both grown up. Our first child, a girl, was born a year after we got married, and we named her Lauren after my grandmother. Roy Junior was born two years later, and for the first half-dozen years of our marriage we were pretty happy. Roy and I were both making good money, so after Roy Junior was born, we bought a nice house that had plenty of room for us as well as for Roy's mother Wanda. Wanda's husband Frank had been a railroad maintenance man who was killed in an accident in a tunnel on one of the railroads that crosses Pennsylvania. Roy was her only son, Lauren and Roy Junior her only grandchildren, and she is utterly devoted to them.
I need to talk a little bit more about my family, so it will help you understand how I got to where I am. My mother and father were both native Pennsylvanians, and they raised me and my brother to the best of their ability. My father was an insurance salesman, my mother a teacher, and although we were never what you might call well-to-do, they lived carefully and frugally and saved enough so that my brother and I could go to college.

My brother Joey, who's three years older than I am, was a straight-A student in high school and a pretty good athlete. He won a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon, where he studied business and finance. He went to work for a business firm in Pittsburgh, later got his MBA, and moved to New York where he took a position with a large investment bank. He and his wife live in a suburb of New York City. They have two children, a boy, Daniel, a freshman at Yale, and a daughter Sarah, a senior at a private school in New England. We see them several times each year, and we get along very well, though I have to say, the world they live in is quite different from ours.

I have some cousins and other distant relatives, but the only ones I'm really close to are Paul and Heather. Paul McKinnon is my first cousin—he and my father were brothers and were very close. Although Paul is about ten years older than I am, we saw each other often and got along very well. He's my favorite relative. Paul's father, my Uncle Ben, is still alive, though he lives in a nursing home and is not doing well. Paul and Heather lived in Pennsylvania until he got itching to get into the cattle business, something he learned about when he was in college in Texas. He worked hard, saved his money and finally bought the ranch in Wyoming, which had been his dream for years. We enjoyed our visits to Paul and Heather's ranch, though we hadn't been there for some time.

Wanda has her own bedroom and bath and a small sitting room where she can do her knitting, crossword puzzles, and watch her favorite television shows. She spoiled Roy Junior and Lauren rotten when they were little, but it was wonderful to have her in the house with us because it meant that I could focus on my job and not worry about what the kids were up to. Roy worked hard too, and the problem was that both of us were workaholics, and we were tired when we came home. I wanted to spend time with the kids, and he wanted to relax and watch sports on television. I guess it was inevitable that we would drift apart.

Although we were living comfortably, Roy was unhappy working for a local construction company, and he started looking for something else. He landed a position with a big construction firm in Baltimore, and he wanted us to move there. But my father had died of lung cancer several years earlier, and my mother was not doing well, so I wanted to stay near her to help see her through the difficult last years of her life. So Roy moved to Baltimore without me, leaving me, the two kids, and Wanda in Wilkes-Barre. He stayed in Baltimore during the week and came home on weekends, but after a year of that, we realized that the strain of a long-distance marriage was too much for us. The divorce, like all divorces, was difficult, but we managed to get through it without too much rancor.

Until he got married again, Roy had a small apartment near Baltimore, so Wanda, who is the sweetest person I know, decided to stay in the big house with us even after the divorce. She had a comfortable place in our home—for all practical purposes her own little apartment—and she wanted to be near her grandkids. In addition to her pleasant company, her presence meant that I didn't have to worry too much about babysitters when Lauren and Roy Junior were young. Thinking back on it, having an adult in the house made my life richer and was part of the reason why I never gave much serious thought to getting married again.

Staying in the big house was challenging financially, but with Roy's support for the kids, we held onto it. Roy has partial custody of Lauren and Roy Junior, and we get along pretty well most of the time, though there are inevitable arguments over who gets the kids for holidays and things like that. Roy eventually got married again to a ditzy little blonde—at least that's the way Lauren describes her—and she seems nice enough, but she and Roy don't have any kids. Roy and Lauren seem to like her well enough, so there are no problems when they go to visit their dad.

Since I got married after college, and all my college records had my maiden name of McKinnon, I kept that for business purposes. After the divorce from Roy, I dropped his name, Stewart, and went back to using McKinnon exclusively.

So here I am at age forty with two teenage kids whom I love dearly and a good job that pays me well. The people who work for me say that I'm tough but fair, efficient but reasonable, thoughtful but not obsessive. I guess that's more or less how I define myself. I visit the other stores regularly and try to make suggestions about how to improve. I make it a point of trying to get to know as many employees as I can by name, and I try to pay attention to how they treat their customers. Sometimes I walk around the stores and watch how the employees interact with customers. If I like the way they're handling things, I tell them so right on the spot. If not, I talk to the manager and suggest maybe a counseling session. That's my work life, and it has been very satisfying. I'm lucky that Arthur Fallon is so easy to work for. That's why it became hard for me even to think about not going back.

Arthur Fallon is getting on in years. I know he hoped that his son Andrew would become part of the family business, but Andrew went to law school and has a successful practice in Scranton. Arthur's two daughters, Barbara and Margaret, are both married with young children. Barbara teaches elementary school and Margaret's a secretary; neither is interested in getting into the hardware business. Arthur comes into the office daily, but now that he's getting older, he comes in late and leaves early. He walks around the store from time to time, but mostly he relies on me to keep him informed. I think he trusts me, and he treats me almost like family. He dotes on my two kids and greets Roy and Lauren as if they were his own grandchildren whenever they're in the office. When Lauren was little, she just liked to hang around in the office and draw pictures. Roy used to wander around the store and talk to the salesmen. When he was old enough, they let him drive a forklift around, making sure that he didn't crash into anything.

I got back to the main store and called Arthur to tell him about the fire in Pittston. I told him I would call the insurance company right away, that the store should be able to reopen in a few days, and that repairs could begin almost immediately. Most of that would consist of removing the damaged stock, rebuilding the shelves in between the aisles and then replacing what was lost.

"Thank you for calling, Kelly." Arthur paused for a few moments. "I'm getting too old for this," he muttered.

"I'll see you when you get here, Arthur."

The fire was the first of the problems we had in our stores during the months before I decided that I needed some time off. I had been with Fallon for twenty years, and although I was happy in my job, I was getting to the stage of my life where I wondered if there might be something else out there. Call it a midlife crisis or whatever you like; I just began to feel a need for change, and the problems we had in the stores contributed. The problems weren't necessarily earthshaking—the fire was bad enough and required a lot of dealing and haggling with the insurance company—but they are part of the reason why I decided to take a long vacation, and also the reason why I felt during the time away from the store with the two kids that maybe I didn't even want to go back.
But all that came later. In the meantime, as they say, trouble tends to come in threes.

The most difficult incident involved theft from within the Hazleton store. It began a few weeks after the fire in Pittston. It was hard to deal with, but in the end, it didn't turn out as badly as it might have. Fred Patterson is the head bookkeeper of Fallon Hardware. Fred is a nice guy, but he looks like a bookkeeper. He's tall, kinda thin, prematurely bald, with a ring of sandy hair around his shiny pate, pale blue eyes and a long, pointed nose. Think Ichabod Crane. He wears thick glasses and generally wears a cardigan sweater, even in the summer. He stutters slightly, but all in all Fred's a pleasant man, competent and easy to get along with, and I enjoy having him around. His young assistant named Peggy is necessary because Fred oversees the work of the bookkeepers in Hazleton and Pittston as well as taking care of the books in our flagship store.

Fred came into my office one day and said, "Sorry to disturb you, Kelly." He was holding a sheaf of papers.

"Not at all, Fred. What's up?" I asked. As I said, I like Fred a lot. In addition to being good at his job, Fred is always very nice to Roy and Lauren. He'll take time out of his busy day to chat or play a game or two with them on one of their devices, or on the checkerboard he keeps in his desk. Fred and I often eat lunch together in the comfortable employee lounge in the rear of the store.
"There's something strange going on at the Hazelton store," Fred said.

I leaned back in my chair and looked at him. "Oh?"

"I've been going over their sales and inventory figures, and something doesn't add up. I've been paying attention to the numbers for the past few months, almost a year, in fact, and on a number of items, they're ordering more than they're selling."

"What kinds of items?"

"No big items, but smaller ones that are harder to keep track of. Hand tools, batteries, electrical fixtures, light bulbs, things like that. They are apparently ordering more than they need to replace what's been sold, at least on paper. If they were getting all the stuff they've been ordering, it would be piling up somewhere, but that doesn't seem to be the case."

"What do you think's going on?" I could already guess, but I wanted Fred's take on things.

"Well, I've been looking at the orders, and I think they're making purchases—on paper of course—from suppliers who don't exist. In other words, money's going out to pay for things that aren't coming in. At least that's what it looks like to me."

"Have you talked to anybody about this besides me?"

"I've asked Jeff Becker a few questions, and he said they had changed suppliers for a couple of the items because they were getting better deals. It's not a whole lot of money so far, but over time it will add up if it keeps going on. I'm afraid were going to have to look into it a little more deeply, but I wanted to let you know about it before I did anything else."

"Who do you think is responsible for whatever it is that's going on?" I wanted to know.

"I don't think it's Jeff—I know him pretty well. But I can't imagine that he doesn't know what's happening. Maybe he's covering for somebody who's got a problem."

Fred was holding some papers. "Can you show me exactly what you're talking about?"

"Sure." Fred laid the papers on my desk and pointed to a line on the top page. "Okay, it starts here. If you look at these figures, and then compare them with what's on the next page, and I've got it labeled on top, you'll see that there is a disparity here that doesn't make any sense."

I held the two pages up side by side, looked back and forth and nodded.

"If you go through the rest of the pages, you'll see more of the same," Fred said.

"And how long do you think this has been going on?" I asked.

"I'd say six months," Fred answered.

"And you're just figuring it out now?" I smiled at Fred, not wanting to put him on the spot. Whatever was going on certainly wasn't his fault.

"For a while I thought it might have been oversight, you know somebody simply making a mistake in inventory, or maybe try to take advantage of some price cuts, something like that. But when I started noticing the same thing in different places, it began to add up."
"But wouldn't Jeff have to know about it? Or at least have figured it out?"

Fred thought for a moment, and I watched him. "Yes, at some point, he'd have to have seen the discrepancies. As I said, I think maybe he's covering for someone."

"Okay, Fred, thanks." I took a deep breath and thought for a few moments. "Shit! Just what we needed."

Just then the door opened and Al Vitale, who manages the main store and the warehouse came into the office. "I think we got a problem out here, Kelly," Al said.

"Now what?" My voice was sharper than I intended, and Al looked at Fred, unaware of course of the conversation that had just transpired. Fred just shrugged. "I'm sorry, Al," I said. "What's going on?"

"There's a guy in the store who's acting kinda weird. He's walking around muttering to himself and he's yelled at a couple of people. One of the clerks asked if he could help and he screamed at him. He's wearing a hoodie jacket and he's got his hands in his pockets. I just saw him in the lumber department."

"But he hasn't threatened anybody?"

"Not yet," Al said. "But it looks like he's got something in his pocket."

"What do you mean, a gun or something?" I asked.

Al just shook his head. "Jesus Christ, I hope not!"

"Okay, let's go." Al held the door for me, and we walked out into the store. I followed him toward the rear of the store away from the cashiers. "He was back here last time I saw him," Al said. We heard a shout from the direction of the aisle where the bins of plywood and interior wallboard panels are kept. Al walked quickly toward that aisle, and I followed him. The man was walking toward us, but he stopped and stared. "Kelly, I wouldn't get too close," Al said.

I reached out and put a hand on Al's arm. I recognized the man—someone I had known way back in grammar school. "It's okay," I whispered to Al. "I know this guy—I don't think he's dangerous." I looked at the man standing there and smiled at him. "Hi, Curtis, what's going on?" I said, trying to make my voice as pleasant as possible.

Curtis didn't seem to recognize me. He shouted, "Go away!"

Still trying to keep my voice level, I said, "I'm going to stay right here Curtis. Now please tell me what the matter is."

"I can't tell you!" Curtis shouted at me. He looked pretty upset. "You don't know!"

I forced myself to keep smiling and took one step closer. "What don't I know, Curtis? You can tell me—it's me, Kelly McKinnon."
"Why should I tell you?" he shouted. He seemed to relax a little, as if he might have recognized me.

"We were friends in school, Curtis, don't you remember? We were in the same grade, in Miss Elliott's class." Curtis kept staring at me for a few moments and then his expression relaxed slightly. "That was in sixth grade, and then you had to go away for a while."

"Yes, they sent me away!"

"I know, and we missed seeing you every day."

I heard more people coming into the aisle behind me, glanced around quickly and saw that they were clerks. Al whispered, "Should we call the cops?"

I turned back to Curtis and whispered to Al out of the corner of my mouth, "I don't think he's going to hurt anybody. So not yet, okay?"

"What are you talking about?" Curtis shouted at me. He looked angry again.

"I just told Al that you're not going to hurt anybody, Curtis. You're not going to hurt anybody, are you?" I kept my voice as gentle as I could and stepped closer. "Can you tell me what's bothering you? Maybe we can help."

Curtis pulled his hand out of his jacket pocket. He was holding something that appeared to be a gun, but he held it across the front of his body and covered it with his other arm. I wasn't sure what it was, but I doubted very much that he had a real gun. "Jesus Christ," Al muttered. "I'm gonna call the cops. I think you should get out of here, Kelly."

"He won't hurt me, Al. I'm sure of that," I said in an even voice. "Why don't you just get everybody else to back off, and I'll see if I can calm him down."

"You sure?"

"I don't want a lot of commotion to set him off," I said. "Give me just a few more minutes and then call nine-one-one. But give me a chance first."

"I'm going to stay right behind you," Al said. I turned for a moment and saw Al wave the other clerks to go away. He said to them softly, "Don't let anybody near this aisle."

I turned back to Curtis and smiled. He seemed to be somewhat calmer, so I took one step nearer. Still smiling, I said, "Curtis, why don't you give me what you have in your hand. I know you're not going to hurt anybody."

"Don't come any closer!" Curtis said, but his voice was calmer than it had been, not much more than a whisper.

"I remember you in Miss Elliott's class," I said. "She was a very nice teacher, don't you remember? She was always very nice to you."

"She sent me to the principal's office a lot!"

"Yes, when you were just talking too much." Still smiling, I took another step. "I'm not going to send you to the principal's office, Curtis, and I'm not going to call the police," I said softly. "But I wish you'd give me what you're holding, just so there isn't an accident." I was only a few steps away. I reached out my right hand with the palm up and looked at him. "Please, Curtis, everything's going to be all right."

Al whispered, "Kelly, for Christ's sake!"

I didn't respond. I reached one arm behind me towards Al and made a lowering motion. I didn't want him to startle Curtis. I took one more step and was close enough to touch Curtis's arm. "It's okay, Curtis, it's okay. Now just give me what you're holding." I held my hand out and kept smiling.

Curtis stared at me and started to cry. I reached behind his arm and took out what he was holding. It was a wooden toy gun. I held it behind me, and Al took it from me. "It's okay, Curtis," I said. I put my arms around him. Curtis rested his head on my shoulder and started to weep uncontrollably. "It's okay, Curtis," I whispered over and over. He was lost, that was all—probably had no idea how he had gotten to the store. When he had calmed down I said, "Let's go back to my office, okay, and I'll call your mom." I put my arm around Curtis's shoulders and led him down the main aisle toward my office. Al followed along behind us and held the door for us when we got there. "Come on in, Al," I said. Al's a good man, and I think he was more shaken than I was—but then he didn't know Curtis, and I did.

Fred was still in my office, and he stood up. He looked puzzled. "Fred, could you get me a phone number for Albert Watson," I said.
"That's my father!" Curtis said. He stared at me.

"I know, Curtis. Do you know your home telephone number?"

"No. We live on 345 Chestnut Lane. My mom makes me remember that."

"That's good, Curtis." I nodded at Fred, and he nodded back and left. I guided Curtis to a chair and had him sit down. I knelt down on the floor in front of him, took his hands and talked to him softly until Fred returned with the phone number. "I'm going to call your mom and have her come and get you, okay, Curtis?"

"Don't tell her I was bad, okay?" Curtis said. He looked at me imploringly.

"No, Curtis, I won't tell her. You were very good."

"Can I have my toy back?"

I looked at Al but shook my head. "I'll give it to your mom when she gets here, okay?"

"No, she'll be mad at me. I had to hide it from her."

"I'll talk to her," I said softly. "I'll tell her not to be mad at you. I just think she'd rather have you play with some other toy."

After speaking with Martha Watson I described her and told Al to watch for her at the main entrance and bring her back to the office. She arrived about twenty minutes later. I had Fred go get Curtis a can of soda; he had taken a couple of sips and seemed to have calmed down. "There you are, Curtis!" Martha Watson said when she saw her son. "I was worried about you!"

"I'm okay, Mom, I wasn't a bad boy."

Martha looked at me with relief in her eyes. "Thank you so much, Kelly," she said. "I've been worried about him for hours—he usually doesn't wander off like that. I hope he wasn't any problem."

"He had this with him, Martha." I showed her the toy gun. "It might have caused some problems, if you know what I mean."
"Oh, dear God!" Martha said. "Thank the Lord you didn't call the police."

"Well, I was sure he didn't want to hurt anybody," I said.

Martha Watson took Curtis's hand, and he stood and followed her to the door. "Thank you so much, Kelly," she said. She smiled, and she and Curtis left.

I sat back down at my desk and took a deep breath. "Jesus Christ, Kelly," Al said, "You scared the shit out of me."

"He was always very gentle," I said. "He just kinda wandered around the school and didn't hurt anybody until they finally put him in an institution somewhere. I wonder how the hell he got here. He probably walked."

"Do you think he knows you work here?"

"He might, but I doubt it. I don't remember seeing him in the store at all, but maybe his father told him I worked here." I took another deep breath. "Thanks a lot Al, you were a great help."

Al chuckled. "I didn't do a God damn thing, Kelly," he said.

"Well, I knew you had my back."

There was a knock on the door and a tall, heavyset man opened the door and looked in.

"Hey, Joe, how are you doing?" It was Joseph DiGiacomo, the chief of police.

"I heard you guys had some trouble," Joe said. He had been in the store numerous times following break-ins, robbery attempts and other minor disturbances. He was a friend—he had been a few years ahead of me in school.

"No trouble, Joe. Curtis Watson was here, and he was kind of upset, but he didn't hurt anybody."

"The report I got was that he had a gun," Joe said in a serious tone.

I smiled. "It was wooden, a toy, Joe. I guess it might've looked real from a distance but …" I shrugged. "Anyway, his mom came and got him, and everything's fine."

The chief nodded, then looked at Al Vitale. "How's it going, Al?"

"Pretty good, Joe. No problems." Joe DiGiacomo and Al Vitale were neighbors in a part of the town where a number of Italian families lived, descendants of the coal miners who had rushed to the area over a century earlier looking for work.

"Can I get you a cup of coffee, Chief?" I asked.

"Yeah, that would be good." The tall, heavyset man walked over to a chair next to my desk and sat down.

I went to the coffee maker, inserted a single brew cup, placed a fresh mug under the spout and pressed a button. Moments later I asked the chief, "Black, right?"

"Yeah, Kelly, thanks."

"So, things have been quiet?"

"Yeah, pretty much, but there was that attempted robbery at that big department store up in Scranton."

"Oh? I didn't hear about that.

"Well, nothing actually came of it. Nothing was stolen, nobody hurt, and the guy got away. I guess he tried to hold up a cashier, but one of the patrons started yelling for help, and the guy took off. He had his hand in his pocket, claimed he had a gun, but they don't think he really did. Anyway, he got away."

"Well, good news and bad news, I guess."

"Could've been worse."

Al, Joe and I chatted for a while, and Chief DiGiacomo finished his coffee and stood up. "Good to see you, Kelly. Glad you handled that the way you did."

"Always good to see you too, Joe."

Moments later Fred came back in and sat down. "Okay, so, back where we started, I guess."

I leaned back in my chair and took a deep breath. I picked up the papers Fred had given me and looked at them again, thinking about how to handle it. At last I said, "I think I'll go down and talk to Jeff myself."

"I guess you know him fairly well."

I nodded. "Yeah, I went out with him a couple of times. I would say we're pretty good friends, even though I haven't seen him very much recently. He used to live here in town, you know."

"I wasn't aware of that," Fred said.

"Can you make me copies of all those papers you showed me, and I'll take them along with me. I'm not going to try to put the finger on him, I'm just going to show him what we have and see if he has any kind of a rational explanation. If he does, we'll figure it out. If not …" I shrugged.

"You sure you don't want me to handle this?" Fred asked. "At least for starters?"

"No, I'd like to go down and poke around in that store anyway. I haven't been there for a while."

"Whatever you say, Kelly. I'll get those papers for you—I assume you'll be going tomorrow."

"Yes, I might as well get it over with. I don't need to tell you this, but I don't want Jeff to know I'm coming."

Fred smiled and put his finger over his lips. "Not a peep out of me, Kelly."

Sage Books Home | Under Wyoming Skies Home | Updated May 23, 2021