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PEACEFUL BEND IS a peaceful town, Peaceful Valley a peaceful place.
Now I know a lot of folks say that about where they hang their hats, some with more justification than others. It’s a matter of civic pride fashioned of a sense of security and neighborly goodwill. That’s the way it is in Peaceful Bend, the largest town and county seat, and all through the valley. Ranchers, farmers, merchants, businessmen all living peaceably together in as pretty a section of northwestern Montana as you could ask for, the town tucked into a crook in a fork of the Flathead River, the valley surrounded wide on three sides by timbered mountains.
It wasn’t always peaceful here, of course. Way back before the century turned, when I first pinned on a badge as a young green deputy, we had our share of trouble the same as any other small settlement—renegade Indians, outlaws, rustlers, the general run of riffraff that follow the railroads, lumberjacks on a spree, and the usual land and water rights feuds between cattlemen and farmers. Took a sharp eye, a strong will, an iron fist, and now and then both ends of a Colt six-gun to tame things down. The natural flow of progress—changing attitudes, modern inventions, new laws—rounded off the rest of the rough edges.
By the time I was elected to my first term as sheriff in 1896, both the town and the county were living up to their names right proper. I don’t mind saying I’ve had a fair hand in making and keeping it that way, the voters having kept me in office for two decades now. You won’t find many citizens who’ll take the name of Lucas Monk in vain. Not bragging on myself, just stating a fact.
The state has changed considerable in those two decades. More and more crisscrossing rail lines connecting it with the rest of the country. A large population growth, some fifteen million immigrants since 1900 come to work on the railroads and in the mines, smelters, and lumber camps. A homestead boom thanks to legislative acts that opened up sections in national forests and Indian tribal lands. More and more motorcars mixing in with the horse-drawn conveyances, the countryside and city streets filling up with telephone poles and hydroelectric power lines. Even flying machine exhibitions at the Fort Missoula baseball park.
Reform movements aplenty, too. Labor unions, one of ’em the radical bunch known as the Wobblies that caused so much trouble in Butte the governor had to call in machine gun–toting National Guard troops to curb the violence, another the Nonpartisan League made up of farmers that didn’t like big business and didn’t support either of the political parties. Women were on the cusp of being given the vote, and about time, too—the main reason being a Missoula suffragist named Jeannette Rankin, who held rallies and meetings all over the state, including one in Peaceful Bend that drew more folks than any other event ever had, and raised enough support to convince the politicians in Helena to allow her to address the legislature. There was even talk of running her for a congressional seat on the Republican ticket come the 1916 election, which if they did and she won, would make her the first woman ever elected to Congress.
These changes affected Peaceful Bend, naturally, but not as much as they did the larger towns. Northwestern Montana is less populated than the rest of the state, our entire county having only about 1,700 souls according to the most recent census, and while Peaceful Valley isn’t what you’d call isolated—Missoula, Kalispell, Helena are only a few hours away by train—we’re still a small rural county with most of the land in long-held hands. Folks hereabouts tend to cling to some of the old ways of thinking and doing things.
The revolution down in Mexico and the war that had flared up in Europe a few months back had tongues wagging, but those hostilities were too far off and the particulars too mystifying for most citizens to dwell on. Seemed like America would stay well shut of the one overseas, a good thing for the country in general and Peaceful Valley for certain. We had enough concerns of our own to occupy our thinking.
What I’ve been leading up to is this: There’s been hardly any crime in my bailiwick the past dozen years or so. The last lethal shooting in Elk County was way back in ’07, when a wheat farmer named Lamont made the mistake of ventilating a neighbor he claimed made improper advances to his wife. The worst offenses my deputies—Carse Wheeler, Boone Hudson, Ed Flanders—and I have had to deal with since are a few minor steer and sheep rustlings, chicken thievery, kids’ vandalism, and an occasional drunken brawl Peaceful Bend’s town marshal, Sam Prine, couldn’t handle by himself. If I have to act in my official capacity more than a couple days a month, it’s unusual enough to invite comment.
Anyhow, that was the way it was until mid-October, 1914.
Then, all of a sudden, I had a weeklong crime wave to deal with.
No rhyme or reason to any of what happened, no advance warning signs and only two of the offenses connected. It was as though a temporary blight had descended on Peaceful Valley, and that’s no exaggeration. Crimes large and small, new mixed with old, from near comical to downright ugly that flustered and frustrated me, had me doubting myself more than once, and nearly cost me my life.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Best I tell it as it happened, beginning with the Indian trouble. Not the kind you might think—Indian trouble like none other in the history of our sovereign state.
* * *
THE CLIMATE IN Peaceful Valley is fairly mild, considering how far north we are—the mountain ranges tend to protect us from the worst of the howling winds—but winter comes early and stays long. Fall is pretty much done with by mid-October, the red and gold and tawny seasonal colors fading, the aspens and willows and sycamores already starting to drop their leaves. The first heavy frost, which we’d had two days ago, turns the mornings sharp cold and generally means we’ll be seeing snow before long. Thin skins of ice form in shadowy places even when the sun’s out, so you have to watch careful where you step. I never minded winter when I was younger, but now that I’m on the cusp of the half-century mark, the cold gets into my bones and such chores as shoveling snow aren’t near as easy as they once were.
I’d just come into the sheriff’s office on this Friday morning and was about to start a fire in the woodstove when Henry Bandelier burst in. The courthouse has an oil furnace in the basement, but my office and the jail are at the back end and the furnace doesn’t put out enough heat to suit me once the temperature starts dropping. So I’d convinced the county commissioners to have the old Vogelzang potbelly installed to warm me and my deputies, and such prisoners as we might have in the lockup, through the winter months.
Bandelier, who owns the tobacco shop on Main Street, is the excitable sort, and this morning he was in a real dither. So flappable, in fact, with his feet dancing and his arms sawing up and down, he put me in mind of a pint-sized, red-faced albino magpie about to take flight.
“Sheriff, I been robbed!”
That brought me to attention. I didn’t much care for Bandelier—he was a loudmouthed, opinionated little booger, and no more honest than he had to be—and the feeling was mutual. He’d backed my opponent in the last two elections and made critical remarks in public about me and my methods. But you don’t have to care for a man to do your duty by him.
“The hell you say. When did it happen?”
“Middle of the night,” he said.
“How much is missing?”
“How much? All of it, of course!”
“All the money in your cashbox?”
“Money? Who said anything about money?”
“Well, you did … didn’t you?”
“No! Wasn’t money that was stolen. It was my Indian.”
“You heard me, Sheriff. My prize wooden Indian’s been pilfered.”
“Now who in tarnation would steal that monstros—” I stopped, hawked my throat clear, and started over. “That Indian’s been setting in front of your store six or seven years now. Weighs a hundred and fifty pounds if it weighs an ounce. Who’d want to steal it?”
Copyright © 2019 by Pronzini-Muller Family Trust