Introducing Sheriff Guthrie and a stray–Part 1

Photo by Egor Kamelev on

I wrote this story a long time ago, but it’s one of my daughter’s favorites, and she brought it up again, said she’d like to see it . Since it features an orange cat, and it’s October and witchy season, I thought I’d dig it up and share it. I hope you enjoy it.

Sheriff Guthrie & The Orange Tabby


Wilbur Guthrie leaned back in his office chair and put his feet on his desk’s open, bottom drawer.   It had been a long night last night.  New Year’s Eve, and you’d think it was the Fourth of July.  Kids had set off fireworks and fired guns.  Neighbors called to complain.  Too much drinking, too much partying and being silly.  He sighed.  If that was the worst of his problems, he’d consider himself lucky.

            There were few serious crimes in Emerald Hills.  Once the tourists left in the winter months, the town got downright quiet.  Two murders in ten years.  But his territory had its share of domestic abuse, DUIs, and meth labs.

            He rubbed his eyes.  His deputy, Mike Krider, would be in soon.  Then he could go home and put his weary bones to bed. 

            As if the thought had summoned him, Mike strode through the front door.  He took one look at Guthrie and grinned.  “Tough night?”

            Guthrie kicked his drawer closed and pushed himself to his feet.  “The usual.”  He motioned toward a pile of reports.  “Alex Brethren got in another brawl.  Salem Schmidt is sleeping it off in the back cell.”

            Mike shrugged.  “Nothing spectacular, that’s good.”  As Guthrie reached for his coat, Mike said, “The new owner finally moved into the hat shop on Green Street.  The moving van came and went last night.” 

            Guthrie nodded.  “Hadn’t heard, but glad someone’s going to run the store.  Tourists notice empty shop windows.”

            “Hearsay is that she doesn’t have any magic, like most of our shopkeepers.”

            “That’s no matter.  Emerald Hills has more magic than most.”  Tourists couldn’t explain why goods from here satisfied them so much.  Shopkeepers didn’t advertise their magic, but customers could feel the difference.

            Mike settled behind his desk and Guthrie headed to his car.  On the drive home, the streets of Emerald Hills were empty.  People were staying put, cozying up in front of the TV screen, eating pork and cabbage to bring them luck for the new year.  A smile tilted his lips.  His mother always made ribs with sauerkraut for New Year’s Day.  Insisted it was tradition, and if they cheated, who knew what would happen? 

            All of the restaurants in town were closed—his typical go-to for meals, but Midu had delivered a foil-covered casserole of sliced pork and Napa cabbage for him.  Bless that girl, her produce stand was closed for the season, but she still felt responsible for feeding people.  She and Kyle were building a new greenhouse during the months when tourists were few and far between.

            Guthrie pulled in the lot behind his apartment.  He lived on the second floor above Nature’s Bounty, Leigh and Mallory’s shop filled with flower arrangements and painted gourds.  Those two were so relieved the holidays were over, they probably celebrated New Year’s by propping their feet up.  They’d never had so much business, they told him, nearly depleted their entire inventory before the tourists finally satisfied their buying sprees.

            Guthrie unlocked the door to the building’s back foyer.  An inside staircase led to his apartment.  Before he could start up, a voice stopped him.  “Yoohoo!”  He frowned.  Who used a silly term like that?  He turned and saw a middle-aged woman waving at him from three doors down.

            He sighed.  What now?  But he plastered a smile on his face and went to see what she wanted.  She stood there in a long, flannel robe, her feet in slippers, hugging herself.  Her hair had once been red.  Now, it was faded blond.  Freckles peppered the bridge of her nose, and blue eyes sparkled at him.  Generous lips smiled. 

            He tipped his head.  “Howdy, ma’am, what can I do for you?”

            She waved that away.  “I’m Jeannie Ostermeyer.  I just moved in.  Whoever owned the hat shop before me must have had a cat.  When I was carting stuff into my apartment, it dashed outside.”  She pointed.  “The poor thing must have been trapped in there for a while.  It’s huddled under my car and near freezing to death.”  She looked at his uniform.  “You can rescue cats, can’t you?”

            Guthrie sighed.  “That’s not really part of my job description.”  He looked at the orange tabby under her silver SUV.  “That cat didn’t belong to Mildred.  She owned a yippy, little dog.  I’d guess that guy’s a stray.  Looks like he’s seen some tough times.”

            She nodded.  The cat’s left ear was missing a notch.  Its fur was matted.  “It’s so cold outside, I hate to just leave it on its own.”

            His mom had been a cat lover.  “Have you tried tempting it with food?”

            She motioned to a bowl of milk on the back stoop. 

            “Anything with more substance?”

            “I have cans of tuna.  I haven’t gone to a store yet.  There’s not much in the refrigerator.”

            He nodded.  “I’d try the tuna.”

            “Let’s see if it works.”  She motioned for him to follow her up the stairs to her apartment.  When she opened the door at the top of the stairs, he blinked in surprise.  Boxes lined the walls, but an overstuffed, deep purple, velvet couch divided the seating area from the kitchen and dining space.  Bold colors of modern art popped for attention against cream-colored walls.  Zebra print rugs dotted the wooden floors.

            She saw his reaction and smiled.  “I like color.  Can you tell?”
            Even the kitchen had a fire-engine toaster, blender, and canisters.  A canary-yellow tea kettle sat on the stainless-steel stove.  “Looks like you have a good start on moving in.”

            “I numbered the boxes I packed.  Knew which ones to open first.”  She went to a cupboard and dug for a can of tuna.  “Bingo!”  She opened it and held it out to him.

            Guthrie took it and turned to go down the stairs.   Jeannie followed him.  They put the tuna on the stoop and called for the cat.  It studied them with its yellow gaze, struggled to resist its hunger, and then came.

            Jeannie smiled.  “Food can tame the savage beast.”

            Guthrie thought about Midu’s pork and cabbage waiting for him in his refrigerator.  After a quick meal, it would be bed for him.

            Jeannie held the door open, and the cat strolled in.  She grinned.  “I like cats.  We’ll do fine together.”

            “Good, glad I could help you.”  Guthrie turned to leave.

            “Happy New Year!” she called after him.

            He smiled.  “You, too.” 

            “I’m a Rat,” she said.  “What are you?”

            He blinked, unsure how to answer. 

            She laughed.  “The Chinese horoscope.  What year were you born?”

            “August, 1953.”  He’d played the astrology game before with one of the women at the church’s sewing circle.  She’d wanted to know his sign.  Virgos apparently pleased her.  She baked a chocolate cake for him, told him he was the “salt of the earth.”  He indulged the church women because they always invited him to their carry-ins.

            Jeannie nodded.  “You’re the horse.  We’ll get along.  This should be a good year for you.”

            “Good to hear.”  He climbed the steps to his apartment and grimaced at its sparse furnishings—a plaid couch of uncertain age, a recliner on its last legs, and an old maple table with four chairs, patched-up with duct tape.  When was the last time he’d bought anything new for the place?  No, wait.  He’d invested in wooden TV trays last spring.  Mighty useful, since he usually ate in front of his flat screen, watching sports.  But the bright, happy feeling of Jeannie’s place taunted him. 

            He flipped on the TV, nuked Midu’s generous offering, and sprawled on the couch to watch whatever football game filled the screen.  He was too tired to concentrate, so once the food satisfied his stomach, he headed to his bedroom.

            A scratching sound woke him.  He looked around his dark room and listened more closely.  Yup, there it was again, followed by a high-pitched yowl.  What the heck?  He pulled on his robe and went to a window.  Nothing to see.  No one walking the streets.  No cars driving past the quiet shops.  But there was that sound again.  More scratching.

            He opened the door of his apartment and realized it was coming from the back door at the bottom of the steps.  No one had ever bothered him at home before.  Was this some strange prank?  A break-in attempt?  Or serious?  He fetched his handgun and went to see what was going on.  He swung the door open…and there was the orange tabby, paw raised in guilt.     

            “Doggone it!”  Guthrie scrubbed a hand over his face.  He could swear he felt every deep line, every new wrinkle he seemed to collect day by day.  He scowled at the cat.  “What do you want?”

            Tail high, it wove past his feet and started up the stairs.

            “Hey!  Hold on a sec.”  He didn’t have a kitty litter box or tuna stashed in his cupboards.  But by the time he found the beast, the cat was curled on his bed, looking mighty comfortable.

            Guthrie sighed.  “Oh, hell, why not?”  He tossed his robe and fell into bed beside it.

            Knocking woke him in the morning.  Morning?  How long had he slept?  Sunlight peeked around the pulled blinds in his bedroom.  He glanced at his clock and couldn’t believe his eyes.  Nine a.m.  He never slept that late, never slept so much, usually tossed and turned—lately, insomnia was his best friend.  And there’d been the holidays.  He’d taken night shift so that Mike could be home with his family.  And…the cat was curled against his stomach and lazily blinked at him. 

            “Gotta get up,” Guthrie told it.  “Someone’s at the door.”  Robe tied at his waist, he hurried down the steps, the cat close on his heels.  He tossed the door wide, and Jeannie Ostermeyer glared at the orange tabby.

            “You little traitor,” she said.  “I invited you in and fed you, and you took off the minute I opened the door to grab a few things from my car.”

            The cat wound in and out between Guthrie’s ankles.

            Jeannie’s scowl turned to him.  “And you let him stay with you?  You knew I took him in.”

            Guthrie was used to confrontation, but this was undeserved.  “He scratched on my door in the middle of the night.  I figured he was safer in than out.”

            She bit her bottom lip.  In the morning light, Guthrie could see the fine creases forming on her forehead, the laugh lines that fanned out from the corners of her eyes.   She reached down and nabbed the cat.  “Ungrateful, little beast, come on.  Let’s go home.”  She stopped to look at Guthrie.  “I’m making a pot of chicken and dumplings for supper.  I came to invite you, if you don’t work tonight.”

            He shook his head.  “I’m on duty.  I give Mike the evenings off when his kids are home over Christmas break.”

            “They don’t go back today?” she asked.

            Guthrie smiled.  “That’s when Mike and his wife celebrate the start of their new year.”

            She gave a knowing grin.  “A little romp in the sack when the kids are away.  Good for them.  Well, no big deal.  I’ll try you again some other time.” 

            Guthrie trod back up his stairs and got ready for the day.  Lots of time to spare.  He sagged onto his old couch and turned on the TV, but there was nothing good to watch on a weekday.  At least, nothing that appealed to him.  He looked out the window and saw big, beautiful snowflakes falling.  The weatherman had predicted a winter storm, and this must be the appetizer.  He hoped everyone stayed home tonight, or he’d be dealing with stranded motorists and fender benders.  The shops in town were still closed for the holidays, and winter meant shorter hours, usually Thursday, Friday, and Saturdays, so most tourists wouldn’t brave the weather until later in the week.  A few, brave souls came to enjoy the national park on the south side of the county, though.  He hoped they holed up in a bed and breakfast tonight. 

            His cupboards were almost empty.  If bad weather was hunkering over them, he’d better stock up.  After tonight’s shift, he didn’t have to work for the next two days.  He needed to get some milk and cereal and a few frozen TV dinners.  He pulled on his coat and headed for the car.

            He ran into Jeannie at the store.  Her cart held a roasting chicken and lots of staples—flour, sugar, salad fixings…things he rarely bought. 

            She raised an eyebrow at his cart.  “I take it you don’t cook.”

            Mallory’s husband, Neil, was passing by—his cart overflowing—and heard.  He stopped and smiled.  “Guthrie doesn’t need to.  The women of Emerald Hills are happy to provide for him.”

            Guthrie couldn’t remember the last time he’d blushed, but he could feel his cheeks burn, and he hurried to explain.  “I attend a lot of events they put on, and most of them include luncheons or carry-ins.”

            Her gaze settled on his going-soft middle.  “I see.”

            Guthrie grimaced.  “Well, I’d better be going.  I work night shift, remember?”  As he left, he heard Neil stay to introduce himself to Jeannie.  Brown County’s naturalist was new to the area, and he was explaining how he’d had to work hard to get Mallory’s interest.  Everyone in town knew that his wife didn’t cook and Neil had wooed her with meals, tricking her into eating some of Midu’s magical produce. 

            Guthrie shook his head.  Midu’s produce stands were closed now.  She bought her cabbage at the store, just like everyone else.  Neil would have been out of luck if he’d come to Emerald Hills in the middle of winter.  Guthrie passed Tana’s bonbon shop on his way home.  Another shop owner with a little extra up her sleeve.  He glanced at the closed signs in Gino’s Shoe Gallery window and Lolita’s Mirrors.  Emerald Hills had magic sprinkled into all sorts of nooks and crannies, but he had none of his own.  Not that he dismissed that it existed. 

            When he pulled into the lot behind his apartment and opened his car door, the orange tabby leaped onto his lap.  He started, surprised.  “What are you doing out here?  Jeannie’s offered you a warm house and free food.  If you’re smart, you’ll be grateful.”

            The cat waited for him to collect his bags of groceries, then followed him inside.  It padded up the steps behind him and sprang onto the old, plaid sofa.  In the kitchen, Guthrie argued with himself.  He pulled out three cans of tuna and stacked them in his cupboard.  Just in case Jeannie ran out. 

            The cat came and wound around his ankles.  With a sigh, Guthrie opened one can and scooped some of the tuna onto a paper plate.  He wasn’t trying to compete with Jeannie for the cat’s attentions.  He’d just keep the cat happy until she returned home.

When she parked in the spot behind her store, Guthrie scooped the cat into his arms and walked it down to her. 

            Jeannie stared.  “I could swear I locked Cheese Nip inside when I left, but that cat’s a master of slipping outdoors.”

            “Cheese Nip?”  Guthrie looked at the cat.  He’d run, too, if she named him that.  But the cat squirmed out of his arms and went to stand beside his new mistress.  Hmm, a cat who played both sides.  Guthrie determined to be done with him.   There were a lot of plastic, grocery bags in the backseat of Jeannie’s SUV.  “Want some help?” he offered.  He knew from experience that it was a pain carting groceries upstairs to your apartment.

            “I’d appreciate it,” she said.  “I don’t usually buy so many things at once, but I’m starting up here.”

            It took three trips, between them, but bags finally covered Jeannie’s bright-red, kitchen table.  Each chair was painted a different color—one sunshine-yellow, one purple, one royal blue, and one forest green.  Bags lined her countertops, too.

            Guthrie stared at the table and chairs.  “I didn’t notice these yesterday.”

            A wry smile quirked her lips.  “I had them in the spare bedroom.  I wanted to scrub the wood floors before I finished this room.”

            At least no zebra-print rug sat underneath it.  Guthrie rubbed his eyes.  He’d never seen so much color.  “Well, it looks like you’re set.  Glad you’re settling in.”

            Jeannie bent to pet the cat.  “Poor Cheese Nip must be starved.  I only had milk for him this morning.”  She opened a can of tuna and put some on a plate for him.  The cat turned up his nose and walked away.  She stared.  “Maybe he snuck outside to hunt and caught something.”

            Guthrie wasn’t about to confess he’d fed him.  Instead, he shrugged.  “Cats are independent.  You know what they say.  Dogs have owners, cats have staff.”

            Cheese Nip glared at him.  Guthrie ignored it.  “I’m glad you’re stocked up,” he told Jeannie.  “Looks like the streets are going to be bad for a few days.”

            Her eyes twinkled with mischief.  “If you can’t make it to the ladies who usually feed you, and you’re not in the mood for a TV dinner, come knock on my door.  Cooking is as creative as hat making.  I love to putter in the kitchen.”

            It was on the tip of his tongue to ask her if she baked.  He could be had for a cookie, but he decided that wasn’t wise.  Instead, he tipped his head and started to his own apartment.  He ate a TV dinner before he had to report for work. 

            Snow fell.  Streets got slippery, and he had to rescue Salem Schmidt.  After one beer too many, he got himself stuck when he was trying to leave The Brewery Bar on Gold Galleyway, and he and his friends were too drunk to push his pickup out of the snowdrift.  Probably a good thing.  Salem shouldn’t be driving.  Neither should his friends. 

            Instead of tossing him in a cell, like usual, Guthrie drove Salem home and told his wife to keep him there for a while.  Then he drove Salem’s friends home, too.  They’d wake up with no cars in the morning, but that was their problem.  By the time he returned to the station, he was cold and in a foul mood.  He stared at the note on his desk.  “Look in the microwave in the break room.”  It was signed Jeannie.  The break room held the coffee maker.  A steaming cup of java would do his soul good.  He took a long sip before he opened the microwave’s door.  A big plate of chocolate chip cookies greeted him.

            A chill ran down his spine.  Was she a witch whose familiar was an orange tabby?  Could she read his mind?

            Who cared?  He carried the plate to his desk and chowed through the cookies while he drank his coffee and filled out forms.  By the time Mike strolled into the office in the morning, the cookies were gone, and Guthrie was feeling pretty good with the world.  He had two days off, and then he’d back on his regular shift.

            On the short drive home, he followed the snow plow.  The streets looked like an impressionist painting with billowy drifts atop bright-colored awnings and spills of light glowing from windows.  The parking lot behind his apartment hadn’t been plowed yet, and he had to work to get his car to the back door.  Cheese Nip sat in the small recess under the awning.

            Guthrie raised an eyebrow and scooped him up.  “You’re beginning to show your true colors, cat.  No wonder you’re a stray.  Do you stay faithful to anyone?”

            Cheese Nip rubbed his head against Guthrie’s heavy coat and purred.

            “You’re not fooling me this time.”  Guthrie looked up and saw a light in Jeannie’s apartment.  He knocked on the door, and in a few minutes, Jeannie opened it wide to greet him. 

            “I see you’ve found my wanton tabby.”  Jeannie scratched behind the cat’s ears. 

            Guthrie put him down, and Cheese Nip sauntered to his food bowl.  Jeannie quickly filled it with shredded cheese.

            “You’ve got to be kidding.”  Guthrie shook his head.

            She crossed her arms.  “He gets tired of tuna and needs something else.” 

            A large, clear jar held cookies on her countertop.  Guthrie tried not to lick his lips, but couldn’t help it.  “Thanks for the cookies last night.  They made a long, cold night look better.”

            She smiled.  “You got here just when I was starting breakfast.  Want some pancakes before you head home to bed?”
            His gaze went to a blueberry-colored pitcher filled with batter.  “Do you have enough?”

            “Too much.  I don’t know how to make pancakes for one person.  Pull up a chair.”

            She had warm maple syrup to pour over them.  Guthrie downed a pile of them and leaned back in his chair with a sigh.  “The church ladies would welcome you with open arms.  They’re good cooks, too.”

            “Glad to know you’re well-fed.”  She rinsed the plates he carried over and put them in the dishwasher.  “The offer still stands for leftover chicken and dumplings tonight.”

            “I appreciate it.”  And he did.  “But I’ll probably be catching up on sleep.” 

            She tilted her head to look up at him.  “Night shift is starting to show on you.  I’ll finish up here.  Go home and relax.  I’m going to start working in the shop downstairs, making it my own.  If I make too much noise, give me a call.”

            He rose to leave and the cat padded beside him.  Guthrie frowned at it.  “Oh, no you don’t.  You’re staying here.”  Cheese Nip tried to follow him down the stairs.  “I said no.”  Guthrie hauled the cat into Jeannie’s apartment, but before he could shut the door, Cheese Nip slid through the narrow opening, determined to go with him.

            Jeannie sighed.  “In Cheese Nip’s mind, we both rescued him.  He feels obliged to both of us.  I think the only solution is shared custody.”

            “For a cat?”  Guthrie frowned.  When he had to, he could look intimidating.  He was on the tall side, broad shoulders, strong build, even if age did soften the edges a little. 

            “Why not?” she said.  “If you can share kids, why not a cat?”

            He scratched his head.  “You sound like you’ve been there, done that.”

            “I was the wicked stepmother for eight years.  Married a man with a ten-year-old son.  The kid got better with age.  The man didn’t.”

            Guthrie thought about the many people he’d known in Emerald Hills over the years.  “There are marriages like that.  They come with a five-year warranty and finally the bad outweighs the good.”

            Jeannie reached for the cat, hugged him to her.  Cheese Nip seemed to understand her need.  His purr resonated between them.  “Roy got more demanding the longer we were together until I just couldn’t give enough to ever satisfy him.”

            “The more you gave, the more he wanted?”  Guthrie had seen that before.  He thought of Tucker Neston and his wife, Mae.  Somewhere along the line, Mae should have told him to stick his head in a toilet and flush.  Maybe it would have changed their pattern, but she never stood up to him, and now, she ironed his sheets, his underwear, jumped when he said jump, and Guthrie could watch her fade until someday, he figured she’d be transparent—no part of her personality left, only Tucker’s reflection.

            Jeannie sighed.  “I wouldn’t have stuck with him as long as I did except I loved the boy, and Jess needed me.  Roy was always picking at him, too.  I stayed until Jess graduated from high school.  Even then, I got an apartment in town, so that I could run my shop and Jess could stop in after work if he wanted to.  I didn’t sell out and move here until Jess got a place of his own.”

            Guthrie had to give her credit.  “You stayed for a kid who wasn’t yours?”

            “He is mine.  His mother didn’t take him when she left.  He expected people to abandon him.  I had to teach him that he was a keeper, worth fighting for.”

            “Wasn’t it risky?  Selling your business to start over here?”

            Jeannie shook her head.  “We lived and worked in Madison, on the river, not that far from here.  Another tourist town.  People came from all over to buy my hats.  Emerald Hills is probably a better location for most of them.”

            Guthrie had spent a long weekend in Madison, Indiana—full of history and atmosphere.  He’d visited a lot of the shops, not that he ever stepped foot in a lady’s hat boutique.  Emerald Hills had a similar feel and just as many tourists. 

            His gaze slid to Cheese Nip.  The orange tabby didn’t know how lucky he’d gotten.  Jeannie was no quitter.  “You raised a boy, and now you’ve taken in a stray.”

            Jeannie pursed her lips and looked thoughtfully at the tangerine cat.  “I’m not sure if I took him in, or if he chose me.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “I’m not sure who’s rescuing whom,” Jeannie said.

            Guthrie scraped his hands over his face.  She was getting philosophical when he was firing on too little sleep.  “You’re getting a little deep for me.  I’m too tired to go there.”

            She smiled, dismissing her thoughts with a shrug.  “Go home.  Get some sleep.  And enjoy your days off.”

            He nodded and turned to head down the stairs.  This time, Cheese Nip stayed with Jeannie. 

            Guthrie locked the doors behind him on his way to his apartment, went straight to his unmade bed, undressed, and fell into it. 

*     *     *     *

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