Chapter 1: Bubba Wright

Because Tony was aware of Deputy Sheriff Bubba Wright's off-duty activities with Ed Gantry, before the former sheriff was arrested, he decided that he would be his first ride-along.

"Sheriff DiNozzo, are you ready?" Bubba asked, standing in the doorway of Tony's glass-enclosed office.

"Definitely." Tony got to his feet, leaving the organizing of the office gladly behind. "Take me through your normal day."

"We have three patrol cars, so it is usually two on duty with the other as backup. Did the mayor tell you that there is a designated sheriff's vehicle as well?"

"No, he didn't. I'll check it out later," Tony replied.

"Okay. We check out our rifles, make sure we have extra batteries for the flashlights and radios. Ammo, of course." Bubba popped the trunk of his patrol vehicle while Deputy Chris Townsend did the same on his own car.

"Depending on how busy the previous shift was, we might need to clean the car out." Bubba smirked. "A big city fed like you has probably never had to do that."

Tony laughed. "Don't bet on it. Detailing the evidence van was one of Gibbs' favorite punishments. Before that, I was a cop. I don't want to remember how much puke and piss, blood and trash I've cleaned out of my department-issued vehicles over the years."

"You were a cop?" Bubba studied Tony thoughtfully.

"Uniform in Peoria, uniform to detective in Philadelphia, detective in Baltimore."

"Then a fed in D. C."

Tony nodded. "Yep. And now a small town sheriff."

Bubba tried to hide his smile without success.

Once they were in the patrol car together, Bubba explained how he and Chris would divide the town and surrounding area, focusing on the poorer sections. "We go through their neighborhoods on a sweep, but our wealthy residents around here usually have cameras, sensors, and alarms." Bubba shrugged. "Obviously we'll come if they call. But the majority of our time is spent patrolling in middle and poorer neighborhoods."

Tony nodded. "I can understand that. Reality is that they are more likely to be the victims of crime. The least we can do is try to stop it or respond quickly enough that we might catch the baddies. Or let them know that we care, that we're looking out for them."

"Exactly. Most of the people are out working or looking for jobs if they got laid off at the mine."

"I heard it was shut down. How many lost their jobs?"

"Around sixty-eight total if you count the small office staff as well as the miners. The bad conditions and the fact that most of our younger residents leave for college or better paying jobs, never returning, meant the numbers were cut down considerably. The last time you were here on business, it would've been about three hundred people."

"What's Chuck Winslow doing to help?"

The deputy snorted. "Winslow is trying to get himself out from under the fines and charges he's facing. He's dumping all the responsibility and blame on his former son-in-law."

"On Nick Kingston? Hell, he's been in prison for what? Five years now?" Tony shook his head in disbelief. "Are there other jobs in the area?"

Bubba ran his hand over his close-cut dark brown crewcut. "The lumberyard is expanding. The owners have been selling kits that customer without a lot of experience can easily assemble. They're been gettin' real popular."

"An easier Ikea?"

"Pretty much."

"Can they hire the miners?" Tony asked.

"With some training. Mayor Dayton managed to get some funds from the feds as well as the state to help fund classes. They'll at least get unemployment checks while they're waiting to be hired."

Tony was scanning the area outside the moving car, certain Bubba was doing the same. It was a cop habit he had never lost. His first PTO always impressed situational awareness on him.

They drove on paved streets through well-manicured neighborhoods, many with imposing privacy gates. Gravel roads were lined by modest houses, maintained by middle class families. Dirt roads led to both poorer areas as well as farms.

"The mayor wasn't clear. Does Stillwater have their own 911 service?"

Bubba snickered. "Dayton's a good mayor, but he's crap with the technical stuff. The county runs the emergency phone services for fire-rescue, ambulance, and police. Our designated area isn't sharply defined. We handle calls in both the town and the surrounding farms."

"How far out?"

"Wherever we're needed." He pulled the car into a bypass lane, flipping on his flashing light bar on the roof, while putting it in park. "The Staties have one small station in the whole county. Only three to five people staff it since their budget was cut by the legislature last year."

"For the whole county?" Tony paused to reflect a moment. "Okay, we'll continue to support them the best we can. But our people will always come first."

*Stillwater Sheriff,*came a crackling voice over the radio.

Bubba picked up the microphone. "Stillwater here, Dispatch."

*Loud argument, sounds of breaking glass. 15 Mockingbird.*

"Copy. 15 Mockingbird. Stillwater out." Bubba put the mike back in its holder, pulling out onto the road without turning off the light bar.

"No codes," Tony observed.

"Too many different ones among all the different agencies, so we all opted for plain English. Less chance of a mistake or misunderstanding."

"What can you tell me about where we're going, Bubba?"

"Roger and Emily Dawson. He's an Army vet, came back from Iraq about a year ago. Got a job at the mine, but since it closed, he's been trying to find something local. He's frustrated, embarrassed that Emily's job as cashier at the Piggly-Wiggly is all that's keeping them barely above water. Roger doesn't want to apply for unemployment, thinks it is welfare."

Tony frowned. "Is he abusive?"

"Never physical. But I've had to go out there a couple of times to calm him down. He and Emily have had a few screaming matches. It's hard on their boy."

"A child?" Tony had a flashback to his own childhood, of his parents fighting when drunk. "Damn. How old?"

"Rory's six. He hides when it gets bad, but…" the deputy's voice trailed off.

"But he still hears everything," Tony said softly.


They pulled into the driveway of a small white bungalow. Bubba turned to face Tony as he put the car in park, turning off the lights.

"Can you stay back, let me get Roger calmed down? I don't want him to think he's being ganged up on."

Green eyes met brown as Tony considered the request. He knew just how quickly a domestic could turn ugly. "You stay within my sight at all times."


They got out of the car in unison, Bubba heading to the porch where a pretty young woman stood, wringing her hands. Tony, spotting a flash of small red sneakers in the branches, sauntered to an old oak tree in the front yard, casually leaning against the trunk while keeping an eye on Bubba.

He heard a rustling from above. A smile slipped across his face. Seeing a man come out of the house to sit on a bench on the porch, Tony relaxed a bit.

Without looking away from the porch, Tony spoke to the boy hiding above him. "Good spot. I wasn't coordinated enough to hide in the only tree in our yard. The one time I tried to climb it, I fell out."

"Where you hurt?" came a soft voice.

"Broke my arm. Two places."

"That must've hurt."

"Yeah, just a bit."

"Are you gonna arrest my daddy?"

"Has he done anything bad?"

"He yelled at my mommy."

"Well, that's pretty bad, but I don't think there's a law against it."

There was more rustling and the sound of sneakers scraping on bark. Tony, convinced Bubba had everything under control, looked up, just in time to catch Rory Dawson as he slid down the trunk.

Setting him safely on the ground, Tony stuck out his hand. "I'm Tony."

Solemnly, the child shook his hand. "My name is Rory."

"Pleased to meet you, Rory. You okay?"

He shrugged. "I guess."

"Looks like Deputy Bubba has everything under control. Your mom is about to come after us. Ready to head up to the house?"

"Why did you hide?"

"Because my mom and dad would be screaming at each other."

"Yeah, mine, too."

"You know it has nothing to do with you, right?"

"I guess," Rory repeated, not sounding convinced.

Unable to restrain herself any longer, Emily Dawson came running down to where Tony and Rory stood. She swept her son up in her arms, eyeing Tony with suspicion.

"He seems okay, Mrs. Dawson. I'm Sheriff Tony DiNozzo. Sorry about the civilian clothes. My uniform is on order." He held his hand up at the flare of fear in her red-rimmed eyes. "Deputy Wright is just showing me around."

"Mo-om." Rory was wiggling, trying to escape his mother's grip.

"Go into the house," she ordered, giving him a light slap on the seat of his pants to move him along.

Emily's chin wobbled as she fought to control her emotions. "He's a good man! My Roger is a good man, a good husband. He's just…things have been…"

"He's frustrated."

She reached out and clutched at his hand. "Please don't arrest him. We just argued. Please."

Covering her hand with his own, Tony looked in her eyes. "Emily, did he ever hit you? Did he ever raise his hand to you or Rory?"

"No! No, never. Roger would never hurt us."

"Okay. That's good. What about the breaking glass?" At her blank look, he explained that the report mentioned breaking glass.

"Oh, I don't know. We didn't break anything."

"I'm not making any promises, but I'll talk to him. Why don't you fix us something cold to drink, Mrs. Dawson?"

She gave a forced smile and a tense nod of consent. She scurried into the house, flashing her husband an encouraging smile as she passed him by, not trying to avoid him.

Tony walked up the steps, nodding at Bubba. "Mr. Dawson, I'm the new Sheriff. Tony DiNozzo. Mind if I sit next to you?"

Roger nodded dubiously.

"Thanks." He dropped down beside Roger on the bench, looking up at the deputy. "Mrs. Dawson is making us drinks, Bubba. Why don't you go see if she needs any help?"

His dark eyebrows slanted in a frown, Bubba hesitated. A nod had the deputy obeying.

"Mr. Dawson, can I call you Roger? You can call me Tony. This job's too new for me to be used to 'Sheriff DiNozzo'."

"Sure. Roger is…fine."

When Roger finally looked up, Tony could see that Emily wasn't the only one who had been crying. "Your wife says you're a good man. That you would never hurt her or your son."

"I wouldn't!"

"Except that you already have."

"What? I haven't, I wouldn't!"

"You don't think the screaming matches aren't hurting them? Trust me, it hurts Rory. It scares him and I guarantee you that, if he isn't already, he'll be thinking if he was only better, quieter, smarter, you and his mom wouldn't be fighting."

"It isn't his fault. Shit." Roger took a closer look at Tony. "You're speaking from experience."

Tony's faint smile held a touch of sadness. "Slightly different situation. Their arguments were fueled by alcohol and unhappiness, not frustration."

"I don't drink. I didn't want to use alcohol as a crutch."

"Good to hear. But this crap has to stop, Roger."

Emily came out, pushing the screen door open with her hip, her hands holding a tray with a pitcher of freshly made iced tea, glasses, and a small sugar bowl. Behind her was Bubba Wright, toting a white table and two folding chairs. Once he placed them where Emily directed, they sat. She poured them all a glass of tea. Tony and Roger adding sugar to theirs. It gave everyone a moment to relax.

"Roger, will you be applying at the lumberyard?" Tony asked.

"I already have, but the training won't be for two more weeks. And unpaid."

Pretending he didn't already know the answer, Tony said. "At least you'll get unemployment."

Roger's face darkened while Emily bit her lower lip. "Welfare," he muttered.

"Well, yeah, there's welfare, but unemployment is easier to get, especially short term. And, after all, it is kinda your money." Seeing the puzzled look on Roger's face, Tony sipped his tea. He had the man's attention. "It's paid in by your employer. If it wasn't required to be paid into the government, it would probably be part of your salary. So, your money."

"Never thought of it that way before."

Finishing the tea with a sound of satisfaction, Tony got to his feet. "Thank you, ma'am, that's was refreshing. Especially in this heat. Roger, I don't want any of my deputies called out here again. If you need someone to talk to, call me. If I'm not at the station, they'll know where to find me. I believe you are a good man, a good husband, a good father. But you can't just be good when things are running smoothly. The true test is how you handle the bad times."

"Thank you, Sheriff…Tony. I won't let you or my family down. I promise." Roger Dawson also got to his feet, putting his arm around his wife's shoulder.

"C'mon, Bubba, places to go, things to see."

As they walked to the car, Tony could feel the deputy staring at him. Once inside the vehicle, Tony took pity on him. "What? Something you want to say?"

"You're not what I expected."

"Happy or Spanish Inquisition."

"Not Monty Python, more pretty decent guy. You could've arrested Roger or gone out of your way to belittle him. Instead you, well, you helped him get a new viewpoint."

"I didn't want to make things harder for him or his family." Tony's eyes darkened dangerously as he continued. "If Dawson had laid one finger on either Emily or Rory, he'd be in handcuffs and stuffed in the back of this car."

"I'd've slapped the cuffs on myself."

"Glad to hear that."

They continued the tour of the patrol area, Bubba pointing out areas of interest, relating bits of history, and giving the lowdown on the trouble spots.

"Can I ask you something personal?" Tony turned halfway to face Bubba. "You can refuse to answer. No harm, no foul."


"I've heard that you and Gantry hung out off-duty."

"I wouldn't call it handing out. But that isn't a question."

"Okay, to be precise, you've gone fishing, played poker with him."

"That's accurate. Still not a question."

"Are you guys friends? Will that cause a problem between us? There, two questions."

"I'm sure you've heard the phrase 'keep your friends close and your enemies closer'?"

"Oh, yeah. So you were keeping Gantry closer?"

Bubba's mouth pulled into a sour grin. "Ed Gantry was an idiot. A very vindictive idiot tightly under the control of Chuck Winslow. I was determined to keep the department as clean as I could. The best way to do that was to be Ed's buddy."

"I get that."

Taking a deep breath, the deputy shrugged. "Did you know that I was a MP while I was in the Army?"

"Honestly, no, I didn't. The personnel files are a mess, haven't found everyone's yet."

"I was a sergeant. Being a MP got me interested in police work. After I was divorced, I decided to get out of the service and try my hand at being a cop. Found out that I liked it, especially in a small town." He grinned. "Never wanted to be a big city fed."

"It had its moments, but I think I prefer life in the slower lane. Maybe I'm getting old."

"I doubt that. Once Ed got caught, I was relieved. The council finally had an excuse to fire him. I know he's been untouchable for too long, but between the loosening of Winslow's grip on this town and Ed being caught beating that poor kid, they knew it was something they could do without retaliation."

"Didn't you want the sheriff job?"

"No way. I like doing exactly what I'm doing now. You can deal with the headaches and the politics and the fine citizens of this county who think they rule the roost."

"Funny man. You just wait, Bubba. I might be called back to D.C. for testimony and you'll be the one in charge while I'm gone." Tony laughed at the look on his deputy's face.

PTO ~ Patrol Training Officer

Staties ~ State Police (Originally State Troopers in New England, but I've seen it spreading throughout the country with the meaning changing from Troopers to whatever State Police might be in the area.)