“Why would the government attack us?” Owen asked.

Her uncle ran a hand over his beard, his gaze distant. “That’s not something you need to worry about now. Just be prepared for every uncertainty and you won’t have to worry about anything. Now keep your mouth shut until I’m done with your sister.”

Mercy turned her eye back to the sight, deliriously happy that Owen had gotten in trouble.

“Quit your grinnin’,” her uncle whispered in amusement next to her ear. “Take a deep breath and let it out and then shoot. Five shots.”

Mercy did as he asked and was pleased to see five holes in the third and fourth rings of the bull’s-eye fifty yards away.

“Nice job, Mercy.”

She beamed and lined up her next series of shots.

That night at the adults’ dinner table, her uncle bragged about her precision. It was a packed table. Her parents, her mother’s four brothers, and two of their wives had squeezed together while the five kids ate on folding chairs around a card table. Owen had sulked because he’d been made to eat at the kids’ table, and her uncle’s statement about Mercy’s shooting made his shoulders sag even more.

As he sank lower, Mercy sat up straighter. She listened closely to the adults’ talk, and ignored Levi and Pearl’s argument about who got to ride which horse tomorrow. She enjoyed visiting her uncles’ ranch. The four men had lots of horses, which made the long car ride worth it to her. Mercy loved to ride the horses, explore the vast ranch with her siblings, and help her aunts cook big meals for the ranch hands.

Her aunts were always very quiet at dinner, letting the men do most of the talking. Even her mother spoke less here than at home. Probably because there were more people to listen to. Her uncles had a way of talking over one another, each one getting louder than the others to get his words heard. Especially when they talked about the government. That subject was certain to get them fired up. They didn’t trust the government and would argue over the best way to avoid any interaction with it.

She grew bored as the adults changed the topic to cattle, and her gaze strayed to the family photos on the wall. She knew them by heart. They never changed from visit to visit. There were pictures of her mother’s parents, who had both died before Mercy was born, and there were pictures of her mother as a little girl, younger than Mercy was now. Everyone said Mercy looked just like her mother as a child, but Mercy didn’t see the resemblance. Her mother had worn impossibly short bangs and had a ton of freckles. Her uncle Aaron had a place of honor on the wall. He’d been camping near Mount St. Helens when it erupted and been one of the nearly sixty deaths. Multiple pictures of him were hung in a circle around his high school senior picture.

She had no memories of this uncle who’d died in his early twenties before she was born, but his picture showed a strong resemblance to her other uncles. Uncle John was her favorite; he was always a lot of fun.

“Eat your peas,” Pearl ordered her.

Mercy glared at her older sister. “You’re not the boss of me.” She hated peas.

“Pearl’s the boss when Mom’s not here,” Levi stated, shoveling peas in his mouth. He chewed and then showed her a tongue covered with green mush.

“Mom’s here.” Mercy shot a nervous look at the adult table to see if her mother was paying attention to their argument. Any other day she would have told on Levi for being gross, but she didn’t want to call her mother’s attention to the uneaten peas on her plate. “And I ate all my carrots. So there.”

She glanced at the big table and caught her uncle John’s eye. He’d been listening. He winked at her and made a show of pushing his peas to the edge of his plate. Her heart warmed, and she ducked her head in embarrassed happiness.

Even with the large number of men on her uncles’ ranch, she didn’t feel outnumbered as she did at home with just Levi and Owen. Her brothers had a way of dictating every moment of her life.

There were three more days left in their visit, and Mercy planned to enjoy every minute.

FOURTEEN

“I heard Tom McDonald is out of town,” Jeff, Mercy’s supervisor, commented as she stopped in the doorway to his office.

“I take it Eddie told you about our visit already?” Mercy asked. “I was stopping by to bring you up-to-date. What are you doing in the office on a weekend, anyway?”

“When someone has murdered law enforcement officers, every day is Monday for me. Will McDonald call you when he gets back?”

She raised a brow at him.

“Didn’t think so. Continue to stop by his place until you talk to him.”

“His ranch isn’t exactly on my way to work. Today’s trip took a big chunk of my day, but I’ll keep at it.”

“Don’t go alone.” Jeff tapped at his keyboard, his gaze on his screen.

Mercy’s hackles rose. “Would you say that if I was Eddie?”

Jeff sighed and leaned back in his chair, bringing his hands together across his chest in a way that made her feel as if she were about to get a lecture from her father. “I would say that to Eddie. A remote location staffed with a bunch of rednecks who don’t want law enforcement poking around? You bet I’d tell him to not go alone.”

Mercy backed down. “Sorry. You’re right. And I wouldn’t have thought twice about heading out there on my own, so it’s a good thing you brought it up. I grew up around places like that and it feels familiar . . . as if I share roots with them. But I need to look at it from an LEO perspective, not as a local.” She frowned, realizing she’d hit the nail on the head. She still saw herself as one of them; therefore they wouldn’t hurt her. A potentially reckless train of thought. People saw only her badge.

“Your roots offer you no protection around here. You haven’t been a local for a long time.”

“I keep being reminded of that, but some days it feels like I never left. Any additional updates on our cases?”

“We haven’t had a new fire in a few days.”

“Does that mean we’re due for flames or that they’ve backed off?” Mercy asked.

“Perhaps Joshua Pence was our fire starter. He did have the gasoline on his clothing.”

True. “But I’m bothered by Clyde Jenkins’s report that he saw his fire starters running. And the Parkers thought they heard young voices. Pence doesn’t fit either of those descriptions.”

“We’re still processing evidence from the first two big fires. Hopefully we’ll catch a break before the next one.”

“I hope so.”

Jeff waved her away and went back to his keyboard. Mercy stopped at her desk to grab her bag and headed out the door to her Tahoe, feeling the need to revisit the scene where the deputies had been shot. She could stop and chat with Tilda Brass, even though Truman and Jeff had reported she suffered from some memory loss.

A quick call to Tilda Brass resulted in an invitation to tea at 4:00 p.m. Mercy didn’t think she’d “had tea” since she’d held tea parties as a child with Rose. Tilda’s home was far out of town, so she got an early start and drove past the Bend city limits and down the two-lane highway toward the Brass property, making a mental note to check in with Bill Trek and see if the fire marshal had any fire investigation updates.

A pickup started to pass her on the highway and she slowed the slightest bit, remembering how the long straight stretch of road had always been a favorite with teenagers for impromptu drag races.

Her Tahoe jerked hard as the passing truck smacked her left rear fender and her vehicle spun in front of the truck across the oncoming lane. Her mind blanked and she clenched the wheel as the landscape blurred outside her windows. She hit the brakes as her vehicle flew off the road and rocketed down the shoulder.

Metal screeched and scraped on rock as she hit the lava rocks at the bottom. Her airbag smacked her in the face and knocked the breath out of her lungs. Her Tahoe rocked to an abrupt stop at a sharp angle, the rear of the vehicle too high and her chest pressing against her seat belt, which suspended her in the cab. She fought to catch her breath and slow her pounding heart.

He pulled a fucking PIT maneuver!

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