“That must have been some argument if he moved to another state,” observed Mercy.

“It was Silas Campbell.”

“Oh!” Mercy straightened in her seat. Silas Campbell was one of the FBI’s most watched militia leaders in the West. He’d spent some time in prison back in the eighties but had walked the straight and narrow for a long time. The men who’d followed him were another story. Does that mean McDonald favors or is against his views? Why was that not in his file? She would have noticed if Silas Campbell had been listed as a known associate.

“Oh, phooey on that!” said Ina. “It’s all rumors. I’m more concerned that Scout doesn’t like him. And why hasn’t he ever been married? That tells me a lot about his character right there.”

Nods went around the table.

“I’m not married,” blurted Mercy. “What’s that say about me? Or about Sandy and Rose?”

Ina reached across the table and patted her hand. “Give it a little more time, honey. You’re next.” Her faded eyes were kind, and beside her Barbara Johnson beamed.

“Wait a minute. Don’t be marrying me off so soon. I like being single. It’ll take a hell of a lot to make me give up my independence.”

“Picking the right man will protect your independence, dear,” said Barbara. “And we think the man you’ve chosen won’t change a thing about you.”

They’ve been talking about me?

Of course they have.

Mercy fumed and looked to Sandy, who sat silently with a big grin on her face. Rose had the same expression. They’re just happy the attention isn’t on them.

“Nothing is set,” argued Mercy. “We barely know each other. We haven’t even—”

She snapped her lips closed. Said I love you.

Ina tipped her head and studied Mercy. “It’ll come. Truman has the patience of a saint. He knows what he’s doing.”

“What’s he doing?” muttered Mercy, feeling as if a spotlight were shining on her face. The focused attention of the women made her armpits dampen.

“He’s waiting for you to see what’s right in front of your face, dear. A good, steady man.”

More nods.

Mercy studied each woman in turn. They’re serious.

She swallowed, feeling trapped.

Is that what Truman is doing?

EIGHTEEN

Cade couldn’t sleep.

Lying on his back, he tucked his arms under his head and stared at his ceiling in the dark.

He kept reliving his conversation with Tom McDonald, wondering if he’d answered appropriately.

Why do I care what he thinks?

Because he needed the money from the job. Right now he was willing to look the other way and say whatever it took to keep the money coming in. Last week he’d put in ten hours of overtime at time and a half, and McDonald hadn’t even blinked. At this rate he’d have enough for a down payment on that new truck before Christmas.

But what about Joshua Pence?

Was it wrong to keep his mouth shut?

Mercy Kilpatrick’s determined face at the McDonald ranch popped into his head.

He didn’t have any information to help her case. He felt bad that Pence had died, but that didn’t mean he could help find who’d killed him.

He sat up and threw off the covers. Standing up, he started to pace his room, nervous energy flowing through every nerve. An overwhelming urge to go for a drive with the windows down hit him. He wanted to feel the cold night air whip across his face.

Maybe Kaylie . . .

No. There was no way she’d meet him.

He paced some more, knowing that if he got in his truck, he’d find himself outside her aunt’s place.

Don’t do it.

He grabbed his phone and called her. He listened to it ring, wishing he could FaceTime her, but knowing she wouldn’t appreciate that in the middle of the night.

“Cade?” her sleepy voice sounded in his ear. “Is everything okay?”

“Just wanted to hear your voice.” It was true. Hearing her speak had instantly calmed his nerves and quieted his brain.

“What are you doing?” She sounded more awake now.

“Trying to go to sleep, but I want to take a drive.”

She made a small sound. “I can’t meet you,” she whispered.

“I know. I just have a lot of energy, and I miss our late-night meetings. I think I got used to them.”

Her soft laugh made his stomach warm. “I miss them too. Although it’s much easier to get up in the morning now. And you saw me during lunch today.”

“It’s not the same.”

“I agree.”

They were silent for a long moment as he fumbled for the words to explain how much he missed her without sounding like a lovelorn idiot. “I miss you,” he said, knowing it conveyed only a fraction of the emotion he felt.

“I do too. Are you going back to sleep?”

He wasn’t. “I don’t know. I’m wide awake.”

“I might be jealous if I know you’re out driving in the night without me. How lame is that?”

“Very. But I understand. It’s our thing.” He didn’t tell her that he liked that she was jealous.

“We’ll think of something new. We both knew we couldn’t keep that up for very long. It was so hard the next day.”

“Are you going to hate me if I tell you I’m going for a drive? I don’t think I can go back to sleep.”

She was silent for a moment. “Don’t come over here.”

“I won’t. I promise.” He ended the call and got dressed, feeling oddly hollow, and knew a drive wouldn’t fill the empty pit in his stomach.

“I’ll be right there,” Truman said in a sleepy voice, and Ben knew he’d woken his boss.

This time Ben had notified Truman before responding to a midnight prowler call.

“I’m covered. I called Deschutes County to back me up,” said Ben. “A month ago I would have gone on my own, but after last time—”

“I’m coming,” stated Truman. “We need to put a stop to these fires. I don’t care if the prowler turns out to be a deer. From here on out I want multiple cars at each late-night call.”

Relief swept over Ben. He’d felt like a wuss calling county and his boss, but Truman was right. They had a killer to catch, and nights were his prime operating time.

Tonight’s call was a report about dirt bike noise behind the Cowler property. Ben knew exactly where he’d find the noise makers. Next to the creek bed that created the north property line of the Cowler farm stood an abandoned tractor shed. At one point it’d housed various pieces of the Cowlers’ equipment, but since the Cowler patriarch had died in the early nineties, the shed had stood empty and slowly fallen apart, board by board. All that stood now was a framework of old timbers, waiting to collapse on some teenage head. Ben had responded to a half dozen calls about teens drinking in the location over the last two decades. He’d asked the Cowler family to tear down the structure, but their last response had been that someone would deserve a beam to the head for trespassing.

The shed was isolated, hidden in a small copse of trees next to a dry creek that came alive during the fall and spring months. Adjacent to the old shed was a field with naturally formed jumps and ramps that dirt bike riders couldn’t stay away from. The noise of the dirt bikes couldn’t be heard at the Cowler house, but if the wind was blowing from the east, their neighbors could hear the bike engines. They were the ones who had called the police tonight.

Ben turned off his headlights and took the dirt road that wound its way to the back of the Cowler property. It was a cold and clear night with stars that looked unnaturally close and a partial moon that aided the officers with its faint light. When the road widened a few hundred yards in, he pulled over and waited for Truman. He lowered his window and smiled as he heard the faint whine of a dirt bike. Whoever it was, he was still there.

Checking the clock, Ben saw it was just after midnight. His breath showed in the cold air flowing in through his window, but he didn’t want to raise the glass. As long as he could hear the bike, he knew they would catch their trespassers. He radioed for the county cars to set up camp at the bridge that crossed the creek north of the shed, effectively cutting off an escape route. The bikers’ only choices would be to ride either straight toward Ben or up the creek toward the county units.

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