“It’s nearly impossible to get a signal here.” Owen said, checking his own phone and shaking his head.

Truman heard Tom McDonald shout his name and say something about Mercy. As McDonald’s threat penetrated the fog of pain around his brain, Truman numbly stepped out from behind his tree.

“Get back!” Owen ordered. “He won’t hurt her.”

Truman couldn’t meet Owen’s gaze in the dark. “Are you sure?” The thought of Mercy being handed off to a crowd of men made his intestines turn to water.

“Yes.”

Owen hesitated a split second before answering, adding flames to Truman’s already hot anxiety.

“He’s not into that sort of thing,” Owen whispered. “He’ll use her to keep them in line, hinting that they might get some time between her legs if they obey. But I don’t think he’ll just hand her over.”

“You don’t think,” Truman repeated as he tried to calm his nerves. “That’s not good enough for me.”

“She’s my sister!”

“Don’t give me that line! You’ve ignored her or verbally attacked her since she came back to town! If there’s any family loyalty there, I haven’t seen it!” Pain shot through his side, and he fought for breath. “As far as I can tell, you think following through on McDonald’s threat would be good riddance to her!”

Owen went silent, but Truman could feel the weight of his stare in the dark. Tension weighed heavy in the air between them.

“I was wrong,” Owen finally whispered. “I’ll get her out of there.”

“The two of us can’t take on forty men.” Truman wouldn’t place a bet on Owen’s honesty, but he heard a sliver of truth in the man’s voice that gave him hope.

“Not everyone is happy with the recent developments around here.”

“Some of McDonald’s men won’t back him up?” asked Truman.

“If they know they’re not alone, I think they would take a stand.”

Truman weighed Owen’s words. “What about Cade Pruitt?”

Owen shook his head. “I think it’s too late for him. McDonald needs to set an example, and he sees Cade as expendable.” Owen wiped the back of a shaky hand across his mouth.

“He’s just a kid!” said Truman.

“Not in McDonald’s eyes.”

“What else do I need to know about McDonald? Did he set fire to Tilda Brass’s barn?”

Owen blew out a breath and hesitated.

“Fucking spill it!” Truman ordered.

“He did. Joshua Pence and another guy set the fire under his orders.”

“Why? To get her to sell the property?”

“Yes. There’s a bridge on her property that crosses the river and is the only other way into the McDonald property. He wants to blow up the bridge, isolating his piece of land except for the one defensible road in.”

Truman pictured the road to the ranch, surrounded on both sides by hills. Easy to defend it and keep people out. He remembered the map with the curving river that formed a border between the Brass and McDonald properties. Destroying the bridge would nearly isolate McDonald’s land. The mountains were too steep on the other sides to access the land. No doubt a team of Navy SEALs could infiltrate the property, but not the local police. “Is that what the dynamite was for?”

Owen nodded in the dark. “He was waiting to buy the property before blowing up the bridge, but when she kept refusing, he was weighing whether or not to blow it anyway.” Owen paused. “He’s a little paranoid.”

“A little?”

“I kept telling him to wait. He knew the explosion would call attention to what he was doing out here, but his paranoia increasingly pressured him to cut off the outside world. Some of the other guys wanted to use the dynamite to send a message. They’d talked about blowing up the FBI office in town, or even your department.”

Truman’s blood chilled at the thought of his murdered staff.

“I called in a report about the dynamite, hoping the state police would take it off his land, but Tom was here the day they came and stopped them.”

“What is McDonald doing here?” Truman whispered. “He’s forming a militia, right?”

Owen’s shoulders slumped. “In a way. That’s just one element.”

“Explain,” Truman snapped. Part of his hearing focused on the mess hall where McDonald had taken Mercy. It was silent. What is taking the county sheriff so long to get here?

Another minute and Owen wouldn’t be able to keep Truman from breaking in on his own.

“He’s trying to create a place where we make the rules. Someplace people can go and be heard.”

“Bullshit. The people won’t make the rules; he will.”

Owen shuffled his feet. “Yeah, I see that now. He talks of a community of leadership, but all I’ve seen is that he makes the rules and—”

Owen clamped his mouth shut.

Truman waited. “What happened?” he finally asked. “What did he do?”

The sound of Owen swallowing was loud in the quiet forest. “He killed a guy. Shot him right in front of me.”

“Why didn’t you go to the police?” Truman nearly shouted as he fell back a step. My God. McDonald truly is insane.

Mercy.

I’ve got to get her away from him.

“It just happened today,” Owen pleaded. “I knew then I had to get out and go to the police and tell them everything I know. I was trying to figure out how to leave . . . I didn’t want McDonald coming after me and my family.”

“Who’d he shoot?” Truman suspected he knew the answer.

“A Realtor. Jack Howell.”

I knew it. “What else do you know about McDonald?” Truman could barely speak. Anger had dried out his mouth.

“He ordered Pence’s death. Pence shot those deputies, and McDonald was furious that he’d acted without orders.”

Truman’s mind spun. “You saw this?”

“I wasn’t there the night he ordered Pence’s death, but I heard the story consistently from other men who were. They said Pence and McDonald had a huge blowup over Pence taking things into his own hands. Supposedly Pence thought McDonald would be happy with the death of some cops, but he’d jumped the gun.” He stopped and lowered his tone. “Striking back at the police wasn’t to come until later. McDonald wanted to be more established first.”

Truman pressed his palms against his eyes and bent at the waist, trying to fathom what Owen had just revealed.

McDonald was building a community to rule itself and kill cops.

Pence had killed the deputies on impulse, and McDonald had ordered his death. This was the type of community McDonald was putting together. One where he was king and took orders from no one. He was surrounding himself with a growing army of angry men who secretly hoped to be kings themselves one day and couldn’t see that McDonald offered only a dictatorship.

A society formed by fear, paranoia, and isolation, not formed from freedom. “Why the fire at Pence’s death?” Truman whispered.

Owen shrugged. “There’d been a lot of fires. McDonald figured you’d group them all together. Maybe even blame Pence for all of them.”

I nearly did.

“How can you even be in the same room with him?” Truman asked, his mind spinning. “Most men would give him a wide berth . . . especially after hearing he ordered the murder of Joshua Pence.”

Owen blew out a deep breath. “I was angry. Fuck, I was bitter and furious and looking to strike back after Levi’s death. My brother shouldn’t be dead.” His words shot through the air, forced out with anger and hate.

“I agree it shouldn’t have happened.”

“You were easy to blame,” Owen said slowly. “Mercy was easy to blame. I was brought up to be wary of the government and law enforcement, and when my brother died, I needed someone to take responsibility. It was easier to hate the establishment than admit that Levi might have done something stupid.”

“Levi was intentionally shot. Yes, Levi’s actions up to that point weren’t honorable, but he didn’t pull the trigger. There’s only one person to blame for that. Craig Rafferty.”

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