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“No, no problem, man,” the black kid said. He grabbed the white kid’s shoulder and tugged him back a step.

“Good. Why don’t you head on out, then?”

The white kid thrust his chest forward. “When we get what we came for.”

Daniel did something different with the way he held his jaw. Alex couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but suddenly his face was the opposite of friendly. He leaned in toward the troublemaker.

“Now.”

There was no bluster in how he spoke, just absolute authority.

“C’mon,” the black kid insisted. He shoved the white kid past Daniel while tugging on the sleeve of the third boy. They walked quickly to the truck, elbowing each other and scuffling a little. Alex kept her back to Beverly, nudging Daniel so he would turn that way, too. The boys got in the truck and the driver punched the gas, swerving around the Humvee with tires squealing.

“Hey, thanks, buddy,” Beverly cooed at him. “I appreciate your help.”

“Sure thing,” he responded, holding one arm out courteously for Alex to exit first.

Alex hurried back to the Humvee. She could feel Daniel close behind her and just hoped he had the sense to keep his head down and not turn around.

“Well, I don’t know how that could have gone worse,” Alex said disgustedly when they were back on the road. “That woman will remember us for the rest of her natural life.”

“Sorry.”

“You just had to go in there like some cowboy, with a gun in your pants.”

“We do have Texas plates,” he pointed out. “And what was I supposed to do? That kid was —”

“Was about to have a violent and prolonged episode of projectile vomiting. It would have incapacitated him totally and perhaps made enough of a mess that Beverly would have forgotten all about me.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh, indeed. I can take care of myself, Daniel.”

His jaw suddenly got hard again, like it had in the gas station store. “I know that, Alex, but there might actually come a time when you need help. When that happens, I’m not going to be waiting in the car again. You should probably wrap your head around that now.”

“I’ll tell you when I need backup.”

“And I’ll be there,” he snapped.

She let the quarrel drop, and for a moment there was no sound but the roar of the oversize engine burning through the new gas. Then he sighed.

“I should have known you were one step ahead,” he said.

She nodded her acceptance of the implied apology, though she had mixed feelings about his declarations.

“Where did you learn how to do that?” she asked after another short lull.

“What?”

“Intimidate people.”

“My school isn’t exactly an exclusive private prep. Anyway, most kids just want someone to take control. It makes them feel more secure.”

She laughed. “Then those boys will sleep sound tonight.”

The rest of the night was less fraught. Daniel dozed against the window, snoring lightly, until the next gas stop, about twenty miles east of Dallas. The sleepy man in the booth showed no interest in Alex’s face. When they were away from the gas station’s cameras, she pulled off on a dark shoulder and traded seats with Daniel. He claimed to be wide awake and ready. She napped as best she could until the next stop, south of Shreveport, where they switched seats again.

Dawn was coming. Alex searched the fancy GPS for a close-by national park or wildlife reserve and found they were not far from the huge expanse of the Kisatchie National Forest. She headed for the corner of the park that came closest to the I-49, then wandered through back roads until she found an area isolated and overgrown enough that she felt comfortable pulling over into the thick shade of some tightly grouped trees. She backed into a barely wide enough space between the tree trunks and then reversed until there was just room for the rear hatch to open. When she cracked her door, the humid heat outside quickly overpowered the cooler air inside the vehicle.

Einstein was thrilled to get out of the car and relieve himself. It was harder for Lola. Alex had to redress Lola’s wound when she was done. Daniel had food and water out for them before Alex was finished. Then Daniel had the easier job of relieving himself, and Alex got the more complicated version. She’d lived out of a car before, though, and while it wasn’t her favorite thing, she was prepared.

She took a look at the front of the Humvee and had to admit she was impressed. To the naked eye, there was no evidence that they’d been in even a minor fender-bender.

The breakfast options were minimal. Alex found herself with the same box of Pop-Tarts that she’d started with her first morning at the ranch. Daniel took a packet, too.

“What are we going to do about food?” he asked.

Alex wiped her arm across her forehead, drying the sweat before it could drip into her eyes. “Tonight I’ll stock up a little at each gas station. It will get us through a few days. Let me know if you have any requests.” Alex yawned, then hissed when the motion pulled at the cut on her face.

“Do you have aspirin?”

She nodded tiredly. “That might be a good idea. We both need to get some sleep. The dogs will be fine if we just leave them outside, right? I don’t want them to have to be cooped up all night and all day, too.”

Alex dug up a couple of Motrin while Daniel shoved the mess in the back of the Humvee to the sides of the bed, leaving a narrow flat space in the middle for them. Satisfied that she’d done everything she could, Alex spread out her sleeping bag and rolled down the top edge for a pillow.

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