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The rain was finally subsiding after coming down in buckets all night.
For a while there, it had been a toss-up between using his 4x4 or debating using a canoe to get back to town this morning. Gabriel Rodriguez shook his head as he laughed shortly to himself. It figured that he'd wind up facing this deluge just when he finally decided to drop by to visit his father on the family ranch. What with everything going on in his life latelyor not going on, he thought ruefullyhe'd come up with one excuse after another for not taking his father up on the invitation.
His father, Miguel Rodriguez, wasn't the type to shout or make demands. Rather, the father of six merely nodded his head and accepted whatever excuse he'd given him. That was the way the man had always been. And his soft-spoken approach had always been far more effective than shouting or giving angry ultimatums. Everyone always came around sooner than later. Though he was quick to deny it, Miguel Rodriguez knew just how to wield guilt as if it were a finely honed rapier in his hand.
The old man always got the results he was after, too, Gabe thought. They all complied, he and his five siblings. Some a little faster than othersAlma could really dig in when she wanted tobut no one was ever immune to their father's sad brown eyes or quiet demeanor for long. The man had a very easygoing personality, unlike Miguel Jr.Mike to his friendswho had a highly volatile one.
Mike liked to call it being passionate, but whatever term was given to it, Miguel Jr. was definitely explosive whereas Miguel Sr. was not.
"Senior" also got what he wanted far more often than "Junior" ever did.
Given the monotony of the scenery around him, Gabe's mind drifted as he drove to town and his relatively new job as deputy to Rick Santiago's sheriff.
He hadn't meant to stay as long as he had last night. Initially, he'd planned on leaving by nine, but things hadn't quite worked out that way.
Dinner had been good, the conversation even better, and somehow the time had just managed to slip away. Suddenly it was way past nine and his father was telling him that his old bedroom was still right where he'd left itupstairs, down the hallif he wanted to stay the night rather than taking on the elements.
By then it was raining so hard, it was as if someone had ripped open the sky.
So he'd stayed.
Besides, there was really nothing pressing in town that required him being there by dawn's early light. Forever, Texas, was one of those sparsely populated towns that really needed law enforcement officers only to settle verbal disputes that sometimes got too heated and testy. On occasion, the sheriff or any of his three deputies might be called upon to rescue the town drunk from himselfor from his less-than-contented wife who, all things considered, was the dangerous one of the two.
He'd lost track of time because he actually enjoyed his father's company, and he also knew the real reason behind the recurring frequent invitations to come for dinner. His fatherlike his sister, Almawas very worried about him.
Worried because, for once in his life, he'd taken a breakup really hard. Usually he was the one doing the breaking up, or orchestrating things so that the woman he was involved with was pushed to break up with him. He did the latter to spare the woman's pride.
But this, this breakupor, more accurately, this dumpinghad hit him like the proverbial ton of bricks. Erica, the woman he'd come to believe that he was going to marry, had abruptly declared she'd found someone else "better suited" for her via a popular dating siteas if finding a husband-to-be was the same as shopping for a dress.
That was when he'd discovered that Erica had actually drawn up a "checklist" of traitsand possessionsthat her future husband had to have.
As it turned out, the woman of his dreams turned out to be money hungry.
Looking back, he had to admit, if only to himself, that there'd been signs that Erica was more of a gold digger than the sweet, loving partner he thought she was. She was a woman who knew what she wanted out of life, and what she wanted, first and foremost, was a husband who could give her those things. All those things.
He, as a rancher, very obviously did not fit the bill.
He supposed that made him rather naive because he'd assumed that that was what love was for: to fill in the gaps.
But in Erica's case, he'd thought wrong.
"You can do better, Gabe," Alma had insisted fiercely when she'd discovered that he was no longer with Erica. "A lot better."
He'd smiled and nodded at the youngest member of his family, pretending to shrug off the breakup, but deep down being rejected like that had really bothered him.
Or perhaps, he reconsidered, not so deep down because obviously Alma had seen right through his act. Acting on her firm belief that keeping busy was the best way to forget about a painful situation, she'd casually mentioned that Larry, Sheriff Rick Santiago's third deputy, had to suddenly leave town for Fort Worth because of an urgent family matter that required his presence. That left his position temporarily vacant.
Then Alma had reminded him about all those times, when they were kids, that they'd played sheriff and cattle rustlers. Knowing that Alma had the ability of going on forever, he'd nodded, barely remembering what she was talking about.
Before he knew it, that casual, noncommittal nod turned into a job offer from Rick. He'd made it clear that the job would only be temporary. At which point Alma had piped up and said it was temporaryunless Larry decided not to come back.
Gabe's first reaction was to laugh and decline. But the words never rose to his lips. Instead, he turned the idea over in his head. He'd really been feeling restless ever since the breakup and this seemed like a good stopgap solution.
Who knew, maybe he'd even discover that he liked the work, liked the uniform and what it represented. And, quite truthfully, he had nothing to lose. So he'd shrugged good-naturedly and said to Rick, "Sure, if you think I'd make a good one."
Rick had smiled at him and rather than offer platitudes or say something that lacked sincerity, the sheriff had said to him, "That's what we're going to find out, isn't it?"
And then he and the sheriff had shaken hands on it.
The first couple of days on the job, Alma had stuck to him like glue, explaining absolutely everything until he began to believe his sister thought that he was six years old and incapable of understanding anything unless broken down to the simplest terms and shortest words.
On the third day, he'd just about had his fill. But before he could say as much to Alma, Rick had given her a look that succinctly and silently put the senior deputy in her place. After that, whenever she began to explain something to him, she'd stop herself, murmur, "You'll get the hang of it, Gabe," and went back to doing whatever she'd been doing.
Now, after almost four weeks, Gabe had to admit it was an interesting change of pace from being a rancher. Certainly less physically tiring. There'd been times when he'd thought about getting his own spread, but his father still needed help with the ranch now and then. Besides, that ranch technically belonged to all of them. His father had seen to that.
Around the time when they'd lost their mother, all six of them had joined forces, taking any job they could, to help their father pay off all the medical bills that had accumulated. They'd also raised money to keep the bank from taking away the ranch because their father had fallen behind in payments.
Paying off the bills was a point of honor for Miguel Rodriguez, so they had all pitched in together, pooled their resources and their money. They did everything and anything until the bills were paid off and their father was back on good terms with the bank.
That was when Miguel Sr. had them all accompany him to the bank. He'd been very mysterious about why he wanted them there, not really saying anything by way of an explanation until they were all assembled in the bank president's office. That was when he told them that he was having the title on the deed changed so that it included all their names under the word Owner.
Stunned, they'd tried to argue him out of it, but their father had been adamant about it, refusing to change his mind. So now they were all proud joint owners of the ranch where they had grown up. And although no one said as much to their father, as far as they were all concerned, the ranch still belonged to him. Rafe, Mike and Ray still lived on the ranch and worked it while the rest of them lent a hand whenever they were needed.
But Alma worked predominantly as a deputy and Eli had his own spread to tend to, so that cut down on the number of "hands" his father could tap into.
Which was why he'd hesitated when Alma had initially suggested his taking Larry's place.
"It's only going to be temporary. C'mon, what've you got lose?" she'd urged in that way of hers that got people to come around no matter what it was she was pushing.
So he'd said all right, and before he knew it, he was holding his right hand up and swearing his allegiance to both the state and the town, promising to do the best job he could, "So help me, God."
And just like that, he, Gabriel Rodriguez, was a U.S. deputy sheriff.
So far, he liked it. But he had to admit, the job was far from exciting.
The rain had all but stopped. That was when he first saw it. Saw the car that appeared to be tottering on the edge of the ravine. It looked like something straight out of an action movieand not a very good one at that.
Except that this was real.
All too real.
The closer he came to the scene, the worse it appeared to him.
He would have said that it looked as if someone had run the vehicle off the roadif there'd actually been a discernible road to begin with. But whether by design or accident, the end result was that the vehicle was precariously positioned on the edge of the ravine. It gave every indication of being on the verge of going over if there was so much as the slightest breeze to give it a push.
He had no idea how it had managed to withstand the forces of the rain. In his opinion, it had rained hard enough to send the sedan plummeting into the ravine.
He supposed the fact that it hadn't came under the heading of a miracle. He would need another one if there was anyone inside that sedan who needed rescuing.
Gabe hoped the supply of miracles hadn't suddenly run dry.
He'd been a deputy sheriff for less than four weeks, but he'd been a man a great deal longer than that. And as a man, he reacted a certain way.
Basic instincts, literally honed at his father's knee, had him acting almost automatically, without needing to stop to think anything through. Seeing someone in danger, his immediate reaction was to try to help, not to "go and get help."
Gabe brought his weather-beaten 4x4 to a dead stop less than a foot away from the precariously perched sedan.
From what he could make out through the clouded windows, there was someone inside the car.
He caught his breath. Every second counted. The smallest wrong movement on either that person's partor his ownand the car was going to be history. As would be the person inside.
Moving carefully around the vehicle in a wide semicircle, Gabe assessed the situation, confirming there was only one person inside the car. A woman. And she wasn't moving.
Was she in shock, or
Gabe pressed his lips together, contemplating his next move. He wanted to call out, to ask the woman if she was all right, but that might startle her. Much as he wanted reassurance that she was alive, he didn't want to risk her making any sudden moves that could throw off the car's fragile equilibrium.
The most logical thing was for him to drag the woman out of the car, but that had an extremely risky downside to it.
What he needed to do, Gabe decided, was to drag the car away from the edge and back onto solid ground again with all four tires firmly planted on a flat surface.
Easier said than done.
Gabriel pushed his hand through his hair. He had to find a way to hook up her car and his 4x4 so that he could pull the sedan away from the edge of the ravine with a minimum of risk.
He thought of calling Mick, the town's best mechanic. The fact that Mick was also the only mechanic in town didn't in any way affect the fact that the man could perform miracles with vehicles of all sizes and shapes. Taking out his cell phone, Gabe looked uncertainly at the teetering sedan.
How long had it been like that? More to the point, how much longer could it stay that way?
But even as he pressed one of the preprogrammed numbers on his keypad, he didn't know if he had enough time to wait for Mick to get here.
What if the rain started up again, full force?
He glanced down at the screen and saw that he had only half the number of bars that he usually did. The storm was probably responsible for that.
A gravelly voice answered on the other end. Rather than a formal greeting, the man said, "Yeah?"
"Mick, it's Gabe Rodriguez."
At hearing the name, Mick's voice softened just a touch. "What can I do for you, Deputy?" Mick asked, putting special emphasis on Gabe's new title.
"You can get yourself out here about ten miles out of town, by Lazarus Ravine. I've got a car all set to go over the edge and I need a tow."
"Belong to anyone you know?"
"No" Again, he didn't get time to finish.
Mick's approach to life was very cut-and-dried. "Then what's the problem?"
"There's someone in it." As he spoke, he looked into the sedan again. The woman hadn't moved. Maybe that was just as well. If she came toif she was able to come toshe might panic. One wrong move might prove fatal, not to mention her last. "I don't think she's conscious from what I can see. But if I try to get her out"
"She'd fall into the ravine. I get it. Sit tight. I'm on my way," the man promised. And with that, the connection was broken.
Sit tight. Ordinarily that would have sounded like good advice. Gabe thought. But in all good conscience, he couldn't take it, not when a woman's life quite literally hung in the balance.
He was torn.