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Commit your way to the Lord; trust in Him and He will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.
Psalm 37: 5-6
Special Agent Wyatt Green knew he was in trouble even before he felt the bone in his arm crack. Unexpected high winds had caused the helicopter he was supposed to drop out of to pitch to one side.
When he was almost down the rope, he'd lost his grip, twisted in the air and held his hands out to brace his fall. The impact with the ground sent shivers of pain up both his arms, but there was no mistaking that splintering of bone. He suspected a fractured forearm. As he rose to his feet, he told himself it wasn't that bad. He'd broken bones clean through, and the pain from that was even more mind-numbing. He'd completed assignments with injuries before, and he could do it again.
As the helicopter disappeared into the night sky and the thrum of the motor became more distant, Wyatt gritted his teeth against the pain and got his bearings. The badlands of eastern Montana looked just as remote and foreboding at night as they did in the daytime. Ten years ago, he and a team of agents had descended on this same area for a standoff with a landowner who appeared to be amassing an army to help him carry out his domestic terrorist philosophy.
A pain more intense than the fracture jabbed at his heart. Ten years ago, Agent Christine Norris, barely out of the academy, had walked away from a career to marry a rancher in this area. She'd also walked away from him. A flash of memory, Christine's easy laugh and soft brown eyes, caused him to lose focus. He shook off the emotional ache, adjusted his backpack, checked his coordinates and headed toward where Christine and Dustin's farmhouse was supposed to be.
Ignoring the pain in his arm, he jogged at a steady pace along the dirt road. When his supervisor picked him for this mission, he hadn't argued. Ten-year-old wounds that still felt raw were hardly grounds for refusing an assignment. He was a professional. He had experience in this part of the country. He could manage his feelings about Christine just fine. It had taken him years to accept it, but their relationship had fallen apart because of him. She was a married woman now. He had to let it go and focus on work.
He stopped for a moment to look at the photograph of five-year-old Tyler Lansky. When he clicked on his flashlight, Tyler's gap-toothed grin and blond hair came into view. Tyler was the reason he had been sent back here. Emmett Lansky had taken Tyler during a custody battle. Emmett had ties to a militia group believed to be setting up a training camp in this area.
The Bureau had been watching Emmett for quite some time. Now that Emmett had broken his custody agreement and taken his son across state lines, they had the excuse they needed to move in and make an arrest. Any intel out of him would be a step in the right direction. Though getting Tyler home safe to his mom was their primary mission, the infiltration would allow the FBI to see if there was any truth to the chatter they had been hearing, that this particular group was planning activities that fell outside the law.
Headlights flashed across Wyatt's field of vision. He dived off the road into some brush. Lying low in the tall grass, he waited while the old pickup chugged past. Unusual to see someone out on a country road this late at night. His supervisor had warned Wyatt to keep the mission as quiet as possible. They didn't want a repeat of what had happened ten years ago when they had shown up in full force, for what probably could have been a one- or two-agent operation. The rancher had turned out to be way more talk than action. The real tragedy was that after a forty-two-day siege, an agent had shot a fourteen-year-old boy who was climbing the fence of the property. The group had run out of water, and the boy was taking a bucket down to the river. The FBI sniper, exhausted from lack of sleep and restless from days of inactivity, had mistaken the bucket for a weapon.
The encounter had left the locals with a bitter taste in their mouths and a distrust of the FBI. This time they were only sending Wyatt and his partner. If a team or experts were needed, they could pull them from field and satellite offices fast enough.
Wyatt waited until the taillights of the old truck disappeared over a hill before resuming his jog down the road. He ran with an easy stride, barely out of breath. Early spring in Montana meant there was still a chill in the night air.
Dropping in by night would allow his partner in the helicopter to do a search for lights in remote places that might indicate a camp. The pilot would swing back around and get him. If the helicopter located anything or Christine gave them a direction to go, they would have an easy in and an easy out. No contact with townspeople required, no reopening of old wounds.
Christine had been a part of this community for ten years, and she'd recently been elected sheriff. She had to know something.
Wyatt slowed the pace of his jogging as memories rushed at him. She had been truly happy when she met Dustin. She probably had half a dozen kids by now. After a while, he'd been happy for her. She deserved it. His only regret was that he hadn't been the man to make her happy. Working for the Bureau was what had kept them together, and he hadn't seen what a gem Christine was until he'd lost her.
He ran to the top of the hill. In the distance, the lights from a farmhouse and outbuildings came into view. After tossing his backpack over a barbed-wire fence, he climbed it and made his way through a field filled with cattle. Most of the heifers had bedded down for the night with their calves. Those who were standing weren't fazed as he passed by them.
As he neared the farmhouse, he felt a tightening in his chest that made it hard to breathe.
"Mommy, I saw lights." Five-year-old Eva stood in the doorway of the old kitchen.
Christine looked up from the stack of bills she'd been shuffling through. Jake, their border collie, stirred at her feet. "Honey, you're supposed to be in bed." Every time she looked at Eva, she saw Dustin in her light brown curly hair and round eyes.
"But I saw lights in the sky, Mama." She clutched the worn stuffed animal a little tighter. "Do you think it was angels coming to tell us about Daddy?" The little girl's expression was hopeful and bright.
The only one having a harder time with losing Dustin than Christine was Eva. Her daughter hadn't slept through the night since her father died in a hay-baler accident over a year ago. Christine's heart squeezed tight, but she managed a smile. "I don't know if angels need lights to see by. Come get one more hug, sweetie, and then it's off to bed for you."
Eva slipped easily into her mother's arms. Christine held her, burying her face in the soft hair and inhaling the sweet little-girl smell.
"Everything all right?" Grandma Maggie, Dustin's mother, stood in the doorway. Her gray hair was braided into a single rope that fell over her shoulder. Time spent in her garden had made Maggie's skin a rich brown.
"We're doing just fine." Christine squeezed Eva a little tighter, enjoying the warmth of the hug. "Eva thought she saw some lights in the sky."
"I saw them, too," said Maggie.
Christine sat up a little straighter. "Really." She'd been willing to dismiss the lights as Eva's imagination; everything and anything, real and imagined, seemed to wake that poor child up, but if Maggie had seen the lights, too
"When I got up to get a glass of water during the commercial for my program, I saw them through the bathroom window to the north," said Maggie.
Christine stood up and set Eva on the worn linoleum. "Why don't you have Grandma Maggie put you to bed?"
Maggie held out her arms. "How about Grandma tells you a story to help you sleep?"
Eva clapped her hands together and ran to her grandma. Christine listened while their voices faded down the hallway before returning to her bills. Through the open window in the kitchen, the cows in the corral mooed and bustled. Jake lifted his head and then rose to his feet, emitting one quick, sharp bark as he faced the north door.
Something was stirring things up out there. "I suppose we ought to go check it out, huh?"
The dog's light blue eyes seemed to hold some understanding of what she was saying. He twisted his head to one side as though agreeing with her. With Jake trailing behind her, Christine made her way into the living room where Grandma Maggie had been watching a home-improvement show. As she grabbed the shotgun off the fireplace mantel, she could hear the soft murmur of the older woman's voice and Eva's laughter down the hallway.
Three females living alone with the nearest neighbor five miles down the road had the potential to make Christine feel vulnerable, but she could take care of herself. Her training at the FBI academy, endless firearms instruction and years spent hunting with Dustin had given her that confidence.
She pushed the door open, closing it softly behind her and stepping into the night. Heavy cloud cover meant no moonlight or stars. She stepped away from the circle of illumination the porch light created. As she neared the barn, the aroma of hay and livestock greeted her. Dustin had loved it out here, and she had grown to love it. Dustin's old horse still seemed restless as it clopped around the corral. The pigs in the barn were snorting louder than usual for this hour. A raccoon or a coyote might have gotten in there. The last thing she needed was to have half her chickens be some varmint's dinner. The ranch barely broke even. She couldn't afford the loss.
Jake brushed against Christine's leg. The dog stopped suddenly. The hair on his back bristled, and he emitted a low growl.
"Easy, boy." Her heartbeat revved up a notch. Her nerves tingled in anticipation of an encounter. Inside the chicken house, it didn't sound like an all-out massacre was taking place. The fox or coyote or whatever it was must be close, though, because the clucking and flapping of wings indicated some alarm had gone off for the birds.
She soothed the dog as they drew closer to the barn. Jake's yipping became repetitive and higher pitched the closer they got to the side of the barn. She held the rifle at her side but was prepared to lift it and look through the site at a second's notice. Holding her breath, she placed one foot in front of the other.
She startled when a shadow stepped out from behind the barn, a man. His hands went up in a surrender gesture.
She gripped the rifle a little tighter, but didn't aim it. Most likely it was a farmer who had broken down on the road. "What are you doing here? Can I help you?"
The man uttered a single word. "Christine."
Christine nearly fell backward as memories hit her like a tidal wave. She knew that voice. "Wyatt?"
He stepped closer to her, which caused Jake to rapid-fire bark and bounce from side to side.
"Jake, give it a rest." Christine narrowed her eyes at the dog. The dog came to a sitting position beside her. His tail still twitchedan indication that he was ready to mount another assault of barking and bouncing.
Christine stared at the man in front of her, barely visible in the minimal light. What do you say to a man you thought you loved once upon a time? They had worked together and dated for almost two years. He was the one who had convinced her to apply to the FBI. And she had waited and hoped for a marriage proposal, waited and hoped for him to say he loved her, too. By the time she got her first field assignment ten miles from here in Roosevelt, she'd broken up with him knowing that he would never take the next step in their relationship and then God had brought Dustin into her life. "What are you doing here?"
"It's work related. I need your help," he said.
"Work related?" Without knowing why, she found herself digging her heels in, feeling reluctant to invite him into her house. She'd have to explain who he was to Grandma Maggie and Eva if they were still up. "Why didn't you just contact me at my office? You do know I'm the sheriff for Mohler County?"
"We're trying to do this mission with as little disruption to the community as possible because of what happened ten years ago." He took a step toward her. "It's awful dark out here, don't you think? Can we go inside and talk?"
When she'd met Dustin, she had left Wyatt and her past behind. She'd grown up in a Christian home, but Wyatt's charm had caught her up in a whirlwind. Maybe she just didn't want to revisit that part of her life againmaybe that was what the reluctance was about.
Wyatt rubbed his forearm and winced.