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Deputy Sheriff Trish Franklin wished she could be a thousand miles away; in fact, anywhere butWinfield,Wisconsin. Still in her uniform, she drove the sheriff's Jeep down the familiar wooded road. Dread sat in her midsection as solid as a brick. The tears she'd held back for two September daysever since Sheriff Harding had shown her the bad-news lettersuddenly poured down her face. Blinded, she pulled off the road onto the entrance to a grassy private road. She bent her forehead to the padded steering wheel. How could God let this happen?
Grey Lawson stared out the bus window. The farther north he rode, the more he noted early-autumn golds and reds in the late-afternoon light painting the trees passing by the window. Grey wished he could stop the bus and just start walking anywhereanywhere but where he had to go. Behind him on the crowded bus, a baby cried, sounding frustrated pushed past its limits. Grey understood the mood. But I have no choice. She needs me. I owe her. I love her.
An old guy sat crumpled up beside him, a man who'd grown old behind bars. They'd gotten on the bus together, sat together. But they hadn't exchanged a look or a word in hours. Now nearing nightfall, the bus slowed. "Ashford!" the driver announced.
The old man beside Grey finally stirred. The bus stopped and he unfolded himself from his seat. Standing, he cast a departing glance toward Grey. "Good luck," he mumbled. Grey nodded. He watched the old guy shuffle to the front and lower himself step-by-step to the street on the obviously poor side of town.
The bus finished letting off the few other people for this stop and then started up again. The bus driver announced, "Next stop, Winfield!" Grey tried not to look back but couldn't help himself. The old guy stood, clutching his suitcase, looking around. No one was there to meet him. Good luck, old man. Grey closed his eyes and prayed that the old guy would find a warm bed and friendly smile before nightfall.
Finally, Trish quieted and leaned back against the headrest. Tears still dripped from her chin. She drew in the fresh pine-scented air through the open window. If I'd suspected this was going to happen, Lord, I'd have stayed in Madison. Guilt, instant and fierce, scored her like a sharp stinging claw.
No time for regrets. She had to face reality. And reality was Grey Lawson was coming back to townand it was facing her father and telling him this hard truth. He had to be told today. But she didn't have to face her father alone. Three of her brothers would be with her. She started the engine and pulled back onto the quiet county road. She glanced at her watch. She was already late. Her brothers should be at her father's place by now. * * *
Grey recognized the scenery on the highway into Winfield as if he'd seen it recently, instead of seven years ago. He stood and walked, swaying with the bus's motion toward the driver. He gripped the cool metal rail beside the driver and asked, "Can you let me off at the next intersection? It's closer to home and I'm walking the rest of the way."
The driver glanced at him sideways. "You don't have luggage stowed underneath, do you?"
"No, just this." Grey waved his slack duffel.
"Sure. No problem."
Grey remained where he was, swaying and bobbing with the bus's movement. The intersection of Cross-cut Road and the highway loomed ahead. The bus slowed; Grey moved down the metal stair and waited for the door to part. As soon as it did, he stepped out. He paused while the bus door closed and the long vehicle pulled away. Then he tugged up the hood of his gray sweatshirt and started down Cross-cut, heading toward home. He had a warm bed and a welcoming smile waiting for him. But from just one person, and his arrival might cause her harm. How can I prevent my return from hurting her?
Trish turned west onto Cross-cut. Mist was beginning to form in the low spotscool autumn air brushing against still-warm earth. She sharpened her watchfulness. Twilight was the most dangerous time to drive through the forest. She kept a watch out for the reflection of her headlights onto deer eyes, sometimes the only way to see them in time. A man in a gray hooded sweatshirt was walking west, his back to her. The man turned and lifted a hand with his thumb out.
Hitchhiking was illegal. Trish nearly passed him by but it was best to let a transient know that the Winfield Sheriff's Department was vigilant. Normally she'd have been driving her own red SUV home, but it was in the garage till tomorrow. So she slowed and pulled off to where he'd paused.
Trish got out and motioned him to come to her. He stared at her and didn't move. "Over here," she ordered in her cop voice.
With halting steps, the stranger approached her. The hood shadowed his face. Was he a wanted man? She rested her hand on her sidearm and took up the defensive stance that had become second nature to her.
The man halted a few paces in front of her. "Do you have ID?" she asked.
He nodded. "May I see it?"
He reached into his back jeans pocket and pulled out a battered wallet. He handed it to her.
She opened it and stared down at the faded photograph and the name, Grey Lawson. Her hand trembled as she stared at the photo. This is creepy. Why would I have to be the one to drive past Grey Lawson here tonight?
The dread that had started her hands shaking, one-handed, she flapped the wallet closed and handed it to him. Did he see her shivering? "Where you headed?" she asked in a gruff voice that didn't even sound like hers. "My aunt's house. Elsie Ryerson."
She'd known this would be his answer.A feud seethed in Trish's breast. This was the man who was going to make her life hell for the foreseeable future.Yet he was Elsie's nephew and Elsie was at home, probably watching anxiously out the window for him. Trish swallowed down a pulsing knot of bitter words. "Get in. I'll drive you there."
"I can walk"
"Get in," she ordered, hustling back behind the wheel, her eyes avoiding his. Let's just get this over. Lord, I wouldn't do this for anyone but Elsie.
Grey ambled over, let himself in and then settled gingerly onto the passenger seat as if it were spiked with tacks.
Without a word, Trish pulled back onto the road. Her face burned upward from her neck to her roots. Dear God, don't let anyone see me driving with Grey Lawson in my car. My father will explode if he finds out.
As she drove west on Cross-cut, the mist wisped upward on both sides of the road. The dark evergreen forest crowded close on both shoulders of the road. Grey Lawson's presence unfurled in the oppressive silence wedged between them. She could smell his soap and hear him draw breath. The narrow road began to wind near a small lake. The silence pressed down on her lungs, making it hard for her to breathe.
And then she heard squealing tires. The crunch of an impact. A loud one.
She eased off the gas pedal, slowing around a blind curve. Her neck tightened with apprehension about what she'd find. Ahead on the road, her lights highlighted the accident. The nose of a blue pickup truck was perched into the soft shoulder. A large deer covered its front windshield. Trish snapped on her radio and called the accident in to dispatch.
"Anyone hurt?" the dispatcher asked.
"I'll let you know." Trish switched off the radio as she parked beside the accident. Her blue lights rotated, warning any oncoming vehicles. But the road was deserted. She got out and suddenly, she recognized the truck. She sprinted toward the vehicle. "Andy!" she shouted. "Andy!"
She wrenched open the driver's side door and gasped. Her eldest brother was pinned to his seat by the deer's head which had come through the windshield. Blood from the deer or Andrew, or both, smeared the window and dash.
"It's Andy Franklin," Grey said right behind her.
"My brother," she blurted out.
"Is he breathing?"
Grey's no-nonsense words snapped her back to routine. She pressed two fingers to Andy's neck, feeling for the carotid pulse. She found it. "He's breathing and his heart's beating."
"That antler looks like trouble."
Trish followed Grey's hand motion and saw that it was true. One of the antlers was piercing Andy's chest dangerously near the heart. She pulled out her cell phone. Before she could speed dial, the truck shifted and the antler came out of her brother's chest. A tiny thread of blood spurted and pulsed again and again.
Grey shouldered her out of the way. He pressed his large hand down over the wound. "I bet it's nicked an artery. Here." He began shrugging a shoulder out of his sweatshirt. "Take this off me. We can use it for a pressure bandage."
Trish didn't waste any time disputing. She helped Grey out of his shirt. She tugged the sleeve over his hand that pressed down on the wound. When he signaled with a nod, she yanked it over and off the rest of the way. His hand immediately returned to her brother's chest. Deftly she folded the main part of the shirt into a large pad. She put it right next to Grey's hand, right next to the widening, frightening scarlet stain on Andy's shirt. At Grey's nod, she slid it under his barely raised hand and then his hand came down, staunching the blood flow.
"I don't think we should wait for the ambulance," he said. "Even with me exerting pressure, he's losing a lot of blood. I'll get in the back of your Jeep and with your siren blaring, you can drive us to the hospital faster."
Trish hesitated only a moment. "Right." Any delay could cost her brother his life. "Can you carry him?"
"Ease him out. While you carry him, I'll apply the pressure."
The two of them maneuvered Andy to the edge of the truck's front seat. At the last moment, Grey let her get into position so she could press down on his chest wound while Grey carried Andy to her Jeep.
"Now!" Grey commanded her. They changed places. Then she was pressing down hard and jogging to keep up with Grey as he hurried to her back door. Warm blood wet her fingers. Grey managed to back into the
Grey hoisted Andy all the way in and then pressed down on the bloody shirt. "Drive!"
She leaped into the driver's seat and switched on her siren. A quick U-turn and she was barreling down the road, back to the highway toward Ashford. She smelled her brother's blood from her hands that now slipped on the steering wheel. But she didn't look down or pause to clean them. Her eyes on the road, she couldn't afford to hit another deer or a heedless driver. "Is he all right?"
"The same. Just get us there. Fast."
The fog was rolling over the highway as she raced south and then east. She radioed dispatch to alert the hospital. And then she pressed down harder on the gas pedal. She ignored the speedometer. And she prayed,
"God, get us there in time. We can't lose Andy, too. Please. Help."
"Yes, Father, please," Grey agreed from behind her. She hadn't realized that she'd spoken aloud.
But Grey took up the prayer and began reciting what she recognized as one of the Psalmsthe Twenty-Third Psalm. The words, "valley of the shadow of death," strangled her. She pressed down harder on the gas pedal. Someday Andrew would dwell in the house of the Lord forever. But she didn't want it to be today.
Finally, the lights of the hospital in Ashford glowed through the mist. She screeched to a halt in front of the Emergency entrance. Hospital staff streamed out of the automatic doors. Within minutes, Andrew was inside, with doctors and nurses swarming around him.
Trish stood outside the treatment area, feeling as if the top of her head wanted to lift off. Or conversely, everything inside her might drain out through her toes. A crazy muddle of sensations and emotions.
"You need to sit down."
She glanced up at Grey who stood looking down at her. "I "
He pulled her by the arm to a blue molded fiberglass chair. "Sit."
She sank down, waves of nausea pounding her. She usually didn't react like this to blood, to accidents. But this is Andy.
A receptionist came over with a clipboard. "Do you know the patient's name?"
"Andrew Franklin. He's my brother." Trish lowered her head farther, fighting the aftershock faintness.
"Do you know if he has insurance?"
"He teaches school in Washburn." Trish's lips felt as if they were freezing up on her, making it harder and harder to reply.
The receptionist nodded. "Has he been a patient here before?"
"Do we need to do all this right now?" Grey asked.
"That's all I need. I can take it from here." The woman walked away.
Trish pressed her face into her hands. But the smell of blood was too strong. She looked up, responsibility nagging her. "I should call my dad."
Her brother's gurney was pushed out into the hall.
"We're on our way to surgery," the nurse who was rolling the IV pole called to her. "Notify his family."
And then they were eaten up by the closing elevator doors.
Trish turned to Grey. "Please pray." She forced out the words through lips taut with fear. "I can't bear to lose him."
Grey nodded and bowed his head.
Stepping outside briefly, Trish punched her father's phone number into her cell phone and she gave the news to her younger brother who'd answered. Afterward, she returned to sit side by side with Greyfor how long she didn't know. Her gaze kept shifting to the silent man beside her. Now she noted that his blueblack hair was liberally threaded with silver. His eyes were gray, too. Now his head was indeed bent in prayer. Grey Lawson praying? But his words in the Jeep on the way here had resonated with honest faith. Her mind couldn't wrap itself around this idea. It just didn't fit.
The automatic doors parted and her family surged inside. Her father, Noah, and Andy's wife were at the front. "Trish! Where's Andy?" Noah barked. "Is he all right?"