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If they didn't stop talking about it, she was going to scream.
But they weren't going to stop talking about it. It was the one subject on everyone's mind and the chance of them switching to another was remote. The topic under discussion had carried them through the pot roast dinner. It was the type of meal usually reserved for Sundays, as though this were an occasion to be celebrated rather than lamented.
Sarah had outdone herself in preparing the food. There had even been hot, fluffy yeast rolls fresh from the oven to dip in the thick, savory beef gravy and a homemade pudding that was so rich, the calories fairly shouted.
But Jenny's tastebuds might as well have been dead for all she had enjoyed the meal. Her tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of her mouth with every bite, and her throat rebelled against swallowing.
Now, over coffee, which Sarah was pouring into the china cups with the yellow primrose pattern, they were still talking about Hal's imminent trip to Central America. The trip would encompass an unspecified period of time, virtually make him an outlaw, and probably imperil his life.
Yet everyone was excited about it, especially Hal, whose cheeks were flushed with enthusiasm. His brown eyes shone with expectation. "It's a tremendous undertaking. But if it weren't for the courage of those poor souls in Monterico, everything we've done and will do would be in vain. The honor belongs to them."
Sarah touched her younger son's cheek affectionately as she resumed her chair after refilling everyone's cup. "But you've instigated this underground railroad to help them escape. I think it's wonderful. Simply wonderful. But—" her lower lip began to tremble "—you will be careful, won't you? You won't really be in danger?"
Hal patted the soft hand that clung to his arm. "Mother, I've told you a thousand times that the political refugees will be waiting for us at the border of Monterico. We're only picking them up, escorting them through Mexico, and—"
"Illegally smuggling them into the United States," Cage supplied dryly.
Sarah glanced at Hal's older brother sourly.
Accustomed to such disdain, Cage remained unaffected by his mother's disapproving glance. He stretched his jean-clad legs far out in front of him as he slouched in his chair in a way that had always irritated Sarah. During his youth she had harped on his table posture until she was blue. Her lectures had never done any good.
He crossed one booted ankle over the other and eyed his brother from beneath a shelf of dust-colored eyebrows. "I wonder if you'll be so fired up with fanatic zeal when the Border Patrol slams your ass in jail."
"If you can't use better language than that, kindly leave the table," Reverend Bob Hendren snapped.
"Sorry, Dad." Unrepentantly Cage sipped his coffee.
"If Hal goes to jail," the pastor went on, "it will be for a good cause, something he believes in."
"That's not what you said the night you had to come bail me out," Cage reminded his father.
"You were arrested for drunkenness."
Cage grinned. "I believe in getting drunk occasionally."
"Cage, please," Sarah said with a long-suffering sigh. "For once try and behave."
Jenny stared down at her hands. She hated these family scenes. Cage could be provoking, but she felt in this instance he was right to bluntly point out the risks of Hal's involvement in this venture. Besides, even she could see that Cage's derision was a response to his parents' obvious preference for Hal, who shifted uneasily in his chair. Though he basked in Bob's and Sarah's approval, their blatant favoritism made him uncomfortable as well.
Cage relented by erasing the smirk from his handsome face, but he continued arguing. "It's just that this labor of love, this mission of Hal's, seems like a good way to get killed. Why is he risking his neck in some banana republic where they shoot first and ask questions later?"
"You couldn't possibly understand Hal's motives," Bob said with a dismissive wave of his hand toward his elder son.
Cage sat up straighter and propped his arms on the table, leaning forward for emphasis. "I can understand his wanting to liberate people marked for death, yes. But I don't think this is the way to do it." Impatiently he ran a hand through his dark blond hair. "An underground railroad, escorting political refugees through Mexico, illegal entry into the United States," he said scoff-ingly as he enumerated the stages of Hal's mission by ticking them off his fingertips.
"And how are they going to survive once you get them here to Texas? Where will they live? What will they do? Have you thought of jobs, shelter, food, medicine, clothing? Don't be naive enough to think that everyone will welcome them with open arms just because they're from a strife-torn country They'll be thought of as wetbacks just as all illegal aliens are. And treated as such."
"We're trusting all that to God's will," Hal said a little uncertainly. His steadfastness always faltered under Cage's pragmatism. Just when Hal thought one of his convictions was unshakable, Cage shook it—to the core. Just like an earthquake, Cage's arguments opened up fissures in beliefs Hal had previously thought of as sound and indestructible. Hal prayed about it often and always came to the conclusion that God used Cage to test him. Or was Cage's astuteness a gift of the devil used to tempt him? His parents would no doubt opt for the second theory.
"Yeah, well, I hope God has more common sense than you have."
"That's enough!" Bob said sharply.
Cage hunched his shoulders and propping his elbows on the tabletop, carried his coffee cup to his mouth. He didn't use the tiny handle. Jenny doubted his long finger would fit in that narrow china crook. He held the cup by folding both his hands around it.
He was out of place in the parsonage kitchen. It had crispy ruffled curtains at the windows, a pastel plaid yellow vinyl floor, and a glass-fronted china cabinet that held delicate serving pieces that were treasured and used only on holidays.
Cage shrank the kitchen until its coziness became clutter. And it wasn't that he was inordinately muscular or tall. Physically Cage and Hal were much the same. From a distance and from the back, the brothers were almost indistinguishable, except that Cage was slightly more robust than his younger brother. That added brawni-ness was due more to the differences in their occupations than to a whim of heredity.
But there the similarity between the two ended. The main difference between them was one of attitude. Cage had a presence that made any room seem smaller when he entered it. An indefinable something surrounded him like an aura and was as much a part of him as his darkly tanned skin.
Indoors he was like an oversized body straining at the seams of clothing that was too small. He seemed to be squeezed into most rooms, as though what he needed around him was wide open spaces, earth, and sky. An essence of the outdoors clung to him, as if he carried the wind inside on his clothes and in his hair.
Jenny had never gotten close enough to him to find out, but she thought his skin must smell like sunshine. The ravages of long hours in the sun were evident on his face, particularly around his tawny eyes. Those web-fine lines made him appear older than he was. But then he had crammed a lot of living into his thirty-two years.
And tonight, as always wherever Cage went, there was likely to be discord if not downright warfare. Mischief and malcontent followed him like a shadow. He was a predator, stalking through the jungle, upsetting the peaceable inhabitants, raising shackles and ruffling feathers and rustling the stillness even when he wasn't looking for trouble.
"You're certain you've worked out all the rendezvous points?" Sarah asked. She was distressed that Cage had spoiled her perfect farewell dinner for Hal, but was valiantly trying to ignore her recalcitrant son and set things back on an even keel.
As Hal rehashed his travel plans for at least the hundredth time, Jenny unobtrusively began to clear the table. As she leaned over Hal's shoulder to pick up his plate, he took her hand, squeezed it, raised it to his lips, and kissed the back of it, but all without a pause in his zealous dialogue.
She longed to bend down and kiss the crown of his blond head, to clasp it to her breasts and plead with him not to go. But of course she didn't. Such an action would be outrageous and everyone at the table would think she had gone stark, staring mad.
She suppressed her emotions and finished carrying the dishes to the sink. No one offered to help. No one even took notice of her. It had been Jenny's chore to do the dinner dishes since she had come to live in the parsonage.
They were still talking fifteen minutes later when she dried her hands on the cuptowel and neatly draped it over the peg beside the sink. She slipped out the back door and went down the porch steps. She crossed the yard to the white rail fence and leaned her arms over the top.
It was a lovely night, almost windless, which was a rare blessing in West Texas. There was only a trace of dust in the air. A huge round moon looked like a shiny gummed sticker someone had pressed against a black felt sky. What stars the city lights didn't diminish were large and near.
It was a night for lovers to be clinging, snuggling close whispering outlandishly silly and romantic things to each other. It wasn't a night to be saying goodbye. Or if goodbyes must be said, they should be overflowing with passion and regret, seasoned with endearments rather than the details of an itinerary.
Jenny was restless, as though she had an itch she couldn't quite locate.
The screened back door squeaked open and then closed with the soft slapping sound of old wood against old wood. Jenny turned to see Cage sauntering down the steps. She brought her head back around as he moved to stand beside her at the fence.
Without speaking, he fished in his breast pocket for a pack of cigarettes, shook it, and, closing his lips around one, drew it from the foil top. He lit it with a lighter whose flame flared briefly in front of his face. He clicked the lighter off and returned it and the cigarettes to his pocket as he drew the tobacco smoke deep into his lungs.
"Those things are killers," Jenny said, still staring straight ahead.
Cage turned his head and stared at her silently for a moment, then his body came around until he was leaning with his back against the fence. "I'm not dead yet and I started smoking when I was about eleven."
She glanced up at him, smiling, but shaking her head. "What a shame. Think what that's done to your lungs. You should quit."
"Yeah?" he said with that one-sided lazy grin that never failed to trip the hearts of women—young, old, single, or married. There wasn't a female in La Bota who could remain indifferent to Cage Hendren's smile. Some paused to consider exactly what it implied. Most knew. I'm male, you're female, and that's all that needs to be said.
"Yes, you should quit. But you're not going to. I've heard Sarah ask you to stop smoking for years."
"Only because she didn't like nasty ashtrays and the lingering smell of tobacco smoke. She never asked me to quit because she was worried about my health." There was the merest glimmer of bitternness in his amber eyes. Someone with less sensitivity than Jenny wouldn't have noticed it.
"I worry about your health," she said.
"Do you, now?"
"Are you asking me to quit smoking on that basis?"