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The town looked dead. Only a few cars were parked along Main Street near Barney's, Appleton's only bar, as Jake Malone pulled his truck to the curb in front of the sheriff's office. Most likely people were sticking close to home still doing holiday things with their families. Jake had stopped by his mother's place on Christmas morning to take her a crystal giraffe to add to her miniature animal collection. She'd thanked him for the unwrapped present, gave him another loud red scarf, and then she'd downed a Bloody Mary while he'd had a cup of coffee, and that had been that. So much for Christmas.
He opened the truck door just as a brisk wind whipped down the center of the street and stung his face. He jammed his Stetson down firmer on his head and then tugged up the collar of his brown bomber jacket, wishing he'd remembered the damn scarf. Out here in West Texas where the wind could cut through a man, he'd have been willing to wear the garish color. Not in Houston, though, where he lived and worked.
Jake spotted Harding's white cruiser alongside the old brick building that housed the sheriff's office. If not for that, he might have thought the place was closed. From the small tinted window, the light inside was dim and neither of the two deputies sat at the metal desk they shared. Normally at this time of the afternoon, the day guy would be pretending to write a report that would end his shift.
But here in this part of West Texas, there wasn't much to report, with the exception of the rustling problem Jake had been called in to help with a few months back. The case had turned out bigger and more complicated than any of them had imagined when Sheriff Harding had first contacted the Texas Rangers looking for someone to work undercover.
Stealing cattle and selling them on the black market had turned out to be the least of the problem. As layers of the case were peeled away and arrests were made, it was clear the rustling was aimed at driving ranchers away from their land. Jake and Sheriff Harding had a pretty good idea who was behind the scheme. They just hadn't proved it yet.
Progress had stalled. Between the court system and the sheriff's slower-than-molasses approach, Jake was losing patience. He didn't blame Harding. He was a decent guy, but too small-town to tackle a case of this magnitude. His deputies were okay, too, but basically a step or two above a rent-a-cop.
Generally that was good enough. Speeding and the occasional DUI were the worst of the crimes the small department faced. Sometimes the local kids got into a bit of trouble, but usually it was just a harmless prank. Nothing more serious than Jake himself had been mixed up with as a teenager, and it hadn't kept him from joining the Rangers. Though he didn't fool himself that his father and grandfather both having been part of the elite group contributed to his being accepted.
He opened the office door, causing the overhead bell to ring, the welcome blast of heat he'd anticipated absent. The place looked deserted. But then he heard Sheriff Harding's familiar shuffle coming from his private office tucked in the corner.
In the next second, the big man appeared at the door, out of uniform, his puzzled frown transforming into an easy smile when he saw Jake. "What are you doing here?"
Jake shrugged. "I was out for a drive and figured I'd stop by to see if there's anything new with the case."
"That's some drive. All the way from Houston." He tossed a newspaper into a wastebasket. "To tell you the truth, this is the first time I've been in the office since last week." He gestured toward a chair near the half-full coffeepot. "That brew's about an hour old. You're welcome to it."
"Where are the other two?" Jake cocked his head toward the deputies' desk before helping himself to a mug.
"Vacation. They're taking turns being on call."
Jake smiled wryly. Things sure were different the farther away from the city he got. He'd grown up in Houston, sometimes working on nearby ranches for extra money during the summer. The experience had helped him with his undercover work as a cowhand at the Double R, and for several months, he'd gotten quite a taste of rural life. At first he'd shaken his head at the laid-back attitudes and lack of sophistication of the folks who herded cows and mended fences. But he'd quickly come to respect their work ethic and dedication to family, something as foreign to him as vacationing on the French Riviera.
"So you got anything for me on Wellsley?" Jake eyed the thick black brew. He favored strong coffee but this looked more like motor oil.
"You best be careful bandying his name about. We don't know for sure that he's behind the rustling. Levi Dodd is the one the courts convicted of organizing the rustling.
Last I heard, he's keeping his trap shut tighter than a bull's ass."
Jake snorted. "West End swooped in to buy every square foot of abandoned land when the ranchers started bailing. Wellsley is not only the company's CEO, but he's a control freak who calls every shot. We both know he was willing to do anything for those mineral rights."
"You're not telling me anything I don't know, but we still haven't tied him to Levi Dodd." Harding shook his head. "You ever do anything besides work?"
"Well, son, us normal folks do." The sheriff rolled a chair away from the desk and lowered his bulk onto the seat cushion. "I know you're not married. Ever been?"
"What did you do for Christmas?"
Jake laughed uneasily. "Why the interrogation?"
Harding shrugged his beefy shoulders. "We only worked together a few months but I like you, Malone. I hate to see you go down the same lonely path so many of our brothers in law enforcement have traveled."
"Hey, better to go alone than drag a family through hell with you." As soon as Jake had spouted off he'd regretted it. He knew Harding hadn't known the illustrious Michael Malone personally, but the sheriff had been around long enough to have heard of Jake's father.
The older man's face softened. "Trust me, son, it doesn't have to be hell. Once you have a family, you tend to shy away from taking so many chances."
Okay, so the sheriff obviously hadn't heard of Jake's father. When it came to the job, a wife and two kids had meant nothing to the veteran Ranger. Until the day he died, the man had known no boundaries. His reckless pursuit of justice had, ironically, been damn near criminal. And in spite of the fact that he'd never had the chance to truly get to know him, Jake admired the hell out of the man. Respect, well, that was a whole different ball game.
He checked his watch. This trip had been for nothing. The case clearly was on hold, and the thing was, he was no longer officially involved, anyway. Not that he was going to back off. "Visited family."
Harding frowned, as if he'd lost the thread of the conversation.
"For Christmas," Jake said. "I visited family." He gulped the last of the lukewarm coffee and stood. He didn't want to be asked any more personal questions. Even if he were inclined to respond, the answers weren't pretty.
He had his mother, who was a functioning drunk, and his older sister, now living in California, who he talked to maybe twice a year. She hadn't married either, or wanted kids, or wanted anything to do with their mother. Blame was big in the Malone family. Lots to go around.
"What are you doing for New Year's Eve tomorrow?" Harding asked, leaning back and rubbing a hand over the top of his thinning brown hair.
"Haven't thought about it yet."
"We're having a small get-together at my house if you're interested in stopping by. There's an extra guest room so you wouldn't have to drive all the way back to Houston."
"Thanks, but I'll be sticking close to home. Maybe I'll go visit our friend Dodd." Jake smiled. "I heard prison isn't agreeing with him. He might be ready to make a deal."
Harding didn't look amused. "Leave it alone, Jake. We'll revisit the case after the holidays."
He lifted his hat, shoved back his hair and reset the Stetson on his head. Past time for a haircut, especially since he wasn't working undercover right now. "I'll check back in a week or two."
"Good." Harding pushed to his feet and followed Jake to the door. "In the meantime, try and enjoy the holidays."
"You, too, Sheriff." Jake tugged up his collar again before stepping onto the sidewalk. No use admitting he'd already seen Dodd. Harding wouldn't like it, and to stay involved, Jake needed the sheriff's blessing.
Dodd had remained uncooperative, but Jake knew he'd riled the shifty little man plenty, gave him a mess of nasty scenarios to think about. A few more days of Dodd looking over his shoulder, stewing over whether Wellsley had decided he was too much of a liability, and maybe Dodd would be more talkative when Jake paid him another visit.
Normally he wasn't one to go behind a man's back. This was Harding's case, but he'd demonstrated that he didn't have the stomach to go after Wellsley. The rustling had been stopped and that was enough for a man like Harding. Not for Jake, though. A lot of ranchers had been hurt and restitution was yet to be made. Besides, Jake had dealt with scumbags like Peter Wellsley before. Rich, powerful men, who thought they were above the law. He wasn't going to get away with it. No matter what it took.
"Hey, handsome, what are you doing around these parts?" Marjorie Meeks stood behind the big oak bar with a towel tossed over her shoulder and her hands on her hips.
The door to Barney's Bar and Grill hadn't even closed behind Jake when the owner's wife had spotted him. He took off his hat and grinned. "I missed you something fierce."
She huffed good-naturedly. "You missed my husband's burgers and grilled onions more than likely."
"That, too." Jake slid onto a stool at the bar, while glancing toward the pool tables. He'd hoped that a couple of
the boys he used to play eight-ball with while working undercover would be around. But no luck.
"You just missed Hank and Pete," Marjorie said, bringing out a frosty mug and filling it from the tap with beer. "You won't believe this, but Hank has a date tonight."
"Yes, sir." She set the draft in front of him and then wiped her hands on her apron. "Never thought I'd see the day that old codger would step out of his dungarees long enough to catch a lady's eye."
Jake nodded his thanks for the beer, and glanced around. The place was empty except for three tables, all occupied by couples, talking, smiling, oblivious to anyone else in the dimly lit room. Apparently Hank wasn't the only who'd be keeping feminine company tonight. Looked like date night in Appleton. The idea depressed Jake. When was the last time he'd taken a lady to dinner, or a movie or even for a drink?
When he'd finally broken his cover, he'd hoped to ask one of the local gals out. Kate Manning was an attractive woman, whose family operated a large ranch not far from town. Like everyone else in the county, she'd known him as one of the Double R hired hands. She'd also suspected him of being a rustler. By the time the real rustlers were caught, and Jake could set the record straight, he'd discovered that Kate was getting married.
Figured. He never seemed to meet decent women anymore. In his line of work, he was surrounded by junkies, the occasional hooker and confidential informants.
"You gonna be wanting a burger? Barney's out back having a smoke but I can get him to—"
"No, don't bother him. I can't stay long. I came to see Sheriff Harding, but I figured I'd drop by to say hey and shoot a game of pool if the guys were around."
She shook her head apologetically. "Christmas week is always slow around here. For ten years I've been telling Barney we ought to close for the week, but he's too stubborn."
Jake smiled and sipped his beer. Funny how at home he felt here, more at home than he did in his own tiny corner of Houston. He lived in a nice enough apartment with all the amenities, but he didn't know his neighbors or even the couple who owned the corner store where he bought beer and bread once a week. Although he had to admit he'd put no effort into socializing.
While living here, as part of his cover he'd hung out with the other ranch hands, did some drinking, shot pool and swapped stories, using the name Brad Jackson. After the guilty parties were arrested, the word quickly spread that Brad was really Jake Malone, Texas Ranger. Some of the guys had gotten their noses bent out of shape because he'd lied to them, but most of the men understood that he'd had a job to do, and were grateful that he'd been instrumental in catching the rustlers.
"You got big plans tomorrow night?" Marjorie asked, while putting some elbow grease into polishing the scarred oak bar.
"Nah." Jake shrugged. "I don't like being on the road with all the amateurs."
She chuckled. "Ain't that the truth. We're going to be open, but nobody who gets liquored up leaves here with car keys. I can promise you that."
Someone had plugged the jukebox and selected a sappy eighties ballad. The love song filled the silence, annoying Jake. He got to his feet.
"Speaking of getting liquored up…" He dug into his pocket and withdrew a few bills that he laid on the bar.
"I don't need to finish this beer. I've got to head back to Houston."
"You sure you don't wanna eat something first?"
"Next time." He set his hat back on his head and slapped the side of the bar. "Say hey to Barney for me."
"He'll be sorry he missed you. So will the rest of the boys. If you change your mind about tomorrow night, a whole group of them are coming around," Marjorie called after him. "You can always bunk at our place till you're ready to drive home."
"Thanks. I'll keep that in mind." He left the warmth of the bar, hunching his shoulders in deference to the cold as he headed toward his truck still parked in front of the sheriff's office two blocks away.
He passed the decorated shop windows that he hadn't noticed the first time…displays of fake snow, Christmas trees and plastic Santas that would be put away in a couple of days.
They made him smile. Funny how he'd taken to the small town. Twice while undercover an eerie feeling of déjà vu had swept over him. The experience had kind of spooked him. Not that he'd ever admit it to a single soul.
At his truck door, he paused and glanced back toward Barney's. Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to spend New Year's Eve here. He didn't have anything else to do since he'd already turned down invitations from two rangers he worked with. Nice guys but they were married and their parties usually involved other couples, which always made Jake feel like a third wheel.
He didn't have to decide now. Tomorrow he'd see if he felt like company or just sipping a cold beer in front of the TV. He climbed into his truck, popped in a Tim McGraw CD and headed down the highway toward Houston.
One thing he hated about the drive to Appleton was that for over fifty miles the landscape was boring, with nothing to look at but mesquite and yucca and scrub oak. About twenty minutes away from town, and not having passed a single car, he had to crank up the volume of the CD to help him stay alert. That's why he almost didn't hear the gunning of an engine behind him.
By the time he checked the rearview mirror, the enormous black 4x4 was bearing down on him so fast he thought he'd have to swerve off the road to avoid being hit. At the last minute, the truck swung into the other lane and passed him.
Jake swore loudly, and then watched in amazement as the other truck slowed down, made a U-turn, and headed straight toward him. He applied the brakes and cut to his right. The other driver did the same, but instead of pulling off the road or around Jake, he stopped his truck so that it effectively blocked traffic either way.
Was the guy drunk? Or just plain nuts? Jake saw the driver's door open, and he hesitated before opening his own door, wondering if taking his gun out of the glove box would only make the situation worse. In the next second, he saw the sun glint off a 9mm in the man's hand. He raised the barrel and aimed it at Jake through the windshield.
"No sudden moves, boy. Just get out of your truck nice and slow." Short, heavyset and balding, the man looked familiar.
Jake didn't budge. "You want money, my truck? What?"
"What I want is for you to get out of that damn truck and into mine. Now, Malone. I ain't gonna tell you again."
It suddenly registered where he'd seen the man. In court, during Levi Dodd's trial. That meant he either worked for Dodd or Wellsley. Shit. No way in hell was Jake getting into that truck. If he did, he was as good as dead.