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Deputy Constance Halloran drove along the U.S. highway toward Conard City, taking her time, keeping an eye on traffic, glad her shift was almost over.
Spring had settled over the county, greening it with recent rains, filling the air with the fragrance of wildflowers and the scent she thought of as green. With her window rolled down, the aroma wafted into her car, earth's special perfume.
Today had been a lazy day, an easy shift. She'd had only one call about a minor theft at one of the ranches; then she'd spent most of the day patrolling her sector. She hadn't written any speeding tickets, which was unusual. Even the traffic seemed to be enjoying a case of spring fever.
Maybe she would light the barbecue tonight and make some hamburgers. Sophie, her seven-year-old daughter, loved grilled hamburgers beyond everything, and loved the opportunity to eat outside at their porch table almost as much. Of course, the evenings could still get chilly, but a sweater would do.
The idea pleased her, and she began to hum a lilting melody. A semi passed her from the opposite direction and flashed his lights in a friendly manner. Connie flashed back, her smile broadening. Some days it felt good just to be alive.
Another mile down the road, she spotted a man standing on the shoulder, thumb out. At once she put on her roof lights, gave one whoop of her siren and pulled over until he was square in the view of her dash camera. He dropped his arm and waited for her.
A couple of cars passed as she radioed dispatch with her position and the reason for her stop.
"Got it, Connie," Velma said, her smoke-frogged voice cracking. "You be careful, hear?"
"I always am."
Glancingover to make sure she wouldn't be opening her door into traffic, Connie climbed out and approached the man.
As she drew closer, she realized he looked scruffy and exotic all at once. Native American, she registered instantly. Long black hair with a streak of gray fell to his shoulders. He also had a beard, unusually thick for someone of his genetic background. Dark eyes looked back at her. The thousand-yard stare. She'd seen it before.
For an instant she wondered if he was mentally ill; then her mind pieced together the conglomeration of clothing he wore, and she identified him as a soldier, or maybe a veteran. His pants were made of the new digitized camouflage fabric, but his jacket was the old olive drab. As she approached, he let a backpack slip from his shoulder to the ground, revealing the collar of his cammie shirt, and she saw the black oak leaf of a major.
At once some of her tension eased. "I'm sorry, sir," she said courteously, "but hitchhiking is illegal."
He nodded, his gaze leaving her and scanning the surrounding countryside. "Sorry, I forgot. Been out of the country."
"I guessed that. Whereabouts?"
His inky gaze returned to her. "Afghanistan. I'll just keep walking."
"No," she said impulsively, breaking all the rules in an instant. "I'll drive you to town. How come you don't have a car?"
Something like amusement, just a hint, flickered swiftly across his face. "I need to be home a while longer before I'll be comfortable behind the wheel."
She let that go, sensing the story behind it wasn't something he was about to share. "Well, hop in. I'm going off shift, so unless something happens, I'll have you in town in twenty minutes."
He hefted his backpack and followed her to the car. Breaking more rules, she let him sit in front with her, rather than in the safer backseat cage. Even in the large SUVs the department preferred, he seemed too big. Over six feet, easily, and sturdily built.
She reached for her microphone and called the dispatcher. "I'm back on the road, Velma, on my way in. I'm giving someone a ride."
Velma tutted loudly. "You know you shouldn't."
"It's a special case."
"Whatever." Velma sounded disgusted in the way of a woman used to having her good advice ignored.
Connie signed off and smiled at her passenger. "Velma is the department's mother."
He nodded, saying nothing. A few seconds later they were back on the road, heading down the highway toward town. They passed a herd of cattle on a gentle slope, grazing amicably alongside a group of deer. In places the barbed-wire fences were totally hidden in a tangle of tumbleweed. Indian paintbrush dotted the roadside with scarlet and orange, as if the colors had been scattered by a giant hand.
"It's beautiful country," Connie remarked. "Are you staying or just passing through?"
"A bit of both."
"You have friends here?"
"Sort of. Some folks I want to see, anyway."
She opened her mouth to ask who, then swallowed the words. He didn't seem to want to talk much maybe with good reason, considering where he'd been. She thought of Billy Joe Yuma, her cousin Wendy's husband, and the problems he still suffered sometimes from Vietnam. This guy's wounds had to be fresher.
When she spoke again, it was to ask something less invasive. "Ever been here before?"
Well, that gambit wasn't going to work. Stifling a sigh, she gave her attention back to the road and tried to ignore the man beside her. If he stayed in town for more than twenty-four hours, someone would learn something about him and word would pass faster than wildfire. The county had grown quite a bit in the past fifteen years, but it hadn't grown much. People still knew everything about their neighbors, and strangers still attracted a lot of curiosity and speculation.
However, it went against the grain for her to treat a stranger with silence. Around here, folks generally made strangers feel welcome.
"I can take you to a motel if you want."
"Sheriff's office is fine."
"Okay." A scattering of houses near the road announced that Conard City now lay less than ten miles ahead. "My uncle used to be sheriff here," she said by way of keeping a friendly conversation going.
At last a sign of curiosity. "He retired a couple of years ago," she explained. "He and my aunt are in South America and are later going on a cruise to Antarctica. It blows my mind to even think of it."
That elicited a chuckle. "It wouldn't be my choice."
"Mine, either, right now. Maybe when I retire I'll see things differently."
"You never know."
She tossed him another glance and saw that he appeared a bit more relaxed.
"So," he said after a moment, "you followed in your uncle's footsteps?"
"Eventually. I grew up in Laramie. Then I moved to Denver."
"How'd that work out?"
"Well, I got my degree, got married, got divorced, decided I didn't like the big bad world all that much and came back to be a deputy."
"What's that like?"
"I love it." She glanced at him again, wondering what had suddenly unlocked the key to his mouth. But he seemed to have gone away again, looking out the windows, watching intently. So on guard. Expecting trouble at any instant.
And there were no magic words to cure that. Nothing but time would do that, if even that could succeed.
"I worked as a cop in the city," she said after a moment. "It's better here."
"Less crime. More helping people."
"I can see that."
She reckoned he could.
"So do you like your new sheriff?"
"Gage Dalton," she supplied. "Yeah. He can be hard to get to know, but once you do, he's great. He used to be DEA, then he came here and my dad hired him as a criminologist. We never had one before."
"That is small-town."
She smiled. "Yeah. It's great."
They reached the edge of town, and soon were driving along Main Street toward the courthouse square and the storefront sheriff's office. On the way, she pointed out the City Diner.
"Eat there if you want rib-sticking food. Despite the sign out front, everyone calls it Maude's diner. You won't find high-class service, but if you're not worried about cholesterol, sugar or salt, there's no better place to get a meal or a piece of pie."
"I'll remember that."
She pulled into her slot in front of the office and turned off the ignition. Before he climbed out, she turned in her seat to face him directly. "I'm Connie Halloran," she said.
"Ethan. Thanks for the ride."
Then he slipped out of the vehicle with his backpack and began to stride toward the diner. She watched him until he disappeared inside, then shook her head and climbed out, locking the car behind her.
Inside the office, Velma arched thin brows at her. "You're still alive, I see."
"I'm not totally stupid."
"Just save the excuses until your uncle gets back."
Connie shook her head and hung her keys from the rack near Velma's dispatch station. "I'm all grown up, Velma."
"That won't matter a flea dropping on a compost heap if anything happens to you. I don't want to be the one explaining to Nate what you did."
Connie leaned over the counter, grinning at the older woman. "I'm armed and dangerous, Velma."
All that earned was a snort. "Damn near everyone around here is armed. It don't keep bad things from happening."
"Nothing bad happened. Now I'm going to sign out and go home to grill burgers for my daughter and my mother."
But Velma stopped her. "Who'd you give a ride to?"
"Some guy named Ethan. He says he has some friends around here."
"And you believe that?"
Connie sighed. "Why wouldn't I? He's wearing a major's oak leaf on his shirt collar, and he says he just got back from Afghanistan. Not your ordinary bad-guy disguise."
Velma's expression soured. "For somebody who patrolled the streets in Denver, you're awfully trusting."
"No, I just know how well I can take care of myself."
Velma's snort followed her out the door.
Gage Dalton, Conard County's new sherifffor three years now, which he guessed meant he would always be the new sheriffsat at his desk reviewing reports, his scarred face smiling faintly as he remembered how Nate Tate used to complain about the paperwork. Nate had been sheriff for thirty-five years, a long time to complain about paperwork. As for Gage, he would count himself lucky if twenty years from now he was still the new sheriff and still doing paperwork.
Not that folks gave him a hard time or anything. It was, he supposed, just their way of distinguishing him from Nate. He signed another report and added it to the stack of completed work.