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Wind whistled into the big black van, whipping Tanner Richards' hair across his forehead as he drove. Squinting at the gravel road through the brown strands drifting over his eyes, he hauled in a deep breath of pine-scented air. Five years ago he'd agonized over his decision to sell his accounting firm and move to Crystal Falls, Oregon. He'd given up a six-figure annual income with no assurance that he could even find a job in this area. Crazy, really. Looking back on it now, though, he was glad that he'd come. Being a deliveryman wasn't as prestigious as working in his former chosen profession, but he made enough money to provide a good life for his kids, and he truly enjoyed the occupation. Having a rural route suited him. He was required to make fewer stops than he would have been in town, which equated to shorter workdays and more time in the evening to be with his children. And he'd made a lot of friends. Folks around here were more congenial than they were in larger towns.
As he rounded a curve in the country road, Tanner saw Tuck Malloy's house. Sadness punched into him. For three years running, he'd often stopped there to visit at the end of his workday, and he'd enjoyed a lot of cold ones on the porch with his elderly friend. Now the windows reflected the darkness of an empty structure. A For Sale sign rode high on the front gate. It had appeared nearly a month ago.
Tanner had considered calling the Realtor to learn what had happened to the property owner after his calls to Tuck went unanswered, but he really didn't want to know. Tuck had been a crusty old codger and eighty years young, as he'd been fond of saying. Unexpected things could happen to people that age. A heart attack, maybe, or a stroke. Tuck liked that piece of ground, and he would never have left voluntarily. He'd said so more than once. Tanner figured the old fellow was dead. Otherwise why would his place be up for sale?
Tanner pulled over and stopped outside the hurricane fence for a moment, a habit he had developed since the home had been vacated. He trailed his gaze over the front porch, now devoid of the comfortable Adirondack chairs where he had once sat with Tuck to chat. Recalling the old man's recalcitrant dog, he smiled. Rip. Tanner hoped the blue heeler had found a good home. He'd been a handful and was probably difficult to place.
Damn, he missed them both. With a sigh Tanner eased the van back onto the road. He had only one more delivery before he could call it a day. Maybe he could mow the lawn and do some weeding before his kids got home. Tori, now eight, had dance class after school today, and Michael, eleven and getting gangly, had baseball practice. Since his wife's death, Tanner had been a single dad, and not a day went by that he wasn't grateful for his mom's help. She got his kids off to the bus stop each morning and chauffeured them to most of their activities, which took a huge load of responsibility off his shoulders.
Tanner delivered the last parcel of the day. After he dropped the van off at Courier Express, he needed to pick up some groceries. Milk, for one thing. Tori wouldn't eat breakfast without it. And if he didn't get bread, he'd have no fixings for his lunch tomorrow.
His cell phone, which rode atop a sticky mat on the dash, chimed with a message notification. Tanner grabbed the device and glanced at the screen to make sure the text wasn't from his mother. She never contacted him during work hours unless it was urgent. When he read the name of the sender, his hand froze on the steering wheel. Tuck Malloy? He almost went off the road into a ditch. How could that be? The old coot was dead. Wasn't he?
Tanner pulled over onto a wide spot, shifted into park, and stared at his phone. The message was definitely from Tuck. They had exchanged cell numbers months ago, and Tuck had occasionally texted to ask Tanner to pick up items he needed from the store. It hadn't been a bother for Tanner. There was a mom-and-pop grocery not that far away, and Tuck's house was on the road he always took back to town.
He swiped the screen. A smile curved his lips as he read the message. "I fell off the damned porch. Busted my arm, some ribs, and had to get a hip replacement. Now I'm doing time in assisted living, and the bitch that runs the place won't let me have my beer or chew. Can you buy me some of both and sneak it in to me? I'll pay you back."
Tanner had been picturing the old fart in heaven, sitting on an Adirondack chair with a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a spittoon within easy reach. It was unsettling to think someone was dead and then receive a text from him.
He tapped out a response. "I don't mind bringing you things. My kids have activities this afternoon, so I'm not pressed for time. But I don't want to get in trouble for delivering forbidden substances. My job could be on the line."
Tuck replied, "No trouble. Just put it inside a box and pretend it's something I ordered. If I get caught, I'll never tell who brought me the stuff. Sorry I can't just call, but these nurses have sharp ears and I got no privacy."
Tanner grinned. He trusted the old man not to reveal his name if it came down to that. And he truly did sympathize with Tuck's feelings of deprivation. Just because a man was eighty shouldn't mean he no longer had a right to indulge his habits. Staying at an assisted living facility was costly, and in Tanner's estimation, the residents should be able to do whatever they liked in their apartments as long as their physicians didn't object.
He texted, "Do you have your doctor's permission to drink and chew?"
Tuck replied, "Well, he ain't said I shouldn't. I been drinking and chewing my whole life. I'm eighty. What can he say, that my pleasures might kill me?"
Tanner chuckled. He agreed to deliver the requested items and asked Tuck for the address. He was surprised to learn the facility was in Mystic Creek. Tanner didn't cover that area, and it was a thirty-minute drive to get there. He mulled over the fact that he would be driving for more than an hour round-trip in a Courier Express van to run a personal errand. He'd also be using company fuel, which didn't seem right, but he supposed he could top off the tank to make up for that. He could also adjust his time sheet so he wouldn't be paid for an hour he hadn't actually worked.
Whistling tunelessly, Tanner made the drive to Mystic Creek. He hadn't yet gotten over this way. The curvy two-lane highway offered beautiful scenery, tree-covered mountain peaks, craggy buttes, and silvery flashes of a river beyond the stands of ponderosa pine. To his surprise, he saw a turnoff to Crystal Falls-the actual waterfall, not the town-and he made a mental note to bring the kids up sometime to see it. They'd get a kick out of that. Maybe they could spread a blanket on the riverbank and have a picnic.
Once in Mystic Creek, a quaint and well-kept little town, he found a grocery store on East Main called Flagg's Market, where he purchased two six-packs of beer and a whole roll of Copenhagen for his elderly friend. In the van he always carried extra box flats. He assembled a medium-size one, stuck what he now thought of as the contraband into it, and taped the flaps closed. With a ballpoint pen, he wrote Tuck's full name, the address, and the apartment number on a Courier Express mailing slip, which he affixed to the cardboard. Done. Now he'd just drive to the facility and make the delivery. The rest would be up to Tuck.
Mystic Creek Retirement Living was in a large brick building with two wings that angled out toward the front parking lot. The back of the facility bordered Mystic Creek, which bubbled and chattered cheerfully between banks lined with greenery, weeping willows, and pines. He suspected the residents spent a lot of time on the rear lawns, enjoying the sounds of rushing water and birdsong. If he were living there, that's what he would do.
Striding across the parking area with the box in his arms, Tanner began to feel nervous. What if someone questioned him? Pausing outside the double glass doors, he took a calming breath and then pushed inside. A middle-aged woman with red hair sat at the front desk. She fixed her friendly-looking blue gaze on Tanner's face and smiled.
"You're new," she observed. "Brian usually delivers our Courier Express packages."
Tanner nodded. "Uh, yeah. Just helping out today. I've got a package for Tucker Malloy, apartment twenty-three."
She pointed to a wide hallway to the left of the counter. "About halfway down on the right."
Tanner circled her workstation and moved past her. When he reached Tuck's room, he knocked on the door and called, "Delivery. Courier Express."
He heard a shuffling sound, and seconds later, Tuck opened the door, flashing a broad grin. "Come in, come in," he said in a booming voice. "Must be those shoes and pants I ordered."
Tanner winked at his old friend as he made his way through the doorway. As he set the box on the living room floor, he noticed that Tuck held a walking cane in his left hand. After closing the door, he walked with a limp as he crossed the tiny kitchen. Tanner guessed the old fellow's hip still pained him. Otherwise he looked the same, tall and lean with slightly stooped shoulders. His blue eyes held the same merry twinkle. Deep smile creases bracketed his mouth. His hair, still thick, was mostly silver, but a few streaks of brown remained to indicate its original color.
"It's good to see you," Tanner told him. "When your place went up for sale, I tried to call you several times and left you voice mails. Then I couldn't get through anymore. I figured you'd passed away and your phone had been retired to a drawer."
"Hell, no. I'm too ornery to kick the bucket just yet. Not to say it's an outlandish thing for you to think. At eighty, I don't buy green bananas anymore. They're a risky investment."
Tanner laughed. Tuck bent to open the box, plucked a can of beer from one six-pack yoke, and offered it up. With regret, Tanner declined. "I can't stay, Tuck. My kids will be getting home in a couple of hours."
Tuck straightened slowly, as if stiffness had settled into his spine. On his right arm he wore a red elbow-high cast that extended down over the back of his hand to his knuckles and encircled his thumb. "That's a shame. I miss our bullshit sessions."
"Me, too," Tanner confessed. "I'll try to come back for a visit when I have more time." He bent to lift the six-packs from the box. "Where you planning to hide these?"
"In my boots and coat pockets. My beer'll be warm, but that's better'n nothin'."
Tanner carried the twelve-ounce containers to the closet, opened the doors, and began slipping cans into the old man's footwear. Tuck hobbled in with the roll of Copenhagen, which Tanner broke open before stuffing the rounds into shirt and jacket pockets. He couldn't help but grin when everything was hidden. With a wink at Tuck, he whispered, "They'll never know."
"Damn, I hope not," Tuck said. "My Pabst Blue Ribbon helps me relax at night. Without it I toss and turn. When I complain, the damned administrator just scowls at me and says to ask my doctor for sleeping pills. Like that'd be any better for my health? Hell, no. I like my beer."
Tanner stared at him. "What are you going to do with the empties?"
Tuck winked. "They got a resident laundry room down the hall with two tall trash cans. I'll sneak 'em down there and bury 'em real deep under other garbage."
"I see no harm in you enjoying your beer of an evening unless your doctor has forbidden it," Tanner said. "You'd tell me if that were the case. Right?"
"Wouldn't have asked you if he had. I don't have a death wish. I just want my damn beers and chew. The doc knows I have three beers a night and he never said nothin'. Of course, it's a different fella here. Their Dr. Fancy Pants might not make allowances for a man's personal pleasures."
"That sucks." Tanner had never stopped to consider how many liberties people could lose when they grew old. "But it's temporary. Right? Once you've healed, you can live somewhere else again." Tanner remembered the real estate sign on Tuck's front gate. "You do get to leave here, I hope."
"The doctors are sayin' that I shouldn't live alone again." He shrugged. "At my age, that's how it goes, with other people decidin' what's best for you."
"I'm sorry to hear you can't live alone anymore." Tanner sincerely meant that. "Maybe you can make arrangements for some kind of in-home care. If you can afford that, of course."
"I'm workin' on it. I got plenty of money saved back, so I had Crystal get me another house here in Mystic Creek. She found a nice little place on ten acres just outside town. It's a short drive from her salon, and she's already livin' there. The house was made over for an old lady in a wheelchair, but she passed away. Crystal thinks it'll suit my needs, and she's willin' to stay there to look after me."
Tanner nodded. "That sounds ideal. Ten acres isn't quite as much land as you had in Crystal Falls, but at least you'll still have elbow room." For most of his life, Tuck had been a rancher. Tanner doubted he would be happy living inside the city limits on a small lot. "You're blessed to have a granddaughter who loves you so much."
"I am, for certain. She's a sweet girl."
"Where's Bolt? At the new place?"
"Nope. Crystal has enough to do without fussin' over a horse. I had her find a place to board him. When I'm able, I'll bring him home and take care of him."
Tanner walked back into the living room, stabbing his fingers under his belt to neaten the tuck of his brown uniform shirt. "I sure wish I could stay for a while, but I've got to run."