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Western Heroes: Burn

 

Western Heroes: Burn

Western Heroes Book #1

Jenny Andersen

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Jenny Andersen

San Jose

Copyright 2016 by Jenny Andersen.  All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher at www.jennysfiction.com.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.

Cover design by The Killion Group

Contents


  • Introduction
  • Acknowledgements
  • Western Heroes: Burn
  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3
  • Chapter 4
  • Chapter 5
  • Chapter 6
  • Chapter 7
  • Chapter 8
  • Chapter 9
  • Chapter 10
  • Chapter 11
  • Chapter 12
  • Chapter 13
  • Chapter 14
  • Chapter 15
  • Chapter 16
  • Chapter 17
  • Chapter 18
  • Chapter 19
  • Chapter 20
  • Chapter 21
  • Chapter 22
  • Chapter 23
  • About the Author
  • Other Books by Jenny
  • Author’s Note
  • Excerpt from Western Heroes: Quincey

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[* *]

Western Heroes

are strong, confident men who take charge as they stride through life.  Cowboys, sheriffs, horsemen,

military, miners, cops, bikers…the possibilities are countless.

Two things never change…they’re all hot, and they all need the right woman.

Whether they know it or not.

Come West and follow their stories.

 

Acknowledgements

No one writes a book alone. I have lots of people to thank…

The Monday night ladies, who listened and made helpful suggestions.

Rachel,  Merideth, and Natalie, the greatest beta readers.

The wonderful powerhouse five, Shelley, Bella, Linda , Skully, and Jacqueline,

who keep me energized and on track in a confusing and perilous business.

And always, thanks to David, the world’s most wonderful hero.

Western Heroes: Burn

Western Heroes Book #1

Lead Gulch. CA

Elevation: 4,079 feet

Population: 12…and dropping

Blonde and beautiful mayor Chris Layton secretly supports Lead Gulch’s proud, elderly, destitute citizens by working as a photographer for Hot Hunks calendars. She divides her time between keeping secrets and taking pictures of naked men in the rugged outdoors

J. J. Coburn leaves the LAPD drug squad in search of his uncle’s murderer, to be followed by some welcome solitude. Unfortunately, both are in short supply in Lead Gulch.

When Chris has a photo shoot in Mexico and gets tangled up with a drug cartel, it’s up to Coburn and the geriatric town folks to save her.

 

[_ _]

 

Chapter 1

Chris Layton had never been in old Jake’s bedroom before.  Not that she was exactly in it now.  She gripped the door frame hard enough to leave dents in the splintery wood and stared around the Spartan room, stared at everything except Jake’s body stretched out on the narrow bed.  Until she couldn’t avoid it any longer.

Jake, cold and still but somehow peaceful looking, his hands folded on his chest.  Except for being completely motionless and stiff, he looked like he was sleeping.

She crossed the room with halting, reluctant steps and touched his hand.  Cold.

Not sleeping.

She glanced around the room.  No sign of a struggle, no overturned furniture, nothing out of place.  Just a silent, too-still man stretched out under a faded, gray quilt.

Dead.

Strange things had been happening in Lead Gulch lately, but Jake’s death looked to be natural and peaceful.  Not a bad thing for him, even if it happened too soon.  A very bad thing for those who depended on him, which included everyone in town.

Especially her.

Jake’s death not only meant loss of a good friend.  It also meant more responsibility to weigh down her life.  For most of the others, it might mean death if she couldn’t handle that responsibility.

She had to stop dithering.  For a moment she wished she could shriek and wait for someone to rush in and take care of all the pesky little details that were going to have to be taken care of.  Not going to happen, though.  She was in charge, the mayor, even though Lead Gulch wasn’t really a town.  It was up to her to deal.

So she would.

But she lingered, standing at the side of the bed.  “Goddammit, Jake,” she whispered.  A tear streaked down her face.  “Goddammit.  I’m gonna miss you, old friend.”

She touched his cheek, a last brief connection with the man who had meant so much in her life, and turned away to go tell the other inhabitants of her town that the population had dropped to twelve.  In a town where the average age was in the seventies, the news wasn’t all that unexpected, but it was always a blow.

They would all grieve for the loss of an old friend.  She was the one who had to deal with the loss of the town treasury.

  • * *

Detective J. J. Coburn, LAPD, knew the day was turning to shit when Captain Delacourt ended the morning briefing by saying, “Dismissed.  Coburn, come by my office before you leave.”

Burn picked up his notes and followed the captain down the hall into the Office of Reprimand.  Lucky that didn’t mean anything to him any more.  He was out of here in another week.  Some things were more necessary than jobs, and finding his uncle’s killer was one of them.

Delacourt threw himself into his chair and glared at Burn across his terrifyingly bare desk, his face hard and angry.  “What’s this shit about?” he demanded, waving Burn’s letter of resignation.

Burn assumed the parade rest position, face impassive, hands locked behind his back.  “It’s my resignation, sir.  My request for leave was denied—”  As if the captain needed to hear that.  He’d been the one to do the denying.  “—so I quit.”

Delacourt leaned back in his chair and got that slit-eyed look that boded no good for whoever was standing in front of him.  “Sit down.”

Years of obeying Delacourt’s orders had Burn dropping into a chair.  Anger and grief over Jake’s death had him speaking up.  “I’m not open to argument, sir.  I will be leaving.”

Delacourt steepled his fingers and regarded Burn thoughtfully.  “I checked with the Inyo County sheriff after you requested leave.  He didn’t think there was anything hinky about your uncle’s death.  ‘Natural causes, no suspicious circumstances’ was what he told me.”

Burn waited.

“He also told me you called him with some interesting ideas.”

“They didn’t seem to interest him much.”

“That’s because there’s absolutely no reason, no reason at all, to suspect anyone in Lead Gulch of killing your uncle.”

“Jake was healthy as a horse.  He didn’t die of any heart attack.”

“I’ve cut you a lot of slack recently, Coburn, and not just because you got shot and your partner…”  He cleared his throat.

Burn waited silently.  He knew Todd’s death had hit the captain almost as hard as it had hit him.

“I saw what a mess you had with that girlfriend,” the captain continued.  “And you took a big hit when your dad died.  It hurt the rest of us, too.  Fine man, your dad.  One of the best officers the department ever had.”  He paused.  “Now, this business about your uncle.  You have any other family?”

Burn shifted uncomfortably.  “No, sir.”

“You’ve had a lot of bad news lately.”

No shit, Sherlock.  “Nothing I can’t handle.”

“You are not handling it.”  Delacourt leaned forward.  “This crazy idea of quitting is proof of that.”

“I owe Jake.  If there’s anything off-color about his death, I need to take care of it,” Burn said stubbornly.

The captain switched gears.  “You’ve been trying to tag Modesti for three years now.”

Modesti.  A scum-bucket drug lord with the lowest profile in the world.  Burn knew he’d ordered the hit that had taken out Todd.  “Yes, sir.”

“Man can get discouraged after so long.  That bothering you?”

“Some.”

“Bother you enough that you’re quitting?  I never figured you for a quitter, Coburn.”

The taunt stung.  “I’m no quitter.  I figure I must have made progress or Modesti wouldn’t have put out the hit on…on Todd and me.”

“You had a pretty close call.  Might have scared you some.”

If waking up with his hand on his gun at every noise in the night was scared, yeah.  He had scars to prove how close the call had been.  And Todd had a tombstone.  “Give it up, sir.  Uncle Jake is more important.  Someone else can take Modesti from here.”

“Take a leave of absence.”

Burn shook his head.

“All right, Coburn.  You win.  Turn in your gun and badge and get out of here.  You can call next week sick leave.”

Burn pulled the badge folder out of his pocket, flipped it open and looked at it.  It had been part of his life for close to fifteen years now, years he’d spent trying his best to live up to the department motto.  The words didn’t appear on the badge, but they were engraved on his soul.  To protect and serve.

Yeah.  He’d done a great job.  Serving had gotten him shot by Modesti’s men.  As far as protecting went, his track record was pretty pathetic.  That girl, he couldn’t even remember her name, but he’d never forget the way she’d died, trying to get to him for protection.  His dad, dead, because Burn hadn’t been on duty that night.  No matter what the captain said, Burn knew it was his fault.  And Todd, dead, his blood scarcely dry on the pavement, because Burn had pushed to go after Modesti.  Now Uncle Jake, dead, and only God knew how or why.

He handed the badge to Delacourt, unbuckled his shoulder holster, and set it on the desk.

“When you come to your senses, Coburn, know this: none of it was your fault.”

Back in his office, Burn slumped into his chair and began cleaning out drawers.  Todd’s empty desk stared back, a never-ending reproach.  Despair swept over Burn.  Too many people he should have protected.  Too many people dying on his watch.  Once he settled whether Uncle Jake was murdered—and caught the low-life who did it—he would never be responsible for anyone ever again.  Never.

The captain wanted him to stay.  To keep risking everything to get Modesti and avenge Todd.  Part of him wanted to.  But Uncle Jake deserved avenging too.  So screw Modesti.  Burn was out of here.

Jake’s house out in the California desert was his now.  He’d move out there.  Be a hermit while he figured out how Jake died.  And stay a hermit after that.

No more worrying about others.

No more responsibility.

No more deaths on his watch.

  • * *

The road curved around to the right and up a hill with a good-sized turnout at the top.  Burn let the Jeep coast slower and slower, until he reached the turnout and pulled off the road.  He stopped and got out to stretch.  The cooling engine pinged in the sudden stillness, and he took a deep breath of air sharp with altitude.  He rubbed a hand across his eyes.  He’d been driving half the night, driven out of his emptied house by nightmares, ready to be anywhere else, even the middle of nowhere.

Panamint Valley lay before him, a limitless expanse that reduced him to insignificance, rimmed by mountains that soared into the impossibly pale blue early morning sky and completed the job of reminding him how little a man counted in the grand scheme of things.  He scanned the vast stretch of gray-green, searching for any sign of life, but nothing moved.  The patch of sand dunes at the north end of the valley glowed in the sun, and it all looked just the way Jake had described it.

If he’d been running away, this would sure be the place to do it.  He didn’t run away, ever.  But the nearest town to Jake’s place was Lead Gulch and he had to make everyone in town believe running was his agenda.  Not that he’d say it outright.  He’d insist he was—changing his life.

The tumble-down shacks of Lead Gulch were barely visible in the distance, the morning sun beginning to creep across the town and strike sparks from odd bits of metal and glass.  The crude map Jake had sent him a month ago ended there, with the bald statement:  “Ask Abe at the service station.  He knows where my place is.”

At least ten miles from that microscopic imitation of a town, Burn hoped.  The trail of Uncle Jake’s murder—if it was a murder—had gone so cold it wouldn’t matter if he took a week or two.  Just him, all alone in Jake’s cabin, getting his head in gear before he had to talk to people.  Then he could hang out with Jake’s supposed friends and find out what the hell had happened.  It would be nothing more than another undercover job.  His last cop job.

And maybe Jake had left some clue to what he’d meant when he’d written, “It’s time, Burn.  Come see me.  There’s stuff you need to know.”  Burn’s trip had been cancelled, thanks to the hail of bullets loosed by Modesti’s men, and he’d never gotten the one last visit with his uncle.  Now he had that guilt to carry along with all the others.

“Well, there it is,” he said aloud, his voice rusty and uncertain in his ears.  “Your new home.  I hope to hell you know what you’re doing.”

Damn.  He hadn’t even gotten to Jake’s and he was talking to himself.  Jake had told him once that most everyone who lived out here did.  Not exactly reassuring.

He locked the doors, and grimaced.  Like he really needed to do that out here.  But old habits died hard.

A pile of boulders loomed at the edge of the turnout, and he ambled over to them and started climbing.  Funny, that human urge to always get to the highest place.  Halfway to the top, he started to put his foot on the next rock and realized it was already occupied—by a lethargic but all-too-real rattlesnake.  He went down a lot faster than he’d climbed up.  Forget the highest place thing.  Inside his vehicle sounded pretty good right now.  “You had it right, Indy…‘Why does it always have to be snakes?’” he muttered, detouring around an adventurous creosote bush that had taken root in the gravel and might be hiding who-knew-what.  He’d better get his new boots broken in right quick, because he wasn’t going outside without them again.

He cast one last look toward the town and saw a puff of dust.  Someone was up and going somewhere.  Not that he cared about the town or its people.  His goal was to find out whether or not they’d killed his uncle.

He checked underneath the truck for anything without feet—Jake had impressed on him that snakes liked the shade—and got back in the driver’s seat.  Maybe the road would get rough enough that he could try out his new four-wheel-drive.

Chapter 2

Chris leaned against the side of her old red truck and used one arm to wipe away the drop of sweat trickling from temple to chin.  The day was shaping up to be another one of the over-hundred-degree infernos that made summers in Lead Gulch such fun.  “Getting hot,” she said, using her hands to frame a picture of heat devils dancing in the distance.  Too bad she couldn’t capture that with a camera.

“Just a tad.”  Her grandfather set her suitcase in the bed of the truck beside the cases of photographic gear.  “Reckon you think you’re pretty smart, gettin’ out of town for the summer.”  He spat a stream of tobacco-colored saliva at a roadside weed.

Chris grinned.  “Sure do.  Not gonna miss this place either,” she lied.

“Ain’t right, the mayor leavin’ town for months on end.”

She leaned over and patted her grandfather’s stubbly cheek.  “Four days, Gramps.  You always exaggerate.  If the mayor’s job paid anything, I’d stay here and bake just like everyone else.  But you know how much we need the money.”

He spat tobacco juice at an unlucky sagebrush on the edge of the road.  “Ain’t right, girl like you havin’ to take on all this responsibility.”

“I don’t mind.  Anyway, you’ll hardly know I’m gone.  Think of all the fun you’ll have being in charge.”

“Whoopee.”  He shot another stream of tobacco juice at the bush.  “I ain’t listenin’ to everyone complain the way you do.”

Chris swallowed a smile.  “Right.”

“Better get goin’, if you’re so all-fired set on deserting us when we need you.  We got to get that next load ready afore you get back.”

“Grumpy,” Chris said affectionately.  “Let it wait.  Please.  I’ll help.”  Just the thought of her geriatric crew with their aged backs loading the truck gave her the willies.  “If you wait, we can load directly into my truck.  Save a whole bunch of lifting.  Okay?”

Gramps’s expression softened.  “Okay.  You’re a good girl, Chris.  You get those pictures and come home safe.”

“I will.”  She grinned at him again, ready to say anything to wipe the worried frown from his face.  “Got to.  Unlike everyone else in town, I’m not getting Social Security.”

He grimaced.  “Don’t we wish everyone really did.  Anyway, you ain’t missin’ much.”

“True.  But every little bit helps.  You got enough to last you ‘til I get back?”

“Acourse I do.  Don’t I always?”

“I’ll be back before you know it.”

He nodded, and she vaulted into the truck and started the engine, cocking her head to listen to the deep, smooth rumble.  Abe had done it again.  He might work out of a no gas, no pump service station in a nowhere town, and might not be up on Detroit’s latest computer-controlled offerings, but there wasn’t anything with an old engine that he couldn’t keep running.

Gramps stepped back and lifted one hand to shade his eyes.

Chris knew as well as she knew her own name that he’d stand in the burning sun in the middle of the road and watch until she was nothing but a puff of dust in the distance.  “You take care of things for me, you hear?  I don’t want to come back and find out someone’s embezzled the town treasury, or put up some tacky housing development.”

He snickered.  “That’s a big worry, all right.  Got to watch out for them developers.  ‘Specially when you’ve got prime property like this.”  He waved his hand at the miles of sagebrush-covered desert that surrounded them.  “Be on my guard ever’ minute, Y’r Honor.  We’ll circle the wagons and fight to the death.”

“Right.  I’m counting on you.”  Chris put the truck in gear and rolled down the hill out of town.  She had to blink against the sting in her eyes.  They didn’t call Gramps Old Harley for nothing.  He was pushing hard on eighty, and every time she left town, she wondered if he’d be there when she got back.  Population growth wasn’t the problem in Lead Gulch, where the average age was about seventy five.  Lead Gulch.  Elevation 4079 feet, population twelve.  And falling.

A fresh pang of grief made her heart clutch at the thought of Jake, the most recent subtraction from the town population.  He had been her friend, her mentor, her partner.  Gramps’s best friend.  Gramps had aged ten years since Jake’s death.  So had she.

Jake had been absolutely necessary for the survival of the town.  Without him, most of the remaining residents faced starvation and lack of medical care, unless Chris could take up the slack.  Responsibility for staving off disaster rested entirely on her shoulders now.

She stuck her arm out the window and waved one last time just before the road dipped into a wash.  For the next four days, she had to quit worrying about her town.  She had other things to think about, like trying to get the Hot Hunks shoot done so she’d get paid.  A piece of cake, despite driving time, temperamental models, unpredictable weather, temperamental models with awkward sunburns, Montezuma’s Revenge, and temperamental models with awkward boyfriends.  She sighed.

The old truck knew the road just like a faithful horse, and Chris drove on autopilot, her mind busy with the shots she wanted to have in the can before she returned.  Lots of time to plan.  About an hour to the highway, another three or four to I5, then straight to Mexico.  That should put her at the shoot location in time to go over plans for tomorrow, and they’d be ready to work as soon as the light was good enough in the morning.

Thank goodness she had slowed for the fish-hook curve right before the highway, because a brand new Jeep barreled toward her in the middle of the road.  A hard yank on the wheel had her truck bouncing off into the rough.  Sagebrush squashed under the tires and scraped against the doors.  The boulders that had washed down from the mountains made for a few interesting moments, but she managed to muscle the vehicle back onto the road.

Damned tourists.  She got out to check for damage.  And to see what had happened to the jackass who had been driving too fast.  He’d gone off into the brush too, but had managed to get his brand-new looking Jeep back onto the road where it sat awkwardly across the ruts.  She swallowed a grin.  That fancy city SUV didn’t look quite so pristine after its trip through the sage.  The driver climbed out, scowling, and walked around it, his scowl deepening with every scratch.

Her hunk-o-meter went to full red alert.  Holy cow.  He could be her Mr. July any time.  Any time at all.  She watched him move, the long, loose stride not something she could catch on film but something she could sure as hell enjoy.  She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.  Just her luck to be on the way out of town.

He completed his inspection and turned his attention to her.  His silver grey gaze hit her like a laser and she couldn’t breathe for a minute.  His scowl didn’t change.  He reached her side in four long strides.  “Are you hurt?”

The voice went with the rest of the package.  Deep, warm, just rough enough to make her tingle, with underlying smooth steel.  “I’m fine,” she gasped.  Oh please.  What was she going to do for an encore?  Swoon?

“You’ve got a flat tire.”  He made it sound like a hanging offense.

“No problem—”

Instead of letting her finish, he turned his back and grabbed one of the spares—she always had extras for trips into Mexico—before she could protest.  Well, if he wanted to change her tire, who was she to argue?  Even though she could probably do it faster, and maybe better.

Or could she?  He had the job done in record time, and tossed the flat along with the tools into the back of the truck.  “You’d better stop in the first town and get that fixed,” he said.  Not a suggestion.  An order.  Definitely an order, and his voice said he expected to be obeyed.

“Thank you,” she said sweetly.  “I guess everything’s fine now.”  A trace of southern drawl had crept into her voice.

That frosty gaze swept over her.  “No thanks to you.”

Well, excuse her[_.  _]“You were driving too fast.  Just where do you think you are?  This isn’t some LA freeway, you know.”  She caught herself.  He was only a passing tourist and she’d never see him again, but it wouldn’t hurt to be a little more polite.

“Never been to the big city, have you, Blondie?  LA freeways are usually stop and go.”

Well, yes, she knew that.  It was one reason she liked living out here.  “Whatever.  It’s a good idea to slow down a bit on these roads,” she said mildly.  “There are some places where there’s no room to avoid a crash.  This is bad country for an accident.”

His glare was molten, grey eyes that should have been cool but instead were licking flames in her blood.  “Driving off into the brush doesn’t seem like a big problem, lady.  Telling me how to drive might be.”

She swallowed a sigh.  How could she have expected a pretty city boy in a new vehicle to be anything except a jerk?  “There are places where the road’s right up against the hills,” she explained, keeping her tone pleasant.  “No place to swerve.  And others where there’s nothing but a drop-off.  You can do considerable damage going off a five foot drop.”

“I can manage my own driving, lady.”  He started to get back in the Jeep, but paused.  “You sure you’re all right?”

“No problems,” she assured him.  “And if anything’s broken on that fancy vehicle, Abe at the service station in town can fix most anything.  Lead Gulch is about an hour ahead of you.”  She couldn’t keep her lip from curling.  “At a reasonable speed.”  It came out sounding more like an order than she’d intended.

“Yeah, I can tell there’s nothing wrong with you.  At least not with your mouth.”  He got in the Jeep and slammed the door.

“Drive carefully,” Chris called.

The look he gave her should have dropped her in her tracks, but she’d been glared at by experts.  Now to get past the gorgeous factor.  If there was one thing she was an expert on, it was gorgeous men, and this one—whew!  Talk about high voltage.  Good thing he hadn’t smiled.  Her knees would flat-out have collapsed.  She marched back to her truck and left before she could do something really, really stupid, like drool.

Even though he was a jerk, she wouldn’t mind if this one got stranded in Lead Gulch for a while.  She snorted.  Who was she kidding?  Not a chance.  He was a tourist.  She didn’t do tourists.  She didn’t do [_anything, _]especially with everyone in town looking over her shoulder.  Lead Gulch’s good girl, that was her.  But even a good girl could dream a little.

A damned tourist.  Damned fool tourist.  Think like a mayor.  Maybe something on his fancy new jeep would break and Abe would have a windfall.  Mr. Tourist probably wouldn’t spend much time in Lead Gulch otherwise.  He could just leave some much-needed money in town and be on his way.

Suited her just fine.

Too bad about missing the Mr. July part, though.

  • * *

Burn slammed his fist against the steering wheel.  God damn it.  Couldn’t he go anywhere without meeting someone who needed him to take care of her?  Blondie looked like she barely knew what a tire was, much less how to change one.  And what were the chances she’d remember to get the flat fixed?

He resisted the urge to turn around and follow her into town.  Not his problem.  Not his problem.

No matter how cute she was.  Just about as big as a minute.  Slender and packaged to look like a real outdoor girl in jeans and blue chambray shirt, short blonde hair and big blue eyes.  All around, a nice little bundle for a guy interested in some company.

But he was not in the market.  Definitely not in the market.  The whole point of coming out here was to get away from needy people.  Look at the way she’d stood by helplessly while he changed that tire.

He jounced against the seat belt as he bumped the Jeep through a serious set of ruts.  Bossy too, telling him how to drive.  But damned fetching.  He smiled at the way Jake’s favorite word for a pretty woman slipped into his mind so easily.

And, damn it, she’d been right.  He had been driving too fast.  Lucky she and that old truck were okay.  He didn’t need any more guilt.  That was one thing he’d brought plenty of.

The Jeep lurched.  An ugly flopping noise told him hers wasn’t the only tire that had taken a hit on that little jaunt through the brush.  Well, just hell.  He stopped and got out to inspect the damage, knowing he was going to be changing another tire.

Fifteen minutes later, he squeezed the flat into the back of the Jeep along with his worldly goods, hoping like hell that the mythical Abe at the station in town could at least fix a tire.  He wanted to get all the way to Jake’s place today, and this was no country to be without a spare.

Sure hadn’t taken long for the first problem to surface.  Maybe buying the fancy Jeep had been a mistake.  Maybe he should have gone for the Hummer, but the gas mileage…  Nope.  Any vehicle could get a flat.  He’d made a good choice.

About a million bumpy, dusty miles farther into the middle of nowhere, he sighted the tumble-down collection of ancient buildings that made up Lead Gulch.  The dusty, rutted excuse for a road branched, left to continue along the front of the mountains, the right hand fork heading up hill to what must be the town.  A sign said Lead Gulch, CA.  Pop 17.  But someone had crossed out the seventeen with a single white painted line and changed it to sixteen.  The sixteen had similarly been crossed out, and the fifteen that came after it.  The latest figure was twelve, and a lump formed in Burn’s throat when he realized the last cross-out was probably his uncle.

The road widened on the barren flat occupied by about a dozen shacks in various stages of falling down.  Or melting down, in the case of the adobe buildings.  He couldn’t see much organization, just old buildings haphazardly strewn across the space.  The gas station occupied one of the bigger, better buildings.  He pulled up to a single pump with a faded sign taped across it.  Out of Order.  He sat there for a few minutes, but no one came out.  It was damned hot and the ramshackle wooden station building had a wide, shady porch and a ragged screen door, so he climbed out and went up the steps and through the door.  After being out in the blazing sun, the room seemed dark.  He stood for a moment, giving his eyes a chance to adjust.

“Come on in, young feller,” said an ancient voice.

Burn blinked and made out the old man sitting behind a counter that ran along two sides of the room.  A counter loaded with rocks—huge, glittering crystals that made his eyes pop.

“Reckon you figured out you’re not goin’ to get any gas here.  Ain’t had any gas in Lead Gulch since, oh, about 1922.  Hope you ain’t runnin’ on empty.”

The guy was a Hollywood-perfect desert rat, right off the screen of an old western.  He looked as though he wouldn’t have the strength to lift a dollar bill, much less the tire that needed fixing.

“No,” Burn said.  “I need—”

Footsteps sounded on the wooden porch, and Burn wheeled to see who it was.  Another old man, almost a twin to the one behind the counter, came in and let the door bang behind him.  “Saw you had a customer, Abe.  Figured I’d get in on the excitement.”

Burn looked at the two scrawny characters.  Hell.  He was going to have to fix his tire himself.  These two didn’t look like they could button their own shirts.

“Doing a little rock hounding?” the first man, Abe, asked.

“Just passing through.  Got a flat tire when some woman ran me off the road.  Anyone around here that can fix it?”

The two looked at each other long enough to make Burn wonder what he’d said that was so significant.  The newcomer shrugged, and they turned back to Burn.  “Reckon you need me,” Abe said.  “Reckon you want it done yesterday.”  He sounded resigned and heaved himself to his feet without waiting for an answer.  “They always do,” he muttered.

“Wouldn’t hurt,” Burn said.  “I’d like to be getting home.”  The word sounded strange on his tongue and he repeated it silently.  Home.  Maybe.  Maybe Jake’s place would be home.  God knew he didn’t have one anywhere else.

“Home?”  That was the second grizzled old guy.  “You live out here?  Ain’t never seen you around.”

“Haven’t been around.”  Burn took a step back.  Here came the nosy questions, the reaching out, the contact he’d been intent on avoiding.  Thank God Jake’s place was out in the middle of nowhere.  Still, he’d have to talk to these people eventually, so he couldn’t alienate them from the get go.

“You wouldn’t be Jake’s nephew, would you?”

Shit.  Burn had figured—hoped—Jake had been as close mouthed about him as he’d been about his actual property.  Dread gathered in his stomach and he said, “Yeah.  I am.”

Abe returned to his chair and stared at Burn with bright-eyed fascination.

“Glad to meet you, Burn.  I’m Harley.  They call me Old Harley.  Young Harley—no relation—is a kid.  Can’t be more than sixty.  Glad to meet you.  We’ve been wonderin’ when you’d get here.  Been lookin’ out for the place, waterin’ Jake’s flowers and all.”

Jake grew flowers?  Apparently there was a lot he didn’t know about his Uncle Jake.

“You lucked out, boy,” Abe said.  “Harley’s the acting mayor of Lead Gulch.  Reckon you’re getting an official welcome.  Unless his ugly puss scares you plumb out of town.”  He rocked back and forth in his chair, cackling at his feeble joke.

The mayor shook Burn’s hand with a surprisingly strong grip.  “Glad to have you here, boy.  Been wondering what would happen to Jake’s place.”  He eyed Burn.  “Kind of unusual, a young feller like you wantin’ to live in a place like this.”

Burn sighed.  Thank God Jake’s place was out somewhere in the desert away from town.  Nice of these old guys to make the trip to look after it.  He’d never lived in a small town, but everything he’d ever heard said they lived in each other’s armpits.  Looked after things.  And pried until they had a story that satisfied them.  “Had enough of big cities.  Lookin’ for some peace and quiet.”  And privacy, which he for damned sure wouldn’t get in this town.  Get him out of here.

“We got peace and quiet, for sure,” Abe cackled.  “In fact, those are about the only things Lead Gulch’s got.”

That wasn’t enough information for the mayor, and he wasn’t subtle about it.  “What city and what’d you do there?” he asked.

“LAPD,” Burn said.  He waited for the usual guilty looks that people got when they found out he was a cop.  Instead, he got laughter.

“LAPD.”  Abe snickered.  “Goin’ t’be bored to death here, you are.”

“Big city cop,” Harley wheezed.  “What do you think you’re going to do here?”

“Nothing.  If there’s anything illegal going on in town, I don’t want to know about it.  I’m not a cop anymore and I’m not looking for trouble.”  Until he found out who had killed his uncle, that is.

“Waal, if you’re goin’ to live here,” Harley said, “you might want to know that Abe here can fix most anything on wheels.  I run the post office and general store.  Go into town—that’s Ridgecrest—once a week.  There’s a list on the door for stuff you want me to pick up.  Thelma and Helen, they’ve got the rock shop next door, and they bake bread for folks here in town.”

“It sounds very—communal,” Burn said.

“Yep.  We help each other around here.  Speakin’ of which, we oughtta tell you about some stuff that’s been happenin’—”

“Well, ah, that’s nice.  That you look out for each other.”  Burn swallowed his sigh this time.  “But I’ll be out at Jake’s.  Now, about that flat…”

That resulted in another one of those significant looks between the two old guys.  God, let him out of here.

“Leave it on the porch, Abe said.  “I’ll get around to it.”

“I thought I’d wait.  Don’t like driving around out here without it.”

“I think you’ll be safe enough between here and Jake’s,” Harley said, his voice dry and full of sarcasm.

“But—”

“Jake’s place—your place—is just up the road on t’other end of town.  You’ll be okay without a spare ‘til I get it fixed.”

Burn’s stomach lurched.  The other end of town couldn’t be more than a few hundred feet.  “But—I thought Jake’s place was out in the middle of the desert.”

Old Harley laughed.  At least, Burn thought the rusty creaking was a laugh.  “Look out the door, boy.  What do you think this is?”

No.  Oh please God, no.  “Tell me Jake’s place isn’t right in the middle of town.”

“Nope.  Almost the last house out that way, not in the middle.  Go past the field with the white horse and turn left.  Second house up the hill.  It’s on th’ left.”

Harley might as well have clocked him with one of the odd hunks of mining equipment that littered the room.  Burn rubbed a hand across his face.  “But Jake said—I thought—I can’t—”  He stopped himself before he could finish the sentence.  Live in town, he had been going to say.  He’d really been looking forward to some time to decompress before he started questioning potential murderers.  Also, if he was really going to be stuck with these two old sidekicks as neighbors, he might want to be more tactful.  Not more accommodating, just more tactful.  “Thanks.  I guess I’ll go get moved in.”

As he went down the steps from the porch, he heard the rusty cackling of elderly laughter.  “Reckon he’ll last out the month, Abe?” Harley wheezed.

“Don’t reckon he will, Harley,” Abe answered.  “Don’t know that we want him to—seems like he’s not wantin’ to be much help.”

“Nope.  He’s not like Jake.  Not one bit like Jake.”

Chapter 3

The white horse hung its head over the fence and watched the Jeep drive past. Burn snorted at the horse, which didn’t look much like the glossy steeds his friend Mac bred, and turned left as instructed. The first house was on the right, so he passed that and pulled to a stop in front of the second—and last—house. Shack, actually.

If it had ever been painted, it had happened so long ago there wasn’t a trace of color left. At least the windows had glass, intact glass, but no curtains or blinds. And it looked damned small. Jake’s luxurious Beverly Hills house flashed in his mind. No wonder Jake hadn’t insisted he come here for a visit. Asked, yes. Insisted, no. So he’d never seen Jake’s new home before this moment.

After the shock wore off, he climbed out of the Jeep. He’d made it up the steps and across the weathered porch before he realized he didn’t have the key. Must be in the envelope of papers from the lawyer. But since he stood at the door, he rattled the knob.

The door opened.

Shit. And those old guys said they’d been taking care of the place. Some care. He scowled and stalked inside, directly into a small, shabby living room. A short couch was positioned so whoever sat on it had a view out the window. It shared a battered coffee table and end table with a worn chair that bore the imprint of lots of use. An amazingly ugly vase or something stood on the table, and a wood stove hunched in one corner. A couple of bookcases lined one wall, and that was it.

A minimalist life, he guessed.

Steeling himself, he crossed to what must be—must have been—Jake’s bedroom. The bed had been tidied, thank goodness. A small trunk beside the bed held another of the old-fashioned vases, and—whoa, those ‘vases’ were oil lamps. Did that mean Lead Gulch had no electricity? He tabled that for future consideration and went back to looking around.

A chest of drawers and small armoire filled the wall across from the bed. No carpet. No curtains at the two windows, but a small desk under one window looked out over the porch. No decorations or little kitschy clutter, except for a couple of chunks of rock on top of the dresser and a painting that Burn recognized from the Beverly Hills house. His aunt, Jake’s wife. As long as Burn had known Jake, there’d never been any hint that Jake had gotten over losing her. That kind of pain…that kind of love… He swallowed a wave of grief and backed out of the room.

Amazingly, the next room was a tiny bathroom that had an old, claw-footed tub with a shower curtain around it. That implied running water, at least. Thank goodness. After one look at the dozen or so shacks that made up Lead Gulch, he’d figured indoor plumbing would be a few hundred years in the future. He didn’t think Jake suffered excessive modesty, so the curtain probably meant there was a shower. All right. That had to be the best news he’d had today.

A smaller bedroom—or large closet, he couldn’t be sure as it contained only a stack of cardboard boxes—came next. The remaining room, the kitchen, was as big as the others put together. Gas stove. He looked out the window and saw a big propane tank. Good. That meant propane heaters, which, from the few comments Jake had dropped, would be essential come winter. Gas refrigerator. And open, rough wood shelves holding dishes and cooking…things. His cooking skills could probably keep him alive. After all, they had in LA. Between take-out orders.

A back door led out of the kitchen, down a couple of steps, to a yard that looked exactly like the zillion miles of sage brush-covered desert he’d crossed. A small garden-shed kind of building stood over to one side. He’d have to see what was in it. Eventually. A pile of wood almost as big as the shed sat beside it, making him revise his hope of propane heating.

On the other side of the shed was what could only be an outhouse. Right down to the sliver-of-moon cut-out in the door. Why would there be…and it hit him. The bathroom had contained nothing but the tub. He stared at the outhouse. “Jake, I do not believe this,” he said, but of course Jake didn’t answer.

Burn sighed and backtracked to the front of the house to unload the car, stacking boxes in the living room and suitcases in the bedroom. Small as it was, the house held his entire worldly goods plus those of his uncle without undue strain.

Once the car was empty, he figured step one would be to find the key. He tossed the envelope from the attorney on the kitchen counter and went through the contents. Nothing but papers and a copy of Jake’s will, which, as he already knew, left everything to him.

No key. Hell. He wanted his stuff locked up. Maybe these old duffers didn’t have anything worth stealing, maybe they didn’t care. He wanted doors that locked.

And he wanted a beer. Walking back down to Harley’s store for a six pack sounded like a great idea. He locked a suitcase with his camera, laptop, and the few important papers he’d brought with him in the car and started down the road, past the white horse. It came to the fence and whinnied at him. He ignored it.

Just past the horse field, an old man came out of one of the shacks. “Hey, Burn,” he called, and began picking his way down the rough, dirt path from his door to the road.

Burn stopped and squinted at him. Hadn’t he just met—no, this one only looked like the two at first glance. Like Abe and Old Harley. This had to be someone new. Hell. Was everyone in town eighty years old? Why couldn’t he get someone like Blondie? She might be bossy, but at least she was easy on the eyes.

Eventually the old guy chugged over to him. “I’m Gabby. Harley and Abe told me you was here. Right glad to meet ya, boy. Jake talked a powerful lot of good things about you.”

Jake had talked about him? Burn didn’t like the sound of that. He forced himself not to frown and took the hand Gabby thrust at him. “Nice to meet you, too.”

“You walkin’ down t’ Abe’s? I’ll come with you.”

Burn sighed and resigned himself to creeping along at the speed of a pre-global warming glacier. To his surprise, the old guy stepped right out at a brisk pace on the flat.

“Cain’t figger out how to work the fancy new coffee pot Harley brought me last week,” Gabby said. “Reckon he better come show me how it works.”

New coffee pot? They had electricity? “I didn’t know you had electricity in town,” he said.

Gabby wheezed. Burn thought it was his version of a laugh. “Waal, that durn coffee pot goes on my stove, but you city slickers never think we got anything out here. We got a ‘lectric system. Don’t hardly turn it on, though. Maybe ever’ week or three, if Thelma wants ta watch somethin’ on her new TV set.”

Looked like he’d be making the drive into town, the real town, if he wanted to recharge his laptop, or get email. He might as well throw out the electric razor. Hell, maybe he’d just grow a beard like Abe and Harley—Old Harley, that is—and Gabby.

And what about a phone? He pulled out his, and just as he’d feared…no signal. He sighed. How expensive could a satellite phone be?

Gabby eyed the phone. “Pretty fancy. Don’t reckon it’s gonna work out here, though. Chris has one, but it only works in Ridgecrest.”

Great. Whoever Chris was. Burn shoved the phone back in his pocket and didn’t answer.

A door slammed and he looked up to see another old desert rat clone heading for the road. Damn. Looked like maybe every one of the twelve on the population sign would be another almost-identical—no, that couldn’t be right. Surely Thelma and—who was it?—Helen, surely those two wouldn’t have beards.

“Howdy, Burn,” the old guy said. “I’m Milo. Glad you finally got here.”

“Yeah. So am I,” Burn said in a flat voice.

“Now, Milo. Be nice. We don’t know why Burn wasn’t here earlier.”

No, and he didn’t really want to talk about it. Burn knew he had on his cop face…expressionless, giving nothing away, just waiting for something to pounce on. And that wasn’t going to get him anywhere with these old timers. If he wanted to find out what had happened to Jake, he’d better start playing nice. “Got here as soon as I could,” he said.

Gabby played peacemaker. “Cain’t figger out that new coffee pot Old Harley brought. How you doin’ with yours?” he said to Milo.

“Ain’t tried it yet. Nothin’ wrong with my old one.”

“Nothin’ exceptin it’s got a hole in it,” Gabby said with his wheezing laugh.

Burn had met some pretty unlikely criminals in his day, but it was hard to imagine these guys murdering his uncle. Jake had been in his sixties, hale and hearty. He’d have made mince meat out of the four old timers Burn had seen so far.

Gabby and Milo argued about the first things they should show Burn on a tour of the town and environs, a tour no one had asked him about. He had to admit it sounded like a good idea, even though he couldn’t imagine what there was to see. Keep an open mind. Treat it like a crime scene.

He watched his footing on the rutted road, and noticed the tracks. “Someone in town rides a bike?”

“Motorcycle, you mean?” Gabby said. “Yep. That would be Bull’s boys. They spend ever’ summer here with their dad.”

Great. The one thing the town had been missing…a motorcycle gang. “The dad doesn’t ride?”

“Naw. He’s in a wheel chair,” Milo said.

That explained the narrow, close-together tracks near the edge of the road. “Bike accident?”

Gabby shook his head but didn’t elaborate.

Secret? Probably not important, but Burn made a mental note to follow up on that. He’d meet Bull and his boys sometime soon, he was sure.

As he followed the two old guys up the two steps to Harley’s store—right next to Abe’s so-called gas station—he reflected on a few things that seemed out of kilter in his new home. Mainly money. For a near-ghost town hours from civilization, he’d seen signs of money. New coffee pots. Thelma had a TV. Some of the shacks had propane tanks and glass windows. And apparently the town had an electrical system.

Where had it come from, and what the hell was going on in Jake’s town?

He walked into Harley’s store and faced what looked like every one of the inhabitants of Lead Gulch. He counted. Nope. Only nine, but they pretty much filled the room. He plastered a friendly smile on his face and wondered if he was looking at his uncle’s murderer.

If he expected to find out anything from them, he’d have to keep what he didn’t want—which would be people ragging at him to do this or that, worrying about them, and responsibility for their safety—under cover.

And since Jake’s house turned out to be in a town, he’d have to think some about where he’d go after he found out who had murdered his last living relative.

Old Harley took charge. Because he was the mayor, Burn figured. “Burn. Come on in,” he said. “Good timing. Have a beer.”

Someone handed Burn a cold bottle.

“Listen up, everyone,” Harley said. “This here’s Jake’s nephew. Burn, you haven’t met these other folks. Helen—” A skinny woman who looked to be about two hundred years old. “Thelma—” Another woman, almost identical except for a lot of mascara. “Frosty—” Frosty had the watery-eyed, slightly vacant look and trembling stance of a ninety-something man. “Greed.” A fit, seventy plus. “And this here’s Young Harley.” Young Harley was, as Old Harley had said, in his sixties. He also appeared to have Down’s Syndrome, at least to some extent. He crossed the room and started shaking Burn’s hand vigorously. “Hi, Burn. It’s good to meet you, Burn. Jake told me lots of stories about you, Burn.”

Burn finally disengaged his hand. “Glad to meet you, too, Young Harley.” That was the truth. This Harley could turn out to be the most uncensored reporter in town. “Guess we’ll be seeing each other around town a lot now that I’m living here.”

Young Harley frowned. “Except I spend a lot of time out doing my collecting. That’s an important job. I can’t miss any time at my job.”

Burn nodded approval. “I wouldn’t ask you to. It’s important to put in the time when you have a job. What to do do?”

“I collect cans. People throw cans and stuff out of cars, and I pick up the trash and when I get a lot of cans, Chris or someone takes them to town and we get money for them. Jake made it so we get money. I’m gonna miss Jake.” Tears stood in his faded eyes. “But that’s a good job, isn’t it, Burn?”

“That’s a great job. Maybe I could go with you one day and help you.”

Young Harley’s face lit. “Great! And sometimes I help—”

Milo chose that moment to interrupt. “So you’re a cop? What’re you doin’ out here?”

“I quit,” Burn said briefly.

“Jake said you were a homicide detective,” Old Harley said. “You thinking to arrest one of us?”

With a lead in like that, how could Burn resist? He thought briefly about mentioning his years working drugs, but decided to let them all think about his homicide experience. Nervous murderers were easier to catch, so he smiled his best reassuring smile. “Only if you’ve committed any murders lately.”

Everyone laughed.

“We ain’t never had a murder in Lead Gulch,” Gabby said. “Out in the mountains, where the mines are, yeah, there was some rough stuff, but that was fifty, sixty years back, or more. Shoot, Burn, if you’re thinkin’ someone murdered your uncle, you’re wrong. Who’d a wanted t’ kill a nice guy like Jake?”

“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?”

  • * *

The next morning, Burn woke at some ungodly, not-even-light hour after a night spent tossing and turning. Strange bed. No familiar, comfortable city noises. At one point he thought he’d heard a chopper, but when he came fully awake, there was nothing. How the hell could anyone be expected to sleep with all the damned quiet out here?

He swung his legs over the side of the bed, sat up, and yelled when something ran across his foot. “Jake, what were you thinking? Why would anyone live in a goddamn place like this?” he muttered.

Whatever it was didn’t seem to have bitten him, but he grabbed the flashlight from his nightstand and played it around under the bed to see who his roommate was. Oh, hell. Just plain hell. A large scorpion stared back at him, stinger raised. Conscious of his bare-footed condition, he dealt with it, found some shoes, shook them very carefully before putting them on, and headed for the kitchen and coffee.

Maybe he would have been better off taking his chances with Modesti.

Once he figured out how the old propane stove worked and the coffee had perked, he poured a cup and took it out on the front porch for some thinking time. He’d talked to almost everyone in town. Stern was a loner. “We don’t hardly never see him,” Milo said. Chris was out of town, and Bull was off on some trip with his motorcycle-riding sons, a trip that had been mysteriously extended, and didn’t that trip his cop instincts. Why would the guy leave town as soon as a cop—an ex-cop—arrived if he didn’t have anything to hide? No one knew he was coming, but apparently they all expected him. Old Harley’s explanation, “They been plannin’ this trip t’ the Grand Canyon since last year,” didn’t convince Burn.

The first rays of sun were just touching Gabby’s house across Main Street, and the town looked like the setting for a western movie. Burn sat in Jake’s old rocker and propped his feet on the porch railing, surveying the scene. John Wayne or Clint Eastwood could ride into town any minute and not look out of place.

Instead of The Man With No Name, he got the quiet crunch of tires from Gabby’s place as his truck maneuvered almost silently downhill to Main Street.

Interesting.

He sat up and watched the truck pull up in front of Milo’s. The old guy shot out the door as though he’d been waiting, and climbed in. They rolled on down the street, only to stop at another house about halfway through town. Someone, he couldn’t see who from this distance, hopped in the back, and Gabby drove on through town, getting all the way past Thelma and Helen’s before he popped the clutch and started the engine.

Very interesting.

He’d just about decided that they were being thoughtful and trying not to wake anyone when Abe’s truck followed, and then Thelma and Helen in their flower-bedecked Chevy.

Well now. What was that all about? Sure didn’t look like one of the regular trips to town Harley had told him about.

So where were they going? Did they do this every day? And, most important, what were they doing?

Maybe he’d just find out.

  • * *

Burn swept a shielded flashlight beam over the floor to check for wildlife when he woke the next morning, cursing the cop instincts that had him up this early. He wasn’t a cop any more so this was the pits.

At least he was alone. Abe had suggested that Burn try some ancient ‘remedies’ to keep scorpions out of his house—garlic and horehound—but he’d tried the more modern suggestion of diesel fuel. He knew that sealing the house was the only reliable way to keep them out, but what were the chances? Anyway, either diesel worked, or they were hibernating or something. Who knew? He guessed he’d rather have a house that smelled like a refinery than wake up with poisonous things in his shoes.

Sunrise wasn’t for another couple of hours yet. He tiptoed out to the Jeep in stocking feet. He’d left it pointing down the hill, just the way everyone else did, and figured he could roll right on out of town without waking anyone.

Seemed to work. He got all the way through town, down the hill, around the curve, and into the wash without a sign of a single person. When he figured he was far enough out, he started the Jeep and drove, slowly and without lights, about three miles from town, then up a little side road. When he was sure the Jeep was out of sight from the road, he got out and hiked to the top of the nearest hill.

The first thing he noticed was that it was damned cold. He hiked back down and got the blanket out of the Jeep. Of course, when he got back to the top of the hill, he wasn’t cold anymore. He sat on a rock and waited.

He should have brought a thermos of coffee.

Sunrise came and went, but no little old miners bent on whatever nefarious purpose.

At eight o’clock his stomach told him it was time to eat, or else. He hiked back down to the Jeep and drove into town. Milo and three clones watched expressionlessly as he drove by. Thelma and Helen waved. Abe and Old Harley were talking in the street in front of their businesses. “Hey, Burn,” Abe said. “You’re sure out early this morning.”

“Yeah,” Burn growled.

Gabby stepped out onto his porch and grinned at him. Young Harley jumped up and down. “Hi, Burn. Hi, Burn. Hi, Burn,” he yelled.

Burn turned up the road to his house, parked the Jeep, and stamped into the kitchen to start another pot of coffee. Might as well face it—every single one of them had known what he was doing. Not only that, they were laughing at him.

They had a right. Apparently he’d just been outsmarted by a bunch of stupid old desert rats. Maybe they hadn’t killed Jake, but they were up to something. Whatever it was, he wanted to know. They were hiding something, and he hadn’t gotten his track record for solving cases by ignoring that sixth sense that told him when someone was lying.

  • * *

Unwilling to face the problem of liars, Burn slept in until the sun had crept over the mountains. Once he had coffee, he headed for the porch. Not a bad habit, it seemed to him. Jake had mentioned that his porch was a fine place to begin the day…and to end it.

But he wasn’t Jake. “I will not get involved in this town.” Burn said it out loud for emphasis even though no one was there to hear him. It figured that not only would he end up living in the middle of a town but that his new neighbors would be sneaky old busy-bodies. “I will NOT get involved.” His new mantra.

He sat in Jake’s rocker, but couldn’t work up a good lazy. Temper still simmered when he thought about the sly smiles Gabby and Milo had exchanged when they thought he wasn’t watching. He got up and slammed the door, not that the sagging screen could work up a good slam.

Forget clodding around out in the mountains trying to follow the old guys. Today would be a good time to set up his exercise equipment in the tiny second bedroom/large closet. He’d managed to cram a set of weights and a bench into the Jeep and, since it looked like he’d be here for a while, he was going to make the best mini-gym that Lead Gulch had ever seen. He snorted. What were the chances Lead Gulch even knew what a gym was?

Jake had been a pack rat. Probably nothing else to do out here, Burn figured while he dragged the last of Jake’s boxes into the main room. He’d have to go through them, but they could sit there until he got around to them. It wasn’t like he was planning to entertain, so he didn’t need the room. He had a bedroom and a kitchen and soon he’d have a weight room, and that was plenty. But damn, some of the boxes felt like they were full of rocks. As if there weren’t enough of them right outside the window.

After sweeping the room he headed for the car to get the weight bench, which he’d never bothered to unload. Some real exercise would improve his mood a lot. Moving all Jake’s damned heavy boxes wasn’t any kind of good for his back. He’d taken a physics class once that had convinced him the engineering of the human back was a piss-poor design.

He had no more than used the remote to unlock the Jeep when he had company.

“That gadget unlocks things?” Milo asked. At least, he was pretty sure it was Milo. He’d have to work at identifying the almost-indistinguishable desert rats who cropped up every time he stuck his nose outside his door.

“Unlocks the car,” Burn said shortly and opened the cargo door to haul out the bench.

“Huh. Never seed such a thing. That the way cars are these days?”

“Yep.”

“Seems pretty dumb, having things locked up out here. Reckon no one else in town does that.”

Burn’s shoulders twitched. The homey little monologue was like mosquitoes whining around him. He hauled the bench into the house and set it at one end of the room.

The old guy was still standing beside the Jeep. “What ya got there?” he asked when Burn pulled the first bundle of weights out.

“Weights.”

“What for? Ain’t no snow out here now. Reckon you don’t need extra weight for traction.”

“They’re for me,” Burn snapped, and carried them into the house.

When he came out, there were two old guys standing there. Gabby. A third one joined them as he reached for the next box of weights. Abe.

“More weights?” Milo asked.

Burn nodded and strode into the house a little faster than he needed to. Christ. What was he, the morning cartoon show?

“What you gonna do with weights?” Abe asked when he returned.

“Lift them.”

“What, like them muscle guys on TV?” Gabby spat tobacco juice at a small bush.

That caught Burn’s attention. “Here? I thought Thelma only got one of those girly channels on her TV.”

“Not here. I seed it once when I was in the hospital. Jake was workin’ on getting us some sattylite thing, but…” His voice trailed off. “Jake paid for my hospital stay. I been payin’ him back as best I can. It was after that he an’ Chris got us all signed up for Medicare.” He stared off across the valley for a moment, shook himself, and turned back to Burn. “So you lift weights to get all muscled up?”

“Yeah.” He’d been one of the buffest detectives in his unit. And damned proud of it. “What’s wrong with that?”

They all snickered. “Nothin’. ‘Cept there ain’t no need to be ‘workin’ out’”—Gabby made it sound like crocheting or something—”when you could be workin’. Least ways, that’s what it seems like to me.”

Geez.

“We gotta be gettin’ down to Thelma and Helen’s,” Milo said. “They’re fixin’ t’have a party tonight. You oughta come over there about seven, Burn. See ya then.” They tottered down the hill, leaving Burn shaking his head in disbelief.

Chapter 4

Burn would have to give up the idea of peaceful mornings. He pulled the pillow down over his ears to shut out the half-way familiar, deep rumbling sound, but it didn’t help. Then the banging started and he bolted upright.

Earthquake.

He had to get to someplace safer. This flimsy shack would be down around his ears in a minute. He staggered across the room, tripping over his jeans, and braced himself in the bedroom doorway. His head hurt. A thousand bats had roosted in his mouth, from the taste of it. And from the sun angle, it must be almost noon.

Make a note. No more drinking with those old prospectors. Who would have expected they could hold their liquor like that?

Although it had been an interesting evening.

No one had anything bad to say about Jake. He hadn’t gotten the slightest whiff of anything or anyone that might have led to Jake’s death. Jake was a goddam hero. Everything in town had gotten better when Jake had moved there. Well, that fit with what Burn knew about his uncle, but…

Except that every one of the damned old guys, plus Thelma and Helen, had been keeping something from him. Everyone except Young Harley. He’d had high hopes for Young Harley, and he knew he’d been right, because the others had made sure he didn’t get two minutes alone with the guy.

Burn couldn’t see any or all of them as murderers, but something was going on. He shook his head to banish the memories of the sly smiles and uninformative answers, and moaned at the result. Make another note. Don’t move the head.

Then he noticed that the earthquake had disappeared in the wake of four big, black motorcycles that raised a dust cloud down the road, their riders in cuts, bandanas, and tattoos. If those were Bull’s visiting kids, for sure there was something hinky going on here.

The banging started again, and he finally figured out that someone—dammit, what did he have to do to get away from people anyway?—was pounding on his door.

He grabbed the jeans and pulled them on. He’d better find out who in hell was bothering him before the front door gave up the ghost entirely.

He yanked the door open so hard it almost came off the hinges, ready to Just Say No. No matter what Harley or Abe or Helen or Milo or Thelma wanted, this was not the day to ask.

It wasn’t Harley. Or Abe. Or any of the other residents he’d met so far. Even through half-closed eyes, she was a real honey. His mouth had dropped open so far he was afraid he was drooling on the floor.

“I’m sorry. Did I wake you?” The voice was as fetching as the woman who owned it.

Fetching. His brain sludged into action. This was Blondie, who’d run him off the road. Oh, hell. She’d tracked him down to complain her POS truck had been damaged? She didn’t look damaged. In fact, she looked damned good.

But she didn’t seem to recognize him. Burn straightened and tightened his abs. She was pretty enough to open his bleary eyes all the way. “I guess I overslept,” he said, wishing he’d had a chance to brush his teeth. And shower. And duh, could think of something brilliant to say.

“I can come back later.”

He had to give her credit that her nose didn’t wrinkle. “No, come in,” he said, and pushed the torn screen—he really had to fix that—open for her. He didn’t care who she was. She could be selling Avon or Tupperware, just as long as he could listen to that voice.

“Thanks. I’m Chris Layton.” She paused, as if that ought to mean something. When he didn’t respond, she went on. “I’m the mayor of Lead Gulch—”

“But Harley—?”

“Grandpa takes over when I’m gone. I’m the mayor and the official Welcome Wagon.”

“Wouldn’t think there’d be much to do for either job,” Burn said before he could stop himself.

She laughed. “You’re actually the fourth person I’ve welcomed, believe it or not. I know I’m a bit late. I’ve been out of town. Just got back last night and figured I’d better do my duty, even though I’m sure you’ve already met everyone, and figured out everything.”

“Pretty much. Although some of the residents seem to keep a pretty low profile.”

“A town like this tends to attract people who don’t want to be around other people a lot. You might know something about that.”

“I’ve been up to my armpits in people ever since I came here,” Burn snapped.

She raised an eyebrow. “Whatever. This is your official welcome.” Just the sight of the chilled six pack she handed him made his stomach heave. Her smile wobbled a bit as she took in his disheveled state but—thankfully—she made no comment about his obvious hangover.

“It’s a little early for beer. I could put on some coffee.”

“That would be very nice,” she said. “But perhaps later. After you’ve had a chance to….” Her voice trailed off.

“Sober up? Take a shower?” Lord knew he needed both, but her refusal was unexpectedly hurtful. “Yeah. Sure.”

“Thank you. Actually, I would like a chance to talk to you. Need to talk to you.”

Oh, no. Not going there. He was here to get away from being needed. From being depended on. From people. People who could die because he didn’t save them.

The mere thought made his head spin. Or maybe that was residue from last night. He shuddered—Don’t think about last night—and took a step back.

“Maybe I’m going too fast. Jake said you’d never been out here. You might have some trouble getting used to Lead Gulch.”

“What’s to get used to? Jake told me—no electricity, no heat, no trash pickup, no nothing. Of course, he made it sound like some kind of paradise, just him and nature.” Burn parodied a western drawl. “Readin’ by the wood stove in the winter. Settin’ on the front porch in the summer, drinkin’ a beer and watchin’ the sun set.”

She raised one eyebrow. “You seem to have followed instructions very well.”

“Look, lady, I’m not a big drinker. I had a hard evening. Those old dudes could drink a seasoned alcoholic under the table. Never saw anything like it before. So give me a break here.”

Her mouth quivered with an almost smile, but she changed the subject. Sort of. “Did Jake happen to mention a little bit of work goes on in between the reading and the drinking?”

“Jake didn’t tell me a damned thing about this town except the readin’ and settin’ parts.”

“And there is electricity. We got that last year.”

“Yeah. You use it when Thelma wants to watch her TV. I heard.”

“Well, it’s expensive,” she said, with a strange note in her voice.

“There’s money in this town.” He adjusted the whiny, accusing note in his voice and went on. “Milo has a new coffee pot. So does Gabby. Thelma’s TV didn’t come cheap. Everyone has something new.”

She snickered. “New is a relative term. The TV is three years old. The small appliances are, let me point out, non-electric, which means that they didn’t cost much to start with, and they were on sale. These people are on Social Security, in case you didn’t hear. Putting glass in windows so we don’t freeze in the winter is about as extravagant as we get.”

“Whatever.”

“Jake did a lot of—well, community service, and—”

“He never mentioned community service. Hell, he never even mentioned a town. Or people. And I seem to have found both.”

“You could go three for three.”

“I came out here for peace and quiet. Not that I’ve gotten either one.”

“You could—” She was winding up for a lecture, but stopped abruptly, making him wonder what she’d almost said.

Forget it. He didn’t have enough energy for this. He leaned against the door frame. The injustice of it all rose up to swamp him. “I thought I was going to find a place where I could be alone. Not have people after me every minute to do this or that or—”

Chris took another step back. She was going to fall right off the porch if she didn’t stop backing away from him. He wasn’t sure he cared, but habit was too strong. “Stop,” he said.

She didn’t.

He moved faster than he thought possible in his current condition and caught her arm just as she lost her balance. His head swam from the sudden motion and his stomach made its resentment known in no uncertain terms. He dropped her arm and bolted through the house and out the back door to the outhouse.

Several centuries later, he raised his head—cautiously—and a question occurred to him. No porcelain in sight, so would this be called worshipping the wooden god? He staggered back to the house.

Chris was gone, of course.

Way to go, Coburn. The only woman under seventy within fifty miles, and you run her off. The thought almost made him shake his head but he thought better of it. Time for a shower. Time for about a gallon of coffee.

And oh hell, he’d blown any chance he had to learn what she had to say about Jake.

  • * *

Chris trudged across the road into her yard, disappointment bitter in her heart. She should have known better than to think Jake’s nephew would be like Jake.

Dog sauntered lazily out of the patch of shade near the door, stretched, and looked up at her.

“He’s a real jerk, Dog.”

Dog wagged her tail but her ears looked anxious.

Chris stooped and rubbed her head. “No, I mean it. You’re a good dog. He isn’t. I don’t care if Jake thought his precious nephew could walk on water. He’s a smelly drunk. I’ll bet he’s only here to look for money. She stamped up onto her porch and held the door for Dog. “He probably thinks Jake buried gold under the house or something.”

“Jake kept gold in a safe deposit box. He wasn’t no fool.”

Chris jumped and peered across the dim kitchen. Her grandfather sat at the old wooden table. “I didn’t know you were here, Gramps. Why didn’t you open the curtains?”

Old Harley raised his coffee mug in salute. “Saw you goin’ over t’ Jake’s place. Figured I’d come find out how you did with the city boy. Didn’t go too well, looks like.”

That was an understatement. She’d gotten buffaloed, skunked, and disillusioned. “Not too well, no.”

“Told you. Y’wasted all that primpin’ you did.”

“Hey! I only put on a clean shirt. And washed my face. That’s just common courtesy.”

“Common woman’s vanity,” Harley said. “Waste of time. So, did ya tell him?”

Chris snorted. “Not likely. Let’s just say he wasn’t in any shape to hear that his uncle helped support the town and we wanted him to do the same even though we have no legal claim on him.”

“He was talkin’ to everybody last night, askin’ a lotta questions about Jake, seemed real pleased to hear about his uncle.”

“Not what I expected, not from the way Jake talked about him.”

“He don’t seem t’ be real interested in us. Or the town. It’s like he’s suspicious of us. As if anyone would have hurt Jake.”

“Not to mention that the whole town is going to dry up and blow away without Jake. We’re in real trouble if we can’t get him on board.”

“I know, I know.” Harley swigged coffee, mumbling into the cup. “Damned city slicker. Thinks he can come out here and act like he’s livin’ in some singles condo or somethin’.”

“He’s had women out here?” The question popped out before Chris could stop it. She shouldn’t care. She didn’t care, if only he would pony up his share of the town treasury. Oh, and as long as no one got shot or run over. After that, pretty much anything was okay. It wasn’t as though there were youngsters around to be influenced by a dissolute lifestyle. Live and let live, that was pretty much the town motto. So he could have all the women he wanted, it didn’t matter to her.

Harley set down his cup. “Nope. He hasn’t. But he’s one damn good-looking boy. You thinkin’ t’get something going there?”

“Of course not.” Chris poured herself some coffee. Some shred of loyalty to Jake kept her from telling her grandfather about Burn’s hangover. “I don’t know why I asked. I don’t care what he does…well, personally. The only thing I care about is that Jake said his beloved nephew would help, and I don’t see that happening.”

“We c’n take care of ourselves. It don’t cost much to live out here. An’ we got a good business going.”

Chris set her mug down so hard coffee splashed onto the table. Men. Honestly. What did it take to make one look facts in the face? “Gramps, you know better. Our business doesn’t bring in enough. And it won’t last forever. Not to mention that living here is as cheap as it gets, but multiply it by six totally dependent people… We need Burn’s help. We have to have his help.”

Harley sighed. “I know.”

“If Jake hadn’t underwritten the fake Social Security and Medicare thing, Thelma and Helen and the others would still be eating cat food.” Her voice rose with frustration. “I can’t do it. You know the Hot Hunks jobs don’t bring in enough to take care of everyone.”

“I know, girl. I know. Damn fools, they’d all rather die than take charity. If they ever find out—well, it wouldn’t be pretty. So what are we going to do?”

“I’ve got to find some way to get Burn to help. It’s what Jake wanted.”

She wanted it too. The citizens of her town were all getting older and she was determined that their last years would be good ones. And, dammit, they were all so proud that if they had any idea what she was doing, they would be mortified enough to sit out in the desert and die rather than take help. Well, it wasn’t going to happen, not on her watch. Dammit.

“Jake’s will never said nothin’ about helpin’ the town, so you can’t make him help if he doesn’t want to. And God knows Jake left him enough that he could spend the rest of his life living it up in Las Vegas if that’s what he wants. What if he leaves?”

“He can’t.”

Harley cackled his dry, old-man’s laugh. “You gonna use handcuffs? He’s got some, I saw ‘em.”

Chris ignored this. “I’ve got to find a way to make him help. I’ve got to get Burn on board.” She slammed her mug down, splashing coffee on the table top again. “I will find a way.”

  • * *

Someone banged on the front door just as Burn finished lunch. Now what? He’d barely gotten out of the shower this morning when Gabby had come to borrow some tool from Jake’s shed. Then Young Harley came to see if he’d like to ride along today. Before he could get in the truck, Abe showed up, wanting him to look up some car part on line next time he was in town and Young Harley had left by the time that was done. Thelma brought him a plate of cookies. Nice, but still an interruption to the workout he forced himself through.

He’d been nice. He hadn’t actually used the words ‘Leave me alone’. Couldn’t, if he wanted to figure out what happened to Jake. But damn, he was beginning to feel like Garbo—’I vant to be alone’. “Go away,” he shouted. “No one home here.”

“Burn, I need some help.”

Chris. Of course it must be Chris’s turn. Tomorrow, he figured, it would be Milo and Bull and Frosty and…whoever the others were. Clearly the town had settled into a drop-of-water-on-stone technique to wear him down until he was willing to be involved. Oh hell.

He stalked to the door. “What is it this time? Can’t get a jar of pickles open?” He wasn’t snarling, not quite, but the list of excuses they’d come up with so far would have been entertaining if he hadn’t wanted to be alone to grieve for Jake. It would have been funny if every one of them hadn’t been some transparent attempt to draw him into the close-knit fabric of the town.

“My jack is broken, and I’ve got a flat,” she said.

He swallowed a smile when her gaze had locked on his bare chest. “Again?” He shrugged. “No problem. Get the jack out of my Jeep.”

“It’s locked.”

Oh, yeah. Of course. But…she’d already tried? Gee-eez. And she thought he was going to hand over his keys? This place was unbelievable. “Wait here,” he snapped and headed for the bedroom. He pulled on a tee shirt that said Pig and Proud of It, scooped up the keys, and stamped out onto the porch. Chris sat in Jake’s rocker. He ignored her and headed for the Jeep. She rose and followed him, silent as he unlocked the back door and pulled out the tools. He tossed her the jack. “Here.”

He folded his arms across his chest, watching her. He’d bet his next beer that she’d come up with some excuse to get him to change the tire, and he had no intention of cooperating.

“Well? Any problems?”

“No.”

He watched her stalk across the so-called road to her house, where her truck listed onto its flat tire like a lame horse favoring one foot, before he turned and stepped back into his house before she could come up with anything more manipulative. Inside, he looked around the living room for something to do, but there wasn’t anything except the Robert Parker novel he’d finished this morning before his workout. The kitchen didn’t offer anything interesting, and he found himself glancing out the window to see how Chris was coming with her tire.

She’d gotten the jack in place and pumped away at the handle, raising the truck.

Okay. He wandered into the second bedroom where he’d set up his exercise equipment, just to make sure he’d put the weights back in their rack where they belonged. Yep. Everything was in its place.

He checked out his bedroom. The old case notes he’d packed for some reason were still on the desk in the corner where he’d left them. He supposed reading through them was a good idea. A few of the cases were still open, and with distance might come a new perspective. But not right now.

Sitting on the porch sounded like a good idea. He went back to the kitchen and grabbed a beer. Chris had the truck all the way up and was fiddling with the nuts. Fine. She knew what to do. He took his beer out to the porch and sat. Nice to have time to do nothing in the middle of the day like this. This was just exactly what he’d hoped for when he’d decided to move to Lead Gulch. Exactly what he wanted.

A dull clang of metal on metal and a barely audible curse came from across the road. What was she doing? He reminded himself that he didn’t care and settled deeper into the rocker.

A rhythmic pounding was next, followed by a moment of silence, and a muffled thud that might have been someone throwing a jack handle to the ground. Burn waited for Chris to show up and ask for help. And waited. And waited.

When he couldn’t stand it any longer, he got up and walked across the road to see what was happening. She was applying WD40 to the nuts holding the tire in place. Was he wrong about the whole plot thing? This would have been her perfect excuse to get him to help.

Hmph.

“Having trouble?” he asked.

She straightened and wiped an arm across her forehead. She didn’t look happy. “No. I do this for fun.”

“So why didn’t you ask for help? I thought bothering me was the new town hobby.”

Her glare said a lot of things, none of them lady-like.

“Here. Give me that.” Without waiting for a response, Burn took the jack handle and began loosening the nuts. He didn’t say anything, being pretty sure that if he said anything she’d punch him. That might be entertaining, but he experienced an unusual reluctance to tease her when she looked so hot, sweaty, and downright stressed.

The tire was in place and tightened down in a few minutes, and he had the truck almost back on the ground when an explosion rocked them. It was hard enough to knock the truck off the jack and to make him stagger. Chris stumbled and lost her balance. Burn caught her with an arm around her waist and pulled her against him.

“What the hell was that?” he demanded.

“I don’t know. Sounded like it came from the next valley. Could be blasting at a mine,” she added doubtfully, straightening and pulling away from him. “But I don’t know of anyone working over there. Could be some dumb old boys cooking meth.”

Cooking meth. What if it wasn’t good old boys? What if he really had been hearing a helicopter at night?

“Anyway, thanks for the help.” She thrust the jack into his hands. “Guess I’d better get going. I’m later than late.” She hopped in the truck and drove off, leaving him standing in the dust wondering what had just happened.

Chapter 5

Finally, a peaceful start to the day. Burn started a pot of coffee and got eggs and bacon out of the refrigerator. A man had to eat and he couldn’t help it if the kitchen window faced Chris’s house. But he didn’t see her. He flicked on the speaker for his iPod and cued up Live at the Cafe au Go Go(And Soledad Prison).

He ate to the classic blues of John Lee Hooker, poured a second cup of coffee, and leaned back to think about what to do today. Too hot to make exploring the desert tempting. Check out the next valley for the source of the explosion? Make another try at talking to Young Harley without one of the others present to keep him from saying anything Burn wanted to hear?

Something banged on the back door. Burn peered through the screen and saw a dog on the back porch.

It wagged its tail.

“Go away.”

The tail wagged harder.

Ah, shit. It looked hungry. Burn regarded the can of corned beef on the counter. From the corner of his eye he saw the dog’s gaze follow his.

A knock sounded from the front door. Saved. He headed for the door, relief surging through his veins.

“Hey, Burn.”

He recognized Thelma’s gravel voice. “Hey, Thelma.” The relief in his voice startled him. “Come on in.”

She raised an eyebrow. “First time you’ve ever sounded glad to see anyone,” she muttered as she followed him to the kitchen.

Burn hunched his shoulders. He hadn’t meant to be quite so obvious. “What can I do for you, Thelma?”

The dog danced and wagged hard enough that it almost lost its balance.

Thelma crossed the kitchen and opened the door.

“Hey!” Burn protested. “What are you doing? That’s not my dog.”

“Of course it ain’t. This here’s Dog.” In Thelma’s ripe twang it sounded like ‘Dawg.’ “She belongs to everyone.”

Burn had that sense of the world getting out of control again. “Not me.”

“You live in town, don’t cha?”

“Well, yeah, but I’m not—”

“Sure you are. Jake wouldn’t ever let Dog go hungry.”

The implication was clear. Just in case Burn didn’t get it, Thelma crossed her arms and tapped her foot.

“Thelma, I don’t feed stray dogs. I don’t have a dog because I don’t want a dog. Dogs need taking care of. Dogs are a lot of work. Dogs—”

“Feed the dog,” Thelma said. She fixed him with a steely look that reminded him of his sixth grade teacher. “She’s hungry and it’s your turn.”

Burn opened his mouth and took a deep breath. “But—”

Chris bounded up the back steps and through the door without waiting for an invitation. “Hey, Dog,” she said. “How’s it going?”

The dog—Burn refused to think of it by name—sat and offered her a paw.

She bent and shook it. “Where’s your breakfast? Burn being too slow?”

Dog jumped to her feet and bounced around, tongue lolling.

“Morning, Thelma, Burn,” Chris said. “That coffee I smell?” She went to a cabinet and took out a cup.

Well, hell. She was right at home in his house. “Make yourself at home,” he said. “But I—”

“Thanks.” Chris grinned, ignoring the sarcasm he’d tried—and failed—to keep out of his voice. “What’re you doing here so early, Thelma? Been having a hot fling with our new guy?”

Thelma batted what remained of her eyelashes. “You bet. Don’t see a handsome one like this ev’ry day.”

Oh, help. Maybe if he moved to the North Pole…

“I came over to tell Burn that most likely Dog would be hittin’ him up for breakfast,” Thelma said.

“But—” Burn said.

“Me too,” Chris said. “I forgot to tell you you’d need to get some dog food. So I brought some to last until you get groceries.” She held out three cans. “One can per meal. This is what she likes for breakfast.”

Breakfast. They not only fed the dog, they gave it different meals and let it have favorites. Burn’s stomach did a half gainer. He tried to smile anyway. “But—”

“You better not give her that stuff.” She nodded at the corned beef. “Unhealthy for man and beast.” Since Burn didn’t make a move to take the cans of dog food, Chris set them on the counter.

“But—”

“You can eat what you want,” Chris said sternly, “but we take the care of our Dog seriously. You’re just going to have to be responsible about her diet.”

Dog sat and stared expectantly at Burn.

The hair on the back of his neck stood up. “But I’m not responsible—” he began.

“Sure you are. Come on, Thelma.” Chris and Thelma swept out the door, leaving Burn and Dog staring at each other.

“But I don’t want—” Burn said.

Dog wagged her tail, each swishing arc a stab at Burn’s conscience. She whined.

Burn gave up. “Oh, all right.” Once wouldn’t hurt, would it? He grabbed one of the cans Chris had brought, opened it, and dumped it on a plate. “Or do you want a place mat and finger bowl, too?”

Dog’s nose was buried in her breakfast. She didn’t answer.

Burn poured himself another cup of much-needed coffee, ignoring the way his hand shook. He wasn’t responsible for anyone or anything.

Not even a dog.

  • * *

The next day, Burn slept in again. No reason to get up before sunrise to see if the exodus had been repeated. One taste of the desert version of a snipe hunt had been enough. He had just finished breakfast when Old Harley, Gabby, Greed, Frosty, and Abe pounded on his door.

“Whoo, dogies. You look like you got outta bed on the wrong side,” Abe said when Burn jerked the door open.

Gabby cackled.

Greed smiled.

Frosty looked around the room and nodded.

Burn scowled.

“We come to invite you to a wake for your uncle,” Old Harley said. “We been waitin’ till everyone was here. You’re here. Chris is here. Bull and the boys are back. Thelma and Helen are bakin’ a lotta stuff. So we could do it today. At Thelma and Helen’s. Seven o’clock sharp okay with you?”

“Yeah.” Burn nodded. “I’ll be there. That’ll be good.” Hooray. The tingle of excitement that he always got when an investigation looked promising shot through him. He’d get to hear a lot of stories about Jake. Fill in a lot of things he never knew. Like why the hell they hadn’t waited for Burn to get out of the hospital and get out here for a funeral. Like where Jake had been buried. Like how he died. How thorough the autopsy had been. Stuff like that.

After they left, he sat with another cup of coffee, wondering where Chris went when she left town. For a mayor, she sure didn’t spend all that much time mayoring. Although, to be fair, how much mayoring could be required in Lead Gulch?

He went back to thinking about the mysterious exodus. And Jake’s death.

The wake would give him a perfect opportunity to dig deeper into how everyone felt about Jake. Until then he needed some hard, physical work to pass the time. Which meant it was time to deal with the storage shed he hadn’t so much as peeked into since he’d arrived.

He prepared for the battle with boots and heavy gloves. Good idea. The storage shed produced lots of empty boxes, dirt, and small, unwelcome wildlife. While he hauled boxes and swept out corners, he couldn’t help thinking how unlike Jake it was to have such a mess. The Jake he’d known would never…

And maybe he hadn’t. Definitely something to ask about tonight.

Since he didn’t find anything except empty boxes, cleaning the shed didn’t give him much of a workout. Might as well walk downtown and see what was going on at Old Harley’s. He snickered at calling the dirt road with a non-functioning gas station and one store ‘downtown’.

He’d barely started up the steps of Harley’s store when he heard a scream from the back of the house next door. His cop response might be dormant but it sure wasn’t dead. The sound had barely died away before he’d bolted into the yard and found Thelma struggling to keep her towering woodpile from collapsing on her.

He grabbed a board lying and used it to bolster the leaning wood while he pulled Thelma out of danger. When he let go, wood cascaded down into an untidy pile.

Somehow Burn knew he’d be spending the rest of his afternoon stacking wood.

By seven, he’d had a thrown-together dinner, taken a long, long shower, and succeeded in tamping down his anger enough to smile when he met Milo and Frosty and Greed on the way to the wake.

He got a hero’s welcome. Abe and Old Harley and a the others had to hear about the collapsing woodpile, once from Thelma and once from Helen. And slap him on the back. He half expected Chris to pin a medal on him, and dammit, he didn’t really deserve all the hullabaloo.

Once the explanations and compliments were done, he looked around the room and saw that Thelma and Helen had put a picture of Jake in a frame on the table, with a jar of some kind of desert flowers on either side. They smelled sharp and wild, almost blotting out the scent of something baking that lay over the room like a blessing.

Burn had never seen the picture before. It showed Jake standing in front of the opening to a mine somewhere, big hat pushed back on his head and laughing at the camera.

One of those waves of grief swamped Burn and he couldn’t move for a moment. “Nice—” It came out as a croak. He cleared his throat. “Nice picture. Maybe I could get a print of it.”

“Oh, we made that for you,” Helen said, patting his arm. “We figured you would like to have it.”

Getting emotionally invested in suspects was a bad, bad idea. Repeat that ten times, Coburn. But they’re nice people. Jake liked them.I think. All he could do for Jake now was get to the truth. He squared his shoulders and looked around the room. Twelve curious pairs of eyes looked back.

“You’ve met most everyone,” Chris said. “Except Stern.”

Another old guy who looked pretty much like Old Harley, Abe, et cetera lifted a hand in acknowledgement from his seat in a dim corner of the room.

“And this is Bull,” she went on.

Bull reached up from where he sat in a wheelchair to shake hands. “Glad to meet you, Burn. Welcome to Lead Gulch. These are my boys. Bimmer. Goat. Skull.”

His boys had his back, flanking the chair. Each one nodded as Bull said his name.

“Glad to meet you, too. Saw four of you guys going through town couple a days ago. Thought it was a damn earthquake.”

“Nope. Not my boys,” Bull said. “We just got back last night. You must a seen those renegades stayin’ at one of the mines over in the next valley. They come through here ever’ once in a while. Never stop, and we all want to keep it that way.”

“No argument,” Burn said. “I didn’t like the looks of them much. Now that I get a look at your boys, I can see the difference.” He’d have to be half blind not to see it. These three, in spite of the hard-core names, had short hair, no beards, only a couple of non-inflammatory tattoos…in general, they cleaned up good.

Someone handed him a glass that smelled like liquid dynamite. “Lead Gulch juice,” Thelma said. “Jake said if he died, we was to have one hell of a party and hoist a few for him.” Tears glistened in her eyes as she raised her own glass.

“My God,” Burn wheezed when he got his breath back. “You make this yourself?”

“Not talkin’ to a cop about that,” Chris said. “We’re here to talk about Jake, right?”

Everyone nodded.

“Here’s to Jake,” Chris toasted. “Best thing that ever happened to Lead Gulch. We’re gonna miss you, my friend.”

More nodding. Sad smiles.

Grief filled the room until Burn could almost believe these people were innocent. But they had secrets. He was going to find out what they were hiding or die trying.

Old Harley cut to the chase. “Jake was really looking forward to having you visit this summer,” he said. “How come you didn’t?”

So much for keeping that back. Burn could tell this was a tipping point. If he wanted any sympathy from these people, he’d better have had a good reason. So he put it out there in a bald statement. “I was in the hospital.”

Chris broke the silence after a long pause. “Jake didn’t know.” She moved to stand next to him, warm and comforting, and even with all the grief filling the room, he couldn’t help noticing yet again the curvy shape that had kept him awake most nights since he’d run her off the road.

He forced himself to concentrate on what she’d said. “No. I didn’t want him to worry.”

Another pause. “Reckon that was good,” Milo said.

And just like that, the stories about Jake and his life began to flow. Jake had embraced life in Lead Gulch with a passion, from what everyone told Burn. Jake had helped set up the generator and run wiring to most of the houses. Even though no one used the electricity on a regular basis—too expensive—it was handy for emergencies. Jake had helped Chris maintain the town water supply. Jake had driven in to town for supplies most weeks. Jake had run those strange bikers out of town when they’d ganged up on Young Harley. Jake had fixed Frosty’s front steps when they needed it. Jake had been everyone’s best friend, apparently.

That sounded like Jake, all right. He’d been like that ever since Burn could remember. Didn’t sound like he’d changed at all when he’d moved to Lead Gulch.

Burn couldn’t detect a false note anywhere. He’d always been damned good at telling when a suspect was lying to him, and he’d swear these people loved Jake like a brother.

“Yeah, Burn. He saved me when those guys were gonna beat me up, he sure did,” Young Harley assured him. “And he cut firewood for Thelma and Helen when it got real cold last winter. He was a good guy.” Tears welled in Harley’s faded eyes.

“Burn, you haven’t told us about Jake before he moved out here,” Chris said. She stood way too close for him to ignore, and her warmth and scent of woman and outdoors made him dizzy.

“He was…Jake was a very sophisticated man. I was surprised when he moved out here. I thought he’d miss all the city things. I guess he didn’t.”

“Didn’t seem to,” Old Harley said. “We thought he was gonna be some snooty type, but he liked the desert. Fit into town real good. He and Bull talked about books a lot.”

Bull nodded. “Yeah. He got me talkin’ about some stuff I used to teach in English Lit classes. Smart man.”

“And he and Stern used ta get together a lot with their guitars,” Abe said.

Stern nodded. “Learned a lot from him,” he said quietly. “Gonna miss him.”

“He never talked much about his life in Los Angeles,” Chris said.

“He was the best man I ever knew,” Burn said around the lump in his throat. “After my aunt died, he kept going through the motions, but I guess there wasn’t much of anything left in the city for him. He stayed until I was in college, did some travelling, then came here. It sounds like you knew him even better than I did, from the stories I’m hearing tonight.”

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Old Harley said. “Don’t think he changed much when he moved out here. He just did diff’rent things.” He paused for a moment. “Things that made a lot of difference to us.”

Ouch. Things Burn wasn’t doing. He swallowed a surge of guilt, wondering if Jake really would be disappointed in him. “It was too soon for him to die. Shocked the hell out of me when they told me.”

“Us, too,” Thelma said. “Never knew that man to have a sick day ever. Just plumb up and died without any warning.”

“Didn’t that seem pretty strange?”

“Unexpected,” Chris said. “But nothing indicated it was anything but natural causes.”

“You thinking it was like murder?” Helen asked. “Jake told us you used to be a homicide cop. Maybe you’re just riding your hobby horse.”

Burn shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

“The sheriff did a pretty thorough investigation, Burn,” Chris said. “Not that there was much of anything to investigate. I’m sure you’ve seen his report.” She raised a questioning eyebrow at him.

“Yeah, I’ve seen it.” After an uncomfortable pause, he added, “Maybe Helen’s right. But I need to be sure.”

Stern, a quiet loner Burn hadn’t seen much, spoke up from his seat in the dim corner. “Jake would be applauding. He said you were damned good at your job. Really thought the world of you.”

That did it. Burn’s throat closed up and he didn’t think he’d get another word out.

Thelma and Helen went into the kitchen and bustled back carrying platters of food. “Don’t just stand around, everyone. We’ve been cookin’ all day.”

Burn turned, grateful for the change of subject. The lavish spread included a number of interesting bottles. As ordered, he grabbed a plate and sat.

“You really cared about Jake, didn’t you,” Chris said as she settled next to him with her own plate.

“Yeah. I was lucky. You don’t get to choose your family, but my dad, and my aunt and Jake, were the ones I’d have chosen if I could have picked from the entire world.”

“Then you were blessed. So were we, to have him for these last few years. He was a big part of the town.”

Chris had the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. When he looked into those eyes, it was like drowning in a clear, clean, crystal lake of empathy. “I guess you miss him, too.”

“You have no idea.”

And there it was, that note of something hidden here in town. Every time she talked about how important Jake had been to the town, how much they’d miss him, there was some hidden depth of meaning. Some secret everyone conspired to keep from him.

  • * *

Chris stood in the shade of her house pretending to hover over the flowers she’d babied into bloom. She ought to be watering them, but water pressure was unprecedentedly low this morning. She’d had to settle for a sponge bath, and she really ought to be out fixing whatever had gone wrong this time.

Instead, she kept looking across the road and up the hill at Jake’s place. Burn’s place, she corrected. His shiny new Jeep sat in front of the house, not so shiny now with its gleaming black paint covered with dust and spangled with scratches.

There was no sign of life, but then he’d gone straight home from the wake and hadn’t poked his nose out of the house today. If she’d ever seen grief on someone’s face, she’d seen it last night on his.

His grief, and the reason he’d failed to show up right after Jake’s death, had changed everyone’s opinion of him. Getting shot ranked right up there as a good excuse.

“If he doesn’t ever come outside,” she said to Dog, “how am I going to find out if he’s okay? Not to mention the whole talk-him-into-helping-the-town thing.”

Dog had chosen to spend the afternoon at Chris’s, looking forlornly up the hill at Jake’s house, then expectantly down the road. Dog wagged her tail to show that she was listening, but didn’t stop waiting for Jake.

“He’s not coming, baby,” Chris told her. “We all have to get used to it. And see if we can’t get Burn to take up the slack.”

Burn came out onto his front porch and Chris froze in the shadow. He didn’t look her way, but leaned against a post and gazed off to the west. Oh God, where was her camera? He was gorgeous, half-naked, barefoot, and just what she needed for Mr. July. Be honest, Chris. You’re not drooling just because of the calendar. After all, she worked with prime beefcake on every photo shoot, and none of the models, professional or otherwise, affected her like this.

After a few minutes he raised one hand and drank something from the bottle he held. A few drops of liquid dripped onto his chest, where the afternoon sun caught them and turned them to diamonds. Her palms itched with a sudden need to rush across the road and touch him. Get a grip, woman. He’s an uncooperative drunk.

If she had her binoculars, she could see what he drank—not that it was any of her business—but without them, strain as she might, she couldn’t tell from here. While she was waffling about walking over to find out, he turned and saw her.

She waved, gathered her courage, and started across the road. He turned back into the house and slammed the door.

Chris stopped short in the middle of the dusty track. “Wha—?” She couldn’t even frame the question. That jerk. What an absolute—she stamped back to her house, speechless with…anger? You bet. Shock? Yup. Frustration? Absolutely, definitely, positively, totally, no question about it, yes. “Jake, your nephew is a severe disappointment,” she said aloud.

Her only answer was Dog’s nudge at her hand.

“And he’s acting like a real jerk. Oh, Jake, why didn’t you put all the stuff about the town in your will like you said you would. Everything would be so much easier now.”

Dog woofed and headed for the kitchen door.

Chris followed slowly, still muttering complaints to Jake. “I suppose you just didn’t get around to it. And you always said Burn was a good boy, so maybe I’ll be able to talk him into helping. But we don’t have time. I can’t wait for long.”

“Can’t wait for what?”

“Come in, Thelma.” Well, what else could she say?

“Can’t wait to see that handsome devil again?” Thelma asked as she came through the door.

Chris’s breath hitched. “Handsome is as handsome does.”

“You all right, Chris?” Thelma asked. “You sound a might crotchety.”

“Yes, I’m all right. Yes, I’m a might crotchety. I didn’t get a shower this morning.”

“I know. I came over to see if you know what’s wrong.”

“No. And I am not itching after Burn. He slammed the door when he saw me coming just now. That is not a nice person. I don’t care how much Jake liked him.”

Thelma’s smile, Thelma’s knowing smile, and her satisfied “Hmmm” were enough to drive a woman to drink. “So, coffee?” Chris asked.

“Oh, you got water this afternoon? I used some earlier, but now there isn’t any. I just came by to tell you about that. And to see how you’re doing.”

Strange. “Yeah, I noticed about the water. I’m going to go check in a minute. And I’m doing fine, Thelma. I’ve been living here alone doing just fine for ten years. Why would you need to check on me?”

How could she describe Thelma’s expression? Sneaky? Guilty? Manipulative? All of the above? Uh oh. Every once in a while, the whole town decided that Chris needed something for her own good. Looked like it was happening again.

“You haven’t ever had a hunky neighbor before, that’s why,” Thelma announced.

Like Chris hadn’t noticed.

“And that boy is purely hurting. Reckon he loved his uncle something fierce. He was nigh on to cryin’ last night.”

Chris had noticed that, too. She’d wanted to put her arms around him and give him every comfort possible.

“You need to know that we’re all goin’ to be lookin’ out for you, honey. Mayor or no mayor, there’s times when a girl needs her family.”

Oh, great.

“Thelma.” How to say this? “Thelma, I’m not interested in Burn,” she said. Lied, if she were honest with herself.

“Well, you should be. That’s one fine hunk of man. And he’s Jake’s nephew.”

Wonderful. If Thelma had made up her mind that Burn was Mr. Right and Prince Charming and the Holy Grail rolled into one, then every time Chris spoke to him, the whole town would take it as evidence that she agreed. The matchmaking would be out of hand. Over the top. And totally embarrassing.

“I don’t care whose nephew he is. Not going there, Thelma. How many times do I have to repeat that?”

“Don’t matter how often you say it, honey. I’m thinking you’re protesting too much, just like that Shakespeare feller said.”

Argh. [_ _
__]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 6

The sun had dropped most of the way to the horizon when Burn headed for the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. Wired was better than hungover, wasn’t it? He couldn’t help a wistful memory of the automatic pot he had had in his LA apartment. Coffee ready and waiting when he got up might be the thing he missed the most. Besides Jake.

Burn had been unbelievably rude earlier when Chris had started across the road. He’d been dizzy from lack of sleep and wounded-bear angry that Jake had died. Too much booze, too many stories, and too much grief had combined to give him a sleepless, miserable night. Now he still grieved, still wanted some sleep, but had spent a couple of hours gathering his courage to go apologize.

The coffee could wait. Do it now. He headed for the door. When he yanked it open, he almost mowed Chris down. She stood on his porch, holding a small, covered bronze pot as though it were the most valuable thing in town.

As if anything in this place had any value. But he owed her for the wake. And for leaving him to grieve in privacy. Not to mention that he just plain wanted her. To talk to, of course. “Hey. Come on in. I was just making coffee.” He headed for the kitchen, leaving her to follow. “I was heading over to your place to say thanks for the—the wake. It was a good thing. See how much everyone cared about Jake—” His voice cracked. “It was good,” he finished.

“We’re going to miss him. A lot.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

She followed and set the little urn in the middle of the table.

He almost dropped the coffee pot when he realized what it was. “Is that—?”

She nodded. “Jake’s ashes. The coroner gave them to me since you weren’t around.”

“Well, hell. I guess that answers the question of where Jake was buried. There were a lot of questions I didn’t want to bring up last night, and that was one of them.” His temper got the better of him. “What the hell kind of place is this where an official just hands out stuff to anyone who asks? What about his personal effects? What about all his belongings, sitting here in an unlocked house? What about—”

Anger sparked, deepening the blue of her eyes to an amazing, mesmerizing sapphire. He resisted the lure.

“Power of attorney, Mr. Mason. In the absence of a family member, the coroner had every reason and every right to hand everything over to me.”

Oh.

“I guess you didn’t read much of what the lawyer sent you.”

“He didn’t send anything except the will. Not even a house key.”

Chris laughed. “I don’t think there is a house key. No one locks doors out here.”

Oh.

Oh, shit.

She tilted her head, looking thoughtful. “Although…we might have to think about some higher level of security. We’ve talked about it some.”

“You mean, move into the twentieth century? I wouldn’t expect twenty first.”

“Don’t be snarky. But yes, that’s what I mean.”

“What brought on such a radical decision?”

“Bimmer—that’s one of Bull’s boys, you met him th’ other night—caught one of the guys who tried to beat up Young Harley—you heard about that last night—trying to sneak into Jake’s house. Your house, now.”

“Yeah. I didn’t get a chance to ask when that happened.”

“Just after Jake died. I suppose it was a big city thing. I’ve heard people read about funerals in the paper so they can burglarize houses when no one’s home.”

“Maybe. Doesn’t seem likely out here. But that reminds me. I forgot to ask last night about Jake’s storage shed. All I found in it was empty boxes. And it was a mess. You know what he kept out there?”

Chris grinned. “Mostly empty boxes. A few tools. Sometimes a couple of cases of beer. But it was always tidy. He was a real bear about tidy.”

“He sure was.” Burn smiled at a flood of memories. “I found no beer, no tools, no tidy. Seems like Bimmer maybe didn’t run that guy off soon enough,” he added casually. But his cop sense quivered. “I don’t suppose you did anything about attempted burglary. Like, oh, maybe, call the sheriff?”

“You’re being sarcastic again. No, of course we didn’t. First of all, it would have taken a deputy hours to get here. Second, Bull stopped him before he got to the house, so he didn’t take anything, there weren’t any fingerprints, etc. As in, no crime committed. Trespassing on a vacant property in an almost-ghost town? I don’t think so. And finally, if we called the sheriff for every little thing, pretty soon there wouldn’t be any help when something was really wrong. Ever hear of the little boy who cried, ‘Wolf’? You were a cop. You ought to understand.”

Unfortunately, he did. “Not that there’s anything in Jake’s house to steal, except clothes and kitchen stuff. He must have had paperwork, at least.”

“Yes, he did. And being a responsible friend and neighbor as well as having his power of attorney, after his death I gathered up everything that might have value and moved it to a couple of big safe deposit boxes.”

“Okay, Blondie. You got me. You did right, and I’m just being grumpy. Now why don’t we go get all these papers and things that ‘might have value’.”

“Because I don’t have time. I’m leaving day after tomorrow and I’ll be away for the next week. We’ll have to wait until I get back.”

“For a mayor, you sure don’t spend a lot of time here. All right. I’ll follow you into town when you leave. You can open the box before you go.”

She shook her head.

“Dammit, you are the most unreasonable, stubborn…”

“I will be leaving at four in the morning. Even if the box were in Ridgecrest, it only takes two hours to get there and the bank wouldn’t be open. Not to mention that the box isn’t there, it’s in down town LA. Also, I’m going the other direction. Arizona.” Before he exploded, she added, “I thought LA. would be more convenient for you. Since you lived there at the time and I had no idea you were coming here.”

“Game, set, and match, Madam Mayor. I’ll wait until you get back.”

“Like you have a choice,” she muttered.

He grinned. “Now, about that coffee.” But when he set the pot in the sink and turned on the faucet, nothing happened. “Hey.”

“Oh, yeah. No water. I guess that makes it unanimous.” She stood. “I better go see what’s wrong.”

“You?”

“Me. That’s one of the mayor’s jobs around here.” She was halfway out the back door when she paused. “Want to help?”

“Might as well. Guess I’m not having coffee.” He grabbed Jake’s old hat from its peg by the door and followed her outside. “What did I just agree to?”

“First off, we inspect the tank. It’s just uphill from your place.”

Burn looked up the hill. Up. And up, and up, to the ridge that marked the top of the range of mountains behind Lead Gulch. If the tank was at the top of the mountain…but that didn’t make sense. No way to get water up to it if it sat on the highest peak.

To his relief, their goal was a relatively flat spot only a couple hundred feet higher than the town. “That’s the town water supply?” he asked in disbelief when he saw the small wooden tank.

“That’s it. What, you thought Santa Claus delivered water to Lead Gulch?”

“Of course not. But—”

“We’re looking for leaks,” she said, walking around the tank.

There were no leaks. An annoyed-looking snake whipped away from their footsteps. Burn jumped back.”

“Snakes come here because the water attracts small animals. You should always watch for them,” Chris told him.

He looked back down the hill at his house, which suddenly seemed much closer than it had on the way up.

“Here. Hold the light for me.” She pulled a flashlight out of her pocket and handed it to him before climbing a short ladder fastened to the side of the tank. A small lid covered an inspection port.

After a careful inspection with the light, she closed the lid and climbed back down. “Pretty much dry.”

“Where does the water come from?” Burn asked. “A well? Could it be dry?”

“A spring up in the hills. There’s water coming in from the pipe Jake and I ran.” She motioned toward a pipe that came down the hill. “No, I think someone—” She paused and looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “—Someone used too much water. Last night and again this morning. You wouldn’t know anything about that, I don’t suppose.”

He’d taken shower just a couple of hours before. And last night… He sighed. “Well, I guess…oh, hell, I didn’t know.”

“You don’t have a washing machine, so I suppose you—”

“Took a good, long shower. Last night. To get ready for the wake. And another one late this morning. Habit, I guess. I guess I have to spend the night in town at a motel any time I want more than a couple of minutes in the shower.”

“That’s about it.”

“How the hell was I supposed to know?”

She patted his arm. “I keep forgetting Jake never clued you in to life out here. You’re still on city rules, I guess.”

“So I won’t do it again. In the meantime, what do we do?”

“We keep a supply of bottled water for emergencies. Everyone will use that until the tank gets replenished. It’ll take a day or two.”

Burn couldn’t think of anything to say. The realities of life in the desert kept crashing in on him. He wasn’t all that sure he liked them.

“I guess you never had to think about whether someone goes without water when you take an extra long shower. Or wondered where the town got its water.”

“I did wonder, but there seemed to be plenty, so…” His voice trailed off at the accusing glint from her eyes.

“Tomorrow I’m going to introduce you to the town water supply,” she stated firmly. “It’s too late today.”

“But—”

“Humor me. If you want to continue to have running water, that is.”

“Yes, ma’am. Whatever you say, your Mayorship.”

Chris raised that eyebrow again. “We should leave about six. That’s A. M. We want to do this before it gets hot.”

If she thought getting up early would be a problem for him, she didn’t have any idea what a cop’s life was like. “Six. Check.”

“Hat, boots, sunscreen, canteen.” She stopped short. “I guess you can’t fill that. I’ll bring water. See you later. I have to let the others know what’s going on.

The heat that ran across his cheekbones didn’t have anything to do with the sun. No getting out of it, though. “While we’re doing this inspection, you gonna tell me where you all go when you do the mass exodus at dawn?”

“No.”

His cop instincts went on red alert. The lady was definitely hiding something.”

  • * *

The next morning, Chris tossed a couple of canteens into her day pack and looked across the kitchen at her grandfather. “I don’t care how uninterested he is, Gramps. He needs to get involved.”

“And you just decided today’s the day.”

“Yep. I think the wake and the guilt about running the water tank dry could have softened him up a little. So a tour of our water system and a few comments about how needy we are…”

Harley nodded. “Might work. Anyway, he ought to see what you and Jake rigged up. Dumb bas—dumb city boy doesn’t have a clue. We oughta had disconnected Jake’s water line before he got here. That’d show him.” He leaned back in his chair. “Guess we didn’t have no way of knowing he’d be such a—jerk.”

“He’s not dumb. We just have to connect with him.” She hefted the pack and set it on a chair. “Jake said he was a good person,” she added doubtfully.

“Jake wasn’t often wrong. But—” Harley cackled—”yer gonna have to dig pretty deep to get to a vein of good, I’m betting.”

She heaved the pack onto her back. “You think I can’t do it?”

Harley grinned. “I’m bettin’ on you, girl.”

“We all are, she said, her voice grim. “Now, let’s get through these budget figures before I go wake him up.” She set a pile of folders on the table and took a chair next to her grandfather so they could work together on a new, seriously down-sized town budget.

Half an hour later, she put down her pen. Fear wasn’t exactly a stranger. The desert held many kinds of pain and flavors of potential death, and she’d experienced a lot of them. Fear for the motley collection of desert rats who had been her family for her whole life, that took the feeling to a whole new level. “If we cut everything we talked about, we could manage about another month. Maybe six weeks. After that… Gramps, we have to get Burn on board.”

Before he could answer, Burn knocked at the door. Of course he’d pick today to be on time. She hissed, “No,” at Gramps when he yelled, “Come on in.” The last thing she wanted was to have Burn see what they were working on.

Burn bounced in, looking tired but ready to go. And far too gorgeous.

Chris desperately shuffled papers into a neat, unreadable stack. She knew he could see over her shoulder— papers spread all over, a calculator and laptop, a pad of paper and a couple of pens. Lots of numbers, even if he couldn’t read them. He was a cop. He’d notice. She threw the papers into a cupboard and turned to face him. “And here I figured I’d have to go wake you up.” In spite of his cocky assurances yesterday, she’d have said ten would get you twenty he would still be in bed. Don’t think about Burn and bed in the same sentence, dummy.

He grinned down at her, looking like the best thing since sliced bread. His sun-kissed hair was tousled, as if she’d been running her fingers through it, and dark gold stubble bristled across his jaw. He hadn’t shaved, but then there wasn’t much reason to out here. Her mouth went dry. No, no, no, no. Not thinking about how dazzling he is. He wore jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, and hiking boots. He looked—yummy. Stop that.

“You don’t dress like a tourist any more.” The words popped out before she could stop them.”

“I’m not a tourist, remember? I live here.”

Yeah, but you damn sure aren’t part of the town. And that’s gottachange. “Right. We should go.” She had to get him out of here before he figured out what she and Gramps had been doing. “I’m going to show you the water system.” And she should shut up if she couldn’t stop babbling.

His eyes, a mesmerizing grey with dark rims to the iris, sharpened and focused on her. “Can’t wait. Lead on.”

Gorgeous. No. Jerk. Not interested. Remember? “No hangover this morning? You look tired.”

“No hangover. I didn’t get much sleep. There were some dogs howling outside my window all night.”

She snickered. “Those were coyotes.”

“Whatever.”

“Bye, Gramps,” Chris called, leading the way out to the truck.

Burn followed and settled into the passenger seat. He folded his arms over his chest. “Coyotes,” he muttered, and shuddered.

She swallowed a grin. “Yep. Coyotes. Not wolves. They hardly ever eat people, Burn.”

“I guess this won’t take all that long.” He snorted. “It’s not like it’s the Los Angeles water system.”

Wasn’t he going to be surprised when he got a good look at their crazy Rube Goldberg setup? She swallowed a grin. “No, and we’re all glad of that.”

She turned left at Main Street, away from the main part of town and the road that led to the highway. When Main Street petered out into two ruts through the sagebrush, she took a barely-visible track that led up into the hills. “If you keep going straight instead of taking this turn, you get to the highway to Las Vegas. Eventually.”

Burn glanced at her quizzically but didn’t say anything for about fifteen minutes of jouncing over ruts and rocks. “Las Vegas might have been a better choice. Where the hell are we going?”

“We’re going to begin at the beginning.”

He scowled. “But—” The words choked off when she jounced down into an arroyo and his head hit the top of the truck. “Geez, woman. You trying to kill me?”

“Sorry. The road’s a little rough.”

“What road?”

“Yeah, well, we don’t drive up here much. I just thought, since you’re so busy and all, that I’d make this as quick as possible.”

He didn’t answer and Chris concentrated on driving up the increasingly narrow, deep canyon. When they reached a place where it divided, she turned the truck around and parked it facing down hill. “We have to walk from here,” she said, getting out and hoisting her pack into place.

Burn followed and clipped the canteen to his belt without a word. The morning sun was just beginning to reach down into the flat sandy-bottomed canyon, dispelling the coolness of the night, and Chris swung along, walking easily in spite of the rough ground. An occasional lizard darted across in front of her, and she automatically took note of the tracks left in the sand by the night’s visitors.

“Is this like a snipe hunt?” Burn asked. “Bring me out here and leave me? There’s no water out here?”

“We would never do anything like that. It’s too dangerous. People who don’t know the desert can get into real trouble.” Like dying. “And there is water.”

He snorted again, and she guessed that was his stock answer when he didn’t believe something. Apparently he hadn’t noticed the four inch pipe running along the side of the canyon. Oh. Scratch that. He’d noticed. Must be the cop training. But he didn’t ask.

Ten minutes later, she paused to inspect a leaking joint.”

He moved up beside her. “Tell me that’s not the Lead Gulch water main,” he said, disbelief dripping from the words.

“Sorry. That is the Lead Gulch water main. We’ll stop on the way back and I’ll do something about that leak.”

Burn shook his head. “Unbelievable,” he muttered. “Fucking unbelievable.”

Chris turned away to hide her grin. Jake really should have clued Burn in to a few things. Darn the old procrastinator.

A rockfall almost barred the way up the canyon. She picked her way over it, Burn at her heels, and back down onto the sandy, sage-brush dotted bottom. A series of tracks and a dark spot showed where a coyote had dined on rabbit.

“Does Dog come clear up here?” Burn asked.

Well, well. “For a city boy, you’re very observant,” she said. “And yes, she roams wherever she wants. But those are coyote tracks. Notice how each print is elongated. And the marks of the pads are close together. Dog’s prints would be a bit rounder. Take a look at her feet sometime.”

She waited for him to comment on the increase in vegetation. Sagebrush became more abundant, until they were threading their way between plants, and small grasses appeared. They crossed a smooth, flat spot. She pointed to the s-shaped marks in the sand. “Sidewinders.”

He stopped abruptly. “I’m with Indie on that one—why does it always have to be snakes? Where the hell are you taking me?”

“I told you. We’re going to look at the town water supply.”

“You didn’t say anything about snakes.”

Chris swallowed a smile. “You don’t like snakes?”

He moved a step away from a sagebrush. “Does anyone?”

“No, not really. Just be careful where you put your feet. They’re as anxious to avoid you as you are to avoid them.”

He snorted, but followed when she moved on up the canyon.

At the source of the town’s water, she stood back and watched Burn’s expression change from puzzled to dawning understanding to disgust. The small concrete box didn’t inspire a lot of admiration, she had to admit, but the simple construction worked. “Everything looks good. I guess you just used up all the water in the tank. Figured out how it works yet?”

He walked around it, avoiding the opportunistic grasses and bushes that had taken root here and there. “No.”

“Underground stream. Probably a little spring down there, too. The concrete box holds a screen and the end of the pipe, and gravity brings the water to town. Pretty nifty, huh?”

Burn stared at the concrete. “Nifty,” he muttered. “Yeah, real nifty.”

“It was a lot of work. Took Jake and me four days to box in the spring, plus hauling supplies and running the pipe. It was most of a month all told.”

“You and Jake did this?”

“Yep. Hauled the concrete mix and pipe up here, dug out the spring, the whole works.” She slipped off her pack and took out her water bottle.

“Jake was always helping someone. He always had a lot of good ideas.”

“I guess some folks might have objected when he came out here and showed you all how things ought to be done.”

Where had that come from? Sounded like Gramps was right—Burn thought one of them had killed Jake. Or at least wondered if they had. Temper flared through her and she turned away to fuss with her pack. “Nope,” she said, doing her best to keep her voice even. “Jake didn’t do that. He told us what he thought—when we asked—and never pushed.” Temper won, and she wheeled to face him. “So if you think one of us killed him, you’re digging in a played-out mine. He was the greatest thing that ever happened to our town and we all miss him more than you’ll ever know.” She picked up the pack and started back down canyon. “I have to inspect the pipes on the way down.”

He fell into step beside her. “I don’t think you killed Jake.”

She wasn’t ready to be appeased. “Well, good for you. What about the others.”

“No one’s said or done anything to make me think they’re guilty.”

“Reasonable enough. They’re not.”

When she paused at a potential trouble spot, he said, “So we walked all the way up here to see a little concrete box and a pipe?”

“Yep. Would you have believed me if I’d just told you about it?”

He grinned, the change from surly jerk making her heart pound. “You’ve got a point.”

Oh, man, she could not handle this much wattage this early in the day. What was she going to do? She had to get close to him, convince him to take over Jake’s role in helping the town, but every time he acted like a human being, she went into meltdown.

She turned away and started back down the canyon. That grin might just mesmerize her into jumping him and she so wasn’t going to go there. “Let’s go,” she said, her voice brusque enough to cover up the emotion. “Remember, I have a leak to fix. And we want to get out of here before it gets really hot.”

He wiped sweat off his forehead with a bandana. “Right. Before it gets hot.”

She set a slower pace going back, checking every inch of pipe, and stopping at the small leak they’d passed on the way up.

“If I’d known you were going to have me running my nose over every inch of that pipe I’d have stayed in bed,” Burn grumbled when they reached the truck. The sun had reached its zenith and sweat beaded his forehead and darkened the center of his shirt back

“Not a chance, you slacker. It’s past time you learned something about the way Lead Gulch works. Jake was really…well, invested in the town.”

“I’m not Jake, and I think I know enough about how Lead Gulch works. I’m not getting sucked in.” Burn actually backed a couple of steps away.

Uh oh. He was spookier than a wild horse. Harder to handle than a first-time-nude model. Maybe today wasn’t the time to talk to him. “Not sucking you in, Burn,” she said mildly. “Just showing you around. Nothing to worry about.” She gave him her least threatening, not-going-to-hurt-you smile. “No problems.”

Chapter 7

“So you bombed out, huh?”

Chris set the coffee pot back on the stove and sat across from Old Harley at the kitchen table. “Yes, Grandpa. He—he just acted like a city guy, and didn’t seem very interested in all the work Jake put in out there. He’s probably just lying when he says Jake didn’t tell him anything about the town. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I have to leave in the morning. Maybe you can work on him while I’m gone.”

Her grandfather nodded. “Do my best. At least you got him feedin’ Dog. I think she likes him. That’s a good sign. There must be some reason Jake thought the sun rose and set in that kid.”

“I guess. He sure acted like a jerk when he ran me off the road. But he’s polite. And the way he treats Young Harley gets him a gold star. Maybe we just need to cut him some slack while he’s grieving,” she said hopefully.

“Could be. Could be.” Her grandfather peered across the table at her. “Can’t deny he’s one fine lookin’ hunk o’ man.”

Strange. He had almost the same expression Thelma had had yesterday when she’d been talking up what a hunk Burn was. Sneaky, guilty, and manipulative. Damn it. Gabby would be next. Then Milo. There definitely were times when being the universal granddaughter of this bunch of old meddlers lacked the fun factor. “Grandpa—”

“Well, he is.”

As if she hadn’t noticed. As if she hadn’t lost a lot of sleep since he’d come to town, tossing and turning and imagining him just across the road. Sleeping in Jake’s narrow bed when he could be so much more comfortable in her big bed with its soft, springy mattress that practically cried out for someone to help her explore its full potential.

“All right. He’s a hunk. So what?”

“So he’s the only one in town under the age of seventy—except Young Harley—and he’s not a model. And last I heard, those models you take pictures of are all light in the loafers or whiny, self-centered idiots.”

She certainly had noticed the ‘only one in town under the age of seventy’ part, but she wasn’t about to discuss that. “You got that right, Gramps,” she said with a laugh. “They’re like a bunch of spoiled show dogs. All perfect conformation. No brains. Except that’s unfair to the dogs. And lucky me, I get to spend the next four days dealing with Arizona hotties down on the res where they mine peridot crystals.”

“Don’t reckon Burn is like that. He’s spendin’ some time gettin’ to know what the desert is like. Hasn’t come a cropper yet. Always carries water. Got himself a good four-wheel-drive and far as I can tell knows how to drive it—”

“Yeah. He does now.”

Harley gave her a quizzical look and plowed on. “—and had a real sensible pair of boots when he arrived. None of those poofy designer, city slicker things.”

She’d noticed. Judging by the tracks she’d seen, he’d gotten that Jeep in and out of some pretty tight places. Maybe running her off the road had convinced him to leave speeding for the freeway. “Whoopee.”

“Better’n if he was some know-nothing tourist that needed rescuin’ all the time.”

“Gramps, I’m not interested in Burn.”

“He’s Jake’s nephew.”

“You’ve been talking to Thelma.”

Harley’s gaze dropped to his mug.

“I don’t care whose nephew he is. Not going there.”

“‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.’“

Argh.

  • * *

Burn eased out through the screen door and settled silently into the rocker, well back in the shadows of the porch. Just in case any of the neighbors were out and about, he didn’t want to be visible. Sleep wasn’t going to happen for a long time yet, so he might as well enjoy the evening.

From Jake’s porch—his porch—he had a good view of the western sky, where the sun had long since set, as well as an overview of the whole town of Lead Gulch.

Had he made a big mistake coming out here? He hadn’t just burned his bridges. Hell, he’d blown the damn things into smithereens. No going back now. A month ago, all he’d been able to think about was getting away, getting out here to Jake’s place and turning off his head until all the hurt had turned as dry and dusty as the landscape.

Had he been wrong about Jake being murdered? He still didn’t know how Jake died…but it was getting harder and harder to suspect any of these people.

Had Jake deliberately suckered him into thinking that ‘Jake’s Place’ was some kind of transplanted Death Valley Scotty’s Castle? Or had his own mind done that?

In the starlight, Lead Gulch looked like a nice little community.

And therein lay the problem.

Not only did it seem like a nice little community full of people who had not murdered his uncle, but a nice little community was the last thing he wanted. If he’d wanted to be surrounded by people with a claim on his time and attention, his energy and, well, his heart, he’d have stayed in LA.

Try as he might, he kept getting sucked into things. He hadn’t even gotten to Lead Gulch when he’d changed Chris’s tire. And then there was Thelma’s wood pile. Of course it was only luck that he’d been there to keep her from getting crushed, but then he’d had to go and restack the whole thing for her. And Dog. He didn’t want a dog, but no one believed that. He jumped when Dog licked his elbow. He hadn’t heard her slip up to lie beside his chair, but he should have expected her. Seemed like she was always around.

He dropped his hand and fondled her ears. Her tail thumped against the porch floor. So, there was Dog, mooching breakfast, just dropping by to sit beside him, acting like she liked him. What was next?

He finished his beer and squashed the can. The crumpling aluminum made enough noise to be heard all the way to Ridgecrest and he froze. Nothing moved. The desert stayed cool and silent under the distant starry sky. Nothing stirred. No one sprang out of the shadows. The closest house, Chris’s, across the dusty single track and down the hill, was dark and deserted.

The sound of a door closing jerked him upright in the chair. Now what? Probably too much to hope that someone was just letting their cat out. Didn’t these people ever give it a rest? Damn it, they were old. They needed their sleep.

Soft footsteps argued that opinion. And they were headed his way. Could he slip inside and pretend to be asleep? No such luck.

Chris came up onto the porch. “Dark out here. I almost didn’t see you. Why are you sitting out here in the dark?”

“There’s no electricity here. Maybe you’ve noticed that. When you condescend to stay in town.”

“I work.”

Burn grunted. Sure she did. “I’ve been here a little more than a week, and I still can’t figure it out. What do you people do all the time?”

“The same stuff that city people do,” Chris snapped. “It just takes longer, that’s all. And,” her voice grew waspish. “It doesn’t pollute as much as all the commuting and elevators and—and—electric carving knives and nose hair trimmers, for God’s sake.”

Well, listen to her. “So driving all those ancient trucks around the desert is green?” He didn’t wait for her answer. “I meant what do you do at night, your ladyship. When normal people are all couch-potatoed up watching TV.”

“Yeah, and that’s a great way to live. We do stuff. Useful stuff.” She gestured at the pale pink yarn and knitting needles she held.

He squinted at it. Pale pink. “Whoopee. So you knit baby booties. That’s useful in a town where the average age is seventy five, all right. And you do it in the dark. Good going, Madam Mayor.”

“I’m on my way to Harley’s. He has an oil lamp. And this is a winter sweater for Thelma. She can’t make her own any more. Arthritis. And she said last winter that she’s tired of drab practical colors. She’s always wanted something this color.”

Burn threw up his hands. “Okay, okay. So you’re useful. What about the guys? I can’t see Abe or Old Harley knitting. Or Milo, or Frosty, or any of the others. What do they do?”

Even in the dim light he could see mischief sparkle in her eyes. “Play cards,” she said. “Drink. Spit. They’re guys. What did you expect?”

“I dunno. Prospecting? Gold mining? Drug running, maybe?”

She leaned against the porch rail and glared at him. “Drug running?” Her voice had gone high with outrage. “You think we’re drug dealers? You have the gall to sit there in Jake’s favorite chair and tell me you not only think we murdered him, but we’re running drugs. Jake would be ashamed of you.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Give it a rest, Blondie. Jake would be glad I’m using my brain. If I’m wrong, I’ll apologize.”

She took half a dozen deep breaths. “Jake used to sit out here in the evening, too,” she said. “But he never said really stupid things. I miss him.”

“Yeah.” Burn had to clear his throat. Too many memories pushed his anger away. “Me too.”

“He really loved this town.”

So why didn’t he ever tell me about it? Burn couldn’t get a grip on that. Every time he thought about it, pain rushed through him until he wanted to howl. Why hadn’t Jake shared anything about Lead Gulch with him?

“Well, he did love it,” Chris said. “You have to know that.”

Burn’s hands clenched on the arms of the rocker. Yeah. Right. Like he was a mind reader, guessing all the things Jake had chosen not to share with him. After a pause so long he thought his vocal cords might have atrophied, he said, “Weren’t you on your way to Harley’s?”

Chris got up and left without a word. Dog followed.

Burn remained in the rocker, every muscle tensed, lonelier than he could ever remember.

  • * *

Chris was punctual, that was for sure. Burn groaned and rolled over to look at the time when he heard her truck door slam and the throaty roar of the engine. Four A. M., just as she’d said. He guessed sticking to a schedule like that was commendable and all, but…he stuck his head back under the pillow for a couple more hours.

When the sun came up over the mountains to the east and the first beam hit his face, he got up, swearing as he did every morning that it was time to put up a curtain, even if it would make him feel like Martha Stewart.

After coffee and breakfast, he settled on the front porch to consider the day. Somehow, with Chris gone, it felt like vacation time. That curious, child-like, no-school-today feeling. Of course, every day had been a vacation since he’d gotten here.

He hadn’t done much except talk to all the townspeople, and the answers were always the same. Everyone had liked Jake. No one had had any beef with Jake. Everyone missed Jake. His investigation of Jake’s death had been a joke so far. He’d stalled long enough. Time to get down to business.

Of course, almost everyone gave him the feeling that they were keeping some communal secret. Not Frosty, who was the next thing to senile. Couldn’t tell about Stern, the poster boy for the ultimate loner. He’d barely chipped off half a dozen words in Burn’s presence. Young Harley might be in on it, judging by the way the others kept him from talking without a chaperone.

So, hell. This quiet little almost-ghost town had secrets layered hip deep. Jake. The town secret. Where Chris spent all her time. Why she wasn’t in his bed. [_Wait. Don’t go there. _] Old Harley was her grandfather. Old Harley and his big, old, emphasis on big, gun.

Time to get busy. He was goin’ to town.

First, town etiquette required a stop at Abe’s to see if there was anything on the list for him to pick up while he was there. He let the Jeep roll down the hill to Harley’s store. Abe handed over a list but didn’t say anything about money. Huh. Maybe this was how they took advantage of Jake, but it wasn’t going to work on him. “Money?” he asked.

“Bring back the cash register receipts. Folks’ll pay when they pick up their things. That’s how we’ve always done it.”

Okay. Maybe he’d been too suspicious. “Sounds good. See you this afternoon.”

The drive to town gave him a couple more hours to think about his week plus in Lead Gulch. One, Jake had been the fair-haired boy in town, universally loved, as nearly as Burn could tell. If Jake had been murdered, Burn didn’t get any guilty vibes from anyone in town. Two, everyone in town had lied to him about something. Everyone except Stern, who pretty much didn’t talk, and Frosty, and Young Harley, who didn’t seem capable of lying. The others had been damned careful to make sure he never had any time alone to learn anything from those two. Three, the whole town had some deep, dark secret. Four, there was enough new stuff floating around Lead Gulch that said ‘money’ to him, even though Chris had gone on and on about stuff being years old and/or on sale. As a cop, he had to wonder where it came from.

But he’d come here to settle the matter of Jake’s death. Beyond that, he didn’t have much interest. In anything. But in spite of himself, he felt the stirrings of the desire to find out what was going on. This little puzzle called Lead Gulch had grabbed him by the curiosity.

When he got to Ridgecrest, he went straight to the police station to find out where the coroner’s office was located. “You should have called for an appointment,” was the answer. “The office is in Bakersfield.”

Yep, life moved at a different pace out here. Burn got the address and phone number, went outside to call for an appointment, and hit the road. This was one conversation he wanted to have face to face, not over the phone. Looked like folks weren’t going to get stuff on Abe’s list today. He climbed in the Jeep to head out of town. And pulled out the list to make sure it didn’t include any life necessities, like prescriptions. It didn’t, so he figured those hardy pioneer folk could live without the groceries for one day if they had to. He was on his way to Bakersfield.

When he reached the office, he was lucky in finding the deputy coroner who had managed Jake’s case. The man introduced himself as George. Burn shook hands and forced himself into cop mode, swallowing the grief that threatened to well up again.

“No, the death didn’t look suspicious, but we’re required to do an autopsy. It was an unattended death, he hadn’t been seen recently by a doctor, and there was no obvious cause of death.”

The question was surprisingly hard to ask. He choked it out. “What did you determine the cause of death to be?”

“Your uncle suffered a heart attack. He’d been taking digitalis for a heart condition.”

Burn hadn’t known that.

“The sheriff said you’d had some questions. But I saw nothing to suggest this was anything other than a natural death. Of course, at the time, our office was unable to contact you, so we dealt with the mayor of the town in which he lived.”

The last sentence was loaded with things unsaid. Why couldn’t we get in touch with you? You were a rotten nephew and didn’t pay enough attention to your uncle. So you were in the hospital. Most hospital rooms have phones. Are you planning to sue the department?

“I was in the hospital,” Burn said evenly. “In the ICU. I didn’t know about Uncle Jake’s death until a week before I arrived in Lead Gulch. I got here as soon as I could.”

“I have the autopsy report here. You can request a copy of it.”

Burn took the folder and leafed through it. “My uncle was cremated. Too late for a tox screen. Huh. Says here you requested one. Why was that?”

George looked…embarrassed? “Well…” He coughed. “Well, I was training a new examiner and she needed some experience in taking samples. Once we had them, I figured, why not, and submitted them. Hope you don’t mind. I was kind of worried when you called. You could—”

“No problem. I’m damned glad you did it. When do you expect results?”

“Could take a couple of months. Want me to call you when they come in?”

Oh yeah, life did move at a different pace out here. Understaffed as this office was, George was volunteering. Sweet. “Please. There’s no cell phone reception where I’m living, but I’m in town a couple of times a week. I can get a message and call you back.”

Burn walked back out to the Jeep to start the drive back to Lead Gulch, pleased with his visit. There were things that wouldn’t show up in a tox screen, of course. So if it came up negative, he’d never know. But if something did show… And it was still pretty early. He realized he’d be able to do his shopping list duty after all, which brought an unexpected wave of relief.

With surprise, he realized he’d like to know that no one in Lead Gulch had killed Jake. Astonishingly, the old guys were getting to him. Gabby and Old Harley and Abe and Milo especially. Funny old desert rats. He could begin to see why Jake had liked living out here.

And, dammit, he was developing a serious case of the hots for the town’s maddening, enticing mayor.

Even so, all he needed was one fact, just one little thing to say he wasn’t out to lunch with his suggestion of murder…just give him that and he’d see that Jake’s killer got what he deserved.

Chapter 8

Aw, shit. He was out of milk. Burn upended the milk carton but only a single drop more splashed into his bowl of healthy twigs and bark. At least that’s what the stuff tasted like. And he really, really wanted a steak tonight, and didn’t have any. Funny how much harder it was to keep himself fed out here. Looking back on life in LA, he’d eaten out more than he realized at the time.

And he did not feel like driving into town today, which left just one option—get down to Harley’s and put his groceries on the list before Harley left. Not that he was sure he’d get what he ordered. Or anything at all. He had a strange, sneaky feeling that since he’d been pretty uncooperative about joining in, that would cut two ways.

Couldn’t hurt to try, though. He could always go to town later if he had to.

He finished the mostly dry cereal, shrugged into a denim jacket against the early morning chill, and walked down the hill to Harley’s store. He’d like to think that no one would be up this early, but he knew better. No one had left town this morning, which was strange, though.

When he stepped up onto the porch of the ramshackle building, he was not alone. Abe had just finished writing something on the list tacked to the door.

“Morning, Burn. You plannin’ on bein’ around today?”

Oh hell. Another request to help with this or that or the other, probably involving some kind of heavy work that he couldn’t ignore, knowing if he didn’t, some spindle-muscled old goat would have to. He couldn’t go it. How had he ever thought he’d be free of responsibility for others? He should have remembered how Jake loved to help people. He dredged up a smile. “Yep. What’s up?”

“Thelma and Helen’s place needs some shingles fixed. Chris’ll do it when she gets back, but…” The rumble of three big, bad, black motorcycles blotted out the rest of his words.

Harley came out on the porch and joined Burn in watching them as they rode slowly, in perfect formation, along the dusty track of Main Street. “Bull’s boys?” Burn asked when they’d gone all the way past Helen and Thelma’s and turned toward the main highway. “Doesn’t look—or sound—like the guys I saw the other day.”

“Yep. That would be Skull, Goat, and Bimmer,” Abe said.

Burn looked down at him. “Yeah. I meant to ask. Gang names?”

“You can ask Bull if you want to, but I don’t recommend it.”

He hadn’t moved to another part of the same state, he’d fallen into some kind of space warp and he was on a different planet. “Why not?”

“Bull used to be a biker before his accident. He mighta named the boys back then. But he ain’t in a gang any more. And he’s a good dad. Loves it when they spend summers here with him.”

Burn didn’t want to think about what they did with their winters. Rape and pillage? “I didn’t recognize the insignia on the jackets.”

“Hot Wheels.”

“Hot Wheels? Like kid’s toys?”

Harley and Abe grinned and nodded in unison. “They do big toy drives for needy kids. ‘Specially at Christmas.”

“I’m surprised.”

“Yeah. They look real rough, but they’re all three perfessors at some univers’ty. Bull thinks they’re the best.”

“Sounds like he might be right.”

“Bull lives in that big old sort of warehouse at the east end of town. You musta passed it just before you turned off to go up to the spring, when Chris showed you the water system.” Abe shot him a sly look, a reminder of the way Burn had used the entire water supply.

“Yeah. Big place.”

“Big enough for the boys to stay. Big enough for all those bikes. And Bull’s books. He’s got a whole damned library there,” Harley said.

“Guess it takes all kinds. Sounds like his boys don’t give you much trouble.”

Both old men looked at him as though he’d started speaking Esperanto. “O’ course not,” Harley said. “They’re good people. Very responsible.”

“And helpful,” Abe added. ‘Unlike some people,’ hung unsaid but obvious.

“Responsible for what?”

“For Bull. For themselves. For what needs to be done. I don’t think people in glass houses should go around slinging aspersions.”

Well, touché.

So maybe it was time he talked to Bull, and found out just exactly what three maybe-bad-ass bikers were doing in a place like Lead Gulch. He wrote milk and steak on the list and headed up the street to the old garage that he’d kind of thought was deserted. This sounded like a real good time to him, with the three young hoodlums out of the way.

Bull’s front door swung open when Burn stepped up onto the porch. “Well, howdy, neighbor.”

Burn had to adjust his gaze downward to look at the big man in the wheelchair. “Morning.”

“This is a surprise. Come on in. I’ve got a fresh pot of coffee here.” He spun the chair and headed toward what Burn could see was the kitchen.

The warehouse was mostly one big room. Easier to maneuver the chair, he supposed. “Thanks,” he said, and took the chair Bull waved at while he grabbed a mug from the counter and filled it.

“Well,” Bull said, parking his chair across the table from Burn. “To what do I owe this honor? I’ve been hearing that you aren’t any too friendly. Might it be that the ex-cop has a few reservations about the presence of some—ah, less than desirable elements, shall we say?”

Burn raised his eyebrows. Bull looked like a wrestler—a wrestler with tattoos—and spoke like an English professor. Belatedly he remembered Bull’s comment about teaching English Lit. So he really was an English professor. “Not on the job any more,” he said. “But I’m curious.”

“And I shall be happy to indulge my neighbor’s curiosity,” Bull said. He grinned, and a gold front tooth winked. “Those three hoodlums are my sons. They don’t agree with my decision to live here, so they spend summers with me. It’s inconvenient for them, since they have to commute a fair distance to temporary jobs that pay far less than they could get if they stayed in Boston.”

Holy smokes. “Boston?” Burn said in a choked voice.

“Yes. I used to teach at BU before I moved here. We found this town on a summer trip and I liked it. Living’s cheap, and I have the opportunity to read all the books I never had time for.”

Burn wasn’t often surprised by people, but this left him speechless.

Bull chuckled. “I know. It shocks everyone. The motorcycle gang, by the way, does take its name from the child’s toy, and their mission is collecting and refurbishing toys for needy children.”

“And here I thought I had found a nest of drug dealers. Or a chop shop.”

“Ah, yes. The cop. I’m afraid you’ll be a bit disappointed in Lead Gulch. We seem to be a law-abiding bunch, by and large.”

“It’s the ‘by and large’ that worries me,” Burn said as he went out the door. He walked home to change shirts before going to take care of Thelma and Helen’s new shingles. Lead Gulch was certainly full of surprises, from the hot-looking, not-interested-in-playing mayor to the ancient duffers who asked for help but didn’t always need it, to the lily-white biker gang.

  • * *

Roofing Thelma and Helen’s house had turned into some kind of party, with the ladies providing enough food to stuff an elephant, and Burn doing most of the work. A number of muscles he’d forgotten he owned made getting out of bed the next morning an interesting exercise, but the day had been worth while. The old guys had always been friendly enough, but that mysterious undercurrent of something secret made him suspicious. Yesterday, it hadn’t been there.

When he took his usual cup of coffee out to the front porch, he saw that the various trucks were MIA. So the exodus had taken place. Damn it, damn it, damn it. So much for missing undercurrents.

It didn’t work to lie in wait for them. It didn’t work to follow them. Maybe tracking them would do the job. He gulped down the coffee and went inside to get suited up for a day climbing hills and plowing through sagebrush.

By lunch time, he admitted defeat. Maybe if he’d equipped himself with a great big Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass, he’d be able to decipher the tracks. At least he had water and a lunch. On one of his previous wandering trips he’d found a road that led up to a mine. He snorted. All the roads led up to mines. But this one was near the top of a hill and there was some old equipment to sit on while he ate lunch and thought evil things about getting skunked by the old guys. Again.

When he reached the top of the hill, he found Abe and Old Harley sitting on the rusted whatever-they-were. Things. Abe held his huge old pistol. Pointed straight at Burn’s midsection. He lowered it when he recognized Burn. “Hey, Burn. Wondered if you was comin’ up,” Abe said. “Pull up a seat and enjoy the view.”

Burn checked under the chunk of rust he’d chosen as a chair. Couldn’t be too careful about snakes. “Didn’t expect to see you up here,” he said. “Where’s everyone else?”

Harley shrugged.

“No idea,” Abe said. “Except Milo was doin’ the town run today. Haven’t seen anyone else.”

Yeah, right. Like Burn believed that. But he could pretend. “Nice place for lunch,” he said.”

“Good view. You can learn a lot about a place just settin’ and lookin,” Harley said.

“Sagebrush,” Burn mumbled around a mouthful of sandwich.

Abe and Harley exchanged a grin. “Yep,” Harley said. “There is that.”

“So what am I missing?”

“Water,” Abe said.

Yeah, right. Burn raised an eyebrow. “Seriously? Hard to believe.”

“What you’re lookin’ at out there was shaped by water,” Harley said. “Seriously. It‘s pretty damned serious when there’s a flood. And there will be another one, some day.”

“What do you mean, there’s gonna be a flood?” Burn rocked back on his seat and peered across at him. “It’s dry as a bone. Look out there.” He gestured at the sere desert that stretched for miles across the valley.

“Out there ain’t what’s important, you dumb tourist. Even you ought to figure out that water runs downhill.”

Burn reined in his impatience. These people had just gotten stuck in a rut of thinking of him as a know-nothing city boy and couldn’t let go of it. “Of course it does. And I’m not a tourist. I live here, remember?”

“Waal.” Old Harley took his time, pulling out a plug of chewing tobacco and gnawing off a chunk. “Waal, the important thing is if it’s raining up there.” He waved at the mountains that rose to the east of Lead Gulch. “Don’t happen very often, but when it does, we pay attention.”

Burn looked around at the dusty ground, covered with dusty sagebrush. A flood. Jeez. These people were nuts. “So, if this is a desert and floods are a big danger, why would anyone build a town here?”

“Gold, boy, gold,” Harley said. “You know what you’re sittin’ on there?”

“What d’ya think that hole in the hill behind ya is?” Abe added.

“I have no idea what I’m sitting on,” Burn said. “And it’s a mine. Or it used to be.”

“That’s right.” Harley settled back in what Burn had learned to recognize as his getting-ready-to-tell-a-story pose. “In the late eighteen hundreds, they found gold in them thar hills, and we had us a whole passel of folks out here diggin’. Lead Gulch got its start as a supply station for all those mines.”

Burn swallowed a snort. Some supply station.

“Yep.” Abe took up the tale. “Had to haul ever’thing in, water, building materials, the works. And they din’t have no fancy propane heaters an’ refrigerators like we got. Like to freeze your balls off in the winter, a hunnert ‘n twenty in the summer—”

“We still got that,” Harley said.

Burn finished his sandwich and tucked the wrapping in his pack. He’d never tried the direct question before, but this sounded like a wide open opportunity. “Is gold where money for all the stuff like coffee pots and TVs and propane comes from?”

Harley twitched and didn’t meet his gaze.

“Nope,” Abe said.

He didn’t look guilty, which made Burn wonder.

“Most of us get Social Security,” Abe said. “Chris keeps track o’ the money and lets us know when it’s okay t’ get stuff like that.”

Chris again. She certainly seemed to have a lock on the town. Especially where money was involved.

  • * *

Late that afternoon, Burn finished his first twenty push-ups and stopped for a drink. The tox report might not be ready for weeks yet, leaving him with time on his hands. Chris wouldn’t be home until tomorrow night, Harley had said. Maybe he’d drive out past Bull’s place, around the end of the mountains, and see what was in the next valley to the east. He’d have to start watching his gas consumption, though, and get into town to refill before he found himself…well, up a creek with no paddle wasn’t exactly accurate but got the idea across. Anything to make the days go by. He’d be kidding himself if he didn’t admit to really wanting that tox report. He went back to the push-ups.

His silent push-ups. He’d learned to do his workout without music to save batteries. Imagine that. Less than two weeks in this backwater and I’ve learned an important survival skill.

That meant it was good and quiet when someone knocked on his door. He did three more push-ups and, since whoever it was knocked again, got up answer to see who the hell wanted something this time. He didn’t want to admit, even to himself, that the idea of talking to someone sounded good.

Maybe Chris had come home early. She could certainly help pass the time.

He opened the door and leaned against the frame. But instead of bouncy blonde hair and that fetching dimple winking in her cheek, he saw Milo. “What can I do for you, Milo?” The words were a little muffled by the towel he scrubbed across his face to mop up sweat.

“I come by to tell you that tonight’s movie night. We’re goin’ t’ fire up the generator and watch Treasure of Sierra Madre.

“That old Humphrey Bogart movie?”

Milo’s grin practically lit up the whole porch. “Yep. Great picture. An’ lots o’ gossip. Get caught up on ever’ thing that’s goin’ on in town.”

Things went on in this town? “Wow.” Apparently he didn’t do a good enough job of keeping the sarcasm out of his voice.

“I know, I know. You thought you was moving to Death Valley to live in solitary splendor. You sure ain’t much like your uncle.”

The disgust in Milo’s quavery old voice caught Burn on the raw.

Oh hell. “I apologize, Milo. You’re right. The invitation still good?”

Milo nodded.

“I’ll be there.”

“Good. Good. Oh, before I forget, how’s your propane tank?”

How was his propane tank? Like did it have a cold or something? “Fine. I guess.”

“Ain’t you checked the gauge?”

“It has a gauge?”

“Damn, boy. Ever thought about how the tank gets filled?”

“Filled?” He knew his voice was as blank as he felt. He shifted uncomfortably, not ready to admit that he hadn’t even given it a thought. “Okay, Milo. You’re right again.” Thoroughly chastened, he followed Milo around to the back of the house.

By the time Burn knew enough about propane tank management to satisfy his aged mentor, he was convinced Milo had not murdered Jake. And probably none of the others were guilty either. Unless the tox screen showed something hinky, he’d have to admit he was wrong about Jake being murdered.

The rest of the afternoon sludged by with discouraged, slothlike slowness. By the time evening rolled around, he hated to admit it, but he was looking forward to going to Thelma and Helen’s and watching a black and white movie on a fourteen inch TV screen. Todd would have been rolling on the floor laughing at him. But he found himself whistling as he took a carefully short shower and put on clean jeans and an unironed shirt. When he got around to buying new ones, he reminded himself, they’d better be no-iron.

Thelma and Helen had gone all out with cookies and a cake for the crowd, and Burn found his disdain for the small screen, the black and white, the dated acting, melting away in the genuine enthusiasm of the old guys. And ladies. Being alone too long was the only reason he could come up with to explain it, but he enjoyed the evening. Bogart outdid even Old Harley and Gabby in desert rat-ness. Of course he had been younger in those days, and… Burn pulled himself up short. Just one evening. No way was he getting pulled into the whole small town thing. It was just like quicksand.

When the movie ended, Helen turned up the lights. “I’m gonna make some coffee,” she said on the way to the kitchen.

Burn leaned back in his chair and eyed the cake. Nobody fed him cake in LA.

Before he had a chance to join the argument—of course there was an argument—about Bogart’s acting, Helen was back, visibly upset.

“There ain’t no water.”

Everyone turned to look at Burn. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d blushed, but he felt heat climb clear up to his hair line. “Two minute shower, max,” he said. “Honest. I’m innocent.”

“Mebbe one o’ the pipes broke,” Gabby said. “We’d best get some lights and go look.”

All Burn could figure was that being the fair-haired boy yesterday had gone to his head. Before he knew what he was going to say, he’d said, “I’ll do it.”

“I’m comin’ with you,” Old Harley said.

By the time Burn had collected—not that he was being pessimistic or anything—a bunch of pipe wrenches and plumber’s tape from Abe, and his flashlight from the Jeep, he’d also acquired a posse of five old guys tottering up the hill after him.

At the tank, Harley held the light while Burn climbed up to checked inside as Chris had done. “Yep. Dry,” he reported. “I’d guess the pipe is broken somewhere between here and the spring.

“It happens,” Milo said. “Chris just follows the pipe uphill from here until she finds the break and gets it fixed right away.”

Burn closed his eyes, knowing what was coming as surely as death and taxes. He opened them and looked around at his posse. Even in the moonlight, he could see the alert expectation and everyone’s face. “Chris isn’t here,” he said experimentally.

Silence.

A lifetime of being responsible nudged at him, and he could hear Jake as clearly as if his uncle stood beside him. ‘It’s our duty to look after those who can’t help themselves.’ Burn sighed and gave up. “Looks like I’ll be taking a little hike. How far is it to the spring?”

“If you follow the pipe, it’s about four miles,” Abe said.”

“At least you cain’t git lost.” That sounded like Greed.

“I’m comin’ with you. You might need help,” Old Harley said. “Let’s go.” After a pause, he added, “Ahh, you might want to bring a gun.” He pulled his coat open to show Burn the huge antique hog-leg pistol in his belt.

“A gun.” After a moment of silent face-off, Burn gave up and jogged down to the cabin for his Glock. He didn’t even want to think about the reason behind Harley’s suggestion.

“Looks like this is our lucky night,” Harley said after about half an hour of mostly silent hiking up hill. He pointed at a patch of damp sand. “Reckon the leak’s just up ahead.”

Burn rounded a spur of rock and sent the flashlight beam flicking over a patch of wet sand that led to a pool of water that sparkled in the light.

“Yep. I thought so,” Harley said, pulling the enormous revolver out of his belt.

Burn realized the sparkles occurred in pairs. And moved. “Those are…eyes,” he said.

“Yep.” Harley let out a loud ‘Heyaaa!’ that had Burn jumping.

The eyes disappeared.

“Coyotes?” Burn asked.

“Yep. Gone now. They don’t like people much. But watch out for snakes.”

Snakes. Of course. He watched out.

“Looks like we’re alone,” Harley pointed out. “Pipe’s broken right over there.” He flashed the light around the break, stopping on a line of footprints. “I’ll be dad-ratted. Looks like someone was runnin’ through here and tripped on the pipe. Musta happened last night, early this morning fer the tank to run dry now. Huh.”

Burn half listened, his attention on the water gushing out of the pipe. He’d done a fair number of plumbing repairs in his day, but never working underwater, as it were. “A learning experience,” he muttered.

“Yer never too old t’ learn,” Harley said. At least he held the light steady while Burn cut out the damaged section of pipe and fitted the new piece he’d carried with him in place.

“I think that’ll do it,” Burn said when he’d finished, and climbed to his feet.

“Looks like it. We can check the tank on the way down.” Harley slapped him on the back. “Good job, boy. Jake’d be proud of you.”

Burn squished down the hill behind Harley, colder and wetter than he could remember being. And there wouldn’t be enough water for a hot shower.

Even if he had a water heater.

Chapter 9

Unfortunately, no one told Fate that Burn wasn’t a cop anymore. When he walked down the road to Harley’s store the next afternoon, the middle of Main Street had something new. Two men stood in the middle of the bare, dusty expanse of the street, slugging each other with enthusiasm.

He stopped. No taser. No handcuffs. No back-up.

No way.

Even if he’d still been in uniform, he’d have thought twice about taking this on alone.

He skirted the action and went up the steps to Abe’s porch. Abe, Old Harley, and Helen stood there, watching the fight.

One of the guys he recognized. One of Bull’s kids. He’d apparently been driving Bull’s old VW van, because it was parked—abandoned, more like, nose up to the board sidewalk in front of Old Harley’s store. The other combatant must be one of the renegade bikers, because a chrome-dusted motorcycle sprawled at the edge of the road. Just one bike. He cast a wary glance around the scene. Where were the other three?

Not visible. He turned back to watch the fight, but kept a suspicious eye on the street.

The fight looked pretty even. Bull’s kid was giving a good account of himself. But just in case… Burn’s Glock was securely locked in the Jeep up at his house, of course. “How about a gun, Abe?” he asked.

Abe nodded. “Go on in. There’s one under the cash register.”

Burn nodded and went in. He came out a moment later with the grandfather of all pistols. “What is this thing, a ninety caliber?”

Abe snickered. “My old forty five. I’ve had that gun nigh onto seventy years now.

Burn believed it. But backup was where you found it, and Abe’s six-shooter was the best he could do today. Couldn’t hurt to have it handy.

As he turned back to the fight, he caught a dark shape out of the corner of his eye and whirled toward the van. Something was behind it. Burn jumped off the porch and peered around, trying to identify whether it was friend or foe.

Oh, jeez. He jumped up and ran. Bull lay on the ground looking dazed, his wheel chair on its back about ten feet away. Burn bent over him. “Bull?”

Bull’s gaze slowly focused on him. “Burn.”

“You hurt?” Burn crouched and gave him a once-over. No bleeding, no broken bones, no unequal pupils.

“Just my dignity,” Bull said. “How about helping me…” He gestured at the chair.

Once Bull was settled back in the chair, he wheeled it around the van toward the fight. “Stupid jerks,” he muttered. “Bimmer oughtta have waited ‘til his brothers got back.”

Burn followed and stood beside him, watching the fight. Things had slowed down some, but Bimmer and the strange biker stubbornly punched on. Burn figured they were about wound down—they’d fallen into a rhythm of traded punches, no surprises, just slugging slower and slower. He glanced down at Bull, and saw that the man had produced a very efficient looking semi-automatic pistol from somewhere.

“Mind telling me what happened?” Burn said in a neutral voice.

“I was on my way to Abe’s. That guy come ridin’ into town. Lookin’ for someone, but he wouldn’t say who. Started givin’ me a bunch of lip. Bimmer drove up.” Bull gestured at the van. “They had a few words, started shovin’. Somehow my chair went over, and Bimmer was on him like white on rice.”

Stranger. Looking for someone. All of Burn’s cop instincts quivered. He ignored them. He didn’t have those anymore.

Thelma arrived in a cloud of dust, skidding her truck to a stop closer to Burn than he liked. She jumped out waving the biggest pistol Burn had ever seen outside a museum. “Stop!” she yelled. “Or I’ll shoot.” She blasted a shot into the air by way of warning.

The two combatants dove for cover, Bimmer behind the van and the stranger huddling behind his bike.

A strange stillness gripped the street.

“Uh, Thelma?” Burn said. “Why don’t you let me have the gun?”

Thelma shook her head. “It’s fine right where it is. You,” she shouted at the biker. “Stand up where I can see you.”

No response.

“I can see your butt stickin’ up, you dummy. Stand up or I’m gonna shoot it off.”

He stood, hands in the air, sullen but scared, judging by his expression.

“Thelma.” Burn stepped closer to her. “Give me the gun.”

She ignored him. “You get out here too, Bimmer.”

Bimmer emerged from behind the van. “Calm down, Thelma,” he said. “I bet this guy is ready to leave town.”

“Good idea,” she said.

“Let’s find out who he is first,” Burn said. “How about you don’t shoot me, Thelma.” He walked wide, keeping out of a direct line from Thelma’s gun to the biker. “Let’s see the driver’s license and registration, buddy.”

The biker gave him a flat, malevolent stare. “You a cop?”

“Nope.” Burn held out his hand. “But I can read just fine.”

After a brief stare-down, the biker dug in his pocket and handed Burn the two cards. Burn scanned the name and address. “So, John Smith, your business in town would be…?”

“None of your business,” Smith snarled, jerking his bike upright.

Burn kicked it out of his grip and yanked him over next to the van. “If you’re carrying concealed it is. Assume the position.” In deference to Thelma, he bit off the ‘asshole’ that wanted to complete the sentence. He patted Smith down and was almost sorry to find that he wasn’t carrying. Burn might have lost all his cop instincts, but he still had the adrenaline-junky yearning for a good excuse to mix it up. “So, what’s your business here?” he repeated.

“None of your business,” Smith repeated.

Before Burn could pursue the question, Harley’s ancient truck slewed to a stop beside Thelma’s. “What’s goin’ on, Thelma?” he yelled as soon as his boots hit the dirt.

“Some asshole makin’ trouble for Bimmer,” she yelled back.

Burn sighed. So much for deference to a lady. Not to mention that Old Harley’s gun looked even bigger and older than Thelma’s. It seemed there were a lot of things Jake hadn’t told him about Lead Gulch. Like the fact that everyone in it thought he or she was John Wayne. “Don’t point that thing at me, Harley,” he said irritably.

“Sorry, Burn. Didn’t recognize you for a minute.” Harley lowered the gun. Slightly. “Who’s that?”

“John Smith. You know him?”

Harley squinted. “Nope. But I seen him before. He stopped for gas last spring. Got pretty unfriendly when we didn’t have any. He and his buddies come through here more often than we like.”

“What’re they doing out here?” Burn asked.

“Dunno.” Harley shrugged. “We all talked about it some.”

Of course they had. Gossip was the number one occupation in Lead Gulch, near as Burn could tell. If he had tomato juice instead of orange in the morning, the grapevine buzzed like a hive of bees that had been kicked open. How did people stand it? LA might be a cold, heartless, anonymous place, but at least no one commented on the color of his shorts.

“No one could figure it out,” Harley continued. “He showed up out of the blue. Stayed a couple of nights in the camp ground out north of town. Never talked to nobody. Never went anywhere.” He shrugged again. “Takes all kinds.”

Burn considered John Smith. “We got a law against loitering?”

“Damn. We never thought of that.” Harley turned to Thelma. “We oughta talk to Chris about that as soon as she gets back.”

Thelma nodded. “Speak of the devil…”

Chris’s red truck pulled up behind Bull’s van and the bike. She climbed out—without a gun, Burn noted thankfully—and moved out of Abe and Harley and Thelma’s lines of fire. “Welcome home to me,” she said. “You didn’t have to give me a party, though.”

Everyone—except Burn—started talking at once. She held up a hand. “Burn,” she said into the silence that followed her gesture.

After he explained, she turned her attention to the silent biker. “Too bad we don’t have a jail,” she said. “We could lock him up for starting a fight.”

“Hey. He started it,” Smith said. “I didn’t—”

“Right. I’m sure you didn’t do nothin’,” Chris interrupted. She folded her arms. “You make me nervous, Mr. Smith. I don’t like people loitering around my town. So maybe you’d like to tell me what keeps bringing you back to Lead Gulch.”

Smith’s lip curled. “I like the desert.”

“There’s lots of desert in eastern California. I recommend you try someplace else.”

His glare should have withered her where she stood. “I ain’t breakin’ any laws,” he said sullenly.

Chris glanced at Burn.

Burn’s fingers itched for a computer. He’d bet his life he’d pull up a rap sheet half a mile long. He shook his head. “He’s right. Unfortunately.” But there was no law against taking pictures. Thank goodness he hadn’t lost the habit of carrying his phone even though he never got a signal in town. He pulled it out and snapped a couple of photos of Smith and his license plate.

Chris eyed Smith, her head tilted. “We can’t stop you from being here, Mr. Smith. But you’re not very welcome. Perhaps you’d like to consider that you’ll be watched closely any time you’re in town. Very closely. Whatever it is you’re up to, I don’t think you’ll have a chance to do it. You might want to take that into account when you’re planning your future travels.”

God, but Burn loved a sarcastic woman. Even travel-tousled and wearing jeans, Chris looked as cool and sharp as if she’d stepped off the cover of Lawyer’s Weekly.

“Oh, I will,” Smith said, his tone nasty. “You can bet on that. Who’d want to be in this dump anyway.”

“Ah, before you leave,” Burn said. “You had three other guys with you. Where are they?”

Smith gave him a slit-eyed glare.

Burn waited, making it clear without words he’d wait all day for an answer if he had to.

“Dead.”

“All three?

“Two.”

“Come on, Smith. You’re not leaving until I get the story. Where’s the third one?”

“Dunno where the other is. Camp, likely.”

“I think that deserves a little explanation,” Burn said mildly. “How’d they die?”

“Explosion.”

“You sure are a man of few words,” Chris said. “Unless you want to expand on that, we’ll have to assume you were cooking meth in whatever camp you’ve set up.”

“No comment.” Smith kicked the bike into grumbling readiness, popped the clutch, and left in a plume of dust and scatter of gravel.

Burn watched him go, and realized that Chris, Harley, Thelma, and Bull had moved to cluster beside him. Just as though they were a unit, shoulder to shoulder—well, shoulder to waist in Bull’s case—the townspeople watching the bad guy ride out of town. Habit had him reminding himself that he was not part of this town. He shook his head and sighed.

Apparently he was, now.

“I’m goin’ to get pizza out of the freezer,” Thelma announced. “Come on, everyone. Town meeting. We gotta celebrate Ms. Mayor’s return, and we gotta talk about some new laws.” She stamped off to her truck and peeled around to the back of her house in a plume of dust.

“Come on, Burn,” Old Harley said. “You can’t back out on this one. You’re right in the middle of it.”

No, he wasn’t going to be backing out of any more town meetings. “Sure,” he said. “Let me go by the house for a couple of six-packs.”

“Good idea,” Bull said. “Very good idea.”

Burn looked at Chris, trying to figure out how he could get her to come with him. Just five minutes alone with her would… But she turned on her heel and climbed into her truck. Oh well. Maybe later. Watching her get all Madam Mayor with the scumbucket had him fizzing with the need for a little one-on-one.

Sitting in the same room with her, watching her— Or not watching her. He had to remember that, although the old folks had diminished eyesight, they had scandal antennae that would put The National Inquirer to shame. He really did not want to spend the foreseeable future getting a lot of flack for what ought to be a little private skirmish. Anyway, it looked like being a long evening.

Long didn’t begin to describe it. First, Bimmer had to get patched up, which required every blow to be recounted and evaluated. Then the whole scene had to be described and discussed and considered and embellished about a hundred times.

Burn’s butt had gone to sleep by the time they’d finished discussing that and agreeing. Abe finally stood. “Reckon that does it,” he said. “We c’n talk about new laws next time. I got to get my beauty sleep.” He stomped out, followed by laughter, and the others creaked to their feet and followed.

“Thanks for the pizza, Thelma, Helen,” Burn said. “That was great. I’ve never been to a town meeting with such good food.”

“You’ve never been to a town meeting, period,” Helen said.

Burn gave her his best smile. “True. But I have been to a lot of council meetings in LA. So I stand by my statement.”

She fluttered and smiled. Thelma poked her. “Act your age, Helen.”

Burn held his laugh until he got out into the street. He stood for a few minutes, watching Bull and Bimmer and letting his eyes adjust to the darkness before he started walking. Away from the lighted house, the starlight was bright enough to show him the way home. Not something he’d ever see in LA, that was for sure.

He had one more thing to do tonight. One more thing that would get him face to face with the mayor.

  • * *

Chris wearily shrugged on a robe and got up to answer the door. All she wanted was a good night’s sleep, but after the hoo-haw this afternoon it had been inevitable that she’d get a visit from at least one of the oldsters. And much as she tried not to blame Jake, she couldn’t help it. If he hadn’t died without explaining to his nephew, she wouldn’t be sitting on a keg of dynamite. One with a lit fuse.

“Come in,” she said before she even saw who it was.

Burn shouldered his way into her living room.

“This isn’t exactly a reasonable time to come calling,” she said, knowing she sounded impolite and not caring at all.

She watched Burn pace around the room. “I’m not feeling exactly reasonable,” he said, only it was more of a snarl.

Somewhere in the world, there was a gorgeous man who wasn’t high maintenance. It wasn’t Burn. “What’s got your knickers in a twist this time?”

“Guns, Madam Mayor. Loaded firearms in the hands of irresponsible old geezers, senile old—”

“I don’t think you want to call any of my people senile,” Chris said over the temper beginning to roar in her ears. “There’s no ordinance against carrying a gun. Not even a loaded one. Not out here.”

Burn rubbed his chin.

Chris couldn’t stop herself from responding to the blue shadow along his jaw that almost shouted ‘testosterone’. She made herself ignore the sexy little quiver the rasp gave her.

“Doesn’t it make you nervous?” he asked.

“No,” she lied. “Those ‘irresponsible old geezers’, as you call them, have been using guns since before you were born. The guns are tools to them, just like pick-axes and dynamite. Besides, constitutional right to bear arms, remember?”

Burn flung himself down on the couch, which creaked perilously.

Chris held her breath, waiting for it to collapse. When it didn’t, she relaxed and sat on the arm of the overstuffed chair that Jake had gotten for her on the pretext of having a comfortable place to sit when he visited.

“I know all about constitutional rights,” Burn mumbled, “but don’t you worry about having a dozen gun-toting old fools running around the desert shooting at God knows what?”

How had Jake ever managed to have a nephew who was such an absolute ass? Chris narrowed her eyes. “I would, if that were the case,” she said through clenched teeth. “But I don’t worry about having a dozen competent and loyal citizens going about their lawful business.”

He returned her glare, in spades and with interest. “I can’t imagine why Jake wanted to live in this God-forsaken place, but I think I understand why he didn’t talk about you more. You must be the most unreasonable, stubborn woman in the entire western United States. How the hell did you get to be mayor?”

She managed to look down her nose at him. “Just like any other elected official. People voted for me.”

“So you should care enough about them to keep them safe.”

The words hit her like a punch in the stomach. She steadied herself, got to her feet, and walked to the door. “That’s not my job. My job is to run their town. Period.”

“And we know whose fault it will be if one of them gets shot,” he said. “Not mine, babe.”

“I don’t infringe on the rights of adults going about their own business.” She held the door open. “Now get out of my house.”

Burn stalked across the room and out the door.

“Reckon you know best, Miz Mayor. You’re the boss.”

Yeah, she was the boss. She only hoped she knew best, because she was responsible for the whole damned shooting match, town, money, and eleven mostly-indigent senior citizens.

  • * *

Burn dumped the carton he’d lugged outside onto the bonfire and glared at Old Harley. Harley hovered over the flames, clutching a shovel and a fire extinguisher. Buckets of water were lined up near the fire circle, Burn was glad to see. He wiped sweat from his forehead with one arm. “Harley, explain to me just exactly how the hell I got roped into this.”

Harley grinned. “Why, Burn,” he said. “I reckon you’re just a sucker for a pretty blonde.” He chuckled.

At least Burn figured the ‘eh-eh-eh’ noise was the old man’s version of a laugh. And maybe he was right. Chris had been hovering over Milo. She’d patted his scrawny arm and assured Burn that the old goat could clear out his storage shed without any help. Burn had watched Milo pick up a stack of about three newspapers and stagger outside looking like a heart attack on the hoof, and before he knew it, his mouth had detoured his brain and he’d promised to help.

And then Chris, damn it, had jumped in her truck and gotten out of town.

“So, tell me, Harley. If Chris is the mayor, and if she’s so damned concerned about her precious town, why is she gone so much?”

“Wa’al, today she went t’ the store t’get milk or somethin’. Tomorrow she’s goin in t’Ridgecrest to pick up some pictures. Got the camera place there ta print ‘em up real big so she can hang ‘em on her walls. She’s about the best photographer you’ll ever see.”

Burn knew a red herring when one got dragged across his question. “Yeah, fine. That explains today. What about all the rest of the time?”

The pile of burning trash suddenly required all of Harley’s attention. He carefully stirred the flames and scooped a few glowing cinders back into the center of the fire pit.

“I said, Harley, why is Chris gone so much?” Burn repeated loudly.

Harley squared off at him. “Money. What else?” he snapped, and turned his back.

Well, she could be taking off to get laid, a subject that was near and dear to Burn’s heart by this time, but no way would he say that to Harley, even if the man hadn’t been Chris’s grandfather. “I don’t know. That’s why I asked.”

“I suppose you think she’s out playin’ in Las Vegas or something,” Harley huffed. “You might just try askin’ her ‘stead of sneakin’ around askin’ other folks.”

Yeah, right. Like she’d tell him. “Sure, Harley. I’ll just do that.”

Harley swiveled to focus on something behind Burn. “Well, here’s your chance,” he said.

Burn turned, and saw Chris’s truck scud up the road in a cloud of dust. “Isn’t she home early?”

“Nope.” Harley turned his focus back to the fire. “She just went down t’the highway to the store.”

Milo tottered out of the shed with another load of old papers.

Burn leaped to take them. God. Milo looked like he was going to collapse any minute.

“I’m fine,” he snapped when Burn tried to take them.

[_O-kay. _]Burn turned back to Old Harley and the fire. Clams didn’t have anything on Harley. You couldn’t pry information out of the stubborn old so-and-so with a crowbar. Maybe he would just go ahead and ask Chris. He’d bet ten bucks she’d be over here before he could—yep, here she came, walking down the dirt track with that long, swinging stride that was such a complete turn on.

He headed back into the storage shed for more junk. Never let it be said that he shirked his assigned task. But hell, Milo must have been stockpiling old papers and magazines for fifty years. He dumped the next two boxes of stuff to be burned next to the fire and headed back, determinedly ignoring Chris and passing Milo, who staggered under a pile of old magazines. Some of those babies were old enough to bring a pretty penny on eBay, information that Milo and Harley embraced with joy. And somehow Burn had found himself set up to do the selling.

The shed was pretty much empty except for some rusted old—stuff. Nothing Burn could recognize, so he figured it was old mining equipment. Heavy, too. He loaded up with as much as he could handle and staggered, Milo-like, toward the door.

Chris’s scream galvanized him into dropping everything and bolting outside.

Chris had an arm around Milo, staggering under his collapsing weight and trying to keep him from falling. Harley threw down his shovel and fire extinguisher and leaped to help her, but Burn got there first and scooped Milo up like a baby.

“Bring him inside,” Chris ordered. “Gramps, you watch that fire.” She ran into the house.

Burn followed, and lowered Milo onto the sagging cot that was his bed. He dropped to his knees and felt under the old man’s jaw for a pulse. A little fast, a little thready, but not bad. “What happened?” he called to Chris.

“One of his dizzy spells,” she said, coming into the room with a glass of water and a bottle of pills. “I’m guessing that you didn’t remind him to take his morning dose.”

Burn sank back on his heels in shock. “Since when am I responsible—” The word stuck in his throat.

Milo groaned and his eyes fluttered open, saving Burn from having to deal with what he’d just said.

Chris shoved him out of the way and knelt at the bedside. “You forgot your morning pills, didn’t you?” she said in the softest voice Burn had ever heard her use. “You stubborn old desert rat. What are we going to do about you?” She braced an arm behind his shoulders, popped a pill in his mouth, and gave him a sip of water.

Milo swallowed obediently.

“You rest here until that takes effect,” Chris told him and lowered him back onto his pillow. She patted his cheek and pushed Burn out of the room.

Milo had closed his eyes and looked sound asleep when Burn looked back over his shoulder.

Chris closed the door gently. “You,” she whispered, not at all gently. “I want to talk to you. Outside.”

Burn had known drill sergeants on the war path who sounded friendlier. He sighed and followed her outside, ready for the sky to fall.

He wasn’t disappointed.

“You,” she repeated, her voice low and hard. “What kind of irresponsible idiot—”

He quit listening, concentrating instead on the glorious color anger brought to her eyes.

She punched his arm. “You’re not listening.”

“You’re not saying anything I want to hear.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You let Milo—”

“I didn’t let Milo anything. He’s an adult. What happened to ‘I don’t infringe on the rights of adults going about their own business’?”

“He’s on the upper edge of adult. ‘Adult’ enough to be a little forgetful. And you let him forget to take his pills this morning. You’ve lived here long enough to understand—”

Burn’s stomach clenched and he took a step back. “How many times do I have to tell you? I. Am. Not. Responsible. Not for Milo, not for you. Not for anyone except myself.”

Chris looked at him, lip curled, and hit below the belt. “Jake would be so ashamed of you,” she said, and turned back to the house.

“Hey.” Stung to the quick, Burn grabbed her arm and pulled her back to face him. “Jake was proud of me. He wouldn’t be taking me down over something that wasn’t my fault.” Even as he wanted to shake her until some of those ideas about responsibility flew out her ears, his hands registered how soft her skin was under his fingers. How close she was, so he felt her heat. How she smelled of flowers and fear. In spite of his hurt and anger, that got to him. “You were really afraid for Milo, weren’t you?”

She tried to glare at him but the effect was spoiled by a tear that escaped to hang on her eyelashes. “Of course I was. Am. He’s getting so old,” she whispered. “All of them are. Jake was the youngest one of them all.” She shivered under his hands. “Well, except for Bull and his boys, but they’ve only been here for a couple of years. They aren’t my responsibility the way the others are.”

“I don’t get why you’re so all-fired responsible for them. Even Snow White left the dwarves to get on with her life.”

She tried to smile. “Jake really didn’t tell you anything, did he?”

Burn shook his head. “Not a damned word. All he’d say was that he’d tell me when the time was right.” Sudden grief clutched at him when he remembered the visit he hadn’t made.

Chris’s eyes were hard. “Whose fault was that? He asked you to come here, but you were too busy with your—whatever—to give Jake some of your time.”

She might as well have punched him in the solar plexus. Burn’s hand dropped. “Is that what he told you?”

She looked away. “Well, no, but—”

“I told you I was in the hospital. ICU. I was too entangled with IVs and catheters and all the other aftermaths of getting shot.” He popped the buttons on his shirt and pulled it open to show her the messy scar on his chest.

Chris’s expression went blank.

Good. He’d shocked her. He’d meant to.

“When you said that before…I thought…you…were making an excuse.” Slowly her gaze moved from the scar to his face. “I’m sorry, Burn.”

“I think we’ve been on the wrong foot ever since we met,” he said. That was for sure. She’d been pushing at him since the first minute they’d met. Drive slower. Do this, help with that. He started to turn away but paused and half turned back to her while he buttoned his shirt. “And about Milo? No one ever told me he had to take pills.”

Chris looked like he’d slapped her and his conscience quivered. He was pretty sure he’d regret that conversation, but right now, stamping back to pick up the junk he’d dropped when Chris screamed, it felt damned good to— To what, Coburn? To be a complete jerk?

He stopped. Turned around. Chris stood where he’d left her, shock frozen on her face. He retraced his steps. “My turn to apologize,” he said, and stalled. What was he going to say? ‘I’ve been in a bad temper. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you?’ ‘You’ve been pushing at me since day one and I can’t take it any more?’ Both true enough, but…

Two strides brought him back to her. “Oh hell,” he said, and pulled her hard against him. Milo and Old Harley and the fire and the town blurred into nothing. His mind couldn’t hold any thought except soft. He looked down into her shocked face, losing himself in the desert-sky blue of her eyes just the way he’d wanted to since the first time he’d seen her. She looked up at him and the shock faded, replaced by something he wanted to think was a lust that matched his own. Slowly he lowered his head, giving her time to resist. She didn’t.

Her mouth was softer than he had imagined, and after a single shocked instant, responsive enough to make his ears ring and the world drop away. Her arms went around his neck and she plastered herself against him like paint.

He locked his arms around her. His mind churned through roiling, turbulent pleasure, with only one coherent thought floating to the top like cream on milk. At last. The roaring in his ears got louder and more disjointed. Chris pulled away from him, and the roar dissolved into a panic stricken shout.

“Burn! Help me!”

Oh, shit. That was Harley. Chris tore away from him and bolted toward the bonfire, Burn barely a half step behind. Harley slammed the shovel at a runaway tongue of flame. Chris lunged for the buckets of water and began dousing the fire. Burn grabbed up the discarded fire extinguisher and completed the job.

“I tossed that box of stuff on the fire. Reckon something was in it that shouldn’t have been. I looked away for a minute and the next thing I knew, there was fire shootin’ off fixin’ to just flat eat up Milo’s place.”

Burn raised an eyebrow. “Looked away for a minute, huh?” He’d bet his socks Harley had been watching that ill-advised kiss.

“Well,” Harley said, sounding like a five-year-old caught with one hand in the cookie jar. “You go kissin’ people out in broad public and you can just about bet you’re gonna get an audience.”

“Grandpa,” Chris protested.

Burn sighed. “I can’t argue that, Harley.”

“Just don’t say anything more, Grandpa,” Chris ordered. She looked from Harley to Burn and back. “Just don’t say anything. I’m going to check Milo.”

“I can take a hint,” Harley grumped, and turned back to his fire. “No way am I gonna turn into an interferin’ old busy body,” he muttered. “I wouldn’t be nosin’ into anybody’s private business, no, not me…” His words trailed off into an unintelligible mumble.

In spite of the uncomfortable mix of embarrassment, guilt, and anticipation churning in his gut, Burn had to smile.

Chris came back out of the house.

“How is he?” Burn asked.

“Sleeping. He’ll be all right soon.”

“Good. We’re about done here,” Harley said. “The fire’s almost burned down. I’ll stay and make sure it’s all out.”

“We’ll all stay,” Burn said before he thought. But he was right. He wasn’t leaving Harley to deal with this.

“Thanks, Burn. Fire is about the biggest danger we have out here, you know. Everyone has to—” Chris looked at him and bit off the words.

Pictures from Old West histories flared in Burn’s mind. A lot of towns had burned. Dry vegetation, wooden houses, limited water. “Yeah. Well, Lead Gulch isn’t going to burn down today,” he said and winced.

Just because he helped didn’t mean he was responsible.

Chapter 10

They were at it again. Burn rolled over and raised his head to listen. Yep. The quiet crunch of Chris’s tires as she rolled down the hill to stop at Milo’s. The clink of some kind of equipment as Gabby tiptoed out to the car. Damn it. He was going to find out what they were up to this time. Or else.

He threw on clothes and got to the Jeep just in time to catch a glimpse of Chris’s truck leaving town. With the engine off, he coasted silently through town, and dammit, there was Thelma peering out her window at him. He chuckled. But since cell phones didn’t work out here, she had no way of signaling the others that he was on the trail. Sure, she could send up a flare, but wildfire was a big consideration, so he felt safe.

Only two ways Chris could go from there, and he’d bet money she wasn’t headed for town, so he turned right to follow.

This time he’d stay far enough back that they wouldn’t see him. This time he’d find out what was going on. The road, if it merited that name, went north along the mountain front, and he jounced along, driving slowly enough not to raise dust and reveal his presence. He had to pause at each of the rough tracks that branched off and led up into the hills, trying to determine where she turned off. Too bad his Administration of Justice degree didn’t include tracking.

The sun finally crept over the hills and he caught the glint off her truck. Good. Still on target. A few miles farther on, he topped a small rise and saw—nothing. Except an empty road and a lot of sagebrush. He stopped and got out. No sign of anything. No dust plumes that pinpointed a vehicle, no truck, no people. “It’s like they drive out of town and disappear,” he said. “And no, even though I’m talking to myself, I don’t believe that. They’re going somewhere.”

Tracks. That would be the answer. What he needed to do was learn to sort out the evidence left in the roads. He took a few steps and bent to inspect the dusty surface. The most recent passage was clear enough. Assuming that was from someone passing this way earlier today, he could begin to figure out a time table. Or not. The earlier tracks pretty much blurred into inscrutability. But he could follow this top set, and he could photograph the tread pattern and figure out whose truck it was. He got out his pocket digital camera and knelt in the roadway.

Photographing tracks in dust was unexpectedly challenging. He tried different angles and fiddled with the zoom. The pictures still weren’t satisfactory when a raucous honk brought him to his feet. It sounded like an angry dinosaur, but proved to be only an SUV driven by an impatient-looking stranger. Stranger with tired-looking wife and two cranky kids. Tourists. He raised a hand to them and moved his Jeep.

It wasn’t until they’d gone by that he realized that they were messing up his tracks. So much for playing Daniel Boone.

He waited until the dust had settled and drove slowly along the road. He’d just have to stop at each side road and see if he could find one with fresh tracks—right, Coburn, like you could tell—and follow them. Too bad all his experience with tracks was city-cop work. All he’d ever had to do was say, ‘Yep, that’s a footprint,’ and tell the lab boys to cast it.

The first three places he stopped looked like no one had driven on them in—however long it took tracks to get blurred into nothing by wind. At the fourth, he came to full alert. Someone had driven up this road and back out. He hauled out the camera again. These tracks deserved closer inspection. He took a dozen pictures, made a couple of sketches, and he’d gotten pretty excited when he realized that this was the road he’d taken a couple of days ago. The tracks were his.

Shit.

Resisting the urge to beat his head against the steering wheel, Burn deleted the pictures of his own tire tracks and took another look at the topo map. Most of the side roads didn’t appear on it, of course.

The guy at the sporting goods store in Ridgecrest had laughed at Burn’s expression when he’d first seen the map, but he’d been nice enough to explain, and now Burn was pretty good at reading it, if he did say so himself. So he knew he was here, and  he’d explored half a dozen canyons leading up into the hills. There were at least that many more within an hour’s drive from Lead Gulch, and he intended to check out every one of them.

He was getting lots of exercise, not just banging around these roads, but hiking up into the mountains at the end of every little track. Most of them petered out at deserted-looking mine entrances, scary places that didn’t tempt him to explore inside.

The day was yet young, and the need to see what was over the next hill—or around the next bend and up the next canyon—gripped him. He started the Jeep and drove to the next intersection. If one could call the divergence of a seldom-used track from a sometimes-used track an intersection. He didn’t see any sign of traffic in the recent past, so he went on.

The fourth road looked more promising. Someone had driven up it recently, so he did the photograph-and-measurement-and-sketch thing, then followed on up the canyon.

The road ended at the usual mine entrance, but a trail led up the hillside. Burn parked the Jeep and hauled out his pack. Two things he hadn’t had to be told about this country were always wear a hat and always carry water.

He had plenty of time, and plenty of curiosity about where the trail led, even though the lack of cars told him Chris and company wouldn’t be found here, so he pocketed his keys and set off up the side of the mountain.

Eventually, after the trail had divided three times, he reached the top. The top of a ridge, not the mountain range. And he’d accidentally and stupidly left the topo map in the vehicle, so he had no idea where he was.

Shit.

No, all he had to do was follow the trail back down hill to find the car.

Except that it wasn’t that easy. He tried backtracking his own footprints, but where the trail ran across bare rock there were no signs of his passage. He stepped up on the highest rock and surveyed his options. Sagebrush. Rocks. Hills. All he had to do was keep going down.

His stomach was gnawing on his backbone and the sun was on the verge of disappearing over the horizon when he reached what he thought was the main road. Main road. He snorted. Two rut dirt track. But Abe had assured him that the county came out and graded it every few years, and if you were persistent enough, it eventually led to a real town with real paved streets.

The problem was, he had no idea where the Jeep was. He’d totally missed it on the way down hill. Now he’d have to find the road he’d taken and climb up to it. Hell.

Just plain hell.

He stood in the middle of the road, looking north, then south, toward town. Walking back to town was always an option if he chose to go south and the car was actually north of where he stood. Except that it was getting late and he wasn’t sure he’d make it by dark.

Abe and Old Harley laughed at him and called him City Boy. Out here all alone and not sure what to do, he privately admitted they had a point. He’d known enough to get decent boots, and to take water with him whenever he left town, but after that, well, they weren’t far off the mark. Not that he’d admit it out loud. He was a fast learner and he’d gotten a book on wilderness survival, but it was all about how to keep bears out of your food, and moss on the north side of trees. As if. He hadn’t seen a tree since he’d left LA.

Okay. Back to the matter at hand, which was desert survival. Today. Think.

He swung the pack off his back and pulled out the canteen for a drink, but there were only a couple of swallows left. Maybe it would be a good idea to save them. Immediately his mouth went dry as present-day Mars and he was ready to kill for cool, clear water. He looked out over the dry landscape and listened to the mental soundtrack thoughtfully provided by the Sons of the Pioneers.

He was smart. He could figure this out. Tracks. All he needed to do was look at the tire tracks and see if he’d driven past here. He knew what his own tire tracks looked like. He bent over the dusty road, glad that no one was around to watch him doing this bloodhound impersonation.

Of course that was the moment a car came around the bend. He grabbed his pack and leaped out of the way.

Of course the car stopped. He’d already learned that folks out here tended to stop to ask if help was needed. Good idea, since it could be days before another car passed.

Of course it had to be Chris, since he was looking so particularly inept.

“Lose something, City Boy? Like your car, maybe?”

Man, he hated this. “Not exactly,” he said. Well, he hadn’t. “It’s on a track that goes up to a mine.”

“All of the side roads go up to mines.” She sounded exasperated. “Describe it.”

Right. It looked like every other dead end road/mine combination he’d seen so far. Except for the foot path.

That seemed to be enough, because she nodded when he described it. “That’s the old Four Star Mine. Get in. I’ll drive you up there.”

Terse. Business-like. Didn’t look like he’d get to follow up on the so-excellent kiss from yesterday. He sighed and climbed in. set the pack on the seat between them and said, “Thanks.”

She put the truck in gear and bumped along the rutted track.

“I’ve got to admit it feels good to sit. Even in this corn popper,” he said.

Chris cocked an eyebrow at him. “Been doing a little exploring?”

“Just getting acquainted with my new home.”

“Find anything interesting?”

“Not so far. Is there anything interesting out here? I haven’t seen anything except sagebrush and old mines.”

“That’s about it,” Chris said. “You want to be careful about going into the mines. Some of them are far from safe.” She gave him a sideways glance, for all the world as though she were checking to see if he’d take her advice.

No problem there. He had no intention of spending time in one of those dank death-traps. “I can believe that. No, I have no interest in exploring a potential tomb.”

“Smart choice.” She relaxed her shoulders and gave all her attention to a curve in the road.

Burn was still puzzling over that interaction when she whipped onto the track he’d taken that morning and pulled up beside his Jeep.

If he were still a cop, he’d have to say she had some interest in keeping him out of the mines.

  • * *

“Gramps.” Chris grabbed Old Harley’s arm before he could leave the store. “We have to talk.”

“Thought you might have something on your mind,” Harley said. “The way you was waitin’ for Bull to leave and all.”

“I do.”

His smile went from ear to ear. “Burn.”

“Stop grinning at me like some superannuated cupid. He’s suspicious.”

Harley straightened. “Of what?”

“What do you think? He’s seen us leave town in the mornings.”

“I thought we fixed that the first time he snuck outta town and hid up on Two Toes Hill.”

“Apparently not. He keeps asking me what’s going on. I don’t think he’s going to give up. And I caught him out looking at mines yesterday. And again today.”

“So what do you think we should do?”

“We’ve got to keep him from finding the mine.”

“Goes without saying,” Harley said, his gravel voice not giving her any answers.

“What about having someone go out with him every day and steer him somewhere else?”

Harley nodded. “That should do it. Don’t reckon it’ll be easy, though.” He eyed her suspiciously. “Who’ve you got in mind?”

“Well.” Chris grinned at him. “It ought to be someone who could distract him. Like with lots of stories about the history of Lead Gulch.”

“Uh huh.” He raised an eyebrow at her.

“You,” she said. “And Abe.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

“Because you know you two would be the best ones to do it, that’s why. Don’t be such an old poop. You know what’s at stake.”

“Yeah, I know. I also know that if you leveled with Burn and got him to kick in like Jake did, we wouldn’t have any problems. Our little enterprise could go back to funding the frills instead of being life or death.”

Chris sighed. “I know. And you know as well as I do that there’s no certainty that he’ll take on Jake’s role. Besides, he could shut down the whole thing. We don’t know enough about him. He’s got the money, but no interest.”

“Oh, he’s interested, all right. In you. But I sure wish Jake had told him,” Harley muttered.

“I know. Me, too.” She fixed her grandfather with an imploring stare.

“Okay, Okay. I’ll go talk to Abe,” he said. “We’ll set up something for tomorrow.”

  • * *

The next morning, Burn slept until he woke. No more alarms, no more trying to follow those dawn raiders. But he wasn’t giving up. If he couldn’t follow them, he could keep searching on his own. And at his own pace.

After a leisurely breakfast, he fed Dog, loaded the Jeep, and rolled out of town. With the map open on the seat beside him, he picked a likely-looking road to follow. If you could call two tracks with fewer rocks and marginally less sagebrush than the surrounding terrain a road. At least it headed up hill, and this was an area he hadn’t explored yet.

He didn’t have to keep doing this. He hadn’t found a single thing that said Jake had been killed. He hadn’t found a single clue to the town’s mysterious secret. At least he might have discouraged Chris from trying to interest him in civic pride or whatever she’d been babbling about. Helping when a job was too hard for the old guys was one thing, but he wasn’t responsible. He wasn’t getting involved. Repeat. He. Wasn’t. Responsible. So he could pull up stakes and split as soon as the tox report came through.

But he’d gotten kind of addicted to this exploration of the mountains around the so-called town, and it was a great way to stay in shape. Hell, he was in better shape than he’d ever been.

Not to mention the curiosity factor. He’d seen a lot of stuff he’d never expected, and it made quite a change from the life he’d left behind. One afternoon he’d spent a while watching a hawk circling silently, intent on the ground. Hunting for lunch, he guessed, and knew he was right when it plummeted toward the ground. After a serious thudding sound, it rose skyward carrying a limp rabbit.

Another day he’d found flat, stacked rocks that he’d finally figured out were the foundations of some long-ago miner’s home. Downhill from it, a few yards away in a little wash, he’d come across a woman’s high button shoe, the leather cracked and brittle, the whole thing scarcely as long as his hand. Instead of an afternoon of fighting LA traffic, he’d been sitting on a rock trying to imagine what life had been like for that miner’s woman.

Today he was on the track of a patch of bright green he’d spotted on the mountain side, startling against the grey and tan of the hills. At the end of the so-called road the slope steepened abruptly, and there was the inevitable dark, uninviting mine shaft bored into the rock. Not for him. He tugged on his hat, hoisted his heavy-with-water pack, and started up the hill.

By the time he’d gotten halfway to the crest of the mountains, he was sweating like a whole herd of pigs and the heat pressed down on him like he was a shirt on his mother’s ironing board. Be damned if he was going to stop, though.

He made it over one more ridge and stopped short. A little creek trailed off downhill, lined with bright vegetation like he’d seen from the road. And up hill—his jaw dropped. Water tumbled over rocks into a pool that was easily twenty feet across. Right here in the middle of the desert he’d found paradise.

He had the pack off by the time he reached the rocks tumbled around the edge of the water. His clothes hit the ground faster than that coyote had jumped on lunch, and he was splashing his way toward the tumbling fall. Bliss. He floated on his back with his eyes closed.

His fingers looked shriveled by the time he decided he’d better get out. But damn, what a find. A place to visit again and again, for sure. He waded back to the rocks where he’d left his clothes and pack. The boots and pack were right there, at the edge of the water. The clothes must have fallen down on the other side of the rock.

He edged around the rock, cursing the bits of sharp gravel, but—no clothes. What the hell? This was the right rock. The boots and pack proved it.

A clatter of falling rock made him look up. Chris picked her way down the hill beside the waterfall. “Hey, Burn,” she called. “I didn’t expect to find you here.” She sounded completely casual, as though she hadn’t noticed that he wasn’t wearing a single stitch.

His first reaction was to dive behind a rock. Or pick up his pack and hold it in front of him. Hell, no. He wasn’t cowering like a frightened virgin. If she was going to pretend to be casual, he could too. “I didn’t expect to see you, either,” he said, and looked around the rock again. Dammit, his clothes had to be here somewhere.

“Lose something?”

“Yeah. My damned clothes.”

She muttered something he didn’t understand. Sounded like ‘Mr. July’.

He couldn’t argue.

“Wait a minute. I’ll put on my boots and look—”

“Can’t you remember where you put them?”

“Of course I remember. They aren’t there.”

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, Burn. How could they be gone? I’m going to come find them.”

Burn rounded the rock and stood looking at a patch of damp sand. “I’ll be damned. Someone took them.”

“Are you crazy? No one—”

He pointed to the clear track in the sand. “Running shoe. Big size, probably a man.”

“Must be some tourist,” Chris said. “No one around here wears running shoes. Anyway, it’s probably an old track.” She came up to his side and leaned over the track. “Well, no. You’re right. This is really fresh.”

Hmm. Another skill he didn’t have. He’d have to remedy that. But not until he got un-naked. “You wear running shoes,” Burn pointed out. “I’ve seen you.”

“Only when I’m in town.”

“And this is a lot bigger than your foot. So you’re off the hook. Although…” He looked at her speculatively. “I didn’t hear you drive up.”

“I didn’t come up from the valley. I walked down from up there.” She waved toward the top of the hills.

He hadn’t been up there yet. Hadn’t found a road, but there must be one. She hadn’t walked out here from town. He might have found the Lead Gulch spa, but clearly there were things he hadn’t found.

Some kind of bug bit him on the ass and he realized he was standing buck naked talking to the mayor and getting sunburned in places he’d rather not have toasted. “So—about my clothes.”

“Let’s look.”

He searched around the edge of the pool while she quartered the rest of the area. After fifteen minutes there was no doubt—his clothes were gone.

Burn scratched his head. “I don’t get it. I haven’t seen another living thing out here today. Except you. And a coyote. He didn’t take them, and you didn’t have to steal them, honey. I’d take my clothes off for you anytime.”

The expression on her face almost made him laugh. Her eyes narrowed and her nostrils flared, and he thought she was going to fire up and say a lot more. Instead she snapped into Madam Mayor mode, huffed out a breath, and said, “I didn’t take your clothes. Nothing like this has ever happened before, and I swim up here all the time. At least you have your boots.”

Pictures of Chris romping in the pretty pool sprang full-blown and Technicolor into in his mind. He shook them away and considered what she’d just said. If he didn’t have boots he’d be up shit creek. He could scramble back downhill without his clothes, but without footwear, forget it. Every time he turned around, he discovered another lethal aspect of this place. So someone had tried to—what? Embarrass him? Just cause trouble? But not kill him. Nah. That was the cop talking. But why—?

“You’re getting pretty burned,” Chris said. “I don’t suppose you have anything to wear in that pack.”

“You suppose right. I just plumb forgot to pack my extra tuxedo. I’ll have to remember that next time.”

Chris dug into her pack. “Don’t be such a smart ass. Here.” She handed him a flat, yellow pouch.

“What—?”

“It’s my emergency poncho. It’ll be uncomfortable, but you won’t get burned to cinders.”

He opened the pouch and shook out a thin plastic square. “Thanks,” he said, and pulled it over his head. It was about twice as wide as he was, and about half as long as he wanted.

“Fetching.”

“You’ve been listening to Jake.”

She looked shaken. “It just popped out. It was one of his favorite words.”

Yeah. “I know.” He turned away from the shared grief. “I suppose you’re going to tell everyone about this.” And then, geez. The small-town gossip mill would get to work.

“You could set a new fashion,” she added with mock seriousness.

Hell. He’d never live this down. He wasn’t going to dignify her comment with a response, so he sat gingerly on a rock to put on his boots. When he’d tied the laces, he stood carefully, mindful of the shortness of the poncho. “Thanks,” he said and started picking his way back down the hillside. He could feel her gaze on his back until he’d rounded the spur of the hill and was out of sight.

“Well, that was fun,” he said to no one in particular. Standing around starkers. Looking like a complete loser who couldn’t keep track of his clothes. And speaking of looking, he didn’t even want to think about what he looked like after about an hour in that cold water. He could probably give up any hope of getting Her Honor into the sack. Not his finest hour.

And now that he thought about it, how could she be so casual about his lack of clothes? All modesty aside, he knew he was—well—a hunk. Enough women had told him so. But Chris hadn’t shown any reaction. She hadn’t been shocked. She hadn’t been attracted. She hadn’t stared, and she hadn’t worked at not looking. What the hell was that all about?

The poncho stuck to his skin and held in every calorie of the heat he generated scrambling over the rocks, and how the hell did women stand skirts flapping around their legs? The edges of the poncho scraped across his thighs every time he took a step. Good thing it wasn’t a few inches shorter.

More to the point, what the bloody hell was the whole missing clothes thing? Someone had taken them. But who? And how? And why? Whoever it was had been damned quiet. Or not. Burn had been floating along with his eyes closed, and the waterfall had been loud enough to blot out anything short of a 747. But he could have opened his eyes at any second, so whoever it was either had brass balls or was crazy.

Of course, everyone out here could be considered crazy. That didn’t mean he wasn’t going to find out who had done it.

He smiled, a sour twist of the lips. Apparently you could take the cop off the job, but you couldn’t make him stop being a cop.

At least this time, his investigation wasn’t going to get someone else killed.

Chapter 11

A week later, Old Harley showed up just after dawn, rousing Burn from a most pleasant dream about the mayor and the swimming pool he’d found, only it had a big, soft bed next to it. He stumbled to the door and growled something that Harley apparently interpreted as “Good morning.”

By the time Burn had gotten fully awake, he was dressed, fed, and driving up another one of those maddening excuses for a road listening to Harley’s discourse on desert scenery. He stopped next to the inevitable mine entrance, wondering what the town was up to now.

Harley hopped out and started chugging up the hill. “Come on, boy. Day’s awastin’.”

Couldn’t have that. Resigned to this new approach, Burn grabbed his pack and followed. Ten minutes later, he blessed every minute he’d spent out looking around these hills. When he’d arrived out here, he was used to being the head jock, the one who was in super shape. But here, in the mountains surrounding Lead Gulch, wizened little seventy-year-old men and women had been able to out-hike and out-climb him every day in the week.

He stopped beside Harley, pleased he wasn’t gasping for breath.

“That’s one steep bugger,” Harley observed.

He wasn’t out of breath either, Burn noted with some resentment. “Yeah. Sure is. So why did we have to climb all the way up here?”

Harley grinned, and Burn fought an ungentlemanly urge to knock a few more of his yellowed teeth out. “Good view, ain’t it?”

It was. “But is it worth the climb? Or is it another one of Chris’s little plots to get me out of the way?” That’s what Burn was betting on, but he’d like to get Harley —anyone—to admit it.

Harley kept his gaze on the far horizon and didn’t turn to look at Burn. “No plot,” he said. “Just helpin’ you get in shape, and givin’ you a chance to get oriented. Body can see just about ever’thing from up here.”

“Sure, sure,” Burn muttered. “See all the way from Canada to Mexico. I know. I got the same story from Abe last week when he hauled me up some other mountain.” He was tempted to say something like, ‘Come on, Harley, admit it. It’s all a plot to keep me from finding out what you’re doing out there.’ But he knew it wouldn’t work, and anyway, did he really care what these old duffers were doing? They weren’t exactly one of the big time Colombian cartels, and—he shouldn’t have to keep reminding himself—he wasn’t a cop anymore.

Harley spat tobacco juice at a luckless sagebrush and chuckled. “But that was Dead Coyote Hill. This one here’s Rattlesnake Hill. Y’get a whole different view from here.”

“Looks pretty much the same to me,” Burn grumbled, taking a more careful look around for snakes.

“That’s ‘cause you’re still lookin’ like a city boy. Y’got to learn to see, not just look. Jake’d be ashamed of you, danged if he wouldn’t.”

That hurt. Burn grunted and looked off into the distance, following Harley’s gaze. “Just a lot of sagebrush,” he said. “Scarcely worth the climb.”

Harley flicked a scathing glance at him. “Damn, boy. You got yourself one thick head. I bet you got kept after school all the time when you was a kid.”

“Yeah, but not for an inability to see through sagebrush,” Burn said. After a pause, he asked, “So what am I’m missing?”

Harley nodded, as if satisfied. “Waal, for starters, see that fan on the side of the hills behind town?” He pointed at the cone-shaped wedge of dirt leading out of a canyon farther along the mountain front from where they stood.

“Yeah.” Burn shrugged. He wasn’t in the mood for a geology lesson. “So?”

“So that’s all rocks and gravel carried down out of the mountains by water.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Water. Flash floods. You and Abe already gave me that spiel.”

“It’s important. Takes one hell of a lot of water t’ move all that rock. It rains up in the mountains, the water rushes down the canyon and comes out here. If we’re real unlucky, it makes it as far as the town.”

Right. “And when was the last time that happened?”

“Oh, maybe about nineteen ought and four. Mines around here was still workin’ and the town was still goin’ strong.”

“Guess I won’t lose any sleep over it, then,” Burn scoffed.

“Wiped out the whole danged town,” Harley said with a ‘you’ll learn’ look before he turned back to the view. “That there’s the hill up in back of your house,” he said, and pointed. “And there’s the road to town. If you go off to the right, you can end up in Ridgecrest.”

A flash of motion caught Burn’s eye. A dog—Dog?—no, probably a coyote—trotted along the tiny creek below. “What’s that?”

Harley squinted. “Down in the gulch?”

Burn nodded. “I guess it’s a coyote. Or Dog. What would she be doing way out here?” He watched with a smile, because every so often it leaped in the air and pounced like a puppy at play.

“‘Tain’t Dog. She stayed home with Bull today. That’s a coyote. He’s ahuntin’ him some lunch, I reckon.”

Harley had barely finished his sentence when the coyote leaped in the air and pounced.

The action was too far away for Burn to make out the particulars, but the small limp shape in the coyote’s mouth suggested he was going to dine in style.

“Got hisself a rabbit,” Harley said. “Kinda cute the way he jumped right on it.”

“Looked like he was playing. Guess the game wasn’t so much fun for the other players.”

Harley shrugged. “Dog don’t look much like a coyote. I’d expect a cop to be better at seein’.” He glanced sideways at Burn. “That there’s the highway,” he said, pointing westward to a barely visible line in the distance. An occasional glint of light from a passing windshield was the only way to tell it was a road.

Another movement caught Burn’s attention. “Who’s that?” He pointed to a tiny figure in the mid distance.

“Reckon that’s Young Harley.”

“So what’s the story with him?” Burn asked. “I never see him except when he’s leaving town or coming back to town, and he’s always hauling garbage bags.

Harley was silent for so long that Burn began to wonder if he hadn’t heard the question. “Young Harley’s a bit simple,” he said.

“Yeah, I got that.”

“No relation to me, by the way.” Harley cocked his head and looked at Burn, as if daring him to comment.

Burn tried to look interested but non-judgmental.

Apparently he succeeded, because Harley continued. “He spends all his time collecting aluminum cans. And trash. Got this bee in his bonnet about keepin’ the desert clean. And he gets enough from the cans to pay for drivin’ around and gettin’ the trash. Jake set that up. Afore he came, we just took the cans to the county dump.” He paused, watching Young Harley. “Reckon we need more Young Harleys, the way people litter these days.” He unhooked a canteen from his belt and held it out to Burn. “Abe ever tell you the story about the Four Aces Mine?”

Burn felt like he’d grown to the rock by the time Harley stopped talking. The sun was starting its downward slide and Burn spotted a puff of dust that said a car was heading back to town before Harley wound down to silence.

“Quite a lecture, Harley,” he said. “I feel as though I should have been taking notes.”

“Probably wouldn’t hurt you none to know this stuff, if you’re thinkin’ to stay out here,” Harley grumbled, but his glance was shrewd and questioning when he looked at Burn.

“Oh, I’m staying,” Burn said. “This may be a weird place, but it’s a hell of a lot better than LA.”

“You sure said a mouthful there.” Harley shoved himself to his feet. “Might as well start back,” he said.

“Why not?” Burn rose. The dust tails said all four cars were on the road now, and they were just about back to town. So Harley had been assigned to keep him out of the way. Burn tried to squelch that cop sense that told him he ought to be investigating here. He wasn’t a cop any more. No curiosity. No detecting, not unless he found something that said his initial suspicions about Jake’s death were right. He turned and followed Harley down the hill.

All the way back to town, Burn scoured the countryside for tracks, for some hint of where the townies had spent the day. But of course he couldn’t see anything.

Burn pulled up behind Harley’s store and left the engine running.

“Might go over to Thelma and Helen’s tonight,” Harley said. “You gonna be there?”

Burn shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. Got some stuff I need to get done,” he said vaguely. “Thanks for the lesson.” He waved and drove slowly up the street toward his house.

He was about to turn left up the hill to go home when he saw Young Harley’s truck turn into the rutted track that lead to his house. Curiosity had him following. Harley was unloading some of those big garbage bags when Burn parked beside him. “Want some help, Y. H.?”

“Sure. Thanks, Burn.” Young Harley grinned his foolish grin and hoisted another couple of bags out of the truck. “I found a lot today. See? I got two bags of cans, and all those bags are trash.”

Burn grabbed a couple and followed Y. H. around the house. Two huge stacks of bags nudged up against the back porch. “Just about time to clear this out, isn’t it?” he asked just to be saying something. He never quite knew how to talk to Young Harley.

“Next week. I’m gonna take them away next week. I like the way you call me Y. H. I never had a short name like that before.” Young Harley tossed his bags on one of the stacks. One split, and aluminum cans cascaded out. “Oops,” he said. “I guess that bag got left out in the sun too long. I use those bio—biode—” He stopped, his forehead crinkled in frustration.

“Biodegradable?” Burn said.

“Yeah.” Relief spread across Young Harley’s face. “Those bags. So they don’t last long in the sun.” He grabbed a new bag from just inside the back door and bent to pick up cans.

Burn turned the top of the bag down so it would hold its shape and joined him, tossing the cans into the open bag.

“Thanks, Burn.” Harley said with his shy, somehow goofy, grin when they had finished. “That was mighty nice of you.”

“No problem, Y. H.” Burn turned and headed for the safety of his own house, fighting the feeling that he’d slipped again, right into responsibility land. What the hell was wrong with him? Volunteering to help anyone do anything was supposed to be part of his past. He didn’t do that kind of thing any more. Not for anyone.

It wasn’t until he was almost all the way home that he realized that every single can he’d picked up in Young Harley’s yard had been a Mexican brand of beer. Unless he sorted his cans a lot more than seemed possible, American beer wasn’t being made any more, or else something strange really was going on in Lead Gulch.

He chewed on that as he got out of the Jeep. When he hauled himself up the steps to the porch, he had to admit it: job or no job, he was still a cop.

  • * *

After a night of dreaming about Mexican beer cans, Burn got up, made coffee and took it out to the porch as usual. Not as usual, he had that cop itch in his mind that told him he’d found something significant: those beer cans meant something. He was going to find out what, come hell or high water. At least that investigation would keep him from going nuts while he waited for the tox screen results.

So today he’d talk to Y. H. and find out where the cans came from. If he found Mexican ones all the time or only sometimes. If Jake really had been universally loved. What the town secret might be.

Y. H. had already left for the day. Until he returned, Burn needed something to keep his mind busy. One undone task nagged at him. He’d put it off long enough. Not once in the three plus weeks he’d been in Lead Gulch had he been able to face packing up Jake’s belongings and getting rid of the stuff he didn’t want.

Today was the day.

He started in the kitchen. That should be easy. Those were impersonal things he’d been using since he’d arrived, and he knew what to keep and what could go. And it was easy. Too easy, because no matter how much he dawdled, he couldn’t put off the moment he had to walk into the room where Jake had died.

He’d been sleeping there, but somehow, planning to go through Jake’s belongings made it feel different. He stood in the doorway and looked at the room. Sooner or later he had to deal with the clothes, the things that must have meant something to his uncle. The personal stuff Burn had been pretending wasn’t there.

Just as he’d feared, going through Jake’s room was one of the hardest things he had ever done, right up there with dealing with his Dad’s belongings. Jake hadn’t had many possessions. Clothes in surprisingly good shape. Some desert gear, canteens and hats and such, which Burn had been using with gratitude, and would keep. And books.

Book cases lined the whole bedroom, a better library than some small towns, and he looked forward to working his way through it. It would feel almost like talking to Jake to read his books and remember the discussions they’d had of things they’d read.

Jake had also owned the most gorgeous mineral specimens Burn had ever seen. Better than the ones he’d seen that first day at Abe’s station, and better than the ones everyone else had. Not that he had any idea what they were. He supposed he could find out. When he had time.

Someone knocked on the door and he shot out of the room to answer. For once, he was damned glad of the interruption.

Doubly glad when he saw it was Chris.

“I came over to tell you—oof!”

Burn had pulled her through the doorway and hard against him for a welcoming kiss.

“Wow,” she said when he loosened his grip. “Happy to see me or something?”

“More than glad to see you. You’re saving me.” He tugged her toward the bedroom.

She dug in her heels. “What’s gotten into you? This isn’t a booty call, Burn. I just came over to tell you—”

He kissed her again.

“I came to tell you…something. I’m sure there was something.”

He smiled. At least he wasn’t the only one affected by the kiss.

She stepped back. “You’re going through Jake’s things.”

“I’ve barely gotten started. I gotta tell you, I’m not looking forward to this. Yeah, you can help.” As if she’d asked. But if she helped, she’d be around. In his house. Right close to his bedroom. And his bed. Couldn’t go wrong with that.

“Okay. I’m happy to help.”

His interest in Jake’s belongings dropped to about minus ten on a scale of one to five. “Aha. So this was a booty call.”

She shook her head, but the quirk at the corner of her mouth told a different story. “You shouldn’t have to do this part alone. I’ll help. Clothes first?”

He nodded.

She emptied the three dresser drawers onto the bed, and turned to the curtained off corner that provided hanging space. “You and Jake were about the same size. Do you want to keep any of this?”

He couldn’t have done it without her. When he got to the one suit of ‘city clothes’ Jake had kept, memories rose to choke him and he had to turn away.

Chris zipped the suit back in its protective bag and hung it in the makeshift closet.

When he turned to her, she had done a rapid sort of the clothes on the bed. “I thought you might want these things.” She pointed to a pile at the foot of the bed. “And these could go to the Goodwill in town. Too bad Jake was so much bigger than anyone else here in town. Some of the guys could use warmer winter clothes.” She whisked the keepers back into drawers as she spoke.

They didn’t have warm enough clothes? Jake had said the winters got unbelievably cold out here. Burn shuddered and made a note to add long underwear to his next shopping list. He might not want to be responsible for those irritatingly independent old guys, but the thought of them shivering in their shacks all winter—he couldn’t deal with that.

The clothes had been the easy part. Burn stepped back and eyed the bookcases. The books he could enjoy at his leisure, but two bottom shelves held boxes and a couple of oversized books with dark blue cloth covers. He’d avoided them like rattlesnakes, figuring they would be full of family photos that would only add to his load of grief.

While he tried to figure out how not to look, Chris picked up a folder that had been on top of the books. “Oh, look. These are all the clippings he hadn’t put in his scrapbook yet.” She handed it to him.

His jaw dropped when he saw what filled the folder. “He didn’t.”

“He did. He used to sit down every three or four months and put them in that big scrapbook.”

Burn set the folder aside without saying anything. What could he say? The last thing he’d expected Jake to save was every newspaper clipping that had mentioned him, by name or not.

The boxes were even more wrenching.

His letters. He and Jake had exchanged actual, old-fashioned letters. Written on paper and sent snail mail. “At least he didn’t tie them with red ribbons,” he tried to say, but choked on the words.

Chris whisked the bundles of letters away. “I’ll put them with the album of clippings, Burn. You don’t have to deal with them until you’re ready.”

Someday. Not now.

A carefully wrapped bundle, brown paper on the outside, waterproof plastic under that, filled the second box. Only one bundle, but whatever it was, Jake really intended this stuff to last. That should have prepared Burn. It didn’t, and this was the worst emotional shock yet.

A dozen notebooks, all filled with Jake’s surprisingly legible writing. Dates were inscribed on the front of each one, and they started the year Burn’s aunt had died and continued up to the current year.

He couldn’t make himself read them.

Chris took one look at his expression and rewrapped the bundle. “I’ll put these in the other room,” she said, and left Burn alone with his grief.

  • * *

Jake would have been ashamed of him for being such a wuss. Letting feelings get in the way of investigating. He looked up when she came back in a few minutes and sat beside him on the narrow bed.

“You found Jake, didn’t you.”

She nodded.

“Tell me.”

“Does that mean rubber hoses and bright lights?”

“Yep.”

She laughed, but it was a nervous choke of sound.

“Chris, I’m not a cop any more. I left all the rubber hoses and bright lights in LA. But I need to hear about Jake.”

She moved a fraction of an inch away from him. “Really? Or is that an excuse to keep me in your bedroom?” she said, and grimaced. “Sorry. That was a lame try at a joke.”

He regained the inch. “Not so lame. I’d be happy to keep you in my bedroom any time.”

She jumped up and crossed the room to stand by the door. “We can’t—”

“We could. I’m certainly up for it any time you’re willing.”

“Not a good idea, Burn. You have no idea what it’s like being the town grandkid. I have eleven chaperones, and they watch me, I mean W A T C H me. All. The. Time. You better believe they’re keeping an eye on you, too.”

His turn to raise an eyebrow. What were they going to do—ride him out of town on a rail? Not to mention that Old Harley, Abe, Milo, and Thelma had all indicated, separately, that if he got serious about Chris, he had their permission. Of course, their idea of serious and his might not agree. “Then I better be a good boy. And I am, Chris. Very good.”

She gave him an Oh, yeah look.

He rose and went to stand beside her. So close and yet so far. “We’ll get back to this later. For now, tell me about Jake. If anything had been different before he died, how the room looked when you found him, that kind of stuff. You’d seen Jake’s room before, right?”

“Wrong. I’d never been in it before. Jake was supposed to meet me at five thirty. When he hadn’t shown up by six fifteen, I came over to find out why.”

“So you knocked on the door…”

She nodded. “When he didn’t answer, I opened the door and called to him. He—” She swallowed hard. “He didn’t answer, so I went to the kitchen and looked out back. Called to him. Checked the spare room.”

Her gaze lasered to the bed and fine tremors shook her. He put an arm around her shoulders. “Deep breath.”

“I came here. Right where we’re standing. And looked in. He was lying on the b-b-bed.”

“Okay. You’re doing fine. Tell me about the room. How was it different from the way it is now?”

She turned her head, looking away from where she’d seen Jake. “His clothes were on that chair.” She gestured to a wooden chair by the window. “The plaid shirt he wore in the mornings when it was cool. Jeans. Boots sitting beside the chair.”

He led her through a description of the room, step by step. And got nothing. Well, he hadn’t expected that she’d seen a suspicious figure sneaking out the window as she came in, or a pillow over Jake’s face.

“I’m sorry, Burn. I didn’t see anything suspicious. I know you want to prove he was murdered, but no one in town would do that, and no one went into his room before the sheriff got here. There just wasn’t any reason to be suspicious.”

Except that Jake wasn’t all that old or unhealthy. Except for Burn’s gut feeling, the one that had never led him wrong before. He didn’t say any of that to Chris. It felt so good to have his arm around her, to have her snuggled close to his side that it made him dizzy. And taking advantage of her right now would make him lower than slime. So he pointed her toward the porch and went to the kitchen for his last bottle of whiskey and a couple of glasses.

He figured she needed a drink, and Lord knew he surely did.

Chapter 12

Chris tucked the package of journals behind a couple of books on the bottom of the bookshelf on her way out to the porch. Poor Burn. He looked absolutely destroyed by the letters and notebooks Jake had saved. Almost as though he’d never known the…well, sentimental…side of his uncle.

It made her heart ache just to see his grief. Not that she hadn’t shed a few tears for her friend herself.

She heard him open a cabinet and the clink of glasses and then…nothing. When he didn’t appear after a few minutes, she went to the kitchen door and saw him sitting at the kitchen table staring out the window at the mountains. “Your uncle loved that view,” she said softly, moving to stand behind him. She rested one hand on his shoulder in silent sympathy.

He lunged to his feet and pulled her into his arms. “Oh, God, Chris. I miss him so much.”

The pain in his voice made tears burn in her eyes. “I know. I do too,” she whispered. She put her arms around him, offering the comfort of shared sorrow. Taking the same comfort from him.

His ragged breaths slowed, became even and deep. The hard warmth of his shoulder beneath her cheek, of the muscled arms locked around her soothed the sharp grief. Little by little, she became more aware of him, of the prickle of the whiskers that shadowed his jaw, of the musky scent that said Burn to her.

Her determined resistance, the noli me tángere attitude that had kept her safe for so long, began to melt, along with the core of cold, hard common sense that had controlled her life. “Burn,” she murmured.

He bent his head to her and claimed her mouth in a kiss that began as soft tenderness, but if he’d doused her in gasoline and set a match to her, she couldn’t have gone up in flames faster.

She pressed closer to him, plastering her body to his with desperate need. Her arms went around his neck, her breasts flattened against his chest and she kissed him with all the pent-up need of a lifetime spent alone in the most elemental of ways. His erection grew strong and firm against her stomach and she came on tiptoe to press urgently, to feel every bit of him.

His hands slid down her back to cup her rear, pulling her more tightly to where she wanted to be.

The kiss raged out of control, just like the fire burning inside her. She couldn’t tell if she’d pulled him toward the bedroom or vice versa, but the nudge of the mattress against her legs was proof that she stood next to the bed.

A vision of Jake flashed across her mind. And she knew with every fiber of her being that loving Burn like this was right, that Jake not only wouldn’t mind but would be cheering them on. In her mind’s eye, Jake lifted his battered old Aussie outback hat to her and strolled out into the living room. The vision was so clear she almost expected to hear the sound of the door closing behind him, and it comforted her so much she smiled through the kiss.

“You’re laughing?” Burn muttered. “I must be rustier than I thought.”

“It’s not you.” She smiled up at him. “I just thought Jake would approve.”

His response was to slide her shirt off her shoulders and let it fall to the floor. Somehow he’d managed to unbutton it while she’d been thinking of Jake and hadn’t noticed. He stripped her jeans and underpants down in one swift pull, pausing only to drop a kiss on her stomach. She gasped when he picked her up and deposited her on the bed.

“Jake would definitely approve,” he said, pulling off his own shirt and jeans and coming down beside her on the narrow mattress. He leaned over her, propped on one elbow. “So do I. I’ve wanted you right here ever since the first time I saw you.”

“You mean when you ran me off the road?”

“Yep. I figured you were a bossy little thing, but we could find better things for your mouth to do.”

“That’s—”

He cut off her protest by covering her mouth with his. His lips, soft but somehow hard and demanding at the same time, moved against hers. One of his big, calloused hands lay along her jaw.

As if she’d ever even think of pulling away from that kiss. Her hand pressed against his chest. She couldn’t tell if she felt or heard the thunder of his heartbeat, or if it was her own that shook her. The need to be closer to him licked through her veins like fire. His erection twitched against the side of her leg, as though it were too eager to wait. Her legs opened almost of their own accord.

His soft laugh teased her. “You can’t be in more of a hurry than I am,” he said against her mouth. “But I’m trying to make this good for you.”

“If it gets much better, I’ll be nothing but a pile of ashes left on your sheets,” she managed to choke out.

And then it got better.

His hand drew gently down the side of her neck and traced the curve of her breast. He covered it, and she felt her nipple rise strong and needy against his palm. His breath hitched, and his mouth followed where his hand had been.

When his mouth closed over her breast, her eyes closed with the weight of the pleasure. It was like fireworks, bright stars of desire bursting in the blackness behind her eyelids, bliss and joy and desire all mixed up together. She moaned a helpless, yearning sound of yes and more.

She smoothed her hands over his thick hair when he shifted his attention to the other breast. When his hand moved down across her belly to brush the golden hair between her legs, her hands clenched convulsively. His soft chuckle reassured her she hadn’t hurt him, and then the sensations of his fingers parting her, sliding into her were so exquisite that she had no thought for anything except the tsunamis of pleasure he was causing.

When he moved over her, hard and ready, she welcomed him. His penis pushed at the soft wetness between her legs. Yes, yes, and…maybe. She squirmed at the discomfort. He was bigger than she’d thought, apparently.

“You’re so tight,” he muttered, sounding lost in his own passion.

But he pulled slightly away, easing the pressure, and she groped for the dizzying bliss she’d felt a moment ago. His weight, pushing her down on the thin old mattress, and the hard/softness of him pressed so intimately against her urged her on.

He pushed against her again, and she tilted her hips hard up to meet him. She didn’t answer, too busy processing the amazing collection of sensations that assaulted her senses. The overwhelming fullness, as though she were being stretched to the breaking point. The wonderful, precious weight of him. And the sense of being joined to another person, the intimacy it implied.

“Chris.” His voice rasped.

In answer, she flexed, pushing and withdrawing from him.

“More.” She angled her head and lifted up to pull him into a kiss. She flexed again, mimicking the motion with her tongue.

He began to move, thrusting hard into her, pulling back, as overwhelming as big surf battering at a swimmer. She clung to him, meeting his thrusts, and he slid a hand between them. His fingers found that magic spot and she forgot pain, forgot everything except the promise of pleasure beyond anything she’d ever known. Her blood began to sing with it, and heat gathered in her, arrowing to the place between her legs where he pleasured her, until something shoved her over the edge of pleasure, everything fading away except a throbbing ecstasy like nothing she’d ever experienced before.

  • * *

Burn tilted his chair back until it rested against the dilapidated boards of the house front and kicked his feet up onto the porch rail. With one hand he lazily scratched Dog’s ears. “This is the life, Dog,” he murmured, and hoisted the icy Dos Equis in his other hand for a sip.

What a day. He’d had Chris in his bed when he woke, and the memories of yesterday with Chris to enjoy all day. She’d insisted on making the usual run to town alone. “I won’t be able to concentrate if you’re with me,” she’d said.

So she didn’t cling. Cool. He’d had a lazy day to himself. Reminiscing about yesterday. Anticipating more. He shrugged away the memory of her open honesty, her virginity, the worry she might want more than he was giving. The fear he might want to give more. This, lazy day, hot memories, cold beer, this was the way life was supposed to be.

Young Harley chugged into town with the back of his old sedan-now-chopped-into-a-pick-up-truck bulging with dark garbage bags filled with aluminum cans and trash. Where the hell did he find that many cans? And that much trash. He’d come from the east, along the road Chris had said eventually led to Las Vegas. But hardly anyone drove that way. Except John Smith and his renegade biker buddies. A question for another day.

He leaned back in the rocker and settled into a nice doze—hey, he was meditating, so it was okay, right?—when he heard another vehicle. Damn place was getting as bad as LA. But he couldn’t control the stab of curiosity, so he opened his eyes. Chris, back from the town run. She stopped down at Harley’s, hoisting a big box on her shoulder and heading for the door. He could go help unload, but she’d told him to stay away, because she couldn’t act like nothing had happened between them. As if people could ever hide the kind of sizzling heat they had. And why was she worried. He was the one likely to get a free ride out of town. On a rail.

He closed his eyes again.

The clunk of his beer bottle hitting the porch woke him from his doze. He jumped up and grabbed the bottle before all the contents foamed out onto the wood. But when he drank, it had gone warn. “Damn!” He tossed the bottle down, stretched, and rubbed his eyes.

When he looked around, he saw Chris parked by her back door, unloading her truck. He smoothed his hair and jogged across the dusty track.

Chris came out of the house, letting the door slam behind her. “Good timing, Burn,” she said with a grin. “There’s only one more load.”

He grabbed the last box at the same time as she did.

She didn’t let go fast enough, and the cardboard split.

Burn stepped back, out of the way of the cascade of boxes and cans. “Oops.”

Dog backed away and barked.

“Sorry, Dog,” Burn told him. “Nothing personal.”

Chris dropped to her knees and began gathering up the mess. “Lucky for you I already got all the breakable stuff.”

“My fault,” he mumbled. “Stop. I’ll get this cleared up. Go on inside.”

She scrambled to her feet with her arms full of canned tomatoes and detergent and stalked into the house.

He figured he’d have some apologizing to do, but Chris in a snit was so cute that he grinned while he knelt to scoop up the remaining debris, piling packages in the torn box and gathering it in his arms to keep everything from escaping again. But he was careful to erase any hint of a smile before he entered the kitchen, Dog on his heels.

Not that it mattered. Dog flopped under the kitchen table, but Chris kept her back to him and stashed canned tomatoes in a cupboard.

“Chris,” he said.

No response.

“Chris.” This time he was loud enough that Dog got to her feet and gave Burn a worried look.

“Talk to me, babe. You’re worrying your dog.”

Chris wheeled around. “Don’t—I—She— Oh, never mind. It doesn’t matter what I say. Will you just go and let me put these things away.”

It wasn’t a question the way she said it. “Aw, come on,” he wheedled. “Let me help.” He grabbed a bag from the table and started handing her the contents, one item at a time.

“I don’t need your help,” she said through gritted teeth. But she took the box he’d pulled out. And turned bright red.

Burn looked down to see what had caused that interesting reaction. Whoa, Nelly. He hadn’t ever imagined tampons came in boxes that big. “Stocking up?” he asked.

“Yes.” Chris grabbed the box and stamped out of the kitchen.

Interesting. Finding him bare-ass naked the other day hadn’t fazed her. She hadn’t been shy about sex. But this— He shook his head in bewilderment.

She was back in a minute, empty handed. She marched up to him, stopping a bare few inches away.

Her folded arms, outthrust chin, and combative glare told Burn a smart man would be on the move here. He planted his feet and grinned down at her.

“Yes, I’m stocking up. And since you’re so interested, I’ll tell you why. Because I might as well live in a fish bowl. I could be a Hollywood star with paparazzi investigating every second of my life and I’d have more privacy than I have in this town. Ever since the day I moved here, I’ve had a dozen or more people hanging over my every move.” She stopped and turned away, but not before he saw tears sparkle in her eyes.

“Chris—”

“I know they love me and they’re old and they won’t be around much longer, and God knows I miss the ones who are gone more than I can say. But you just don’t have any idea what it’s like to have all these people fixated on the most intimate details of your life.” She turned back to face him.

He reached out and caught a tear on one finger.

“But I really, really do not feel that I need to publicize every time I have a period. So I buy in bulk.”

“I wouldn’t—”

“The first time I shaved my legs,” she said, “It would have been front page news if we’d had a newspaper. As it was, every single person in town commented. And most of them had to feel. And tell me I’d missed a patch. Or comment that if I used a different kind of razor, I wouldn’t have all those nicks and scratches. Can you imagine what that was like for a thirteen-year-old girl?” The tears were gone, and she looked madder than hell, and he was the only one there to take the brunt of it. “No. You’re clearly not a girl, so I’m sure you have no idea.”

“Hey,” Burn said, indignation coloring his voice. “I can’t help it that I’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl. But I’d know better than to do something like that. Give me a little credit here.”

“Why?” She’d gone from furious to grumpy. “You forced your way into my kitchen and commented on my personal purchases. Why shouldn’t I get mad at you?”

“Because I—”

“You’re just like everyone else in town, without the excuse of being family. You’re nosy.”

“No, I—”

“So okay, you want to know all about me, here you go. She grabbed a drugstore bag from the table and upended it. “Want to go through the rest of my things? Maybe you have a few recommendations on the brand of toothpaste or deodorant or—”

Enough was enough. If she wouldn’t shut up, he’d shut her up. Burn grabbed her arms and slammed her up against him, cutting off the rest of her words with his mouth.

As kisses went, it was more battle than seduction or pleasure. But it did silence her. And he could count himself lucky, he decided when he let her go, that she hadn’t kicked him.

She glared up at him for a long, silent moment before she brought one hand up and touched her mouth. He couldn’t read the expression in her eyes, but he was pretty sure that some of it was hurt. The kind of hurt that a sensitive young girl might feel, might still be carrying all these years later.

Acting the total jerk wasn’t his normal modus operandi. His gaze fell. “Sorry,” he muttered. “I apologize. For everything.” He turned and bolted, trying to contain the wild churning of—oh, God—feelings that made him think he might lose the lunch he’d forgotten to eat.

He hadn’t spared a thought for Chris’s life in Lead Gulch, not beyond his first surprise that she actually lived here. Now he couldn’t keep the thoughts and questions out of his mind. Why did she stay? Didn’t she want a normal life? Most women her age were rabid huntresses, fueled by shriveling eggs and driven by their biological clocks. More than a man’s life was worth to be around them. But Chris hadn’t ever given any hint that she wanted anything more than what her life was right now. Even aside from the whole virginity thing, he had to wonder.

But wondering didn’t mean he was involved in the town or any of its people. Not even Chris. Not at all. Not one little bit.

  • * *

The next day, Burn found himself bent over the Rube Goldberg water system. The noon sun beat down relentlessly and the dust that coated him from head to toe turned to mud where leaks had spurted out of control, and it was damned hot. Why the hell did leaks always need repairing at high noon when the temperature had gotten to be about four hundred degrees? Or else at night when no one but snakes and coyotes were awake. And how the hell had the water system suddenly become his responsibility?

He yanked at a piece of pipe and a three-foot section of the system collapsed. Damn it. He forced himself to sit back on his heels and take a few deep breaths.

“How’s it coming?” Chris’s sunshiny voice didn’t help his temper any.

“It’s not.”

“Want me to help?”

Yes. If he could get her and a bed—hell, any flat surface not covered with thorns and snakes—in the same place, she could help with a lot of his problems. That didn’t seem like a go for today, however, which just added fuel to his temper. “No, I think this is a one-man job. At least for now. Go home and let the real men get on with the work.”

That sparked her temper. She turned and stamped off toward her house and he went on with the thankless, never-ending job. Someone ought to replace this system with something involving real pipes.

Peace and quiet lasted for about five minutes before Old Harley panted up. “Guy over at Abe’s asking for you, Burn,” he said, his eyebrows almost crossed in worry. “Want I should tell him we don’t know you?”

Burn looked up from the leaking rag-wrapped joint he was trying to repair. Well, this was interesting. Who would come all the way out here to see him? “Who is it?”

“Big guy. Says his name’s Del.”

The only Del Burn knew was Delacourt. He dropped the pipe and watched it disintegrate into flakes of rust. “Oh, hell.” He wasn’t sure whether he meant the pipe or the Captain’s presence.

“Trouble?” Old Harley’s scowled, showing his worry level notching up. “Abe and I can take care of him.”

Jesus, no. Had this old geezer just suggested offing a police officer? Burn decided he didn’t want to know. “No trouble. At least I don’t think so,” he said, not sure if he was lying or not. “He’s okay.”

He capped off the pipe and headed down the street at a near run. If he had to save someone, his money was on it being the Captain. After the last few weeks, he wouldn’t put anything past the citizens of Lead Gulch, otherwise known as the poster children for vigilante justice.

“Hey, Cap—Del,” Burn said, clearing the steps to Abe’s porch in one bound and bursting through the door. His instincts, he noted, hadn’t atrophied. The captain and Abe sat glaring at each other across Abe’s cluttered oak table, beer in hand. The captain appeared relaxed. Abe didn’t, and he had one hand on an ancient rifle that Burn thought was a good bet to explode if fired.

“Good to see you, si—.” Burn bit off the ‘sir’ and shook hands. He pulled Del to his feet and edged between the two men. “Thanks for entertaining my friend here, Abe. Appreciate it.”

Abe set the gun aside, and muscles Burn hadn’t realized were humming with tension relaxed. “Why don’t we go over to my place, Del?” he suggested.

“Good idea. Thanks for the beer,” Delacourt said to Abe. He followed Burn down the steps and along the dusty, rutted street. “Glad you came along. I think that old goat was going to shoot me.”

“It’s possible,” Burn said. “The rules seem to be a little different out here.” He tried to swallow his grin and lost. “You don’t want to let your guard down just because these folks are older than God, sir.”

“Now you tell me,” Delacourt grumbled. He looked around at the faded and lopsided buildings. “Not the kind of place I expected you to—” He broke off and tackled Burn, rolling both of them around the corner of a building. A shot fractured the peaceful silence and wood splintered as the bullet tore through the wall above their heads.

Oh, shit. Had Modesti followed the captain? Burn wanted to kick himself for getting comfortable enough in Lead Gulch that he wasn’t even wearing a gun. He rolled over and spat dust.

The captain had his Glock out. “Someone was aiming a rifle at us from behind the building next door.”

“Oh.” Not Modesti. “That damned old goat.” Burn kept his head down and yelled. “Harley?”

“No. It’s Gabby. You okay, Burn?”

“Yeh. Except for a mouthful of dust and a bruised ego. Put the gun down.”

“Step out where I can see you.” Gabby’s voice would have done John Wayne proud.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, you old lunatic,” Burn yelled, getting up and walking back out into the street. “Del is a friend of mine. And he’s a cop, so stop playing Old West. He might arrest you.”

“Or shoot back,” Delacourt muttered.

“Sorry.” Gabby said. “Guess I’ll be getting on home.” He nodded at Del and marched into Harley’s store, the rifle over his shoulder.

“Lunatics,” Delacourt said. “Even for you, this is over the edge.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I think I fit in pretty well.” Burn turned up the hill to his place. “Here we are.”

Delacourt inspected the house, his expression completely blank as he took in the unpainted, weathered boards, the tin roof, and complete lack of landscaping.

“It’s nicer inside,” Burn told him, almost choking on his laughter. “And sunset from the porch is supreme. Have a seat while I get us a beer.” He waved at the rustic wooden chairs on the porch.

Delacourt sat.

“What brings you out here, Captain?” Burn asked. “Nice to see you and all that, but I have to finish fixing the plumbing or Thelma and Helen won’t be able to do the morning baking.”

Delacourt looked at him as though he’d grown a second head. “You’re a plumber now?”

Burn shrugged. “This and that. Whatever’s needed.” And how, in the space of four weeks, had he gone from happy loner to town handyman, he’d never know. Maybe Chris had hypnotized him. Or maybe he’d just been horny. Since honesty, even with himself, was important, he had to admit Chris really revved his engine. He stretched his legs out in front of him. “So, what do you need, Captain?”

Delacourt set the beer can on the floor by his chair and leaned back. “Officially? I’m here to see if you want your job back.” He cocked his head and raised an eyebrow.

Burn swigged beer and inspected the horizon, refusing to meet the Captain’s gaze.

Delacourt set the beer can on the floor by his chair and leaned back. “You had the best arrest record in the drug unit,” he said.

“I know. And I was damned proud of it. Doesn’t seem to matter much now.”

“You took down three major pipelines in the last year.”

So he had. “There were always more. It’s like a hydra. Chop one off, and three more grow.”

Delacourt smiled, and Burn suspected he’d been snookered. “Yes. Always more,” Delacourt said, his voice soft. “But sometimes we get lucky.”

Burn raised an eyebrow.

“We got a tip.” He waited for Burn’s reaction.

“There are always tips, too. I’m not getting sucked back in.”

“There’s a new route. Stuff is coming in through some podunk place in eastern California.”

Burn stiffened, and knew Del, for all his nonchalant posture, had noticed. “Lots of little towns in eastern California.”

“You seen anything suspicious since you’ve been here?”

Burn tilted his chair back and put his feet up on the rail. He and Chris had heard an explosion. Someone had taken his clothes. Those strange bikers, the same ones who had threatened Y. H. The choppers he might have heard at night when he was too asleep to be sure. All of them unconnected incidents that could have reasonable explanations. Or…not. “Maybe.”

“It’s very likely that Lead Gulch is the town.” After a long pause, Del added, “It’s a good bet Modesti’s involved.”

Modesti. The drug lord he’d spent three years wanting to tag more than he wanted life. The shrewd honcho he’d only gotten a tantalizing whiff of in all that time. The slimeball who’d killed Todd. The punch of desire to see the man behind bars made him realize how far he’d relaxed into desert life, content to be the town handyman while he waited for the tox screen results.

Delacourt didn’t have to say that having an agent already in place was better than winning the lottery. He didn’t have to make any of the arguments that Burn knew he could make. “Shit. In fact, double shit,” Burn said. He rose and stalked into the kitchen for more beer.

When he returned and handed one to Delacourt, he looked hard for signs of gloating. Didn’t see any. Knew they were there. “Since I don’t work for the department anymore, I can say this: You think you’ve got me pinned, don’t you, you bastard?”

“No. But I think your sense of responsibility does. I’m asking, not pressuring. I know you’ve had the year from hell, and you deserve to sit here and watch the sun set. If that’s all you want. But we need your help, so I’m asking.”

“So instead of sitting here, I’m going to be an unpaid snoop.”

The Captain smiled. “That’s about it. Unless you’ve had enough desert solitude.”

“Desert solitude.” Burn snorted. “I’d have more solitude running a loony bin. Nailing Modesti might be a lot easier than dealing with these old desert rats.”

“So you’re in?”

Burn drained his beer and smashed the can in his hand. Modesti’s men setting up in this part of California. Not in Lead Gulch, but close enough that Delacourt’s intel considered the town a possible locus. And Jake, the one man in town young enough and alert enough to pose a threat to a drug operation.

Sounded like a motive for murder to him.

And he’d just been handed a free pass to investigate.

“Yeah. I’m in.”

Chapter 13

A couple of days later, Burn ambled across the road to Chris’s. He didn’t have any plans for the day, other than to spend some time with her.

“I need to go to Ridgecrest for some generator parts,” she said. “Why don’t you come with me?”

Hours alone with Chris? Even though they’d be in public, they’d have an order of magnitude more privacy than here in Lead Gulch. It struck him as an excellent way to spend his day.

“We can take the boxes of Jake’s things to the Good Will, if you like.”

Less excellent. Even though he couldn’t use and didn’t want any of the things they’d boxed for discard, getting rid of them felt so…permanent. But it had to be done, so he loaded the boxes in the Jeep and let it roll down the hill to Chris’s house.

He’d driven all the way to the highway before he realized… He was responsible. What if he had a crash? What if she got hurt? His knuckles went white on the steering wheel. What if—what if—?

“Relax.” Amusement colored her voice.

She had no idea… He shot her a black look.

“Oops.” She didn’t sound the least bit intimidated. “Burn. I’ll just sit here and not say a thing. Okay?”

“That’ll be the day.”

“I don’t talk too much.”

“Of course you do. You’re a woman. And you’re a politician.”

She scowled. After enough time that he thought the conversation was done, she said, “Politics is a little different in Lead Gulch. I’m not a politician.”

“You were elected. At least I assume so. And why were you chosen instead of Jake if you didn’t bamboozle the voters?”

Chris sat up straight and turned toward him. “Wow. Where did that come from?”

“I have no idea. But it’s a good question.”

“I guess. I’m mayor because Jake didn’t want to be. You’ve met the voters, so you know it had to be one of us, and Jake preferred working behind the scenes. We worked together for the town. Always.”

Something underlay her voice that he couldn’t identify but it set off his cop radar. Not guilt, but she was definitely hiding something.

Still, conversation helped distract him, until increased traffic meant an increase in potential accidents. What if Chris went through the windshield and got scars? What if—?

“You’re so not relaxed again,” Chris said. “How did you ever manage a patrol car in LA?”

“Competently,” he snapped. “Very, very competently.”

“So why’d you quit? Detective, weren’t you?”

He gritted his teeth. Damn it. Not going there. So not going there. “You and Jake were close as two peas in a pod. How come?”

She raised an eyebrow at the abrupt change of subject. “Not talking, huh? Okay. Jake and I both love Lead Gulch, and I at least owe the people who live there a lot. So I’m the mayor and he helped when it was necessary.” Again, that curious reservation in her voice.

“And you think I’m going to take over where he left off?”

Even with just peripheral vision, he could see her tense. “It would be nice,” she said evenly.

“Not going to happen, babe. Never going to happen.”

That shut her up.

After about twenty minutes of silence, he took his eyes off the road long enough for a quick look at her. She was biting her lip and looking suspiciously pink around the nose and he figured she was trying not to cry.

Hell.

In the split second he took his eyes off the road, a dumb, shit-for-brains old farmer on a tractor pulled off the shoulder right in front of him, doing about four miles per hour. Burn stood on the brake and checked his mirror. The semi that had been creeping up on them for the past few miles had decided to pass, giving him a choice of death by squashing, death by ramming, or the right shoulder. He yanked the wheel hard to the right and hit the gravel.

The next few seconds lasted a nanosecond—and a thousand years. When they were over, the Jeep was back on the road, the farmer was half a mile behind them, the truck serenely in front of them, and Chris had gone bleached-bone white.

Adrenaline fizzed through Burn like a nitroglycerin cocktail and he felt ten feet tall. And low enough to walk under a snake. He could have killed her. He had saved her life. His hands began to shake.

“You saved my life,” Chris said. After a few minutes she added, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he said, and pulled into the next gas station to bolt into the men’s room and spend the next few minutes dunking his face in cold water and trying to figure out how he felt about the incident. Fodder for a whole new set of nightmares to enliven his nights, he figured. When he came back to the truck, he said only, “Where’s the Good Will?”

He dropped her off at the generator store, donated Jake’s boxes, and realized he didn’t have any real business in town.

He went to the grocery, which had been out of his brand of beer ever since he’d moved out here. The manager finally admitted they didn’t carry it and would never have it.

Back on the street, he wandered along the main drag without any purpose, which felt weird. He leaned against a store front and decided that it was okay, though. All these people around and he wasn’t responsible to or for any of them. Just what he’d moved to Lead Gulch to get. Just what he hadn’t gotten. Maybe he’d move to Ridgecrest, where he didn’t know a single soul.

He spotted Chris walking down the street toward him. So much for not knowing anyone. He started toward her, but a scream stopped him in his tracks. He wheeled toward the sound and saw a woman struggling to keep a guy about twice her size from taking her purse. Before he thought about it, he had barreled into the middle of the unequal fight and chopped down on the guy’s wrist to make him drop the purse.

Too late. Even as Burn’s hand connected, the guy punched the woman and she went down. Burn swung the guy toward him and cold cocked him with a single punch. He knelt beside the woman, ignoring the unconscious would-be thief.

A quick inspection showed that she had a steady heartbeat, okay breathing, and a broken jaw. Burn pulled out his cell phone, hoping they had nine one one here.

Even before the sirens arrived a crowd began to gather. “You,” he said over his shoulder to the first person on the scene. “Keep everyone back.” He kept one eye on the unconscious mugger while he monitored the victim. What he wouldn’t give for a pair of handcuffs right now.

Three cops cowboyed onto the scene, slamming their cruisers to a stop at odd angles just short of the crowd. “Get these people out of here,” one ordered. “Thanks, Chris. We’ll take over now.”

Chris? Burn glanced over his shoulder. Chris had been the one keeping the crowd back. She smiled at him. “Nice job. I should have known you were a hero.”

The cop stopped at Burn’s side.

“Purse snatcher,” Burn said quickly, not moving away from the unconscious woman. “She needs an ambulance. And you might want to get some cuffs on him before he wakes up.”

“Don’t leave the scene,” the cop ordered, and leaned over the mugger. Burn relaxed a notch when the guy was cuffed securely.

The crowd opened to let an ambulance through. Burn stood when the EMTs arrived and turned to see if he was needed for crowd control.

He closed his eyes and prayed that the whole event would disappear. Leaving the scene wasn’t an option since he hadn’t given a statement. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a media truck pull up. The reporter headed straight for Chris.

Oh, Christ. Could things get any worse? All he needed was more publicity. Not that Modesti couldn’t find him out here if he tried, but why give him any help? “Do not give that reporter my name,” Burn told Chris through clenched teeth before he ducked around a clump of spectators and made his way to the nearest cop. “Get me out of here,” he said, and if it sounded like begging, well, that wasn’t far from the truth. “I was LAPD until a couple of months ago, and if my name and picture show up in the paper, it’s going to be a cakewalk for a killer who’s after me.”

The last thing he saw before he was whisked away in a cruiser was Chris, waving a hand in his direction and talking about nine miles to the minute.

  • * *

Chris hunched over her coffee cup, looking miserable. “I don’t know what to do, Gramps. He said he wouldn’t take over for Jake.”

“He have any idea what all Jake did?”

“Probably not. I was going to tell him everything, but then we were in town. And he was so weird on the way home I couldn’t.”

“Weird?”

“Yes. He kept asking, ‘What did you tell that damn reporter?’ and he was worried about Ben taking his picture. When I asked why that was so important, he just said, ‘Old business. You don’t want to know’.”

“So he’s got something goin’ on he doesn’t want us to know about.”

“If it’s something dangerous, we need to know.” She sat up and banged a fist on the table. “I don’t understand him, Gramps. It’s just like Jake said, he’s really into the ‘serve and protect’ thing. But not for us, I guess.”

“You try askin’ him outright?” her grandfather replied.

“No. What if he says no? Since Jake didn’t tell him anything, he could just walk away if I screw up.”

“Yeah, well, don’t matter if he’s here or not if he ain’t helpin’.”

“If we get the next shipment out in time…”

“Big if. Burn’s out there every damn day trying to figure out what we’re doin’. I think we just oughtta tell him and get him to help. He’s a good strong man. Wouldn’t hurt a bit to have him heftin’ those crates. Damned heavy, some of ‘em.”

“Grandpa, you know he could shut the whole thing down if he wanted to. We just can’t trust him.”

Harley heaved a sigh. “I know. It’s the only mine that we can get anything out of, and it belongs to him lock, stock, and barrel. Damned shame Jake didn’t ever get to writin’ a letter tellin’ the boy what to do. But we could get this shipment out before he could stop us, even if he wanted to, and—” He held up a hand to stop Chris’s protest. “Don’t tell me that’s stealin’. That was Jake’s mine, and Jake was the one who suggested this whole scheme. Dammit, that boy ain’t got no right to stop us.”

Chris ran a finger around the rim of her mug. “I reckon he really loved Jake. I did too, but if he were here, I’d be swearing a blue storm at him for his procrastination.” She looked up at her grandfather. “I’ll have to bring him Jake’s papers soon. Then he’ll know.”

  • * *

Chris gritted her teeth and babied the truck through a narrow, rutted slot in the canyon. Of all the rotten times to have a shoot clear down in Mexico. She needed to be home, trying to get Burn to sign on as a Friend of Lead Gulch. That’s what Jake had always claimed he was. Friend of Lead Gulch. And he’d been a good one. Except for not telling Burn what he was expected to do.

Half a dozen of the most gorgeous men on the planet swarmed the truck when she pulled around the last bend and stopped in the middle of the camp. At least, she’d believed that’s what they were before she’d found Burn starkers and on the verge of sunburn out at the waterfall. Talk about mouth-watering gorgeousness…

“It’s about time, Chris.” Hank, her decidedly ungorgeous but totally helpful, long-suffering assistant opened the truck door for her. “They’re drivin’ me nuts,” he murmured, nodding toward the models.

Who ever would believe she hated every one of these magnificent prima donnas? If she could get this shoot done in less than a week, it would be some kind of miracle.

She stepped out of the truck into a cyclone of complaints and protests and began parceling out decisions and applying soothing words to injured egos. “No, Alex, all the tents are the same size. Gord does not have a bigger one than you do.” “Yes, Slate, I brought your favorite sun screen.” And to Hank, “No, I do not know who demanded to see our permits. I will deal with him if he comes back.”

“Now, guys. Go back to what you were doing. I need to talk to Hank about locations. If we’re lucky, we can get some sunset shots tonight. I’ll give you a shooting schedule as soon as we have one.”

Hank had hauled her gear to the tent he’d set up for her. “Ready to go?” he asked. “Better put on boots.”

Shit. She hated having to herd the models across rough terrain. Another thing to look forward to tomorrow. With a sigh, she sat on the bumper and exchanged her light trainers for sturdy hiking boots.

A couple of hours later, she’d finalized the locations needed and was ready to start the photo session. She grabbed a canteen from the truck and sent Hank back to camp for Alex and Slate, who would be the first.

La cámera. Muy bonita.” A swarthy man stepped out from behind a rocky outcrop. “Nice camera,” he translated.

Chris nudged her arm against her side, confirming the presence of the gun in the pocket of her highway-worker-orange vest. “Thanks.”

“Ramón Gonzales,” the man said. “I am surprised to see a gringa out here. Do you need help?”

The conversation limped along—no, she didn’t need help; yes, she was taking pictures; yes, he had a small rancho just over there; no, she wasn’t sure how long she’d stay in Mexico—until Hank returned with the truck, a mountain of reflectors, and the models.

“Is that the guy asking about permits?” she muttered to Hank as they set up for the first shot.

“Nope. This guy’s bigger. And more bandido-like.”

“Wonderful. You want to take first watch or second tonight?”

By the morning of day five, Chris was ready to admit she had the calm, pleasant temper of a buffalo bull in rut. For an incredibly remote, deserted part of the continent, there were sure a lot of people around. Someone had popped out of the brush at almost every shoot, and most evenings. Just nice people. Curious people. No problems. But Chris’s nerves twanged like an overtuned harp. Getting by on four hours of sleep a night hadn’t helped. But today should see the end of the shoot, and she’d be able to head for home in the morning.

That night, she’d just turned the watch over to an equally tired, crabby Hank, when the sound of metal banging against metal followed by Hank’s shout yanked her to full alert. She shoved her feet back into the shoes she’d just removed, grabbed a flashlight and a gun, and hurled herself out of the tent.

“He’s gone,” Hank said. “It’s okay.”

“What happened?”

“Someone…looked like it might have been a kid…snuck up beside the truck and was reaching under the tarp. I was gonna grab him, but he saw me move and took off.”

“The tarp’s loose. Did he take anything?”

Hank shrugged. “Might as well wait till morning to look. We can’t see much tonight. I’ll stay on the alert.”

“You’re right.” Chris tugged at the tarp. “Damned brat. He cut the rope on this side. I’ll fix it.” She pulled a rope out of the cab and retied the tarp. “No damage done, I guess. Good job, Hank. See you in a few hours.”

The rest of the night passed with no further alarms. With Hank’s help, all the models and equipment were sent on their respective ways, and Chris headed for home. After she dropped Hank off in LA and picked up Jake’s financial records, she could make it home in just a few hours. She refused to think about the showdown she’d have to face when Burn learned about Jake’s financial contributions to the town.

Crossing the border into California, heading up I5, had never felt so good. She’d had the strangest feeling of being watched all the way from camp to the border. “I’m glad you’re riding with me,” she told Hank. “After that kid last night, I’m worried. I don’t want to leave the truck unguarded.”

Hank grinned and flexed his biceps. “No problem. Even though I think you’re wrong. If anyone’s following us, they’re tag-teaming with about a dozen different cars.”

“So I’m paranoid.” She hoped.

“Think you can make it home from my place okay?”

“No problem. Once I turn off on 215 and start seeing desert, I’ll be happy. One stop in Trona for gas, and the guys there know me. They won’t let anything happen.”

The dark green SUV that had been behind her since she left LA passed with no hint of slowing when Chris turned onto 395. And she never saw it again.

A couple of motorcycles dogged her all the way north to Kramer Junction, but turned east on 58. Chris continued on north, slumping with tiredness and relief when she finally got to the two rut dirt road that would take her to Lead Gulch.

Two more lethal-looking motorcycles—different ones, surely?—appeared in the rear view mirror just as she turned off the highway. Her heart leaped—not many bikers favored dirt roads—but they stayed back, following her even when she turned uphill into town.

If it was John Smith, she had to wonder why he kept driving through town.

  • * *

Chris would be home tonight. Burn paced around Jake’s house, tried to read, walked up to the water tank. No good. Couldn’t settle on anything. Finally he climbed in the Jeep and drove to Ridgecrest. At least he could check his email, maybe pick up a few supplies while he was there.

In town he stopped at the grocery for the stuff on Harley’s list. Gassed up the Jeep. Settled into the cafe with his laptop and a cup of coffee to check his email. He perked up when he saw the coroner had finally, finally come through with the tox report. Even though Burn had managed to convince himself Jake had died of natural causes, it would be a relief to have confirmation.

But oh, hell, he hadn’t.

Burn stared at the computer screen in disbelief. Jake’s digitalis levels had been over four times as high as they should have been. Very unlikely that this level could have been achieved by mistake,’ the coroner’s note read, which meant someone had done a switcheroo on his prescription.

Burn needed to figure out what had gone wrong. And who had made it do that.

He’d have to tell Chris. Given this was Lead Gulch, he might as well stand in the middle of the road and shout it as tell any one of the inhabitants, her included. He drove home chewing over the pros and cons of making it general knowledge, knowing full well he was avoiding the real issue—who had been responsible?

About half way between the highway and Lead Gulch, he realized he was driving too fast. Two motorcycles filled the road ahead, and there wouldn’t be any way to pass them before the turnoff to town.

They made the turn too, which didn’t surprise him much. Probably John Smith and his remaining buddy, they were headed to wherever they went when they rode through town. What did surprise him was seeing Chris’s old red truck right ahead of them.

She stopped in front of Abe’s station.

They pulled in right behind her.

All Burn’s senses went on red alert. Before they got off their bikes, he slammed to a stop and reached under the seat for his Glock.

Chris jumped out and bolted into the building.

Burn climbed out of the Jeep, making no effort to hide his gun.

One of the bikers saw him and nudged the other. Both bikes roared and they peeled out, spurting gravel and a few uncomplimentary words behind them.

Burn stood in the middle of the street, holding the gun ready to raise and fire if they turned back.

“My hero.” Chris stood on the porch, flanked by Abe and Helen, holding their antique pistols. So much for his ‘the guns have got to go’ lecture.

“How long were they following you?” He shoved the Glock into his belt, hoping Abe or Helen would figure the incident was over and put their guns away.

“From the highway. I didn’t notice them before that. You really think they were following me?”

Yes, he did, but gut feeling wasn’t evidence. “Could have been Smith and his buddy, I guess.”

“Well, thanks for the rescue. And,” she said to Abe and Helen, “the guns and the backup. I’ll get on home. It’s been a long day. See you in the morning.”

Burn followed her through town and up the hill. He parked at his house, but dashed across the road to check out her place just in case the bikers hadn’t kept going. He helped her carry camera gear inside.

“Thanks,” she said. “I stopped in LA and got Jake’s records for you.”

To his disappointment, she added, “Help me unload the boxes so I can go home and collapse. I’m beat.”

So much for his happy hopes. He grabbed one of the boxes she pointed to and carried it inside. When all four boxes were stacked in his bedroom, she said, “See you tomorrow.”

“Want help unloading the rest?”

“Tomorrow.”

And she was gone. All the way across the road, which might as well have been in the next county.

Shit.

He stalked inside and stared at the boxes. He should have dealt with this stuff as soon as he’d arrived. Jake’s lawyer kept sending him letters asking what he wanted to do about this and that, but he hadn’t paid any attention.

He grabbed the top box from the mountain of stuff he didn’t want to face and lugged it to the kitchen. Set it on a chair and cut the tape holding it closed with his pocket knife. Folded back the top with dread. Dammit, why did Jake have to go and die?

He got up to make a pot of coffee. What he really wanted was a good jolt of whiskey. Because he could be pretty sure, based on the way everyone in town had acted—Chris and Old Harley especially—that he’d find something in these boxes he didn’t want to know about.

Dammit.

So maybe instead of meeting trouble head on, he’d just walk on down to Abe’s and see what was going on down there. Maybe he’d ask a few questions about digitalis.

Chapter 14

Three whiskeys made a great sleeping pill. Burn didn’t know how long Dog had been raising all hell before he woke, but he grabbed shoes and gun and shot out of the house almost before his eyes had opened.

Chris’s truck sat next to her house. Chris crouched next to it, restraining a furious Dog. The tarp that covered the bed hung half off, dragging in the dust.

“Dog caught some one messing with my truck,” she said when Burn reached her side. “I think he had a gun, so I don’t want her to go after him.”

“You get inside with her as soon as I make sure no one’s in there.”

“Thanks for coming to my rescue,” Chris said once he’d made sure the house was clear and they were in her house. “I’ll make some tea while you unload the truck.”

Once he’d done that, he came back in. This time he checked out her place instead of looking for intruders. The house had started out much the same as his, but she’d made hers all girly and home-like. Real furniture. A desk with a computer—and how did she do that with little to no electricity? Huh. He’d have to ask. Big chunks of crystals and glittery rocks, like Abe and Thelma and Helen had, sat on shelves. She had curtains, and even pictures on the walls.

He did a double take and walked over to the nearest picture. “That’s a naked man,” he said.

“Good eye,” Chris said from the kitchen. “I knew you were more observant than the average bear.”

“Sarcasm yet. Does your grandfather know what you photograph? Has he seen these?”

“Of course. These are the pictures I was picking up the other day when you were at Milo’s.”

“Huh. Well, I guess living out here with all these old guys, this was the best you could do. Until now.”

He turned back to the living room to look at the other pictures. One other unclad guy. Damned good photography, but jeez, what a thing to hang in the living room.

Her lap top was open on the desk, and just before the screen saver kicked in, he saw the picture. It looked like the same guy as the one on the wall. What the hell did she do, download porn and print it? He touched the mouse and the picture came back up.

His eyebrows flew up. This one was the full monty, and it was open in Photoshop. Little Miss Mayor certainly had some interesting hidden facets to her character.

She came back with tea and set the mugs on the low table in front of the sofa. “What are you doing? Have you—?”

“I haven’t touched it,” he said in a purposefully flat voice that didn’t let any feelings show. He wasn’t even sure what those feelings were. Why the hell her viewing habits should touch off this firestorm inside him, he had no idea. Certainly not jealousy. But he wanted to rip the pictures off the wall and throw the damned computer through the window. “This what you do in your spare time, Blondie? Doing a little photographic enlargement to make your walls more exciting?”

She shut down the laptop and snapped, “Alex doesn’t need any enlarging.”

“Neither do I.” He glared at her, aware he was acting like a real jerk.

She glared back, and he had no idea what she might be thinking. Except that he was a jerk. Whatever, after a few minutes, a grin quirked one corner of her mouth. “No, you certainly don’t.”

“Honey, any time you want a naked man, I’ll be happy to do the honors.” He pulled a thankfully clean handkerchief out of his pocket and waved it. “Truce?”

Her grin spread. “Truce.” She set the tea on an antique-looking chest that served as a coffee table. “Did you come in to help me calm Dog or did you just stop by to criticize my interior decorating?”

Truce but not forgiven. “To make sure you’re okay. And Dog looks pretty calm.” Dog stood in the doorway, a huge rawhide chew in her mouth, watching them as though they were a ping pong game. “I’m guessing she would let us know if whoever that was comes back.”

Chris nodded.

“So what do you suppose he was after?”

“No idea. I brought the camera gear in the house earlier. The only stuff left in the truck was camping gear.”

Burn’s cop brain still worked. “Think it was the same guy who tried to get into Jake’s place?”

“Maybe. Yeah. Probably.” She frowned. “Some kid was trying to get in the truck last night.”

“So what could he want? What would someone think might be in Jake’s house or your truck? Something small. Portable. Maybe expensive.”

Whatever she might have said disappeared under Dog’s ferocious snarls as she hurled herself at the door. Burn grabbed his gun and leaped to let her out. She tore past him, heading down the hill, and he saw a dark figure reverse direction and run for a motorcycle parked down at the main road. He roared away just as Dog snapped at him.

When Burn and Dog walked back up the hill after giving up the chase, Chris stood beside her truck holding up the tarp that Burn had lashed back over the empty truck bed twenty minutes ago.

It had been slashed.

  • * *

“I guess I’d better take inventory,” Chris said after a moment of silence. “Whoever that was must want something pretty badly. But what? It hardly seems like used camping equipment is worth all this fuss.”

“Good thing you’ve got Dog,” Burn said. “Will she stay with you tonight?”

“I think so. I’ll ask nicely. An extra can of food might do the trick.”

“I think I ought to stay, too.”

She could handle that. Just the thought of a whole night—or what was left of one—with Burn in her nice, big bed had her knees weak and her bones melting. “Good idea. Our burglar seems pretty determined.”

“He does. What did he take?”

“Good question.” She reached for the folder she’d tossed on the coffee table. “Hank did most of the loading, and he kept a good list.”

Half an hour later, everything was accounted for. Except one box.

“I have no idea what that was,” Chris said. She grabbed her phone. “Hank made the list.”

Burn held up one arm and tapped his watch. “Kind of late?”

“We’ve got a real dedicated burglar here. Not the time to stand on ceremony. Besides, he’s a night owl.”

Hank answered after two rings. What he had to say made the incident even harder to understand.”

“He said he found the box in the truck the morning we left. He thought I put it there. But I didn’t.”

“Who else could have?”

Memory of the kid Hank had scared off tugged at her. What if he’d been putting something in the truck instead of stealing?

“Not a bad idea,” Burn said when she told him. “Get a lily-white, innocent traveler to carry a package across the border. You go down there often enough that the border guards know you?”

“Well hell. Yes, I do. They do. This is awful.” But at least it side-tracked him from her pictures. Bad enough her friends called her Calendar Girl. She really did not want Burn to know how she made her money.

He wrapped his arms around her, short-circuiting her thoughts. “Not the end of the world. Probably drugs, and you’ll know to keep a watch out next time.”

She almost gave in to temptation, just let him take care of everything. It felt so good to be held against his strong, warm, sexy body.

But his word about keeping watch reminded her. Reluctantly she raised her head from his shoulder. “What about all Jake’s stuff? There are four boxes of financial records sitting in your unlocked, unguarded house, just waiting for my visitor to check out your place.”

He let go of her. “Oh hell. You’re right. Come on. You and Dog are spending the rest of the night at my place.”

  • * *

Chris had gone off with the others. Burn scowled. She’d share his bed, but still refused to share the town secret. And he hadn’t had a chance to tell her about Jake. For a small, peaceful town, Lead Gulch had shaped up to be a real mess, and he was damned tired of all the cloak-and-dagger stuff.

When he heard the footsteps on his porch, he stayed crouched over the box of Uncle Jake’s papers and waited to see if whoever it was would just go away.

No such luck. Whoever it was knocked again, and it wasn’t a polite knock. The door rattled on its hinges with the blows.

“Burn! Burn! Come quick!” The voice was urgent. Scared.

Oh hell.

Old Harley looked more agitated than Burn had ever seen him. Burn’s cop training took over and he was at the door in two steps, jerking it open and ducking the fist that Harley had raised to pound on the door again.

“What’s wrong?”

“Greed!” Harley gasped for breath. “He fell. I think he’s hurt bad ‘n we don’t dare move him.”

Burn grabbed his emergency bag from the bedroom and was already moving across the porch. “Where?” he demanded.

“Thelma and Helen’s.” Harley waved a hand toward the other end of town.

Adrenaline spiked through Burn’s veins, sending him into emergency response mode, slowing time and sharpening his thinking. Drive. The other end of town was only about two blocks away, but it would be faster.

Harley stumbled down the steps and Burn leaned across and opened the door for him. Harley jumped in…pretty spry for an old guy, all right…and Burn hit the gas.

Greed was laid out flat on the kitchen floor, Thelma and Helen kneeling beside him. Thelma sponged his face with a wet cloth, dribbling water in his ears and making a muddy mess of his dusty shirt.

Burn nudged her aside and took stock. Alive. Unconscious. Not bleeding. Pulse a little thready but not alarming. “What happened?” He glanced around the room and saw bits and pieces of a splintered ladder pushed up against one wall. A fall, then. He pointed at the woman who hadn’t been drowning Greed. “Helen. What happened?”

“He was changing the light bulb and fell.”

“The ladder broke? Or did he break it when he fell?” If the poor old guy had had a stroke, there wasn’t much Burn was going to be able to do.

The old woman hung her head. “The ladder broke,” she whispered, and a tear traced down her cheek. “We killed him.”

“Accidents happen,” Burn told her, and bent to check for broken bones. Greed looked to be about two hundred, a frail bundle of bones just waiting to shatter. Methodically he checked the thin old body for damage, and found a broken leg. That and the unconsciousness seemed to be the sum total. “What do you do to get emergency medical help here?” he asked.

“Drive to the hospital in Ridgecrest,” Harley said. “Medevac helicopter cain’t always get here in a hurry. And costs an arm and a leg. What’s wrong with him?”

“Broken leg. Hit his head. He needs a hospital.”

Chris charged through the door with Abe at her heels. “Greed,” she said. “Is he—”

As she spoke, Greed groaned and tried to sit up.

“‘M okay,” he mumbled. He started to shake his head and winced. “Mebbe. Sure hurts like a sumbitch.”

“Don’t doubt it. But you’ll be fine,” Burn assured him. “Broken leg, maybe a bump on the head.” He turned to Chris. “How about calling for an ambulance.”

All five of them stared at him as though he’d sprouted horns.

“Ain’t no ambulance gonna come out here,” Harley said.

“What? You can’t mean—”

“That there’s no ambulance service in Lead Gulch? Look around. You think this is a city, with 911 response time under five minutes? We do for ourselves out here.” The grim line of Chris’s mouth belied the snotty response.

“That’s right,” Greed added with another groan.

“City boy,” muttered Chris. “You want to call a Medevac chopper?” she asked Burn. “Cost you about ten k. That’s if you had a way to call. They don’t respond well to smoke signals.”

Burn felt the iron bonds of neighborliness clamp around him like handcuffs. He sighed and bowed to the inevitable. “Let’s get his leg splinted, and a mattress for him to ride on. Someone can call the hospital and tell them we’re on the way once we get on the road.”

Chris’s touch on Greed’s shoulder was gentle as a butterfly wing. “We’ll have to get you in the back of Burn’s Jeep. It’s got the best suspension, but I’m afraid you’re in for a rough ride.”

Greed gripped her hand. “I can handle it, girl. You get on with what needs to be done.”

She turned and went out the door, but not so quickly that Burn didn’t catch the shine of tears in her eyes.

He didn’t blame her. This poor old guy was in for a rough ride. Or would be, if Burn hadn’t taken the trouble to put together a comprehensive wilderness first aid kit. “I’ve got something that’ll make it a little better,” he told Greed. “You allergic to morphine?”

Greed shook his head. “What the hell are you doing with that stuff? Not that I mind. Sock it to me, boy,” he added with a grin.

The wavering little smile just about did Burn in. It was the carbon copy of every brave smile he’d seen on every wounded soldier he’d ever helped, and he felt a flush of shame at the impulse to hide his EMT background. It didn’t matter if everyone in Lead Gulch found out and came to him for help. He knew he’d be volunteering it anyway. “Military,” he muttered. “I was the medic on my team. Hold still.” He slid the needle into Greed’s thin old arm and depressed the plunger.

Lines of pain eased in the old face.

“Amazing stuff, isn’t it,” Burn said.

“Pure-d magic.”

Chris came through the door in time to catch Greed’s grin. “You’re looking pretty happy. What’s Burn been doing?”

“Shootin’ me up with happy juice,” Greed said, the words slurred and sloppy. “Let’s get this show on the road, babe.”

Chris’s eyes widened and she rounded on Burn.. “What did you do to him?”

Heaven preserve him from overprotective mother tigers. “Lighten up, Blondie. I gave him a shot of morphine. You got any objections to making this trip easier for him?”

“Of course not. But I’ve been trying to get some for times like this and can’t. So how—”

“Just got to know the right people. Babe. Now, do you think we could get going? That shot won’t hold forever, and last time I looked the hospital was more than a two hour drive.”

Chris and her grandfather helped him lift Greed onto a mattress that Thelma and Helen dragged into the room, and muscle it into the back of the Jeep. Even with morphine, the trip wasn’t an easy one. For any of them. Burn drove. Chris sat in the back, holding Greed on the mattress and swearing at Burn every time he hit a bump or a rut. Since the so-called road was either bumps or ruts, she swore a lot. “Impressive vocabulary, Madam Mayor,” he said when they reached the highway. “Everything okay back there?”

“Greed’s out. Just drive.”

He drove. The two-hour hour drive to Ridgecrest had never seemed so long, but when Burn looked at his watch as Greed was wheeled into the ER, he realized he’d shaved almost half an hour off the usual time. He followed Chris into the waiting room and settled into an uncomfortable orange plastic chair. He closed his eyes and tried to pretend he hadn’t been in a similar room what felt like a thousand times before. Greed wasn’t supposed to die. But the old goat must be eighty if he was a day, and a fall like that—God knew what he might have damaged besides the broken leg. God dammit, he just couldn’t get away from—

Chris touched his arm. “Are you all right?”

Burn jerked away from her touch. “Of course I am. What makes you think I’m not?”

She drew back. “Excuse me. I just thought you looked troubled.”

“Of course I’m troubled. Greed’s an old man, and that fall had to be a real trauma. Anyone would be worried.”

Chris looked at him for a long, silent moment before she said, “I think it’s more than that. What’s going on?”

“Nothing.” He got up. At the door, he turned and looked at her. “Jake was murdered.”

  • * *

A couple of days later, Burn saw Chris crossing the road toward his house. What with all the driving back and forth and answering everyone’s questions about Greed, there had been no chance to talk. Or anything else. He put an arm around her and said, “Let’s go for a walk. Fretting about Greed isn’t going to get him home any sooner. The doctor says he’s doing great.”

“I know. I just— Yes, a walk. Let’s go check the water tank. I’ll feel like I’m doing something for the town. Besides, we have to talk.”

About Jake. And he didn’t have any answers. About secrets. And he had a lot of questions. “Yes. We do.”

He let her lead the way up the hill, enjoying the sight of that trim butt as she climbed. If it weren’t for his worries about Greed, about Jake’s death, about the drug problem, life in Lead Gulch would be close to paradise.

Big if.

At the water tank, all was in order, so they climbed up the ridge a hundred feet farther and settled on a rock to enjoy the view. “I’ve been here for almost two months,” he said, sure he was mellow enough to deal with whatever she might say. And not at all eager to talk about Jake. “Don’t you think it’s time you let me in on the town secret?”

Every muscle in her body went rigid. “Wh-what town secret?” she said in a choked voice.

“Chris. Honey.” He tried to project patience and trustworthiness. “I thought you could tell me anything.”

Even the back of her head looked stubborn as she gazed off at the horizon, refusing to meet his gaze.

“Is it because I used to be a cop?”

She didn’t respond.

“I’m not one any more, you know. But I do still have a pretty good bullshit detector, and I know everyone in this whole damned town has been hiding something from me ever since I got here. I’m pretty sick of it.”

“I—we—” she stammered.

“I’m guessing there aren’t many ways to make money out here.”

She leaned back against him, still stiff and suspicious. “That kind of goes without saying.”

“Couldn’t blame you all if you took advantage of what’s here.”

“Depends on what you think is here.”

“Oh, nothing much. Maybe a little…delivery service?”

Silence.

“I thought at first you didn’t know what was going on. But then I’ve seen you go out somewhere in the hills with your old guys. So you know. Tell me…did Jake know?”

She looked up at him. “Everything we do was Jake’s idea. He set the whole thing up.”

Jake doing drugs? The idea gobsmacked him. “Hard to believe.”

“Jake believed in using the resources at hand. He helped us do just that. And he had the contacts to find us buyers.”

No. Jake would not do that. Never.

“But it doesn’t bring in enough money. It keeps people in coffee pots. That’s about all.”

Really? Even if Jake had changed his mind, had wanted out, coffee pot money wouldn’t be enough for murder. “You must be operating on a pretty small scale then.”

“Well, yeah. We can’t do much. You know how old everyone is. When Jake helped, we could manage more shipments, but now…well, we do the best we can. She smiled up at him, and he could see the way she’d relaxed now that he knew her secret.

He’d asked, but he really hadn’t believed. Now he needed some time alone to come to grips with what he’d found. He stood. “Let’s head back.”

Chapter 15

The weather had turned as dark and sulky as his mood. Burn had dug into severe hermithood, just as he’d planned when he’d first come to the desert. Hadn’t talked to anyone, hadn’t helped with anything, hadn’t been able to face Chris. The idea of Jake condoning drugs almost pushed the idea of murder out of his mind. He still couldn’t believe it. Wouldn’t believe it.

Another day locked in the house would drive him over the edge. If he looked busy enough, maybe no one would bother him, and repairing the rotting boards on the porch would keep him plenty busy. If anybody didn’t like that…well, the hell with them.

He bent to the task of babying the hand saw back and forth, concentrating on keeping the cut straight, just as his dad had taught him when he’d been barely bigger than the saw. If he were still in the city, he’d be using a power saw, and what fun would that be?

The scent of freshly cut pine blended with the sharp tang of sagebrush. Somehow the air seemed to hold the scent more today, like it was damp. Well, damper. Made sense, with the clouds that looked like they might actually produce rain. Not that it ever rained here. No matter what Abe and Harley said about floods.

He should have visited Jake out here. They could have replaced these porch steps together. And added on another room. Although Jake would have snorted at the idea. He could almost hear Jake’s raspy voice. “Just more to take care of, Burn. Just more to heat and cool—what in tarnation would I need another room for?” The voice in his head was so real that Burn almost answered.

He smiled at his foolishness while he held the end of the board, and took the last few delicate sweeps to cut through it. He set the saw and the cut pieces of wood on the edge of the porch and straightened, bending backward and stretching out muscles cramped from hours of work.

Yep. A little bit of good, hard physical work, a cloudy sunset, and a beer to look forward to—a man could hardly get it any better than that. The image of Chris’s tidy, denim-clad rear tried to form in his mind. He repressed it. Not going there.

As if he’d magicked her out of nothing, her truck tore through town, barreled up the hill, and skidded to a stop in front of his house. “Burn.”

The frantic scream had him halfway to the truck before she’d finished the word.

“Help me. Please.” She leaned across and opened the passenger door. “Hurry.”

He could no more ignore the urgency in her voice than the tears that streamed down her face. Whatever it was, it had the unflappable mayor spooked but good. He jumped in the truck.

She spun it back onto the road and took off down hill through town before he had his door shut. He sneaked a peek at the speedometer. Yep, she’d passed sixty before they got halfway to the junction and they were, raising a rooster-tail of dust big enough to blanket the whole town. Whatever was wrong, he wished he had his gun.

“Where’s the fire?” he asked, using the I’m-in-charge-I-can-fix-this voice designed to calm hysterical women, rioting crowds, and charging water buffalo. It didn’t sound quite as commanding as usual, given the way the truck bounced all over the road.

“It’s Dog,” Chris gasped.

“Oh, come on. Rescuing Greed was one thing. But you dragged me out here for a dog?” he began, and then noticed that she gripped the wheel so tightly her knuckles were white, and that hysteria tinged her voice.

“She’s hurt.” It was almost a sob. “Someone shot her and I couldn’t—I couldn’t—” Great gasps signaled impending hyperventilation.

Sarcasm wasn’t going to help the situation, but the words were out before he could stop them. “And here I thought you could do anything.”

Chris turned an outraged glare on him. The truck crashed through a sagebrush and she snapped back to driver mode.

“Take a deep breath,” Burn said. “Slow, deep breaths, and then tell me.”

She whipped the truck around a sharp curve. “I told you. She’s been shot.”

“I don’t get it. Dog is seventy or eighty pounds, but I’ve seen you heft heavier things.”

“She crawled into some rocks. Her leg’s broken, and there’s blood all over, and I couldn’t get her out. I couldn’t—” Her voice got higher and higher.

“Whoa, babe. Take a breath. We’ll take care of Dog. If you don’t kill us on the way,” he added as the truck swerved in some deep sand and caromed off a rock. But he had to admit she was a good driver. He wasn’t sure he’d have had the nerve to take this road at the speed she was managing. It reminded him of videos he’d seen of the eruption of Mount St. Helens—people who drove more than seventy miles an hour on a dirt road that might have been safe at twenty, some of them made it to safety. Slower ones didn’t. Chris would have been one of the survivors. “How much farther?”

“Five minutes.”

“Okay.” He cast a glance up at the sky. “It looks like the rain’s gone right over us.”

Chris took a quick look at the mountains to the east. “Oh no,” she groaned. “Oh effing no. Not now.”

Burn frowned. “What’s the problem? It’s not raining on us. Or on Dog.”

“Flash flood. I know Harley and Milo told you about them. When it rains up in the mountains instead of down here, that’s when we worry.” She goosed the gas and the truck leaped forward, skidding across the winter-deep ruts and almost skittering off into a four-foot deep arroyo.

“Hey! Watch it.” Burn grabbed the edge of his seat.

Chris ignored him and muscled the truck across a sandy patch and down a steep bank that made Burn grimace. She swerved into an arroyo that looked like every other mini-canyon that they’d passed since they’d left town. “Get ready. This is going to have to be fast. There could be six feet of water coming through here any minute now,” she said without taking her eyes off the road.

Except there wasn’t a road any more. Faint tracks showed that someone had driven this way. Once. The cop alarm in Burn’s head buzzed. Why would anyone drive up here? He mentally slapped the alarm off. He’d lived here long enough to know that BLM regulations or no, there was scarcely an inch of desert that someone hadn’t driven on at least once. And for no reason that he could see.

“She’s just up ahead,” Chris warned. “In those rocks. You get her while I turn around. There’s a blanket in the truck bed.”

“I see her.” Burn unhooked his seat belt and opened the door, ready to jump.

Chris slammed the truck to a stop and he hit the ground only a couple of steps from the rocks where Dog cringed away from the oncoming truck.

Burn leaped to pull rocks away from where Dog lay. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Chris spinning the truck to face back the way they had come. Dog leaned toward him and whined. “Hello, Babe,” he said, and her tail quivered.

“Hurry,” Chris shrieked.

“This is gonna hurt,” Burn told Dog. He shoved his hands under her and lifted. She yelped but he had a hard grip on her and wheeled toward the truck. He glanced upstream as he lifted the dog to set her in the bed of the truck. Holy Jeez. A wall of water filled the arroyo, rushing toward them faster than he could think.

He didn’t need Chris’s scream to galvanize him. “Go,” he yelled, dumping Dog into the truck bed and leaping in beside her.

Chris floored it. The truck leaped forward so fast Burn almost went over the tailgate. He grabbed the side with one hand and held Dog in place with the other. Every time he looked up, the wall of water was closer. The roar of water and rock juggernauting down the hill was deafening.

Too bad Chris couldn’t hear him. He could apologize for not believing what he’d been told about flash floods.

Dog whined and he rubbed her head. “Good girl. Hang in there. It’s gonna be all right.” He lied. They were going to die. He looked back at the water, and remembered the tyrannosaur-chasing-the-Jeep scene in Jurassic Park.

Burn braced his legs against the sides of the truck bed and clamped on hand over the side to hold himself in place. With the other arm, he gathered Dog to his chest and held her as steady as he could.

Dog whimpered at each jolt, but her pain-filled eyes were trusting. When she reached up and licked his chin, Burn’s heart melted. He couldn’t tell her it would be all right. “Hang on, Dog,” he said. “We’re doing our best.”

He thought Chris might have yelled a question, but the roar of the water made it impossible to be sure, or to answer.

Numbly he watched the terrifying wall of water fall toward them. It only made sense that he’d die this way—trying to save another life. And failing. He closed his eyes and put his head down against Dog’s soft fur. She thumped her tail once, and he didn’t know whether to be happy she was still alive and there might be hope, or sad that she would meet a violent, watery death along with Chris and him.

The truck swerved violently to the left and the front went up and up. Burn went rigid and clamped hard on the side. His eyes popped open. Chris had driven up out of the arroyo. He raised his head and saw water rushing past the tailgate. Saw the truck pull away from the raging flood.

She didn’t stop, as he expected. Instead, the truck hurtled down, splashing through the next arroyo and speeding toward town. Burn pushed himself up, still holding Dog. Water spread across the desert floor behind them, but each arroyo that they crossed was dryer and less threatening. By damn, she’d done it.

They hadn’t died.

  • * *

Chris couldn’t sit still. She paced the tiny waiting room, glad that for once it wasn’t crowded with complaining pets. And people. Dog had been whisked away as soon as they’d come through the door, leaving her and Burn to pace and worry. That had been two hours ago.

“Why don’t you sit? You’re wearing me out.” Burn lounged on one of the padded benches, legs stretched out, looking comfortable and unworried. And cold. He’d taken off his bloodied shirt, and looked all too tempting.

She bit back the angry words that wanted to spew out. “I’m too worried,” she said mildly. “I know you don’t care, but Dog’s been my friend for a long time.”

“I’m worried,” he said.

“Could’ve fooled me.” She needed to shut up. It wasn’t any of her business if he was as expressive as Mount Rushmore.

“Not everyone takes out a billboard for their feelings,” Burn snapped. “I got her in the truck, didn’t I? And you didn’t have to listen to her hurting all the way to town.”

Chris flinched. “I drove as smoothly as I could,” she said, and hated that it came out as a wail. “I tried.” That seemed to be her refrain these days—I tried. Tried and failed. “Jake would be so ashamed of me.”

“Why?”

“I didn’t mean to say that,” she said, turning away and walking to the far end of the room.

“But you did. So why would Jake be ashamed of you?”

“I didn’t—”

Saved by the vet. Dr. Hanson came into the waiting room, drying his hands. Blood spotted his white coat. Anxiety for Dog wiped out all thoughts of the explanations she’d have to make to Burn. She knew he wasn’t going to let this go, and guilt smacked at her for sparing him a thought when Dog was at stake.

Dr. Hanson cut right to the chase. “She’s going to be fine.”

Chris’s relief was so intense the room swam before her eyes. “Th—thank you,” she managed, and reached for something, a chair, anything to steady herself. She must have backed up to the wall because something braced her. The dizziness abated enough that she was able to draw a deep breath. “Someone shot her, didn’t they?”

“Yes. I was going to ask you if you knew what happened.” Doc frowned, his pleasant face furrowed. “I should be used to trigger-happy tourists shooting everything in sight, but it never gets easier.”

“I suppose someone could have mistaken her for a coyote.”

The voice was right in her ear. Chris turned and realized that the wall that steadied her was Burn. He held her flat against him. And it felt too good. Far, far too good. She took a small step away from him. He dropped his arm instantly and moved back. “Dog doesn’t look anything like a coyote,” she said indignantly.

“Of course she doesn’t. She’s every inch a purebred…something.” Doc’s eyes twinkled. “But how many tourists could tell?”

Purebred ALittleOfEverything, that was Dog, for sure. But lack of a pedigree didn’t keep her from being pretty damned important to just about everyone in Lead Gulch. “You’re right. We’re talking about people who shoot cows and each other and Jeeps instead of deer. Can we see her now?”

“No point. She’s still anesthetized. I’ll want to keep her for a few days, Chris. Come back day after tomorrow and we’ll see how she’s getting on.”

The door burst open behind Chris, and a woman came in carrying a kitten. “Oh Doc, I know we don’t have an appointment, but—”

“You two go on now,” said Doc. “Looks like I’ve got some more work.” He was already reaching for the little cat as he spoke.

The woman’s gaze was glued to Burn as she handed it over and Chris ground her teeth. She didn’t need to be reminded that he looked—well, hot. Mr. July hot. “Bye, Doc.” She pushed open the door and headed for the truck. Happy about Dog. Yes, really and truly happy about that. Her shoulders hunched at the memory of that awful moment when she’d been driving back to town. If she hadn’t been going so slowly, looking for Young Harley’s tire tracks, she would never have seen the flash of Dog’s Irish Setter-red fur in the pile of rocks where it shouldn’t have been. Wouldn’t have seen the blood.

She blinked back tears when she thought about how close Dog had come to dying, all alone and in pain. Someone touched her shoulders and she jumped.

“Hey. Relax.” Burn kneaded the tight muscles, his big hands rubbing away the tension and making her knees weak with pleasure.

Don’t. Let go of me. Stop that. Those were the things she should be saying. He didn’t even like her, so she shouldn’t be letting him—well, he thought he was just relieving the tension in overtaxed muscles, she was sure. And there wasn’t anything wrong with that. What she actually said was something along the lines of, “Mmmm.” Oh, good one, Chris. Make him think you’re a pushover. The few brain cells that were still rational said Well? She drew in a breath to try one more time to say something that didn’t sound like a porn flick, but he stopped the heavenly massage and stepped back.

“Thanks,” she managed.

“No problem. You look pretty done in. How about if I drive back?”

He hadn’t called it home, she noticed. “Sure. That would be great.”

Burn drove better than she did. She watched as he babied the ancient truck through the gears without a single grate of teeth, just as if he’d been driving it all its life, and coaxed it up to highway speed without overtaxing the ancient engine.

She couldn’t help remembering how good he’d been with Greed when the old man had broken his leg. And not only had Burn risked his life to save Dog, but he’d held her so gently all the way in to the vet. Chris had checked in the rear view mirror, and she’d seen his expression when Dog had licked his chin. Mr. Hot-Shot Big-City-Cop was a push-over.

She glanced at his stony profile. Oh, help, Jake. What do I do now? He’s your nephew. Couldn’t you have told me how to handle him, instead of just saying he could be a mite difficult? “Dog would have died if you hadn’t helped.”

“I had no idea what I was getting into. That’s not bravery. That’s plain stupid.”

Chris swallowed a smile. He sounded as though every word hurt. “I imagine that’s true of a lot of heroes.”

“I didn’t believe Old Harley and Abe, all right? Is that what you wanted to hear? All right, you’ve got it. If you hadn’t been driving, we would all have died. I was a stupid city boy.”

To her surprise, he sounded hurt.

As if a dam had broken, words burst from him. “Don’t bother denying it. I know that’s what everyone thinks. And you’re right. I don’t know anything about the desert.” He slowed for the turn from the highway to the gravel road leading to Lead Gulch. “When I was on my way out here, I stopped at that overlook at the top of a hill near Panamint Springs and climbed up on some rocks. There was a snake. I should have known then what I was getting into.”

Her stomach clutched with sudden sympathy.

Apparently it showed, because he went on. “What’s that look for?” His gaze had focused back on the road when she looked, his hands stayed steady on the wheel, but his voice was a snarl. She recognized the sound of a man backed into a corner and having to admit—gasp—feelings.

“Well, you are from the city. But you’ve learned. I owe you an apology. I’ve been so focused on what a—well, you have been a jerk—that I never gave a thought to what it must be like for you. Whatever your reasons for wanting to be a hermit in the middle of our town, we—I—should have been—”

He glared out at the narrow, bumpy track. “Forget it.”

That did it. Her temper spiked. “You,” she said, poking him with one finger, “are unbelievably selfish. Self-centered. Self-pitying. You came out here to find out if your uncle was murdered, and when you realized he hadn’t been—well, I think Jake might have been ashamed of you. And once you found out he had been, you’ve been worse.”

She could almost see anger blaze through him. He slammed on the brakes and turned to glare at her. The truck cab seemed a lot smaller than it had a minute ago. Burn shirtless, buff, and gorgeous took up more than his share of space. Burn shirtless, buff, gorgeous, and furious loomed over her and sucked up all the air. His fists clenched and he breathed as hard as if he’d climbed a mountain.

All expression vanished from his face and his eyes went cold and flat. She was seeing the cop who had waded into riots and faced down death, Chris realized. The ice man who had no emotions. In spite of the burning heat in the oven-like truck cab, she shivered.

“My reasons for moving here are none of your business.” His voice was flat. Cold. Dry ice.

There was emotion there after all. Just buried so deep he might not even realize it. “Are you sure? Lead Gulch is a pretty small town.”

He snorted. “You can say that again.”

“The only way we survive is by working together. We’re—well, we’re a family.”

He put the truck in gear and stepped on the gas. “And Jake was part of it and I’m not. You don’t have to tell me.”

For one heart-stopping second she thought he might put those big, competent hands on her in violence.

“You,” he snarled. “You just can’t stop rubbing it in that you knew Jake better than I did, can you?”

“You’re jealous. Oh, for Ansel Adam’s sake. Is that what’s been eating you ever since you came to town?”

His shoulders jerked and she thought he wasn’t going to answer. His hands tightened on the steering wheel. Finally he said, “Yeah, it does eat at me. He never told me anything about out here. And I never got to visit. He’d ask, but it was always at a time when I couldn’t come. I don’t know if he didn’t want me here. Didn’t want me to be part of his life or not.” He drove in silence for a while. “I guess I won’t ever know now.”

“He wanted you.”

After a long silence, Burn said, “Maybe.”

“No maybe about it, Burn. He was—well, afraid of getting you too involved out here, because of your job, but it was what he wanted more than anything. I know he was looking forward to your visit like it was Christmas and he was six years old instead of sixty. He wanted to show you everything and tell you all about Lead Gulch and everyone who lives here.”

She turned and looked out the side window so he wouldn’t see the tears that threatened. Poor Burn. He carried so much undeserved guilt. No wonder he came across as a surly mess sometimes.

When she turned back and sneaked a glance at him, his expression was the stony, don’t-bother-me one he’d worn much of the time since he’d come to town. The cutoff for the shortcut, back way into town was just around the next curve and she wondered if she should remind him. While she was trying to decide, he slowed and made the buttonhook turn as though he’d lived here all his life. “You keep saying you don’t want to be part of the town, but you seem to be settling in,” she mused. “You know the roads. Everybody likes you. You’ve pretty much taken over the water system.”

“Not much else to do. Unless I find someone to arrest.”

Her snort of laughter choked off when she realized he hadn’t meant that as a joke.

  • * *

Clouds drifted across the moon, allowing little chinks of light to chase the darkness. Burn leaned against the corner of his house and watched the elaborate dance of the conspirators as they alternately loaded heavy crates into Chris’s truck and shrank into the concealing shadows. She’d parked behind her house, where the truck wasn’t visible from either his house or the road. In itself, that had attracted his notice.

Damn. All his suspicions were right on the money. Here was the proof of a drug ring. He didn’t like it, but he was still cop enough to put it all together. The sneaky trips out of town, the mysterious helicopter he heard sometimes at night, the way everyone in town conspired to keep him away from certain places back in the mountains, the tracks he’d found around the mines…even the business with Chris’s truck and the missing box. If she’d been in on the deal and Dog messed up, it fit. It all fit.

He counted ten crates in the truck when Chris flipped a tarp over the load and eager hands lashed it in place.

Old Harley and Abe’s voices were unmistakable, as were the lean silhouettes of Thelma and Helen, and Burn was pretty sure he’d heard Young Harley and Greed and Milo. In fact, the only townies missing were Gabby and Bull and Bull’s kids. The latter three had roared off toward town at sunset, which seemed strange. If a shipment were going out, why not use the strong young studs to help load? Burn understood why he hadn’t been asked, but why not take advantage of the home town muscle?

Just one more thing about this town he didn’t understand. But Chris…and drugs. And Jake. If Chris hadn’t lied, his uncle had known what was going on. Had instigated the whole thing. Sickness twisted through Burn’s gut at the thought of Jake being mixed up in drug dealing. Couldn’t buy it. But thinking that Chris masterminded the whole deal was almost as bad.

They were finished and Burn strained to hear the whispered consultation as they crowded around Chris.

“…Sssh. Don’t wake…”

“All done. Better get home afore he hears…”

“What time you plannin’…”

“I’m going now.” Hard to tell with a whisper, but he was sure that was Chris. “I’ll just let the truck coast down the hill, and he’ll never hear me. He’ll just think I left at dawn as usual.”

“Good girl. Jake’d be proud…”

Burn’s dinner heaved greasily toward his throat as the conspirators melted away toward their homes, leaving Chris alone. Oh, God. Jake had been in on it. How to handle this? Too bad the tarp was tied down so tight…he could have slipped under it, hitch-hiked along to see where she delivered her unspeakable cargo. The idea of clinging to the bumper a la Indiana Jones held no appeal.

Chris had her hand on the truck door when he stepped out of the shadows. The moon obligingly shot a beam like a spotlight at her and she froze.

“Evenin’, ma’am,” he said, feeling more like Gary Cooper than Indy. “Nice night.”

Her breath caught and he’d swear he could hear her heart thump in panic. “Burn!” she whispered, her voice a thin thread in the quiet night.

“Yep. That’d be me.” He sauntered up to her, crowding her against the side of the truck. “Planning a trip?”

“Ahhhh.” Chris’s gaze shifted from side to side. “Ah, just on my way to town to a photo shoot. You knew I was leaving,” she said, her voice wobbling.

Burn smiled, the sharp-eyed shark smile he’d used to good effect in interrogations. “Not quite dawn, though.”

He could see Chris get a grip on herself as clearly as if he’d been inside her skin.

“Of course not. But it will be,” she said, shifting away from him and opening the truck door. “So I’ll just get on my way—”

He grabbed her arm and she yelped. “Careful, sweetheart. You make too much noise and your faithful helpers will be put to the test. You really think they’re going to come save you?”

Chris straightened as though he’d rammed a steel spike down her back bone. “Why should they have to save me?”

“Because, Madam Mayor, the big bad cop has just busted you, and we’re going to be opening all those crates and seeing what’s in them.” As he spoke, Burn had a bad feeling he was starting something he couldn’t finish. His fingers twitched toward the radio that wasn’t on his belt in an instinctive need to call for back up.

What the hell did he think he was doing? If he was right—and he was, no doubt about it—he was taking on the head of a drug ring while her gang members were somewhere in the shadows behind him. And he couldn’t help but remember the pistols, the big…old…lethal pistols, they all owned and seemed to carry everywhere.

“Let’s go,” he said, trying to pretend the back of his neck wasn’t firing alarm sirens through his blood. He shoved her into the truck and climbed into the driver’s seat.

Chris bounced off the passenger side door and grabbed her seat belt. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Burn?” she said, echoing his thoughts perfectly.

“I’m driving us out of town to someplace where I can look at all of your photo gear without worrying about a bullet in my back.” He released the emergency brake and the truck started rolling. No reason not to stick to her plan of getting out of town quietly.

“A bullet—have you lost your mind?”

“Nope. But I have pulled the wool off my eyes. You did a good job of keeping me in the dark, sweetheart, but no more. I’m onto your game.”

“My game?”

He glanced over at her.

Her mouth had dropped open and she looked more stunned than guilty. “And just exactly what do you imagine my game is? You’re acting as though you’ve caught me doing something criminal.”

He had to give her points for good acting. She actually sounded outraged. “I did.” The truck bounced across a sagebrush as he missed the edge of the road. Time for some headlights. They ought to be far enough away that the engine wouldn’t cause any alarms amongst the folks back in town, so he popped the clutch. The engine kicked in with a jerk and he turned on the headlights.

“Are you crazy?”

“No. I’m a cop.”

“I know you’re a cop. Ex-cop. There are real cops out here. Ridgecrest cops. County cops. State cops. They don’t think I’m running some kind of game.”

Burn smiled. “I guess they don’t know you like I do.”

“This is just nuts. Stop the truck.”

“Nope.”

Chris buried her face in her hands. “Oh God,” she moaned, her voice muffled. “Why me? Why you?” She sat up. “Why couldn’t you be more like Jake?”

Rage ripped through him at the thought of Jake dealing drugs and he saw red. He’d never hit a woman and would have sworn he never could, but it was all he could do to keep from backhanding her into the middle of next week. “Tell me, sweetheart, just how did you rope Jake into this little business of yours?”

She looked at him as though he really had lost his mind. “It was his idea. And he said he was going to tell you all about it, so you could carry on after he died.”

The lying bitch. The lying, tempting, soft, irresistible…his vision fogged and he stopped the truck. His fingers clamped around the steering wheel so hard he thought it was going to crack. “Jake would never deal drugs, unless someone—”

Chris stiffened, and she came as far off the seat as the belt allowed. “Deal drugs,” she shouted. “Deal drugs? What have you been putting on your cereal in the mornings? I’m not dealing drugs. I would never—Jake would never—”

Burn slumped in his seat. “Oh, can the outraged act. As soon as it’s light, I’ll have my proof. And once I have that, we can talk about murder.” He pulled the truck into a side track that led to a camp site behind a small hill. “We can wait here until it’s light enough to look in all those crates.”

“Fine.” Chris folded her arms and leaned back against the seat. “Just fine. But you’re going to repack everything just the way it was, and you’re going to reseal the crates.” She fixed him with a glare that held more command than ten top sergeants and his mother combined. “And you are not going to tell anyone, ever, one…single…word about what’s in them. And you are damned well going to apologize for thinking I’d murder the finest man I ever knew.”

“Dream on, darlin’. I’m going to tell the DEA a whole lot of words about you and your town and your little sideline.”

“I don’t think they’ll be interested.”

And damned if she didn’t turn away from him and give every appearance of going to sleep. Burn seethed in silence until dawn brightened the sky. “Come on, Sunshine,” he said, shaking Chris’s shoulder.

She came awake in a hurry, snarling like a spitfire. “Take your hands off me.” She climbed out of the truck, stretched, and sauntered behind a clump of juniper.

Yeah, well, and good morning to you too. Burn had the truck keys, so he turned his attention to unlashing the tarp. He pulled the first crate out onto the ground, surprised at its weight. No wonder the old guys had been struggling with loading these things. And it was nailed shut, but he found a tire iron and started prying the top off.

“Don’t break the wood. You’ll be buying new boards if you do, and we don’t really have time for that. These things have to get shipped today.” Chris had come up behind him. She wasn’t making any move to help. Well, fair enough, he guessed.

When he got the top off, she elbowed him aside. “I’ll unpack. These things are fragile.”

Burn sat on the tail gate and watched her every move with hawk-like attention. The crate was full of foam-wrapped bundles. He’d never seen drugs packed like that. “Open them up,” he ordered.

Chris handled the bundles as though they were fine crystal. She didn’t argue, just carefully picked the tape loose and unrolled bundle after bundle.”

When she had finished, Burn stared in disbelief at the contents. “Rocks. It’s nothing but a bunch of damned rocks.”

“Min—” she began and bit off the word.

“What?”

“Nothing. Just a bunch of ‘damned rocks’. I told you I wasn’t smuggling drugs.”

“Wrap these up. We’re going to check another one.”

Chris’s mouth flattened to a straight line but she didn’t argue. While she repacked the first crate, he opened another. More rocks.

Three hours later, Burn tapped the lid back onto the tenth crate. Rocks. Not a grain of coke. Not a crystal of meth. Nothing but damned rocks. Admittedly, some of them were right pretty, but…

Chris broke into his bitter reverie. “Satisfied? Could I please leave now?” She stepped into the truck and started the engine. “Have a nice walk home.”

Chapter 16

After a night of tossing, turning, and kicking himself for being a double-dyed fool, Burn gave up and went to the kitchen to start coffee. According to his watch, it was four—that was A. M.—so he took up the vigil, waiting for the exodus. Nothing happened. Apparently everyone in town was sleeping the sleep of the innocent.

He sat on the porch, wrapped in a blanket, watching the first rays of sun gild the sage, unpleasant truths circling in his brain like wasps. He’d been wrong from the get-go. No drugs. He’d been wrong. Innocent old people. He’d been wrong. No reason to murder his uncle.

His thoughts returned to Chris. How angry he’d been with her. What a fool he’d made of himself. How furious she’d been. You might say they hadn’t exactly parted on good terms.

After a while he went inside and made breakfast, still with no clear idea how to apologize. Through the window, he saw Dog at Chris’s door. She woofed once, pawed at the door, and sat, looking puzzled. Eventually she got up and crossed the road to his place, her body language shouting determination to get breakfast.

He had the can of food open by the time she reached his porch. She wagged her tail and settled down to eat. At least there was one female in Lead Gulch he hadn’t pissed off. Good thing. Dog looked like she was mostly Irish Setter, so she should be friendly as all hell, but her temperament could be pure pit bull.

After Dog had eaten, Burn thought about going back to bed, but a plume of dust caught his eye. Someone had left town, and he’d missed seeing who it was. He grabbed a canteen and hat and threw himself into the Jeep.

He was getting pretty good at this tracking business, he decided when he reached the road that ran along the foot of the mountains. He stopped at each side road to look for tracks. When he found them, on a spur he hadn’t seen before, he drove on past and turned up the next road, driving slowly so he would raise as little dust as possible. No sense in advertising his presence.

He parked the Jeep in a cluster of rocks near the inevitable mine entrance, grabbed a canteen, and started climbing. At the top of the ridge, he crouched behind a rock and peered ahead. Nothing. He hauled out his map. A cluster of mines was indicated just over the next ridge, so he plotted a course for the best way to get there and took off. If nothing else, this little investigation was getting him in top-notch condition. Better than a gym any day.

“Well, there we go,” he said aloud when he looked down from his new vantage point. Greed’s old truck was parked on a small flat spot. The kind of flatness he’d learned meant tailings from a mine. It looked only a couple of miles of hiking to get to where he had a good view of whoever it was and whatever they were doing, so he eased over the ridge and went for it.

Once in position, he flattened out on his belly and peered through his binoculars. It was Greed. Greed on his crutches, with Abe and Harley at his side, each carrying a wooden box which appeared to be darned heavy. And they handled the boxes as though they contained dynamite.

Hmm. Maybe it was dynamite. Not a pleasant thought.

What Greed did next was unexpected.

While Burn watched, the old man took what looked like a broom with a big wad of sagebrush on the end out of the truck cab and started brushing out their tracks.

When he’d covered the area, he got in the truck and left. Burn backtracked and reached the ridge just in time to see Greed turn back toward town.

Time to see what that was all about. He jogged down the hill to the mine entrance, stepping carefully around the flat, trying not to leave tracks. The entrance loomed, black and threatening, and he knew he was going to have to go inside, no matter how much he didn’t want to. Not only because he’d seen three old men engaged in suspicious behaviour, but because this was the mine Jake had been standing in front of in the photograph he’d seen at Thelma and Helen’s. He’d bet on it.

Twenty feet inside the tunnel, a sturdy wooden door blocked the way, and the lock on it looked new and business-like. He’d have to come back out here with lock picks if he wanted to know what was inside.

For the first time, he wondered if Delacourt was right. Nah. The citizens of Lead Gulch just didn’t match up with someone like Modesti. After last night, he would have been willing to bet anything they weren’t involved in drug running.

But now, he wasn’t quite sure.

He turned to start back to the Jeep. This time he had a map and knew where he was going. Even though he knew Chris was safely out of town, he didn’t want any more embarassing losing-the-vehicle incidents.

He’d taken about three steps when he heard a noise behind him and started to turn. Something crashed against his head and the world went black.

  • * *

Something hard dug into Burn’s cheek. With great effort, he cracked one eye open and saw dirt…ground. He was face down on rough ground. Shards of rock met his groping hand and he forced the open eye to focus. Little, flat, mottled brownish bits of rock, like that around the mine. The mine. His brain sludged unwillingly into action. He’d been at the mine with the locked entrance and then…nothing.

The scrape of boots against rock galvanized him. He managed to turn over in time to see Thelma’s head poke up over the hill.”

“Burn!” she exclaimed and creaked down to kneel beside him. “What— Oh, lordy, you’re bleeding. Here. This’ll make it feel better.” She soaked her bandana with water from the canteen at her belt and plastered the dripping cloth on Burn’s head. “What the heck did you do, knock yourself out?”

“Someone hit me,” Burn muttered, shifting against a sharp rock that dug into his back and refusing to meet her gaze.

“Just snuck up behind you and let you have it? And you a fancy, big-city cop?”

He knew Thelma was laughing at him and shot a quick look at her. She was, but somehow it was kind laughter, not derision. “Ex cop,” he said. “Not Superman. I never heard a thing.”

“What’re you doing poking around out here anyway,” Thelma demanded.”

Trying to find out what you’re all up to. “Nothing. Just curious. This is all new country to me.”

“Remember, curiosity killed the cat.” Thelma’s mouth was a grim line. “Some things are better left alone.”

Burn closed his eyes and waited for the thumping in his head to let up. It didn’t. He fixed Thelma with his most intimidating you’re-going-to-tell-me-everything stare. “Something’s going on out here.”

She looked away and busied herself repositioning the bandana. “You got no reason to think that.”

“Why don’t you just tell me what’s going on?”

“That your big city interrogation technique?” Thelma muttered. “Don’t know why you think anything’s going on, anyway.”

“Dammit, Thelma, cut it out. I think something’s going on because you all sneak out of town on a regular basis, and because Abe and Milo and Harley are taking turns keeping me away from whatever you’re doing.”

Thelma heaved herself to her feet and glared down at him. “We’re just havin’ some fun with you, ‘cause you’ve been doing an awful lot of nosing around.”

Burn raised up on one elbow to look her in the eye. The increased throbbing in his head didn’t make him any more patient. “You guys commute out here like you had nine-to-five jobs, you watch your back trail to see if you’re being followed, you brush out your tracks as best you can, and there’s a locked gate on that mine entrance in front of you. Just in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“No law against locking up a dangerous old mine shaft. No call for you to think the worst. Anyway, what makes you think you’ve got any right to follow us and—and act like we’re a bunch of criminals?”

“What the hell do you expect me to think?” He glared at her. “I figure you’re smuggling something, and high-tech secrets don’t exactly fit with Lead Gulch. So is it drugs? Illegal aliens? What?”

In the golden orange light of the afternoon sun, Thelma’s lined old face went rigid. She looked out over the valley, toward the horizon, as still and hard as a bronze statue. For a long time, she didn’t answer, her focus somehow beyond Burn’s world and her throat working. “No, Burn,” she said, her voice gravelly with emotion. “We are not a bunch of criminals. You don’t know us. You haven’t wanted to know us, and you have no right to judge. But I’ll tell you this—every one of your suspects has given more to this country than you ever have.

A frown creased Burn’s face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“If you’d taken the trouble to get to know us, you’d know.”

“Well, I’m taking the trouble now. So what are you talking about?”

She leaned against a rock and considered him. “You might ask Gabby why he doesn’t talk much.”

Burn raised an eyebrow.

“Some kind of poison gas in The War.”

Christ, Gabby looked old enough for it to have been the War Between the States, although Burn didn’t believe it. He did a quick mental calculation. “World War II?”

Thelma nodded. “You got any idea why Abe limps?”

“I figured it was arthritis.”

“Land mine.”

Oh, hell. “Being some kind of ex-soldier doesn’t mean someone can’t be a crook, Thelma.”

Her lip curled. “You got no idea about us or our town, boy. We’ve given a lot to this country and we love it. You’re not going to find any spies or smugglers out here. Nothing but Rainbow Chasers and ex-military. Just a bunch of patriotic misfits That’s us.”

He didn’t know what Rainbow Chasers might be, and his head hurt too much to ask.

“Gold prospectors,” Thelma said with a touch of impatience. “Like Frosty. He never did nothin’ but hunt for gold. Found a lot, too, but always sold the claims. He liked the hunt, not the diggin’.” She poured a little more water on the bandanna. “Some of the others are old vets.”

Burn shrugged away an uncomfortable guilt and substituted temper. “So this is a hotbed of old heroes. That doesn’t change things. What. Are. You. Doing?”

Stubborn didn’t begin to describe the expression on Thelma’s face. “Nothing an outsider has any business knowing about,” she said.

“I’m not an outsider,” Burn yelled. He got to his feet and glared down at her. Damn stubborn old—old—lady.

Thelma put her hands on her hips and glared back. “Well, you for damn sure haven’t made any effort to be part of the town. Your Uncle Jake would be ashamed of you.”

Guilt and grief stabbed through Burn worse than the pain in his head. “Leave my uncle out of this,” he shouted. “If Jake had had any idea what you were up to he would have—” Fury chocked his voice to silence.

Thelma’s shoulders sagged as though all the starch and anger had evaporated. “Jake started this,” she said in a soft, miserable voice. “And it’s killing us to try to keep it up without him.”

So Chris hadn’t lied. Shock turned Burn’s knees to jelly and he sat abruptly on the nearest rock. “Jake started what?”

“I can’t tell you. You’re going to get tired of living out here and go back to the city, and if people find out…well, it’ll be the end of Lead Gulch, and the end of us.”

“I’m not leaving,” Burn snapped, and marveled even as he kept yelling that it was the truth. He hadn’t even known that somehow he’d settled into this life and it felt permanent. “And even if I did, I’ve been known to keep secrets. If you don’t want—”

“Want? What diff’rence does it make what we want?” Suddenly, Thelma was yelling back at him. “I know you searched Chris’s truck. Wasn’t that enough to satisfy you?”

“No, it damned well wasn’t.” His voice rose to an even more furious roar. “Just because I saw the crates in Chris’s truck last night and didn’t find anything but rocks doesn’t mean you’re innocent. I. Want. To. Know. What. Is. Going. On.”

“What’s all the hollerin’ about, Thelma?”

Burn jumped and turned toward the voice. Jesus, why hadn’t he been a Boy Scout when he was a kid? Maybe he could have learned some of this outdoors stuff. He hadn’t even heard Old Harley come up the hill.

“Burn thinks we’re smugglers,” Thelma told him, her voice tight and unfriendly.

Harley settled himself on a convenient boulder. “Well, hell, tell him the truth.”

“But—”

Harley pulled out a small sack of tobacco and settled himself to rolling a cigarette. “Jake would have told him,” he said, his gaze never leaving his task. “If he’d had a chance.”

“But—”

“Stop sputtering, Thelma. You sound like a boat that needs a tune-up.

“Go on down and ride back to town with Abe. I’ll take care of tellin’ Burn.” Harley struck a kitchen match against the rock and lit his lumpy cigarette. “Jake was pretty worried about his town,” he began when Thelma had gone. “Some of us have pensions. Abe and I do, and Bull and Stern. But Frosty and Thelma and Helen and Y. H. and Milo, see, they’ve been prospectors—or prospector’s women—all their lives. Never had real jobs, don’t have any So Called Social Security, no pensions, no retirement, and mostly, no savings. And Greed, there was some kind of mixup about his military record. He don’t get his pension and don’t have enough money to fight for it. About five years back, he got real sick and his savings didn’t begin to cover the bills, so Jake figured we had to do something.”

Jake. Jake would know how to sell high tech secrets. Or smuggle drugs. Or people. Burn didn’t think his sudden dizzy feeling was due to the blow on the head he’d taken.

“So when Chris found this mine, Jake set it up as a community project. He and Chris ran things and we all work at it as much as we can and most everyone shares the proceeds. Kind of like a commune.” Harley sat back, a look of pride on his wrinkled old face.

Chris. Oh Christ, of course Chris was in it too. “So just what did Jake set up?” he asked. His voice sounded very far away.

“Chris has this talent,” Harley said.

Chris had a lot of talents. Burn wasn’t sure he wanted to hear about this one.

“Besides being one hell of a photographer, she finds mineral specimens,” Harley said.

“Mineral specimens.” Maybe he’d fallen down a rabbit hole. Alice should come skipping by and minute now and he’d know this was all some strange dream.

“You’ve seen them. In my store. At Abe’s, and Chris’s. And in Chris’s truck.” Harley gave Burn an accusing glare. “And hell, in your own house. Jake had some of the finest pieces we ever found. Like that big chunk of wulfenite in your living room.”

“Mineral specimens. You mean like all the ones in her truck.” Maybe he’d been hit harder than he thought.

Harley grinned. “Yeah. Like all the big pieces of pretty rock that collectors pay a lot of money for.”

“That’s what Jake set up?”

“Yup.”

Burn rubbed his head. “But why all the secrecy? I don’t get it.”

“Because,” Harley said patiently, as though he were explaining to a second grader. “Because if Frosty and the others knew they were getting charity, it would just about kill them.” He fixed Burn with a killer glare until Burn nodded. “Because if anyone found out where we got these specimens, they’d come and strip the vein down t’ nothin’. This isn’t like growing corn, you know. When a deposit is worked out, it’s gone, not coming back. We’re talking non-renewable resource here.”

Non-renewable resource? Burn looked at Harley, and noticed the gleam of intelligence in the faded old eyes, a gleam at odds with the old desert rat persona that Burn had never looked beyond. What he said made sense. But Burn had never thought about it that way. “So…”

“So we keep our secrets as best we can. Bull, he knows we do something, but he’s careful not to find out what or where. He’s got a good pension, himself, and he respects our wishes in keeping those kids stayin’ with him in the dark. If he doesn’t know, he can’t let anything slip, see?”

Yeah, he saw. Saw that all his carefully constructed theories had just turned to dust and blown away. He’d let Delacourt convince him something was going on in Lead Gulch, and he’d made up a great story, pretty much based on thin air. Maybe it was a good thing he’d decided—even if he hadn’t known it until just now—to stay here.

“So no drug dealing in Lead Gulch,” he muttered.

“Nope.”

“But about all the odd things that have happened? And those bikers? Chris said they attacked Y. H. And tried to get into Jake’s house. Someone stole my clothes, and—”

Harley snickered.

Burn gave him a dirty look. “And what about that explosion? What caused that?”

“Oh, that was prob’ly just some stoners cookin’ meth. Happens sometimes. Town guys think an old mine’s a safe place, an’ pretty soon—whoom!”

“Not to mention someone stole a box out of Chris’s truck. One she didn’t know was there. What about that? Ha. Thought that would get you,” he added when Harley scowled. “I think something’s going on out here. And if the citizens of Lead Gulch aren’t responsible, who is?”

“Since it ain’t us, this is your chance, City Boy. You bein’ a cop and all, you better get to detectin’.”

  • * *

Old Harley had thrown him a challenge he couldn’t refuse. Delacourt had asked him to look for drug activity in Lead Gulch. Burn punched the pillow and turned on his back. He’d spent a month and a half convinced the town was a hot bed of illegal activity only to be proved wrong. He had found evidence that Jake had been murdered, but not a single clue to who was responsible. All he had were a bunch of incidents that could add up to a big fat nothing.

The moon slipped up over the mountains, glazing the sagebrush silver and turning the world blue and eerie. He gave up and rose, careful to shake out his boots in case he had any unwanted roommates. He wasn’t going to get any sleep tonight. Chris wasn’t due back for an eternity, so there wouldn’t be any distraction there.

Jake had talked about hiking up the hill behind his house, up beyond the water tank, and watching the desert in the moonlight. Told him it settled the nerves and gave a man perspective.

If only Jake were here now.

The night was so quiet Burn’s ears sang with the silence. A coyote howled from somewhere far enough away that he didn’t even flinch. He smiled at the thought that he was settling in, turning into a real desert rat.

After a while he began to shiver and started to rise to go home, but a faint noise stopped him.

The low whomp-whomp-whomp was unmistakeable. What the everlasting hell was a helicopter doing out here in the middle of the night? Police? Medical? He double timed up the hill. At the top of the ridge, he saw it in the next valley. Low altitude, sweeping southward. No identifying logo or numbers that he could see in the moonlight.

He figured that answered his question.

Drugs.

Only drug smugglers had the money, and the need.

So the captain had been right. Something was going on out here, and Lead Gulch was in the middle of it, whether the inhabitants knew it or not.

Chapter 17

After living in Lead Gulch, a trip to LA seemed like a big undertaking. Burn shook his head at the idea. A few hours of driving. The fact that it would put him in a different world was irrelevant.

He felt like a damned housewife as he did the dishes, watered Jake’s flowers, and made sure all the water was turned off. And it would be only neighborly to tell someone he’d be gone for a couple of days. He’d stop at Harley’s store and tell him. Acting mayor and all.

Harley grinned at him. “Had enough, have ya’? Jake didn’t never want ta go inta th’ city.”

Burn grabbed a firm hold on his temper. Jake did this, Jake didn’t do that, Jake always understood everything. So why the hell hadn’t he explained any of it before it was too late? “No, I have not had enough. I’m going to talk to some people about the problem we discussed yesterday.” He stamped out of the store and peeled out of town, ready to be back in the city where he belonged.

Except it all seemed different. Too much traffic. Too much noise. Too many people Even the precinct building wasn’t the same. It looked smaller. Dirtier. And not like home. He parked in the visitors’ lot, which felt really strange, and went inside. The officer at the desk was a pretty blonde he’d dated a couple of times. Funny he’d never noticed how much make-up she wore. And how she looked like she’d never been out in the sun or changed a tire. He’d bet she couldn’t even drive a stick shift.

He tried to get interested in her soft, “See you later, Burn? I don’t have any plans—” but couldn’t quite make it. He slapped the bright orange VISITOR badge on his shirt and headed for the elevator before he found out what she didn’t have plans for.

Delacourt’s office looked cramped and felt stuffy. Delacourt looked every bit as intimidating as ever, however.

“Coburn,” he said and nodded Burn to a seat.

“You were right, Captain,” Burn said.

The captain didn’t look surprised. His expression said ‘Of course.’ “Ready to come back to work?”

Burn shook his head. “No. About something going on in Lead Gulch.”

“Ah.” Delacourt sat back and waited, his eyes on his steepled fingers.

Burn went through the list—strange bikers, stealth helicopters, the explosion, the package stolen from Chris’s truck. And knocking him out. “I figured the townspeople were up to something hinky, but they aren’t. It’s centered in the next valley east.”

Delacourt didn’t look impressed. “Who and what?”

“Don’t know.”

“And you want…”

“The department has a chopper. I figured it might be a good thing to find out where the one I heard the other night landed.”

Delacourt just kept looking at him. “Ah. And once you know, you’re prepared to investigate on the ground?”

“Seems like a good idea.”

“All right.” The captain picked up the phone and asked for the helicopter schedule. “Everyone in that town knows you’re an officer?”

Burn grimaced. “Oh, yeah. Everyone in that town knows everything about everyone there. I wouldn’t be surprised if Thelma couldn’t describe the birthmark on my butt.”

“I won’t ask who Thelma is. Ah. Thank you,” Delacourt said to his secretary, taking the schedule she handed him.

That had been easier than he had expected. The task force must really be up against a wall. He waited without moving while Delacourt went over the schedule.

“All right. You can have the chopper for four hours this afternoon.”

Really up against a wall. “Thanks.”

  • * *

Too bad Chris couldn’t be with him. She’d probably get a real boot out of seeing her town from the air. Burn had a crick in his neck from peering down, using binoculars to try to spot where the mysterious midnight chopper had landed. Zeph Granger was the pilot, an officer Burn had worked with and liked. He flew a back and forth pattern, working north and east from town, over into the next valley.

When they’d gotten almost as far north as highway 180, he turned to Burn. “You live out here?”

“Yeah.”

“For God’s sake, why?”

Burn shrugged. “It kind of grows on you.”

“What’s to grow? I haven’t seen anything but sagebrush.”

He hadn’t seen Chris, that was for sure, and Burn intended to keep it that way. He remembered Zeph as one of the biggest players in the department, which was really saying something. “Head back south, as far as town. Stay up on this side of the ridge as long as possible. I’d rather they don’t know we’re looking for them but I need to check out that valley east of town.”

“But—”

“Town. Not Ridgecrest,” Burn said. “Lead Gulch.”

Zeph snorted. “Town? That’s not a town.”

The spark of defensive pride surprised Burn. “Just drive,” he said.

East of Lead Gulch lay the canyon where Chris had shown him the water supply. With a faint feeling of pride, Burn recognized it and noted their position on the topo map on his knee. From this elevation, he could see that there was a kind of gap in the hills he’d never noticed from the ground. “Keep heading east, over into the next valley,” he told Zeph.

Zeph heeled the chopper and followed the drainage up toward the crest of the mountain range. “God, how can anyone live out here?” he asked.

“Like I said, it grows on you. Head along the edge of the valley. I want to look at the roads that head up into the hills.”

“Whatever you say.”

Burn kept the binoculars glued to his eyes and checked out every road and track. “There,” he said. “Don’t go down. I want a picture of that.”

Zeph put the chopper into hover mode. “A picture of what?”

“Tracks leading up to that mine. Can’t you see there’s a circle where everything that can blow away has been blown away?”

“Oh yeah. On that flat place. Is that what we’ve been looking for?” Disgust colored his voice.

Burn was too intent to get mad. “Yeah.” He had the camera glued to his face, snapping pictures of the landing spot and surrounding terrain as fast as the camera would allow. “Damn. I should have one of those auto jobs the National Geographic photographers use. Okay. Let’s go.”

“That mean we’re done?”

“Yeah. I think so.”

Zeph had the chopper headed back toward LA in a heartbeat.

“Just not a desert rat, are you?” Burn said.

Zeph muttered into his radio and ignored him.

Well, desert living wasn’t for everyone. Burn didn’t want to admit to himself how much he liked the laid back atmosphere of Lead Gulch. And it didn’t have anything to do with Chris.

Delacourt looked up when Burn tapped on his door. “Well?”

Burn nodded. “Found it. I’ll check it out when I get home.”

“Home?” A raised eyebrow accompanied the question but the captain didn’t pursue it. “Want some backup?”

“No thanks, sir. It’ll look less suspicious if it’s just me and maybe some of the locals.”

“Locals? Coburn, in case desert living has fried your brain, we don’t usually do recon in the company of the suspects.”

Suspects? Burn bit back the defensive words that wanted to tumble out. Sneaky as the old desert rats might be, they weren’t responsible for that chopper in the night. Up to something, yes. Definitely. But it wasn’t drugs, and he could be sure the captain had no interest in mineral specimens, whatever they were. “It’ll work better that way. Everyone in town will know if I go out there anyway. If they’re with me, they’ll be a lot of help.”

  • * *

What a hell of a mess life had become. Jake had been murdered, and Burn didn’t have a clue who or why. He’d been a hundred and eighty degrees wrong about the town secret. And Chris. Searching her truck the way he had. She’d never speak to him again.

She hadn’t come back from wherever she was going with that truckload of mineral specimens. When she did, she’d probably talk up what a damned fool he’d been. Everyone already knew, of course, but they hadn’t shot him. Yet. Since Bimmer’s fight with John Smith, they’d been pretty friendly and he liked it more than he’d thought he would.

Maybe Jake would be ashamed of him. He couldn’t do anything about that, but he could try to make things right with Chris. And he could get back to being a detective and catch the drug smugglers. And solve the damn murder.

He hadn’t found one single shred of evidence to show how Jake had ingested excess digitalis. Or whether Modesti had anything going out here.

He’d been pretty convincing when he talked to Delacourt, but everything except the overdose could be explained innocently. One of the old guys had taken his clothes just to embarrass him. The explosion had been a couple of weirdos cooking meth in the next valley who had blown themselves up, as Old Harley suggested. Except…helicopter? And John Smith and his crew. There’d been three of them before the explosion, and they’d been hanging around out in the middle of nowhere for a long time.

Hell, some detective he was.

He walked around the house, too restless to settle, too tired and discouraged to do anything. Maybe he’d better give up. Pack up Jake’s records and haul ass out of Lead Gulch. If he wanted to be a desert hermit, he could for damn sure find someplace with not so many people.

There wouldn’t be any Chris.

He shut the door on that thought and headed for the bathroom to take a—carefully short—shower while the tank on the roof still held sun-warmed water. Maybe trying to keep so many different thoughts at bay sharpened his attention. Maybe the box had shifted a little. But for the first time, he saw a box on the floor, shoved back out of the way and hidden by the curve of the tub.

Definitely something to look into. After his shower, he carried it into the kitchen and set it on the table. To his disappointment, it held mostly junk. An old comb. A partly used bar of soap. All the small personal items a guy would have, no matter how simply he lived. Nothing there he would keep. That hurt, that Jake’s life ended up as a box of trash. That everyone’s life ended like that. Jake had been so much more than…another mental door to slam.

At the bottom of the box, he found a collection of pill bottles. All the things an old man used to keep life comfortable, looked like. The usual OTC pain killers, a couple of prescription ointments…and proof that Jake knew about the bad heart. A partly empty bottle of digitalis.

The label looked scuffed and dirty. Odd. But maybe that was why someone—Chris?—had sealed it in a plastic bag. He picked it up and looked at the date. It had been fairly new when Jake died. No reason for it to look as though it had been rolling around outside on the ground.

Thinking like a cop was one hell of a lot better than thinking about giving up and leaving, so he let his mind veer into evidence mode. And his evidence kit was right there in the bedroom. He held the bottle up to the light.

It had a faintly yellowish tinge, but when he looked closely, he’d swear some of the pills were yellower than others. Different pills or different manufacturers of the same thing? Something to investigate either way.

Someone banged on the front door. “Hey, Burn. You home?” Old Harley called.

“In the kitchen, Harley. Come on in.”

He set the bottle on the counter and got up to greet Harley, trying to keep his face from revealing what he’d been doing with the man’s granddaughter in this very house every chance he got.

“Hey, you found that box. Chris packed up all that stuff real careful for you. Said it might make things easier for you if you didn’t have to deal with it right away.”

“She was right. I appreciate it.” He poured coffee and handed it to Harley. “What’s up?”

“Just came over to see if you wanted anything in town. I’m takin’ Helen in for some groceries.”

“I’m good. I have to go back to LA for a couple of days, so I’ll pick up anything I need on the way back.”

Harley nodded. “Oh, hey. That’s the bottle of Jake’s pills Chris found outside. Bet you wondered how a medicine bottle got so dirty.”

Why, yes, he had. And for once he didn’t mind the story he could see bearing down on him like a freight train. “Sure did. You going to tell me?”

Harley gave him a quizzical look that Burn figured meant he knew when he was being teased. “Sure am.” He paused and took a long swig of coffee. “It was that night right after Jake died. The sheriff had been and gone and we was all kinda jittery and not wanting to go home. So just about dark, Abe saw someone slippin’ down the hill there—” He gestured toward the back of the house. “—and we all got to lookin’ and Helen got out her binoculars and damned if it wasn’t that John Smith guy that was mixin’ it up with Bimmer a few weeks back. So we figured he wasn’t up to no good and hot-footed it up here just in time to see him comin’ down the hill from Jake’s place.”

Burn flinched, imagining all twelve of them running up the street waving ancient guns. At least they hadn’t shot the guy, much as he would have deserved it.

“So Chris, she got here first.”

Not surprising, given that she was fifty or sixty years younger than most of them.

“And she just flat out tackled the guy. Had him down on the ground, poundin’ on his head with her flashlight.”

Oh, Christ. “She tackled him? You don’t need to sound so proud. That was a damn-fool-dumb stunt. I saw that guy. He’s a stone-cold killer. The only thing that stopped him when he fought Bimmer was the crowd watching.”

“The witnesses, sure, but especially the guns,” Harley observed. “And we had ‘em that night, too. When he saw us runnin’ up, he squirmed away from her, and jumped up and ran. Wasn’t none of us goin’ to try to catch him out in the sagebrush at night.”

“Good thinking,” Burn acknowledged.

“But the funny thing was, when we got up to where Chris was with all our flashlights, Frosty found this here bottle layin’ on the ground like that Smith guy dropped it. Got kinda rubbed inta the dirt, but didn’t break. So that’s how it got dirty.”

“Like he had it in his pocket and it fell out when Chris tackled him?”

“Just exactly like that. Chris took it back in the house and spent the rest of the night packing up Jake’s stuff. She figured if the guy wanted old clothes or canteens or this personal stuff, well, we couldn’t stop him. But she took all the papers to the bank the next morning.”

Well, well, well. Sounded like Smith was maybe one of Modesti’s men. Jake had been the youngest, smartest, most fit of the town inhabitants. Except Chris of course…not going there, he assured himself…and Jake knew one hell of a lot more about bad people than Chris ever would.

He had Smith’s license number, and a couple of pictures of the guy. Definitely time to pay Delacourt a visit and see if there was any tie to Modesti.

And time to call in a few favors, like looking for fingerprints on the bottle, and identifying the pills.

  • * *

The sun was just peeping over the hills in back of town when Burn shut the door firmly behind him and walked down the steps to the Jeep. The pill bottle, carefully closed into a paper evidence bag and wrapped in bubble wrap, nestled in a securely taped box. He set the box in the weapon locker bolted to the frame of the car and turned the key. Not taking any chances with that baby. It looked like being the only clue in Jake’s death, other than the tox report.

Satisfied it was good to go, he walked around the vehicle, checking tires, then popped the hood to check oil and water. The highway was only a couple of hours from Lead Gulch, but being stuck out here was never fun and sometimes life-threatening, and he wasn’t taking any chances with his one, all-important clue.

Not to mention Old Harley and Abe and Milo and the rest had taken turns lecturing him on desert survival to the point he would hardly leave his house without hat, boots, and canteen. Another six months and he’d be as much a desert rat as anyone in town, he figured. When that didn’t sound like a scary idea, he shrugged. While he couldn’t deny a tingle of excitement about going to LA, he realized he liked living in Lead Gulch.

With any luck, he’d reach his destination in time to see Delacourt and get the lab involved. They’d complain about a months-long backlog, but he still had a few favors to call in. Failing that, he knew where a few bodies were buried. A smile devoid of any humor curled his mouth. Yeah, he could use blackmail. If he had to.

But first he wanted one last look at the hot spot in the next valley. He climbed in the Jeep and headed east out of town, turning left into the canyon that led to the spring. When he couldn’t drive any farther, he hiked to the top of the hill, noticing with pleasure that these climbs had gotten a lot easier since he’d moved out here.

He’d just settled down behind some boulders when the buzz of a small plane caught his attention. He scanned the sky, and found it approaching from the south and flying low. He grabbed his binoculars and focused on the plane as it drew nearer. It turned slightly east of his vantage point. He crouched motionless in the shadow of the rocks, trying to be invisible.

While he watched, the plane dropped to set down on a straight stretch of the rutted road that ran up the valley. “Man, someone’s paying that guy a double shitload of bucks. Also, he’s good enough to earn them,” he said to the empty hilltop.

He kept the binoculars trained on the site, careful to keep his hands in position to shade the lenses. With the sun just rising, reflected flashes of light could attract some very much unwanted attention.

The landing of the plane had produced activity on a par with poking a stick into an ant hill. Half a dozen motorcycles roared up to the plane. Three men climbed out to join them. God, what he wouldn’t give for a bug planted on a sagebrush. The men talked, with much gesturing and back-slapping. So…congenial. Allies. At least for now.

While he watched and guessed at what was happening, three black SUVs crept down what was apparently a mine road and approached the plane. One drove through the parked bikes, and stopped near the plane.

Burn’s eyebrows went up. Some kind of higher echelon dude. Come on, get out. I want to see who you are. But apparently the dude was very high echelon, because one of the men from the plane and one of the bikers walked over to the car. The back door on the side away from Burn—naturally—opened partway, and the three talked for about ten minutes. A gesture from the delivery man—Burn assumed that’s what he was—brought his two companions over, each carrying a crate.

Yep, it sure looked like every back alley drug deal he’d ever seen. They’d check the merchandise, then transfer it to the SUVs. Or bikes. The plane would leave. The SUVs would go back up to whatever mine they had come from. The bikers were probably hired muscle. And carrier pigeons, given the problems with phones out here.

So now he had something to trade to Delacourt for fingerprints.

Good. Very good.

Chapter 18

Chris sighed while she waited for the model to get into position and wondered, for about the five hundredth time, what was going on in Lead Gulch. Had Burn suffered terminal embarrassment and left town? Or taken out his temper on the others? Or…

“Turn to your left a little, Alex,” Chris called to the naked model balanced on a granite boulder. “You’re still showing too much. I don’t want to have to airbrush this shot. No, a little more. Good. Hold it just like that.” Now all she had to do was wait for another burst of steam and ash from the volcano in the background.

“No, dammit. You’re showing again. If you can’t hold the pose, I’m sending Tom back to town. You can make goo goo eyes on your own time.” Models who brought significant others on a shoot were her least favorite kind. Along with the whiners and…

“Alex.” At the threat in her voice, the model broke eye contact with his sweetie and resumed the pose.

Chris resisted the urge to grind her teeth. This calendar required nudity but not complete au naturel. And she had friends who envied her for spending her time with naked men. Bah. If there was a male calendar model who wasn’t so over-endowed that he was a problem to photograph or gay or a prima donna, she hadn’t worked with him.

Volcán Negrito hiccupped and let loose a belch of steam and rock. Chris began snapping pictures as fast as she could. Nice, the hot glow on the clouds of steam. If Alex just didn’t turn…click, click, click. The volcano subsided with an ill-tempered rumble and Chris relaxed. “Okay, Alex. We’re done.”

“Well, finally.” Alex flounced—carefully—across the rock and over to Tom. “Can we go back to town now?” He picked up his jeans and made a production of putting them on.

While Tom watched the show, Chris folded the reflectors, packed the cameras into their bags, and loaded the tons of gear it took to take prize-winning photos into the truck.

Every time she worked with Alex, he had a different sweetie in tow. Tom must be number about 1,413. How long would he last? She climbed in the truck and drove back to town, trying to ignore the two guys crammed into the seat beside her.

Alex had bitched about everything on the way out—the cramped seat in the truck, the bumpy road, the time it took to get back to San Whatever, until Chris was ready to smack him. Now that the job was done, he clearly enjoyed the cramped seat that had him crammed close to Tom, and the bumps that jostled them together. God, she’d be glad to be rid of the two of them. Young lust on top of temperament…if Alex weren’t so damned photogenic… But he was, and the pictures were fantastic.

She pulled into the parking lot of the tiny hotel. “Okay, you two. Get your luggage and we’ll get on the road.”

“Do I have to go to Lead Gulch, Chris?” Alex whined when they were settled back in the truck. “I want—”

“Contract, Alex. Two days of shooting, and I drive you to the airport. You’ll be able to join Tom in Vegas that night.”

  • * *

Burn had been watching for Chris off and on all day. By late afternoon, he couldn’t stand his own company any more and decided to walk down to the store and talk to Abe and Harley. They’d know if he’d missed seeing her, or if she’d be back soon. As he went down his front steps, he recognized her truck coming up the road. He started across the road to meet her, but someone—a man—climbed out of her truck.

“Here? This is it?” Whoever he was, he sounded peevish and demanding. “You expect me to stay in this primitive—place? I’ll bet there isn’t even any hot water.”

Burn came up behind her and asked, “Who’s this?” before she could answer. She whirled to face him.

“You scared me, Burn,” she said, one hand on her chest. “This is Alex.”

Alex stuck out a hand, and Burn shook it. At this distance, he could tell that he was shaking hands with what could easily be the handsomest man on the planet.

“You’ve kept me locked up in your truck—which is an uncomfortable POS—for hours,” Alex whined without even looking at Burn. “Can’t we go inside now? I need a shower. I need dinner. I’ll bet you don’t even have a microwave. And I need a mirror.”

“Come on, now. Chris will take care of you,” Chris said easily. “And you’re right. There’s no microwave. That would be because there’s no electricity.” She took the stunned Alex’s hand and led him away. “See you later, Burn,” she called over her shoulder.

Burn stood in the middle of the dirt track and watched Chris all the way to her house. Up onto the porch and in through the front door. With the Pretty Boy. Alex.

Damn.

He wasn’t jealous. He was never jealous.

But damn.

He turned and stamped back to his house, not in any mood to visit with anyone.

The next morning, sunlight cut across Burn’s face like a white-hot poker. He grumbled and stuck his head under the pillow, but it was too late. The clock said nine o’clock and he was awake. He sat up and rubbed a hand over his face. Nine was the latest he’d slept in a while. The scorching mid-day temperatures mandated early morning and late evening as the times to do stuff.

The whole night had been a torment of tossing and turning, and when he’d finally gone to sleep, he’d relived the afternoon Modesti had shot him and killed Todd. Only this time, it was Chris getting killed, with her prissy pretty boy standing by, laughing.

A shower promised to improve things, so he dragged himself out of bed and stuck his head under the cool spray, thankful for the indoor plumbing.

Refreshed in body but not spirit, he dressed, made coffee, and curled his lip at the unmade bed. When the coffee was ready, he took a cup to the porch and wondered if he’d see Chris and her pretty boy. Yeah, maybe he was in a bad mood. The Chris-and-Alex picture wouldn’t leave his mind.

Alex had to go.

He’d work on that, but first he’d spend some time with his exercise equipment. He got on the treadmill, remembering the way Milo and Abe and Gabby had made fun of his gym. You’d think he’d been setting up Madame Tussaud’s torture chamber. Abe had snickered at the treadmill and said something all too audible about plain old dirt not being good enough for city boys.

Abe could laugh all he wanted. Burn didn’t quit until he’d run ten miles. Sweat poured off him in sheets in the building heat. He grabbed a towel and mopped off, and Chris was right there in his mind.

This time he wanted his shower cold. It was as cold as water ever got in Lead Gulch, which was to say that at noon on a summer day it was almost hot. That figured. By the time the water came down from the spring, all the crazy loops and swoops the pipe made over drainages and around rocks provided plenty of chance for the sun to heat things up.

He grouched out to the kitchen and fixed cereal. About three tablespoons of milk made a little puddle in the bottom of the bowl, leaving the flakes dry. Just one more thing to blame on Chris.

Oh hell. Who was he kidding? He was the one who’d forgotten the milk. In fact, he was behaving like a stupid kid. The spurt of adult reasoning lasted until he’d finished the mostly dry cereal and stamped down to the store.

Closed.

Of course. This was the day Abe drove into Ridgecrest to pick up whatever necessities people had put on his shopping list. And Burn hadn’t bothered. Good thing Dog wasn’t around. This was definitely a kick-the-dog morning—and Dog would probably take his leg off if he tried it.

He could go without for a week, or he could make the forty-mile drive to the nearest little convenience store. He stalked back to his house for car keys.

Four hours later, he carried the bags of groceries into his kitchen. The milk and eggs went into the refrigerator along with a new supply of beer. He left the canned goods and went to the bathroom to wash his hands. The soap and water stung his abraded knuckles and he grinned.

Stopping for a beer before he hit the grocery had been a good idea. He’d been sitting at the bar staring into his beer and trying to talk himself out of his bad mood, and hey, a cotton-for-brains Army grunt had done it for him. Just made it impossible to avoid a confrontation. The confrontation progressed to physical when the dumbshit had thrown a punch and the bartender threw them outside to finish it off. Amazing what a little scuffle could do to improve a man’s mood.

A little scuffle and some of the ideas he’d had for getting rid of the pretty boy. He wouldn’t really do anything like stuff a rattlesnake in the guy’s fancy suitcase, but a little psychological warfare wouldn’t be amiss.

The flowers he’d gotten on a whim for Helen and Thelma were looking a little tired in spite of the wet paper towels he’d put around them, so he scooped them up and headed for the ladies’ house, whistling Don’t Take Your Guns to Town. A good old Johnny Cash tune.

His good—well, improved—mood got stomped into buffalo chips on the way home. The dust cloud coming down the road from the mountain turned out to be Chris’s truck. She chugged into town sedately enough, but she and Alex were laughing so hard she didn’t even see Burn. Alex wore a cowboy-movie Stetson and no shirt.

Burn walked slowly in the truck’s wake, trying unsuccessfully not to grind his teeth. What a jerk. If there was any justice in the world, the guy had a terminal sunburn, running around the desert topless.

They were still outside when Burn passed them and walked into his kitchen. He couldn’t help it if he had a great view of the front of Chris’s place from his house. Chris grabbed her big camera bag and took it inside while Pretty Boy waltzed into the house carrying his shirt. Jeez. What a jerk.

Chris came back and hauled a big cooler out of the back of the pickup. No sign of the jerk. She set it down and scrounged through the cab, coming out with a bag—trash bag, probably. He’d noticed that, unlike most desert towns, in Lead Gulch the people were real fanatics about trash and littering. Trash and a pair of jockeys.

Shit.

“Hey, Alex,” she yelled. “Lose something?”

Double shit. Burn turned away from the window, unable to watch when Alex came out of the house laughing, and grabbed for his shorts.

Didn’t look like Alex was going anywhere soon. That made it seem like a good time for a vacation. Burn threw some clothes into a bag. A couple of days in Vegas, that’s what he needed.

He grabbed his laptop and stalked out the door.

  • * *

Alex was going to drive her crazy. Not that she hadn’t been crazy already to have suggested that he stay with her while they did a shoot right in her own back yard. But it was getting worse.

He whined. He expected to be waited on. He complained.

He hogged the bathroom.

She gritted her teeth and sat down at the computer to download the photos she’d taken that day. As always, they were perfection. Draped across a boulder, standing and looking dramatically out over the valley, or framed by some providential storm clouds, Alex was a miracle of male beauty. Too bad he didn’t live up to the visual promise.

Thank goodness she could take him to the airport in a couple of hours.

When all the pictures were downloaded and backed up—twice—and the cameras readied for the next day’s shooting, Chris propped her chin on her hand and looked out the window. A cloud of dust marked a car on the road, heading into Lead Gulch. She watched, curious, and saw that it was Burn’s Jeep.

She got to her feet. Curiosity killed the cat, but she did want to know where he’d gone two days ago. He’d torn out of town as though he’d had a lynch mob on his trail, for no reason that she could discover. Now he was back, and she was just going walk across the road and ask him.

Or not. Burn climbed out of his vehicle and strode into his house like a man on a mission. And slammed the door hard enough to be heard clear down at Thelma and Helen’s, except most of the town’s citizens were deaf to one degree or another.

She’d find out later, apparently.

Alex came into the living room she used as an office. “I’m going to work on my tan until it’s time to leave. How about doing my sunscreen, sweetie?”

She turned from the window. Alex stood in the doorway, starkers except for the sunscreen he’d already smeared over his front. Most people would have used the beach towel as a wrap, but no, not Alex. For about the ten zillionth time, Chris wondered if she shouldn’t have picked out some easy career like brain surgery or particle physics. Surely they couldn’t have nearly the annoyance factor of dealing with people like Alex. Herding cats would be a breeze. “Sure,” she said, and followed him out into the yard.

He set up a folding lounge, covered it with the towel, and stretched out on his stomach. Chris took the sunscreen and dribbled it along his spine, ignoring his shrieks that it was too cold. She’d worked her way down to his butt—a very nice one, she had to admit—when a shadow fell across her work area.

Chris looked up just as Alex complained, “You’re in my sun.”

She ignored him, stunned into silence by Burn’s scowl.

“Nice way for a mayor to behave,” he said.

The words didn’t make sense at first. When they filtered in, finally, she realized that he thought— “You think that Alex—that I— “ She started laughing. “You think I’m corrupting the morals of my town?”

Burn’s expression didn’t lighten by even a fraction.

“Oh, come on, Burn. You can’t think my behavior is shocking Harley and Abe and Thelma—” Giggles overcame her.

“That’s their business. You’ve got your hand on his bare butt.”

Chris stiffened. Once a cop, always a cop, apparently. What was he going to do, arrest her for sun screening? “And that’s your business how?”

“It’s my business when you make a fool of yourself with some candy-ass gigolo right out in public.”

“Well, Alex, maybe we should go inside,” Chris said. “We don’t want to offend Miss Morality here.” She was sure the next sound was Burn’s teeth grinding.

Burn’s return—or the escalating scene—was attracting a crowd. Abe creaked up the hill, trying to look casual. Thelma had her grandfather by the arm, hurrying him along. Chris closed her eyes. Had there ever been an incident in her life that wasn’t played out in public?

Abe was the first one to reach them. “Hey, Alex,” he said. “You’re startin’ to get pink. Might want to get that cute ass in out of the sun.” He cackled at his witticism.

“Oh, thanks,” Alex said. He sprang off the lounger and ran inside. His yelp of surprise carried clearly outside. “Why didn’t you tell me it was so late, Chris? I’m not even packed. My plane leaves…” His voice faded into sounds of slamming drawers.

“He’s leaving?” Burn asked.

“Yes. And you’re smiling,” she said.

“I don’t like him.”

“I don’t think he likes you either.”

  • * *

With Alex gone—thank goodness—life returned to normal. Today it must be Milo’s turn, since he was urging Burn up a hill. Burn chugged along, resigned to being the town project. At least this might give him a chance to look over into the next valley.

“Right up this hill here,” Milo puffed. “There’s a good spot to sit and watch up here.”

Burn slowed his pace even more. The old fool was going to work himself into a heart attack if he wasn’t careful, and one thing Burn didn’t want was the death of another innocent on his hands. “Nice of you to take time to come with me,” he said, pausing so Milo could catch his breath.”

“No problem. Waterfall’s a great place to hang out. We can be real comfortable. Mebbe play some checkers to help pass the time if you run outta cop stories before Gabby gets back . I just purely do love cop stories. And Thelma said she and Helen packed us a great big lunch. Gonna be a real easy day, this is.”

Right. As long as Milo kept talking, telling him stories about Lead Gulch and, especially, Jake, Burn had no trouble with the plan. Maybe after lunch, he’d leave the old guy to a post-prandial nap and get a good look around the area. The town secret had turned out to be a real Murder on the Orient Express situation, where every single person in town was involved in whatever was going on. Who was to say Jake’s murder was any different?

He’d expected the morning to seem about a hundred hours long, but Milo turned out to be pleasant and entertaining company, once Burn figured out how to trade cop stories for old-mining-days tales. And if some of them were obvious whoppers, that didn’t make them any less enjoyable to listen to. He was almost disappointed when his plans clicked right into place.

When he was sure Milo was dozing in the almost shade of a tall cactus, Burn eased away and walked around to the opposite side of the hill. They’d seen absolutely zip going on around the diggings below to the west, not a hint of anything moving except a passing coyote. He’d scanned all the roads, almost roads, and used-to-be roads in sight, watching for dust plumes, and then used binoculars, but had come up with a big, fat nothing. And given that just about every single citizen of Lead Gulch was out here somewhere, there had to be something to see.

The next hill to the east was taller, so he made straight for that, stumbling through loose rock and stunted sagebrush plants, always with a wary eye out for snakes napping in the scarce mid-day shade. How the hell had Milo managed to almost glide along the way he did, never tripping over anything, scarcely breaking stride?

Sweat trickled down Burn’s spine. He took off his hat and wiped his streaming forehead with his arm. Damn, but it was hot. He caught a flicker of motion from the corner of his eye and dropped behind a small boulder. The space was, thankfully, not previously tenanted. He really had to learn to pay attention to that. Peering around the boulder, he felt ridiculously like John Wayne. Instead of gun-toting bad guys, he saw a large, black bird sitting on a cactus staring back at him. It looked hungry.

O-kay. Onward and upward. Burn climbed to his feet and slogged to the top of the hill. He felt like a damned fool, but when he neared the top, he dropped to a crouch and crept through the rocks and brush until he could see over the brow of the hill. This time, the fleeting motion that froze him in place was a bit of paper caught on one of the plants and flapping in the breeze.

Nothing moved. The midday sun beat down on the land—and him—like a fist, hammering everything into silent submission. Silence rang in his ears until he was sure he’d gone deaf. It was as if he were the only living thing within a hundred miles.

He snorted. Getting fanciful in his old age, that’s what was happening. So nothing was going on here. He’d go back to Milo, get a drink of water, and try another direction. After all, there was no shortage of hills out here.

Milo still slept, leaning against the rock right where Burn had left him. “Hey, Milo,” Burn called.

Milo didn’t move. Something about the stillness caught at Burn’s attention. Excessive stillness. He went cold inside, and crossed the few feet between them to crouch at Milo’s side.

From there, he could see the bullet hole in the center of the old man’s forehead.

Chapter 19

Burn sat in his living room in the dark, staring at nothing, staring into his guilty soul, drowning in the knowledge that he was to blame. His fault. His fault. His fault. The words beat at him like hammer blows. He’d left the old man alone and someone had killed him.

One more death. One more innocent biting the dust on his watch.

Everything he’d promised himself when he left LA had gone down the tubes. He hadn’t found Delacourt’s smugglers. He hadn’t found Jake’s murderer. He’d let Milo die.

He dropped his head in his hands and wished he could do the same.

Maybe he’d just walk out into the sagebrush and hope those bikers found him.

After an hour or an eternity, someone banged on the door.

He didn’t move, didn’t answer.

“Burn, I know you’re in there,” Chris called. When he still didn’t answer, she tried the door.

He had taken the precaution of blocking it with a chair.

“Burn, unlock the door.”

Oh, God, no. Just leave me alone. He hunkered down on the sofa, huddling into the corner as though he could make himself invisible. Apparently it worked, because she stopped banging.

He sat there an eternity more, waiting for nothing, waiting to become nothing. Instead, he heard footsteps at the back door, and the sound of the door opening.

“Burn? Where are you?”

He couldn’t answer. Didn’t want to talk. Didn’t want her to see what he’d become when he’d seen the result of that one perfect, dead center bullet. Couldn’t stop the moan of pain.

And she was at his side, crowding close to him on the sofa, warm where he’d never wanted to feel warmth again. He tried to pull away, rejecting her comforting touch.

Her arms tightened around him. “Nope. You’re not doing this alone, Burn.”

“What. You think you’ll waltz in here, tell me it wasn’t my fault, console me with sex, and everything will be okay? Nice try, Blondie.”

She patted his shoulder. “I didn’t intend to do either of those things. I’m just here. Whatever you need…talk, don’t talk, cry, sex, if that’s what you need.”

He tried to pull away. “I need to be left alone.”

“Anything but that. If you keep holding things inside like you’ve been doing, you’re going to explode.”

Funny, that’s exactly what the psych guy the department forced him to see after Todd’s death had said. “Where’d you get your degree in head shrinking?” he asked, his tone as nasty as he could make it. Wouldn’t she please, for God’s sake, leave him alone?

“No degree. Just a caring heart.”

“So. A few good times in the hay and you figure I’m here for good? Look, honey, I ride into town and dazzle all the girls and then leave. I’m not after anything permanent.” He made his voice as hard and insulting as he could manage while her words, her softness against him, were tearing him apart. Channeling that guy, what ever his name was, the one who had been the unit horn dog before a jealous husband took exception to his actions. The look on her face, shock he could see even by the faint starlight from the window, hurt him anew. Like taking off a bandage, though. Best done with one hard jerk.

“It’s too much of a cliché,” he stormed on. “I arrive and hey, presto, happily ever after. Isn’t that the scenario here? Well, let me tell you, it ain’t gonna happen. You and your caring heart have a whole town.” His breath hitched at the realization someone would have to change the sign again. Eleven. Grief made him continue savagely. “A whole town to care for.”

The look on her face told him the scorn in his voice had pierced right to the center of that caring heart.

“I’m afraid you misunderstand the situation, Burn.” Her voice was level and firm. Madam Mayor at her most official. “I’m not looking for a man, either temporary or permanent. I figured out ten years ago that my responsibility—”

Burn flinched.

“—is to the people of Lead Gulch.” She broke off and bit her lip. “Even then I realized I couldn’t manage to take care of them and have a husband and children. No man is going to give up everything to live here and take care of a bunch of aging dependents.”

“So true.” Responsibility. Care for. The words stabbed at him. “I have to leave,” he choked out. “I can’t be responsible for your people.”

“No one’s asking you to be. It’s been good having you here. You’ve done a lot of things to help, managed emergencies, made friends. Made me happy. But no one’s asking you to give up your life to keep doing it. If you weren’t here…”

He saw her gather herself and figured the next words would be a lie.

“…we’d go along the way we did before you came.” Her voice broke.

Fine, except he’d brought the drug lord and his bikers down on them. So he couldn’t leave. With that thought, something that felt like relief tinged his misery.

She looked up at him through her eyelashes, a look Jake would surely have described as ‘fetching’. “Why don’t you stay and find out who killed Milo? You’re the detective.”

He took a deep breath. He owed it to poor Milo. To Chris. Maybe even to the town.

The bleak despair began to recede and he turned to her.

  • * *

The hard floor woke him before sunrise. Chris still slept, legs tangled with his, her head on his shoulder. He couldn’t remember falling asleep. Thank goodness he hadn’t squashed her. She opened her eyes and smiled at him when he tried to ease away without waking her.

She looked like every man’s dream. Nirvana. Heaven. Every normal man. For a moment his resolve wavered, and he almost settled back down to her. But the blackness in him would be too much. He couldn’t bear to see it wear away her shiny golden happiness and leave her bitter and alone. Thank God he’d told her the truth last night.

“Where’s Dog likely to be this morning?” he said, sitting up and reaching for his clothes.

“Dog?” Her expression was pure WTF, but she frowned, concentrating. “Probably at Bull’s. Why?”

“I need her. Will she go in the Jeep with me?”

Chris shrugged. “Ask her.” She pulled on her shirt and got up to find her jeans. “Why?”

“Just an idea.” He finished tying his boots and headed for the kitchen, as antsy and eager to get to work as if he and Todd had been on the trail of a new, hot lead.

Chris came to the kitchen door. “I’ll go on home now. Let me know if you need help with Dog.” She sketched a wave and left before he could say anything.

Thank goodness. He had no idea what he could have said to her. No idea what he wanted to say to her. Last night had been—world shattering. But everything he’d said had been true…he couldn’t stay here, she wouldn’t leave. So where did that leave them? Nowhere, that’s where.

Better to concentrate on work, and he’d awakened with an idea to work on.

He hustled through breakfast, filled his—Jake’s—canteen, picked up his—Jake’s—hat, and headed out the door to find Dog. When he pulled the Jeep to a stop at Bull’s porch, Dog stuck her head out the door and gave a perfunctory bark. “Morning, Dog,” he said, climbing out of the Jeep. “Want to go for a ride?”

Dog cocked her head but didn’t start jumping around and acting excited like his friends’ dogs had. Not that he knew that much about dogs.

Bull wheeled out onto the porch. “You into dognapping these days?”

If Milo hadn’t been so much in his mind, Burn would have laughed. Instead, he shook his head. “I hoped that if I took her up the hill where I think the shooter stood, she’d be able to track whoever killed Milo.”

“Huh. Not a bad idea. If you can explain that to her, I’m sure she’ll help. You might want to take Stern with you, though.”

Stern? He’d hardly exchanged a word with the highly reclusive man. “Why?”

“He was a LRRP in ‘Nam—though he’ll never talk about it—and he’s a damned good tracker. If Dog can’t do the job, Stern can. He can track a housefly over granite.”

“Good to know. I’ve seen him sitting on his porch cleaning guns. Any way I can ask him for help without getting shot?”

Bull chuckled. “Smart man. He’s been a little spooky ever since the war. I’ll take care of the asking. Come on in. Might as well have some coffee while we’re waiting on him.”

Burn followed him in, watching with bemusement while Bull wrote a note and whistled for Dog. He stuffed the note into a zippered pocket in the collar and said “Stern.”

Dog took off, ears flying in the wind she created.

Bull grinned at the look on Burn’s face. “Pager, Lead Gulch style. Dog gets a real kick out of doin’ it.” He poured a couple of mugs of coffee. “Here.”

After about twenty minutes, Stern slid silently through the door. He nodded at Burn and raised a questioning eyebrow at Bull.

Bull explained.

Burn sat back and waited. Stern gave him a considering look.

Burn kept his gaze steady even though it felt like having his soul weighed by whoever that ancient Egyptian deity was.

“I can do that,” Stern said finally. “Let’s go. We’ll lose the light.” He cut a sideways look at Burn. “You can see tracks better when the sun is at a low angle,” he explained politely.

“I know.” Burn clipped the words off and headed for the Jeep. “Come on, Dog. Let’s go for a ride.”

Dog jumped in the back as though she did this every day. Stern eased into the passenger seat silently.

This was one spooky guy. But if he didn’t want to talk… Burn drove to where he and Milo had parked the day before without saying a word. He stopped at the end of the track that led to a small mine and got out. Dog jumped down and quartered the area, nose working double time. She flushed a bunny out of a pile of rocks and took off downhill.

Stern slithered out and stood, taking in the position, looking for God knew what. “Milo was up there,” Burn said gesturing toward the hill behind the mine.

“If Dog comes back, keep her back. I’ll look for sign on the way.” Stern hoisted his pack and set off for the hilltop.

Burn thought about resenting the do-it-or-else tone and reconsidered. His tracking ability wasn’t worth doodly squat out here. He was much better at blood smears in alleys or carpeted rooms, and could count himself damn lucky to have Stern along.

When he reached the hilltop, Dog rushed up and he snagged her collar.

Stern crouched by the boulder where Burn had found Milo’s body. “Show me how you found him.” Stern’s voice sounded rough, grating through scarcely-moving lips, making everything he said sound like an order.

Burn started to describe the scene.

“No. Show me. Sit down there.”

He would have made the same request, so Burn checked the rocks for unfriendly inhabitants and sat where Milo had been. “Like this when I left him. Slumped this way when I came back.”

Stern knelt beside him, checking neighboring hilltops. “Sit up the way he was when you left.” After a few minutes, he stood. “Over there,” he said, pointing. “If Milo woke and looked around, it would have been that one.”

Burn climbed to his feet. “Yeah. I figured that as the most likely spot. It’s got those nice rocks at the top for cover.”

Stern nodded and started down the hill.

That was all the answer Burn would get apparently, so he followed. Halfway up the neighboring hill, Stern gestured at Dog. Burn looped his belt around Dog’s neck to keep her from running ahead and destroying tracks.

Stern stayed low when he reached the top. Burn followed suit even though he couldn’t imagine the sniper had lingered. Still… Stern picked his way through the rocks. Burn and Dog held back, watching him work. Finally he grunted. “Yep. Right here. Must’ve been like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Burn bit down on the picture that created in his mind. “Where’d he go from here?”

Stern’s gaze swept over the area, Burn’s close behind. “Over there,” Burn said, pointing toward a broken bit of sage brush. He and Stern converged on the area, and saw two beautifully clear footprints heading east, down the side of the hill.

Dog didn’t show any interest.

Stern looked up from where he’d been kneeling, trying to get her to sniff at the marks. “Looks like we better keep her leashed,” he said with a hint of grin and stood. He took off down the hill. Burn tugged Dog along and followed.

The trail, such as it was, led to a faint dirt track where a motorcycle had been parked.

Stern straightened, looking east. “He headed for the next valley. Want to follow?”

Burn shook his head. “That tells me everything we need to know.”

Stern raised an eyebrow.

“I think we’ve got some serious drug dealing going on over there. Wouldn’t be smart to go walking in like we were invited to tea.”

With a nod, Stern turned back the way they had come. “Best get out of sight then,” was all he said.

The ride back to town was silent except for Dog’s excited panting in the back. When Burn pulled the Jeep to a stop in front of Stern’s shack, Stern jumped out, hefted his pack, and raised a hand in brief farewell.

“Wait,” Burn said.

Stern turned and looked at him. Set his pack down.

“Those dealers. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were looking for me.”

Stern showed no reaction other than a raised eyebrow.

“If they’re Modesti’s men, they have incentive. He put a million dollar contract out on me, and LAPD. thinks it’s possible he’s in the country now. If he’s here…”

“Bad news for Lead Gulch,” Stern grunted and set his pack down.

“Very bad.”

“John Smith. He one of this Modesti’s?”

“Maybe. Seems likely.”

“He recognize you?”

Burn shrugged. “I hope not. I’ve lost weight since Modesti saw me. Hair’s longer, got a beard now. And I had on shades, so Smith couldn’t see my eye color.”

Stern nodded. “I’ll be keeping an eye out.” He sat for a moment longer, watching Burn, then nodded and hefted his pack. “You do the same.”

  • * *

A few nights later, Chris faced Burn over his kitchen table. The last of the boxes of Jake’s financial records sat in front of them. Jake’s recent bank statements. She couldn’t repress a shiver.

Gramps had been right all along. She should have told Burn right away about Jake and the money he gave the town. But if she had…Burn had been an emotional mess when he arrived. He’d have jumped back in his shiny new Jeep and disappeared in a cloud of dust. She’d done the right thing. Really.

Dammit, Jake had sworn he’d written to Burn to tell him, to ask him to please keep helping her. And he hadn’t. Or if he had, Burn wasn’t admitting it. Dammit, dammit, dammit.

Burn looked up. “What’s wrong?”

Chris realized she’d clenched her hands into tight fists. She forced herself to relax them. “Nothing.”

He slit the tape holding the lid shut, and lifted out the inventory slip she’d made for each of the financial records boxes. “Oh, hell, I don’t want to go through all this stuff. Let’s go for a walk.”

Procrastinating would only make the final showdown worse. She knew that. But the temptation of one last time with Burn was irresistible. She’d have to face his anger sooner or later. He was going to go ballistic when he learned the truth, she knew it in her heart. He’d never accept that she’d deliberately hidden the facts from him.

She followed him outside and linked her fingers with his. When she automatically turned left to head up the hill behind the house, he tugged her toward town. “I thought we were going to watch the sunset from up there,” she said.

He shook his head. “Maybe not such a good idea with Milo’s killer running around loose.”

“But—wasn’t that an accident?”

He stopped and looked down at her. If she had to guess, she’d have said his expression was one of profound sorrow. “I don’t think so, Chris. You talk to Stern about what we found?”

She shook her head. “He doesn’t talk much. You tell me. What did he find?”

“A spot on the next hill over where someone spent a few hours.”

She stopped in her tracks. “Where…someone…” His words reverberated in her ears like the clanging of a bell. “Someone shot…shot Milo…on purpose?” Her world tilted when she saw the answer in his face. A bucket of ice water couldn’t have been a bigger shock. “No.” She looked around wildly. “Why would anyone want to shoot Milo?” She heard her voice going shrill and uncontrolled but couldn’t stop it. “That doesn’t make sense. It just isn’t possible. It—”

Burn put his hands on her shoulders. “Chris. Stop.” He shook her gently.

Dog appeared out of nowhere and thrust herself protectively in front of Chris. The deep rumble of her growl shocked Chris out of her incipient hysteria. “Good girl,” she said, and knelt to hug the dog. “Good Dog. Thank you. He’s not going to hurt me. It’s all right.”

Burn dropped his suddenly empty hands and stepped back. “I guess we know whose side she’d be on if we ever had a fight.”

“And that surprises you why?”

“It doesn’t. I guess—oof.”

She had thrown her arms around him and hugged him hard, cutting off his words. “Let’s go back, Burn. I’ve had all the bad news I can handle right now.”

For a moment, she thought he’d refuse. Then he looked down at Dog, who sat watching them with tilted head and pricked ears. “Do we have your permission, Madam Dog?”

Dog wagged her tail.

Burn put his arm around Chris’s shoulders and she leaned into him, cherishing his closeness and warmth.

If this was the last good time they’d have together, she’d make the most of it. She could deal with the bank statements—and Burn’s anger—tomorrow. What Burn would do when he found out the truth wasn’t the only problem in town.

Just the one most likely to end her happy affair.

Chapter 20

“Oh, do we have to do this today?” Chris poured coffee and handed Burn his mug.”

Burn took it and set it on the table next to the stack of bank statements. “I’ve put it off too long already. These papers aren’t going to sort themselves. I wish they would. I hate this kind of stuff.”

Chris steeled herself. “They’re in good order, I’m sure. Jake was fierce about keeping his finances up to date. He knew where every penny went.” So, see? Jake knew all about what I was doing. Would that blunt Burn’s anger?

“I guess I have to do it. Why don’t you look through the box—oh, wait. You packed it so you know if there’s anything in here except bank statements.”

“That’s it. Five years. Ever since Jake moved to Lead Gulch.” She had to work to keep from hunching her shoulders. “I can make sure they’re chronological while you start through them. Are you looking for anything in particular?”

Burn shrugged. “Not really. Jake’s lawyer insists that I go through at least a year to see what Jake did with his money. See if there’s any pattern I want to keep up, I guess.”

Yeah, there was a pattern. And Jake wanted you to keep it up. What are the chances? Should she leave? Should she sit here and wait for the explosion that surely would come?

Might as well get it over with. If he refused, the whole town would die. The wonderful old desert rats that had become her family would be so far below poverty level it wouldn’t be funny.

Burn put down the folder he had yet to open. “What’s the big sigh for? You don’t have to stay, you know. It’s probably about as interesting as watching sagebrush grow or whatever it does.”

“I might be able to answer any questions you have. Jake was pretty involved in the town.”

Burn gave her a sharp look. “I guess I’ll find out,” he said after a pause.

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. This was going to be so bad. She sipped at her coffee and waited.

And waited.

Burn scanned half a dozen statements without a word. When he picked up the one for July, he grunted. “Interesting.”

The hard stare she faced screamed ‘cop’ and she felt as guilty as if she’d done something wrong.

He continued through the remainder of the year, tapped the papers into a neat stack, and slid them back into their folder before picking up the check register that had been in the folder with the statements.

Chris felt doom hovering, lowering, as he flipped through the check stubs.

Finally he put the book down and set his folded hands on it. “My uncle seems to have been in the habit of giving you a lot of money,” he said. “At very regular intervals.”

She nodded.

“This what you meant when you said he was involved with the town?”

She nodded again. “Jake wanted you to keep doing it. He said he was going to tell you, but apparently he never got around to it.”

“Apparently not.”

“You sound as though you don’t believe me.”

“Maybe because I’m not sure I do.”

She slammed her hand down on the pile of bank statements. “It’s the truth. And now you know. The question is, do you want to know why? The other question is, are you going to do what Jake wanted?”

“No. And I don’t know.” Burn bent to retrieve the scattered papers. “This is the last thing I ever expected.”

“At the risk of sounding mercenary…” Chris shot him a sideways look, “…you could just take over Jake’s role.”

“And keep paying you blackmail? I don’t think so.”

Talk about being gobsmacked. The accusation took her breath away. After a minute she managed to choke out, “Blackmail?”

“Why else was Jake giving you thousands of dollars every month?”

“Oh, my God.” It’s a good thing she was already seated. “You think I’ve been blackmailing your uncle. Is there anything you don’t think I’m guilty of?”

“Well, drug dealing.”

She grimace. “Yeah, but only after you searched my truck and found out about the mineral business.”

“I like evidence. And there doesn’t seem to be any to support your claim about what Jake wanted.”

Chris buried her face in her hands. “Oh, my God. What a mess. I thought you—we—”

Burn leaned back, arms crossed over his chest. “I might have thought so, too. But this? I accepted your story about Alex. I don’t think you can expect me to accept blackmail.”

His eyes had gone cold and hard, like bits of ice. He really thought she’d been blackmailing his uncle, she realized. He really believed she was such a rotten person she could do that and then…and in Jake’s own house…in Jake’s own bed…

She jumped up and bolted from the house before he could see her tears.

The last thing she heard was his voice, cold and hard and cop-like. “Running won’t help, Chris.”

  • * *

Chris checked off the final errand on her list. No one had wanted to come to town with her today, so the list had taken what felt like forever, eating up the whole morning. Just as well. She wasn’t what you might call good company. If she’d stayed home, she would have been worried about seeing Burn. He hadn’t come out of his house since their disastrous conversation. Since he’d accused her of blackmail. She wiped away a tear and decided she might as well grab lunch while she was here, before she picked up the mail and headed for home.

Forty minutes later, full of Maria’s wonderful enchiladas plus a large helping of gossip, she stopped at the post office. The usual junk mail got dumped in the recycle can, leaving a few bills, an Amazon package for Helen, and something for her from the Hot Hunks head office. Strange. They didn’t owe her a check, and she didn’t expect the next assignment for a couple of weeks.

Curiosity had her opening the envelope as soon as she settled into the driver’s seat of her truck. The single, terse paragraph hit like a punch to the gut.

No softening the blow. No explanation. Nothing but the harshness of ‘Your services will no longer be required’.

The paper slipped from her hand. She watched it flutter to the floor, too stunned to grab it. After a minute or an hour, her shock dissipated enough to form a coherent thought.

It wasn’t pretty.

This would be the end. Of Lead Gulch. Of Gabby and Thelma and Helen. Of Young Harley and Frost and Greed. Only her grandfather, Abe, Stern, and Bull were anything like self-supporting. They had pensions, or, in Bull’s case, disability.

The others… For years they had been totally dependent on what Chris and Jake supplied, even though they didn’t know it. Since Jake had died, she’d been carrying the whole load and her savings were down to less than a month’s worth of funding.

She didn’t realize she was crying until a knock on the window startled her so much she let out a short scream.

“Hey, Chris. You okay?” The Ridgecrest sheriff bent to look in the window.

Chris swabbed an arm across her eyes and rolled the window down. “Hey, Rick. Yeah, I’m okay.”

“Now, why don’t I believe that? Maybe because I’ve never seen you cry before? Come on, Madam Mayor. Let’s go have some coffee and you can tell Uncle Rick all about it.”

“You’re a good guy, Rick, but no. I’ve got to get back to Lead Gulch. No telling what mischief those old guys will get up to while I’m gone. It’s okay…just some sorta bad news that surprised me.”

Rick stood back and watched her drive away. He didn’t believe her, she knew. Gramps would believe her. And God knew what he’d do. One more thing to worry about.

At least the old truck knew the way home. Chris surely wasn’t doing much to help it. She drove in a blank fog, scarcely seeing the other cars on the road.

She pulled off the road when she reached the spot where she’d met Burn that first time. Before she faced Abe and Helen and the others, she needed to get herself under control. But oh, holy claim jumpers, what was she going to do?

She was going to mop away the signs of tears and desperation, she was going to deliver the stuff she’d bought in town to Abe as usual, she was going to go home and hold it all together until she could talk to Gramps.

Easier said than done, babe.

  • * *

Even though he knew the old guys weren’t doing drugs out in the mountains, Burn didn’t want to give up scouting around. He’d gotten kind of addicted to roaming these hills, and what the hell, maybe they were lying to him.

This time he’d driven east from town to pick up the road that ran north in the next valley. He’d sure like a look at whatever was going on over there. If Delacourt had it right, there was a good chance Modesti’s people were involved. And that was a good reason not to get too close, not without a plan and a lot of backup.

Just in case the captain was right, he’d stay out of the valley, but there was no reason an innocent tourist couldn’t be driving past the turnoff, heading for Vegas. Just in case, though, he drove slowly enough to keep from raising a dust cloud. If the wrong people got a good look at him, he’d never be accepted as an innocent tourist, and there was that million dollar contract. So he’d drive slowly, keep his eyes open, and avoid contact at all costs.

Or not.

The Jeep rounded a sharp bend and landed in the middle of a situation. Young Harley stood with his back against the door of his old truck, white faced and shaking hard enough to be seen from thirty feet away. Two seriously chopped bikes blocked the road and two ugly hardcases stood in front of Harley, leaning forward with fists clenched and menace written on their faces. Two strangers. Not Smith. Replacements for the two who died? Burn tucked that away to consider later. Right now, getting Y. H. out of this was more important.

What was this—open season on Lead Gulch residents?

Oh hell.

Burn grabbed for the Glock. He shoved in into his waistband as he climbed out. “Having trouble, gentlemen?”

“None of your business, pendejo,” one of the men snarled. “Vete Get out.”

Burn curled his lip. “I don’t think so. I think you’re going to back off and let this guy go about his business.”

“B-B-Burn, they said they’re gonna k-k-kill me,” Harley stuttered. “I d-d-didn’t do n-n-nothin’.”

Burn suppressed a grimace. Wonderful. If these were Modesti’s men, Harley had just painted a bull’s-eye on him. And on the town.

The bikers turned to face him. “Friend of yours?” one sneered.

Burn shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Killing him isn’t a good idea.”

“We like it fine. Pretty dull place.”

“Feel free to leave,” Burn told him. “Now, why don’t you get on your bikes and go home. I’ll take care of things here.”

The bikers exchanged a glance and began moving toward Burn, each one stepping to the side so they’d come at him from two directions.

Burn yanked out the Glock and planted a shot about three inches from the foot of the closest one. “Got more where that came from. I’d suggest you stop right there.”

They stopped.

“Hit the ground, guys. Hands behind your heads. You,” he said to Young Harley, “get in your truck and go home.”

When Harley had left, Burn patted down the two bikers, confiscating three semi-automatic nine millimeters and a couple of knives. He walked over to the bikes, pulled the keys out of the ignitions, and threw them out into the sagebrush as hard as he could. In opposite directions. “You might want to wait until I leave before you get up and go looking for your keys,” he said.

Back in town, he pulled up in front of Abe’s beside Young Harley’s truck. Both Harleys stood on the porch with Helen, Abe, and Chris.

Young Harley rushed down the steps to meet him. “You saved me, Burn. They was gonna kill me because I wanted to clean up the cans they threw away. You saved me. You’re just like Jake.”

Oh, shit, no. He wasn’t Jake.

“Is he right?” Chris asked. “Who were those men?”

“Don’t know, but we could have some serious trouble. You said someone might be cooking meth in one of the mines?”

“That was my guess,” Old Harley said. “It happens, you know.”

Of course he knew. “The real question is whether they’re locals. Small time, independent operators. Or whether they’re hooked up with one of the cartels.”

“Cartels,” Chris said faintly. “Oh, my God.”

“You got that right, lady. And they can guess where Young Harley lives. And…” He looked at Old Harley. “If it’s the cartel guy I think it is, he knows me.” That was the simplest way to say it. They didn’t need to know the size of the contract Modesti still had out on him.

Chris sat, abruptly, as though her knees wouldn’t hold her up. Nothing wrong with her brain, though. “Is he the one who shot you?” she asked.

Burn nodded.

Old Harley, Abe, and Helen all began talking at once.

When they’d run down, Chris got to her feet. “We’d better set up a sentry system,” she said.

He nodded.

“And no one—” She broke off and leveled a meaningful look at Burn. “No one goes over into that next valley. And no one goes anywhere alone or unarmed. Any arguments?”

No arguments. Sounded good to Burn. “One other thing. I need to tell someone in LA about this. That means driving out to the highway for a phone.”

“Good idea,” Chris said. “You can come back after dark and hide your car in one of Bull’s outbuildings. But you’re not going alone.” She grinned at him. “I’m assuming you’re not planning to really leave.”

“I’m not as good as Jake, but no, I’m not leaving you to clean up my mess.”

“Fine. Let’s see, who should go with you….hmm. Harley, who do you think?”

“We need Abe to stay here. How about Gabby? He’s a good man in a fight.”

“Good. I’ll go get him. You ready to leave, Burn?”

Just like that, he seemed to have enlisted in the Lead Gulch Militia, commanded by Chris Layton. But once this drug thing was over, he wasn’t going to be responsible for the town, as Jake apparently had been.

Maybe he should ask Chris exactly what Jake’s role had been. Besides money.

  • * *

Maybe she had to stop lying to him, or, more accurately, stop not telling him the entire truth. He thought she was blackmailing his uncle? She could prove she hadn’t used a penny of Jake’s money for herself. She needed to show him that Jake had been contributing to the town treasury in a big way, his contributions far outstripping Gramps’s pension and even her earnings. Photography was the profession of her heart, but let’s face it, it didn’t pay enough to support an entire town. And Jake had taken up the slack.

After a miserable night of tossing and turning and trying to figure out how to pay taxes and medical bills and food and still repair the generator and water system, she was ready to beard Burn in his den.

Or his kitchen. She could see him sitting at the table as she trudged across the road and around to his back door.

She paused on the tiny porch, clutching the folders of town finances to her and taking deep breaths. Come on, you’re the mayor, you can do this.

She wasn’t sure she believed it, but she banged on the door and walked in. “Morning, Burn.”

“Well, if it isn’t my favorite blackmailer. By all means, do come in.”

Well, she hadn’t expected this to be easy. “I’m already in. I need to talk to you.”

“Is this where you hit me up to continue Jake’s contributions to whatever he thought he was contributing to?”

Sure is, honey. “I came over here to tell you everything. But you have to promise not to tell anyone.”

“Oh, right.” Sarcasm practically dripped from the words. “Like every blackmailer in the world didn’t want secrecy. Not a chance, Blondie.”

“I’m not a blackmailer, but what I want to tell you would cause more trouble than you can imagine for the people who live here.”

“Your grandpa know what you’ve been doing? Or is he part of it?”

“He knows, Burn. He and Jake and I are the only ones who know. Knew,” she amended with that pang of grief that struck every time she realized Jake was really gone.

“I don’t believe for two seconds that you’re an innocent little blonde and he gave you money willingly. I think you’re a blackmailer, and I think you took my uncle for thousands of dollars. And I also think you’re barking up the wrong sagebrush if you think you’re going to get any money from me.”

Oh, Jake. Why the blooming hell didn’t you tell him like you said you would? “Jake would give me the money.”

“In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not Jake.”

“Oh, I noticed. Believe me, I noticed.”

“So did you sleep with Jake, too?”

As soon as he said the words, Chris knew she’d expected them. That didn’t make the accusation hurt any less. “No, Burn, I didn’t. That particular mistake is one I’ve only made with you. If you remember.”

At least he had the grace to look ashamed. “Yes, I do. That was uncalled for. I apologize.”

She hadn’t expected that. Dammit, why did he have to be so…nice? “Thank you. Look, Burn, I want to tell you everything. I know you’d agree with what Jake did. But I can’t unless I have your word you’ll keep it a secret.”

The shame melted from his face, leaving it hard and uncompromising. “Like I said, Blondie, not a chance.”

So she’d failed. Tears burned her eyes, and she blinked to keep them from falling. She would not cry in front of him. She would not think about how close she’d come to falling in love with him. She would not think about his warm strength and… She just would not.

“Oh, for God’s sake, don’t cry.” Half order, half snarl, his words didn’t do anything to make her feel better.

She steeled herself and glared at him.

He returned the look, but she had no idea what he might be thinking.

“You look like I just ran over your kitten.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “Look. I’m sorry you’re a blackmailer. I’ll give you one month of what Uncle Jake gave you. And that’s it. Got it? No more. The end. Try your blackmail on someone else. Now get out of here.” A sour half smile quirked his mouth. “No more automatic bank payments. I’ll send a check by Dog.”

  • * *

After Chris left, Burn paced through the house. “Dammit, Jake,” he said, hating that his uncle couldn’t hear him. “Why the hell couldn’t you tell me what you wanted me to do? What would you think in my place? Cute little blonde chickie. Older man. Lonely town. Regular, large chunks of money changing hands. For God’s sake, what could I think except blackmail? I’m a cop, remember?”

The words echoed around the room. “Was a cop.” But the mind set remained, whether he wore a badge or not.

Except he’d never been this emotionally invested—he gagged at the mention of emotion—in any of his cases. Determined, yes. Angry, more than once. But something about this situation…

Oh, just hell.

He stamped into the kitchen and found the bottle of Jake’s whiskey he’d been ignoring since he’d arrived. If ever there was a time for getting blind drunk, this was it. Carrying the bottle and a glass—he hadn’t gone so far down that he’d drink right out of the bottle—he stalked out to the porch and threw himself into Jake’s rocker. No sunset, but the town lay quiet and somehow beautiful under the light of the moon. Moonlight was as kind to tumble-down old towns as candlelight was supposed to be to women, apparently.

After about the third glass, he began to wonder about something that should have been his first response. “Gettin’ rusty, Coburn,” he said. “But Jake, you never did anything shady in your life. So am I wrong? What the hell could she blackmail you about?”

Chapter 21

One more month. Chris slumped into a chair at her kitchen table and stared at the bottle of wine Gramps had given her at Christmas. Maybe this was the night to open it. Even though Burn still thought she was a slimy blackmailer, she had enough money for one more month.

Always supposing Burn kept his word and gave it to her. That was good. But then what? She’d find another job. She’d go through her old photos and find ones to sell. She could do it.

Tea sounded better than wine, so she brewed a cup and sat staring at the town financial records. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t take much to keep six—back up. Since Milo’s death, only five—she choked for a moment and drew a deep breath to banish the tears that seemed too close to the surface these days. Only five proud old people to keep safe and happy. If they ever, ever found out they’d been living on charity…she couldn’t do that to them.

So she’d do whatever it took. Blackmail sounded pretty damned good at this point, if she only knew a blackmailable secret. What the hell did Burn think Jake had done that she could hold over his head to the tune of thousands of dollars a month?

Staring at the pile of records she’d tried to show Burn, she considered ways and means. Burn claimed there were drug dealers working out here. Maybe she could…? Maybe she could not. Drugs and prostitution were the only things she knew that didn’t take any training, and she wasn’t about to try either one.

She put her head down on the table, resisting the urge to bang it. A soft sound behind her where there should be no sound jolted her upright. Burn had come to apologize? She started to turn to face him.

He grabbed her shoulder and kept her from moving. “Ow, Burn. That hur…” she began. But something pricked her arm and blackness wrapped around her like a soft cloud. Before she sank into it completely, she saw his face.

It wasn’t Burn.

  • * *

Burn woke late the next morning with an entire brass band holding tryouts in his head. No more drinking. He stumbled to the kitchen and started some life-giving coffee. While it perked, he showered. Quickly. A repeat of the awful scene when he’d drained the town’s entire water supply was not something he wanted. That had been a mortifying event he’d just as soon everyone forgot. But by now he knew Lead Gulch well enough to know it had been engraved in stone in the town’s history.

Once the coffee had cleared some cobwebs, he remembered promising Chris money for one month. For a moment he wondered how she’d been getting along since Jake died. Did he even care?

A strange, mushy feeling in his gut said yes, he did. He didn’t like it.

He ignored it as long as he could. By dinner time, he couldn’t stand it any longer and got out his checkbook. Jake had been ponying up a couple of thousand dollars a month. He sighed and wrote her a check for more.

Dog hadn’t shown up all day. Or she had, but had gone on to find someone who didn’t sleep until noon. He went to the front porch and whistled. After a few minutes, she trotted up the road, ears flapping.

He folded the check into her collar and said, “Chris.”

Dog took off and he watched as she bounded up to the front door and barked.

No one answered, and after a moment, she darted around the side of the house.

Smart dog. Funny that Chris didn’t answer. Her truck was there. He shrugged and sat to wait for Dog.

Impatience had him twitching by the time she bounced in the back door and skidded to a stop sitting at his side. “You got an answer for me, girl?” He bent and unzipped the pouch on her collar. No note. His check was still there.

Whoa. What was this about?

He took the check and offered Dog a dog biscuit. Where was Chris? Her truck still sat beside the house. Dog followed him out to the front porch, carrying her biscuit. She flopped down and gnawed on the treat while Burn scanned the town, looking for any sign of the mayor. The only thing he saw was Old Harley chugging up the track to her house. and disappearing through the door.

Hell. He went back in, grabbed the check, and headed across the road. She’d said her grandfather knew what was going on, so it couldn’t hurt anything to give her the check in his presence. Also, maybe he’d give up a little information.

Harley burst through the door just as Burn came up the steps. “She’s gone,” he gasped.

Burn shoved the check in his pocket and grabbed Harley’s arm. “Calm down. Her truck’s here. She—”

“I just came from Abe’s. Helen said she hadn’t seen Chris all day. She didn’t go down there this morning like she always does, so I came to see if she’s okay. She’s not here. The back door’s wide open and there’s papers scattered all over the kitchen. You gotta find her, Burn.” He ground to a stop, panting. Fear burned in his eyes.

Fear was contagious. The name lanced through Burn like a spear of ice. Modesti.

He bolted through the house to the kitchen and saw exactly what Harley had described. The open door, the papers she’d been carrying when she left his house strewn across the floor. And the overturned chair. The tea cup lying on its side. He closed his eyes, reliving the moment Modesti had killed Todd. Rage beyond measure. Helpless fury. Modesti had done it again.

“Harley,” he said when he realized the old man stood rigid, staring at him expectantly. “Check the rest of the house and see if anything’s out of place.”

Harley hobbled down the hall.

Stern. Burn needed Stern. He whistled for Dog and stuffed a hasty note in her collar. She took off and he paced the house while he waited.

Harley joined him. “I don’t see nothin’ out of place,” he said.

Stern came through the door, fast and alert. “What’s wrong, Burn?” His eyes flicked around the room. “House secure?”

“Yeah,” Burn said. “Whatever happened must have gone down last night. Chris went home about nine thirty. Looks like she was having a cup of tea when someone came in. Harley found the back door open.”

Stern nodded and slipped down the hall.

Burn followed. “Dog’s been out there.”

After a few minutes, Stern came in. “There’s a trail. Looks like two guys, one of ‘em carrying a heavy load. You figure that was Chris?”

His last hope dissolved. “Yeah.”

“Not good.”

“Better get everyone up here.”

“I’ll send Dog,” Harley said.

“Gonna follow the tracks. Back in a few,” Stern said before sliding out the back door.

Burn sat on the porch with Harley and waited. Images of Chris at Modesti’s mercy made his mind a place he didn’t want to be.

“What do you reckon they’ll do to her?” Harley said.

Rape. Torture. Murder. Burn just shook his head. “Dunno.”

“We gotta get her back.”

“We will.” Dead or alive.

Harley grunted and fell silent.

Burn waited. Stern was their best hope. He’d wait for Stern’s report. Calling Delacourt would get him some manpower—maybe—but not in time. It was up to him, and he’d be damned if he’d let Modesti kill someone else to get at him. If he hadn’t already.

Chris. How had they gotten to her? He would have expected her to put up a fight, and he hadn’t heard anything after she left him. Drugged. They must have drugged her. Maybe that would keep them from killing her right away.

Oh, God. Chris. Looking back on it, he couldn’t believe she had blackmailed Jake. What had possessed him to think that? Chris, honest, direct. A little bossy. He’d never seen any hint that she’d be devious or dishonest.

On the heels of that came the memory of Chris in his bed, soft and loving. Honest and open. Chris sitting across the table from him, telling a story about—anything. Always keeping him interested and entertained. It hit him. He couldn’t imagine a life without Chris in it.

He’d come to Lead Gulch full of loss and anger and Chris had helped stanch the bleeding, luring him back to an interest in life beyond revenge. Sitting on her porch and waiting for the geriatric posse, full of the most horrifying images of what could be happening to her, he realized he loved her.

  • * *

Everyone in town had gathered at Chris’s house by the time Stern oozed through the back door. Abe helped Greed limp up to a chair beside Bull and his boys.

They had all come armed.

Burn had never seen so many guns in his life. The place looked like an antique gun show. Christ. What was he going to do with these antiquated vigilantes?

The impromptu town meeting hit new heights for noise and arguments. They all agreed on the ultimate goal: save Chris. No two agreed on the way to do it.

“A posse,” Old Harley said. “We c’n rush the hideout, as soon as Stern tells us where it is. They’re prob’ly holed up in one of the old mines, ‘n we could—”

“Naw.” Abe’s gravelly voice cut him off. “If someone helps me up on a hill, I’ll get out my old sniper rifle ‘n pick ‘em off one by one.”

Helen and Thelma suggested a Trojan Horse attack. “If we drive Bull’s van, they won’t shoot two harmless old women, and you all can hide in the back.”

Frosty and Young Harley agreed to it all.

Burn squelched an urge to beat his head against the wall. His gaze met Stern’s across the room. “We need to wait until we know what the situation is before we make a plan. Stern, can you track them enough to figure out where they’re holding her?” he asked.

Stern gave one of his minimal nods and left the room silently as a breeze.

“We’ll wait until he gets back,” Burn said, making it sound like an order.

Protests filled the air.

Burn had his hands full keeping them from rushing to make an armed attack on what they thought would be the hideout. He was at his wit’s end by the time Stern entered the room.

“They’re in the old Four Roses mine in Sweetwater Canyon. Got a couple o’ sentries watchin’ the road.”

“We’ll need to wait for dark,” Burn said.

“Pretty sure they’ve got sensors out on the road,” Stern said.

“We don’t even know if Chris is there. They mighta killed her already,” Old Harley grumbled.

“They didn’t,” Stern said. He gave Burn a wolfish grin. “They don’t know about the old airshaft that goes down to the end of the first tunnel. They got Chris tied up in there. She’s okay. Told her we’d be back after dark. Reckon if she’s still there we can drop a rope and pull her right out. Like poppin’ a pea outta the pod.”

That was more words than he’d heard Stern let loose of the whole time he’d been in Lead Gulch. “Good news, Stern. Damn good news. We can go as soon as the sun goes down.”

“We’re goin’ too,” Old Harley insisted. “You ain’t leavin’ me behind. She’s my granddaughter.”

Burn closed his eyes. He didn’t see how he could stop them. Imagining trying to sneak up on Modesti’s camp accompanied by a batch of ancient, creaking hotheads… Oh, heaven help him.

“We need to get on this before they move her,” Stern murmured.

Burn bowed to the inevitable. “Okay. We assemble here at sundown.”

  • * *

Back in his own house, Burn had to work at keeping the images of Modesti’s cruelty at bay. When Abe came by, saying Old Harley had asked him to go to town for the mail, Burn decided to ride along.

It didn’t help. Abe chattered on about ways to pick off the gang one by one.

All right, so he’d been a sniper. How many thousand years ago was that? If Abe could hit the broad side of a barn with that ancient gun he hauled around, it would be a miracle. Burn ground his teeth.

In town, he left Abe to do the shopping and stepped outside to call Quincey. Some real help wouldn’t be out of line tonight, if the Q could make it to Lead Gulch in time. But of course Quincey didn’t answer his phone. Burn stuffed the phone in his pocket and went back inside to help Abe.

On the way home, Abe switched to scenarios for liberating Chris.

At least it helped pass the time.

Back in Lead Gulch, he sorted the mail while Abe talked to Helen.

Seeing the mail center Chris had fixed up for her people brought a lump to his throat. She didn’t miss a trick, trying to make their lives happy. Without her, the town would curl up and die. Without her, he might do the same. He distributed the letters into the little compartments. One remained, a return-to-sender that Jake had mailed over two months ago. Burn’s heart clenched, and he wondered how much more abuse it could take.

He had to be alone to open this, so he shoved it inside his shirt, said goodbye to Abe and Helen, and trudged through town and up the hill to his house. Past Chris’s, empty now of her bright energy. Inside his own place, he sat at the kitchen table staring at the envelope for a long time. Jake had mailed the letter the day Modesti had shot him. Somehow it had missed him at home, in the hospital, at the department, and had languished in the dead letter office until today.

Impatient with his dithering, he poured himself a stingy tot of Jake’s whiskey and slit the envelope. He tossed the whiskey down, unfolded the paper, and began to read.

Dear Burn,

Jake’s familiar, precise writing made his breath catch.

I’m sorry you couldn’t get to Lead Gulch this week. Hope everything’s all right.

If someone had informed Jake, he wouldn’t have died. Burn couldn’t live with that. Maybe Jake wouldn’t have died. Maybe. No maybe about the nightmares in Burn’s future.

There’s stuff I got to tell you and I’d hoped to do it in person, but this’ll have to do. I promised Chris I’d tell you, just in case anything happens to me. She’d be in a real pickle if I didn’t, and others in town would be in worse case.

The first trickle of uneasy guilt crept into Burn’s mind. Had Chris been telling the truth?

So I’m hoping you’ll do as I ask. The people here have become real good friends of mine. Most of them are too old to work, and except for a few, don’t have any money. No Social Security, no Medicare. They’d be starving to death, not even able to afford cat food.

So Chris came up with this idea. She’s the mayor here, and she feels real responsible for her town. She’s a photographer, and every penny she makes goes into the town treasury. Her grandpa has a pension, and he donates most of that. I’ve been picking up the slack to keep the folks here in town from knowing they’re getting charity. None of them could accept it. I reckon they’d just walk out in the desert and die rather than that.

So I’m asking you to continue what I’m doing for the town that has become my home. I’m not making it a legal requirement, but I’m hoping you’ll do it.

You’re a good boy. I look forward to your visit soon.

Jake

She hadn’t lied. Guilt rose in his throat like bile. She had told the truth and he’d accused her of being a blackmailer. He hadn’t believed her, and now he might never see her again.

Chapter 22

“Gonna be too much moon tonight,” Stern muttered to Burn. He closed the tailgate of his truck behind the last of the geriatric warriors.

Burn shrugged and climbed into the cab. “Not like we have a choice.” Adrenalin jittered through him. He closed his eyes and pictured Chris. Whatever came of tonight, he’d get her out of Modesti’s hands or die trying.

Stern drove his surprisingly silent truck without lights, following the road as long as possible and then creeping up a hill. He stopped before they crested it. “Can’t get any closer without being heard. Gotta hoof it from here.”

Delacourt had once described managing the drug task force as ‘herding cats’. Burn figured he knew exactly what Del meant. He drew a deep breath and prepared to give a lecture—whispered, of course, on the importance of staying quiet, no lights, no straggling, no cowboying. And wondered what they’d come up with that he’d forgotten to prepare for.

To his surprise, his troops hit the ground like a well-briefed, if creaky in the joints, SEAL team. Stern grinned, his teeth showing white in the moonlight. “I’ve lived in Lead Gulch over ten years. Had time to teach these guys a few things,” he murmured.

Maybe they would be able to pull this off, after all.

Moving twelve people through the sagebrush and rocks by moonlight could never be as quiet as he wished, but they did a pretty good job. Burn fell into the rhythm learned on too many night sorties in the ‘Stan. After half an hour, Stern stopped. “The air shaft is about two hundred feet up ahead.”

“Show me,” Burn said. “Let’s see if Chris is there.” He cat-footed behind Stern, careful to move as silently as possible. The air vent proved to be a hole barely big enough for Chris to fit through. He shuddered. If the shaft narrowed at any point… So many things could go wrong. He lay silently listening. To nothing.

“Sounds like they moved her,” Stern whispered. Before Burn could reply, he threw back his head and gave a soft but credible imitation of a coyote.”

No response.

Burn motioned him to pull back from the vent, and they crept back to where the others waited. “Sounds like time for Plan B,” he said. “We’ll split up and approach the mine entrance from both sides.”

Stern nodded. “Too bad we don’t have radios,” he said. “I’ll do the coyote if we run into trouble. Saw-whet owl means take cover.”

Burn nodded. He figured someone in the group knew what a saw-whet owl, whatever that was, sounded like. “Let’s go.”

The group split as though they’d practiced the maneuver. Helen, Young Harley, Skull, Goat, and Gabby, followed Stern. Burn watched them take off around the hill. Abe, Old Harley, Thelma, Frosty, and Bimmer clustered around him.

“I know where the entrance is. Want me t’ go on ahead?” Abe said.

Burn nodded, and the motley group began edging around the hillside. He’d be a lot more comfortable if he had his old team with him. Even Bull would be a comfort.

Abe stopped abruptly.

Burn stumbled into him in the darkness, and the complete idiocy of what they were doing hit him. What the hell did he think he was doing, taking on what might be one of Mexico’s most dangerous drug lords with a band of ancient desert rats with Rambo complexes.

He peered over Abe’s head and saw the flattened area in front of the mine entrance. No one in sight, but there must be sentries somewhere. He sank down into the sagebrush and the others mimicked him. Stern and his party must be in place, but he could see no sign or motion from the far side of the mine.

His vision was better than anyone else’s, he knew, but he couldn’t see anything that would alert the gang if he slipped up to the mine entrance. “I’m going to—” he began.

The sound of a helicopter cut off his words, and he crouched back into invisibility.

“It’s gonna land,” Old Harley said, and as though he’d conjured them, a circle of floodlights came to life around a flat spot below the mine.

Bad news. Burn’s heart sank. If the chopper were here to pick up Modesti—if he even was here—he’d either kill Chris or take her back to Mexico. Blonde women were valuable commodities in the sex trade there. His stomach heaved and he swallowed bile. “They are not taking Chris,” he said. Ordered.

Harley looked at him as though he’d lost his mind. “O’ course they ain’t.”

The chopper settled to the ground and the rotor subsided to idle speed. One armed man jumped to the ground and headed for the mine.

A glow of light shone gold against the blackness of the mine entrance. “They’re coming out,” Burn said.

“Whatta we do now?” Thelma asked.

“Watch for Chris. When—” He hoped it would be when. “When we see her, we’ll figure out what to do. We’ve got to keep her safe. We cannot let them get her in the chopper, understand? Whatever it takes, we can’t let that happen. Everyone got that?”

“We’ve got it, Burn.” Frosty hadn’t said a word all evening. Now his face was set and determination bristled from his skinny body. “They ain’t gonna take her.”

Burn cast a glance over his troop. Frosty didn’t stand alone. Every face reflected uncompromising resolve. He hadn’t expected this, and blessed the darkness that hid his shame. Instead of worrying about protecting Chris’s friends, her family-by-choice, these fragile oldsters to whom he owed protection, he’d focused only on the woman he loved.

Where was the guilt, the determination to be responsible for no one ever again? It had dissolved in the friendship, the love he’d found in this crazy town. He’d do everything in his power to keep them all safe. But if he couldn’t… Well, if he couldn’t, he’d be dead and not worrying about it.

Two men came out of the tunnel, cautious, careful, peering into the darkness around them.

Burn searched for any sign they had thermal scanners that would reveal him and his posse, but they carried nothing but guns. Yeah, like AK-47s didn’t matter.

The two advance guards apparently decided the world was safe. “Bring the girl,” one of them barked, and two more men emerged, half-carrying a struggling, swearing Chris between them. She kicked out at one of them. When he dodged away, Burn saw his feet. Running shoes. Maybe this guy had stolen his clothes just for fun. Maybe, after Chris was safe, he’d return the favor. He shoved the thought away and snapped back into serious mode when they started dragging her down the hill toward the idling chopper.

Old Harley growled low in his throat and started to rise.

Burn put a hand on his shoulder and held him down. “Wait.”

A single man strolled out to join them. The men stopped and turned to face him. He walked over to Chris. “Stop that, chica. You offend me with your unladylike conduct.”

Modesti.

Chris struggled between the two men holding her and spat at him. “That’s what I think of your opinion, pendejo.”

He stepped forward and slapped her hard enough to knock her off her feet.

Burn grabbed Harley just in time to keep him from breaking cover and slapped a hand over the old man’s mouth.

Chris had retaliated by kicking out with both feet, letting her guards support her weight. One foot caught Modesti right where she’d aimed and he jumped back, bending over and cradling his genitals while he howled in pain.

One guard dropped his hold on Chris’s arm. Her sudden weight jerked the other guard off balance as she collapsed, scrabbling to get her feet under her.

“Now,” Burn yelled, charging down the hill.

The two men who had exited the mine first had made it to the chopper. They turned at Burn’s shout. One raised his gun.

Burn heard a gun fire somewhere behind him and the man dropped. The other two got off one shot apiece before a hail of bullets from Stern’s group took care of that problem.

Modesti was still down, rolling on the ground clutching himself.

That left the two guards. One had regained his grip on Chris’s arm and dragged her toward the chopper.

Burn stepped over to him and tapped him on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” he said. “I don’t think you want to do that.”

The man swung around to face Burn, aiming a clumsy left-handed blow while keeping a firm grip on Chris. She reached up with her free hand and grabbed his ear, twisting it until he yelled.

Burn smashed a fist into his face, making him release Chris, and dropped him with a blow to the chin.

Chris hurled herself into Burn’s arms.

He turned to see what had happened to the other guard, holding Chris behind him.

Stern stood over him, rubbing his knuckles. He grinned at Burn. “That was fun.”

Old Harley reached Chris and pulled her into a hug. “I thought—” He choked.

“I’m okay, Gramps. It’s okay.” She patted his cheek. “Thank you for the rescue.”

“Reckon it’s time to deal with the pilot and whatever’s left of those three down at the chopper,” Stern said. He headed down the hill, followed by everyone but Burn, Chris, and Old Harley.

“Ya done good, Burn,” Old Harley said, not moving his gaze from his granddaughter. “I was mighty scared there for a while.”

“I can’t believe we pulled it off,” Burn admitted. “You guys are something else again.”

“Reckon there’s something to be said for what you learn livin’ in a place like this.” Harley’s chuckle was cut off by the crack of a pistol. He sagged into Chris’s arms.

Burn whirled, a second too late, and the butt of Modesti’s gun crashed down on his head.

  • * *

Her grandfather’s limp weight bore Chris to the ground. ‘No!’ burned across her mind and she didn’t know if she screamed it or not. At the same time, she ignored the terror and shaking hands and squirmed out from under him, lowering his head gently to the ground. She ripped off her jacket to cover him, and used her bandanna to wipe the blood away from his forehead.

The bullet had grazed him. If it weren’t for his age, she’d be confident he would recover. But he was old, and now that she could do nothing for him, the anxious fear returned.

The shaking spread to the rest of her body until she trembled like an aspen in a stiff breeze. She rocked back on her heels and lost her balance. Her butt hit the ground and she yelped when she landed on an angular rock.

“Ay, chica.”

Her yelp had attracted the attention of the person she never wanted to see again.

“Get over here.” Modesti waved his gun at her.

To her horror, Burn lay unconscious at his feet.

“I said, get over here,” Modesti shrieked.

A bullet whizzed past Chris’s head and she stumbled to her feet.

“Ayúdame…Help me drag him to the helicopter,” Modesti ordered, dragging Burn a few feet.

Chris folded her arms in front of her and braced herself, feet wide apart. “No.”

Modesti smiled.

His smile sent fear stabbing through her, and he turned the gun to point at her grandfather. “I shoot the abuelo, no? I think you would rather help me.”

She thought so, too. Reluctantly, she took Burn’s other arm.

“Bueno. We go now.”

Staggering down the rocky slope, trying not to think about the damage being dragged was doing to Burn, she made the journey take as long as possible.

“Ándale, ándale,” Modesti commanded.

Chris stopped and straightened, rubbing her back. “You know I don’t speak Spanish,” she lied.

He made an unmistakable gesture with the gun.

Three shots sounded from somewhere off in the dark. He whirled toward them.

Chris hurled herself at him, headbutting him in the gut and grabbing his gun arm with both hands.

He staggered and she thought she had him. If she could knock him down, bash his head against the rocky ground…

He twisted, fast as a snake, and grabbed her, pulling her back against him, holding her with one hand wrapped around her jaw.

She went still. He could break her neck quite easily. She didn’t need the gun at her temple to force compliance.

“Whoever’s out there,” he yelled. “I’ll kill the girl if you try to stop me. Even if you shoot me, she’ll die.” Only the slow whomp whomp of the idling chopper broke the silence. He began backing toward the helicopter, dragging her along.

Chris dragged her feet, adding as much resistance as possible without openly struggling. If he got her into the helicopter…no. She’d do whatever it took to keep that from happening.

His grip shifted when he reached the step up into the helicopter and she went limp, trying to keep him from dragging her up into it. She succeeded in unbalancing him enough that he threw his gun hand up for balance and the gun was no longer pressed to her temple.

Burn rose to his knees and threw something. A rock smacked Modesti’s head and gave her the opportunity she’d been waiting for. She tore free and dropped, rolling under the helicopter and scrambling away into the darkness.

Once clear, she crouched behind a rock and watched.

Modesti threw himself into the chopper shouting something she couldn’t understand. Apparently the pilot did, because the blades began spinning faster and faster and the noise level increased a hundred fold. The chopper rose slowly, a foot, two feet. Faster and faster. It tilted and began to move down the valley.

A burst of gunfire deafened her as the dozen guns, antique and new, opened fire on the helicopter. Modesti slumped in the doorway, clutching his shoulder. Chris saw the pilot slump against the side window. A single shot rang out just as Burn reached her. Luck or skill, it hit the coupling that held the rotors in place and the crippled aircraft plummeted into the desert.

It exploded when it hit, and the last thing Chris saw before she buried her face against Burn was Modesti, bounced clear of the crash, rising to his feet in a nimbus of flame. His screams broke the desert night. And then he was silent. Only the crackle of flames licking at the sagebrush filled her ears.

Chapter 23

Back in Lead Gulch, Burn didn’t want to let go of Chris. Even though the entire town crowded into Thelma and Helen’s living room, he kept one arm around her, kept her glued to his side. When Modesti had started to drag her into the chopper, it had been Modesti and Todd all over again but much worse, and he’d known he couldn’t live through that loss again.

He hadn’t had a chance to tell her he loved her. From the agitated chatter and adrenaline-brightened eyes of everyone in the room, he wouldn’t get a chance for quite a while.

Abe came in carrying a couple of bottles of whiskey and he and Helen and Thelma passed around drinks for everyone. Even Stern accepted.

Chris straightened but didn’t leave his side. “A toast,” she said. “To all of you. You saved me.”

“We can drink to that,” Thelma said. “Besides, we haven’t had that much fun in a coon’s age. I don’t get to shoot at real people near often enough.”

Shouts and exclamations of approval of her bloodthirsty sentiment filled the room.

Burn tossed down his whiskey and grimaced. Either from the drink or the fact that John Wayne-ism wasn’t limited to the men in town.

He looked around the room and realized that every one of the old reprobates had become good friends. He liked them, and finally understood why Jake had found a home here.

Chris poked him with her elbow. “Your turn,” she muttered.

Oh, hell. He hadn’t even thought about a toast. With no idea what he would say, he raised his mysteriously refilled glass. The room fell silent.

“Thank you doesn’t begin to cover it,” he began, and realized it was the truth. He’d been damned worried about doing this alone, without backup, without Quincey, but they’d done just fine. “I couldn’t even have found the mine alone. I never would have thought old prospectors and antique guns could take out AK-47s and a Mexican cartel, but you proved me wrong all the way. Every single one of you deserves a medal. Chris is your mayor and you saved her. She’s something even more special to me, and you’ve got my gratitude for the rest of my life. So drink up.”

“Even more special?” Chris murmured. “What’s more special than being mayor? Gonna tell me about that?”

“Yeah,” Old Harley shouted, coming to his feet. “We’re a bunch of damned heroes.”

Cheers erupted around the room. Helen went around refilling glasses, and the cheers turned into an argument about who had brought down the helicopter.

“Who cares?” Bull said. As the only townie besides Greed who’d missed the action, he hadn’t said anything before.

“Yeah,” Abe said. “Me. Or Harley. Or Stern. Or…who knows. You ain’t never seen Thelma shoot skeet. I vote we call it a team effort.”

“Good idea,” Gabby shouted. “That Modesti guy is dead. The fire is out. The fire crew said they’d call that Del fella for you, Burn. The sheriff has the two guys who survived in jail. Reckon ever’thing’s just fine now.”

Burn’s arm tightened around Chris. “Except Chris almost—” he began.

“She didn’t,” Harley cut in. “Don’t think about it.”

“If you all hadn’t been there—”

“Well, no way were we gonna let you go after her alone. We’re old, Burn, not incompetent. Put us all together and I think we make a mighty fine partner on a rescue mission.”

Burn high-fived the old man. “No argument there.”

That brought on another round of cheering.

Under cover of the noise, Burn leaned down to whisper in Chris’s ear. “Mighty special means I love you,” he said. “And I’d really like to get out of here so we could discuss that.”

  • * *

He’d never asked a woman to marry him before, and it would be fair to say that he’d never been so scared in his life. Not even facing Modesti’s guns.

Chris slept, curled up beside him, but he couldn’t figure out what he’d say when the moment came. He wiped his hands on the sheet. Cold, clammy hands would go over as well as emptying the town water tank.

Chris murmured and rolled onto her back.

He propped himself up on one elbow and watched her sleep. By the flickering of her eyelids, he could tell when she started dreaming. When she started night-mare-ing. She whimpered and twisted.

Reliving the awfulness of the kidnapping, he figured, and leaned over her, shaking her shoulder gently. “Wake up, babe. You’re safe now. Wake up.”

She exploded into wakefulness, one fist sweeping up and smacking him in the eye.

He jolted back. “Ow. Chris, it’s me. Relax. You’re okay.”

“Burn?” she asked in a tentative voice and pushed herself up to huddle against the headboard.

“Burn,” he agreed, one hand covering his eye.

“I hit you.”

“Yeah. Don’t do it again.” He lit the battery lantern he kept at the bedside for emergencies. “Quite a punch you pack there, Slugger.”

“Oh, my God, I’m so sorry. Burn, I didn’t mean—”

He cut off the apologies before they turned tearful. “You were having a nightmare, and I don’t blame you. It’s okay now.”

“You need some ice. I’ve got—”

“There’s some in the refrigerator,” he interrupted. “I’ll get it”

“Lie down. I’ll get it.” She jumped out of bed. He enjoyed the view and grinned. How many men were lucky enough to have a blonde, built, bodacious babe running to get them ice bags. Almost worth the shiner he knew he’d sport by morning.

She rushed back into the room and gently placed the ice pack over his eye. And began apologizing again.

He pulled her onto the bed. With a finger across her lips, he silenced her. And took a deep breath. “I thought—tonight—” That wasn’t right. Thinking about Modesti slapping her, dragging her toward that chopper choked the words before he could get them out.

He tried again. “Before I knew you’d been kidnapped, I did some thinking.”

She gazed at him. “Thinking is good. Maybe.”

“I was wrong to accuse you of—everything. My turn to apologize. I should have known you’d never, ever…”

“Smuggle drugs? Blackmail anyone?”

He silently cursed his lack of eloquence. He could hear the temper starting in her voice. “Yeah. Those things. I knew I was wrong. And now I’ll never be able to prove it to you because I got Jake’s letter. He told me what you were doing for the town and asked me to keep it up. I was coming to tell you, but Modesti already had you.”

She sat back on her heels and stared at him. “That’s the letter Jake promised to write to you. I thought he’d forgotten.”

He nodded. “He always kept his promises.”

“I know. That’s why I was so surprised when you got here and didn’t know.”

“I’m sorry.” He couldn’t begin to apologize for the miserable mess he’d been when he’d arrived in town. He reached out to touch her.

“So, I’m supposed to just believe you decided I was innocent before you got the letter?”

“That would be good.”

“And you go back to LA and send a check every month like a divorced dad. Until you decide you don’t want to do that any more?”

His hand tightened on her arm. “No. I stay in Lead Gulch and help you just like Jake did. And I keep asking you to marry me until you say yes. And then we figure out how we can fit in this too-small house. And then we live happily every after.”

Her mouth dropped open.

“I thought those were good ideas,” he said, trying to hide his anxiety.

“I see a big problem with that.”

Misery hovered, waiting to flatten him with her next words. He sighed. “What’s that?”

“You haven’t asked me to marry you at all. How can I say yes?”

He sat up so suddenly the ice pack went flying and grabbed her by both arms. “Will you marry me?”

“Yes.” She leaned forward until her mouth was a bare inch from his. “Of course I’ll marry you.” And she closed the distance between them.

  • * *

A few days later, Chris presided over a cat fight masquerading as a special town meeting. The agenda for the evening had been stated succinctly by Gabby, who had been the spokesman for calling the meeting. “So you’re gettin’ married. You gonna leave? Burn gonna stay?”

Burn was going to stay. Just thinking the words made warmth bloom in her chest. Burn at her side, Burn helping keep Lead Gulch going. Burn—she shivered with anticipation—as Mr. July. Even if Hot Hunks had fired her, she could make a life work out of photographing the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen. She’d still be the town’s Calendar Girl. “Life in a fishbowl,” she murmured to Burn, who sat next to her. “You still want in?”

He grinned. “You bet. Privacy’s overrated.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You’ll learn. Okay, people. Here’s the deal. Burn and I are getting married. Burn is staying in Lead Gulch. I’m ‘staying in Lead Gulch. Nothing is going to change. Except that we have to decide which house to live in.”

“What’s Burn gonna do?” Young Harley hardly ever spoke up in town meetings, so every one turned to stare at him. “He’s gotta do something,” Harley said, shifting in his chair.”

“I’ve stayed pretty busy so far, helping fix things and running errands. What’s wrong with that?”

“What happens when you get bored?” Abe asked.

Chris had refused to let that question take root in her mind. “Good question, Abe.” She let it lie there and silence filled the room. After what felt like forever but was probably a minute, she turned to Burn. “Any comment?”

Burn gazed around the room. “I understand why you all would worry, and me telling you not to might not help. But yeah, I have a few ideas. The town infrastructure needs a lot of work. We can keep patching things up forever while everything gets more and more worn out, or I can start making some improvements. I figure the water system’s about ten years worth of work right there. And as long as those mineral samples are available, I can help with the heavy lifting. I do errands pretty good, and Stern and I work together pretty well if we get any more drug runners sniffing around.”

“How long you figure you’d stay interested in that stuff?” Greed demanded.

“How long have you stayed interested?” Burn asked.

Chris grinned. She figured she could keep him interested for a long while. Gramps winked at her, as if he knew what she was thinking, and the heat of a blush climbed up her neck. “Sounds like we don’t have anything to worry about,” she said. “Any more problems?”

When she looked around the circle, everyone shook his or her head.

“Guess we’d better start planning a wedding,” Thelma said.

  • * *

Chris stood in front of the full-length mirror Abe had brought back from town just the day before, staring at her reflection. Thelma and Helen had done a great job altering Thelma’s wedding dress to fit her. The vintage lace turned her into a princess, and Helen had fussed with her hair so the illusion was complete.

She liked it.

Scallops of lace outlined the off-the-shoulder neckline, and—she turned and peered over her shoulder to see the back—the full skirt swept back to an almost-bustle effect that made her feel unusually feminine.

“You look a treat, honey,” Thelma said. “Me and my Georgie had fifty years of happy after I wore that dress. I reckon it might do the same thing for you and Burn.”

Chris blotted the tears that tried to spill over and hugged the old woman. “I reckon so, too,” she said.

Through the window, she saw a white convertible stop at Abe’s and three men stepped out and went inside. The car continued through town and pulled up in front of her house. Her grandfather stepped out of the passenger seat and came in.

“Who’s that?” Helen asked.

“That Delacourt fella that was out here before,” Harley said when he reached them. “A couple of Burn’s friends. Quincey, he’s some sheriff from over on the coast, and Mac. He’s a rancher from up in Montana. Mighty long way t’come just for a wedding.”

“Grandpa,” Chris said with a frown.”

“Oh, right. Nothin’s too good for your wedding. I knew that.” He gave the car another look. “Mighty fancy car for Lead Gulch. Wonder how he got it out here. I’d think the road would just about shake it apart.”

“That must be the car Burn rented for your honeymoon,” Thelma said.

“Yep,” her grandfather agreed. “He told you where you’re going yet?”

Chris shook her head, enjoying the unaccustomed brush of curls across her shoulders.

Harley smiled. “You’ll like it.” He inspected her and said, “You look a lot like your grandma, girl. Reckon we better go.”

She took the arm he offered and scooped up the long skirt to keep it out of the dust while she walked to the car. Stern played chauffeur, jumping out of the driver’s seat and opening the door for her. She giggled when Gramps insisted on sitting between Thelma and Helen in the back.

Her heart fluttered with anticipation during the short drive down the hill to Abe’s, which Helen assured her had been turned into a perfect wedding venue. She could scarcely believe that was possible, but this was her town and there was no way she’d get married anywhere else. It was either the store or outside in the street.

Stern escorted Thelma and Helen into the building while Gramps helped her out of the car. A moment later, music swelled.

Their cue.

“This is it,” Gramps said. “Ready?”

Readier than she’d ever been in her life for anything. She took his arm and walked up the steps. The double doors were propped wide open and she paused when she saw inside. White tulle draped the room, hiding the counters with their mineral samples and the shelves of odds and ends for sale. The Justice of the Peace who had ridden out from Ridgecrest with Delacourt stood behind a flower-bedecked makeshift lectern—how had they done that?—and candles filled the room with romantic light.

Chris’s practical-mayor side noted that each candle had an attendant to minimize the danger of fire. Once assured of that, the mayor went on vacation, leaving the trembling and excited bride.

Dog sat beside the door, a large white tulle bow around her neck.

When Chris took her grandfather’s arm in a tight grip, Dog came to her side and paced the length of the room with them, dropping to sit when they reached Burn. An unfamiliar Burn, wearing a dark suit. Dog nudged his knee, apparently deciding he was himself and sitting back. Chris looked up into his eyes. When she saw the very familiar gleam there, she knew this was right.

Her grandfather halted and took her hand to place it in Burn’s. “Be happy, girl,” he said, and stepped back to leave her alone with him.

“Dearly beloved,” the justice began. Chris leaned into Burn and let the words wash over her. When he concluded, “You may now kiss the bride,” she lifted her face to Burn’s kiss.

And scarcely heard the cheers of her friends. Her family.

Their town.

About the Author

Jenny Andersen loves horses, dogs, and wide-open spaces.  Also beaches (handy when you live in California), cats, cowboys, and that special high-elevation mountain air found in the above wide-open spaces.  Also Western Heroes.  And writing.  And good friends.

Once a sober scientist, she now deals in the enticing realm of fiction.  She traded her PhD in geology for an MA in writing Popular Fiction and is very happy, thank you. In addition to writing, she plays the Celtic harp and does girly things like knitting, needlepoint, and target shooting. In her copious remaining time, she is a gemologist specializing in antique jewelry.

Her to-be-read shelf is outstripped only by her to-be-written list.  When not reading or writing, she loves to talk to people about books. And other things. She lives in northern California with a herd of dust bunnies and her own Western Hero, who is the world’s most wonderful husband.

 

Jenny’s website is www.jennysfiction.com. Contact her there, by email at [email protected], or, if you remember the old-fashioned way, by writing to her at P. O. Box 5515, San Jose CA 95150.  She would love it if you would subscribe to her newsletter [and you get a free short story for signing up!].

Other Books by Jenny

Note:  Cliff-hangers are not permitted here.  These are all stand-alone stories.[
**]

Stone’s Crossing

[*Loving Luke  *]She loved him all her life. They got married. Happily ever after?

[*Zeph Undercover   *]Big city guy, small town girl…huge trouble

[Western Heroes
**]

[* Western Heroes: Quincey*]  (#2)  Bel wants safety. Quincey wants peace and quiet. The stalker wants to kill Bel.

Western Heroes: Mac    (#3)  She made one. Now she has to keep it.

Coming Soon:

[*Western Heroes: Grey  *] (#4)  Jewelry designer Zandra inherited an old house, a gold mine, a mysterious treasure, a dry-docked ex-sailor, and a killer.  Who’s going to save her?

 

Author’s Note

Dear Reader,

Thank you for reading about Burn’s foray into the eastern California desert.  It would be great if you’d leave a review—reviews are very important to writers these days. And while I’m asking you to do stuff, I’d love it if you’d read more of the Western Heroes books.  Also if you’d visit my website www.jennysfiction.com

The high desert country of California is unknown to many people.  Not Sahara-like sand dunes, but lovely wide open spaces, sagebrush, and mountains, old mines and little towns.  Lead Gulch was prompted by a field trip that went through an ex-town called Ballarat.  Ballarat was a staging area for supplies and mail for mines and miners.  It currently has one inhabitant and a lot of history.  Needless to say, Lead Gulch and its citizens are totally imaginary, the result of thinking about what it might have been to live in such a place.

There’s a short story prequel to this book that gives you a look at just why Burn quit the L.A.P.D. and moved to Lead Gulch.    It’s free if you visit my website and  sign up for my newsletter. (No spam, no selling your information. I let you know about new releases, appearance, and promotions–that’s two or three emails per year!)

The next Western Heroes book, Western Heroes: Quincey, takes us  to a small coastal town, a quiet place that suits its rancher/sheriff just fine.  He’s not about to let anything disturb his peaceful existence…until writer Bel Baxter comes to town, hoping to elude an arson-addicted stalker.

Here’s an excerpt from Western Heroes: Quincey

 

 

 

Excerpt from Western Heroes: Quincey

Sheriff Quincey Yarborough leaned against his cruiser and surveyed the three blocks of downtown San Remo. Just another hot almost-summer day. Peaceful. Quiet. Just the way he liked it. No choppers, no gunfire, no bombs.

Except…he straightened as he caught sight of the woman window-shopping along the other side of the street. No bombs, but a definite bombshell. She stood out like a gleaming Thoroughbred in a herd of mustangs. While he watched, she paused at the bookstore, looked at the window display and darted inside.

He relaxed against the car again. “Tourist season, for sure,” he said to his deputy.

“Cowabunga. She must be lost, dude.”

“Hanson, how many times have I told you—”

“Not to call you ‘dude’. Sorry, sir. She must be lost, sir.” Hanson grinned. “She isn’t one of those fancy yuppies from The Haciendas, and if she’s a tourist, she must be lost. We don’t get epic babes like that. Not in San Remo.”

Too true. Quincey sighed. He could use an epic babe about now. Even a short-term one. Especially a short-term one.

“Woman looks like that, she does all her shoppin’ in—in—Paris. Or New York,” Deputy Hanson said. “Or in one of those fancy boutique stores in Santa Barbara,” he added with a sneer. “Ain’t gonna be nothin’ in any of our real stores she wants, that’s for sure.”

Quincey didn’t care where she shopped. “I expect not.”

“Maybe she’s lost. I could go ask her—”

“Maybe you could get on over to Etta Mae’s and find out what she’s upset about today. And don’t piss her off again.” He gave Hanson his best I-am-the-boss stare, holding it until the deputy grumbled off down the street toward Etta Mae’s little frame house and the complaint du jour. Ah, the joys of small-town law enforcement. No murders, no robberies, no kidnappings…he mentally knocked wood. The blood and violence in the various war zones he’d been ‘privileged’ to visit had been enough for three lifetimes.

He turned his attention back to the bookstore, waiting for another look at the woman. The eye-catching, expensive looking, impossible-to-ignore woman. What was she doing in his town? As sheriff, he ought to find out. It was his duty. He heaved himself upright and started across the street.

Before he reached the book store, she came out, clutching one of Halley’s brightly flowered shopping bags, and headed toward the bank. He hoped she’d look up at him as she passed so he could see her eye color, but she kept her gaze front and center. Definitely a big city type. Or someone with something to hide. Or she didn’t find him worth a glance, and that ruffled him. Most women would—ah, come on Quincey. A little conceited here?Getting a bit too used to being the town hot guy?Get real.

He turned to watch her. The rear view pleased him every bit as much as the front one. And she smelled good. Kind of light and flowery.

Halley looked up when he banged through the door. “You just missed a real treat, Quince.”

“I saw her. Who is she?”

Halley raised her eyebrows. “Just a tourist, I expect. We didn’t talk beyond what a pretty day it is. She some kind of criminal?” She cocked her head and regarded him. “Or maybe you got your eye on her?”

He didn’t need her starting that kind of gossip. “Just curious, Halley. You know I always keep an eye on strangers, head off trouble before it starts. Nothing personal. Just doin’ my job, keepin’ my town safe.”

“Oh, yeah. I could tell she’s a real stone killer. She’s danger on high heels for certain.”

“I did notice that.” Yes, he surely had. He still wanted to know what brought her to a backwater like San Remo. And what it would take to get her to stay for a while.

“I’ll bet you are gonna keep on an eye on her,” Halley said. “She was headed for the bank. Maybe you better go see if she’s robbing it.”

“Very funny,” he lied, and turned back to the door. “But I will drop by to make sure everything’s all right.”

“Sure thing, sheriff.” The spark in Halley’s eye told him she’d be on the phone before he got through the door. Halley might run a great store, and she looked like everyone’s favorite grandmother, but her real talent was gossip. Telegram, telephone, or tell Halley. Ms. Gossip Central. Even if she had to make it up.

Sheesh. What did a guy have to do to get a private life around here? He shook his head at the dumb question, one he’d asked himself about a thousand times before. No such thing as private, not in San Remo, which was why he never, ever dated anyone who lived here. He ambled back across the street, feeling Halley’s bright-eyed gaze on him every step of the way.

When he reached the bank door, it opened right in his face and the woman came through it, almost bumping into him and still not making eye contact. “Sorry,” she murmured in a voice like stroking velvet, and strode off as though he’d been a potted palm. A whiff of that scent, all barely-there flowers and spices and temptation, stayed, swirling around him like little stars in some kind of animated film.

He turned to follow her. As sheriff, he had every right to talk to her, find out what she was doing in his town.

“Hey, Quince,” the teller called. “I need to talk to you. And shut the door, you’re letting all the air conditioning out.”

Oh, shit. “Sorry, Betsy,” he said, walking over to her window. “Now what? I’m in kind of a hurry here.”

“Liz.”

He glanced at her nameplate. Liz Lexington. “Right. I forgot you’re doing that name change thing.” That wasn’t all she’d changed. The freckles had disappeared under too much makeup, some kind of girly-magazine magic had given her Cleopatra eyes, and her clothes screamed Bank Slut Barbie. Had her father seen her today? He generally managed his bank with a light hand, but this might cause a change.

“I decided it’s time to be more me, Quince. You know, stop letting other people’s ideas rule my life. Just go after what I want.”

“You’re mighty young to know what you want, Bets—Liz. Maybe you oughta—”

She smiled up at him, and damned if it wasn’t a siren smile, full of suggestion.

He took a step back. “Uh, that woman who was leaving as I came in. She a customer here?”

The inch-long eyelashes fluttered as though he’d suggested a wild weekend. “You know I can’t—”

“I’m not askin’ for details. She open an account here or is she only passing through town?”

Betsy—Liz—pouted. “You seem mighty interested in her.”

Jee-sus. He remembered Betsy as a pesky little kid, always wanting to tag along with him and her father when they did things together. “Keeping the town safe is my job, Bets—Liz. I always check out strangers. Now answer the question.”

“Don’t be mad at me, Quince. I’ll tell you anything you want to know.” She gazed up at him, big brown eyes limpid and pleading.

Geez. She’d gotten the guilt-trip thing down like an expert. “Fine. This year maybe?”

“She opened a checking account and a savings account. She’s not a tourist.”

Well damn. “Guess I’d better go talk to her. See you later, Bets.” He turned and headed out the door.

“Wait. I want to invite you over for dinner now that I’ve got my own place. I’ll fix pot roast. That’s your favorite, isn’t it? And—”

The door closed behind him, cutting off her voice. He looked up and down the street. No sign of the stranger. Great. Just perfect.

But he’d find her. No one could hide in a town as small as San Remo. Not for long.


Western Heroes: Burn

Note: This was previously published as Calendar Girl. Only the name and cover have been changed.Lead Gulch. CA Elevation: 4,079 feet Population: 12...and dropping Blonde and beautiful mayor Chris Layton secretly supports Lead Gulch’s proud, elderly, destitute citizens by working as a photographer for Hot Hunks calendars. She divides her time between keeping secrets and taking pictures of naked men in the rugged outdoors. J. J. Coburn leaves the LAPD drug squad in search of his uncle’s murderer, to be followed by some welcome solitude. Unfortunately, both are in short supply in Lead Gulch. When Chris has a photo shoot in Mexico and gets tangled up with a drug cartel, it’s up to Coburn and the geriatric town folks to save her. Note: This was previously published as Calendar Girl. Only the name and cover have been changed.

  • ISBN: 9780998820200
  • Author: Jenny Andersen
  • Published: 2017-05-11 01:35:38
  • Words: 87356
Western Heroes:  Burn Western Heroes:  Burn