Pamela Howell

A Ride Home

The day before Thanksgiving, 1988

 

“When’s the last time you heard from your daughter, Mrs. Hartley?”

The rookie deputy opened a small notepad and reached for a pen from the breast pocket of his uniform. The pen seemed to be asking the questions as the short, bookish man with the flabby chin clicked it three times. He raised his eyebrows, so blond they were almost translucent, above a pair of glasses with chunky lenses. He looked like a troll with spectacles.

The image was altogether startling for a person seeing Deputy Stanislaw Gorman for the first time.

With his mouth slightly open, he gawked at the bleary-eyed woman, who was wrapped in a gray-and-white mohair blanket like a fragile moth afraid to venture from its cocoon. She picked at a thumbnail, but said nothing.

His boss took a different approach.

“How have you been, Mona?” The sheriff helped himself to a ceramic mug from the woman’s kitchen cabinet and poured some coffee. He motioned with the coffee pot toward her. “Want some?”

She shook her head no.

“Oh, that’s right. I forgot you don’t drink the stuff.”

Unlike his deputy, Sheriff Joel McCarson was tall and handsome despite marking a half-century on earth the previous June. His dark features were hardened by the sun, by the high mileage of his job, by the jungles of Vietnam, and if he were being completely honest with himself, by disappointment.

“Got any sugar?”

She rubbed her hands together twice and nodded toward the pantry.

“You know, Mona, I’ve been with the sheriff’s department going on—well, let’s see, almost twenty years now.” He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling to think as he replaced the coffee pot on the burner. He rummaged around in the pantry until he found a couple of restaurant sugar packets. The pantry was a jumble of canned goods, gravy packets, spices, boxes of tea bags, and packages of pasta thrown helter-skelter onto two shelves.

Same old Mona, he thought. Still a pack rat.

He shook both packets at the same time and ripped them open with his teeth.

“And I’ve lost track of the number of times I get called out like this.”

He stirred the sugar into his coffee with his right index finger, wiping the finger on his brown uniform pants. He shoved the hand into his pocket and jangled loose change along with something else. Holding the mug in his left hand, he blew onto the liquid, took a tentative sip, and swallowed noisily.

“It’s probably nothing more than a flat tire.”

“That’s right, ma’am,” Deputy Gorman added, again raising his pale eyebrows and holding them in place like two question marks. “And you know the nearest pay phone is sixty-five miles away in Limpia Flats, and there isn’t much of anything there now except a gas station and a drive-in theater of some senescence.”

The deputy liked to throw big words into his speech every now and then; he was in love with the dictionary the way some men were in love with women. It was a habit that drove Joel crazy.

“So, if your daughter’s had car trouble between here and there, that’s probably the reason she hasn’t called.”

Joel kept his frustration with Stanislaw in check as he studied the lines in Mona’s face over the brim of the coffee mug.

She looks so old. What is she now? Can’t be any more than forty-seven. Or maybe forty-eight. This past year sure has aged her. Especially her eyes.

The blue eyes he remembered from two decades ago were fuller, livelier, and full of mischief.

                                                           ***

“Jo-eelll-ey,” Mona Rodgers whispered into his right ear as she ran her pinky over the outline of his chapped lips. Her warm breath tickled him; she smelled like popcorn with extra butter.

“Jo-eelll-ey, we’ve seen this square movie three times.”

She dipped the tip of her pinky into his mouth. Joel tasted salt, licked his lips, and scowled. Mona giggled. He shifted in the seat and leaned a little closer to the speaker mounted on the driver’s-side window of his dad’s Chevy pickup. On the screen a dozen rows up, Faye Dunaway recited a poem to Warren Beatty: “You’ve heard the story of Jesse James, of how he lived and died. If you’re still in need of something to read, here’s the story of Bonnie and Clyde.”

“Don’t you want to make out?” With her finger, Mona drew the outline of a heart on the back of his hand.

“Of course, I do.” He scanned the rearview mirror and both side mirrors to see if anyone was watching, but it was a slow Friday night at the Bright Angel Drive-In in Limpia Flats, with only a couple of other pickups, a station wagon, and a broken-down RV parked several rows back.

Old Mr. Ferguson, the owner of the drive-in, was asleep in the concession stand. Joel’s eyes darted to the pay phone booth off to the left of the restroom shack. Nobody.

“Everybody’s at the game in Teapot.” Mona scooted even closer to Joel, her yellow-and-orange geometric-print miniskirt riding up a little as she did. She nuzzled close against his collar and nibbled his earlobe.

“We should have gone to Choke Canyon. How about a little love bite?”

Joel gently pulled her away from him and turned to her. She scrunched her face into a pout.

“Come on, Joel. What’s the matter with you? Marcie Davis got a promise ring last week from Paul Slaton and—” At the mention of Paul, Joel stiffened.

“What’s the matter with Paul?”

“I don’t trust that new boy.”

“Why not?”

“Never mind.” He cleared his throat and changed the subject. “Look, I’ve told you before, Mona, I don’t believe in giving promise rings. They’re all show and no go, if you know what I mean. I want to wait and save up and give you a real ring that means something. An engagement ring, dig?”

Mona’s eyes widened. “When?”

Joel sighed and shifted in his seat.

“Don’t know. It depends on what the president has to say in June when I graduate. Depends on where the new man Nixon sends me. But wherever it is, I’ll be proud to serve my country. And I want you to be proud of me, too, Mona.”

Joel gently cradled her chin and pulled her face up to gaze directly into her blue eyes.

“And that’s why we’re not going to … huh, do anything more … huh … you know, until we’re married.”

Mona stuck out her bottom lip.

“Don’t give me that look.” He removed his hand from Mona’s chin and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Now come over here and let’s finish the movie. Your folks are already going to go ape when they find out we didn’t go to the game.”

Mona curved her mouth into a smirk and said, “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”

“Don’t say things like that.”

Mona flinched at the rebuke.

“What do you mean ‘say things like that’?” She scooted her rear a few inches away from him. “What are you now, my dad or something?”

“Now, Mona, don’t have a cow. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Well, just what did you mean?”

“I just meant that sometimes—not all the time, just once in a while—well, you act like you got beat feet.”

“If by beat feet you mean I’m ready to cut out of this stupid town in this stupid desert that’s never been nothing but a stupid drag since the day I was born, then, yes, I have beat feet!”

Mona was shouting now: “Beat feet, beat feet, beat feet!” She pounded her Mary Janes against the floorboard, temper-tantrum style. Embarrassed, Joel glanced in the rearview mirror. “Now, Mona, don’t do that. Don’t be that way. Don’t—”

“Don’t do this! Don’t do that!” Mona screeched, reaching for the door handle on her side. She shoved the door open with her feet and scrambled out of the truck, her miniskirt riding well above her thighs; she tugged it down with a huff. Joel reached for her over the seat, but missed.

“Mona!”

Horns blared several rows back, and somebody shouted, “Pipe down, already!”

“Get back in the truck, Mona.”

They stared each other down for a count of three. Then Mona slammed the door and stomped toward the concession stand.

“Where are you going?”

“To drop a dime, if it’s all the same to you!”

                                                       ***

The sheriff jangled the change and the other thing in his pocket again as he drained the last of his coffee from the mug.

“Kayla called me collect from a pay phone about four-thirty yesterday afternoon,” Mona finally said in answer to Deputy Gorman’s question.

“She said they were stopping at a convenience store in Fort Stockton, Texas, to get a bite to eat, and then they would be getting back on the road.”

Stanislaw raised his eyebrows as he scribbled a note. “They?”

“Yes, Kayla said she had caught a ride home with another student.” Mona paused, shifting to adjust the blanket around her thin shoulders. “I think she said the student was from Phoenix, but I’m not sure. I was just so excited she was coming home for Thanksgiving that I didn’t think to ask any questions.”

“So, you don’t know the other student’s name?”

“No.”

“Is the other student male or female?” The deputy’s eyebrows wagged up and down.

Mona shrugged.

“Do you have a description of the vehicle?”

In frustration, Mona looked up; Joel gave her a little nod to continue.

“She wasn’t planning on coming home. With all of Don’s medical expenses and the funeral and all, I just didn’t have the money to send her a plane ticket.” Mona pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger.

“She was just planning on staying in the dorm over the break and studying for finals. Then yesterday, she called me out of the blue and said she was on the road. Said she had caught a ride home with another student and would be here by about four this morning, if they didn’t have to make another stop.”

Mona moved her hand away from her face.

The deputy started to ask another question, but Joel cut him off, saying softly, “Mona, I don’t want you to worry. We haven’t had any reports overnight of accidents from here to the New Mexico state line.”

At the word accident, Mona’s mouth flinched slightly, but Joel continued, “I’ll give Sheriff Donahew over in Trundle County a call when I get back to the office. He’s a good man, Mona, and I’ll tell him to be on the lookout for a vehicle broke down on the highway. When we leave here, Stanislaw and I will drive east to the county line and see if we see anything.”

Mona’s eyes widened and the sheriff realized how much Kayla favored her mother.

Same blue eyes. Same intelligent face.

He knew Kayla was smart like Mona had been in school, but whereas Mona had never been much of an athlete, favoring parties over sports, Kayla was a star athlete at the high school. Her father Don, Joel’s longtime poker buddy, had been the same way years ago.

Kayla had anchored the final leg of the four-by-four-hundred-meter relay in record time her senior year, Joel recalled, and she could twirl a baton like nobody’s business. He always thought that anyone accidentally walking into that baton when it was flying straight up over Kayla’s head would probably be knocked senseless. In spite of himself, he held his breath every time she threw one of those things into the air; she could twirl one, two, even three batons at once, and at a game last fall, she had spun one with fire on the ends. She was so good that she had earned a spot as a majorette at college.

Not bad for a country girl who had to twirl to tape-recorded music played over a tinny-sounding loudspeaker at football games, because we’re not big enough for a band.

“So, what are you doing for Thanksgiving dinner?”

Mona pulled the blanket more tightly around her shoulders.

“Frank and Marcie invited me over, so I called them and told them Kayla was coming home, and I asked if she could come, too. Of course, they said yes, so we’re planning on going over about one tomorrow if—when—Kayla gets here. They’re excited to see her, too. All of their kids, the grandkids, and their new grandbaby are going to be in town from Albuquerque.”

“Good.”

Joel stood and poured the rest of his coffee down the drain, rinsed out his mug, and set it in the sink. Taking his cue, Stanislaw reluctantly stood and put his notebook and pen away. His expression drooped like the folds in a basset hound’s face.

“You know you are always welcome at our house,” Joel said. “My sister’s making enough food to feed an army and then some.”

Mona started to get up.

“Keep your seat.” Joel waved his hand. “We know the way out.”

A chorus of barks from her dogs told Mona that Joel and Stanislaw had left. She sat quietly, thinking about the morning’s events. She recalled that an hour earlier her hands had trembled as she dialed Francine Clark, the sole sheriff’s dispatcher. Then she had forced herself to put on a pot of coffee; the aroma caused her stomach to tighten and a lump to form in her throat.

Can’t see how anybody drinks that stuff, but Don sure loved it. And I know Joel likes it. Maybe the new deputy does, too. What did Francine say his name was? Stanislaw something or other? What in the world kind of name is that, anyway?

Mona had draped a mohair saddle blanket over her long cotton nightgown and shoved her bare feet into a pair of old cowboy boots before going out onto the porch and sitting heavily in an outdoor-style metal chair.

The blue one.

She had sucked in a little breath as the cold from the metal seeped through the blanket and sent a tingle up her spine.

It didn’t used to matter which chair I sat in.

But Mona remembered that Don had claimed the green chair for himself before back pain made it impossible for him to sit for long stretches of time. Now that he was gone, Mona couldn’t bring herself to sit in his chair.

Years ago, Mona had placed an old, chipped TV tray between the two chairs, providing a spot where she and Don could rest their glasses of iced tea. They would spend early mornings and evenings spying on the birds that ventured into their courtyard before or after the heat of the day.

Don’s old pair of binoculars rested on the table atop a yellow legal pad he had used to record their sightings: spotted cactus wrens and short-billed thrashers, colorful western tanagers and coveys of Gambel’s quails with their funny, nasal ka-KAA-ka calls. He’d also made a list of the predators they saw: Cooper’s hawks, pygmy and great horned owls, bobcats, snakes, and even the occasional coyote. From venomous Gila monsters to scorpions, sandstorms, and flash floods, people who live in the desert are all too aware of its dangers.

Memories came like the soft whistling of a morning breeze across the shallow soil of basin and range country—their country, the place she and Don had shared for almost two decades. Mona longed to run her fingers over the neat handwriting of her husband, an accountant by trade. She halted in mid-reach as other thoughts intruded.

Here on the porch. Don’s jaundiced look. Clothes that always seemed to be too big for him. A couple of the first indicators of pancreatic cancer. Stupid, stinking cancer.

Mona shook off the memory and reached again, accidentally bumping the TV tray and causing the binoculars to clatter onto the red-painted concrete of the porch. Her two black-and-white English cocker spaniels, who had been asleep behind the house in their kennel, flapped noisily through a pet door and raced around the corner of the simple adobe home and along a caliche walk.

They made click-click-clicking noises when their paws hit the porch.

I need to trim their nails, she thought.

But, like a lot of other chores around the place since Don had died, Mona didn’t have the energy to do it.

What was it the grief counselor with hospice had said? Oh, yes. Depression is a perfectly normal stage of the grief process. It’s one of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Blah, blah, blah.

Mona had read the book On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She had attended the family support groups ad nauseam. Kayla never went.

She remembered what the counselor had said when Mona told her that Kayla refused to visit Don’s grave: “Give her time.”

Poker and Chance settled themselves at her feet. She pulled the blanket more tightly around her to ward off the chill.

I should get my jacket, she thought.

But Mona made no move to get up. It wasn’t worth the effort, and as was her habit in the early morning hours when she couldn’t sleep, she spoke softly to God.

“Dear Lord, I humbly beseech You to lay Your sweet hand of protection over Kayla.”

The dogs turned their ears at the sound of her voice but didn’t raise their heads; they’d often heard their owner speak in quiet tones on the porch.

“If it be Your will, Lord, please protect Kayla and bring her safely home.” The sound of a vehicle’s tires crunching on the road stopped her in mid-prayer.

The dogs raced to the wrought-iron gate at the entrance to the small courtyard, a gravel-based expanse dotted with cacti: dozens of the palm-like prickly pears, a handful of fishhook barrels, one towering saguaro, and several organ pipes.

Years ago, Mona had enjoyed making jar after jar of cactus pepper jelly from the prickly pears and the organ pipes for friends and neighbors. Mona’s heart leaped at the memory of her only child as a toddler playing on the porch, wearing nothing but a diaper and sporting about a pint’s worth of cactus jelly gleefully smeared from ear to ear.

Poker and Chance barked until Mona stopped them with a quick motion of her hand and ordered them back to the porch. They immediately assumed a down position, watching, eyes wide and ears pricked, when Sheriff Joel McCarson and his new deputy with the strange name pulled up in a patrol car.

                                                       ***

Two days earlier

Kayla sat cross-legged on the twin bed in her small room on the seventh floor of the women’s high-rise dormitory at Angelo State University.

She leaned over her knees with her elbow propped up on a textbook, chin in her left hand and a yellow highlighter in her right. She was trying to get through the required reading for a class in early American history, but her roommate wouldn’t drop the subject she had been pursuing since Kayla had told her she had caught a ride home.

“But you don’t even know the guy,” Gina Carrington said as she folded a plaid sundress into a suitcase she had unceremoniously tossed onto her bed.

“What if he turns out to be some sort of creep or something? Then you’re going to be stuck with him for a thousand miles.”

“Eight,” Kayla said without looking up.

“Eight what?”

“Miles. It’s eight hundred miles from here to home.”

“You know what I mean, Kayla.” Gina stopped her packing to put her hands on her hips and frown at Kayla.

Kayla straightened herself and faced her roommate. “Look, I do know what you mean and I appreciate your concern. Really, I do. But I promise I’ll be just fine.”

In the day and a half since Kayla had said she had checked the ride board at the university center, Gina had tried unsuccessfully to convince her of the potential danger. The UC, as it was popularly known, was the place where students hung out between classes, grabbed a hamburger at the snack bar, watched movies on Friday nights, and checked their mailboxes.

Going to the mailbox, though, meant having to walk past the fraternity guys who congregated in the soft seating area. Kayla had noticed that the frat members always seemed to be there, no matter what time of day she and Gina passed through on the way to and from classes or to check their mail. She assumed they routinely cut class. Usually numbering a dozen or more, they were all clean-cut and good-looking.

Maybe too good-looking for their own good, she thought.

They lounged on the sofas and chairs as though they were back at home in their living rooms. Kayla imagined these were the type of guys who, when they were in junior high, would have their mothers dutifully bring them Tostino’s pizza rolls from the kitchen while they played Atari games. Now they wore bomber-type jackets, all trying to act like Tom Cruise, she supposed.

It was disconcerting to walk past them, so she and Gina always tried to go together when they wanted to check their mail. Kayla felt like the frats were keeping some sort of secret points system and judging the girls who walked by on a zero to ten scale. Every once in a while, she’d even hear a low wolf whistle.

The girls nicknamed the experience “running the gauntlet.”

But she got used to it, like a lot of other things on campus, including living away from home for the first time, eating all of her meals in the cafeteria, having a roommate, and being one solitary person in an overwhelming sea of students from around the country.

Overall, Kayla thought she had adjusted well, and the campus had started to feel like her niche in her little corner of the world. Sure, she missed her mom and her friends back home, but she was at ASU on scholarship. She was one of ten majorettes with the Golden Ram Marching Band, and she was determined to make the most of her time here. And, much to her relief, she also found that the more she kept herself busy, the less she thought about her dad.

Kayla remembered the day she had left for San Angelo, Texas. Her mom had driven her, along with two jam-packed suitcases and her blue-velvet baton case, in their old pickup to the airport in Tucson, and when they arrived, they found many hometown friends and neighbors holding hand-lettered signs that read, “Good luck at ASU, Kayla!” and “We’re proud of you, Kayla.”

These people had been a godsend to Kayla and her mom during her father’s illness, even organizing spaghetti dinners and bake sales as fundraisers to help with Don’s medical expenses.

There was no way she was going to disappoint them.

Kayla studied hard. She was taking a full load of courses, but she had yet to decide on a major. She was eager to choose something, but her academic adviser told her she had plenty of time to make up her mind. In the meantime, she immersed herself in her general studies and threw herself into her work. The library aides already knew her by name when she checked out books or reserved a typewriter to do a term paper.

All those books! Kayla had never seen so many. Of course, she also had twirling practice every morning, twice on Fridays, and home games on Saturday afternoons or evenings. She loved her majorette sisters, and despite her schedule, still found time to make friends in the dorm.

Gina had quickly become her best friend. The daughter of a Dallas socialite and a well-to-do lawyer, Gina was a dark-haired beauty who loved to defy her parents on just about every subject. She told Kayla that she had practically been “drummed out of the family” when she announced to her parents that she wanted to attend ASU and study agriculture.

Her parents, both Southern Methodist grads, were shocked to say the least and still harbored hopes that their daughter would “change her mind about her silly career goals, come to her senses, and return to civilization.”

To them, civilization existed only east of Interstate 35. They refused to leave Dallas and drive “out in the middle of nowhere” to visit their only daughter on Parents Weekend in October. Gina claimed not to have any feelings about this one way or the other, but Kayla knew better. She heard Gina sniffling into her pillow one night and started talking. At first, she did this to console her, but then their conversation morphed into a laughing fit about their experiences, albeit tame ones, with boys back home.

It was the first of many late-night girl talks that she and Gina had enjoyed. They talked endlessly about a plethora of subjects, but never once did Kayla mention her dad; somehow Gina knew the topic was off limits.

Kayla would miss Gina when she left for the break. Kayla’s scholarship had been enough to pay for a meal plan, so she’d have Thanksgiving dinner in the cafeteria with other students who weren’t going home for the holiday. She looked forward to getting ahead on her reading and decided she would also use the time to practice her baton routine for an upcoming band competition in Amarillo.

Or so she convinced herself.

But as Thanksgiving drew closer and Gina began choosing outfits to take on her trip, Kayla started to feel the first pangs of homesickness. To trick herself into thinking she wasn’t homesick or still grieving, she took a walk around campus early one evening.

Getting cold. Wish I’d brought my sweater.

Still, she enjoyed herself, admiring the well-manicured grassy areas and the colorful fall flowers planted in neat rows around the Porter Henderson Library. It was the first time she had walked the campus in its entirety from her dorm on the east side to the western edge of the university on Rosemont Avenue.

Somewhere off in the distance near a middle-class neighborhood, she heard the chimes of a church bell. A clarion, Kayla thought absent-mindedly. She stopped and listened; she knew the melody. It was a hymn she remembered from church camp: “God Answers Prayer Today.”

Against her will, the chorus readily came to mind: “God answers prayer today, but in the wisest way. He knows what’s best for us from day to day.”

Yeah, right. Prayers sure didn’t help Dad. They sure didn’t keep him from … dying.

Suddenly Kayla was angry, so she forced the memory of her father into a tiny corner of her mind as she made her way toward the UC.

She’d have to walk past the frat boys by herself, but she decided to check her mailbox anyway. She steeled herself to “run the gauntlet” and pushed open the glass door of the UC with more determination that she felt. Kayla sighed with relief when she found the seating area empty. She marched past it, headed for the post office, dialed the combination on her mailbox, and opened the small porthole, expecting nothing but hoping all the same.

Wait a minute. There’s something inside. A card. She quickly checked the return address. It’s from Mom!

She tore open the envelope and read the note in her mother’s familiar hand: “Miss you, sweetie. Chance and Poker do, too. (They caught a snake the other day.) Sorry about Thanksgiving. I’ll make it up to you when you come home at Christmas. I’ll make your favorite—sweet potato pie. Love, Mom.”

It wasn’t the first time she had seen only her mom’s name on a card. Still, it hurt.

She dug the nails of both forefingers into her thumbs until they smarted and then pressed even harder while counting down from a hundred by sevens. She found that by doing so, she could force herself not to cry.

A hundred, ninety-three, eighty-six …

Kayla had always been good with numbers.

Seventy-nine, seventy-two, sixty-five.

By the time she reached sixty-five, her thumbs had half-moon indentations where her nails had pressed into her skin and her fingers were numb, but at least she’d stopped the tears. She refused to allow herself to cry.

Crying is weakness.

As Kayla headed left toward the women’s restroom down the hall, something caught her eye. A piece of paper had fluttered to the floor. She took a few steps around a corner and picked up a flier that had fallen off of a bulletin board. It announced Friday night’s movie: Top Gun.

She’d already seen it three times.

With a sigh, Kayla stuck the flier back on the board with a thumbtack. That’s when she saw two maps.

Colored thumbtacks had been jabbed into the maps, mostly marking cities and towns in Texas. One map was headed “Rides Wanted” and the other “Rides to Share.” One message caught Kayla’s eye under “Rides to Share.” The note said, “Going as far as Phoenix, Arizona. Share cost of gas. Interested? Call Mark.”

She did the math quickly in her head. Let’s see. Sixteen hundred miles. If his car gets twenty miles to the gallon and gas is around a dollar per gallon, divided by two, my share would be roughly forty dollars. I can manage that if I’m careful the rest of the semester.

Kayla memorized the phone number, and when she got back to her dorm lobby, she dialed a stranger named Mark.

                                                         ***

“You should just come with me over the break. You can drive with me to Dallas. My parents have already paid for a double cabin for me, and Daddy knows the owner of the cruise line and I’m sure they would be happy to have you join us in the Bahamas.”

Despite her rebel streak, Gina sure isn’t about to give up the family’s annual cruise, Kayla thought as she gave her friend a smile.

“You wouldn’t have to pay for anything.”

“That’s really sweet, Gina, but I just couldn’t. Thank you for the offer, though. Really and truly, I will be just fine.”

“But you don’t know him and you’re so trusting, Kayla. Look, I know you’re from an itty-bitty dot on a map, and I know you love Teacup and all—”

“Teapot,” Kayla corrected. “It’s Teapot.”

Gina loved to tease Kayla about the name of her hometown. Most everyone did. “I’m a little teapot, short and stout,” Gina sang to Kayla, acting out the nursery rhyme when she wanted to rile her up a little.

“Didn’t you tell me that your school is so small y’all play eight-man ball and that, one time last season, y’all had to forfeit a game because one of your players got mono?”

Kayla nodded yes.

“Anyway, what I’m saying is that you think everybody in the whole wide world is nice, but they’re not, Kayla. Believe me they’re not.”

Then she tried a different tack. “You heard about what happened to that girl who stopped to pick up a hitchhiker, didn’t you?”

“What girl?”

“I don’t know. Some girl.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know. Someplace up north.”

“When?”

“Oh, I’m not sure. Back in the early sixties or something. It doesn’t matter,” Gina said with a dismissive wave of her hand.

“She wasn’t supposed to be stopping to pick up hitchhikers anyway. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. My point is that until you know a guy, you shouldn’t get in his car for any reason, let alone for eight hundred miles. For all you know, he could be a serial killer or something.”

Kayla snorted with laughter at her roommate’s dire warning.

“You’ve been watching too much Magnum, P.I.”

“I’m serious, Kayla. Don’t do it. I have a really bad feeling about this.”

Gina’s words of caution didn’t change Kayla’s mind. She and her mother had already been the beneficiaries of a great deal of generosity, and there was no way Kayla was going to accept a free trip to the Bahamas; she was going home even if it meant riding eight hundred miles with a stranger.

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

Gina shrugged in resignation. “All right, all right. You win. Just be careful.”

                                                      ***

Kayla turned and squinted into the sun at the sound of her name.

A dark-haired young man wearing a cowboy hat gave a friendly wave from the open driver’s-side window of a brown, four-door car parked in the middle of the lot in front of the dorm. She hadn’t noticed the car pull up.

Has he been there all this time? she wondered.

Kayla had slept in, enjoying the quiet of her dorm room. Gina was gone, and so were their suite mates. That meant Kayla had the tiny bathroom all to herself. So, after lunch in the cafeteria and a long walk around campus, she had taken a leisurely shower, carefully applied her makeup, and styled her damp, blond hair into a French braid.

It’s not as though this is a date or anything. It’s just a ride home, she thought.

Still, Kayla had a tingling sensation in her stomach, the kind of jittery, fluttery lurches she got before every halftime performance. Something felt strange, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what.

Just before 3 p.m., their agreed-upon meeting time, she was ready and waiting outside the dorm, her blue-jean jacket draped over her left arm and her purse slung over her right. At her feet sat her suitcase, really nothing more than an overnight bag, and her blue-velvet baton case.

Maybe I can get in some extra practice once I get home, she thought.

The brilliant blue sky created a brightness characteristic of West Texas at that time of year. There was a chill in the air, but sunlight pierced the shade from the buildings to provide a bit of warmth. Kayla had grown to love Texas. The weather was hot until at least October, reminding her of Arizona. But she hadn’t yet experienced her first blue norther, as the locals called a cold front that whistled down from the plains. Those usually came in December.

Kayla had chosen a pair of jeans paired with a robin’s-egg-blue V-neck sweater that accentuated her eyes. She wore her favorite pair of cowboy boots and a strand of small pearls. She absently fingered the necklace.

Wonder why he’s already twenty minutes late.

Kayla was just heading back to the high-rise to use the pay phone in the lobby when she heard her name.

“Sorry I’m late,” the young man drawled as he unfolded his tall frame from the small car. As he came toward her, Kayla had to catch her breath.

Holy cow! He’s drop-dead gorgeous.

She took a quick inventory of the guy she’d be alone with for the next eight hundred miles: dark hair, clean-cut, chiseled features, strong jaw, Wrangler jeans, and a freshly pressed black-and-white plaid, long-sleeved western shirt. He reminded Kayla of Lane Frost, Arizona’s high school rodeo champion from a few years back. Only taller.

He sauntered toward her, and Kayla thought she would melt into a puddle when he tipped his hat to her with a greeting of “Afternoon.”

His face lit up with a huge grin that caused a dimple on one side of his cheek to dance. The effect was stunning.

“Are ya ready?”

Oh, yeah! Kayla wanted to shout. Instead, with her cheeks aflame, she nodded up and down and stooped to get her things.

“Allow me.”

He scooped up her suitcase and the baton case and took long strides to the car before Kayla had a chance to say anything. She noticed he moved with the grace of a rodeo star, and Kayla imagined his arms were muscular, perhaps accustomed to wrestling a steer or two to the dirt.

“What’s in here?” he called over his shoulder as he held up the case. Kayla couldn’t help but notice how his rear end looked in those tight jeans, and she thought, Oh, my goodness.

The blush in her face deepened and she chided herself. Pull it together, girl. You’re acting like one of those stupid frat boys.

“Batons,” she said, rushing to catch up. “I’m a majorette.”

“Oh, that’s right. I’ve seen ya.”

Me? But there are ten majorettes. That’s odd.

Before she could think about it any longer, he opened the passenger-side door for Kayla and helped her in with a cowboy demeanor she found incredibly attractive. Then, opening the back door, he carefully laid her suitcase and the baton case on top of a pile of things in the back seat.

Getting settled, Kayla noticed a green army-type tarp covering whatever was back there. She saw one big hump and three smaller humps. A couple of canteens, a flashlight, a length of rope, and a roll of duct tape lay on the floorboard. If there was this much stuff inside the car, Kayla wondered what this guy Mark had in his trunk.

He slammed both doors and then went around to the driver’s side, folded his tall frame into the seat, and slammed his door, too. Facing Kayla on the bench-style seat, he took off his cowboy hat and placed it brim up on the seat between them. He held out his right hand by way of introduction and made such sincere, direct eye contact that Kayla felt as though she would faint.

“Mark Lawson.”

She firmly shook his hand and noticed his eyes were green. Gorgeous green.

“Kayla Hartley. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Same here.”

He started the car as Kayla reached for her seat belt, but for some reason, the buckle jammed.

“Here. Let me do it. I was just fixin’ to tell ya that seat belt’s a little stubborn sometimes.”

Suddenly the car’s interior felt smaller than it had a second ago. Kayla got a faint whiff of Mark’s aftershave, woodsy with just a hint of lemony spray starch, and her neck prickled a bit as his hands faintly brushed the arm of her sweater. She noticed his hands were large and looked accustomed to hard work, but he deftly clicked the buckle into place.

Aww, too bad. Stupid seat belt.

“Got it.”

“Thanks.”

Mark fastened his seat belt, put the car into drive, and they were off. Kayla felt the need to fan her face with her hand but thought better of it.

Holy cow! Gina’s never going to believe this.

“So, what are you, some sort of Boy Scout or something?” She jerked her thumb toward the back seat with all the humps.

“Huh? Oh, the junk. Yeah. I’m an Eagle actually.”

“Eagle?”

Mark straightened his spine and said in a solemn, but playful, tone, “An Eagle Scout is a Boy Scout who has reached the highest level of attainment in the various tests of skill and endurance set by the Boy Scout organization.”

He took his right hand off of the wheel and made the Boy Scout sign.

“It also means I have earned all of the required merit badges including first aid, personal fitness, campin’, emergency preparedness, and lifesavin’.” He returned his hand to the wheel, leaning slightly toward her with a grin. “So that means if ya ever need savin’, I’m your guy.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Kayla nodded her head in mock reverence.

Mark slowed the car to a stop at a light right before a railroad crossing. Just two more intersections and they’d be on the highway. Kayla felt her heart beat abnormally fast.

Surely, he can hear it, can’t he? I’ve got to think of something to say.

“You must really like the outdoors,” she managed.

“Yeah. I can’t stand to be cooped up for long.” He shrugged. “Suppose that just comes from growin’ up in the country all my life.”

The light turned green and they traveled through the intersection, bouncing over the railroad tracks.

“Feet in the boots.”

“Beg your pardon?”

Kayla smiled sheepishly and said with an air of apology, “Oh, it’s just something that we’ve always said in my hometown when we cross railroad tracks. Silly really.”

“I’ve heard of crossing your fingers and lifting up your feet when you cross the tracks so you don’t lose your boyfriend or girlfriend, but I’ve never heard that one. What does it mean?”

“You see, years ago, this guy came knocking on the sheriff’s door. Supposedly the sheriff found this guy standing there with one arm behind his back. The guy said, ‘Better come on. Somebody’s been hit by a train, and we need to go find a dead body.’ Of course, the sheriff was shocked and wanted to know how the guy knew somebody was dead. So, this guy brings his hand out from behind his back and he’s holding a pair of boots, and he answers, ‘Because his feet are still in his boots.’”

Mark gaped at Kayla. “That’s awful!”

Kayla shrugged and laughed. “Nowadays, whenever anybody in my hometown crosses over the railroad tracks, we say ‘Feet in the boots’ for good luck.”

Mark looked at Kayla like she had sprouted an extra nose.

Great. I just blew it with this guy. Now he thinks I’m some kind of nut.

“How about findin’ somethin’ on the radio?” He leaned forward to roll up his window.

“Sure,” she said, eager for the distraction and a chance to cool her body temperature, which had risen dramatically from her embarrassment. She fiddled with the radio knob.

“Might as well enjoy some music ’fore we lose all the stations.” Mark turned the car west onto US Highway 67 just as Kayla tuned in to some country music.

They’d have to travel about an hour and a half until they got to Fort Stockton, which was on Interstate 10, he explained. Then it would be a straight shot, not even a left or a right turn, through desolate, hardscrabble country, a monotonous drive as they headed more or less due west toward El Paso. Once they got out of Texas, it would be a relatively short drive across New Mexico and into Arizona.

“Ya know the old sayin’, right?”

Kayla shook her head no.

“The sun has ris’, the sun has set, and here we is in Texas yet.”

His grin was wide, his dimple danced, and Kayla’s thoughts raced.

He’s so good-looking.

Then another thought came to mind, causing a strange feeling in her stomach.

But is he too good-looking for his own good?

                                                           ***

They chatted amiably about their classes and the professors they had shared; Mark said he was a junior criminal justice major and hoped to go into law enforcement like his father and grandfather.

“My granddaddy was a Texas Ranger and is a near legend after he single-handedly stopped two armed robbers, a couple old coots, attemptin’ to hold up a bank in this little place over in Runnels County called Rowena, all the while wearing nothin’ but their underwear.”

Kayla chuckled and studied Mark’s profile as he talked.

“I really like hangin’ around with my dad and the other officers at the sheriff’s office. I like the camaraderie, the practical jokes they play on each other. And I gotta admit I get a real adrenalin rush when my dad lets me ride along on calls.”

His enthusiasm was contagious but unpretentious, and Kayla found it as sincere as his eyes.

Oh, those gorgeous green eyes.

“I want to join the Border Patrol when I graduate. There’s so much happenin’ along the border, and law enforcement is really developin’ into a true technological science, and I want to be in on it. Besides, I’d love to chase mules and coyotes.”

“Mules and coyotes? Is that even legal?”

Mark laughed heartily. “No, no. You’ve got the wrong idea. Let me explain.” He talked for the next few minutes about coyotes, human smugglers who are paid to bring illegal immigrants into the United States from Mexico, and mules, who transport illegal drugs as the price of passage.

“And then these drugs get circulated on the streets, and some unsuspecting kid—say, in Oklahoma City or someplace—tries ’em and gets hooked. How anyone could do something so evil is beyond me, not to mention the fact that it’s sinful. Sin begets sin, ya know. I want to do something to stop all of this before somebody else gets hurt. Guess you could say it’s my calling.”

“Sounds dangerous.”

“It is. It really is. It’s the coyotes who are the most dangerous, though. They’re really bad dudes who tell the Mexicans who want to sneak across the border that they’ll take money to get ’em someplace, like Dallas or Phoenix, so they can get jobs to send money back to their families. But most of the time the coyotes just leave them out in the middle of nowhere or drop ’em off at a shopping mall in San Antonio or somethin’ like that. Those poor suckers don’t even speak the language, so there they are, stranded in a strange place in another country, and this coyote, who’s usually packin’ a really big gun, takes off with all their money.”

“How awful. But what about the … mules, did you call them?”

“Yeah, mules. Those are the guys from Mexico who cross the Rio Grande and usually travel in groups of four or five with nothin’ more than jugs of water and drugs, marijuana mostly, in their backpacks. They don’t carry weapons, because if they get caught with a gun, they get in real trouble with the authorities. But if they’re not carryin’ weapons, then the Border Patrol usually just seizes the drugs and gives the mules a free ride home. Sort of a catch-and-release program.”

“You mean they walk all the way from Mexico?”

“Yeah, or ride on top of freight trains, and they feel if they can make it out of la zona, then they think they’re home free. But that’s where they’re wrong. Not only will they suffer the consequences of their actions on Judgment Day, but there will also come a day of reckoning in the criminal justice system when they get caught.”

“What’s la zona?”

“La zona is what the illegal immigrants say in Spanish for “the zone,” and it’s the area along I-10 here and everythin’ south of a line from Fort Stockton west.”

“So, you speak Spanish?”

“Enough.”

“Guess you’d have to if you’re going to be a Border Patrol agent, huh?”

Mark nodded. “Know any other language?”

“Oh, no. Unless you consider pig latin another language.”

“Ah, well then, areyay ouyay eefra orfa innerday extnay eekway?”

“Ureshay! Atthay oundssay ategray!”

They laughed heartily.

And suddenly it dawned on Kayla that she had just accepted a dinner date with Mark for next week.

She found she didn’t mind the prospect.

To change the subject, Kayla asked Mark about his plans after college. Then she settled back, listening intently. She decided she liked the sound of his voice and the way he spoke with such passion about his interests. From the radio, George Strait sang “Amarillo by Morning.”

She found Mark easy to be with, smart, and cute.

No, not just cute. Gorgeous. George Strait gorgeous.

“So where are you from?”

“Oh, a little podunk place over in Eastland County called Gunsight. My folks have a ranch, so I’ve never lived in town, always been a country boy. Ever heard of it?”

Kayla shook her head no.

“I’m not surprised. It’s nothin’ more than a wide spot in the road. Never met anyone outside of Eastland County who has. It’s northeast of here, off Interstate 20, sort of halfways between Abilene and Dallas.”

Kayla didn’t want to admit she hadn’t heard of Abilene either. Directions were not her strong suit.

“Wait a minute.” Suddenly what Mark said registered with Kayla. “If your family’s here in Texas, why are you going to Arizona for Thanksgiving?”

She was surprised to see his face fall, though only for a moment.

“I have to take care of somethin’,” he said simply and rubbed his right palm up and down a couple of times on his jeans.

How odd. Kayla’s mind wandered. She’d watched her dad and his buddies play poker enough times to know that all of them had a tell, a sign that they were hiding something.

Mark glanced her way.

“So how ’bout you? Where ya from?”

“I’m not going to tell you.”

Mark glanced at her again, this time in surprise, and then returned his eyes to the road. “You’re not gonna to tell me? Why not?”

“Because you’ll laugh.”

“No, I won’t.”

Kayla smiled and baited him some more. “Yes, you will. Everybody does, and then you’ll sing.”

“Sing?”

“Yeah, sing.” Despite her earlier apprehension, she was enjoying flirting with him.

Mark paused, glancing at Kayla and then returning his eyes to the road. “Okay, so now I’m dyin’ of curiosity. Ya gotta tell me.”

Kayla sighed playfully. “Okay, okay. It’s Teapot. Teapot, Arizona.”

“Teapot? Ya gotta be kiddin’ me. Teapot!” The interior of the car seemed to rattle as Mark’s laughter filled it. “Teapot, as in ‘I’m a little teapot, short and stout,’” he sang mockingly.

“I told you so.”

Kayla playfully slapped his arm with the back of her hand. She gasped. Had she really just touched him like that, a guy she had just met? Her cheeks flushed, and she cast her eyes downward.

“I can’t believe I just did that.”

“Don’t worry ’bout it. I got three little sisters and we have—had—an older brother. He was always pickin’ on me.”

Despite her embarrassment, Kayla realized he had referred to his brother in the past tense.

“You said had.”

“Craig.” Mark cleared his throat and rubbed his palm again on his jeans. “My brother’s name was Craig. He died last fall; this Friday would have been his twenty-third birthday.”

Kayla refused to say “I’m so sorry.” Goodness knows she’d heard that phrase a million times since her dad died. It didn’t comfort her then, and she supposed it wouldn’t comfort Mark now. She remained silent.

He glanced her way. “Ya didn’t say it.”

“Say what?”

“Sorry. Ya didn’t say, ‘I’m so sorry.’ It’s usually the first thing most people say when I tell ’em about Craig.”

Kayla bit the inside of her cheek and was silent for another second or two before replying, “My dad died in April.”

“Oh, I’m so sorr—” Mark stopped himself short. They looked at each other and chuckled. It helped relieve the awkwardness of the moment.

“Ya wanna talk ’bout it?”

“No,” Kayla said with more emphasis than she intended.

“Fair enough.”

They drove a mile or two with nothing but the sound of road noise and a DJ’s chatter.

Mark glanced her way again. “Ya know, Kayla, it took me a long time to get over my brother dyin’; well, ya don’t ever really get over it, but ya know what I mean. After Craig died, I was mad for a long time, a very long time. Mad at the fraternity”—at this, Kayla raised her eyebrows—“mad at everyone. Heck, I was even mad at Craig for dyin’, but I was the most angry with God.”

Kayla felt uncomfortable, so she bent down to the floorboard to retrieve her purse.

I cannot believe I am having this conversation with someone I’ve just met, no matter how drop-dead gorgeous he is, she thought.

As she reached for her purse, her knees hit the glove box, which popped open and spilled its contents all over the floorboard.

“Sorry about that.”

“Don’t worry ’bout it. It does that all the time. Just shove everythin’ back in.”

Kayla bent over and retrieved from the floorboard a small flashlight, an empty Skoal can, and a couple of eight-track tapes. She quickly scanned their fronts—Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. She picked up a ladies’ fingernail file, a car manual, receipts, a small pocketknife, and pieces of paper.

One of the papers, Kayla noticed, was proof of auto insurance. She glanced at the name: D. Tate. Self-consciously, she shoved the whole mess back in, save for the pocketknife, which for some reason she couldn’t explain at that moment, she secretly tucked it into her right boot. Then she slammed the glove box closed.

Just in case.

She reached into her purse and retrieved a pack of gum.

“Want a piece?”

“Sure. Thank ya kindly,” Mark said, taking his hands temporarily off of the wheel and steering the car with his knee. He deftly unwrapped the stick of gum and folded it into his mouth, tossing the wrapper over his shoulder into the back seat.

“I thought you were going to throw that wrapper out of the window.”

“Oh, no, Kayla. There’s one thing you gotta learn.”

“What’s that?”

“Ontday essmay ithway exasTay.”

In her mind, Kayla repeated the words as she looked out at the lonesome landscape looming before them: don’t mess with Texas.

                                                              ***

The phone rang about thirty minutes after Joel and his deputy left. Mona jumped and immediately her stomach hurt. She didn’t want to answer.

What if it’s Joel calling to say Kayla has been hurt in some kind of accident, or worse?

Since they had left, she’d been having strange, prickling sensations like an electrical current that burned her skin and left her feeling incapable of movement. It was the same feeling she got when the doctor had called to tell her Don’s cancer had come back.

The phone rang two more times, then a third, and a fourth before Mona willed her mind to convince her hand to reach for the receiver. Doing this required a strength she didn’t know she possessed.

“Hello?” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

“Mona! There you are, honey! I thought for a minute there you weren’t home.” Marcie Jenkins’s high-pitched voice made Mona jerk the receiver away from her ear and keep it there as her longtime friend continued.

“Any news?”

There was noise in the background—talking, clanking of dishes, a child’s laugh. Mona knew her friend was in her kitchen.

“No. Nothing.”

“I’m sure you’ll hear from her soon, Mona. Don’t you worry. Listen, Joel stopped by here on his way out to the state line and told us all about it. Frank and I want you to come right on over and stay with us until you hear something. Kim and Scott and the boys are already here, and Laura and Mike and our little Jaycie are due in later tonight.”

“I don’t know, Marcie. I—”

“I don’t want to hear another word about it, honey. I already told Joel this is where you’d be if he needed you. Get some things together. Don’t forget your nightgown and toothbrush.”

“But what about—”

Marcie continued undaunted. “You’re going to be here for dinner tomorrow anyway, so you might as well just come spend the night with us. Throw out some food for the dogs, and get on over here.”

“But what if Kayla tries to call home and I’m not here?”

 “I’ve already taken care of that. Frank knows a guy over in Tucson who works for the telephone company, and he’s gonna rig up a call-forwarding thingie on your phone later this morning. If you get a call, it will ring at our house.”

Mona knew there was no point in arguing further. Marcie had been her friend since grade school, and she knew when Marcie’s mind was set on something, people might as well go along with the plan, because they would eventually surrender anyway.

Mona sighed. “All right. I’ll be there in a little while.”

“Good. See you in a bit. And Mona?”

“Yeah?”

“Feet in the boots.”

Despite her weariness, Mona couldn’t help but smile. The cryptic phrase was something they had shared all their lives, their own private incantation to ward off bad luck—sort of like saying “Break a leg” to a stage actor.

“Feet in the boots,” she dutifully replied, and with a faint click, the call ended.

Mona changed into a pair of slacks, a blouse, and a light sweater, and then packed her toiletries and a change of clothes into an overnight bag. She plunked the bag down on the porch so she could feed the dogs. As she reached for the bag of dog food that she kept in a plastic tub just inside the front door, she paused, thought better of it, and called to Chance and Poker, who bounded around the side of the house, their tails flapping against Mona’s legs.

Minutes later, all three were in her pickup, headed to the Jenkins ranch.

                                                           ***

“Anyway, Craig’s all right now. I know he’s in a much better place.”

Yeah, right. I’ve heard that one before, too.

Kayla weighed her thought before asking, “You said something about a fraternity and the university?”

“Yeah. Craig was in our daddy’s fraternity when he was in college, and that’s all Craig talked about when he’d come home from ASU. He was two years older than me. Man, I idolized him. We hunted together, fished together, chased girls together.” He winked at Kayla. “That’s why it just didn’t make sense. Craig was a good kid. He never got in trouble, always got good grades, didn’t drink—not much anyway—and was an old granny when it came to going to bed early. So, when Momma and Daddy got the call that night about his ‘accident,’ it just didn’t add up.”

“What do you mean, if you don’t mind me asking? What happened?”

“Well, the official report is that Craig died in a huntin’ accident, but at first I thought it was murder.”

Kayla’s heart froze, and she sucked in a quick breath.

Did this guy really just say murder? What have I gotten myself into?

Her eyes darted to the highway. It was almost dark now, and she could see only snatches of barren pasture on either side. An occasional oil pump-jack caught her eye, but there was nothing else, save for a few eighteen-wheelers meeting them, their headlights momentarily blinding Kayla.

Gina’s warning came to mind: “For all you know, he could be a serial killer or something.”

Suddenly, Kayla was very glad she had the pocketknife in her boot.

Kayla imagined Mark could somehow hear what she was thinking, but he seemed unfazed.

“The police report said Craig accidentally shot himself with his deer rifle when he laid it against a cedar post to climb over a barbed-wire fence on a frat brother’s ranch. There were a bunch of guys out huntin’ and drinkin’. The police said it was an accident, but I don’t buy it. Our daddy’s in law enforcement, our granddaddy was, too, and we grew up on a ranch. We’re good ol’ Texas boys, and we were taught from the time we could walk how to properly handle firearms. Craig would never, and I mean never, have been messin’ around with guns if anyone had been drinkin’ or any of that jazz.”

Jazz? Kayla’s mind raced back to the contents of the glove box. Mark just does not seem the type to listen to Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong.

Her stomach felt like she’d swallowed a dozen live grasshoppers.

Something doesn’t feel right.

“But what makes you think it was murder?”

“Pardon me? I didn’t catch what you said,” Mark replied, leaning a little to his right.

Kayla swallowed before answering. “Murder. You said murder. Why?”

“Because—hey, look out!” Mark shouted as he hit the brakes and swerved the car left and then right. To her shock, Kayla watched as a white-tailed deer barely missed the passenger’s-side bumper as it darted across the highway. Mark handled the car expertly, though, like a bronc rider at a rodeo, and they were unharmed, if a bit rattled.

“Whew. That was close. Thank ya, Betsy,” he said, giving the dashboard an appreciative pat. He glanced at Kayla. “Ya have to watch out for deer this time of year. It’s almost deer season, so they know there are guys with guns out there. Either that or they’re just plain stupid. Ya all right?”

“Yeah,” Kayla managed to respond, not adding that she thought her heart would never return to its normal pace. For comfort, she reached up and fingered her necklace.

“Those are really pretty,” Mark said, pointing at the pearls around Kayla’s neck. Then he reached over and clicked off the radio; they had lost the station miles ago. There was nothing but static now.

We really are out in the middle of nowhere, Kayla though, shifting nervously in her seat.

“Boyfriend?”

“Uh, no, uh,” Kayla stammered before realizing he was asking about the necklace.

Why am I so flustered?

“Oh, they’re from my mom. She gave them to me for graduation; they were originally my grandmother’s on my father’s side.”

She tried to relax and concentrated on restoring her breathing.

“Well, they’re real pretty.” Mark paused and then asked, “What’s your mom like? No, wait! Let me guess!” He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “Hmm. Let me think.”

He glanced mischievously at Kayla.

“I’d say she’s about your height, but her hair isn’t blond like yours. I’m thinkin’ that it’s brown, and I’ll bet she’s some sort of schoolteacher or librarian or somethin’ because you’ve got that look.”

“What look?”

“The look that says, ‘I’m the never-get-in-trouble type because I’m the daughter of a schoolteacher.’”

For a split second, Kayla was angry.

How dare he judge me, judge Mom, like that, and how in the world did he know anyway?

“You have a really good imagination.”

“But am I right?” he asked with just a touch of smugness that Kayla didn’t know if she found annoying or attractive.

“Yes, my mom has been a schoolteacher for twenty years, third grade.”

“I knew it!” Mark thumped his palm on the steering wheel in triumph.

“That’s pretty good there, Mr. Know-It-All.”

“It’s all in the mind, my dear, all in the mind.” He mimicked a carnival seer as he tapped his finger to his temple. “My daddy always says that you can tell a lot about a person just by watchin’ how they walk, talk, hold their fork, brush their teeth, that sort of thing.”

Okay, just breathe, relax, take it easy, she told herself.

“How they brush their teeth?”

“Yeah. You know, brush teeth.” Mark formed a brush with his finger and made horizontal motions across his wide grin.

“All right, smart guy, you know what I mean. What can you tell about a person just by how they brush their teeth?”

“Oh, lots of things.”

“Like what?”

“Well, like whether or not they live alone or whether or not they have a dog.”

Kayla wrinkled her forehead. “How in the world can you tell if a person lives alone or has a dog just by the way they brush their teeth?

“Well.” Mark sat up taller in his seat to straighten his back and stretched his neck from side to side. “A single person is less likely to put away things after they’ve used them, but if you’re livin’ with someone, ya try to be nice and clean up after yourself. And if ya have a dog, ya make sure the toothpaste and brush are pushed way back on the counter so that your dog doesn’t get to ’em.”

“What if you just happen to be a neat person and you like to put things away, regardless of whether or not you live with someone else?” Kayla countered, turning to gaze at Mark when he didn’t immediately answer.

“Whoa, belle. What have we here?”

“Hmm?”

She followed his gaze to an old, white pickup with a camper shell stopped on the shoulder of the highway a quarter-mile or so ahead. In the beam of the headlights, Kayla saw a man in a camo jacket leaning in under the raised hood.

Mark slowed the car down. “Looks like they might need some help.”

He glanced in the rearview mirror and signaled to pull in behind the pickup. Not that it mattered much; there hadn’t been anyone behind them for quite some time. Kayla noticed a lime-green bumper sticker with neon yellow letters crookedly adhered on the camper shell. The sticker said, “Don’t worry. Be happy.”

But just as Mark slowed and was about to put the car in park behind the truck, his demeanor changed. “Uh, I think we oughta get on down the road. We’ll call in some help for them when we get to Van Horn.”

Before Kayla had a chance to say anything, Mark steered the car back on to the highway. As they passed the pickup, the middle-aged Hispanic man peering into the engine raised his head and locked eyes with Kayla.

Suddenly she felt cold.

Kayla turned in her seat, watching as the man and the pickup disappeared into blackness as their car returned to its normal speed. Then she faced forward again.

Silence hung heavy between them for a couple of miles.

Finally, Kayla asked, “Why’d you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Why’d you pull in to help and then decide not to?”

 Mark sighed and rubbed his right palm against his jeans before he answered.

“I dunno. Call it a gut feelin’ or somethin’ like that.” He glanced into the rearview mirror. “I can’t explain it. Something just didn’t feel right, and I didn’t want to take any chances with you in the car.”

“I appreciate that. But how far is it to Van Horn?”

“Oh, ’bout 120 miles,” he said, turning to Kayla with those gorgeous green eyes. His attention to the road diverted, he started to say something else.

It was a bad decision.

A sickening sound made them both jump. Mark clenched the steering wheel and fiercely hit the brakes as the dark shape of a deer hit the windshield and slid over the roof. Tires squealing, dirt billowing, the car screeched off of the highway on the right, smashed through a guardrail, and careened down into a dry creek bed, coming to rest about twenty feet below the grade of the road.

During the frenetic descent, Kayla’s head hit the passenger window, the glove box flew open, the Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong tapes bounced off of her cheek, Mark’s cowboy hat went sailing, and she thought she tasted broken glass.

The last thing she remembered was hearing herself scream.

                                                        ***

“Hope you don’t mind that I brought the dogs, Marcie.”

“You know I don’t, honey. Now you just get yourself in this house.” Marcie gave Mona a huge hug.

“Kim!” She had to shout to be heard over the din of her three stair-stepped-in-age grandsons, who were wrestling on the living room floor.

“Yes, ma’am?” Kim, her daughter-in-law, came in from the kitchen.

“Please take Mona’s dogs around back and put them in the kennel with ol’ Skeeter, and make sure they have plenty of food and water. I’ll watch the boys so they don’t kill each other.” Then Marcie turned to Mona. “Frank and Scott are out dove hunting, so they won’t be back for awhile. You just come in this house and sit down. You look terrible.”

Mona allowed her friend to fuss over her as Kim returned from outside and shooed the boys out of the room. She then brought an afghan, which Mona gratefully accepted.

“Would you like some hot tea?” Kim asked Mona.

“Yes, please.”

As Kim left for the kitchen, Mona sat down with a sigh. Her body felt like it had been beaten, abused really, and she put her head in her hands.

“I know, honey. I know,” Marcie said, reaching for Mona’s hand and squeezing it tightly.

“What if they can’t find her? And what if they do and she’s, she’s—” Mona raised her head, unable to finish the thought. “I couldn’t bear it. I just couldn’t bear it. I can’t go through this again. I just can’t!”

“Shh, now, Mona. There’s no need to get all riled up when we don’t know anything. Not yet, anyway. No news is good news. And you know what Jesus says in Matthew 6:25–27.”

She reached for her Bible, which was ever present on her living room coffee table. She opened the book and flipped readily to the verse she wanted.

“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

Kim returned with the tea and handed the mug to Mona.

“Thank you, Kim.”

“Now take a sip,” Marcie ordered.

Mona dutifully took a swallow and placed the mug on the coffee table. She sank into the sofa’s soft cushions.

They were startled by the sound of barking dogs followed by a knock at the door. Kim got up and invited Joel, Stanislaw, and a stranger inside.

A quick glance at their faces told Mona it wasn’t good news.

“Morning,” Joel said, nodding toward Kim. “Do you mind stepping outside for a few minutes? Marcie, I’d like for you to stay if you don’t mind.”

He sat down heavily on the sofa beside Mona and Marcie as Kim quietly left the room. Marcie held Mona’s hand in both of her own. Joel nodded to Stanislaw, who took a seat in a nearby chair and looked as stiff and uncomfortable as anyone could possibly be.

Despite her fear and dread, Mona felt a little sorry for him.

“Mona, this is Curtis Dickinson from the civilian division of the highway patrol.” Joel motioned to the stranger, who placed a small, black medical bag on the coffee table before reaching over to shake Mona’s hand.

“Please call me Dickinson. Everyone does.”

Joel looked ready to say something, but he hesitated.

“What is it, Joel?” Mona gave him a pointed look.

“I placed a call to Angelo State and got the name of Kayla’s roommate—” he began, but Mona interrupted. “Gina.”

“Yes. That’s right. Virginia Carrington. It took a while to locate her because she’s on some cruise ship in the Caribbean, but we were able to put in a shore-to-ship call. Come to find out her daddy’s some sort of bigwig attorney in Dallas. Anyway, we talked to Miss Carrington, and she informed us that Kayla had accepted a ride with a young man named Mark. She said Kayla had gotten his name off a ‘ride board’ in a building on campus, so we called the university’s police chief, who provided us with information from the board. Turns out this young man’s name is Mark Lawson. Do you know anyone by that name?”

Mona shook her head no.

“Okay. They cross-checked the phone number and came up with an address as well as the make and model of the car.” Joel looked to Stanislaw, who opened his notebook.

“A brown 1978 Buick Skylark.”

“Right. It actually belongs to a man named Delbert Tate, who said he loaned it to this Mark Lawson. Turns out Mr. Tate’s son is Mr. Lawson’s roommate, so they weren’t in a stolen vehicle, which is good.”

“But if you know what kind of car they’re driving, you can look for it, right?”

“That’s just it, Mona. They’ve already found it.”

Mona’s hand went to her mouth, and she whimpered. Marcie held tightly to her other hand and bowed her head to pray.

“A little while ago, I got a call from the sheriff over in Reeves County in Texas, and he said one of his deputies found a dead deer, a crumpled guardrail, and then some tire tracks going off the highway over a dry creek called Creosote Draw. He investigated and found a car in the draw. Kayla’s purse was in the car.”

Mona held her breath and waited to hear the dreaded words: your daughter is dead.

Instead Joel explained, “The deputy called in backup, and they have thoroughly searched the area; they even sent for a helicopter and a canine unit out of El Paso, but it’ll take a few hours for them to get there. All the boots on the ground are searching, but they haven’t found Kayla yet or this Mr. Lawson.”

Mona felt as though she were spinning, and everyone else was standing stock still.

“So, what you’re telling me is that Kayla wasn’t killed in a car wreck, that she’s … she’s still alive?”

Joel and Dickinson exchanged glances.

“They found some blood at the scene, ma’am.” Dickinson cleared his throat. “The Texas authorities are sending a sample to their lab in Austin, but we won’t have results for some time. That’s where you come in.”

“Me? But I don’t understand.”

“We think the blood found at the scene may be from your daughter, but in order to verify her DNA, we need to take a sample of yours.”

Mona tried to speak, but her throat was constricted. She swallowed hard and looked pleadingly at Joel before she found the words.

“What is he trying to tell me?”

“What he’s telling you is that Kayla is missing, and we believe she is in grave danger.”

                                                          ***

“Kayla! Are you okay? Wake up, Kayla!”

Mark’s voice sounded like it was coming from a loudspeaker at a football game miles away. Kayla wanted desperately to answer him but couldn’t.

Where am I? She tried to clear the fog in her brain.

A moan escaped from somewhere deep in her being as she slowly regained consciousness. Her eyes flickered once, twice, and then opened slowly to see Mark’s face close to hers. She became aware of the scent of his aftershave and felt his hands gently cradling the sides of her face.

He was kneeling on the ground beside her by the open door on the passenger’s side.

How’d he get over here?

The engine sputtered, and the glow of the headlights barely penetrated the dust swirling in front of the car. Smoke seeped from the crumpled hood, and Kayla smelled oil. Even in her confused state, she could tell the car was no longer drivable.

“Wha-what happened?”

“We hit a deer. Stupid thing came out of nowhere.” Mark brushed a strand of hair out of her face. Her French braid was a mess. Leaning over her, Mark unbuckled her seat belt and turned off the engine in one fluid motion.

“Do ya hurt anywhere? Can ya move your arms?”

Slowly, for fear of feeling a stab of pain, Kayla moved her right arm, then her left.

“Everythin’ seems to be okay there. Now see if you can move your legs.”

“I need to sit up a little first.”

Mark carefully helped Kayla ease herself into a more comfortable sitting position and then ran his hands down her jean-clad legs, first one and then the other. She flinched.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m checkin’ for broken bones,” Mark replied curtly. Then, satisfied nothing was broken, he gave her a huge grin. “Did ya think I was getting’ fresh or somethin’?”

Despite her grogginess, Kayla couldn’t help but smile.

“There now. That’s more like it. Do ya think you can stand?”

Kayla allowed herself to be helped out of the car. She leaned close to Mark and was glad for his support; her head was less foggy now, but she shook involuntarily.

“Ya okay?” Concern furrowed Mark’s brow as he paused, one arm around her waist and the other holding her hand.

“Yeah. I think so. It’s just that something feels funny up here.” She reached up to feel the base of her neck. At her touch, the clasp on her necklace broke, and her pearls hit the dirt like pea-size hailstones.

“Oh, no. My pearls!”

“Don’t worry; I’ll find ’em. Let’s just get ya settled first. Ya think you can lean against the car while I get a blanket from the trunk? I really think ya need to sit down.”

Kayla nodded yes, which made her feel dizzy, and she used both hands to steady herself against the car door.

“Be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”

Mark made sure she wasn’t going to collapse like a marionette with its strings cut if he let her go. He popped open the trunk and rummaged around for a few seconds. He quickly returned to her side, unfolded an old army blanket, and bent down to smooth it out. He hit two large lumps and threw back the blanket to inspect. He picked up a rock, chucked it off to the side, and reached for another.

“Ow!” Dad gummit!”

“You okay?”

“Yeah, but I cut myself on this stupid rock. This just isn’t my night.”

Irritated, he tossed the offending rock to the side and shook his hand to stop the hurt. Droplets of blood from his finger hit the dirt.

“You should put a Band-Aid on that.”

“I’ll get one from the first-aid kit in a minute. All right now. Let’s get ya down.”

Mark gently eased Kayla step by step to the blanket. He helped her sit down and stayed for a few seconds on his hands and knees to make sure she was settled. His green eyes were filled with concern, and Kayla enjoyed the closeness of his face. She returned his steady gaze, and they stayed like that for a moment longer than was necessary.

She didn’t mind. No, I don’t mind at all. What in the world was I thinking earlier? This guy isn’t a kerial siller—no, wait. Serial killer. Yeah, that’s it.

“How ’bout some water?”

Mark was standing again with his thumbs hooked in the loops of his jeans. “I’ve got a couple of canteens.”

With that, he opened the back passenger-side door and leaned inside. Then he was back, kneeling at her side. “Here. Take a drink and then I’ll get my flashlight and look for those pearls.”

Mark unscrewed the lid to one of the canteens and handed the container to Kayla. She swallowed gratefully.

“Eew.” She made a face. “Yuck.”

“Sorry. It’s San Angelo water, the best we’ve got.”

He took a drink from his canteen. Then he screwed the lid in place and set the canteen beside Kayla.

“Ya just rest here a minute, and I’ll find those pearls. Do ya know how many were on the strand?”

“No clue,” Kayla replied with a sigh.

“Then I guess I’d better get started. How’s the noggin?”

Kayla admitted that her right temple was sore and that she felt the beginnings of a headache.

“Ya took quite a bounce off the windshield. Wish there was someplace for us to have it looked at; ya might have a concussion or somethin’.” Mark crawled along the ground with his flashlight, which he had retrieved along with the canteens. “But I’m afraid there’s just a whole lot of nothin’ between here and Van Horn, and I’m not even sure they have a hospital or anything.”

“Watch out for snakes under there!”

The sound of her own voice made Kayla wince.

Beneath the car, Mark said, “Sure thing, but this time of year, the only time rattlers would be out is durin’ the day when they’re sunnin’ themselves, and I’m pretty sure it’s too late in the year for that.”

Oh, yeah. I knew that. My head hurts.

“By the way, just how are we going to get back up on the highway?” Kayla asked, slowly pointing her chin up toward the interstate.

“Guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Kayla shivered, but she didn’t know if it was from the chilly night or the fact that no one in the world knew they were down in the dry creek bed, miles from nowhere. Or so she thought.

Kayla was relieved to find her head hurting less with each passing minute, but the fog in her brain wouldn’t clear. She shifted on the blanket; her legs were going to sleep.

“How many?”

“Thirty-nine. I’ve got thirty-nine pearls in my pocket,” Mark called out from beneath the car. “You sure there’s one more?”

“Well, no, I’m not sure, but you’d think there’d be an even number, wouldn’t you?”

Mark grunted as he slid himself along the rocks on his belly. “Who knows? Maybe the clams were tired and stopped before they got to forty.”

“Funny. Real funny.”

“I don’t know where else to look.” He crawled from beneath the car and stood to dust off his clothes. Puffs of caliche dirt surrounded Mark as he flat-handed his jeans, his shirt, and his boots.

Kayla giggled.

“What’s so funny?”

“You look like you’ve been rolled in flour.”

Mark flashed a grin and then looked directly at the V of her sweater. His stare unnerved her, and she immediately stopped laughing. Kayla glanced down at her sweater and back up at Mark, who kept staring at her chest.

“And just what do you think you’re staring at?”

A smile crossed his lips. “I think I know where number forty might be.”

Kayla looked at him for a few more seconds, and when the realization hit her, she felt her cheeks warm.

“Turn around.”

Mark did as he was told, and Kayla fished the last pearl out of her bra where it was neatly tucked.

“You can turn around now.”

She held up the pearl for him to see.

“Of all things! I tell ya one thing, though. If I were a pearl, that’s where I’d be hidin’, too.”

They burst out laughing. The absurdity of everything that had happened was too much. As their chuckles subsided, Mark moved slowly to the blanket beside Kayla and squatted down.

“I shouldn’t have said that. That wasn’t very gentlemanly of me.”

“I don’t care.”

“But I do.” His gorgeous green eyes locked with hers. “Ya deserve to be treated like a lady.”

Before she could reply, Mark leaned in and gave Kayla a quick, gentle kiss on her lips. Surprised, she found herself leaning into him and kissing him again. She dropped number forty in the dirt.

Without warning, Mark stiffened and pulled back.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Shh.” Mark brought a finger to his lips. “I heard somethin’.”

They listened intently, but there was nothing.

“Do you think it’s a rattler?”

“No.” Mark shook his head and breathed between gritted teeth, “Coyote.”

At that instant, a beam from a flashlight cruelly blinded them.

“Levantarse!”

Kayla looked at Mark, fear bubbling in her chest.

“He wants us to get up.” Mark stood and helped Kayla to her feet, his arm curving protectively around her waist. When the light mercifully pointed at the ground and their eyes adjusted, Kayla gasped. A revolver was pointed in their direction, and the man in the camo jacket holding it was someone she had seen before.

But where? Her head throbbed as she tried to remember.

The coyote barked another order in Spanish, and Mark said slowly and evenly, “He wants us to go over by the car.”

Kayla’s head spun like a merry-go-round and she shot Mark a fearful look, but he never took his eyes off of the man holding the gun.

“It’ll be okay. Let’s just do as he says, and let’s not make any sudden moves.” Mark clutched Kayla’s hand, and they edged toward the car.

The coyote whistled, and three other men, also Hispanic, emerged from the scrub bushes and stopped just behind him. Two were in their mid to late thirties, and one looked to be no older than fifteen, a kid.

With their backs to the car, Mark could feel Kayla shaking, and he squeezed her hand two quick times as if to say everything would be all right.

The coyote shouted an order, and the other men moved menacingly closer to Mark and Kayla.

“Mark!”

“It’s okay. They just want to see what’s in the car.”

The two men and the teenager, all thin as rails, were silent as they threw everything out of the back seat and the trunk and onto the ground: a sleeping bag, a backpack, a tent, a battery-operated lantern, a fishing tackle box, rope, duct tape, an empty Coleman cooler. The men also grabbed a couple of flashlights and a first-aid kit. The coyote barked something else, and the three picked up the gear, as well as the army blanket and the two canteens, and moved silently back into the darkness.

Mark stared directly at the coyote and said something in Spanish.

The coyote jerked his head and grunted approval, so Mark reached into the back seat and pulled out Kayla’s baton case.

Her eyes widened in surprise. Wisely, she said nothing.

“Vamanos.”

“We have to go with them.” Mark’s voice was monotone.

Kayla’s terror overwhelmed her, and tears formed. She dug her nails into her thumbs and tried desperately to start counting backward by sevens from a hundred, but it was no use.

Crying is weakness.

The tears came anyway.

The coyote motioned again with the gun, and they followed behind the other three, heading deeper into the darkness. About a hundred yards farther into the draw and well hidden by a stand of mesquite trees, an old, white pickup with a camper shell idled noisily like a patient with bronchitis. Kayla noticed a lime-green bumper sticker.

Her stomach lurched as she realized it was the man with the camper pickup they’d left stranded on the side of the road miles from nowhere.

The coyote spoke to the men again, and they tossed all of Mark’s gear into the pickup seat. Then they silently climbed into the camper shell like obedient hunting dogs.

He spoke again to Mark, who turned to Kayla. Her eyes were wide with fear.

“We have to get in, too.”

Kayla’s breathing quickened, and tears streamed down her face.

This can’t be happening!

Mark slowly guided her to the back of the truck, tossed the baton case in, and offered her his hand to step up onto the bumper.

He managed a weak smile and whispered: “It’s gonna be all right. I won’t let anythin’ hurt ya. I promise. I’m an Eagle, remember?

Resignedly, Kayla climbed in, followed closely by Mark.

The coyote slammed the camper shell shut, and she heard the click of a lock.

We’re trapped!

Smells—terrible ones of sweat, body odor, and urine— assaulted their senses, and Kayla had to clamp her hand over her mouth and nose to keep from retching.

Determined to pull herself together for Mark’s sake, if not for her own, Kayla brushed away the tears and slowed her breathing. She sat as close to Mark as she possibly could. She leaned into his shoulder and pressed her nose into his shirt where a faint smell of lemon starch lingered.

They couldn’t see anything in the blackness of the cramped space, but they knew they were being watched. They heard the driver’s-side door screech open and slam, and then the truck lurched into gear. It labored to get going. Once it did, the vehicle sped forward.

Kayla grabbed Mark’s arm with both hands to keep from being thrown onto the others, and her mind raced.

Suddenly a thought came to her mind.

“What did you tell the guy about my baton case?”

“I told him that if they were goin’ to take the tent, they’d need the tent stakes.”

Kayla nodded appreciatively and then whispered, “What are we going to do?”

“Pray.”

I’m not sure I remember how.

They bounced along in silence for a long time, each bump jolting Kayla’s body and pounding her resolve. She slumped against Mark, who sat still as death beside her. Kayla’s head hurt terribly now, and she had an overwhelming desire to sleep. She tried to stay awake, but it was a fight she couldn’t win.

Before she lost consciousness, Kayla thought she heard Mark talking animatedly in Spanish to the Mexicans.

But maybe she was dreaming. Or having a nightmare.

                                                             ***

Kayla came to just as the truck again lurched violently and Mark nudged her gently. The two sensations brought tears to her eyes as she remembered where they were.

“Good mornin’, sunshine,” Mark whispered glumly in her ear. Despite the terror, Kayla couldn’t help but smile.

“Ya okay?”

“Yeah, I guess, but my head still hurts really bad. Where are we?”

“I’m not sure, but talkin’ to these fine gentlemen here, I’m pretty sure we’re headed north, northwest.”

“You’ve been talking to them?”

Has he lost his mind? Or have I lost mine?

Just then, the truck’s brakes squealed, and Kayla held tightly to Mark, who almost flew like a cowboy off of a bull. The engine sputtered but then caught its breath, and the vehicle bounced over some railroad tracks.

Mark leaned toward Kayla and whispered, “Feet in the boots.”

Boots. Wait a minute!

“Listen, Kayla,” Mark hissed urgently as the truck came to a noisy stop. The engine lurched one last time and then died.

“How many batons have ya got in that case?”

Kayla was stunned by the question. She couldn’t think clearly.

“How many?”

“Three. I’ve got three,” she whispered, “and this.”

Kayla quickly pulled the pocketknife out of her boot and gave it to Mark, who shoved it into the left pocket of his jeans just before the door to the camper shell opened.

Mark heaved himself over the gate first and then turned to help Kayla out.

“Get the case,” he said nonchalantly. She obeyed.

Their legs were stiff from sitting in such a cramped position, and the two of them weaved like drunks. The Mexicans climbed out as well. The air reeked of what Kayla supposed was sulfur from nearby oil fields.

Before she had time to think about it, the coyote ordered Mark and Kayla inside a portable metal shed. It was leaning against an old fence surrounding another structure that was somehow familiar to Kayla.

The men brought in Mark’s gear from the pickup. They plopped everything down inside the dirty shed and lit a lantern. The dim light bounced haphazardly around the shed, which was filled with old newspapers, empty beer bottles, and trash. There was a puzzle-like quality to the stacks of papers, as though someone had made a path for a lab mouse in a weird scientific experiment. The scene made Kayla dizzy.

Where in the world are we? Is this hell?

Hell—fire and brimstone and sulfur.

And then from somewhere deep in Kayla’s soul a Bible verse surfaced, Revelation 20:15: “And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.”

It was not a comforting thought.

                                                            ***

“Keep some pressure on it for a minute to stop the bleeding,” Dickinson said as he pressed a cotton ball against Mona’s arm. He carefully placed the vial of her blood in a plastic pouch, sealed the edge, and put the pouch in his bag. Peeling off his medical gloves, he held them up questioningly to Marcie.

“Got a trash can?”

“This way.” Marcie jumped up from the couch beside Mona and led Dickinson to the bathroom down the hall.

Mona dutifully held the cotton ball to her skin and folded her arm upward. She looked at Joel and started to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. Uncharacteristically, Stanislaw was quiet, too. Joel cleared his throat and stood as Dickinson and Marcie returned.

“It’ll be tomorrow morning or later before we get the results.” Dickinson nodded at Joel. “As soon as we hear something, we’ll let you know.”

As Marcie saw them to the door, Mona sank deeper into the sofa. When Marcie returned, she sat beside Mona and cradled her hands in one of hers. The two friends’ eyes locked, and despite herself, Mona couldn’t help but smile.

“You have always been there for me, Marcie. For me. For Don. For Kayla. How can I ever repay you?”

“Honey, you don’t owe me anything. I’m the one who’s in debt to you, remember?”

A comfortable silence fell between them until Mona spoke softly. “Has it really been that long since it happened? You know I’d do it again in a heartbeat if I had to. You know that, right?”

“Of course, I do, honey. Of course, I do.” Marcie gave Mona’s hand a squeeze. “Now listen, you just lie back on this sofa and take a little rest. I’m going to help Kim get some lunch started, and we’ll call you when it’s ready. I’ll even keep the little monsters out of the living room for a while.”

Mona allowed herself to be settled onto the sofa with a throw pillow under her head. Marcie draped the afghan over her friend.

“There now. You just take it easy and don’t worry about a thing. Me and God,” Marcie said, thumping her chest twice for emphasis, “we’ve got it all under control.”

Mona watched as Marcie went to the kitchen, and despite a chill that penetrated deep into her soul, she couldn’t help but think about firecrackers and one hot July night almost twenty years earlier.

                                                               ***

“Jo-eelll-ey! Where are you?”

“Over here, Mona.”

“Where?”

“I swear you couldn’t find your way out of a paper bag, could you?” Joel laughed and the sound bounced off of the walls of Choke Canyon.

The locals had called Chocketa Canyon that for as long as anyone could remember. Most people avoided the canyon because of its remoteness, and precisely for that reason, it became a hangout for the teenagers of the community. It was a place to talk, to sit quietly and look at the stars, and to make out.

From his hiding place in one of the canyon’s many slender crevices, Joel was enjoying watching Mona as she walked gingerly, her hands extended in front of herself. The blindfold, her yellow head scarf, had been her idea.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Joel, you can’t play blind man’s bluff without a blindfold,” she had said when they arrived and before he could protest further. It was hot and Joel’s back started to itch beneath his cotton shirt.

“Watch out for snakes!” he teased. Mona jumped to one side.

Joel laughed and glanced admiringly at his girlfriend of two years. His gut felt like it was going to explode with excitement. He’d brought her out to the canyon for a special reason. He reached into the pocket of his jeans and felt the thin gold band he had tucked there just hours earlier. It had cost him a bundle, almost an entire year’s savings, but it would be worth it when he proposed to Mona tonight here in the canyon.

And then he would tell her he’d been drafted.

“Joel! Where are you?”

He laughed again and started to tease her some more when a blood-curdling scream bounced off of the canyon walls.

Mona stripped the scarf from her eyes and looked at Joel in terror. “Was that a coyote?”

Joel wedged himself out of the crevice and hurried to stand beside her.

“I don’t know, but whatever it was, it’s close.

The next scream made them jump.

“That sounded like a girl. Come on!” Joel grabbed Mona’s hand and they made a dash for his pickup.

“Where’s it coming from, Joel?” Mona asked breathlessly once they were in the cab.

“I don’t know, but I think we’d better get out of here.” He reached to start the engine when they heard the pop-pop-pop of firecrackers, mocking laughter, and then a girl’s voice clearly screech, “Stop it!”

Joel and Mona’s eyes met.

“That sounded like Marcie.” Mona’s anger won out over her fear. She threw open the door and bounded out.

“Mona, wait for me!”

Joel bolted out of the cab and was on Mona’s heels in seconds.

“Marcie? Where are you?”

Another round of firecrackers went off, the sound ricocheting like bullets off of the walls of the canyon. But it seemed to originate from above their heads.

“Up there!” Joel pointed to a worn path weaving its way up the canyon and through a stand of cactus. Mona scrambled behind him. The gravel loosened and tumbled in mini avalanches as they climbed.

They reached a ledge that led to an open spot, and they stared in horror. Their friend Marcie was tied to the bristling branches of a palo verde tree. Tears streamed down her face. Her blouse and skirt were disheveled, and she had the start of a red mark on her left cheek.

Mona began to run to help her friend, but Joel caught her by the arm and held her back, saying simply, “Wait.”

He stared intently off to his right.

Mona followed Joel’s gaze as Paul Slaton stepped from behind a large organ pipe cactus. He was weaving a bit and had a beer car in his left hand. In his right, he clutched a strand of firecrackers and a Zippo lighter.

“Well, halloo there, Joel!” Paul leered and took a swallow from the can. The can was empty. Disgusted, he crushed it and tossed it over his shoulder into a drop-off behind him. The can sounded as if it clanked down about ten feet.

“What’s going on here?” Joel asked, his voice low and steady.

“Aw, come on, dude, me and my choice chick’s just having a little fun.” Paul slurred his words and belched loudly. “A man’s entitled to it, you know.

Marcie stopped crying, but her sniffles made Mona’s heart ache. She longed to run to her friend, but something about Joel’s demeanor held her in place.

Never taking his eyes off of Paul, Joel asked Marcie, “What happened?”

“He told me we were going to … to … play a game.” Marcie’s cheeks flushed. “He said it was … was … a kissing game and … and I had to be tied up to play it.” Marcie’s face sagged as she cast her eyes down.

Mona felt miserable over her friend’s embarrassment.

“He tied me up and then he started drinking. He told me he got drafted and had to report in two weeks … he said he was just doing what … what every good, red-blooded American boy deserved before he went off to fight. I told him I didn’t want to play anymore, and he … and he … he got all bummed out … he slapped me … and Joel—he’s … he’s got a gun.”

Mona gasped as Paul swayed.

Unexpectedly, Joel crouched down and reached for a nearby rock. He pretended to be engrossed in the rock’s shape, size, and color, examining it thoroughly before he said quietly, “I think I know just how you feel, buddy.”

Mona gaped down at Joel, not believing what she had heard. A knot formed in her throat as she started to speak, but Joel whispered without looking up, “It’s okay, Mona. Trust me.”

He motioned for her to sit down. She did, tucking her skirt beneath her as she knelt in the dirt, facing him, her eyes wide.

Paul staggered again as he shifted the firecrackers to his left hand. Fumbling with the cigarette lighter, he attempted to light the strand.

“Paul,” Joel said, trying to distract him. “Hey, Paul. Sounds like you’re having a tough time. Why don’t you tell me about it?”

Momentarily distracted by Joel’s question, Paul gave up trying to click the lighter and tossed it over his shoulder. It, too, careened down the canyon.

He draped the strand of firecrackers around his neck bandolier-style and put his hands on his hips. Joel tensed a bit as Paul’s hands neared his waist.

Mona and Marcie gasped, and Joel started to rise but thought better of it.

“Paul … Paul, you were telling me about getting drafted.” Joel’s voice was calm and steady. Mona didn’t know how he was holding himself together.

And then he said, “I got drafted, too.”

Mona’s hands flew to cover her mouth.

Paul went silent, staring at Joel. A smile slowly formed on Paul’s face, and he seemed to steady himself a little.

Then suddenly he got angry and cursed.

“Liars!” Paul shouted, his voice echoing throughout the canyon. “That’s what they all are. Liars!” He cried out toward the stars.

“You feel like you’ve been lied to?” Joel calmly edged a little closer to Paul.

“Yeah, dude. Don’t you? I mean all my life, my parents have told me … Work hard, Paul. Study hard, Paul. Do good, Paul. Get a piece of the pie, Paul. Good things come to those who wait, Paul. Man, I’ve heard it all my life, and now, just when I start thinking that they might be right, Uncle Sam has this nice little surprise waiting for me a week after high school graduation. I had plans, man. Big plans.”

Each time Paul said his own name, Joel slowly worked his way toward him.

Paul took a step forward and slid his right hand into the waistband of his jeans. As he started to pull out the gun, Joel shouted, “Don’t!”

Paul was distracted for a second and Joel took advantage. He leaped from his crouched position and tackled Paul. Mona screamed. Paul dropped the gun, and it discharged as it careened off of the ledge. The bullet ricocheted, grazing Paul’s right knee as he and Joel fought. Paul let out a howl and clutched his leg. Joel readily overpowered him, forced Paul’s arms behind his back, and shoved his face into the dirt.

Joel was still panting as he plopped down on Paul’s back, pinning him soundly.

“Take care of Marcie,” he told Mona, tilting his head. “You girls get on back to the truck and haul it to town. Get the sheriff. I think I’ll just sit here for a while.”

Joel allowed himself a half smile as Mona ran to untie her friend. Then, glancing down at the back of Paul’s head, he said, “You know, man, that was kind of fun. Maybe I’ll be a cop one of these days.”

                                                             ***

Kayla’s head throbbed less, but she still couldn’t shake the dizziness or her feeling of confusion. It didn’t help that from the time they had been forced into the storage shed all she had heard spoken was Spanish.

He sure likes giving orders.

She stared at the coyote, who guarded the entrance of the shed with the gun.

The other three Mexicans obeyed wordlessly. Kayla tensed as the teen, clad in a white, long-sleeved western shirt over a ripped Dallas Cowboys T-shirt and brown pants, took a step toward her.

Frantic, she darted her eyes to Mark.

“It’s okay. I’m afraid they’re gonna tie us up, though.” Mark nodded toward the coyote. “Listen, Kayla, I want you to do exactly what he says, okay?”

Kayla turned and stared at the coyote. “What does he want from us?”

“Do you think I speak no English?”

The menace in the man’s eyes was unmistakable.

Kayla gasped. Flustered, she could do nothing but blink in terror as their captor motioned to the young man to follow his command.

She allowed herself to be led to a knee-high stack of newspapers. The teen forced her to sit, pulled her arms behind her back, and bound her with rope. Kayla expected the binding to be tighter. In fact, by moving her hands a little, she could tell the knots the young man had made were quite loose.

Questioningly, she raised her eyebrows and stole a glance at Mark. Making sure the coyote’s gaze was on Kayla, he gave her a surreptitious wink. Wisely, she showed no emotion.

Inside, though, she heaved a small sigh of relief. She didn’t know what was going on or if she would survive this ordeal, but she knew one thing without a doubt:

She trusted Mark Lawson. With her life.

                                                          ***

Mona felt a gentle pat on her shoulder and then heard a small voice whispering close to her ear.

“Wonsome?”

Mona turned her head to the right and opened her eyes. Staring directly at her with a goofy, grape-juice grin was three-year-old Justin, the youngest of Frank and Marcie’s grandsons. He held a plastic Smurfs cup full of the dark liquid. It was precariously close to spilling on the carpet, on the sofa, and on Mona.

“Wonsome?” he repeated patiently.

It took Mona a second or two longer to figure out Justin was offering her a sip of his juice.

“Oh, thank you, sweetie.” She carefully maneuvered herself into a sitting position so as not to wear a lapful of grape juice. She gently reached for the cup and took it from the toddler’s outstretched hands. Pretending to take a sip, she brought the cup to her lips

“Mmm. That’s good.” She licked her lips and rubbed her stomach.

Justin giggled and clapped his hands together.

“Justin!” Marcie rushed into the living room. “Did you wake up Mona? I’m so sorry, Mona.” She started to herd Justin away.

“No, really, Marcie, it’s fine.” Mona smiled down at the little boy. “He was just sharing his juice with me. Please let him stay.”

“Okay.” Marcie reached out to tousle Justin’s hair. “You little rascal.”

Watching Justin grin from ear to ear with grape juice all over his mouth reminded Mona of Kayla as a toddler wearing cactus pepper jelly. Despite herself, she couldn’t stop the tears from welling.

She tried to hide them, but her friend knew her all too well.

“Come here, honey,” Mona said soothingly as she settled onto the sofa next to her.

“I know you’re scared. Just let it out. Have a good cry, sweetie.”

“Kayla says crying is weakness.”

“No,” Mona replied slowly. “Tears are a gift from God. They help us work through our pain. So, you just cry all you want, honey.”

With a Smurfs cup in her hand and a toddler standing in front of her patting her head, Mona did just that.

                                                       ***

Kayla had no way to gauge what time it was or how long they had been tied up. But it was still dark out, and the light from the lantern resting at her feet was just starting to weaken. She estimated it had been about four hours since their nightmare had begun.

She heard a noise behind her. As best she could, Kayla turned just in time to see a large rat scurry in between the other stacks of newspapers.

She shivered.

The only other sound she heard was the wind. In the last few minutes, it had picked up and the temperature inside the shed had started to drop. The metal acted like a magnet for the cold; she could only assume one of those blue northers had blown in.

The coyote silently paced back and forth, still holding the gun. Despite the growing chill, beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. He kept looking at his watch.

Kayla tired of watching him. She was tired, too, of sitting. Her back ached and she longed to scratch her nose. She was also sick of looking around at the ugly shed from her vantage point on the stack of newspapers. The two men and the boy had fallen asleep on the bare ground, leaning their heads against stacks of their own.

They have to be cold. I’m freezing.

She glanced at Mark. His arms were also tied behind his back, but at least he sat on the dirt floor and could lean his head back awkwardly on his stack of newspapers. His eyes were closed and he breathed heavily and steadily. He let out an occasional soft snort.

How can you sleep at a time like this? Good heavens!

Kayla turned her head to watch the coyote again. He blessedly had stopped pacing. He plopped down on a newspaper stack by the door and let out a long sigh. The coyote checked his watch again and then leaned against the side of the shed. The metal made a slight screech in protest.

He caught Kayla staring at him, so she quickly averted her eyes.

He chuckled quietly.

All was quiet again, save for the whistling of the wind.

And then Mark started mumbling in his sleep.

Kayla and their captor both looked his way. Mark appeared to be dreaming. His words made no sense.

“Idiota,” the coyote said. Then he turned his attention to Kayla.

“Su novio está loco.”

He chuckled at his own joke and leaned his head against the side of the shed, closing his eyes.

Mark mumbled quietly again. This time Kayla made out what he said.

“Aylakay. Istenlay otay emay.”

She quietly sucked in a breath as the realization hit her.

Pig latin! Mark isn’t asleep; he’s just pretending and he’s speaking in pig latin!”

Her eyes darted toward the coyote, who ignored Mark’s muttering.

Without opening his eyes, Mark mumbled softly, “Ancay ouyay etgay ooselay omfray ethay opesray?”

He faked a soft snore.

Never taking her eyes off of the coyote, Kayla squirmed and was able to do what Mark had asked. Slowly and quietly, she worked the ropes off both of her wrists. When her hands were free, she cleared her throat as an okay signal.

“Earlspay. Atonsbay.”

Pearls? Batons?  Then she remembered that Mark had all but one of the pearls from her necklace in his pocket and that her baton case lay nearby.

But what do you want me to do? she pleaded with her eyes. The coyote sighed and shifted his weight against the metal siding again. It protested loudly, and suddenly Kayla understood what Mark had in mind. They needed a distraction. Something loud.

She cleared her throat again quietly.

“Ogay orfay ethay anternlay.”

She understood exactly what she was to do.

Were his wrists loosely tied, too?

Mark shifted his weight slightly. Kayla watched out of the corner of her eye as he slid his right hand free and brought it silently around to the front. He did the same with the other hand. He worked his right hand down into the pocket of his jeans.

He lifted his head; his eyes were open now, and he gave Kayla a wide grin. His dimples danced, and those gorgeous green eyes twinkled at her for just a second. Then he turned deadly serious.

“Now!”

In a flash, Mark sprang to his feet, hurling a handful of pearls at the coyote. They hit like hailstones against the metal siding. And, in the split second before she made her move, Kayla saw the three others spring into action as well.

Obviously, they weren’t sleeping either. They were just waiting!

Kayla leaped toward the lantern and kicked out the light with her boot-clad foot. She dived to the ground in the direction where she remembered her baton case had been dropped. Frantically, she groped in the dark for its velvety feel.

Above her head, shouts and oaths—in two languages—punches, and grunts filled the shed as the men wrestled and fought.

Then a new, terrifying sound punctuated the cold air.

A gunshot.

                                                          ***

Kayla knew Mark had been shot. She just knew it.

She still couldn’t see her hand in front of her face, but she was able to unzip the case and grab two of her batons. She clenched them by their tips—the smaller rubber ends—and rotated her arms like an angry windmill.

Kayla screamed madly as she swung the batons toward the sound of the scuffling—and of Mark’s cries of pain. She propelled the batons in a wild figure-eight pattern.

Thump. Whack! Thump.

The balls of the batons hit against arms, legs, and faces—whose she didn’t know and didn’t care.

“Kayla! Will you stop already?”

Mark’s voice penetrated her fear, and she brought the batons up abruptly. She held them poised over her head for two more good whacks as a flashlight switched on.

“Stop, Kayla!” The flashlight shone on Mark’s face as he pleaded with her. “It’s okay … I’m … I’m okay.”

Panting, Kayla threw the batons to the side and rushed to Mark, who lay crumpled in the dirt. Another flashlight clicked on, revealing the two men sitting astride the coyote, whose eyes looked ready to burst from the weight on his chest.

“Están bien, senorita. Están bien.”

It was the teenager in the white western shirt who spoke to her.

In the dim light, Kayla glanced from the men to the teen and back to Mark. Satisfied no one was going to shoot at her or tie her up again, she flung her arms around Mark’s neck.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

“I’m all right, but I think I got a bullet in my leg.”

Kayla gasped as her gaze traveled down Mark’s body to his right leg. Just above the top of his boot, blood had started to seep through his jeans.

“Is it bad?” Mark gritted his teeth.

“I … I … don’t know. Give me a minute. I’m going to have to tear your jeans so I can see.”  She looked around for something, anything, she could use to rip the denim.

“Here. Use this.” Mark pulled out the pocketknife.  Kayla quickly drew open the knife, poked a hole, and tried to slice the denim, but the sturdy material refused to budge.

“Con permiso, senorita.”

Without waiting for a reply, the teen kneeled beside her and grabbed the edges of the tear Kayla had started with the knife. He tugged forcefully in opposite directions and the material ripped open, revealing the wound.

They gasped, and Kayla brought her hand to her mouth to keep from screaming.

“How bad is it?” Mark tried to sit up.

Kayla took a deep breath and turned to him, cradling his warm, sweating face with her hands. He tried to see past her.

“Mark. Look at me. It’s bad. You’ve already lost a lot of blood. The bullet shattered your shin bone, and some of the … the … bone is sticking out.”  Kayla swallowed hard before continuing. “You’re going to have to tell me what to do.”

Mark shifted and continued to try to sit up.

“Mark!”

His eyes finally met hers, and Kayla’s heart ached when she saw how much pain was in them.

“Tell me what to do. Mark, honey … I love you … But you have got to tell me what to do.”

Mark continued to twist his body, attempting to sit up.

“Están bien, amigo.” The teen had come to kneel near Mark as well and look into his eyes. He rested his hand gently on Mark’s shoulder. “Fiate Dios.”

At that, Mark relaxed a little. Kayla had no idea what the young man had said, but she was grateful for it.

She stroked Mark’s hair. “Now tell me what I need to do to help you. You’re an Eagle, remember?”

Mark gave her a faint smile.

“Okay. The first thing ya have to do is stop the bleeding. You’ll need bandages. Lots of them. Look around for the first-aid kit.”  Kayla grabbed the flashlight, which lay nearby, and quickly scanned the shed.

“I see it!” She scooted several yards to her left, grabbed the first- aid kit, and threw back its lid. She tore madly through the supplies until she found two small packages of gauze.

“Will this work?”  Mark nodded yes. Kayla ripped open the packages and pressed the gauze as gently as she could against Mark’s wound, being careful not to disturb the bone. Her stomach lurched as the gauze instantly turned red.

“It’s not stopping … the bleeding isn’t stopping.”

Mark turned to the young man. “Vendajes. Necesito un vendajes.”

“Ah.” Recognition crossed the teen’s face as he stood and took off his long-sleeved shirt. He ripped the shirt into strips and handed them to Kayla.

“Vendajes.” He smiled, pleased with himself.

She added the strips of cloth to the gauze, all the while willing the bleeding to stop.  Mark moaned and Kayla shone the flashlight on his face. His body trembled now, and his lips were paler than they had been a minute ago.

“Mark!”

Kayla felt his forehead, leaving a smudge of blood. His skin had been hot moments before but was now moist and cool.

“Shock,” Mark muttered as he took shallow breaths in quick succession. “Have to stop the bleeding … put pressure … put … pressure … on the artery.”

But what artery? Think, think, think!

And then it came to her.  Knowing she couldn’t tell the young man what she wanted him to do, she grabbed him by the wrists with her left hand. With her right hand, she felt around for the most likely spot for an artery in Mark’s groin. She placed the young man’s hands into position and motioned to him to press down hard at that spot on Mark’s jeans.

“Bueno, senorita.” He nodded his head to show that he understood.  Kayla worked her way back down to Mark’s leg and did the same with what she hoped was an artery behind his knee.  The light from the flashlight cast an eerie glow on Kayla’s face and she looked upward. Toward God.  Then, as though she had done it all her life, she prayed out loud.

“Dear God in heaven, I beseech You to lay Your loving hand of protection upon this good man. O kind, loving, and merciful Father, help us now. Please forgive me of my sins, and O, Lord, please help us in our time of need. Please. Amen.”

The teen made the sign of the cross with one hand, never taking the pressure with the other off of Mark’s groin.

“Que Dios esten con nosotros.”  Having never spoken a word of Spanish, somehow Kayla knew what the young man had said.

God be with us.  Kayla hoped He was.

                                                       ***

Thanksgiving Day dawned cold and clear in the Arizona desert.

Frank and Marcie’s daughter Laura, along with her husband Mike and their six-month-old daughter Jaycie, had arrived just after supper the night before. The house had been in chaos with all the noise that accompanies a typical family holiday gathering.  Only this was no typical gathering.

They had all tried to be sensitive to Mona, offering her loving words, prayers, kind glances, and hugs of support. Still, she felt out of place.  This is the first holiday without Don, she realized with a shock. Oh, Kayla, where are you?

Joel had called before bedtime to check in.

“No news is good news,” he tried to reassure her.

“Any word on the DNA results?”

“Not yet. The holiday has everyone a little short-staffed, but I’m sure we’ll hear something in the morning.”

“Joel …”

“Yes?”

“I … I … want to say something to you.”

Silence hung between them.

“Are you still there?”

“I’m here.”

Mona wondered if she had the nerve to say it. Could she do this after all these years?

“I’m sorry, Joel.”

“Sorry for what?”

“For not waiting … for not waiting for you to come home from Vietnam. I never should have given back your engagement ring. I was just so … so … confused about everything. The war, us, everything.”

Joel said nothing. Mona imagined she could hear him jangling his pocket as he hesitated.

“You know I still have it.”

“Have what?

Joel swallowed hard before answering.

“The ring.”

Mona felt her knees go weak, and the only thing she could think to say was, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. All water under the bridge.”

“I just wanted you to know.”

Their call was interrupted by Justin, who wanted Mona to read him a bedtime story.

“I gotta go, Joel. Please call me the minute you hear anything.”

“I will. Good night, Mona.”

After reading Justin “just one more story,” Mona retreated to the living room. She couldn’t sleep, and the cheery guest room made her feel even lonelier. It was too cold to sit on the porch, and she didn’t want to disturb the household by turning on the TV. So, she sat on the sofa and covered up with the afghan. 

Her dogs, along with Skeeter, the Jenkins’s old cattle dog, had been brought inside for the night.  She couldn’t help but smile as all three dogs bounded in from the kitchen and piled onto the sofa with her.  She hugged the dogs’ warm bodies and petted their heads as all three vied for her attention. They brought her a measure of comfort. She hoped that wherever Kayla was she was warm, too.

And safe.

                                                             ***

The color in Mark’s face improved a little, and Kayla breathed a sigh of relief. Blessedly, the flow of blood had been stanched.

“How are you doing?”

“Better, I guess. Thirsty, though.”

It was getting a bit lighter inside the shed, but Kayla still needed to shine the flashlight around to locate a canteen. As she did, she noticed the two men had pulled the coyote into a sitting position and were emptying his pockets of cash. They bound his wrists and ankles together with rope. A strip of duct tape covered his mouth.

She returned to Mark’s side.

“Here. Take a sip.”

She tipped the canteen to Mark’s lips, and he took a few gulps before motioning to Kayla to stop.  He made a face.

“Yuck. That tastes terrible.”

Kayla smiled down at him.

“San Angelo water, remember?

She poured some into her hand and used it to wipe the blood off of Mark’s forehead. Then she leaned down and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.

“Vamanos, mijo,” one of the men told the teen, who was crouched beside Mark. As he spoke, the man laid the revolver by Mark’s side.  Mark nodded at the teen, signaling him to leave.

“Buena suerta.”

“Muchas gracias, senor. Vaya con Dios.

The young man turned to Kayla.  “Adios, senorita.”

Then, without another word, the three slipped quietly out of the shed and disappeared into the coming dawn.

“Now what?” Kayla asked, looking down at Mark and tenderly stroking his forehead.

“Well, I’m probably having symptoms of shock, so the best thing to do is to keep me warm. Grab one of those sleeping bags.”  Kayla did as she was instructed, unfolding one of the bags and draping it over Mark. She tucked the edges in along both sides of his body.

“Do you want something to use as a pillow for your head?”

“Yeah. That’d probably be a good thing.”

Kayla pulled old newspapers off of the closest stack and placed them under Mark’s head, just enough to prop it up some.

“That’s better.”

“The American.”

Mark looked at her, puzzled. “What did you say?

“The American. The Odessa American. That’s what all these newspapers say. Does that give you any clue as to where we might be?”  Mark furrowed his brow as he thought for a minute.

“Let’s see. We were on I-10 headed west toward Van Horn, right?

Kayla nodded.

“Okay, so I’m pretty sure we headed north after we got into the truck. I can’t be sure, but I guess that would put us close to say … maybe … Grandfalls or Barstow. I can’t think clearly, but that sounds about right. I used to come out this way to play football.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter exactly where we are. We’ll just wait here; I’m sure someone will come across us. It looked like an oil pump-jack to me when we drove up. Don’t oil-field people have to come and turn those things on or something?”

“Naw.” Mark shook his head. “They’re on automatic timers, so it could be weeks before anyone came by. It’s a holiday, too, remember?”

Kayla had forgotten all about Thanksgiving.  Today is Thanksgiving, she thought glumly.

“Listen, Kayla. You’re going to have to go for help.”

“No. I’m not leaving you.” She shook her head fiercely.

“You have to. You forget about our friend over there.” He turned his head slightly toward the coyote, now strung up like a holiday turkey.

“He’s got friends coming. You can be sure of that. And I’ll dad-gum guarantee you that they’ll have guns, too.”  Kayla knew he was right. Besides, Mark desperately needed emergency medical attention.

“And I want you to take the gun with you.” He patted the revolver by his side.

“But I’ve never shot a gun in my life.”

“I’ll show you.” He picked up the gun and carefully pointed it in the opposite direction, away from Kayla. “Let’s see how much ammo we’ve got.”  Mark opened the cylinder of the .22 revolver and checked the chambers. He snorted with laughter.

“What is it?”

“Can you believe old Barney Fife over there had only one bullet? And it ended up in my leg?”  He tossed the gun aside, and despite the gravity of the situation, they laughed.

Then Kayla turned serious.  “I’ll go as soon as the sun comes up. But which way?”

“Well, I still smell sulfur. Don’t you?”

“Yeah.” Kayla was following his train of thought now. “Since it’s turned cold, the wind is probably blowing out of the north or northeast, so that means there’s probably a gas plant in that general direction. And where there’s a gas plant, there are always workers, right?”

“Right. Even on a holiday, they keep a skeleton crew of at least two men. They’ll have transportation and they’ll have a way to contact the authorities, too.”

“Okay, so I’ll head directly into the wind … I’ll need a coat or something …” She started to look around the shed. Mark grasped her hand, and she turned back toward him.

“I’m sorry about all this, Kayla. I want you to know something just in case I … I … don’t make it.”

Kayla shook her head and pointed her finger toward him. “Don’t talk like that. We have a dinner date next week, remember?”

“I remember.” He smiled up at her. “I just want you to know that despite all of this—” He made a sweeping motion with his arm. “I just want you to know that I wouldn’t trade a minute of being with you.”

“Me neither.”  With that, Kayla leaned down to kiss his lips. As she did, she stopped, noticing a bruise forming on his right cheek.

What happened here?” She gently caressed his face.

Mark gave her a wry look.  “A baton.”

                                                             ***

At a quarter past nine, the phone rang at the Jenkins ranch.

Mona was sipping a mug of hot tea at Marcie’s kitchen table while her friend put together several pies—pumpkin, pecan, and sweet potato—for the family’s feast later that day. The sweet potato one had been Marcie’s idea.

“For Kayla, when she gets here,” she had said firmly.

Earlier, Marcie had been reluctant to start baking, but Mona had insisted they carry on as they normally would. So, while the two friends hung out in the kitchen, the rest of the family gathered in the living room, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The phone rang a second time. The women looked at each other, fear gripping them.

“Mom? You want me to get that?” Scott called from the living room.

“No. I got it.” Marcie wiped her hands on a cup towel and picked up the receiver.

“Yes. She’s here. Just a minute.”

She held the phone out toward Mona.  “It’s Joel.”

Mona hesitated. She glanced at Frank and the rest of the family, who had nervously gathered in the kitchen doorway. Poker, Chance, and Skeeter came, too. All eyes were on Mona as she took the phone from Marcie’s hand.

“Hello.” A moment later, she burst into tears.  Thinking the worst, Marcie and the rest of the Jenkins clan stood in stunned silence.

“It’s okay!” Mona shouted. “Kayla’s okay. They found her! Oh, thank You, Lord!”

                                                        ***

“I’m sure this isn’t how your momma makes it, but I guess it’ll have to do.”  The middle-aged nurse, wearing a plastic name tag that identified her as Georgia, set the tray of food on the portable table beside Mark’s hospital bed.

“Do you feel up to eating something?” She smiled at him. “It’s turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes, with pumpkin pie for dessert.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Mark shifted up on his pillow as the nurse rearranged the IV fluid line for him so it didn’t get caught as she raised the automatic bed.

“Would you like some, too, honey?” She turned toward Kayla, who lay under a hospital-issue blanket in a recliner. “The cafeteria’s already closed for the night, but I’m sure we could rustle up another plate for you. I might even be able to find some whipped cream to go on that sweet potato pie.”

Kayla grinned widely.  “I’d like that very much.”

“Okay then. I’ll be back shortly.”

Kayla stood and came to Mark’s side. She had worried when they had taken him to surgery, but after praying, she had felt calm. She squeezed his hand and leaned down to brush his lips with hers. They stayed locked on each other’s eyes until the nurse returned with a small plastic bowl of Kool Whip.

“Aha. Caught you two!” She grinned. Kayla blushed and Mark laughed.

“Is there anything else you need, son?”

“No, ma’am. Everything is fine.”

He turned toward Kayla.  “Everything is just fine.”

                                                           ***

The outdoor ceremony had been beautiful.

The bride, looking radiant in an ivory-colored lace dress, greeted her guests at the Jenkins ranch. Her new husband, looking sharp in his best uniform, talked and joked with nearly everyone in the community of Teapot who had come to celebrate with them the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Wine glasses were passed around as everyone readied for a toast with non-alcoholic sparkling grape juice. That had been served at the bride’s request.  After all, her first grandbaby was on the way and she didn’t want to take any chances.

“Here’s to Mona and Joel! May God bless them with a long and happy life together.” Frank Jenkins did the honors as the guests raised their glasses in salute.

“Now let’s dissect that glorious confection!” Stanislaw Gorman shouted, pointing toward a three-layer wedding cake.  Laughter and joy filled the room as Marcie and Frank filled glasses.

Nearby, Kayla looked around for Mark. Her feet were killing her and she needed to rest her back. Being eight months pregnant had a way of doing that to a woman. She located her husband, and they made eye contact across the room. Those gorgeous green eyes of his took her breath away. He winked and headed toward her, carrying two glasses of juice. He still walked with a slight limp but had healed nicely since their ordeal.

As he came toward her, Kayla found herself remembering a different Thanksgiving weekend four years earlier.

                                                        ***

At sunrise, Kayla left the shed, pausing only long enough to look back at Mark on the dirt floor. His color didn’t appear any better.

Once outside, she took a minute to get her bearings in the cold, gray dawn.

A chain-link fence surrounded the oil pump-jack, but there was another, older one made of cedar posts, their tips painted with stripes, one blue and two yellow. She remembered her dad telling her about the oil companies marking their properties with different-colored paint. Memories of her dad taking her to Choke Canyon to do bird surveys made tears well.  She dug the nails of her forefingers into the skin of her thumbs.

A hundred … ninety-three … eighty-six. Pull it together, girl. Okay. The painted posts go north, that way, so that’s where I’ll go.

Kayla followed the posts for what she assumed was a couple of miles. She had to stop a few times to rest; she had a headache that wouldn’t quit, and the howling wind was cold on her cheeks and her hands. She could no longer feel her feet inside her boots. She gasped for air as she pushed on through the unforgiving country, praying silently all the way.

She stumbled across a winding caliche road, nothing more than a cow path, that ran parallel to the fence posts. But now Kayla had a decision to make. The road ahead seemed to curve toward the left while the fence made a sharp, ninety-degree turn to the right. The road appeared to go through nothing but open pastureland with scrub bushes, mesquite trees, and rocks. On the other hand, the fence at least represented civilization.

Do I follow the road or do I follow the fence?  She prayed to God to help her make the right choice.

                                                       ***

The next day, the Odessa American carried this headline on its front page: “ASU students safe after abduction; Mexican national arrested.”

                                                       ***

Mark handed both glasses to Kayla and found a couple of fold-up chairs. He opened one for his wife, and she sat down gratefully. He unfolded his and joined her as they watched Mona and Joel feeding each other bites of cake.

“You know, Mark, there’s something you never told me and something I never asked you about.” She handed him his glass.

“What’s that?”  She turned to face him.

“Just what were you doing with all that camping gear, and why were you going in the opposite direction of your folks on a holiday weekend?”

“I never told you that?” He looked at her, puzzled. “I thought you knew everything about me. We’ve been married three years now, you know.”

“No. You never told me.” She waited for an answer. “Well?”

He took a drink before speaking. “I was going to go camping, sort of a memorial thing in Craig’s honor.”

“Okay, but why Arizona?”

He laughed. “You don’t want to know.”

“Tell me.”

“Well, I wanted to get away and do something in Craig’s memory, but I didn’t know where to go. So I just put up a map of the country on the wall and threw a dart. Arizona is where the dart landed.”

“Okay. I’ll buy that.”

They turned to watch the festivities as Mona and Joel gazed at one another with much love in their eyes, Kayla’s heart skipped a beat. She was happy for her mother.

“You okay?”

“Yeah. I was just thinking that maybe when we leave to go home we could swing by the cemetery. I’d like to spend a few minutes with Dad.”

“Of course.” Mark was quiet for a moment longer before asking, “Are you sure you want to go back to teaching after the baby’s born?

“Somebody’s got to teach those kids algebra,” she said with a laugh.

“Ihay ovelay uoyay, Aylakay.”

“I love you, too.”

Then Mark set his glass down on the floor and reached into the pocket of his Border Patrol dress uniform.  “Here. I’ve been wanting to give these to you for a while now. I thought today was as good a day as any.”

Kayla gasped as he held up a strand of pearls.

“Besides, it looks like you might be a little busy in a month or so.” Mark glanced lovingly at her burgeoning belly beneath the sky-blue material of the only maternity dress that still fit.

“Oh, Mark, they’re beautiful.” He placed the strand around her neck. She turned slightly so he could fasten the clasp.

Mark leaned in and lightly brushed the back of her neck with his lips.

Then, he settled back into his chair and drew Kayla close to his side.

 

 

 

 

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