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Authors: Rowan Speedwell

love like water

Copyright

Published by

Dreamspinner Press

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Ste 2, PMB# 279
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USA

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Love, Like Water

Copyright © 2013 by Rowan Speedwell

Cover Art by AngstyG, www.angstyg.com

Cover Photograph: TomCoolPix

Cover Model: Nicko Morales

Cover content is being used for illustrative purposes only
and any person depicted on the cover is a model.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact Dreamspinner Press, 5032 Capital Circle SW, Ste 2, PMB# 279, Tallahassee, FL 32305-7886, USA.

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ISBN: 978-1-62380-786-3

Digital ISBN: 978-1-62380-787-0

Printed in the United States of America

First Edition

July 2013

For Vicki Childs, for all the conversations starting with “So, write anything lately?” and ending with “Keep writing!” A half century isn’t long enough to be friends with you.

Muchas gracias to Manuel Elizondo for his insights into Puerto Rican culture and life in Humboldt Park; to Lynda Fitzgerald, beta reader extraordinaire; and to J.P. Barnaby, best critique partner ever. And to Vic and Lin, who wouldn’t rest until they got me into the saddle.

No podria haberlo hecho sin su ayuda.

 

 

Prologue

I
T
WAS
always the same dream. The warehouse, reeking of cigarette smoke, diesel fuel, and desperation; the slow yellow flash of the lights rotating on the idling forklift, reflecting off the oily floor; the slosh of water against the riverside dock; the sharp, angry voices of the men around him.

And the woman—barely a woman, more a girl, her tight T-shirt stretched over the rounded belly she had her hands clasped on. Four, maybe five months pregnant, just starting to show. She was on her knees in front of the angriest of the men. “Little bitch!” He smacked her with the butt of the pistol; she went sprawling, her long dark hair spilling around her bloodied face, blending with the swirls of black oil on the floor. “How much did you take?”

“Not much, ’Chete,” she whined, and tried to get up. He kicked her in the thigh and sent her down again. “Just a little, a few bucks—
para el niño
….”

“Bullshit
el niño
,” Machete Montenegro said, and kicked her again.

“Boss,” Joshua—
José
—said quietly.

“Shut up,
pendejo
. Lina, how much?”

“Two grand,” she admitted, weeping openly now. “Just two grand. For the baby….”

“Fuck the baby. It wasn’t for the baby or you’d be long gone. Where is it?”

“Adelicio has it,” Lina admitted. “I gave it to Adelicio.”

“Fuck,” ’Chete said. He looked over at where José and the rest of his men stood. “I’m done with her. Finish it.”

“Boss….”


Do it
.”

 

 

J
OSHUA
sat up in bed, sweat soaking his T-shirt and pouring down his neck at the remembered sound of the gunshot. God damn it—it had been four months, and he was still fucking dreaming about it. It wasn’t as if ’Chete hadn’t ordered people killed before. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t killed people himself, for that matter. But it was always men before—rival gang members, traitors, whoever ’Chete or the other bosses said. Never a woman.

Never a pregnant woman. He ran his fingers over the fuzz of his growing-out hair, longing for a cigarette, longing for a drink. Longing for the heroin that once buzzed in his blood and kept him solid in the hell that had been his life for so long.

“You all right?” The tinny voice came from the speaker by the door. They’d taken to monitoring his room at night after the last couple of nightmares had left him broken and hysterical. They weren’t his jailers, he reminded himself. They were trying to help.

The problem was he didn’t know if there was anything left of him to help.

 

 

M
ORNING
came eventually, and with it, the weekly visit from his mother. He hated the way she looked: far older than should be accounted for by the three years of his exile, as he thought of it. She’d shrunk in on herself, the tall slender beauty curved as if bracing for a blow, the sleek dark hair streaked with silver. He knew she’d visited him in the early days he didn’t remember, and thought maybe that was the reason she watched him with such fearful eyes, though he was always careful to move slowly and speak gently to her. Their conversation was of simple things—his sister’s new boyfriend, his mother’s business concerns, his uncle’s ranch—small, casual tidbits of news, without emotional resonance. Once or twice in the last few weeks, she’d tentatively mentioned the trial, but only in passing, as if it was something that didn’t quite matter. It didn’t, really. His part in that was done. It wasn’t as if he’d have to go to court—the evidence the Feds had was more than enough to put them all away.

But when the trial was done, so was he. There was nothing after the trial. It was as if the world had ended, leaving only a long, empty, blank space. He couldn’t imagine anything after that.

This morning his mother was wearing a spring jacket in a primrose yellow that made her dark hair glow. She’d had her hair colored so that the gray didn’t show, and she’d had her nails done. It looked so pretty he couldn’t help but smile, despite his weariness. “You look nice,” he said.

“Thanks, sweetheart.” She reached up and kissed his cheek, running her hand over his fuzz of hair, just as he had during the night. “It’s growing out. That’s nice. I didn’t like the shaved head. Made you look mean.”

“That was the whole point,” he said gently. He knew what she meant—it made him look skeletal, with his sunken cheeks and hollow eyes. He’d put on some weight since he’d been here, but it wasn’t more than a handful of pounds. He had no appetite. He only really wanted the drug. He only really wanted to forget. “So what’s the occasion?”

“I talked to your Uncle Tucker last night.”

He smiled politely and held the wooden guest chair for her, then sat across from her on the edge of the narrow bed. “How is Uncle Tuck?”

“Oh, he’s good. He’s making noises about getting old, but he always does that.” She fidgeted a moment, then said, “The lawyers came to see me. And Mr. Robinson.”

All the pleasure of seeing her drained away. “He’s not supposed to see you,” he said tightly. “He’s supposed to leave you alone.”

“It’s all right, Joshua,” she assured him. “He wanted to let me know—to let
you
know—that the hearing is over. Your part of it is done. This nightmare is over. The evidence they have is more than enough to put those bastards away forever, and the grand jury agreed. They aren’t being granted bail. Now it’s just the trial, and that won’t happen for years yet.”

He stared at her, at the new happiness in her eyes, the relief, and felt only the same emptiness. “That’s nice.”

“Nice? It’s wonderful. As soon as you can leave here, you can start over….”

“Ma.”

She stopped. He spread his hands wide—those long-fingered hands, still broad across, though the tendons were sharp against the thin skin: the hands of a junkie. The hands of a killer. “I got nowhere to go.”

“Mr. Robinson said….”

“Mr. Robinson can go to hell.” There was no vitriol in the words—they were just words. “Do you think I have a snowball’s chance in hell out there? Yeah, they got Montenegro. But the cartel’s still in business. They’ll come for me, once they know I’m out. The minute I hit the street they’ll realize I was the one that sold out Montenegro, and I’m dead.”

“They won’t look for you. They think you’re in prison here in Cincinnati. Mr. Robinson said you and they were very careful not to involve us. They don’t even know your real name, so we’re not in any danger of reprisals. You can leave, and be safe.”

He cocked his head, looked at her, the words making no sense at all to him. “What?”

“That’s what I wanted to tell you. When Mr. Robinson said it was all over, and you were free to go, I called your uncle. He’s been wanting you to come to the ranch, to stay there and maybe take over someday, if you like it. Those terrible men won’t find you there. You can have your old life back. You can be my Joshua again, and leave all this behind. Cathy and the kids can come see you on vacations—they don’t even remember you anymore.” She smoothed her hand over his cheek. “I hardly remember you anymore. I want my Joshua back.”

He stared at her bright dark eyes and thought,
Your Joshua is dead, lady
.

Chapter 1

E
LI
leaned on the fence and watched the kid working with the sorrel mare. She was feeling the cooler weather September was bringing, and she frisked delightedly around the patient boy. It was good to see her lively. He remembered when she first came here, her coat dull and shaggy, scarred from abuse and neglect, her tail tangled and droopy and her eyes sunken and hopeless. Now her tail flew like a red silk flag, the upswept conformation hinting at Arabian blood, her dark liquid eyes bright, her coat clean and well-brushed and healthy, though there were still white streaks where the scars had been. She was one of the lucky ones; too many of the rescue animals that came here lived such a short time before the years of neglect and damage took their toll. When she’d arrived, he’d judged her to be about twenty, at least, and was shocked when the vet said she was no more than five. Now, she looked it. “Jesse,” he called softly in his calmest voice, not wanting to startle either the mare or the boy, “see if you can get her to take the bridle. She took it yesterday—I want her to get used to wearing it.”

“Sir,” Jesse acknowledged with a faint nod, his voice low and calm, just as Eli had taught him. He moved slowly toward where the bridle was draped on the fence, never letting his attention stray from the mare. When he picked up the bridle, it jingled softly, and the mare bounced, not so much startled as seeing it as a new game. God, she was so young—she and Jesse would make a good pair once the boy had finished training. The Pueblo didn’t have a tradition of horsemanship, but Jesse—a member of the Isleta Pueblo near Albuquerque—hadn’t let that stop him. He was a natural, only fifteen and already one of Eli’s most promising students.

Jesse began speaking to the mare, very softly. The mare stopped bouncing, flicking her ears forward in interest. He didn’t move but let the horse come to him, and she did, shifting in tiny steps, pretending not to move forward even as she let the boy’s musical voice and nonsense words—or maybe they were Tiwa, Eli didn’t know the difference—lure her to him. When she finally stood snuffling Jesse’s hair, the boy raised his hands slowly and let her sniff and lip the bridle before easing the bit into her mouth. He held it there a moment, then slowly slipped the leather straps over her head, letting her accept it at each stage, until the bit was settled in the gap behind her teeth. The only thing Jesse had to do was fasten the chin strap. He murmured to her softly as he scratched beneath her chin on his way to the buckle, and when he’d fastened it, scratched her cheek beside the leather and steel. “Beautiful girl,” he said, loud enough for Eli to hear it. “Beautiful, beautiful girl.”

She bobbed her head as if in agreement, then bounced away, the moment broken. They watched her carefully, but she didn’t seem to mind the bridle—didn’t try to scrape it off against the fence as some of them did, with damage to both the horse and the bridle. “Good,” Eli told Jesse, who came and leaned against the fence beside where Eli stood. “You’re coming on.”

“She’s a sweetheart,” Jesse said.

“Yep. I think you’re a good pair—I’m going to see if Tucker’ll be willing to assign her to you once you’re done. Give you some time to get used to each other’s quirks before the next NFS mustang roundup.” The Triple C, Tucker Chastain’s ranch, was one of the contractors for the National Forestry Service, which managed the mustang herds on federal land. “You can’t ride in the roundup ’til you’re sixteen, but if I recollect, you’ll have just hit that mark by next spring. In the meantime, though, you’re gonna have to take on a few more projects like Sallee, here.”

“I’m up for it,” Jesse said.

“I know you are,
chico
.” Eli tilted his hat back and scratched his forehead. “Okay, give her another twenty minutes with the bridle, and then I want you to introduce her to neck reins. Loop ’em up so they don’t dangle, but lay ’em across her withers so she gets used to the feel of them.”

“Yessir,” Jesse said.

“Eli!”

Eli shot the kid a grin. “Gotta go—Big Boss is callin’.” Jesse gave him a matching grin, then turned his attention back to the mare. Eli straightened his hat, then turned and headed for the barn where Tucker waited. “Boss.”

“Eli. Kid’s looking good.”

“Yeah, he’s a natural.”

“Seems to have an affinity for that animal.”

“Yessir. Sallee and him are a good match, personality-wise. She’d make a good mount for him—he’s about outgrown Charlie. He’s ready for something a little more lively, more a challenge to him.”

“Yeah.” Tucker indicated the bench beside the barn door. It was in the shade, and Eli settled down on it gratefully. Chastain dropped down beside him, stretched out his long legs, and folded his arms across his chest. They sat that way in silence a moment; Eli didn’t have anything to say, and Tucker, he knew, took his time about saying what he did.

Finally Tucker shifted and said, “What do you think about the men we have on the payroll?”

Eli frowned. “Good men. Can’t say I’ve had a problem with any of them in general. Couple of them a bit mouthy, but since we got rid of that drunk, Leon, I think they’re a good bunch. Why? Thinking of laying someone off?” He didn’t like the idea, but Chastain was the owner, and he knew what the financial situation was better than Eli would.

“No. Bringing someone on, actually.”

The frown deepened, and Eli sat thinking. He might not know the finances, but as foreman, he sure knew the workload, and it didn’t warrant an extra hand. Unless Chastain was planning on bringing on more work. “You taking on more animals?”

“Not anytime soon. Not ’til the bank and I decide what’s gonna happen with the additional acreage. But that’ll be months yet.”

“Then we probably ain’t got work for another hand. Not so’s it’d be worth what we’d have to pay him.”

“He’s not a hand, exactly.” Tucker blew out a breath. “My nephew’s coming out. I need the help with the business, and I’m thinking of training him up to run the place after I retire.”

“You’re not thinking of retiring yet,” Eli said. He knew that for a fact—Tucker loved the ranch, loved the work, and was only in his late fifties. Far too young to think about retirement.

“No. But I’m spending more and more time on managing the business end, and less and less time training horses. Josh is a smart guy, a city guy, and I figure he’ll know what to do about websites and Facebook and Twitter and all that shit.”

“I thought he was some big shot FBI agent,” Eli said idly.

“He was. I don’t know the facts, but I know this last assignment of his went bad somehow, and he quit. He’s been in the hospital a while, and Hannah wants him out of the city and someplace he can take his time recovering.”

“He get shot or something?”

“Hell if I know. You know those Feds—they don’t tell you nothing you don’t need to know.”

The only Feds Eli knew were the guys at the NFS and the ones at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and they were all pretty decent fellas, so he didn’t say anything. He just nodded and stared out across the paddock.

“So I figured we’d kill two birds with one stone. Josh can come out here and get his health back, and I can teach him about ranching while he’s doing it. Working in the office probably won’t hurt, either.”

“I don’t think I’ve met him,” Eli mused. “I know your niece and her kids—they were out a couple summers ago—but he ain’t been out here so’s I remember.”

“Not since he was a kid. They used to come out every summer. Hannah’s been living back East since college.” He didn’t say anything more. Eli knew that there wasn’t a Mr. Hannah, and Josh and Cathy had their mother’s last name (though Cathy was married and divorced, from what Tucker had told him), but he didn’t know anything more than that. Wasn’t his business anyway.

“So why d’ja ask about the men? You think they won’t be happy with a Fed living among ’em?”

“Him being a Fed ain’t the issue. I was thinking more about him being my nephew, and him not knowing nothing about ranch life and all. Could be a lot of resentment and such.”

Eli shook his head. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem. As long as he ain’t an asshole, I think he’ll be fine. Can he at least ride?”

“Hell if I know,” Chastain said again. “He did as a kid.”

“Then he’ll probably be fine. There’ll be some jockeyin’, the same way there is whenever we take on a new hand, but it’ll all shake down okay. As long as he ain’t a prissy bitch or an asshole, and seeing as how he was an FBI agent, I kinda doubt he’s a prissy bitch.”

“He better not be an asshole,” Chastain said. “I don’t need the trouble, and I’d really like to know that I’m leaving the ranch in good hands. Of course, I can’t make that decision until I get to know him, right?”

“You sick or something? Talking about retiring, and leaving the ranch in good hands…. Jesus, Tuck, you’re making me nervous.”

“Nah, I’m fine. I’m just…. Shit, Eli, I’m turning fifty-nine next birthday. In another year I’ll be sixty. Out here, sixty is damn old.”

“Yeah, it is,” Eli said, then grinned as Tucker elbowed him.

“Says the guy who’s half my age.”

“No, I’d be half your age if you were sixty-six. Jesus, old man, no wonder you need help with the business end of the ranch, if you can’t even figure right.”

“Hey, I may be old, but I can still fire you.”

“No, you can’t, ’cause you can’t find nobody else that’ll put up with your cranky ass.”

They grinned at each other a moment, then Tucker shook his head. “So. Josh’ll be staying in the house, so you don’t need to find space for him in the bunkhouse. You’re just lucky I ain’t putting him in your place.”

“That’s the foreman’s cottage,” Eli pointed out. “I’m the foreman. That’s non-negotiable.”

“I’m still the boss.”

“Yeah, and you live in the boss’s house. You gonna make your FBI nephew who ain’t been on a ranch in dunno-many years the foreman?”

Tucker shuddered. “Oh, hell no. Okay. You’re safe. Anyway, Hannah didn’t know when he’d be coming out—she needed to talk to him yet and arrange things. I’ll let you know as soon as I do. There’s not much you need to do, at any rate. Just your job.”

“And I do that anyway. But thanks for the heads up. You want me to pass the word among the
vaqueros
?”

“Sure. Might as well keep them in the loop.” Chastain sighed. “I suppose there’ll be all kinds of speculation about my health after this.”

Eli grinned. “You bet your ass, old man. Better make sure you git out here and show ’em you’re still alive, or they’ll be taking bets on your life expectancy.”

“Smartass.” Tucker got up, kicked him lightly in the boot, and sauntered off back towards the house.

Chapter 2

T
HE
flight from Chicago had coincided with a meeting of ranchers in Colorado Springs, so his uncle wasn’t able to pick Joshua up at the airport as he’d originally planned. He’d offered to send his foreman into Albuquerque to pick him up, but Joshua didn’t want to take the man from his work for the four-hour round trip. Instead, he’d found a Greyhound bus route that would take him to Miller, the town closest to the ranch, and his uncle would have someone pick him up there.

It was fine with Joshua; the long ride on the bus gave him a chance to mentally adjust to being away from the city streets that had been the borders of his life for the last three years, and to see the country he would be living in for the foreseeable future. The high desert was an interesting mix of dry, sere vegetation, a lot of pointless little shrubs scattered like lint balls on the blanket of yellow dust, and rare larger plants and even trees along riverbanks. The occasional dark distant splotch of forestland showed black against the sunlit flanks of mountains. There were hours and miles between sight of people or even other cars. Joshua, used to the constant barrage of visual input from the crowded streets he’d just left, found the empty road and the equally empty vistas wonderfully restful.

The others on the bus didn’t bother him, either. There seemed to be a high percentage of Native Americans and Hispanics, tired-looking mothers with restless children and a few working men in denim shirts and ball caps with the logos of earthmoving machinery and crop companies. Some of them glanced questioningly at the black denim jacket hiding his stick-thin arms, but the air conditioning was turned up high, and he was always cold these days.

Most of the passengers got off at dusty, isolated stops along the highway, and a few had gotten on along the way, but the bus was more than half empty when it pulled up to a stop just outside a dusty little town. “Miller,” the driver called back to him, and Joshua got up, pulled his backpack off the overhead rack, and climbed down the steps and out into the hot, dry air. It felt good after the chill of the bus. The driver had gotten off first, opened the luggage storage bin, and pulled out the duffel with Joshua’s tags. Joshua gave him a ten-dollar tip and shouldered the duffel, looking around wearily as he did for the ride his uncle had promised him. The only person waiting there was a real live cowboy lounging on the dropped tailgate of a huge, battered pickup truck, his head against one side of the truck bed, his gray hat tipped over his eyes. Despite the heat, he had on a long-sleeved shirt, sleeves all the way down, beat-up gloves on his hands, and boots over jeans so dusty it was hard to tell where the boots ended and the jeans began. He apparently was used to the heat—he looked cool and relaxed. Joshua regarded him a moment, then started toward the truck.

 

 

O
NLY
one guy got off the bus at the Miller bus stop. Eli eyed him from beneath the brim of his old Resistol and thought, “Can’t be him.” He knew his expectations were based on the portrayals of FBI agents on TV and in the movies, and it wasn’t likely that Tuck’s nephew would be wearing a black suit and tie over a standard white shirt, but he’d still sort of expected it. But this guy—no. No way was he the government sort.

Well, he was in black, anyway—black jeans, black T-shirt, black denim jacket despite the heat (Eli was used to it. He figured a guy from back East wouldn’t be, but he seemed to be wrong). His buzz-cut hair was black too. His skin was the sort of washed-out yellowish color Mexicans got when they were sick, but his features weren’t Mexican. Hispanic, yeah, but something further east—Puerto Rican or Cuban, maybe.

And he was
skinny
. Not just lanky, not just lean, but skinny, sick skinny. Guy his size should weigh maybe 180, but Eli judged him to be down around 130. His wrists were gaunt where they stuck out from the sleeves of the denim jacket, like sticks, the hint of ribs visible through the T-shirt under the open jacket. As he walked toward the truck, he shambled like an old man, but his upper body was held tight and stiff, like he was braced for a blow. He walked like the human version of the abused animals the Triple C got sometimes, like a horse beaten too long for no reason at all.

And then Eli met the guy’s dead eyes, and thought, shaken,
If I saw a horse with those eyes, I’d shoot it myself.

“Triple C?” the guy said.

Eli swung his legs down off the tailgate and offered a gloved hand. “Elian Kelly,” he said. “Call me Eli.”

The guy’s handshake was firm, but with no real strength behind it. “Joshua Chastain. My uncle said you’re the ranch foreman?”

“Yep.” Eli took the duffel and tossed it into the truck bed, closed the tailgate, then gestured at the passenger side door. “Hop in. We’re about forty minutes from town—should be home for supper. Sorry about the long ride from the airport. Tuck really wanted to pick you up there himself, but the meeting in Colorado’s about some government contracts, and he needed to be there. He handles all the business stuff. I just handle the ranch.”

“It’s all right,” the man said. He buckled himself in with hands that shook. Cursing under his breath, he wrapped his arms around the backpack in his lap and focused on the road ahead.

Eli turned the truck on and looked over at him. “You okay?” he asked quietly. “Tuck said you were in the hospital—not recovered yet?”

“No.” The guy stared forward expressionlessly.

“Well, the Triple C’s a good place to recuperate,” Eli said cheerfully. “Fresh air, plenty of exercise, and we’ve got a helluva good cook. Tuck’s always complaining that he’s putting on weight. I just tell him to get out and work more with the stock. We could always use the help. You ride?”

“Used to.”

“It’s like riding a bicycle. God knows with all the horses we’ve got, we can find a good match for you.”

Joshua nodded. Eli waited for him to comment, then realized he wasn’t going to. Shit. This was going to be a long drive.

“I don’t know how much you remember of the Triple C,” he said, in an effort to get a conversation going. “Tuck said you were a kid the last time you were here.”

“Yes.”

“Right. Well. What do you know about it?”

“Nothing. It’s a horse ranch. I didn’t think people still did that.”

“Well, we do. Not saying it’s easy keeping your head above water, especially in this economy, but your uncle Tuck has a really good reputation in the community for his training techniques. Especially with problem horses. He trains people as much as he trains horses—we’ve usually got a handful of students on site at any time. We’re in between right now—there are a couple coming in a couple of weeks.”

Silence.

Eli went on doggedly, “We get horses from private owners to train. We also take rescues from the ASPCA and rehabilitate them. And we participate in the mustang culls the government runs to manage the wild horse population.”

“You break them for the government?”

Eli winced. “We don’t ‘break’ horses. We tame them and train them and whatdayacallit, socialize them. Then they get sold to people and organizations who work with them. Don’t let Tuck hear you call it ‘breaking’ them—too many people do, and then it’s up to him to fix ’em.”

“Doesn’t sound like there’s much money in it. Sounds like a social service.”

“Well, not in that part, no. But Tuck also trains performance horses. Rodeo, mostly, barrel-racing, cutters, that sort of thing. Some movie stock. Sales of that pretty much finance the other stuff. And the private training. The ranch is really more like a training facility than a working horse ranch.”

 

 

J
OSHUA
sat and listened to the guy talk, finding a whisper of interest he wouldn’t have thought still existed in his blackened soul. The guy had a soft, easy voice, restful and slow, like he was smiling inside. It made Joshua feel like he was in a completely different universe, one where people actually cared about what happened. Rescued animals? Fixing broken horses? The guy made Uncle Tucker sound like the Saint Francis some of the mamás in the bodegas talked about. Nobody was like that. Joshua was willing to bet even the saint had spin doctors working full time for him. He wondered what it was he was going to find at the ranch, and how this soft-spoken, laconic man fit in as foreman.

He barely remembered Uncle Tucker—just as a big guy in a big hat who always smelled like horses. Joshua’s grandfather had still been in charge of the ranch then. Joshua must have been about eleven the last time he’d been here, so that would be about sixteen years ago, since his grandfather had died when he was still in junior high. There hadn’t been a lot of money to travel by that point; his mother had gone back to the ranch for the funeral alone, and when she’d come back, she didn’t talk about the ranch for a long time. It wasn’t hard to figure out that she and Uncle Tucker had had a fight of some kind. But apparently the war was now over, with his mother and Tucker reconnecting sometime during the three years Joshua had been on assignment. That was good. She needed some man she could depend on. God knew she couldn’t depend on
him
.

At a break in the monologue, as the driver made a tight turn down an unmarked road, Joshua asked, “Why did he send you?”

“Say what?”

“Why did he send you? You’re the foreman, and it’s a big ranch—why not send some other less important person to pick me up?” He wasn’t sure what made him ask. Maybe the easy voice made him feel interested himself. It just seemed peculiar to Joshua.

“Well, you’re Tuck’s nephew.”

“So?”

“So, you’re his nephew. Wouldn’t be right sending some joe to pick you up, like you were a stranger or something.”

“I am a stranger,” Joshua pointed out. “He hasn’t seen me in sixteen years.”

“Don’t matter. You’re family. Wouldn’t be polite. The men know this. Tuck sends one of them to pick you up, means you’re not important. Start you off on the wrong foot.”

Joshua considered this in silence as they drove. Status. Honor. He understood that. It was important on the street, too. Maybe more important than anything else. Except greed.

There were fences along this stretch, and once a fading sign, with a J tilted on its side. Kelly noticed his glance and said, “The Rocking J. Went into foreclosure a couple of years ago when the owner died. No kids, nobody worth leaving it to. Shook Tuck up, I think. He started talking to his sister—your mama—more, then. Guess he was already thinking about bringing you out here, but thought you were pretty much set with the FBI.” He pronounced it as three separate letters, F-B-I, instead of running it together the way Easterners did,
efbeye.
“Tuck’s negotiating with the bank to see if he can pick up some of the acreage, but thinks the price is too high. There’s water, though, and that matters. He’ll probably get it, if he wants it. Usually does. Can talk a squirrel outta its nuts.” They drove a few minutes, then Kelly said, “Shame about the ranch, though. Hate to see it go. Getting fewer and fewer of the old ranches left—too hard to make it out here. Suppose someone might buy up the rest of it, turn it into a dude ranch or something—that wouldn’t be too bad. We bought some of the stock for the Triple C. I think they auctioned the rest to put towards the balance of the mortgage.”

“There’s a mortgage?”

“The Triple C? No. Had one a few years back, but Tuck sold a bunch of stock to a movie ranch near Cupertino and was able to pay it off. Tuck don’t like being indebted.”

Neither do I,
Joshua thought,
but see where that’s got me.
He shrugged and turned back to the window, tightening his arms around the backpack. He was getting tired—it was a three-hour flight from Chicago, prefaced by two hours at the airport and followed by a four-hour bus ride, and now this. The sun was starting to lower—already the truck’s shadow on the passenger side was lengthening. Tired, but not sleepy; his nerves buzzed anxiously and he felt sick. Stressed about the traveling, stressed having to make conversation with a stranger, stressed with moving to a completely different part of the country and a different way of life. Tiredness and stress were bad; they fed the hunger and the weakness. He wanted the drug—he always wanted the drug, but when he was tired and stressed he wanted it more.

A part of his brain was taking in and processing what the driver was saying, the way it always did. It would store it and let him access it when he needed to. This strange quirk of his brain was part of what made him so good at undercover operations; he never needed to take notes that might be found, or make phone calls that might be overheard, or upload data that might be hacked. Everything he saw, everything he heard was his own uploaded data, even if he wasn’t paying attention to whatever it was that was going on, even if he was in a situation that required his attention while things went on in the background. He could carry on a conversation, deal with bosses and dealers and junkies and whores in his José persona, and Joshua’s brain would be noticing and noting everything. Even when he was strung out, high, or barely conscious, he kept collecting data.

The problem with that was that he never forgot anything.

“You know?”

Joshua tracked back, found the comment, “Can’t tell Tuck anything,” and responded, “Yeah.” That was sufficient. The driver went on talking. Joshua went on not listening.

But the guy’s voice was nice, low and easy and soft, a gentle voice, a kind voice. The kind of voice that might lure animals into trusting it. Too bad Joshua wasn’t an animal, and any trust had been burned out of him long ago. But the voice was nice.

“… here.”

Joshua opened his eyes just as they turned under a wooden arch similar to the one they’d passed with the tilted J, but this one was freshly painted and new-looking. The three C’s of the Triple C—for Joshua’s grandfather Charles and
his
parents, Claude and Catherine—were picked out in deep green paint on a tan background, the letters turned so that the open ends faced each other and made a sort of Celtic knot design. There was a wire gate beneath it, but it was open to let them drive under the arch and down the drive to the house, bumping over the wooden bridge that crossed one of the creeks that watered the ranch.

It was smaller than Joshua remembered but still big enough: a two-story adobe style with an arched front entrance leading into an open-air courtyard with a tiled patio and central fountain, and nestled in a grove of ancient cottonwoods, the green coolness a welcome relief from the endless high desert he’d been traveling through all day. It had been a showplace of sorts at one time, Joshua remembered from stories his mother had told, but he could see through the arch that the fountain was dry. The creek was running though, the water clear and sparkling, so it wasn’t from drought.

Where the drive branched to circle around the front of the house, Kelly kept the truck to the right and headed for the back. There, the house had a wide wooden porch overlooking a dusty yard, a paved side lot with a handful of cars and pickups parked, and the paddocks and corrals surrounding the stables and barns. There was quite a lot of activity going on, even this late in the evening. A pair of cowboys on Appaloosas were corralling a small herd of dusty horses while a third hung on the open gate, waving the horses in with his hat, and another couple of guys were unloading bales of hay from a flatbed and carrying them into a pole barn. At the stables, a young boy was leading a rangy bluish-gray horse in through the wide doorway; he stopped as the truck came to a halt a few yards away and tipped his hat at them.

“That’s Jesse,” the foreman said as he put the truck in park. “He’s the youngest of our trainees and a natural. His mother’s our cook, so he’s lived here most of his life. You have any questions and Tuck or I ain’t around, go to Jesse.” He got out of the truck and Joshua followed suit.

The foreman picked up Joshua’s duffel and slung it over his shoulder, waiting for Joshua to get out of the truck. He didn’t seem impatient, though a faint frown crossed his face when Joshua lost his balance a moment and had to lean on the truck. He said nothing, however, just waited until Joshua was stable again, then led the way into the house. “Tuck said he fixed up the downstairs guest suite for you for now, since you’re still on the mend. Later if you like, you and him can decide where you want to be—there’s a half a dozen rooms upstairs nobody’s usin’.”

The back entrance led into the kitchen, where a plump little woman was bustling between stove and center island, getting supper ready, Joshua supposed. She looked up when they came in and grinned widely. “Señor Joshua!”

“Sarafina?” He blinked. How did she get so
small
? In his memory, she was a giantess, wielding her wooden spoon like Little John did his quarterstaff.



! You think I’d go away? No, I’m here forever, I think. Come, sit down, eat. You are much, much too thin!” Now her round face creased in distress as she took in the full glory of Joshua’s heroin-junkie gauntness. “You have been sick!” she accused.

Well, that was one way of putting it. “Yeah,” he said.

“Tucker said that, but this….” She tsked sternly. “We’ll fix this.”

Joshua gave her a faint smile and sat down at the table in the chair she directed him to. He set the backpack on the floor beside him and looked up at the foreman, who was grinning in amusement. “I take it you two are old friends?” he said.

“I remember her,” Joshua said.

“Yeah, I get that. Well, you just sit there and get some chow down you. I’ll drop this in your room—it’s the second door on the right down the hall.”

“You tell those
vaqueros
that dinner will be ready in a half an hour,” Sarafina instructed Eli. “Give me a little while to get some food down Joshua and get him tucked in. He’s tired. He won’t want to be bothered his first night home.”