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ZAVALA COUNTY, TEXAS
Caitlin Strong stopped her SUV at the checkpoint on Route 83 heading toward Crystal City. The sheriff's deputy approaching her vehicle seemed to recognize her as soon as she slid down her window, well before he could see her Texas Ranger badge. He was an older man, long and lean, with legs crimped inward from too much side-to-side stress on his knees while riding horses.
"You got no call to be here, Ranger," the deputy said, having clearly been warned to expect her, his light complexion a rosy pink shade from the sun and heat.
"You mean driving on a public highway, Deputy?"
"I mean heading into the shit storm that's unfolding a few miles down it." He had brownish-purple blotches on the exposed flesh of his right forearm, the kind of marks that cry out for a dermatologist's attention. Then she noticed the bandages swathed in patches on his other arm and realized they were probably already getting it. "We got enough problems without you sticking your nose in," the deputy continued. "Wherever you go, bullets seem to follow, and the last thing we need is a shooting war."
"You think that's what I came here for?"
The deputy folded his arms in front of his chest so the untreated one stuck out, the dark blotches seeming to widen as his forearm muscles tightened. "I think you've got no idea how Christoph Russell Ilg will react when a Texas Ranger shows up. You don't know these parts, Caitlin Strong, and no stranger known for her gun is gonna solve this problem the sheriff's department has already got under control."
"Under control," Caitlin repeated. "Is that what you call an armed standoff between sheriff's deputies, the highway patrol, and that militia backing Ilg? I heard they've been pouring in from as far away as Idaho. Might as well post a sign off the highway that reads, 'Whack jobs, next exit.'"
"If the highway patrol had just left this to the sheriff's department," the deputy groused, face wrinkling as if he'd swallowed something sour, "those militia men never would've had call to show up. We had the situation contained."
"Was that before or after a rancher started defying the entire federal government?" Caitlin asked him, unable to help herself.
"The goddamn federal government can kiss my ass. This here's Texas, and this here's a local problem. A Zavala County problem that's got no need for the Texas Rangers."
The deputy tilted his stare toward the ground, as if ready to spit some tobacco he wasn't currently chewing. Then he hitched up his gaze along with his shoulders and planted his hands on his hips, just standing there as if this was an extension of the standoff down the road.
"You should wear long sleeves," Caitlin told him.
"Not in this heat."
She let him see her focus trained on the dark blotches dotting his arm. The breeze picked up and blew her wavy black hair over her face. Caitlin brushed it aside, feeling the light sheen of the sunscreen she'd slathered on before setting out from San Antonio. She'd taken to using more of it lately, even though the dark tones that came courtesy of a Mexican grandmother she'd never met made her tan instead of burn.
"Better hot than dead, Deputy," she told the man at her window. "You need me to tell you the rate of skin cancer in these parts?"
He let his arms dangle stiff by his sides. "You really do have a nasty habit of messing in other's people business."
"You mean trying to keep them alive, sometimes from falling victim to their own stubbornness."
"Who we talking about here, Ranger?"
"Christoph Russell Ilg. Who else would we be talking about?"
Copyright © 2015 by Jon Land