“Afternoon.” Touching the brim of his tan Stetson in greeting, Deputy McKenna spoke first. “Risa, I’m glad you’re here.”
His dark gaze then lifted and settled on Ren. “Ren, something has come up. If I could have a word with you.”
Cade McKenna had a hard face to read. A map of scars covered half of his face. On one side, three thick, angry lines ran from the outer edge and under Cade’s eye, down his cheek, to where one of them cut over his lips. That one slashing wound in particular pulled at Cade’s mouth, making it hard to tell if he was deliberately frowning. Ren certainly couldn’t tell, and his legs went loose beneath him.
“Is my father okay?” He moved closer. “Did something happen to my dad?”
“What?” Cade’s olive skin paled. “Oh, hell. Shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you think that. This is an official matter, but not regarding the sheriff. Your father is fine.”
Risa touched Ren’s arm, her fingers fluttering unsteadily. “Thank God.”
Relief flooded Ren too. “What do you need?” he asked the deputy. “How can I help you?”
Cade’s gaze went from Ren to Risa, and then back to Ren. “There has been an attempt to poison the stream that runs through Hawkins Ranch land. The department has spent all morning with Caleb Hawkins, as it is specifically the stream that runs primarily through the old MacLesten property.” Of the three Hawkins brothers, Caleb ran that stretch of land.
“Willow Stream?” Ren asked incredulously. “Caleb has spent the last two years working with a representative from the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department to bring the ecosystem back to health and repopulate that water. Why would someone poison it?”
“That’s what I aim to find out,” Cade answered. Ren read clear intent in Cade’s eyes, even if he couldn’t make out the expression he worked at with his mouth. The brown in Deputy McKenna’s gaze shifted considerably darker, and Ren saw that nothing but pure, determined purpose lived there.
Cade McKenna would catch his prey; it vibrated out with steely confidence from his very being.
“What do you need from me, Deputy McKenna?” Ren asked, suddenly feeling rather determined himself. “How can I help you figure out who did this?”
“You can start by calling me Cade,” the deputy replied. “That goes for the both of you. Second, you can take a ride with me and let me show you where the perpetrator polluted the stream. I only saw one horse roaming in the paddock outside, but I came over on another straight from Caleb’s house, so Risa can double up with me.”
“Oh, well,” Risa broke in before Ren could say anything. “Actually, it’s time to feed the fish in the hatchery, but I’ll be eating at the diner with my brother later, and then working at Nate’s. You can catch up to me at either place. We can talk later, if you don’t mind? It’s a small town, Cade.” She winked cheekily. “I’m not hard to find. See you.” With a smile, Risa pushed past the big deputy and left the two men alone.
“Christ, she’s charming.” Cade chuckled. He turned back to Ren, his eyes twinkling in a way Ren had never previously witnessed. His stomach flip-flopped in response.
Quickly, Ren shook off the uncomfortable, unfortunate flash of attraction. “Let me saddle my horse” -- he grabbed his cowboy hat off a nail in the shack wall and settled it low on his head -- “and you can show me what happened.”
* * * * *
“Damn.” Ren squatted down at the grassy edge of the creek and dipped his fingers in the icy water, sending ripples waving across the five-foot, shallow span of stream. No iridescent or spotted bodies shot away from his hand. He knew for certain life no longer grew within the eggs buried beneath the surface, either. “We just introduced a small population of bull trout in this area about a month ago with the hopes that they would reproduce. I guess we’ll have to start over from scratch.” He turned to Cade. “Have you gotten in touch with Travis from FWP? He’s our regional contact, and he’ll need to come out and see this himself.”
“We did,” Cade answered. “Caleb called him, and the sheriff spoke to him. He’ll be here late this afternoon.”
“All right. Good. Thank God Caleb didn’t have cattle in this particular valley right now. There could have been some serious damage to his livestock.”
“Unlikely.” Cade kneeled down too. When Ren looked over, he found brown eyes on level with his. “The person who did this used two bleach containers, the kind people buy to do their laundry. I don’t think it would have been enough to fatally damage the cattle, not once it got diluted in the water. Caleb feels the same. He was, however, damn pissed off that someone harmed his fish project, and that sabotage occurred on his property, period. I can’t say I blame him. We collected a few things around this area here.” Cade gestured in a wide arc with his arm. “We’ll send prints over to Bozeman and have them analyzed in their lab. Your rep will take the dead fish we have collected in some netting downstream.”
Ren stood up and wiped his hands on his jeans. “What kind of evidence did you find?” He wandered a small length down the stream, searching for signs of life that, with sadness in his heart, he knew would not be there. He glanced over at Cade, who had regained his feet as well. “That is, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Cade crossed his arms against his wide chest and leveled a stare on Ren that made swallowing past the sudden dryness in his throat difficult.
“No,” Cade answered. “That’s fine. Hell, you work for Caleb Hawkins. He says he puts you wherever he needs you, and you’re able to fit in well and get along with everyone. You must know most of the men who work for him, and maybe have some insight about who could have done this and why. Anyone got a beef with the boss? They grumble about him behind his back?”
“Those that have aren’t with Caleb’s outfit anymore,” Ren answered. “If you do a good job for Caleb, you get nicely rewarded for your hard work. Conversely, if you piss around and cause trouble, Caleb fires your ass right away. He doesn’t have tolerance for anyone not doing the job he’s getting paid to do. That might be a place to start.” Ren shrugged his shoulders. “Get a list of the men he fired in the last year and find out what they’re doing now.”
Cade’s mouth did a funny little tugging thing that made Ren think the man was laughing at him.
Ren’s face bloomed with heat. “What?”
“I already did that,” Cade shared, “but thanks for the suggestion. You are your father’s son. I guess it’s inevitable that some of that detective’s way of thinking has to be in the blood.”
“More like in the rearing,” Ren corrected, surprising the hell out of himself for doing it. He met Cade’s startled gaze head-on. “Duke Boone is not my biological father.” Ren offered information that not many people in this town knew. He didn’t know what made him do it. “Duke married my mother when I was five and adopted me officially a few years later.”
“Huh.” Raising an eyebrow, Cade mused, “I never would have guessed it. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a father so quietly proud of his son the way the boss is of you. Besides which, you both have a similar cut to your jaw, kind of severely angled, that would make me think you’re blood kin.”
Ren couldn’t help the warmth that filled him up and constricted his chest. From the time he’d been able to understand such things, he’d always thought the same thing about his and Duke Boone’s faces. Only Ren had never said anything to anyone out of a fear of being told he was indulging in a childhood fantasy of seeing something familiar, something that as a kid who no longer had a mother needed to see when he looked in a mirror.
Ren rubbed at the back of his neck, feeling scrutinized in a way he’d never experienced before. “I’d like to help you, Cade. Tell me what else you found out here and maybe something will hit me.”
Nodding, Cade indicated with a crook of his finger that Ren follow. He stopped beside a small structuring of three rocks that were big enough to rest a boot on, but nothing more. “This is where we found the bottles of bleach.” Cade stooped down, and Ren did the same. “You can see here where the grass is burned a bit. The perpetrator must have spilled some of the bleach here, or possibly, droplets remained in the bottles when he tossed them down and left. I’m going to guess the first: that he opened the bottles here and accidentally spilled some before upending the damn things right over the water until every drop was gone.”
“Makes sense.” Ren glanced in the direction of the stream. “Probably right there, would you say?” He pointed about two feet away, right at the bank to the water. “There looks like some break off of fresh grass right down to where that clump of rich dirt shows through. That shouldn’t occur, not even if the cattle were grazing in this valley and drinking from the stream themselves. That break looks like the heel of somebody’s boot slipped and dug in hard enough to tear a thick chunk of grass away.”
Cade nodded. “Yeah, I saw that. Until I get something better, I’m going with that theory too. The only other piece of evidence I turned up was a couple of cigarette butts directly across from us on the other side of the stream. With some luck, the tech guys in Bozeman will be able to pull some fingerprints off them and come up with a match.”
“How likely do you think that is?” Ren asked. “Because I’ve got to say, I don’t really see some dude with a record already in the system doing some half-assed stunt like this. I mean, this was stupid and it did some damage, but it doesn’t exactly seem professional to me.” Ren got to his feet and started in the direction of the grazing horses. When Cade stepped in alongside him, Ren looked over at the taller man and added, “Am I wrong about that?”
“No, you’re not wrong. Nevertheless, maybe we’ll get lucky and something will turn up. I’m hoping for a viable fingerprint that will match up in any one of a number of systems that are available to search for a match. We’ll see what happens.”
Ren hoisted himself up on his mare, a beautiful, russet-colored animal with white socks and a four-point star on her forehead. He waited for Cade to do the same on a pretty chamois-colored Appaloosa. As he did, Ren quickly turned away to hide the heat that crept up his cheeks when he noticed -- and appreciated -- Cade’s tight, firm ass molded in the pair of well-worn jeans he wore with his uniform shirt.
Ren scrambled for something to cover up his sudden sexual awareness of Cade McKenna. “Umm, well, I can tell you one thing for sure.” He swung his horse in the direction of the shack, and didn’t need to look back to see if Cade followed. He was strangely, suddenly, all too aware of Cade’s presence, and could feel the man fall in line beside him. “With the evidence of the cigarettes, you can eliminate all of the employees on Hawkins Ranch. They don't allow smoking of any kind out on the land. The Hawkins men are firm believers in not helping to create problems that don’t need to be. All it takes is one butt that’s not fully put out to get tossed in grassland that’s just a little bit dry, and before you know it you’ve got a blazing, out of control fire.”
“Yeah, Caleb mentioned that when he saw the cigarette butts, too,” Cade said. Shifting his gaze, he glanced at Ren from across their horses and raised an eyebrow. “You work with these men when Caleb Hawkins isn’t around to impress and kiss up to, though, so the question is: do they follow the letter of Hawkins’s law when the boss isn’t around?”
“Actually,” Ren answered without hesitation, “they do.” He easily read the “you’re shitting me” look in Cade’s eyes. Ren chuckled and grinned. “I’m not lying to you, Cade. I’m really not. While normally I’d look exactly like you do right now --”
Cade’s eyes darkened to black. “Not on your worst day would you ever look like me, kid.”
His spine shifting ramrod straight in the saddle, Ren laid an unwavering stare on the scarred man some three feet away from him. “First, don’t pull that sympathy bullshit with me, Deputy McKenna, because you know damn well women eat up that wounded hero crap. Second, if you want me to call you Cade, and you want to be able to call me Ren in return, then don’t call me kid again. I’m twenty-two years old, and I work to earn a paycheck, just the same as you. Besides, you can’t be more than thirty.”
Those black eyes flashed again. “Actually, I’m thirty-one.”
“Doesn’t matter. Still doesn’t make you nearly old enough to be a parent to me, and so that means there’s no damn way I can be your ‘kid.’ Got it?”
Cade dipped his head. “Fair enough.” He started his horse walking again. When Ren fell in beside him, Cade looked over and added, “Can you finish what you were saying, about why the ranch men wouldn’t be caught smoking behind the boss’s back?”
“Because,” Ren explained, “in this case, we’re told when we start working for the Hawkins brothers that one slip up of this nature will cost you your job. No second chances, no excuses. And I’ve got to tell you” -- Ren finally allowed himself a look at Cade -- “people don’t want to get fired from Hawkins Ranch. It’s prestigious. Their employees rarely leave once they’re in, so it’s hard to get in anymore at all.”
“Then how did you get in?” Cade quickly held up a hand. “If you don’t mind my asking. It’s not an official question. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
Cade’s curiosity stroked Ren’s newfound interest. “I lucked out. I was just old enough to start working on a ranch when the Hawkins brothers bought the MacLesten property. They got rid of a lot of guys who couldn’t conform to their way of working with the animals and the land, and who couldn’t seem to respect all three of their bosses equally. They were looking to replace a bunch of people, and I had just turned eighteen. Caleb interviewed me. He said since I was young and still moldable he would let me do a little bit of everything and see where I fit. Turns out, I kind of fit everywhere, so he just left me to it. I’ve been going wherever he needs me ever since.”
“And what about this fish repopulation thing?” Cade asked. They came to a stop, back at the hatchery shack, and while Ren climbed down off his horse, Cade remained on his. He settled his hands on the saddle horn and looked down at Ren. “Have you noticed Caleb meeting resistance to what he has set in motion? Have either you or Risa encountered any kind of hostility or negativity over what you’re doing?”
“No, absolutely not.” Memories of the property’s former owner filled Ren’s head. “You didn’t know Justin MacLesten, but let me tell you something, he left a bad taste with the people in this town before he died. He stripped Willow Stream bare by overfishing it without any care to the consequences of his actions. The fact that Caleb is working to bring it back to health is just one more wound he’s helping to heal that Justin MacLesten inflicted on this area. So, no,” Ren said. “I can’t imagine why anyone would deliberately hurt the good work Caleb is doing with Willow Stream. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“Fair enough.” Putting pressure on the reins of his horse, Cade swung the animal around until he faced the direction of Caleb Hawkins’s home. He danced the horse to a stop at Ren’s side and looked down, and this time Ren could not mistake it; Cade McKenna did not attempt to affect a smile. He looked downright fierce.
“Just one more thing before I go. I read the panic in your eyes when you saw me on the other side of the shack door earlier.” Cade looked Ren in the eyes and held his gaze. “It’s not my place to speak on anything I overheard. You don’t have to worry; I don’t share the personal information of others.” Pausing for a moment, he then added, “With anyone
. I do think your friend Risa was right, though. You’re better than letting someone who can’t respect what you feel use you, man or woman.” Something Ren couldn’t identify flickered over Cade’s eyes right then, but it disappeared before Ren had a chance to determine its source. “Just my opinion.”
Cade pulled his hat down low on his forehead. “If I have further questions about the stream, I’ll get in touch. Have a good day.”
Without another word or looking back, Cade rode away.
Meanwhile, Ren stayed rooted to the ground, unable to move. He stood there with his jaw hanging open and his eyes peeled wide, looking like a complete idiot to someone who suddenly fascinated him immensely.
Deputy Cade McKenna.
Yet another man that, like Tex, Ren had no shot at having.