By Sandra Brown

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A drifter working as a ranch hand in East Texas must protect a widow and her young son from the ruthless criminal who is determined to destroy them.Carl Herbold is a cold-blooded psychopath who has just escaped the penitentiary where he was serving a life sentence. Bent on revenge, he’s going back to where he began: Blewer County, Texas. Born deaf and recently widowed, Anna Corbett fights to keep the ranch that is her son’s birthright, unaware that she is at the center of Herbold’s horrific scheme — and that her world of self-imposed isolation is about to explode . . . When drifter Jack Sawyer arrives at Anna’s ranch asking for work, he makes it his mission to protect the innocent woman and her son from Herbold’s rage. But Sawyer can’t outrun the secrets that stalk him — or the day of reckoning awaiting them all.


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Chapter One

Myron, are you listening to me?" Carl Herbold glowered at his fellow convict, impatiently shook his head, and muttered, "Stupid, stupid."

Impervious to the insult, Myron Hutts's vacant grin remained in place.

Carl thrust his face closer. "Lose the grin, okay, Myron? This is serious stuff I'm talking here. Has anything sunk into that lump of shit riding on top of your shoulders? Have you heard a fucking word I've said?"

Myron chomped down on his PayDay candy bar. "Sure, Carl, I heard you. You said for me to listen good and pay attention."

"Okay then."

Carl relaxed somewhat, but he wasn't convinced that even a fraction of what he told Myron would register. Myron wasn't what you'd call brainy. In fact, stretching, Myron's IQ might range in the single digits.

He was physically strong and eager to please, but his shortage in the smarts department made him a risk to Carl's carefully laid plans. Having someone with Myron's limitations as an accomplice wasn't without its drawbacks.

On the plus side, Carl needed a Myron Hutts. He needed a nonthinker who did what he was told, when he was told to do it, without question or argument or scruple. That's why Myron was a perfect choice. Even if he'd been a fucking Einstein with gray matter to spare, Myron was missing a conscience.

A conscience was "internal dialogue." Now wasn't that a catchy phrase? Carl had picked it up from an article in a magazine. He'd committed it to memory, then pulled it out and used it on the parole board the last time he came up for review. For five minutes he had waxed eloquent on how he had been having internal dialogues with himself about his past misdeeds and the havoc he'd wreaked on his life and the lives of others. These dialogues had shown him the error of his ways and pointed him toward the light of self-discovery and accountability. He was remorseful and wished to atone.

The board members weren't impressed by the big words he'd thrown in. They'd seen his speech for the string of bullshit it was and rejected his petition for parole.

But supposing the conscience was internal dialogue. That entailed abstract ideas and concepts, which Myron was just too plain stupid to grasp. Actually Carl didn't give a damn whether Myron had a conscience or not. He would act on his impulses of the moment, period. Which was precisely why Carl had chosen him. Myron wouldn't go squeamish on him if things got ugly.

And speaking of ugly, Myron was one butt-ugly dude. His skin had only a trace of pigmentation. Most of his coloration was concentrated in his lips. They were large and unnaturally red. By contrast, the irises of his eyes were virtually colorless. Pale, sparse eyebrows and lashes made his vacuous gaze appear even emptier. His hair was thin, but coarsely textured, radiating from his head like crinkled wire. It was almost white.

He was particularly unattractive with the half-masticated nougat center of a PayDay oozing from the corners of his fleshy lips. As his tongue swabbed up the drool, Carl looked away.

Many would wonder why he and Myron were pals, as the contrast between them was so striking. Carl was tall, dark, and handsome. He worked out with weights when the mood struck him, but he religiously did push-ups and sit-ups in his cell to keep his torso hard. He had a killer smile that was reminiscent of a young Warren Beatty. At least that's what he'd been told. Personally, he thought he was better looking than the actor, whom Carl had always thought of as a fruit. Beatty had a great-looking wife, though. A real sweet piece was Mrs. Beatty.

Carl was certainly superior to Myron Hutts in the brains department. The quantity Myron lacked, Carl had as extra. He was a great planner. Brilliant ideas just seemed to come to him naturally. He also had a real talent for taking a loosely woven idea and pulling all the strings tight until it became a grand scheme.

If he'd been in the military, he would have been a general. But even the highest-ranking officers needed soldiers to carry out their strategies. Thus, Myron.

He could have picked his partner from any man in the joint. Myron spooked most people, even hardened criminals. They steered clear of him. But Carl's leadership qualities drew people like a magnet. Seniority had given him a lot of clout among the convict population. That and his innate charisma. He could have anointed any number of inmates as his partner, all of them smarter and meaner than Myron—because for all his violent tendencies, Myron was sweet-tempered. But anybody brainier also could have caused Carl problems.

He didn't need anybody with a conflicting opinion giving him lip along the way. Disharmony led to distraction, and distraction led to disaster, namely getting recaptured. All he needed for this escape plan was an extra pair of eyes and ears, and someone who could shoot and wasn't afraid to when necessary. Myron Hutts filled the bill. Myron didn't need any cunning. Carl had enough for both of them.

Besides, he was going to catch enough guff from Cecil. Cecil thought too much. He overanalyzed every goddamn thing. While he was weighing the odds, he missed opportunities. Like that funny postcard Carl had seen one time of a man holding a camera to his face and taking a picture of the Eiffel Tower while a naked French lady was strolling past—that was Cecil.

But Carl didn't want to think about his older brother now. Later, when he was alone, he'd think about Cecil.

As he leaned back against the chain-link fence, his gaze roved over the exercise yard. The vigilance was second nature. Twenty years of incarceration had taught him always to be on the alert for the first sign of trouble from an enemy, declared or otherwise. He wielded a lot of influence and had a wide circle of friends, but he wasn't a favorite of everyone.

Across the yard a gang of weight-lifting blacks were flexing their well-oiled muscles and glaring at him with undiluted hatred for no other reason than that he wasn't one of them. Society was all hepped up about rival gangs, street warfare, vendettas. Laughable. Until you'd been inside, you didn't know shit about gangs. The society inside was the most demarcated, polarized, segregated in the universe.

He'd had differences of opinion with the black prisoners, which had caused exchanges of insults, which had eventually led to fights, which had resulted in disciplinary actions.

But he wasn't going to get anything started with anybody today or in the near future. Until the day he and Myron had their turn to work on the road crew, Carl Herbold was going to be an ideal prisoner. It was a new program, part of prison reform designed to make convicts feel like contributing members of society again. He didn't give a crap about the social implications. All he cared about was how it affected him. When his turn came to leave these walls and work outside, he would be first on the bus.

So he was keeping a low profile, doing nothing that might call the screws' attention to him. No rule-breaking, no fights, not even a bad attitude. If he heard a mumbled insult directed at him, he ignored it. What he didn't like, he pretended not to see. A few nights back, he'd had to stand by and watch Myron suck a guy off. The other prisoner, a white trash wife-killer two years into a life sentence, had bribed Myron with a prize, so Myron had obliged him.

Frequently the more aggressive prisoners tried to take advantage of Myron's mental incapacity. Carl usually intervened. But this close to their break, it hadn't been worth the risk of a confrontation. Besides, Myron hadn't minded too much. In exchange for the blow job he'd been given a live mouse, which he'd later disemboweled with his long pinkie fingernail.

"Now, remember what I told you, Myron," Carl said to him now, realizing that rec time was almost up and they would have little privacy for the rest of the day. "When our turn comes up to work the road crew, you can't seem too excited about it."

"Okay," Myron said, becoming distracted by the bleeding cuticle around his thumb.

"It might even be good if we could look sorta pissed that we gotta pull that detail. Think you can manage that? To look pissed?"

"Sure, Carl." He was gnawing the pulverized cuticle with all the relish he'd shown the PayDay.

"Because if they think we're eager to go, then—"

He never saw it coming. The blow literally knocked him off the bleacher on which he'd been sitting. One second he was looking into Myron's slack-jawed, candy-encrusted grin. The next he was lying on his side in the dirt, his ears ringing, his vision blurring, his gut heaving, and his kidney getting the piss kicked out of it.

He forgot about his resolve not to cause or continue any trouble. Survival instinct asserted itself. Rolling to his back, he brought his foot up and thrust it into his attacker's crotch. The black weight lifter, who obviously depended strictly on muscle instead of fighting finesse, hadn't anticipated a counterattack. He fell to his knees, yowling and clutching his testicles. Of course the other blacks sought reprisal by piling onto Carl and hammering him with their fists.

The screws came running, swinging their clubs. Other prisoners began either to try to break up the fight or to cheer it on, depending. The struggle was quickly contained. When order had been restored and the damage assessed, it was found to be minimal. Only two prisoners were sent to the infirmary with injuries.

One of them was Carl Herbold.

Chapter Two

"I thought it was a very nice occasion."

His wife's comment caused Ezzy Hardge to snort with disdain. "That was the toughest piece of meat I've ever tried to eat, and the air conditioner was working at half capacity. Thought I was going to melt inside that black suit."

"Well, you wouldn't have been happy with the dinner no matter what. You were bound and determined to be a grouch about it."

Ezzy had been married to Cora two years longer than he had served as sheriff of Blewer County—fifty-two years. He'd first spotted her at a tent revival, which he and a group of friends had attended just for laughs. Almost in defiance of the hellfire being preached from the pulpit, Cora had been wearing a sassy red bow in her hair and lipstick to match. During the hymn singing, her eyes had drifted away from the songbook and across the aisle to land on Ezzy, who was staring at her with unabashed interest and speculation. The light in her eyes was not religious fervor but devilish mischief. She had winked at him.

In all these years, none of her sass had worn off, and he still liked it.

"The people of this county went to a lot of trouble and expense to host that dinner for you. The least you could do is show a little gratitude." Peeling off her housecoat, she joined him in bed. "If I'd had a dinner held in my honor, I think I could find it within myself to be gracious about it."

"I didn't ask for a testimonial dinner. I felt like a goddamn fool."

"You're not mad about the dinner. You're mad because you're having to retire."

Cora rarely minced words. Tonight was no exception. Sullenly, Ezzy pulled the sheet up over them.

"Don't think for a minute that I look forward to your retirement, either," she said, unnecessarily pounding her pillow into shape. "You think I want you home all day, underfoot, sulking around and getting in my way as I go about my business? No, sir."

"Would you rather I'd've got shot one night by some rabble-rouser with one too many Lone Stars under his belt, spared you all the headaches of having me around?"

Cora simmered for several seconds. "You've been trying to provoke me all evening, and you've finally succeeded. It's that kind of talk that makes me furious, Ezra Hardge."

She yanked on the small chain on the nightstand lamp and plunged the bedroom into darkness, then rolled to her side, giving him her back. Ordinarily they went to sleep lying face to face.

She knew him well. He had deliberately said something that was guaranteed to get her dander up. The irony of it was that every day of his tenure as sheriff he had prayed that he wouldn't get killed on the job and leave Cora a bloody corpse to deal with.

But from a practical standpoint, he should have died in the line of duty. It would have been cleaner, neater, simpler for all concerned. The community leaders would have been spared the embarrassment of suggesting that he not seek office again. They would have saved the expense of tonight's shindig at the Community Center, or at least put the funds to better use. If he had died sooner, he wouldn't be facing a future where he was going to feel about as useful as snowshoes in the Sahara.

Seventy-two years old, going on seventy-three. Arthritis in every joint. Felt like it anyway. And his mind probably wasn't as sharp as it used to be. No, he hadn't noticed any slippage, but others probably had and laughed at his encroaching senility behind his back.

What hurt most was knowing everybody was right. He was old and decrepit and had no business heading up a law enforcement office. Okay, he could see that. Even if he didn't like it or wish it, he could accept retirement because the people of his county would be better served by having a younger man in office.

He just wished to hell that he hadn't had to quit before his job was finished. And it would never be finished until he knew what had happened to Patsy McCorkle.

For twenty-two years that girl had been sleeping between him and Cora. In a manner of speaking, of course. Feeling guilty about that intrusion now, especially in light of their quarrel, he rolled to his side and placed his hand on Cora's hip. He patted it lovingly. "Cora?"

"Forget it," she grumbled. "I'm too mad."

* * *

When Ezzy walked into the sheriff's office a few hours later, the dispatcher on duty lifted his head sleepily, then bounded from his chair. "Hey, Ezzy, what the hell you doin' here?"

"Sorry I interrupted your nap, Frank. Don't mind me. I've got some files that need clearing out."

The deputy glanced at the large wall clock. "This time o' morning?"

"Couldn't sleep. Now that I'm officially out, I figured I'd just as well get all my things. Sheriff Foster will be wanting to move in tomorrow."

"I reckon. What do you think about him?"

"He's a good man. He'll make a good sheriff," Ezzy replied sincerely.

"Maybe so, but he's no Ezzy Hardge."

"Thanks for that."

"Sorry I didn't get to go to the banquet last evenin'. How was it?"

"You didn't miss a thing. Most boring time I've ever had." Ezzy entered his private office and switched on the light, probably for the last time. "Never heard so many speeches in all my life. What is it about turning a microphone over to somebody, they automatically become long-winded?"

"Folks got a lot to say about a living legend."

Ezzy harrumphed. "I'm no longer your boss, Frank, but I'll get physical with you if you keep talking like that. Got a spare cup of coffee? I'd sure appreciate it."

"Comin' right up."

Unable to sleep after such an emotionally strenuous evening, not to mention Cora's rebuff of his affection, he'd gotten up, dressed, and crept from the house. Cora had a radar system as good as a vampire bat's, picking up any sound and motion he made. He hadn't wanted a confrontation with her about the stupidity of going out in the wee hours to do a job that the county had granted him a week to get done.

But since they'd retired him, he reasoned they didn't want him lurking around, no matter how many times they assured him that he would always be welcome in the sheriff's office of Blewer County. Last thing he wanted to do was make a pest of himself, or become a pathetic old man who clung to the glory days and couldn't accept that he was no longer needed or wanted.

He didn't want to start having regular self-pity parties, either, but that's what this was, wasn't it?

He thanked the deputy when he set a steaming mug of coffee on his desk. "Close the door behind you, please, Frank. I don't want to disturb you."

"Won't bother me any. It's been a quiet night."

All the same, Frank pulled the door closed. Ezzy wasn't worried about disturbing the dispatcher. Fact was, he didn't want any chitchat while he went about this chore. The official files were, of course, a matter of public record, shared with the city police, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Rangers, and any other law enforcement agency with which his office cooperated and coordinated investigations.

But the file cabinets in his office contained Ezzy's personal notes—lists of questions to pose to a suspect, times and dates and names of individuals connected to a case, information imparted by reliable informants or witnesses who wished to remain anonymous. For the most part, these notes had been handwritten by him in a shorthand he had developed and that only he could decipher, usually jotted down with a number-two pencil on any scrap of paper available to him at the time. Ezzy considered them as private as a diary. More than those damn flowery speeches he'd had to endure at the Community Center last night, these personal files documented his career.

He took a sip of coffee, rolled his chair over to the metal filing cabinet, and pulled open the bottom drawer. The files were more or less categorized by year. He removed a few of the earliest ones, leafed through them, found them not worth saving, and tossed them into the ugly, dented, brown metal wastebasket that had been there as long as he had.

He went about the clean-out methodically and efficiently, but he was inexorably working his way toward 1976. By the time he got to that year's files, the coffee had gone sour in his stomach and he was belching it.

One file was different from the rest chiefly because it was larger and had seen the most use. It was comprised of several manila folders held together by a wide rubber band. The edges of each folder were soiled, frayed, and curled, testifying to the many times they'd been reopened, fingered as Ezzy reviewed the contents, spilled on, wedged into the cabinet between less significant folders, only to be removed again and put through the same cycle.

He rolled the rubber band off the folders and onto his thick wrist. He wore a copper bracelet because Cora said copper was good for arthritis, but you couldn't tell it by him.

Stacking the folders on his desk, he sipped the fresh coffee that the deputy had refilled without any acknowledgement from Ezzy, then opened the top one. First item in it was a page from the Blewer Bucks yearbook. Ezzy remembered the day he'd torn out this page of the high school annual to use for reference. Senior section, third row down, second picture from the left. Patricia Joyce McCorkle.

She was looking directly into the camera's lens, wearing an expression that said she knew a secret the photographer would love to know. Activities listed at the end of the row beneath her name were Chorus, Spanish Club, and Future Homemakers. Her advice to lowerclassmen: "Party, party, party, and party hearty."

Cap-and-gown photos were rarely flattering, but Patsy's was downright unattractive, mainly because she wasn't pretty to begin with. Her eyes were small, her nose wide and flat, her lips thin, and she had hardly any chin at all.

Her lack of beauty hadn't kept Patsy from being popular, however. It hadn't taken long for Ezzy to learn that Patsy McCorkle had had more dates than just about any other senior girl that year, including the homecoming princess and the class beauty.

Because, as one of her classmates—who now owned and operated the Texaco station on Crockett Street—had told him, stammering with embarrassment, "Patsy put out for everybody, Sheriff Hardge. Know what I mean?"

Ezzy knew. Even when he was in high school there had been girls who put out for everybody, and every boy knew who they were.

Nevertheless, Patsy's soiled reputation hadn't made it any easier for him to go to her home that hot August morning and deliver the news that no parent ever wants to hear.

McCorkle managed the public-service office downtown. Ezzy knew him to speak to, but they weren't close acquaintances. McCorkle intercepted him even before he reached the front porch. He pushed open the screened door and the first words out of his mouth were, "What's she done, Sheriff?"

Ezzy had asked if he could come in. As they made their way through the tidy, livable rooms of the house to the kitchen, where McCorkle already had coffee percolating, he told the sheriff that lately his girl had been wild as a March hare.

"We can't do anything with her. She's half-wrecked her car by driving it too fast and reckless. She stays out till all hours every night, drinking till she gets drunk, then puking it up every morning. She's smoking cigarettes and I'm afraid to know what else. She breaks all our rules and makes no secret of it. She won't ever tell me or her mother who she's with when she's out, but I hear she's been messing around with those Herbold brothers. When I confronted her about running with delinquents like that, she told me to mind my own goddamn business. Her words. She said she could date anybody she damn well pleased, and that included married men if she took a mind to. The way she's behaving, Sheriff Hardge, it wouldn't surprise me if she has."

He handed the sheriff a cup of fresh coffee. "It was only a matter of time before she broke the law, I guess. Since she didn't come home last night, I've been more or less expecting you. What's she done?" he repeated.

"Is Mrs. McCorkle here?"

"Upstairs. Still asleep."

Ezzy nodded, looked down at the toes of his black uniform boots, up at the white ruffled curtain in the kitchen window, over at the red cat stretching itself against the leg of the table, onto which he set his coffee. "Your girl was found dead this morning, Mr. McCorkle."

He hated this part of his job. Thank God this particular duty didn't come around too often or he might have opted for some other line of work. It was damned hard to meet a person eye-to-eye when you had just informed him that a family member wasn't coming home. But it was doubly hard when moments before he'd been talking trash about the deceased.

All the muscles in the man's face seemed to drop as though they'd been snipped off at the bone. After that day, McCorkle had never looked the same. Townsfolk commented on the change. Ezzy could pinpoint the instant that transformation in his face had taken place.

"Car wreck?" he wheezed.

Ezzy wished that were the case. He shook his head sadly. "No, sir. She, uh, she was found just after dawn, out in the woods, down by the river."

"Sheriff Hardge?"

He turned, and there in the kitchen doorway stood Mrs. McCorkle wearing a summer-weight housecoat spattered with daisies. Her hair was in curlers and her eyes were puffy from just waking up.

"Sheriff Hardge? Pardon me, Ezzy?"

Ezzy looked toward the office door and blinked the deputy into focus. He'd forgotten where he was. His recollection had carried him back twenty-two years. He was in the McCorkles' kitchen, hearing not Frank, but Mrs. McCorkle speaking his name with a question mark—and a suggestion of dread—behind it. Ezzy rubbed his gritty eyes. "Uh, yeah, Frank. What is it?"

"Hate to interrupt, but Cora's on the phone, wanting to know if you're here." He winked. "Are you?"

"Yeah. Thanks, Frank."

The moment he said hello, Cora lit into him. "I don't appreciate you sneaking out while I'm asleep and not telling me where you're going."

"I left you a note."

"You said you were going to work. And since you officially retired last night, I couldn't guess where you are presently employed."

He smiled, thinking about how she looked right now. He could see her, all sixty-one inches of her drawn up ramrod straight, hands on hips, eyes flashing. It was a cliché, but it fit: Cora was prettier when she was angry. "I was thinking 'bout taking you out to breakfast at the IHOP, but since you're in such a pissy mood, I might ask me some other girl."

"As if any other girl would put up with you." After a huffy pause, she added, "I'll be ready in ten minutes. Don't keep me waiting."

He tidied up before leaving the office and gathered what he'd salvaged into some boxes the county had thoughtfully provided. Frank helped him carry the boxes to his car. After they were loaded into the trunk, they shook hands. "See you 'round, Ezzy."

"Take care, Frank."

Only after the dispatcher had returned inside did Ezzy lay the McCorkle file on top of the others. He wouldn't unload the trunk while Cora was around. If she saw that file, she would know that was what had got him up in the middle of the night and had kept him occupied these last few hours. Then she really would be pissed.

Chapter Three

Carl whispered to Myron, "It's tomorrow now, remember?"

"Sure, Carl. I remember."

"So don't do anything that might keep you from getting into that road-crew van."

"I won't, Carl."

Dumber than dirt, Carl was thinking as he gazed into the cerebral desert behind Myron's clear eyes.

Although it wasn't quite fair to question Myron's behavior when he himself had come close to screwing up their plan. All he'd done was try to protect himself from a sound beating. But if he had it to do over again, he wouldn't fight back.

After that nigger attacked him, he'd gone plumb berserk with rage. It had taken four men to get him into the infirmary and strapped onto the bed. Even then he'd managed to bite a chunk of flesh from the forearm of a male nurse. They couldn't give him a sedative because they hadn't yet examined his head to determine the extent of his injury.

Uncaring about the blasted headache, he had ranted and raved the rest of that day and the livelong night. He had screamed like a banshee, railing against God, and the devil and the niggers, who might have cost him his one chance for escape.

In hindsight he realized he should have lain there in the dirt and let that weight lifter keep on kicking him till the bulls got there and pulled him off. How much damage could have been done in a matter of a few more seconds?

He'd been diagnosed with a mild concussion. He had vomited a few times. His vision was slightly blurry, but it had completely cleared by late the following day. He'd had a headache that no amount of medication had alleviated; it had finally just worn off. His kidney was bruised and sore, but the doc said no permanent damage had been done.

He'd suffered a few days of discomfort, but he had been grateful for the injuries. They demonstrated to the warden that he was the injured party and that he had only been trying to protect himself when he kicked the other prisoner in his privates.

Carl had derived tremendous satisfaction from leaving the infirmary intact, able to walk out under his own power, while the nigger's balls were still swollen. Their grotesque size was a source of amusement for everyone in the infirmary. He had a tube stuck in his dick, peeing for him, which also generated all sorts of ridicule. He cried like a baby every time he moved.


On Sale
Oct 25, 2016
Page Count
480 pages

Sandra Brown

About the Author

Sandra Brown is the author of sixty-nine New York Times bestsellers, including the #1 Seeing Red. There are over eighty million copies of her books in print worldwide, and her work has been translated into thirty-four languages. She lives in Texas.

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