Authors: Aimée Thurlo
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The love she had for storytelling is now a gift to be shared forever with our readers.
To Peggy, Pete, Nicole, Jackie, Sydney, George, Herman, Isabel, Vivian, Herb, Melissa, Peter, and the others who were there for us not only during those final days, but for me in the weeks beyond.
18 MONTHS AGO
Kurt Vance had cheated on his wife, stolen thousands of dollars, and lied to almost everyoneâand almost no one knew any of that. Everyone thought he was just a regular guy, and today he was doing a regular guy thing, going hunting with friends and coworkers.
He stopped beside a big pi
on tree, standing very still, rifle ready, scanning the area for mule deer moving uphill from the orchards below. It was barely dawn and the steam from his breath rose in the cold air. He was in the center position, with a fellow hunter on both flanks, each about a hundred yards away. All three of them were wearing bright orange vestsâno sense in having some nearsighted jerk mistake anyone for a deer and start blasting away.
Kurt yawned, wishing he'd taken that second cup of coffee. Though he and the guys had spent most of the night talking, he'd still managed to get out of his sleeping bag around 5:00
If they got their deer on opening day, he'd be home by dark, maybe even in time to take Leigh Ann out for dinner.
He smiled to himself. He loved Leigh Ann. His affairs meant nothing, and after all, he'd always come back to her. A few times he'd thought of coming clean and telling her about all the women he'd screwed and asking her to forgive him. Yet something told him that owning up to what he'd done would be a huge mistake. His conscience would feel better, but his wife sure wouldn't. He'd blow his marriage sky high for sure.
Shaking off those thoughts, he squinted into the tree line downslope, looking for movement. He checked his rifle for the third or fourth time: barrel up and safety on, his mantra to Leigh Ann each time she'd gone to the range with him. A small-town Texas girl, she was a natural with a rifle.
Many years had passed since Leigh Ann's days as head cheerleader and prom queen, but she was still drop-dead gorgeous. Him hooking up with other womenÂ â¦ that wasn't about her. He wanted to prove to himself he still had what it took. He'd been the high school quarterback, the guy everyone had envied. NowÂ â¦ not so much.
He watched the far slopes as the sunrise slowly spread over the mesa. A few minutes ago, the light had been just a glow on the crest. Now the shadow line was halfway down.
It was so quiet he could hear his own breathing. Then he heard a snap from somewhere behind him and to the right. Close. Maybe a buck had come up undetected and was passing between him and Wayne.
He reached down slowly with a gloved hand and slid off the safety on his rifle. A slow turn was best, and less likely to spook the animal.
Suddenly there was a loud boom and his chest exploded in pain. Kurt felt his legs go weak as he fell backward. Lights flashing in his brain, he tried to understand what had just happened.
Seconds later, vaguely aware that he was on his back on the cold ground, he felt something warm flowing across his skin and realized he'd been shot. Karma. It had all finally caught up to him. He heard footsteps and a form loomed over him. He stared up, trying to see who it wasÂ â¦
Leigh Ann Vance stood beside the cash register and gave silent thanks that she still had a job. Business wasn't booming, but at least it was steady, and it beat the hell out of that waitressing job she'd had five or six years ago. Here at The Outpost, she'd never once had a beer spilled on her by a drunk or been groped by some horny cowboy.
The only plus back then was that the job got her out of the house and gave her spending money that didn't require her to justify the expenditure to Kurt. Life was definitely better now.
Waving at the last customer of the day as the woman stepped outside, she sighed. It was 6:00
and she'd been here since six in the morning. Although she was in her mid-thirties, at the moment, her energy level was down to zero and she felt ancient.
“You know that you don't have to put in such long hours, don't you?” Josephine Buck said with a weary smile as she double-locked the door and flipped around the closed sign. Jo owned The Outpost Trading Post, which was located just east of the border of the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, New Mexico.
“You can use a hand,” Leigh Ann said. “Your workdays are even longer than mine.”
“That's true, but I can't afford to pay you for the extra hours. The trading post is doing better now, but business is still not up to where it was before the recession.”
“I don't mind helping out. Working here is better than goingâ” She stopped speaking abruptly. As friendly as Jo was, she was still the boss, and there were lines that shouldn't be crossed.
“It's your home, isn't it?” Jo said softly. “You don't want to live in that house anymore, do you?”
“No, I don't,” Leigh Ann admitted in a quiet voice. “I can make ends meet since my sister Rachel is paying her share of the rent, utilities, and food bills, but I hate that place now. Every time I walk in the door, I think of Kurt, our screwed-up marriage, and his accident. He cheated with other women and left me nearly penniless, but I still feel guilty for not being able to mourn him. I'd sell the place tomorrow if I could, but with the housing market in this area what it is I wouldn't be able to get what it's worth.”
“It's tough to make these decisions alone,” Jo said with a nod, then glanced in the direction of Ben Stuart's office. Leigh Ann was using it now as Jo's only salaried employee, but she knew it would always be Ben's office. Before that, it had belonged to Ben's father, Tom Stuart, the late owner of The Outpost. He'd left the trading post to Jo, but she and Ben now ran it together.
“You really miss him, don't you?” Leigh Ann said quietly. “How long has it been now, six months since his unit touched down in Afghanistan?”
Jo nodded. “Six months and eight days. We Skype a lot, but seeing his face sometimes makes the separation a lot tougher. He's right there on the screen, so close I can reach out and touch him, but still so far away.” Jo shook her head. “At least he's alive and well, and that's all that matters.”
“It's really nice that you two found each other again,” Leigh Ann said, giving her a bright smile. “On that note, I better get going. I've got to climb into the attic, and I don't like going up there after dark.”
“Yeah, squirrels. Rachel began feeding them, putting raw peanuts along the back wall. I didn't mindâI figured it would keep them outsideâbut recently one's gotten into the attic.”
“You sure it's a squirrel?”
“Pretty sure. I haven't seen any signs of mice yet, but squirrels are running everywhere in the yard. Rachel swore she was only feeding one, but I guess it brought its friends and relatives.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Leigh Ann drove home slowly in her old Jeep. She envied Jo. The young Navajo woman had ties to her culture that would sustain her no matter what the circumstances. She had rediscovered her relationship with Ben and had a wide circle of friends and a solid support system in place at the trading post. Ben had even helped her pay for the construction of a small hogan behind his house next to The Outpost, a place he insisted could be her medicine hogan someday.
Leigh Ann's own life was vastly different. She'd been alone long before her husband had died in a hunting accident more than a year ago. Their marriage had been nothing more than a sham. Even though she was now sharing her home with her sister, Rachel, they weren't close and mostly went their own ways.
She parked in the driveway and walked past the ADT sign in the front yard. She could no longer afford the security service, but she'd left the sign up, hoping it might deter anyone thinking of breaking in.
As she stepped into the small foyer, she saw Rachel coming down the stairs wearing pink sneakers, white exercise shorts, and a light blue, sleeveless, crop-top T-shirt. Rachel had dyed her beautiful ash-blond hair a garish shade of red that made Leigh Ann cringe. The color didn't do a thing for her, but Rachel loved it.
“You're home earlier than usual,” Rachel said, leaning against the banister. “I picked up some takeout. Just pizza, but there's plenty left in the kitchen.”
Leigh Ann forced a smile, looking down at her own jeans and turquoise knit Outpost polo shirt, complete with store logo. The jeans were feeling a little tight around the waist today.
She'd told Rachel she was trying to lose a few pounds but, as usual, Rachel couldn't remember anything that didn't directly affect her. “Thanks, I'll pass on that, but before you start your exercises, I'd like you to hold the ladder for me while I go up into the attic.”
“Why? There's no telling what's up thereâspiders the size of your fist, and maybe even mice. It's just not safe. Remember when I helped you store Mom's things? Except for that one spot, there's no flooring, just insulation and the Sheetrock ceiling. You can't put weight on that without falling through.”
“Kurt placed some flat boards on top of the rafters to create walkways and more storage space. Otherwise his fishing gear and golf clubs would have fallen through ages ago.”
Rachel gave her a wan smile. “Come on, Leigh Ann, it's really hot and creepy up there. Why do you care if the squirrel set up a nest? Let it.”