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A Soldier’s Return

Written by Lee Tobin McClain

Chapter Four

Way too early, there was a pounding on Gabe’s cabin door.

He squeezed his eyes shut as memories of the previous night pushed in on him. He’d made an idiot of himself with Daniela. And then he’d come back to his cabin, just in time for the all-night funhouse of nightmares from his past.

Good thing there was no access to alcohol here. He’d stopped even tasting it a couple of months ago when he’d seen the potential danger. But if there was ever a night for drinking, last night had been it.

He’d done push-ups. He’d listened to music. He’d read three quarters of a novel.

None of it had put him to sleep. And now, when he’d finally managed to drift off—

Knock, knock, knock.

He muttered a complaint and threw off his bedclothes. He was still fully dressed, a habit he’d gotten into during his last tour of Iraq and hadn’t been able to break.

Without even looking out the door, he flung it open and discovered Daniela and some way-too-happy-looking guy on the porch.

His family had assured him things were quiet up here, and so had the woman who’d showed him into the cabin—Penny, her name was.

It wasn’t working out to be so quiet after all.

“Gabe?” the man said before Gabe could get out a word, greeting or otherwise. “Carson Blair. I pastor a local church and visit the vets up here when I can.”

Do you want a medal for that? “Not necessary,” he said. “Sorry you made the trip.”

Daniela smiled a fake smile, looking determined, if not happy. “I think we should give Carson some coffee, at least. Do you have some made, or would you like to come over to my place for a cup?”

She hadn’t offered up the alternative he preferred, which was to be left alone. Ah, well. He’d gritted his way through situations far worse than having to sit down with a pretty lady and a man of the cloth. “Come on in,” he said. “I’ll put the coffee on.”

So Daniela and the pastor sat at the little kitchen table and chatted about nothing while Gabe rummaged through the cupboards for coffee.

He turned on water and watched it fill the coffeepot, then poured it into the machine. How much intrusion did he have to put up with to get these two out of his hair?

Covertly, he sneaked glances at Daniela’s face. Her scars were deep and noticeable, rough-textured rather than flat. He didn’t guess makeup would cover them.

But she still had the same big, beautiful eyes and full lips that she’d had as a teenager. The sharp, straight knife scars—he had to assume they were knife scars—turned one side of her face a little exotic, like the scarification he’d seen on some older tribespeople when he’d been stationed in Burkina Faso.

Sometime before he left the ranch, if the moment were right, he’d ask her to tell him the story behind the scars.

“So Penny’s not sure the ranch can stay open?” Carson was asking when Gabe tuned back into the conversation.

Gabe turned on the electric coffee maker and then leaned back against the counter to listen.

Daniela shook her head, her mouth turning down. “Penny’s skunk of a husband pretty much wiped us out. Both Finn and I offered to skip paychecks this month, but that’s not enough. The problem’s bigger than that.”

“I’ll see about the church’s emergency grant program,” Carson said. “Your men can’t get along without food.”

“Neither can the dogs,” she said. “There’s some dry food stored, but again, it’s not going to last long.”

“It’s a shame. Redemption Ranch does so much good. Fills a real need.” For a moment, Carson looked off out the window, his forehead creasing, his eyes gazing at nothing. For a moment, he looked less like a perfect pastor and more like an ordinary, struggling man.

Gabe’s social skills felt rusty, but he tried to contribute to the conversation. “Doesn’t seem like there are many people here,” he volunteered.

“You’re right,” Daniela said. “Penny’s husband must have planned it that way. Two of our older men are off at a national gathering for Vietnam vets. And our ranch manager, Finn, was away doing his pre-op visit to his surgeon. He just went back to Denver yesterday, to have his surgery and then do some rehab.”

“Serious surgery?” Carson asked.

She shook her head. “Just a little tweaking to his leg, is how he put it. Anyway, there are a couple of guys staying over in the bunkhouse, but they work construction. They’re in and out, on jobs. So yeah, it’s pretty empty right now. Just how the jerk wanted it.”

Gabe didn’t get it. “Why would this guy want the ranch emptied out?”

“Nobody to block his escape?” Daniela shrugged. “Nobody to follow him? Who knows. He kept to himself, so I didn’t know him real well.”

Gabe poured three cups of coffee and carried two of them to the table. When he leaned over to put Daniela’s in front of her, he caught a whiff of her hair. Something fruity. Raspberries?

He sloshed the coffee as he set it down and stepped back quickly. “Sorry.”

Her hand flew up to cover her scarred cheek, as if that was what had startled him.

No, Dani girl, it was how good you smelled. But he couldn’t very well say that, could he? Without speaking, he handed her a paper towel and then returned to his safe spot, leaning with his back against the counter.

Daniela wiped up the spill and then pushed her coffee aside. “Actually,” she said, “I should leave you two to talk.”

“You didn’t drink that coffee you wanted so bad.”

She leveled a gaze at him. “No, I didn’t. I’m sorry.” She didn’t sound sorry.

“Give us half an hour,” the preacher said.

“Sure.” She pushed back her chair and was out of there like a kid on the last day of school.

They both watched her go and then Carson waved toward the chair she’d vacated. “You want to sit down?”

“If I did, I would.” Bad manners. Really bad manners.

But the man had offered him a seat in his own place. And was here uninvited. By him, anyway.

The pastor scooted back his chair. “I get the feeling you don’t want me here, which is fine,” he said. “It was Daniela who asked me to come. Said you had an episode last night when the ranch next door put on some fireworks.”

Did he want that news spread all over town?

He did not.

On the other hand, the man was just trying to do his job, and someone had invited him even if it hadn’t been Gabe. “It’s true,” he said, “but it’s under control. I’m under control.”

“You’ve spoken to someone about PTSD?”

He nodded.

“And you’re here because…”

“Because my family forced me. They think it’ll be my big chance to heal.” He gave in and pulled out the chair across from Carson. “I appreciate what you’re doing, but I really don’t need the help. Don’t want it, I should say. I probably do need it.” He was talking too much, so he turned the tables. “Why are you interested in veterans?”

“My wife served.” The preacher took a gulp of coffee and clarified. “Past tense. I’m a widower.”

“I’m sorry. Killed in action?”

Silence, then: “Yeah.” Something about the way the man said it suggested it hadn’t been that simple, but Gabe knew better than to pry. There were all kinds of ways people lost their lives in wartime. He didn’t need to know the specifics to know how much it hurt.

“I’m curious,” Carson said. “If this is the last line of hope in your therapy, and you’re resisting it, then where does that leave you?”

Gabe froze, his coffee cup halfway to his mouth. He didn’t have an answer.

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