Then again, Shorty was always late. Had come into the world three weeks overdue according to his mother and hadn’t caught up since. As long as Trent had known him, over three decades, Shorty had always shown up long after he was due. Today was no exception. No big surprise there.
Trent walked into the barn, stacked the final carton on top of the others he’d hauled from the local lumberyard. By the time he was outside again, the rain that had been threatening all day had begun in earnest. No more misting drizzle, now the heavy drops poured from the thick underbellies of the clouds huddling overhead.
Shorty parked and hopped down from the cab of his truck to the gravel spread between the outbuildings. “Sorry about the time. Damned cows got out at my place. Sheeeit, I’m gonna have to patch that fence again.” He looked up from beneath the brim of his Oregon Ducks cap, rain drizzling from its bill. The ranch hand was half a foot shorter than Trent, whip-thin, and tough as nails when he wanted to be. He was wearing his usual outfit: a short yellow slicker, jeans, battered boots, and the University of Oregon cap, though Trent was certain Shorty had never set one booted foot on the campus in his life.
Shorty asked, “You need help with the load?”
“Just finished.” Trent slammed the tailgate closed, heard the lock click, but gave it a tug, just to be sure it would stay latched.
“So I guess I should get to work inside?” He hitched his grizzled chin toward the machine shed where the old John Deere was waiting for a part that was due into town within the week. So far it hadn’t shown up.
“Yeah.” Trent eyed the weathered barn with its attached grain silo. He’d love to start roofing the sucker, but rain was forecasted for the next three days, so it was best to wait as it would be easier and safer to peel off old shingles and walk on the sloped roof when it was dry. He scowled, hated to be held up by the weather, Mother Nature, or God Himself. His cell phone vibrated in his pocket, but he ignored it. Probably just another reporter looking for a new angle in the Allie Kramer mystery. As Allie’s sister’s husband, he sometimes got calls where nosy members of the press asked questions he’d rather not answer.
Trent whistled for his dog, who’d sneaked inside and curled up on an old horse blanket the barn cats usually claimed. “Hud. Come.” The mutt, a speckled shepherd who had wandered here as a half-grown pup, bounded into the rain, then beelined for the porch, where he sat and waited near the door, his feathery tail dusting the old floorboards.
“He don’t like the rain much,” Shorty observed. “Seems as if maybe he should be a California dog or an Arizona dog. Somewhere where it don’t drizzle all the damned time.”
Trent pulled the barn door shut, the casters screeching a bit.
“Could use a little lubricant on them wheels.”
“Think I saw a can of WD-40 in the equipment shed,” Shorty went on. “I’ll give ’em all a squirt today.”
“So, guess what I heard in town?” Shorty said, returning the conversation to where he’d begun. “It’s about your wife.”
Trent tried not to change his expression. “I’m not married.”
“Ain’t ’cha?” Shorty questioned.
“We’re separated.” Shorty already knew this, he was just yanking Trent’s chain. “It’s just a formality.”
“A legal formality.”
“Okay, I’ll bite. What did you hear?” Trent asked impatiently.
“Well, I had to stop in town, for some wire to patch the damned fence and, well, decided to have a quick one before I came over. It was all the talk at Keeper’s,” he said, mentioning a favorite local pub.
“Something about Cassie?” Trent’s voice was clipped. Cassie Kramer was out of his life. Again, he reminded himself. He’d been seriously involved with her twice: first when they were dating and she was too young for him; the second time, when they’d both matured some and he’d thought marrying her was what he wanted.
His jaw clenched a bit when he thought of their breakup. Lies. Accusations. Mistrust. On both sides. But now he was single again—almost—and the less he knew about his ex, he figured, the better.
“I guess she’s out of the hospital,” Shorty stated evenly, as if he’d just said it was a wet April day, which, of course, it was.
“And you know this how?”
“Oh, I’ve got my ways,” Shorty assured him with a sly smile that showed off teeth yellowed by tobacco and far too small to fill his gum line. “I guess the doctor wasn’t ready to release her, but she just walked out. Someone at the hospital called Jenna, and she was fit to be tied. Already upset with the other girl gone missing, you know.” He spat a stream of tobacco juice to the loose gravel. “Weird thing that. How does a person, make that a famous person, just up and disappear?” He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve.
“But you knew her, right? She was your sister-in-law?”
Hell yes, he knew Allie. All about her. Far more than he should. “We weren’t all that close.” That was a lie and he figured Shorty knew it. Trent squirmed a little inside, but he didn’t so much as blink. He was used to the curiosity. Jenna Hughes was Falls Crossing’s biggest celebrity, even if she’d given up acting years before. When her daughters followed in her footsteps and began making their own movies, the townspeople in the area took notice and liked to claim that Cassie and Allie Kramer were locals, though they’d both spent most of their years growing up in California. It didn’t matter because both of Jenna Hughes’s striking daughters had graduated from the nearby high school and therefore were considered Falls Crossing’s own.
“If she was alive, you’d think she’d at least have the decency to call her folks and tell ’em she’s okay.”