Mark felt Ellen’s disapproval coming in waves of broken glass. The heat associated with the feeling made him amend that to molten glass. About half a block later, Ellen shook her head.
“Are you so insecure, trying to score points with Lyle Lillard? You were so obvious, too.”
Mark blurted, “It can’t hurt. I never know when I might put my foot in it big time.”
“There’s nothing you could do to mess things up. After all, you’re his designated successor.”
“People say that,” Mark admitted. “People say lots of things. They blow hot air, mostly. Kevin has been carrying on about how he can run the ranch so much better than I can. He may even be right.”
That drew a growl from Ellen, making Mark shiver. At least she changed the subject. “The Wedding Night House turned out wrong. It just turned out all wrong. Why is that?”
Mark tried to be reasonable. “You and Alicia grew up together. She knows how you think. We did a hell of a job rousting the two of them after the rain. Did you think we could sneak up on them twice the same way?”
“It could have happened,” Ellen insisted.
After a short pause, she added, “Alicia and Josh will be laying for us now.”
“I’ve known Josh a long time. He talked retribution for the first time when we dressed this morning. Even if Alicia didn’t egg him on, Josh has something in mind, with my total humiliation as the outcome.”
“Make that our total humiliation. Speaking of which, Mark, what about us?”
Mark shuddered. She just broached the dreaded subject, and if it was possible to pucker his saddle leather, that would do it. The question took him back to their first big encounter during the great rain. “I guess we’re going to be all personal right now?”
A voice came out of the early evening darkness. “Before the two of you two get all hot and heavy, making my innocent young ears red with embarrassment, I need a word with you.”
Mark returned a mental thank you. “What do you need, Vince?”
“I need help from both of you,” was the reply.
“What kind of help are we talking about?” Mark decided to play it straight.
“There’s a situation at the old schoolhouse. I didn’t want to interrupt the celebration.”
Ellen’s voice was sharp. “Were your people across the field from the church this afternoon?”
“Yes, ma’am, and I was, too. The bicycle bunch trailed the Lillards going to Ragan. They circled town and parked their bikes out of sight of the church. Then they quietly watched the church.”
“This bicycle bunch is the small problem you two worked on these past several days, I’d imagine.”
“That’s right, Ellen,” Mark responded. “Vince and his people saw their tracks around the county, and wanted my take on the situation.”
“The pile of food you brought home was connected with them?”
“It appears so.”
“That makes them more residents than visitors.”
“It would, except they tried to make sure nobody saw them. They succeeded, too. The only shortcoming was forgetting our horses don’t have bicycle wheels.”
“They’re checking us out? Are they more of these terrorists?”
Vince came in. “We don’t know who or what they are. They aren’t like the terrorists we dealt with. This bunch really has us scratching our heads.”
Mark had a question at that point. “What happened at the church?”
“That was where we brought their expedition to a halt. Before I say any more, I need to know what you told Ellen about this.”
“It should be evident I didn’t tell Ellen anything. Still, I perceive the cop part of your brain requires a specific, declarative response. Okay, here it is: I told Ellen nothing. I’ll probably bunk with the dog tonight, but that is the situation. Is that satisfactory?”
“It’s nearly perfect. Oh, Ellen, please don’t make Mark sleep with the dog. We’ve got enough trouble in the county without having Mark spend all his time scratching fleas. As it is, he smells more like horses than the horses.”
“I’ll think about it,” Ellen snarled. “You said there’s more to the story. So tell it already.”
“I need you as an unbiased witness first and you will know soon enough. We’re almost to the schoolhouse.”
An abnormal number of lamps burned precious kerosene. That alone underlined strange things afoot. In addition there were quite a few horses.
“Doctor Dover and his bunch are upstairs,” Vince commented as they entered the front door. “What we’re interested in is downstairs.”
Mark muttered, “I didn’t know there was a downstairs to this place. What’s down there?”
“There’s a furnace room, and a couple of storerooms.”
The three felt their way down the stairs carefully in the uncertain light. An old-style boiler took up most of the room. Mark wondered if they could convert it back to coal for winter. Of course, that would mean finding coal. Behind the furnace were a couple of doors, one of which was guarded.
“What did you do with the weapons?” Vince asked one of the guards.
He pointed back at the stairs. Vince nodded. “Mark, you identified them with binoculars. I think you should take another look, up close and personal. They are impressive.”
“Sure, I can do that.”
“Okay, Ellen, stand right here. We’ll have these people walk slowly, one at a time. While they’re between the doors, we’ll make them face you. I don’t think they’ll be able to see you.”
“What do I look for? Are they green? Do they have one eye in the middle of the forehead?”
Vince ignored it. “Mark, I’d like you to observe and witness.”
“You haven’t said what I’m supposed to look for.”
“Ellen, I’m not entirely sure. We’ll start with the lady.”