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Sheriff Delton Ross slipped on his hat, grateful for its wide brim sheltering him from the intense heat of the afternoon sun. The sixty-year-old man didn't take the heat as well as he once had. Truthfully, though, Ross had been considerably warmer about thirty minutes ago under the glaring gaze and lashing tongue of Ms. Abigail Markus.
Now, he strode forward, intent on letting Cleatis Oats know just how perilously close the man was to getting himself into serious trouble.
"Afternoon, sheriff," Oats said a few minutes later, swinging wide the front door to his large, old, frame house. "What brings you out my way?"
Like the grain his family had been named for, Oats was a lanky man. His halo of bright, golden hair topped a face more frequently flushed with frustration than not.
Ross chuckled. "If you give that question some thought, Cleatis, I suspect you just might figure it out for yourself."
Oats's expression darkened. "That female came running to you?" he demanded.
"Don't know why she wouldn't." Ross nodded at the still closed screen door. "You gonna give me a minute to hear me out or not?"
The home Ross entered was darkened, blinds drawn against the midwestern heat of late summer. Oats led the sheriff through a small hall to the front room of a house, which, though old, was well maintained. Furniture was modern and expensive; walls were painted a soft, egg-shell white; thick, tie-back drapes cascaded gracefully to the carpeted floor. The home's interior, Ross knew, reflected not the man's taste, but rather that of the former wife, who'd run off with some winsome drifter a couple of years back.
"Abigail's got no call putting that fence up, you know . . . not where she's runnin' it," Oats protested over the most recent female to be mucking up his life.
"Well, she's from the city," Ross said with a shrug.
"Yeah, but Floyd Beecher, who's stringin' that fence for her, isn't. He knows darn well where my property ends and hers starts. This is nothing short of a land grab on Abigail's part."
Ross had swung by the disputed property line on the way out to Oats' house. He doubted the new fence was off by much more than a foot or possibly two. Still, in farm country, such small errors could lead to long feuds.
"Then call out a surveyor," Ross countered. "Show her she's wrong. But I tell you what you can't do. And that's to keep harassing her over this. You stop calling her, stop hounding her, and stop flappin' that big trap of yours, or you're gonna get yourself in a whole world of hurt."
"She say that?"
"Only this morning." Ross rocked back and forth on his heels.
"I never thought she'd come running to you," Oats said with disgust..
"Listen, Cleatis, she's a bright woman. She knows her rights . . . and how to get 'em enforced." Ross reached out and put a comforting hand on the other man's arm. "Didn't your mother ever teach you that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?"
Oats harrumphed, then asked "That it, then? You got anymore heartfelt advice to share with me?"
"No. I guess that does it."
Ross couldn't help wondering, when he climbed into his squad car a few minutes later, if he'd wasted his breath on this trip out to the Oats' place. Still, he usually tried to run unpleasantness off when he could. Sometimes, a word put into the right ear in time could save him a whole passel of trouble later.
That night, Ross, freshly scrubbed and wearing his best suit, followed Tabbitha, his wife, to a small table in Pitty's Porch. It was the best restaurant in the small, rural town where they'd lived their entire lives. Votive candles graced the tables. Muted music played softly in the background. It was the perfect setting in which to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
Thirty-eight years married. With a shake of his head, Ross wondered how, after all those years, Tabbitha still managed to enchant him.
Their friendly, young hostess slipped menus before them, then wished the couple a good appetite and departed. Ross sat erect at the table, his handsome face set off by his full head of black hair, flecked, now, at the temples, with white. Tabbitha, resplendent in a dark green dress, which accentuated her coppery hair, leaned forward in her seat, her chin resting on her long, graceful, hands.
"So Oats is still being a jerk?" Tabbitha asked. Her green eyes twinkled. Her smile twitched in amusement.
Ross blinked. "Still?"
"Well, sure. You don't think Suzie would have run off on Oats if she'd been being treated well at home, do you?"
"So's that my secret with you? Do I treat you well at home?"
Tabbitha smiled broadly. "You have your moments."
Ross laughed. He'd seen a lot of troubled couples during his years in law enforcement. He'd always credited his successful marriage to Tabbitha's efforts. Kinda felt good to be told his behavior played a major role in its accomplishment.
Ross dropped his gaze to the menu. "You want some wine with dinner?" When Tabbitha didn't answer right away, Ross looked back up and found his wife, eyes wide, mouth formed into a wordless "oh," and her gaze fixed on something beyond his right shoulder.
"What?" he asked, half fearing some kind of trouble.
"The people in this county will never know just how much bother you've managed to save these parts over the years," Tabbitha answered in amazement.
Feeling a momentary flash of anger at this intrusion into their celebratory supper, Ross tossed his menu down onto the table and turned around in his seat. Following the direction of his wife's gaze, he caught sight of Cleatis Oats and Abigail Markus. They were seated two tables over, both looking as though unkind words and vicious thoughts had never happened between them.
"Honey," Tabbitha said.
"Huh?" Ross turned back to face his wife.
"Your lecture about honey and vinegar," Tabbitha replied. "Oats has taken you advice."
"Oh. Well, I hadn't intended for him to take it this far," Ross said, feeling somewhat chagrined at the sight of the former adversaries now nearly twined like lovers.
"Don't want to play Cupid, huh?"
"Not my biggest goal in life. No."
"Well, I think it's sweet."
Ross's only reply was a low, rumbling growl. Women, he thought. He'd spent thirty-eight years with the one sitting across from him, and he still didn't understand her. It didn't bode well for the retirement looming so large in his future.
He'd watched other couples fall apart after retirement. Well, maybe not apart, he amended. Just more like into constant sniping over little things: like how beds should be made, or how often the garbage really needed to be taken out.
"Red or white?"
"The wine," Tabbitha explained with a mischievous smile.
Ross pulled a deep breath and felt his tension lighten. This was Tabbitha on the other side of the table with him, he reminded himself. Surely, with her working her irrepressible wiles, they'd make it through this new, perilous phase of their lives.