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"Don't want to get too close!" The scrawny kid with a coiled rope in his hand danced around the corral and kept his distance from the adrenaline-driven roan. "Looks like he wants to kick me!"
Clay Salazar grinned. Mankato "Manny" Flores was newly incarcerated in the New Mexican High Desert Correctional Center, even newer to the inmate horse training program. This was his first time facing down one of the wild mustangs rounded up from federal land by the Bureau of Land Management and meant to be adopted out. Man and horse had something in common. Having worked as a staff trainer for more than a year now, Clay had seen enough panicky horses to liken the animal's experience to that of a man being imprisoned for the first time.
"He does want to kick you, Manny."
"I'll show him who's boss!" The inmate waved the rope wildly and in response, the horse screeched and bucked as he ran off.
"Stop right there! You try to muscle a mustang and he'll show you who's boss." Clay eyed the frightened horse. "Stormcloud's not mean, just wants to beat you so he can be free again. I know you can identify with that feeling. Go ahead and talk to him, get him used to the sound of your voice. Wave that rope, but just to get him away from the wall and moving in the direction you want him to go. Show him you have no fear."
Which of course was wishful thinking, for if any inmate he'd worked with feared horses, it was Manny Flores. Why the kid had signed up for the program had baffled Clay until Manny admitted he knew he had to learn to do something so that when he got out he could change his life. Clay was all up for that. It hadn't been so long ago that he'd had to change his own life over a woman he couldn't have, and wild horses had given him that opportunity.
Unfortunately, Manny wasn't doing so well. The mustang hit the metal wall, fell to his knees and charged back up to his feet and straight for the kid, who ran like the demons of hell were after him. The roan circled, missing him, not stopping until he got to the opposite side of the corral.
When Manny smacked the rope coil against the wall and yelled, "He's never going to let me near himthis is my first horsegive me one that's easier!" Clay worried the kid's fear was progressing to anger.
Lots of inmates had anger issues, and the training staff's hope was that working with the mustangs would help the inmates learn some patience that would serve them well on the outside.
Clay said, "Calm down and back off for a minute."
Manny shook his head. "This horse is impossible."
"He's not. You just have to take your time with him and you'll win him over."
"You know so much, let's see you get in here and show me how."
Normally Clay would ignore the challenge, would keep his participation to backing up the inmate he was teaching to become a trainer. But this time Clay sensed he was about to lose Manny from the program, and that wasn't okay with him.
Like Clay, Manny was mestizo. Being part Anglo, part Hispanic and part Indian put a man at a disadvantage when it came to opportunity, even here in tricultural New Mexico. Some people expected you to turn out bad, and it was easy to meet their low expectations. What was hard was changing your lifehe knew all about that firsthand.
The kid wanted to go straight and Clay was going to do everything he could to see that he didn't screw up his chance. So he climbed down from the fence and entered the corral. Manny immediately handed off the rope, scooted out the gate and climbed up on top of the rail to watch.
Concentrating on Stormcloud, Clay picked up on the horse's fear that had been exacerbated by the scared kid. He knew he could calm the wild horse if he could touch him. He had his Navajo grandfather to thank for knowing how.
After the woman he loved had married another man, he'd left town heartsick, had sought out his late mother's clan. His grandfather had taught him to use a soft voice and a gentle hand when working with horses, had inspired him to find a spiritual connection that engendered trust. The technique worked not only with horses, but also with people, too. Clay's learning that from both his grandfather and the wild horses had allowed him to become a better man.
He softly clucked at the mustang. "Hey, son, easy now."
Stormcloud snorted and stomped his feet before charging. Clay waited until the horse was almost on him and then turned his body and easily stepped out of the way. He next advanced on the horse, arm and coiled rope raised.
"C'mon, son, move along."
The horse bolted across the corral.
Clay advanced on Stormcloud again and again and again never making a sharp or fast move.
Finally, the mustang tired of the game and stood his ground. He snorted and rolled his eyes at Clay with suspicion, but he didn't charge him.
"Good boy, Stormcloud," Clay murmured as he inched closer. "That's a good boy."
Clay locked gazes with the mustang and continued murmuring sweet nothings meant to mesmerize. It usually took a week for an inmate to get close enough to touch a horse being trained, but as his grandfather had said, Clay possessed Navajo magic. He'd learned to communicate without words, to soothe the wildness in a horse, to abate the fear in its eyes.
He held out the coiled rope and froze in place. Storm-cloud hesitated then stretched his neck just far enough to nose the rope. Seconds later, he popped his head and snorted. Still he didn't skitter off. Clay switched hands, holding out the empty one, and continued making sounds meant to soothe. Hesitating even longer, the horse finally sniffed his hand.
A longing in the horse's gaze touched Clay and he grabbed on to it, wrapped it with unspoken reassurances, the promise of safety and comfort. He sensed the slight shifta softening in the horse's attitude.
"I get it, son. Easy now," Clay whispered, daring to touch Stormcloud's nose. Continuing to mentally project promises that soothed the horse's fear.
The horse allowed the human contact for several seconds before shaking his head and backing away.
Clay grinned. "Good boy! Enough for today." Knowing that he needed to quit with the small victory, he backed off toward the gate to the chute, and about to open it, yelled to anyone in the corridor, "Back off, mustang coming through." He whistled sharply and waved the horse over. "C'mon, son."
Stormcloud loped past him and straight down the chute to the pasture entry where the rest of his herd awaited him. One of the other inmates swung open the gate and let him in.
When Manny jumped down from the rail, his expression was one of wonder. "How'd you do that?"
"With patience and softness, Manny. Things that would serve you well."
"Man, if I could learn that trick."
"You can. If you want to, you'll do it."
Clay read the kid's gaze as easily as he read the mustang's. The crisis was past. Manny Flores was in for the count.
Clay's day went as they all did. Busy. Satisfying. Lonely.
The job was his life.
He even bunked in a room on the correctional center property in one of the horse barns. This part of the facility was minimum security and wasn't fenced off, so it wasn't much like a prison at all. No need to get a house or even an apartment away from here. Other staffers went home to girlfriends or wives and kids. Wandering empty rooms would only remind Clay of what he couldn't have.
The woman he'd loved had sent him on his way with some excuse about a damn McKenna family curse.
Heading across the grounds for the mess hall at supper time, Clay knew the curse was on him. Just because he hadn't been able to have her, however, Clay hadn't been about to settle for another woman. Not that he hadn't tried more than a few to clear his mind and satisfy his natural urges. But none had stuck. He'd rather be alone than with a woman he didn't love.
Entering the main building through a back door available to staff only, Clay was making his way down a dimly lit corridor, heading for the mess hall, when he heard voices that made him stop and listen to the furtive conversation.
"The ranch's troubles aren't just bad luck."
"Trouble rarely is."
Clay recognized the self-satisfied voice. Incarcerated in minimum security or not, Paco Vargas was trouble with a capital T, though he always managed to skate around the rules without doing anything that would put him on notice. Or if he did cross the line, he managed not to get caught. Though he was in the inmate horse trainer program, Vargas seemed to have no real desire to change. Having had more than one go-round with the inmate, Clay could read him as easily as he could the horses. Hiding his true nature the best he could, Vargas was simply biding his time, making sure he looked good so he could get out and undoubtedly go back to his old life.
What was he up to now?
"I hear the ranch has been going down since the owner was killed," the second man said.
What ranch? Clay wondered, holding himself back from facing down the men and demanding an answer.
As if hearing the unspoken question, Vargas said, "I give the Double JA a couple months at best."
A prickle slid up Clay's spine. The Double JA was Siobhan's ranchhe'd heard about her husband's fatal accident several months ago. He lunged around the corner and faced the two men. Vargas was a little shorter than Clay, but he was muscular with a shaved head. By contrast, his companion Frank Dudley had a full beard and long graying hair that hung down his back in a braid.
"What's going on, Vargas? What do you know?"
The inmate put on an innocent expression. "The Double JA is like any other ranch in this economy, Salazar. Vulnerable. I just hear it's not doing so well, that's all."
"What interest would you have in knowing how well some ranch is doing?"
"Hey, I'm getting out tomorrow and need to find work. We was just talking about ranches that might be willing to hire an ex-con. Right, Frank?"
"Yeah, getting work. That's all."
Clay knew the men were lying through their teeth. It sounded to him like something was going on at the Double JAmore than a bad economy or bad luck, starting with Jeff Atkinson's death. Whatever it was, he would find out.
But as close as he'd gotten to some of the inmates in the program, no one was talking, he quickly learned. Because they didn't know anything or because they were afraid of Vargas?
Paco Vargas had a hold on the other inmates. A look from him would freeze a man in the middle of a story. It was as if he had some kind of mysterious power over them.
So, again, what was he up to?
Clay couldn't help but worry. He knew Siobhan was trying to run the ranch herself after her husband's death, that she was alone and vulnerable.
Was some kind of plot brewing against her?
Was Paco Vargas involved?
Though he'd tried to forget Siobhan, Clay couldn't just ignore a possible threat to the woman he'd once loved.
He knew he had to find out what was going on for himself.
Why did these terrible things keep happening? Siobhan McKenna thought as she hunkered down to check on her
mare's injury. Garnet had been pastured for several days, and when Siobhan had gone to get her, she'd found the mare's leg had been slashed open and badly infected. Not that Siobhan had been able to figure out what had caused the injury. Luckily, she'd checked on Garnet in time. The vet had told her another day without treatment and she might have lost the mare.
As she changed the dressing, she thought about her late husband's fatal riding accident four months before and how she'd had nothing but bad luck since. Things kept going wrong on the ranchcostly accidents and mistakes depleting the ranch's resourcesand the stress was getting to be too much for her to handle.
If only Jeff hadn't died
A dose of guilt flushed through Siobhan. She'd believed Jeff was safe, exempt from Sheelin O'Keefe's prophecy, or she never would have agreed to marry him. His death was her faultshe knew that. If the century-old family ranch went bankrupt, that would be her fault, as well. His stepmother, who'd moved to Tucson to be with her widowed sister, depended on the money Siobhan sent her every month. And his sister, Jacy, who lived in one of the stone cottages on the property, had a small trust fund linked to the profits of the ranch, as well.
Finished with the dressing, she stood and rubbed Garnet in her sweet spotsnose, ears, chest. "Hey, my beautiful girl," she murmured. Garnet was beautiful, both in conformation and in color. She was a deep blood bay, her coat a shade darker than Siobhan's long hair, which waterfalled over her shoulder from a clip. "You'll soon be good as new, girl, I promise."
The mare snorted and pushed her nose against Siobhan's chest. Smiling, Siobhan pressed her forehead to the old mare's and inhaled her distinctive scent all mixed up with the odor of fresh hay. The mare snorted and Siobhan picked up on a memorytheir first ride across Atkinson land together. She could "see" the canyon walls and rims laced with stands of juniper and big pifion pine trees. She could "feel" the wind whipping through the canyons, ruffling Garnet's mane.
Siobhan had always had this connection with horses. Communicating. Reading their emotions and memories. A McKenna gift, her mother had explained. Not that all McKennas had the horse connection. Not Mom, who raised and trained horses, nor her brother, Daire. Nor her cousin and best friend Aislinn. But apparently there were other McKennas with a similar gift. And others with very different psychic abilities.
The mare suddenly jerked upright and hit the side of Siobhan's head. Her chest tightened. Flipping around, her hair suddenly flying around her as the clip fell to the stable floor, she saw Jacy in the entry. Her sister-in-law reminded Siobhan of Jeff.reminded her of her guilt. Not that the siblings looked anything alike other than being tallJacy was pale-skinned and naturally blonde while Jeff had been ruddy complected and dark-haired.
"Looking for me?" Siobhan asked. "Not me. Early. He stopped by to see you again. I told him you were busy tending to an injured horse.