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Dylan "Duke" Adams drove through the silent, shuttered town of Roundup, Montana, in the wee hours of Monday morning, headed home from a summer-weekend rodeo in Wyoming. Because he also served as Roundup's part-time deputy sheriff he eyed businesses along the main street to see they were locked up tight and that side streets were vacant of anyone up to mischief.
Although, the problems of late that he and his cousin Sheriff Dinah Hart dealt with weren't in-town robberies, but worrisome break-ins at outlying ranches.
He'd driven by himself to the rodeo in Sheridan. His twin brother, Beau, and cousin Colt Hart had both gone on to events in other states. Duke had earned good points in Wyoming despite the rank bull he'd drawn. And he felt great. If he made the National Finals Rodeo and won, it'd mean added prestige for him as a champion bull rider and would enhance business for the family ranch.
Still, his ride hadn't been perfect and Beau nagged him to ride midweek in Custer, South Dakota. Beau nagged a lot. He knew Duke had promised Dinah he'd get home to help investigate the string of ranch burglaries piling uptoo many for comfort.
Zorro, Duke's German shepherd named for his black face mask, snored away in the backseat of Duke's pickup. The Ford's engine growled as Duke turned down an alley, a shortcut to his parking space outside his ground-floor apartment. As if sensing the change in the engine's tempo, Zorro sat up, yawned and licked Duke's ear.
"Easy, boy, we're almost home." Duke reached back to rub Zorro's ears and immediately winced. He'd forgotten about the injury he'd sustained when he couldn't release his bull rope quickly enough on his final bull. His fingers felt puffier now than when he'd left Sheridan. He should ice his hand down again, but, man, was he beat.
Pocketing his keys, Duke collected his duffel of dirty clothes and emptied it straight into the washer on his way through his back door. He stopped in the kitchen to draw Zorro a bowl of fresh water before heading to his bedroom where he stripped and jumped into a hot shower. Still damp, he fell into bed. Seconds later he heard Zorro pad in and settle on his dog bed. Almost at once the pet Duke had raised from a pup began to snore like a freight train. Duke rolled over, feeling his mind and body relax.
Duke jolted out of a sound sleep as his cell phone blared an obnoxious tune Beau had programmed into his phone as a joke. He patted the nightstand then recalled leaving the phone in the pocket of the jeans he'd kicked off at the foot of his bed. The room was black as spades. Zorro bounded up, barking his fool head off, making locating the phone more chaotic.
Shushing him, Duke scrabbled around hunting for his pants. He hit his sore hand on the bedside table and swore roundly. The bedside clock said 4:45 a.m. He'd slept for maybe two hours, he thought, digging out the noisy instrument at last. Any call at this hour meant trouble. "'Lo," he rasped, doing his best to clear his foggy head.
"Duke, sorry to bother you. I'm sure you got in late from the rodeo."
"Dinah?" He yawned in her ear. "It's okay. Where are you at this unholy hour? Who's that yakking in the background?"
"I'm at the ranch. There's been another break-in."
"Thunder Ranch," she said. "Aunt Sarah set her alarm for 4:15 a.m. to check on a pregnant mare that's had trouble. She found the barn doors open, called your dad, and uncle josh saw how the thieves went in through the back."
"What's missing this time?" Duke asked.
"More saddles. A couple of new bridles Beau crafted. None were as sentimental or expensive as Dad's saddle these damn thieves made off with before, but bad all the same."
"Dang, Dinah, Beau will be sick. He intended to sell the bridles at the Roundup rodeo."
"Yeah, well, there's worsethe horse is gone. Can you come help me calm the family and look for clues? As you might imagine, it's bedlam here."
"I'll be right there." Duke dug underwear out of his dresser drawer as he digested Dinah's words. "You mean someone stole the pregnant mare?"
"No, the stallion. Midnight. He's not in the pen behind the barn where Ace put him, or anywhere else that we can find. Ace had separated him from Fancy Gal because Midnight had a cough, and she's with foal. He didn't want to risk a chance of her miscarrying."
"Holy horsefeathers!" Duke hopped around on one foot, tugging on clean jeans. "Is that my dad, Ace and Aunt Sarah arguing?"
Dinah lowered her voice further. "Yes. Ace is still peeved that Mom backed Colt's decision to enter Midnight in rodeos. He called Colt on the circuit and read him the riot act. Ace thinks putting Midnight out there to buck will let people see his worth."
Duke rifled through his closet for an official work shirt. "I'll grant you the stallion is worth a mint, Dinah. But the thieves are stupid to take such an identifiable horse."
"I'll let you tell Ace that," she said, sounding unhappy.
"Hang on. I'll be there in fifteen minutes," he said, even though he was dead on his feet.
Typical of Dinah, she said, "Don't break speed limits."
Duke signed off, pinned on his badge, loaded Zorro and jumped in his truck. As far as he knew this was the first time there had been a second break-in at any ranch. The first burglary at Thunder Ranch, pricy items were taken, along with small implements. The full cost wasn't covered by insurance. And the premiums went up. A saddle of Beau's turned up at a secondhand shop way over in Butte. The shop owner identified the piece from photos Duke and Dinah had circulated on the internet. He didn't know who sold him the saddle. He assumed it came from a down-on-his-luck rodeo cowboy.
Duke reached the ranch in time to hear Ace connect with Beau in South Dakota and ask him to check on new bucking entries.
"Stay," Duke ordered Zorro, and the dog dropped to his belly. Duke interrupted Ace with an exaggerated whisper. "Did Dinah tell you I think it'd be dumb for thieves to enter a well-known horse like Midnight on the national rodeo circuit? Maybe in Podunk rodeos, though," Duke added, giving the matter a second thought.
Ace ended his call. "You may be right, Duke. Colt said something similar when I laced into him. He called Leah back and said he wished he could come home and help us hunt for Midnight. He can't. This trip, he and Royce are hauling our bucking stock to two more rodeos, and he knows we need the money."
Duke glanced around at the milling family. Leah and Colt lived on the property in a double-wide mobile home they'd bought a few weeks ago, until they could afford to build a house. She worked as the ranch accountant. Colt, at the ripe age of thirty-two, same as Duke, had fallen head over heels in love with Leah Stockton, a woman he hadn't seen since high schoola divorcee with two kids. Their love affair sent ripples through the family, but was nothing compared to Colt's other bombshella confession he had a son he'd never told his mom, his brothers or anyone in the family about. Duke hated those kinds of family upsets.
The mobile home sat a ways from the house and barns, so Leah or the kids likely wouldn't have heard anything, he figured.
Ace, too, had recently married and moved off the ranch. He and Flynn rented Flynn's dad's house. Duke glanced around, trying to re-create the scene. He saw Leah and Flynn, who'd finally begun to look pregnant, deep in conversation with Dinah. His aunt Sarah leaned against the small corral, talking to his dad. Another ranch hand, Gracie, strode away. She probably had chores to start. Duke thought his aunt looked really pale. "Hey, Aunt Sarah, do you have coffee at the house? I didn't get in until 3:00 a.m. I could use some to prop open my eyes."
She perked up as if she needed a mission. "A coffee break will do us all good, Duke. It'll take only a few minutes to brew a pot. I'll bring out a tray when it's done. Leah, do you want me to take jill and Davey up to the house and feed them breakfast?"
"oh, please," Leah said, looking grateful. "I saw them peering out the window, wondering what's going on. I'll go get the kids right now."
Spotting Duke, Dinah strode over. "I'm furious at whoever did this. At first I thought it was a sloppy break-in. But they used saddle blankets to cover the interior barn camera and the perimeter one. Our saddle blankets, which they stole last time. This time they took Mom's carved wooden toolbox. Something scared them off before they could load the horse head sculpture. But they moved it to the door."
"Are there tire tracks?"
"No. It hasn't rained in a while. If it'd been last month during our deluge, tracks would be easy to spot and follow."
"Have you phoned neighbors?"
"I decided to wait until more were up, but I'll do it now. I didn't see the sense in rousting neighbors from their beds. Everyone's been on alert, so if anyone saw or heard anything suspicious I'm confident they would have called in."
"I suppose. But the last break-in was a month ago. Enough time for people to let down their guard. And this time they had to pull a horse trailer. I know most folks wouldn't notice if a rig with a trailer passed, but some might wonder at the hour. When do you figure the break-in happened?"
"Between when Ace looked in on the mare around eleven last night and 4:15 a.m. when Mom came out." Dinah opened a case folder, took out her phone and started making calls.
Duke followed Ace into the ranch office where he said Midnight's papers were filed. Ace had kept a list of everyone who'd bid on the horse at auction. Several ranchers wanted Midnight. Ace and Earl McKinley had actively bid against each other.
"We know everyone on this list," Ace said. "Some have had their ranches hit."
"What about Earl? He wanted Midnight almost more than you and Aunt Sarah. Everyone knows there was a rivalry with Uncle John. Could Earl be behind this?"
Flynn, Ace's wife, who had come up behind the men without either of them hearing her, exclaimed angrily, "I can't believe you would accuse my father of stooping so low, Duke Adams! He's honest to a fault, and that rivalry ended when John died. Besides, Dad has moved to Billings."
"Sorry. I knew that, Flynn. It's just these robberies are a black mark against Dinah and me, and no horse has been stolen before. The first few break-ins we chalked up to kids. Now I think they're too clever by far."
Dinah joined them, and Sarah brought in coffee. "I'm taking these thefts personally," Dinah declared, setting down her folder to accept a steaming mug. "So far every theft has been in my jurisdiction."
"There must be something we've missed," Duke muttered, also claiming a mug. "I know Colt thought tail-lights at the first robbery here were a Dodge pickup. But half the trucks around are Rams." Duke sat at the desk with his coffee and opened Dinah's file. He sifted through pages of her notes. "They rob in our county, but unload their goods halfway across the state. I take it you reached all the neighbors along Thunder Road?"
"All but Rob Parker," Dinah said. "According to his wife, he left before sunup to deliver hay to his leased acreage across town. She'll have him call when he returns."
Duke turned to a clean sheet of paper. "Meanwhile, let's take an inventory."
They worked until noon, rechecking everything in the office, tack room, feed storage and barns, relying on Sarah, Ace and Josh Adams to say what all was missing. Winding down, Sarah and Leah insisted they break for lunch. They all trudged into the big ranch kitchen where the women assembled sliced meat, cheese, bread and tossed a fresh salad while Duke, Ace, Josh and another of the hired hands went back outside to walk every inch of ground from behind the barn where the thieves broke in, to the highway and along the ditches to see if they'd overlooked any small thing.
They hadn't, and it was a glum crew who ate in silence, except for Leah's kids, who chased around with Zorro, giggling and having a good time.
Pushing back, Duke stacked his plate with others who'd finished eating. Standing, he said, "Ace, if you have photos of Midnight, I'll make flyers to blanket the area and post a missing-horse notice on the ranch website."
Leah left the children with Sarah and excused herself to go pay some bills. Duke's dad and Flynn drifted away. Josh had a stake in the ranch, but rarely ventured an opinion unless directly solicited. Duke wished he related to his dad better, but the truth was his twin and their dad had the better rapport.