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Armed with her favorite guilty pleasurea caramel vanilla cappuccinoAbby Langdon left Sunny Perk in the distance and navigated the long gravel road that led to her ranch. Later, she'd put on a pot of coffee, but for now, her fix was complete.
Already she was anticipating the hard work and long day ahead. Sitting Tall Ranch and its special mission had always been her dream come true. Young victims of illness, poverty and abuse came to her ranch daily for a respite from their challenges. Her guests had witnessed the worst life could hand out, but Sitting Tall Ranch was the haven where they could forget their troubles and just be kids.
Abby slowed as she neared the abandoned pickup parked alongside the road. She'd seen it earlier when she'd left the ranch. Somebody had probably run out of gas then gotten a ride.
Abby drove through the gates, parked and headed to her office, a separate casita behind the main house. She was holding her to-go cup in one hand and reaching for her keys with the other when she heard a familiar voice to her left.
"Abby! Wait up!"
Ten-year-old Bobby Neskahi, hands down her favorite guest, was struggling up the sidewalk. Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis had damaged most of his joints and left him to rely on braces, but whatever had caused the panicked look on his face was urging him to move fast.
He stopped in front of her, catching his breath. "Carl's hurt! He's not moving."
"Where is he?" Her heart suddenly beat overtime. Carl Woods was her caretaker, animal handler and all-around right-hand man on the ranch.
"He's inside Tracker and Missy's turnout area. He's on the ground, and he didn't move or answer when I called him." Bobby grabbed her hand. "He might be dead. I couldn't see him breathing. Come on! You gotta help!"
Abby touched Bobby firmly on the shoulder, then handed him her keys. "Bobby, I need you to go into my office, call 911 on the desk phone, then stay here until the police arrive. You'll have to show them the way. I'll go check on Carl."
Bobby nodded and Abby took off running toward the stalls.
Jogging around the corner of the barn, Abby nearly collided with a wheelbarrow stacked with bales of alfalfa hay. Stopping just in time, she began inching between the wheelbarrow and the fence. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of movement.
As she turned to look, a large figure leaped up from behind the stack and forced an empty feed bag over her head.
"Hey!" Sputtering from the debris in her eyes and mouth, she fought to pull the bag off.
Strong arms grabbed her wrists, yanked them down to her sides, then lifted her off the ground.
Abby tried to kick her captor, but he just grunted, hauled her several steps, then flung her violently onto the ground.
Dark, angry clouds were building over Copper Canyon. "Storm's heading our way." Hot from exertion despite the cool, early hour, Detective Preston Bowman had already shrugged off his shirt as he continued working alongside his brother, repairing gaps in the fence line. Their late foster father's place belonged to all of them now.
As the wind from the downdrafts intensified, Preston could feel the force of the approaching storm. The sky continued to darken quickly, turning the new day into near twilight.
Kyle, taller than his brother by one inch and just as muscular, wiped his eyes with a dirty hand. "Rain I like. Sandstorms, not so much, bro."
Preston was tired, though he'd never admit it. His sore muscles were a constant reminder of why he'd chosen city life instead. As a cop, Preston was more used to wielding a gun rather than a shovel, axe or sledgehammer. Even though he was six feet tall and in excellent shapepolice work demanded ithe was ready for a break.
Kyle reached for his shirt. "I'd forgotten what it feels like to be sandblasted."
"Have you decided if you're going to be coming home for good?" Preston grabbed his own shirt and ducked inside the toolshed.
"Not yet," Kyle said, joining him in the small shelter. "I have some things to work out first." He shook his head and shrugged. "Can't say anything elseclassified."
Preston nodded silently. He didn't have to know the details to realize whatever it was had hit Kyle like a hard kick to his gut. Despite that, he knew his brother would find a way to deal with it.
Inside each of his five brothers was a fighter who never gave up. They'd all been tested at an early age, long before they'd even known how to protect themselves from life's hard knocks.
Their stories were all different but shared the same core. They'd been wards of the state, abandoned by people who were supposed to have protected and loved them. Survival instincts had become second nature to each of them early on.
When life did its best to bring them to their knees, they got up and kept fighting. It was what they did best. The difference was now they had each other's backs. Though none of them were bound by blood, their pasts had forged unbreakable ties among them.
A flash of lightning was followed immediately by an ear-splitting crack of thunder that shook the ground. Hearing a horse's panicked whinny, Kyle shot out of the shed and ran toward the corral. "Red!"
The large mahogany horse with the dark mane was bucking wildly, racing around the corral and tossing his head.
"Red's used to his own stall inside Gene's barn. He doesn't like it here," Kyle said.
Preston took the horse by its halter, led him to the side of the house and stood there with him. "He'll settle down now that he's here with us, sheltered from the wind," he said. "How come Red's here? Did Gene loan him to you for a few days?"
"No. He's donating him to Sitting Tall Ranch. The owner, Abby Langdon, was looking for a gentle mount for kids with special needs. Red's steady as they comeexcept around thunder. If he's inside a barn, he's okay, but not if he's outside. Since I'd planned on keeping him here for a day or two so I could go riding, I checked the weather ahead of time. It was supposed to be okay, just a little cloudy, but this front's a day early."
As they stood waiting for the storm to pass, Preston kept his arm over the horse's neck. The animal seemed to be handling things better now.
"Have you opened the envelope Hosteen Silver left for you yet?" Preston asked, referring to their foster father.
"No, not yet. He knew things before they happened and that always spooked me. There's also something else I need to take into account now. After Daniel, Gene and Paul opened theirs, they ended up getting married within months. I'm thinking that I'll hold on to mine for another decade or so," he said and flashed his brother a quick grin.
Preston laughed. "Just so you know, they're not all letters that foretell upcoming events. Mine's a sketch." Preston reached for his wallet and took out a folded piece of paper. "I made a copy to keep with me until I figured it out."
"Nice. The old man was a good artist, though he seldom had time for that," Kyle said, studying it. "That's obviously Copper Canyon and there's Falcon. It looks just like the fetish he gave you when you turned sixteen."
"I've carried that carving with me every day since," Preston said, lifting the leather cord that hung around his neck. A small leather pouch hung from it. "Falcon's a faithful spiritual guide. I think he helps me see what others miss. That's a great asset in police work."
"In the sketch, Falcon's swooping down on that owl and defending something a nest or maybe its mate? The background's mostly in shadow and hard to make out. Can you see it any better in the original?"
"No, not even enlarged."
"What's that drifting down?" Kyle asked, pointing. "A gray feather?"
"Feather, yes, but in the original, it's blue."
"Hosteen Silver used to say that blue jays, or pinon jays as he called them, stood for peace and happiness," Kyle said. "So was he saying that you'll be so busy fighting you'll miss out on happiness?"
"Your guess is as good as mine," Preston answered.
Kyle shook his head. "Everything about that man was mysterious. Even his name. Hosteen means mister. Silver was a nickname given to him because of his long silver hair."
Noting the wind had calmed down and things were returning to normal, Preston started leading the horse back to the corral. Just then a big barn owl flew out of the pine tree beside him. The bird swooped past him with a faint rustle of feathers, then turned sharply and angled up toward the cliff, disappearing into the background of rocks and brush.
Preston led the horse away quickly, grateful that Red had seemed oblivious to the owl and was now back to his usual calm self. His one fearthunderhad subsided.
"The worst is over," Preston said.
"Not by a long shot, bro. You're the falcon in the drawing, and that was an owl we both saw swooping down out of that pine. For you, it's just starting."
Before he could reply, Preston's phone rang. He turned the reins over to his brother, gesturing for him to put the horse away, and answered the call.
Mere minutes later he met Kyle, who was standing by the department's SUV. Preston had changed shirts and was ready to go. "I need to race over to Hartley. I'm the closest cop and some kid just reported what he thinks is a dead body at Sitting Tall Ranch."
"Watch your back, bro. Looks like things are already in motion."
Preston slipped inside the SUV, then glanced out the window, his face hard, his gaze deadly. "Whatever's coming will find me ready and waiting."
As Abby fell, her head hit something hard. Dizzying flashes of light exploded before her eyes, and for a moment she lay dazed and unable to move.
Her attacker grabbed her under her arms, dragged her several feet, then dropped her to the ground again. Disoriented, she waited for several long moments, hearing the fading sound of heavy footsteps.
Slowly regaining her wits, Abby sat up, tugged the bag off her head and looked around, trying to get her bearings and cope with the dull ache radiating from her head. She was in the stall prepared for the new horse, Big Red, who was due to arrive in a day or so. Both upper and lower stall doors were closed, but light still filtered in.
Abby listened for a moment, looking around. She was alone, and with the exception of the sound of horses moving about in the nearby stalls, snorting and anxious to be fed, she could hear nothing unusual.
Still cautious, she pushed the door. It was latched from the outside and wouldn't budge, and both sections of the Dutch door had been connected with outside barrel bolts, so she couldn't go under or over by opening just one. Peeking through the narrow gap, she saw where the metal latch had been lowered into the catch. Somehow she'd need to raise the big pin about an inch.
Abby peered around her, hoping to find a piece of baling wire she could work between the door and jamb. Unfortunately, she also had a safety rule requiring that no baling wire or metal objects be left on the ground where an animal could get tangled or cut up.
Poking through the hay debris, she noticed that one of the heavy wire tines of the metal feeder bolted to the wall had broken away from the weld at the bottom and could be twisted loose. That was what she needed. Thirty seconds later she managed to work the latch free, and the door swung open.
Abby hurried outside. Nobody was around. The horses in the pen ahead were moving about nervously, and when she drew closer, she saw Carl lying facedown on the ground by the feeder.
Hank, one of their two resident camels, was in the adjoining turnout. When he saw her, he roared loudly, the distressed sound reminding her of Chewbacca in Star Wars.
"Carl?" Abby scaled the fence and ran over. As she bent down for a closer look, she saw that the back of his head was a wet mass of tissue and blood. No one could have survived that kind of head injury. Outrage and sorrow gripped her.
Abby was struggling for breath when she heard a car door slam in the distance. Wondering if the attacker could have been the driver of the pickup parked on the road, Abby raced uphill. If she could read the license plate, she'd be able to give the police something solid to go on.
Once at the top, Abby saw the pickup and rushed out onto the road for a closer look. That was a mistake. The driver spun the truck around and accelerated, coming straight at her.
Abby stared at the darkened windshield, frozen in terror. The driver's face was lost to her, but his intent to kill her was clear.
Just then a dark SUV with flashing lights came racing over the hilla response to Bobby's 911.
The SUV swerved left, cut around her, then slid to a stop between her and the oncoming truck.
The pickup quickly returned to its lane, then sped past the SUV and continued over the hill.
An officer wearing a dark Hartley police jacket stepped out of the SUV. As Abby went to thank him, her knees buckled.
He was there in an instant, his arms secure around her waist and holding her gently against him. "Hang on, ma'am. I'll call an ambulance. Your head's injured."
"No, I'm fine," she said quickly, stepping back to stand on her own. She touched the emerging bump on her forehead. At least she wasn't bleeding.
Abby looked up at him, straight into the darkest eyes she'd ever seen. His steady gaze was like the man himselfstrong and harda rock to lean on. "You just saved my life."
"I'm Detective Preston Bowman of the Hartley P.D. You're safe now," he said, his voice calm and reassuring.
For a moment she felt tempted to step right back into his arms and rest against his hard chest. To forget..
She drew in a sharp breath. "I'm Abby Langdon. You need to come down to the ranch right away. Something's happened to Carl Woods, my head trainer," she said, telling him everything in a short burst.
"Let's go," he said, hurrying back to his SUV with her.
"This whole thing it feels like a nightmare but it's real," she whispered, closing the passenger-side door.
"All I caught was glare off the glass. Did you see the driver's face or his license plate?" he asked, easing down the hill, then making the turn into the long driveway.
"No, but it wasn't for lack of trying," she said.
"All right then. I called it in as soon as he took off. We'll see what happens now. I've heard of what you do here, Abby. Now tell me more about your animal handler."
"He's " Her voice broke and she brushed away a tear. If she started crying now, would she ever stop? She took a deep breath and held it together.
He pulled up in front of the logs anchored in place to serve as a parking barrier. "Just point me in the right direction. This is a police matter and I'll handle it."