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By SUSAN MAY WARREN
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008 Susan May Warren
All right reserved.
Chapter One If she could, Stefanie Noble would get on her bay quarter horse, Sunny, ride over the chapped, frozen hills of the Silver Buckle Ranch, and disappear into the horizon. Just keep riding. Because it was only on Sunny that the loneliness and the stress would slough off, and she'd hear the wind, the voice of freedom singing in her ears.
After all, with her brother Nick running the Silver Buckle, she couldn't help but wonder if maybe the ranch didn't need her anymore.
Okay, sometimes she wondered. But perhaps not at 5 a.m., smack in the middle of calving season.
Singing-that's what she needed. Something other than the sound of a cow in distress. Her ears ached with the noise as the exhaustion of being up all night pressed down against her, into her bones, her cells.
"C'mon, old cow, push," she groaned, bracing her feet against the haunches of a weary Black Angus as she pulled on the chains attached to the hooves of a not-yet-born calf.
"She ain't gonna give."
Stefanie glanced behind her. Dutch Johnson, the Silver Buckle's cow boss, looked as tired as Stefanie felt, his face droopy and covered with white whiskers.
"She's hip-locked. We're gonna have to C-section her." He already wore a pair of blue surgical coveralls.
"I can do this." Stefanie's arms shook. "Just give me the puller." "Stef-"
"It's almost out!" Even as she said it, Stefaniecould feel the little calf slide toward her, farther out of the birth canal. "I don't want to lose another cow!"
She refused to let herself feel those words, to remember watching the cow she'd so laboriously raised slip out of life as it bled to death. Stefanie could only blame a month of night calving for her unsteady hands, the way she had perforated the uterus and left a baby without a mother.
"I'm gettin' Nick."
"No!" Stefanie twisted, looking at him. "I don't need Nick. I need the puller. Come over here and lift her leg up, please."
Dutch said nothing, just handed her a long bar that looked much like the handle of a rake. Then he grabbed the cow's back leg and lifted it with his tree-limb arms.
Meanwhile, Stefanie affixed the bar across the cow's haunches, hooked on the chains that connected the calf 's hooves to the puller, and started to turn the crank, applying pressure.
Slowly the calf emerged. The cow let out a long moan as her baby slipped out into the straw. The little calf didn't move. Afterbirth glistened in its curly black coat.
"C'mon, baby," Stefanie said, cleaning its face, its mouth. "Breathe. Please breathe." She cut the cord, put iodine on it. The calf gasped. "Yes, breathe." She put her hand on its body and began to rub. In a moment, the calf started to take in air.
Stefanie looked up at Dutch. In the shadows of the barn he looked much older than his forty-seven years. But that's what all-night doctoring did. She probably looked about eighty-two instead of what some might call a young twenty-four. Most of the time she sure felt eighty-two.
Dutch gave her a half smile. "I'm going to check the other cows, see if they've dropped their calves yet."
Stefanie sat back in the straw, everything inside her shaking. How she longed for, needed, thirsted for freedom. Just one day without ... everything. The weather, the calving, the bills ... all of it gnawed at her, rubbing her raw with the weight of the shackles. But this was her life, like it or not.
Although recently, for the first time, she'd begun to think ... maybe not.
Detaching the hip bar from the cow and the calf, Stefanie watched as the mother turned and slathered her baby with her tongue.
"Good mama," Stefanie said, standing. Grime, sweat, and even blood had long ago seeped into her pores. She reeked of manure and straw, and her hair hung in strings, having escaped her long, dark ponytail. Stretching, she walked past the other stalls, checking the recent mothers and the two heifers who had yet to give birth. Finally, she opened the barn door and slipped outside, letting the wind shear the exhaustion from her face, her limbs.
Behind her, Clancy, their half-shepherd, half-retriever dog, came up and nudged his wet nose into her palm. She smiled at him and rubbed behind his floppy brown ears.
The thaw had tiptoed in this year, haunting the land, giving the air a faint taste of spring, then shirking back, hiding under a blast of north wind and sleet. The pallor of today's sky, stalwart against the encroaching sun, told her that she'd find no hope in the forecast.
No, hope had long ago forsaken this land. Or perhaps it had only forsaken her.
It had returned for her brother Nick and his wife, Piper, now expecting their first child-a girl. And for Maggy and Cole, co-owners of the Silver Buckle, now that Cole had regained his health. And it had certainly found her twin brother, Rafe, recent National GetRowdy Bull Riding Champion. He had never looked so happy as he had at his celebration party when he asked Kat Breckenridge to marry him. They'd probably live happily ever after in her New York penthouse while helping raise money for Kat's charity.
Meanwhile, Stefanie would sleep in the barn and help birth baby cows.
Stefanie, the ranch hand. For some reason, it wasn't at all who she'd expected to be.
Her own smell, as the wind found her, made her wrinkle her nose. The ranch seemed most forlorn at this time of day, most eerie, old ghosts alive in the creak of the barn doors, the low of laboring cows. Sometimes she nearly expected her father's voice to emerge from a hidden stall, calling her to fetch clean water or help him with a calf. For a long time-too long-it had been only herself, Dutch, and Bishop, her father, running the Silver Buckle. Somehow even those years hadn't seemed as lonely as having Nick and Rafe return, seeing their lives hook onto their dreams, watching them turn into the men their father had always hoped they'd be, leaving her sorely behind.
It made a girl wonder-who had Daddy hoped she'd be? She'd never asked. She always figured she belonged to the land. To the ranch. But with Nick and Piper having a baby, they'd need to move into the house instead of living in the hunting cabin on the hill. And then where exactly would she belong?
She stared out into the horizon, where the outline of the Bighorns barely etched the gunmetal sky.
The horses nickered from the corral across the yard. In the quarantine pen, she noticed that the new quarter horses had huddled up, their noses together as they fought the wind. She'd put them in the shelter last night, but perhaps the draw of hay had lured them out. She should check on Sunny. He'd had a runny nose-a symptom that in other horses wouldn't register a great deal of concern, but in a horse nearly thirty years old, it made her worry.
The horse barn greeted her with a hospitality she craved as she opened the door. Call her strange, but she loved everything about horses, from their expressive eyes to the smell of their manure-so different from that of cows, pigs, or any other ranch animal.
The Buckle's horses stirred little as she entered. The ranch had a small herd of stock horses for riding, but Nick preferred to take his truck out into the field. Stefanie, however, couldn't surrender the nostalgia of working the ranch by hand, just Sunny and her, compatriots.
Perhaps that was where she belonged ... with Sunny.
Sunny had been the first horse she'd rescued, right about the time her mother lay dying of breast cancer. Stefanie had bought him with a year's worth of chore money after watching him waste away in the backyard of a house just outside Phillips. She'd ached with his neglect, how his ribs sawed through his tan hide, the razor bones of his spinelike spears in his back. He could barely walk when she'd led him to the trailer, and it took a full year before he recovered enough for her to start training him. She probably would have lost hope if it hadn't been for his eyes. They all but begged her to notice him. Begged her to care.
That year she'd brought Sunny back to the beautiful gelding he'd been born to be and discovered that she had a talent. A way of understanding an animal that ministered to both their broken places.
Nick's horse, Pecos, raised his head to stare at her as she walked to the end of the row of stalls. A beautiful black-and-white Overo paint, Pecos had a wild streak that at one time had seemed exactly fitting for her oldest brother. But Nick had worked his wild streak out of his system. As had Rafe.
She always thought she'd been born without the Noble propensity to rebel and wander. So why did she suddenly feel so restless, so unfit for the life she'd always known?
Stefanie flicked on a light midway through the barn, and it pooled on the dirt floor. Funny, she didn't see Sunny standing in his stall. Coming up to the paddock door, she spotted him lying down fully on his side. As if in distress.
"Sunny." She opened the door and crept in. "What's wrong, pal?" She knelt at his side, her hand splaying across his body.
He didn't raise his head, just opened his eye and looked at her a long moment before closing it.
His breathing, under her hand, was labored.
Oh, Lord, please ... Stefanie ran her hand down Sunny's neck, over his withers. "It'll be okay," she said softly. Had one of her new horses had a contagious disease? She had quarantined them. Still, perhaps Sunny had just developed a cold.
She got up and retrieved her medical kit. Finding a thermometer, she prepared it and took his temperature.
The reading dried her mouth-105.5.
Sunny began to cough. Then blood dribbled from his mouth into the straw.
Stefanie took one look at the ooze, turned, and ran from the barn. "Dutch!" She bolted across the yard, nearly tripped, then flung herself toward the calving barn. "Dutch!"
He met her at the door, catching her.
Her breath came in gulps of razor-cold air. "It's Sunny. I think he's got-the new flu, the one-"
"Calm down," Dutch said, but he had already started jogging toward the barn. "Call the vet!" he yelled over his shoulder.
Stefanie counted the seconds with her thundering heartbeat as she sprinted inside the house, grabbed the phone, and left a frantic message with the on-call vet's answering service in Phillips. She didn't care that she left a muddy trail across her kitchen floor, a bloody handprint on the phone. Her gaze never left the horse barn door. The message delivered, she dropped the phone onto the cradle and ran back outside across the yard.
Dutch met her as she reached the door, a wall that stopped her cold as he grabbed her arms. "No, Stef, you can't-"
"I have to help him. Let me go!" She yanked out of his grasp.
He stepped in front of her again. "No."
Stefanie looked up at him, her heart choking off the breath in her throat as she read his grim face. Oh. Oh. She gasped for air and grabbed for the barn door, missing it and going down hard into the dirt.
Dutch crouched beside her, his big hand on her arm. "I'm sorry. He was probably gone by the time you left the barn."
Oh, Lord, please, oh no ... Her breaths came fast, one on top of another. She clamped her hand over her mouth as if holding in a scream. Only she didn't have one. Instead a ball of pain scoured her throat, falling down into her belly.
She couldn't breathe. Couldn't ... Stefanie moaned, a sound so mournful it made her hurt clear through. She shook free of Dutch and crawled toward the barn. Somehow she found her feet.
Dutch had left the paddock door open, the light on. She stood there for a moment, staring at Sunny, at his beautiful brown hide, his long eyelashes closed over his eyes. He'd always been a magnificent horse in temperament, in form. He possessed an inner strength that had seeped into her soul.
Now he seemed at peace, as if he might be sleeping.
She edged close and dropped to her knees.
She heard Dutch's heavy steps behind her as she laid her hands on Sunny's body. The breath no longer lifted it, but she still felt the warmth of the life that had run through his veins.
Her voice emerged just above a whisper. "Once, near the end with Mom, I couldn't take it anymore. It was right after my thirteenth birthday, and I kept thinking, what if she didn't make it till I was fourteen? Everything hurt inside me. I wanted to leave because I couldn't stand to see her suffer, so I packed a backpack and ... I left. I walked all the way to Cutter's Rock, where it butts up to the Big K, and stood there on the edge of the ravine. I thought that maybe, if I threw myself over, perhaps I could fl y. I really thought it. Just fling myself over and fl y."
She hiccupped a breath, drawing in another for strength as she opened her eyes. "Sunny found me. I don't know how he got out of the corral, but as I stood there, ready to jump, he appeared, rubbed his nose into my back as if to say, 'Take me with you.'" She stroked his mane.
"Go away, Dutch. Just ... go." Stefanie ran her hands over Sunny's side. Such a strong animal. How could he be gone so quickly?
Slowly, she climbed over him, lying alongside his back, her head on his neck. Tangling her hands into his mane, she closed her eyes, breathing in his smell, remembering the hours, probably collective years she'd seated herself across his back, trusting him. Talking to him as his ears cocked back, listening.
"I wish I could go with you," she whispered. She turned her head into his neck, letting the sobs rack her body.
* * *
The invincible Lincoln Cash-as his press agent called him-had survived jumping out of airplanes, rolling from fiery car crashes, leaping from stampeding horses, and falling from sky-soaring buildings. He'd even weathered bad lines and an occasional tabloid scandal. So it seemed particularly ironic to him that he could be taken out by a button.
Just a simple, pearly tuxedo button, no bigger than his fingernail, one down from his collar, sewn into his designer shirt. He should have ripped it off, made it a part of the scene, but instead he'd fumbled with it as his director, Dex Graves, and beautiful Elise Fontaine looked on with a host of other grips, makeup artists, camera people, and extras.
Watching his career crash into smithereens.
He broke out in a sweat as he tried to open his shirt, and even before Dex called, "Cut," Lincoln knew the charade was over. As silence descended on the closed set, thirty people staring at him, he released the infuriating button and watched his hand shake.
For once, Elise had nothing to say. She sat, her dress up past her knees, her blonde hair tumbled down to her shoulders, and looked at his hand in horror.
The horror that thickened with each thump of his heart.
Lincoln blew out a breath and ran his hand through his hair, then went to shove the offending extremity into his tuxedo pants pocket-only he didn't have a pocket in this costume. So instead, he simply walked off the set and didn't stop until he got into his trailer and locked the door.
He paced in the confined space. He'd had the trailer outfitted with all the comforts of home-two televisions, wireless Internet, a fully stocked fridge with freshly catered food every day. Despite its state-of-the-art gadgetry, the trailer also helped him escape to the hills of Montana, with the dark leather sofa, the panorama picture of the property he'd recently purchased, the lineup of Louis L'Amour Westerns on the bookshelf.
His hand had stopped shaking, and he stared at it, frustrated. Maybe he should quit now, while still at the top of his game.
"Lewis, where are you?" The voice traveled from the places he'd fought to hide it, crept out, and crawled over him. "Don't you know I'll find you?" Old, rancid fear prickled Lincoln's skin; he was ten years old again, skinny and weak.
He'd escaped that life. And never looked back.
He grabbed a towel and brought it to his sticky forehead before he realized he'd be wiping off his makeup. His hand twitched again, and he dropped the towel, grabbing his wrist, holding it still. Pinpricks of a limb just emerging from sleep encased his hand and he tried to shake them away.
Excerpted from FINDING STEFANIE by SUSAN MAY WARREN Copyright © 2008by Susan May Warren.Excerpted by permission.
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