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CAROLE HARTE WHEELED her black mare so her back was to the clouds darkening the northern sky and reined in at the crest of the hill.
"We need the rain, Sombrita," she said.
The mare's ears twitched and she raised and lowered her head as though nodding agreement. Carole smiled at Sombrita's response. Sometimes she was almost positive the horse understood her. Her smile faded almost as soon as it began. Yes, rain would be welcome but it was only a stopgap. Unfortunately the other needs of the ranch couldn't be solved so easily.
She brushed away a strand of dark hair blown across her face by the freshening breeze and gazed at the valley below, the land golden in the September sunlight.
Ezra Harte, her twice great-grandfather, a gold-seeking forty-niner, had settled on this land instead of merely staking a mining claim. The Hartes had flourished here in California's San Joaquin Valley ever since. He'd found no gold but, a farmer to the marrow of his bones, had established a successful ranch after buying an old, abandoned Californio ranchero.
Except for her grandmother, Carole was the only Harte left and she, like her grandfather and father, had inherited the Harte pride in the land. After her father died she'd made a vow to keep Harte's Way in the family no matter what.
The question was how? Where was the money to come from? When she was a child she'd believed the old story of stolen gold hidden on Harte land by Californio bandits and had searched diligently, finding nothing. Her father used to tease her, saying the only gold around was in her "California" eyes. "Unless you count the groves and the grass," he'dalways add.
She glanced to the right where orange trees sidled up terraced hills, the silver blades of the wind machines on their tall towers glinting above them. No gold to be seen at the moment—the fruit was as green as the leaves on the navels and the Valencias weren't yet in bloom. The orange trees would welcome the rain.
To her left the golden grass of the Sierra foothills was dotted with grazing Herefords. From the time she was big enough to sit a horse, she'd ridden over the ranch with her father, learning to love the land as he did. The last three years she'd ridden alone and she still missed him.
Carole turned to glance at the Sierra peaks rising to the east, knowing the coming storm would add to their perpetual caps of snow. Like her father, she never tired of coming to this rise where, in every direction, the view was breathtaking. Though she'd tried more than once to persuade her grandmother to ride here with her, Theda Harte never had. It wasn't that Theda didn't love beauty, but that she loathed horses. And she'd never been interested in ranching.
A plume of dust caught Carole's eye—a car speeding east on the county road. A white sports car she didn't recognize, possibly a Jag. A knight in a shining white Jaguar? She grimaced at the errant thought. She had no need—or time—for knights, even if they still existed. And especially not if they drove Jags.
Could the car be headed for the ranch house? Carole shook her head—Theda hadn't mentioned expecting company. A cloud blotted out the sun, darkening the day and she glanced over her shoulder, seeing she'd have to hurry to outrun the rain.
Clucking Sombrita into motion, Carole let the mare pick her way down the hill before urging her into a lope. When they came to a narrow road running north and south, Sombrita veered onto the gravel, aware without needing Carole's guidance that it was easier to cross the stream via a bridge than to push through the giant reeds called tules.
They rounded the curve leading to the bridge and Sombrita snorted, dancing to one side as an oncoming truck braked, air whooshing. Carole pulled the mare onto the grassy verge, staring in surprise at the large semi and the caravan of smaller trucks and trailers that had stopped behind the semi. After a few more miles this road dead-ended—where on earth could they be going?
"Hey!" The driver of the semi, a burly gray-haired man with a red rose tattooed on his upper arm, leaned from the window. "You on the horse. How the hell do I get to a ranch called Harte's Way?"
Carole gaped at him for a moment before gathering her wits. "Why do you want to go there?" she demanded.
"You know the way or not?"
"There must be a mistake. I'm Carole Harte and I—"
"I don't give the orders, I just do the driving. Harte's Way's what I was told."
Confused, Carole told him he'd missed the right road. "You'll have to turn around and go back to R Eighteen," she said. "But I don't believe—"
"R Eighteen," the driver repeated, scowling. "It ain't no picnic to turn this rig around but if I gotta, I gotta." With a quick wave of thanks to Carole, he shifted gears and started off.
Copyright © 2004 Jane Toombs.