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Maude DeVane, M.D., bypassed her crisp white lab coat and slipped on the one with a couple of badges of courage stained faintly into the fabric. Collar turned to the chill of the sunny June morning, she stepped out onto the ramp of the Wm. Avery Clinic's emergency entrance. Somewhere under the biggest, bluest of Montana skies a man had fallen from a horse.
And she was ready, make that eager, to help her first patient in her brand-new solo practice.
On cue, the Squat-D Ranch's red pickup truck careened around a corner and raced up Main Street. Traffic in the tiny mountain town of St. Adelbert made way as if they knew the passenger was unconscious.
Some of them probably did.
The truck lurched up the ramp and fishtailed to a halt, engulfing Maude in the smell of oily exhaust.
Curly Martin's great-grandson Jimmy burst out the driver's side door. "He still ain't talking to me, Dr. DeVane!"
The bear-size seventeen-year-old barreled around toward the passenger side. As Maude reached the dusty truck, she leaned in to see the ninety-two-year-old rancher slumped against the door.
"Jimmy, get back in the truck." Maude conveyed calm in her command. "And hold him in position. Don't move him at all, especially his head." And if they were all very lucky, the old man was not already paralyzed.
Jimmy dashed back around and scrambled into the cab. As he cradled his great-grandfather in his giant hands, Maude opened the door and reached in to feel for a pulse.
"Is he dead?" Jimmy peered at her from under the bill of his faded green cap.
She gave him a quick smile. "He's alive, Jimmy." Curly Martin, icon, epitome of cowboy in these parts, was not going down to a spill from a horse, notif she had any say.
She patted Curly's chest. "Mr. Martin." No response. "Curly, open your eyes." She rubbed her knuckles into the man's breastbone hard enough to awaken a sleeping person. The man remained still, his lips a pale slash in his tanned face.
"Keep holding him just like that, Jimmy. I need to put a protective collar on his neck."
"I'm here, Dr. DeVane," a woman's quiet voice said from behind her.
Maude turned to the dark-haired, scrubs-clad, on-call nurse holding the stiff cervical collar in her hand. Maude smiled. "Thanks for getting here so quickly, Abby."
"Carolyn will be here soon," Abby said of the tech on call.
Maude nodded and then bent down to speak into Curly's "good" ear. "Mr. Martin, I'm going to put a safety collar around your neck," she said in the event he could actually hear her. After stabilizing his neck, the three of them lifted the unconscious man onto the waiting gurney and wheeled him inside the glass and aluminum entrance doors of the red-brick clinic.
"I'll have vitals for you in a sec," Abby said when they had moved Curly into the trauma room, a large, well-stocked room reserved for critical cases.
The serious knot on the side of his gray old head indicated the likely cause of his unconsciousness. But Maude wondered if he had fallen because he was unconscious or if he was unconscious because he had fallen. One of the slippery slopes of emergency medicine.
"Jimmy." Maude turned to the wide-eyed kid standing at the foot of the cart. "Did you see what happened?"
"No, ma'am, Dr. DeVane. Black Jaxx came around the barn lookin' proud like he a'ways does when he's thrown a rider. When I got to Granddad, he was on the ground."
"You should have let the rescue squad bring him in the ambulance."
"He'd'a killed me dead if I'd done that. Heck, he'll yell at me anyway." The boy rubbed the back of his thick neck.
"I know." Maude put a hand on Jimmy's arm. "He told Doc Avery he was too old to have a fuss made over him."
Jimmy grinned, then his face got serious again. "Will he wake up? Do you think you can save him, Dr. DeVane?"
"I'll know more after I examine him. If he wakes up soon, it'll be best."
Maude patted the old man's bony thigh through his worn jeans and started a more thorough exam. She gently prodded and searched for signs of injury, and just as she was satisfied there was no other neurological deficit, Curly began to mumble and tried to reach across his body with his left hand. Maude gently put his arm back at his side and let a little of her concern lift. Purposeful movement meant a decent level of brain function.
When Abby pulled off one boot, he murmured a few words.
Another moment later, "Danged horse," came out loud and clear, followed by something they probably didn't want to understand, period.
As Maude reached for Curly's right arm, he sat straight up. "What the hell's going on here?"
"Granddad!" Jimmy cried.
Curly looked around, blinked a few times and then swatted at Abby, who was tugging on his other low-heeled boot.
"And you can leave that right where it is, missy."
Abby easily evaded the swat and grinned at the old man. "Hullo, Curly Martin."
He let Abby ease him back against the pillow.
"Nurse Abby. Didn't expect to be back here so soon." With that, he gave Jimmy a look that made the boy squirm.
"I'm glad he brought you in, Mr. Martin." Maude put a hand on his shoulder to encourage him to stay put while she finished her exam.
Curly smirked his Montana charm and relaxed. "You're lookin' perty as a picture today, Maudie. But I guess it's Dr. DeVane nowadays."
"Well, Mr. Martin." Maude let the diminutive given to her in this valley when she was a child slide off her. "Now that you're smiling, you don't look so bad yourself. Does anything hurt?"
He grinned. "Just this." He held up the arm she had been about to examine. The bone under the brown weatherworn skin of his forearm jutted off in a slightly unnatural direction.
"Let me take a closer look at that," Maude said as she cradled his deformed wrist in the palm of her hand.
Curly's thick, frosty eyebrows drew together. "Nothin' a little time won't fix," he said as he tried to pull away.
"Curly Martin, are you in here giving people trouble again?"
All heads turned as the sound of the deep male voice thundered from the doorway. Maude smiled at her predecessor.
"Doc, I thought you left for civilization already." Curly grinned gap-toothed at Dr. William Avery, founder of the only clinic in her hometown, the place where Maude hoped to practice medicine as long as he hadhoped the town would let her.
"Don't you have a great-grandbaby back East to help birth?" Curly continued.
"Doc" pulled off distinguished-looking even in his travel clothes. "I heard you came all the way in from the ranch to say goodbye, so I stopped by for a minute." He gave Curly a cursory once-over, touching the bruise on Curly's head.
"Guess I wasn't glued on to that danged horse well enough."
"Good thing you landed on your hard head." Doc chuckled as he gently brushed a thumb over the wrist fracture.
"Dr. DeVane," he said as he turned to Maude, "I know you have everything under control here. If you have any questions, call me anytime."
"Thank you, I will. I hope you make it in time for the baby's birth, Dr. Avery." Maude smiled and kept her tone light. Doc Avery trusted her, but this visit would play differently through the gossip network. "Have a safe drive and a great retirement."
He smiled at her, patted Curly on the shoulder, nodded at Abby and Jimmy and walked out the door to his new life, no doubt leaving a trail of wagging tongues. Old Doc Avery couldn't even get out of town without checking up on Dr. DeVane one last time. Lordy, what's going to happen to us when he's gone?
Earlier at the grocery store she had overheard, "What if little Maudie messes up?" Did it not matter to anyone in this tiny throwback town that she had earned the M.D. after her name? She gave X-ray orders to Abby and left the room.
Well, she'd earn their trust. In the two years they had advertised for a doctor to take over the clinic, she was the only one to apply, and because she was their only choice of doctors in this valley, they'd have to give her what she needed to win them overtime.
Twelve mountain miles northwest of St. Adelbert, on the Whispering Winds Ranch, where pine trees towered and snowcapped mountains etched the skythe doorbell rang shrilly and repeatedly.
Guy Daley pushed away from the desk. Cynthia Stone, one of the participants in the executive development program, was at his door for the third day in a row with an excuse to chicken out of an activity. He had coerced her into the hike and the overnight, but this canyon crossing was going to be tricky.
The shrill bell rang again and he yanked the door open.
"Why's the door locked?" demanded the child on the stoop. She looked twenty, but he knew she was not quite thirteen. Mascara smeared under her eyes. Jeans shredded on the bottoms. Tail of her smudged pink T-shirt almost covering her belly and a riot of red curls mashed in on one side. She wore a deep scowl, just like her father had all those years ago when he'd run away from home and shown up at Guy's college apartment.
A fist of grief punched Guy in the gut. He took it and smiled at his niece.
"Lexie." He should be shocked or horrified she'd found her way, probably by herself, from Chicago to Montana, but he was oddly glad to see her.
"Uncle Guy." She glared at him, large blue eyes narrowed in challenge.
He reached for her bag, but she pulled away, so he stepped back to let her drag the purple duffle into the timbered living room. The last time he had tried to hug her, she'd slugged him.
"Does your mom know where you are?"
She shrugged one shoulder. "Kelly's too busy with the baby." She hefted the huge bag and hugged it to her. "Maybe she knows by now. I'm supposed to be at my friend's house until tomorrow."
Red streaks scored the whites of her eyes. "When was the last time you ate?"
She lifted the shoulder again.
Dirty, tired and hungry.
"Leave the bag. Go wash your hands."
She dropped the bag with a thud on the hardwood floor and headed down the hallway toward the bathroom.
"Eggs or cakers?" he called after her.
"Cakers." She turned for a moment and smiled sadly at him. Her father, his brother, had called pancakes "cakers," after a character in a kids' book. "And coffee."
"And orange juice," he muttered.
As she closed the bathroom door behind her, he took a second to feel the renewed ache spiraling through him. Maybe coming to his brother's ranch hadn't been such a good idea. Maybe he should have stayed in Chicago?
Twenty minutes later, Guy sat across the table and watched red curls bob up and down in rhythm to the forkfuls of pancakes being shoveled into the child's mouth.
"I called Kelly," Guy said of Lexie's stepmother. "She told me to tell you she's sorry you were unhappy."
She nodded and continued to fork in the fuel.
Her stepmother's exact words had been, "With the baby here I can't do this anymore. Keep her with you. Even I'm not uncaring enough to send her to your parents." Poor kid, if he was her last hope.
The whistle and choo-choo chugging of the ludicrous clock above the stove told him he was late for the startup of this morning's executive training program. "Leap of Faith," Henry had named crossing a small canyon on a zip wire.
"I've got people to see. Will you be all right by yourself for a while?"
"I'm a kid, not an idiot." She forked in the last bite.
He smiled. So like her father.
She sat in front of the plate pooled with syrup, empty orange juice glass in her hand, and stared out the window at the sun-sprayed shadows in the pine trees behind the house.
"I wish I had more than a couple of years with him."
"I wish you did, too. Sleep might be a good idea right now. Your room is still there."
"I guess I could sleep a little." Her voice trembled as she spoke. She turned her big blue eyes, pooled with unshed tears, on him. "Kelly said you restarted Dad's business."
He gave her a grim nod. "Bessie and her daughter'll be back from shopping soon, so you won't be alone long."
She swiped the back of her hand at the tears and smiled. "I hope she got Twinkies."
"What? I already had two apples today. No, wait, that was yesterday, sometime." She did her shoulder thing. "I'll go up and sleep for a little while, and then you can tell me whether or not you're going to keep me."
"Lexie, this is your home anytime you want it to be."
"Yeah." She turned away.
Guy watched her bounce off as if she didn't have a care in the world. Her home. She'd had many in her short life.
"I'll be back by noon," he called after her.
Up on a ridge a half mile away from the ranch house at the edge of a small canyon, Guy snugged the strap of the aerial-runway seat across Cynthia Stone's flabby abdomen.
"I don't want to be hurled across that damn canyon in thisthis thing." Her voice scratched at his eardrums.
He crouched down beside her. "It'll be over soon."
"Let me out!" Little fat bulges stuck out here and there as she squirmed in her pale aqua warm-up suit.
"You won't go across unless you want to." He wasn't sure how his brother did this job, but right now it beat trying to practice medicine.
"Come on, Cynthia. Don't be a chicken. The fox won't bite," one of the executives called from the other side of the canyon.
"Fox? What fox? I wasn't told about any foxes." She jerked around to glare at Guy.
He checked a reply. He knew her well enough to know the "fox" distress was a delay tactic.
"An aerial-conveyance system like this is sometimes called a flying fox." Or death slide. "Aerial runway works for the purposes of Mountain High Executive Services. It's a kind of pathway from your old self to your new leader-conqueror self."
"My old self is just fine." She yanked on the harness. "How do I know this is safe?"
"Aircraft-grade wire." He pointed up to the wire above her head spanning the canyon. "Safety harness and a hand-activated braking system. You can't fall unless you try really hard, and you don't have to go fast." She'd be a piece of work on the high ropes tomorrow.
"What if it doesn't have one more crossing left in it?"
She gave him a tired look, so he leaned in. "Cynthia" He lowered his voice to just above a whisper.
She studied him as if seeing him for the first time.
"There are times when we have to take a leap, or we'll never know how far we can go." Guy tried to make the words sound sincere. He knew Henry would have.