When Beth’s world falls apart, can she ever be whole again?
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HOUSE OF MERCY
By ERIN HEALY
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Erin Healy
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt wasn't every day that an old saddle could improve a horse's life.
That was what Beth Borzoi was thinking as she stood in the dusty tack room that smelled like her favorite pair of leather boots. In the back corner where the splintering-wood walls met, she tugged the faded leather saddle off the bottommost rung of the heavy-duty rack, where it had sat, unused and forgotten, for years.
Her little brother, Danny, would have said she was stealing the saddle. He might have called her a kleptomaniac. That was too strong a word, but Danny was fifteen and liked to throw bold words around, cocky-like, show-off rodeo ropes aimed at snagging people. She loved that about him. It was a cute phase. Even so, she had formed a mental argument against the characterization of herself as a thief, in case she needed to use it, because Danny was too young to understand the true meaning of even stronger words like sacrifice or situational ethics.
After all, she was working in secret, in the hidden folds of a summer night, so that both she and the saddle could leave the Blazing B unnoticed. In the wrong light, it might look like a theft.
The truth was, it was not her saddle to give away. It was Jacob's saddle, though in the fifteen years Jacob had lived at the ranch, she had never seen him use it. The bigger truth was that this saddle abandoned to tarnish and sawdust could be put to better use. The fenders were plated with silver, pure metal that could be melted down and converted into money to save a horse from suffering. Decorative silver bordered the round skirt and framed the rear housing. The precious metal had been hammered to conform to the gentle rise of the cantle in the back and the swell in the front. The lovely round conchos were studded with turquoise. Hand-tooled impressions of wild mountain flowers covered the leather everywhere that silver didn't.
In its day, it must have been a fine show saddle. And if Jacob valued that at all, he wouldn't have stored it like this.
Under the naked-bulb beams of the tack room, Beth's body cast a shadow over the pretty piece as she hefted it. She blew the dirt and dander off the horn, swiped off the cracked seat with the flat of her hand, then turned away her head and sneezed. Colorado's dry climate had not been kind to the leather.
She wasn't stealing. She was saving an animal's life.
The latch on the barn door released Beth to the midnight air with a click like a stolen kiss. The saddle weighed about thirty-five pounds, which was easy to manage when snatching it off a rack and tossing it onto a horse's back. But it would feel much heavier by the time she reached her destination. She'd parked her truck a ways off where the rumbling old clunker wouldn't raise questions or family members sleeping in the nearby ranch house. She'd left her dog at the foot of Danny's bed with clear orders to stay. She hoped the animal would mind.
Energized, she crossed the horses' yard. A few of them nickered greetings at her, including Hastings, who nuzzled her empty pockets for treats. The horses never slept in the barn's stalls unless they were sick. Even in winter they stayed in the pasture, preferring the outdoor lean-to shelters.
The Blazing B, a 6,500-acre working cattle ranch, lay to the northwest of Colorado's San Luis Valley. The region was called a valley because this portion of the state was a Rocky Mountain hammock that swung between the San Juans to the west and the Sangre de Cristos to the east. But at more than seven thousand feet, it was no low-lying flatland. It was, in fact, the highest alpine valley in the world. And it was the only place in the world that Beth ever wanted to live. Having graduated from the local community college with honors and saved enough additional money for her continuing education, she planned to leave in the fall to begin her first year of veterinary school. She would be gone as long as it took to earn her license, but her long-term plan was to return as a more valuable person. Her skills would save the family thousands of dollars every year, freeing up funds for their most important task—providing a home and a hard day's work to discarded men who needed the peace the Blazing B had to offer.
On this late May night, a light breeze stirred the alfalfa growing in the pasturelands while the cattle grazed miles away. The herds always spent their summers on public lands in the mountains while their winter feed grew in the valley. They were watched over by a pool rider, a hired man who was a bit like a cow's version of a shepherd. He stayed with them through the summer and would bring them home in the fall.
With the winter calving and spring branding a distant memory, the streams and irrigation wells amply supplied by good mountain runoff, and the healthy alfalfa fields thickening with a June cutting in mind, the mood at the Blazing B was peaceful.
When Beth was a quarter mile beyond the barn, a bobbing light drew her attention to the west side of the pasture, where ancient cottonwood trees formed a barrier against seasonal winds and snows. She paused, her eyes searching the darkness beyond this path that she could walk blindfolded. The light rippled over cottonwood trunks, casting shadows that were indistinguishable from the real thing.
A man was muttering in a low voice, jabbing his light around as if it were a stick. She couldn't make out his words. Then the yellow beam stilled low to the ground, and she heard a metallic thrust, the scraping ring of a shovel's blade being jammed into the dirt.
Beth worried. It had to be Wally, but what was he doing out at this hour, and at this place? The bunkhouse was two miles away, and the men had curfews, not to mention strict rules about their access to horses and vehicles.
She left the path and approached the trees without a misstep. The moonlight was enough to guide her over the uneven terrain.
The cutting of the shovel ceased. "Who wants to know?"
"Beth Borzoi. Abel's daughter. I'm the one who rides Hastings."
"Well, sure! Right, right. Beth. I'm sorry you have to keep telling me. You're awfully nice about it."
The light that Wally had set on the ground rose and pointed itself at her, as if to confirm her claims, then dropped to the saddle resting against her thighs. Wally had been at the ranch for three years, since a stroke left his body unaffected but struck his brain with a short-term memory disorder. It was called anterograde amnesia, a forgetfulness of experiences but not skills. He could work hard but couldn't hold a job because he was always forgetting where and when he was supposed to show up. Here at the ranch he didn't have to worry about those details. He had psychologists and strategies to guide him through his days, a community of brothers who reminded him of everything he really needed to know. Well, most things. He had been on more than one occasion the butt of hurtful pranks orchestrated by the men who shared the bunkhouse with him. It was both a curse and a blessing that he was able to forget such incidents so easily.
Beth was the only Beth at the Blazing B, and the only female resident besides her mother, but these facts regularly eluded Wally. He never forgot her father, though, and he knew the names of all the horses, so this was how Beth had learned to keep putting herself back into the context of his life.
"You're working hard," she said. "You know it's after eleven."
"Looking for my lockbox. I saw him take it. I followed him here just an hour ago, but now it's gone."
Sometimes it was money that had gone missing. Sometimes it was a glove or a photograph, or a piece of cake from her mother's dinner table that was already in his belly. All the schedules and organizational systems in the world were not enough to help Wally with this bizarre side effect of his disorder: whenever a piece of his mind went missing, he would search for it by digging. Dr. Roy Davis, Wally's psychiatrist, had curtailed much of Wally's compulsive need to overturn the earth by having him perform many of the Blazing B's endless irrigation tasks. Even so, the ten square miles of ranch were riddled with the chinks of Wally's efforts to find what he had lost.
"That must be really frustrating," she said. "I hate it when I lose my stuff."
"I didn't lose it. A gray wolf ran off with it. I had it safe in a secret spot, and he dug it up and carried off the box in his teeth. Hauled it all the way up here and reburied it. Now tell me, what's a wolf gonna do with my legal tender? Buy himself a turkey leg down at the supermarket?"
Wally must have kept a little cash in his box. She could understand his frustration. But this claim stirred up disquiet at the back of her mind. Dr. Roy would need to know if Wally was seeing things. First off, gray wolves were hardly ever spotted in Colorado. They'd been run out of the state before World War II by poachers and hostile ranchers, and their return in recent years was little more than a rumor. Wally might have seen a coyote. But for another thing, no wild animal dug up a man's buried treasure and relocated it. Except maybe a raccoon.
A raccoon trying to run off with a heavy lockbox might actually be entertaining.
"Tell you what, Wally. If he's buried it here we'll have a better chance of finding it in the morning. When the sun comes up, I'll help you. But they'll be missing you at the bunkhouse about now. Let me take you back so no one gets upset when they see you're gone." Jacob or Dr. Roy would do bunk checks at midnight.
"Upset? No one can be as upset as I am right now." He thrust the shovel into the soft dirt at his feet. "I saw the dog do it. I tracked him all the way here, like he thought I wouldn't see him under this full moon. Fool dog—but who'd believe me? It's like a freaky fairy tale, isn't it? Well, I'd have put that box in a local vault if I didn't have to keep so many stinkin' Web addresses and passwords and account numbers and security questions at my fingertips." He withdrew a small notebook from his hip pocket and waved the pages around. It was one of the things he used to keep track of details. "Maybe I'll have to rethink that."
Beth's hands had become sweaty and a little cramped under the saddle's weight. She used her right knee to balance the saddle and fix her grip. The soft leather suddenly felt like heavy gold bricks out of someone else's bank vault.
"Well, let's go," she said. "I've got my truck right on down the lane."
"What do you have there?" Wally returned the notebook to his pocket, hefted the shovel, and picked his way out of the underbrush, finding his way by flashlight.
"An old saddle. It's been in the tack room for years." She expected Wally to forget the saddle just as quickly as he would forget this night's adventure and her promise to help him dig in the morning.
He lifted one of the fenders and stroked the silver with his thumb. "Pretty thing. Probably worth something. Not as much as that box is worth to me, though."
"We'll find it," Beth said.
"You bet we will." Wally fell into step beside her. "Thanks for the ride back, Beth. You're a good girl. You got your daddy in you."
* * *
With Jacob's old saddle resting on a blanket in the bed of her rusty white pickup, Beth followed an access road from the horse pasture by her own home down into the heart of the Blazing B.
The property's second ranch house was located more strategically to the cattle operation, and so it was known to all as the Hub. The Hub was a practical bachelor pad. Outside, the branding pens and calving sheds and squeeze chutes and cattle trucks filled up a dusty clearing around the house. Inside, the carpets and old leather furniture, even when clean, smelled like men who believed that a hard day's work followed by a dead sleep—in any location—was far more gratifying than a hot shower. The house was steeped in the scent stains of sweat and hay, horses and manure, tanned leather and barbecue smoke. The men who slept here lived like the bachelors they were. If their daily labors weren't enough to impress a woman, the cowboys couldn't be bothered with her.
Dr. Roy Davis, known affectionately by all as Dr. Roy, was a lifelong friend of Beth's father. Years ago, after the death of Roy's wife, Abel and Roy merged their professional passions of ranching and psychiatry and expanded the Blazing B's purpose. It became an outreach to functional but wounded men like Wally who needed a home and a job. Dr. Roy brought his teenage son, Jacob, along. Now thirty-one, Jacob had never found reason to leave, except for the years he'd spent away at college earning multiple degrees in agriculture and animal management. Jacob had been the Blazing B's general operations manager for more than five years.
Jacob and his father shared the Hub with Pastor Eric, who was a divorced minister, and Emory, a therapist who was once a gang leader. These men were the Borzois' four full-time employees.
The other men who lived at the Blazing B were called "associates." They occupied the bunkhouse, some for a few weeks and some for years. At present there were six, including Wally.
When Beth stopped her truck in front of the Hub's porch, Wally slipped off the seat of her cab, closed the rusty door, and went directly around back to the bunkhouse. She pulled away and had reached the end of the drive when a rut jarred the truck and rattled the shovel he'd left in the truck bed.
In spite of her hurry to take Jacob's saddle to the people who needed it, she put the truck in park, jumped out, and jogged the tool up to the house. The porch light lit the squeaky wood steps, and she took them two at a time. Jacob would see the tool in the morning when he came out to start up his own truck and head out to whatever project was on the schedule. She'd phone him to make sure.
She was tipping the handle into the corner where the porch rail met the siding when the Hub's front door opened and Jacob leaned out.
"Past your bedtime, isn't it?" he said, but he was smiling at her. Over the years they had settled into a comfortable big-brother-little- sister relationship, though Beth had never fully outgrown her adolescent crush on him.
"Found Wally digging up by the barn," she said.
Surprise pulled his dark brows together. "Now? Where is he?"
"Back in bed, I guess. He said he followed a wolf up to our place. You might want Dr. Roy to look into that. Your dad should know if Wally's ... seeing things."
Jacob nodded as he stepped out the door and leaned against the house. He crossed his arms. "Coyote maybe?"
"Try suggesting that to him. And when was the last time we had a coyote down here? It's been ages—not since Danny gave up his chicken coop."
"I'll mention that to Dad. It's probably nothing. What had you out at the barn at this hour? Horses okay?"
"Fine." Beth's eyes swiveled down to her truck, to Jacob's saddle, both well beyond reach of the porch light. She tried to recall all her justifications for taking the saddle, but in that moment all she could think was that she should get his permission to do it. She'd known this man more than half her life. He was kind. He was wise. He'd say yes. He'd want her to take it.
But she said, "I'm headed out to the Kandinskys' place. They've got a horse who injured his eye, and it's pretty bad. They let it go too long, you know, hoping it would correct itself, maybe wouldn't need a big vet bill."
"The Kandinskys have their own vet on the premises. Who called you out?"
"It's not one of their horses, actually. It's Phil's. Remember him?"
"Your friend from high school?"
"He's been working there a year or so. They let him keep the horse on the property. One of the perks."
"But he can't use their vet?"
Beth looked at her feet. "Phil's family can't afford their vet. You know how that goes. We couldn't afford him. His family doesn't even have pets, you know. They run a grocery store. The horse is his little sister's project. A 4H thing."
"Well, tell Phil I said he called the right gal for the job."
"I don't know, Jacob. It sounds really bad. These eye things—the horse might need surgery."
She found it unusually difficult to look at him, though she was sure he was studying her with a suspicious stare by now. But she couldn't look at the truck either. Her eyes couldn't find an object to rest on.
"All you can do is all you can do, Beth. That'll be as true after you're licensed as it is now."
"But I want to do miracles," she said.
He chuckled at that, though she hadn't been joking. "Don't we all." He uncrossed his arms and put his hand on the doorknob, preparing to go back inside. "I heard some big-shot Thoroughbred breeder is boarding some of his studs there," Jacob said. "Some friend of theirs passing through."
"I heard that too."
"Maybe that'll be Phil's miracle this time—an unexpected guest, someone with the right know-how or the right resources who will come to his horse's rescue."
"Angels unaware," Beth said.
"Something like that. Night, Beth."
Beth didn't want him to go just yet. "Night."
She lingered at the door while it closed, hoping he might intuit what she didn't have the courage to say.
Excerpted from HOUSE OF MERCY by ERIN HEALY Copyright © 2012 by Erin Healy. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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