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By COLLEEN COBLE
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Colleen Coble
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHis boss drove with both hands on the wheel, s low and steady as a tortoise. Some days Elijah DeAngelos's attention to detail drove Rick Bailey crazy, but today wasn't one of them. He had other things to worry about.
Interstate 10 stretched out east, straight and nearly empty of traffic. Sage and creosote had greened up with the winter rains. The old man turned the steering wheel in his gnarled hands, and the truck rolled down a narrow dirt path toward a broken-down barn a quarter of a mile back.
"Look there," Rick said. His hand gripped the door handle, wishing he could wring someone's neck. The call had come in two hours ago about these horses, but he'd hoped the caller was wrong about how bad their condition was. Everyone in the area knew to call Bluebird Ranch when a horse was in danger.
The two horses, one a pinto and the other a dun, stood on the other side of a gate that hung cockeyed on its post, their heads down. They could easily have gotten out, but they didn't have the strength. The ribs of both animals showed through their rough, dull coats. They barely mustered the will to turn to look at the vehicle.
They were so far gone, it would be a battle to save them.
Rick flung open his door and strode to the trailer they'd hauled here. Opening the back, he reached in for the bucket of high-protein dog food and sweet feed, a combination of oats, steamed cracked corn, and cottonseed pellets, all covered with molasses. The quick energy would be crucial to saving the mares. He carried the mixture to the animals. Elijah followed with a bucket of water.
Rick watched the feeble horses try to feed, and he fisted his hands. If he could find the man who had starved these horses, Rick would bloody his nose. He told himself to take a few deep breaths. Getting mad wouldn't help these animals.
He stepped to the dun and ran his hand over her patchy coat, wincing at the protruding bones. "I'm not sure we can save them," he admitted.
"I fear you might be right." Elijah held the bucket of water under the pinto's lips, but the mare refused to drink.
Rick heard the sound of an engine and turned to look. "The vet's here." He stepped to meet Grady O'Sullivan. "Thanks for coming all this way." The ranch was two hours from town, and Grady was the only vet he trusted to come this far.
The large man had red hair that stuck up like Woody Woodpecker's crest. About Rick's age, his big hands and feet matched his bulk. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, with feet thrust into sandals, he could have been at home on the Gulf beach.
He was also the pastor of the church Rick attended. He knew more about Rick than any man except Elijah.
Grady's gaze was on the horses, and he just nodded as he got out his bag. "They look bad, Rick."
"They are." Rick followed the vet to the two mares.
The dun's front legs buckled, and she went down. Rick knelt on one side, and the vet on the other. Grady ran his hands over her, checked her eyes and mouth, then prodded her stomach.
Rick knew the verdict before the man said anything. His gut clenched in a painful spasm, and he exhaled until it released. He'd hoped to reach her sooner.
Grady shook his head. "They're too far gone. I doubt they have the strength to make the trip. This one will die in the next couple of hours. She's just been starved too long."
"What about the pinto?" Elijah asked. The other mare had managed to get down some water and a handful of sweet feed and dog food. She stood swaying, her head down.
"Maybe, but it will take a miracle," the vet said.
"Those we have had before," Elijah said.
"Do what you can, Grady," Rick pleaded. "For both of them."
The vet heaved a sigh and opened his bag. "I'll start an IV of electrolytes and add in some B12. Then all we can do is pray."
Rick had already started that, and he knew the other men had as well. He watched the vet insert the IV and get the fluid going. The minutes ticked by, and he swatted at the horseflies congregating around the desperately ill mares. Squatting by the dun, he rubbed her head and neck, but half an hour later, she blew a final puff of breath into his palm, then ... nothing.
No, no! He couldn't lose her. He blew in her nostrils and massaged her stomach, but the great chest stayed motionless. His head dropped. Pain pulsed behind his eyes. "She's gone," he said.
Feeling older than his thirty-four years, he stood and went to check on the pinto. Elijah was at her side, coaxing her into eating another handful of the high-calorie feed. "She looks a little stronger," he said.
Elijah nodded. "This one, she will make it."
"Another hour and the prognosis would have been different," Grady said. "She's a nice mare. Small, but good lines. The kids at the ranch will love her."
Rick looked back at the dun. He'd failed that one. "Can we take her home now?"
"Give her another hour and some more feed, then see how strong she is. Wait until she's not wobbly. And leave the IV in until the second bag is empty." He closed his supply case. "Call me if you need me."
"Thanks, Grady. Tell Dolly I appreciate her sparing you on your day off."
"No problem." Grady carried his bag to the car, and Rick walked with him.
Over an hour later, Rick and Elijah decided the mare was strong enough to attempt the trip. The men got her loaded into the trailer, then climbed into the truck.
"We'll have to stop and feed her a few times," Rick said.
For now Rick could be glad Elijah was a slow and careful driver. The mare couldn't handle much jarring. "How can men be so cruel?" he asked softly once they were out on I-10 again. "We see so much of this neglect. People think they want a horse but don't stop to realize how much care one requires. When they're tired of it all, they just abandon their responsibilities."
Elijah gave him a quick glance. "Somehow I do not think you are speaking of the man who did this to the horses. It brings back memories of your mother, sí?"
The scars on Rick's back throbbed at the word mother. The woman didn't deserve the title. His thoughts raced to the woman who'd scarred him. It was her fault the county had taken his brother, Chad— Rick had never found him again. If he'd had a real dad, like Elijah, and a loving mom, what might he have done with his life?
Those kinds of doubts could drive him crazy. Rick was doing what he wanted, saving the horses he loved and helping kids turn out right.
The sun had already converted the trailer into a sauna, though a slight breeze relieved the heat a tad. Allie swiped away the sheen of perspiration on her forehead with the back of her hand before tossing a handful of socks into the suitcase.
"But where are you going?" Yolanda blocked the doorway.
About Allie's age, Yolanda was a pretty African-American who could ride like Dale Evans and rope like Roy Rogers. Yo would go far in the rodeo. Ice curled around Allie's veins at the realization she wouldn't be around to see it.
She glanced up from packing and forced a smile. "It's better if you don't know," she told Yolanda. "You're safer that way."
Familiar sounds and smells wafted in through the window: shouts from the stock crew, steers bellowing, the jingle of horse tack, the good scent of horse and cattle. Allie would miss the rodeo. And El Paso. Even this little trailer had come to feel like home after so many years.
Yolanda flopped onto the bed, her black cornrows bouncing on her shoulders. "I'm scared for you, girl. You'll be alone, without anyone to help you with Betsy. Let me tag along for luck."
"You're going to win the barrel race this year, Yo. I can't take that away from you. We'll be fine." Allie's purse sat on the nightstand with only a hundred dollars in it, and she prayed it would be enough to get them to the Big Bend. Yolanda would give her anything she had, but Allie couldn't ask.
It was bad enough that she had to give up her dream of winning the barrel race this year herself. She wouldn't dream of torpedoing Yo's chances as well.
"Did you talk to the cops?" Yolanda asked.
"What good would it do? The police have done nothing to stop whoever this guy is." A lump crept up her throat, but she swallowed it down and focused on her packing.
"They're trying. The guy is slick."
Allie zipped her old green suitcase closed. "I have to disappear."
The worry in Yolanda's dark eyes intensified. "I know we've gone over this before, but, girl, you have to have some idea who could hate you so much."
"Hernandez is the only one with something against me, and he's dead."
"What if it's someone he met in the clink?"
Allie set her suitcase on the cracked linoleum floor. "Why would someone take on his vendetta? Whoever this guy is, he's killed three people, Yo. That takes a lot of hatred. And I'm not waiting around for him to get to Betsy."
After her parents died when her father's plane went down, the calls started. An eerie voice taunted her on the phone, telling her he had killed her parents and would take everything she loved. She'd been sunken in despair and grief, bowed down with more than she could bear until the guy started calling.
Strangely, his calls infused her with the determination to protect the rest of her family. The threats gave her purpose. Only one person could help her now. She hadn't wanted to go to him—not with him working for the one man she wanted to avoid— but now he was her best chance.
"How do you think Betsy will handle the change?"
Allie glanced out the open curtains to the melee going on outside. Her daughter stood on the first rung of the fence, watching the cowboys practice throwing their ropes at the stationary stands. Dust billowed from the horse's hooves. "I hope the place where I'm taking her will make her well."
Yolanda's forehead wrinkled. "Some place that will make her talk? What kind of place would that be?"
Allie wagged her finger at her friend. "Don't try to find out any more."
"What if Betsy's grandparents show up? What should I tell them?"
"The truth. That you don't know where I am. If they can't find me, they can't serve me with custody papers." She picked up her suitcase and dragged it toward the door. "I packed too much," she panted.
"Let me help." Yolanda sprang toward her.
"Just get the door."
Yolanda opened the door, and Allie dragged the bulky luggage out onto the dirt. She opened the tailgate of her old pickup and heaved it into the back with the ragtag assortment of rope, bridles, empty Pepsi cans, and old blankets.
"What if the police have questions?" Yolanda followed Allie toward the paddock. "And all your friends from church will want to know you're okay. Girl, it scares me to think about you being off on your own with no support."
"I'll call and check in occasionally. I can't let that guy find me and Betsy." Allie stepped to where Betsy stood at the fence. She scooped up her daughter and inhaled the scents of red licorice and little girl.
Betsy was all she had left of Jon. Allie would give her every possible reason to talk again. "Ready to go, Bets?"
Betsy shook her head so hard her ponytails flipped against her cheeks. She set her chin, and her lips quivered. Even the threat of leaving everything she knew and loved didn't break the wall of silence that had encased her for a year.
Allie set her on the ground and took her hand. "We'll come back for a visit. Come along, honey." Betsy's feet scuffed along the dirt, but she followed her mother to the truck.
"Call me, girl." Yolanda grabbed Allie in a tight hug.
Allie clasped Yo back, closing her eyes and imprinting the musky scent her friend wore in her memory. It would be all she'd have to hold her until they met again.
She was going into hostile territory.
"I'll call when I get there." Allie's eyes burned, and she knew she had to get out of there. Tears would upset Betsy. She got in the truck and buckled her seat belt, just a lap belt, the thing was so old. "Fasten up, Bets."
As the truck pulled away from the stockyard, Allie forced herself not to look in the rearview mirror and watch her ten-year dream dissolve in the distance.
Chapter TwoBluebonnets. Thousands of them. The carpet of blue undulated over the hills, melding into the distant haze of the mountains. Those peaks had been growing ever since she left the Del Norte Mountains behind and pressed closer to the Rio Grande.
Allie rubbed her tired eyes. Even Eddy Arnold belting out "Gonna Find Me a Bluebird" failed to energize her. Six hours on the road with the dust blowing in through the open windows had left her eyes dry and gritty.
She glanced in the rearview mirror. No other vehicles meant no pursuit. They had time to enjoy this, make a memory. She lifted her foot from the accelerator. "Look, Betsy, let's get your picture taken in
Dark curls tied up in red holders hid Betsy's face from view. She plucked at the frayed edges of a hole in her jeans and didn't answer.
Allie would not allow despair to take hold. She would root it out, trample it underfoot, burn it to ash. Her daughter would talk again, laugh again, find joy again.
She forced a bit of cheerfulness into her voice. "I'll stop here and get your picture."
Something clanked in the old Ford's underbelly when she parked it at the side of the road. "Come on, sweetie," she coaxed. She hung the camera around her neck and turned to her daughter. "I'll show you the picture of me in the bluebonnets. I think I was about five at the time too."
She remembered the day so clearly. Her mother's smile, her scent. Allie's hands gripped the wheel in a spasm of agony. Nearly a year after her parents' deaths, the pain still threatened to swamp her. She shook off the memory and got out of the truck.
The sweet aroma of the thousands of flowers wafted around her. The wildflowers tossed their blue heads in the breeze and lifted their faces to the fading sunlight. How could Betsy not be moved by this place?
These hills felt like a sanctuary, a place of healing for them both.
Allie went around to the passenger door. The latch was always a bit tricky on this side, but she managed to wrench it open. Betsy's wide eyes were as blue as the wildflowers carpeting the landscape. Allie could see Jon in those eyes.
She lived for the day when those blue depths didn't hold fear. "It's okay," she said. "There's no one here."
Betsy hiked one leg out the door and looked around before she stood and put her small hand in Allie's. Allie led her into the bluebonnets and sat her down. The flowers almost looked like hyacinths, and the fragrance was divine, the sweetness intoxicating. The flowers stood tall on bright green stalks and came up to Betsy's chest, where they contrasted with her yellow shirt. Dusk was only a few minutes away, and the lighting was perfect.
"Just a minute." Allie turned on her digital camera, a gift from her parents, and snapped several shots of Betsy sitting stone-faced in the flowers. "Smile, Betsy," she called. But of course her daughter's lips stayed straight and sober.
Allie would give anything to hear the little girl giggle again.
"Let's go, sweetie."
Betsy jumped to her feet and ran to the truck. She slammed the door shut, then got out her coloring book and crayons.
Allie inhaled the fragrance one last time and slid under the steering wheel. She twisted the key. The engine did nothing but grind. "Come on, come on," she muttered. Releasing the key, she let the engine rest a minute, then tried again. The sound of the engine softened as the battery weakened.
If she had the money, she would have gotten a new battery before she left El Paso.
"Please, please." She leaned her head against the steering wheel. They couldn't be stuck out here. It would be dark in another hour, and the ranch had to be miles away.
Her gaze went to Betsy, who was lost in coloring the bluebirds in the Cinderella picture. Betsy would freak if they were stranded in the dark. Her night terrors were bad enough without actually being in danger.
Allie tried the engine again, but the grinding slowed until all she heard was the clicking of a dead battery. The empty highway stretched out to the horizon ahead and behind. Marfa was at least twenty miles behind her. There was no one she could call for help, even if she had a cell phone.
Leaning across the seat, she unlocked her daughter's door. "Let's go for a walk, Bets. I want to get a few more shots of you in those bluebonnets, and there's a great patch just a little ways down the road."
Betsy shook her head and locked the door. Hating to be firm, Allie bit her lip and got out of the car. She went around to the passenger door and unlocked it with her key. "Come on, it will be fun."
Excerpted from LONESTAR SANCTUARY by COLLEEN COBLE Copyright © 2007 by Colleen Coble. 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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