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"Ringo, this is shaping up to be a disaster." Cade leaned down to give the gray tabby a good scratch. Ringo's motor started up, and the soothing purr lifted Cade's spirits, but not by much. Whenever he glanced at the glossy black horse peering at him over the stall door, anxiety curdled in his gut.
A couple of hours ago, his boss at the Circle T had vowed to sell Hematite to a meatpacking plant. Dick Thornwood was the kind of SOB who would do it, too, so Cade had driven into Colorado Springs and emptied his bank account. He had more in his pocket than Thornwood could get at a slaughterhouse, so logically Thornwood should sell the horse to him instead.
But logic wasn't his boss's strong suit, especially when his pride had been wounded. His decision to ride Hematite earlier that afternoon had been ill-advised, and to make matters worse, he'd chosen to do it with his new girlfriend watching. Cade had tried to talk him out of it, but he'd insisted. Hematite had tossed him in the dirt.
Just as Cade had predicted he would. They were mere days into the training program, and Hematite had major issues. He'd been mistreated as a colt and gelding him hadn't done much to settle him down. He'd just begun to trust Cade, who'd managed to saddle him for the first time today. Too bad Thornwood had seen that and decided to show off for his lady friend.
When he'd been dumped on his ass, she'd laughed. Thornwood had sent her packing, and then, shaking with rage, he'd approached the horse. Thank God he hadn't had a gun. Instead he'd delivered Hematite's death sentence before stomping up to the house.
Cade had been nervous about leaving for the bank, so he'd asked Douglas, the foreman, to keep an eye on Hematite. Fortunately nothing happened. Thornwood was likely up at the house drinking. Cade had brought fast food with him so he could stay in the barn and keep watch over the horse all night.
Footsteps on the wooden barn floor jacked up his heart rate, but it turned out to be Douglas coming back, probably to check on them.
"The way that feline dotes on you, anybody'd think your pockets were stuffed with catnip." Douglas nudged back his hat and leaned against Hematite's stall. "You should probably take him when you leave or he'll die of a broken heart."
"Who says I'm leaving?"
"I saw your face when Thornwood started to go for that horse. Looked to me like you wanted to kill him."
"The thought occurred to me, but then I decided he wasn't worth it." Cade worked his fingers over Ringo's arched back, and the cat purred louder. "But yeah, I figure my time here is about up. I just have to work out the logistics."
"That's why I came to talk to you. You can borrow my horse trailer."
Cade glanced up. "Really? You don't need it?"
Douglas shrugged. "Not until next spring. If you can get it back to me by April, that'll be fine."
"I'll have it back real quick. I called a buddy over at the Bar Z and he said they might be able to use another hand, at least for the summer. I'll head there once I get Thornwood to sell me this horse."
The foreman sighed. "I dunno. He's crazy."
"Thornwood or the horse?"
"Thornwood. The horse is just scared."
"Yeah. Hematite can't stay here. Even before today's incident, I thought Thornwood and Hematite were a bad combination."
"You got your stuff together?"
Cade nodded. "Figured once the shit hit the fan, I needed to be ready to go. I" The sound of heavy, deliberate footsteps and the jingle of spurs made whatever he'd been about to say irrelevant. Heart pounding, he rose to his feet as Dick Thornwood came toward them. He held a coiled stock whip in one hand and a rope in the other. The fires of hell shone in his pale eyes.
Douglas swore under his breath, and Ringo crept behind a hay bale.
As Cade faced his boss, his heart rate slowed and icy calm replaced the initial adrenaline rush. He knew that unholy expression well. Bullies were all alike. His father, Rance, had looked exactly like that after he'd been drinking, except he'd vented his rage on Cade and his mother, not on a horse. Finally Cade had grown tall enough to stop him and his father had left.
Positioning himself in front of the stall door, Cade fixed his gaze on Thornwood. "I'll buy him from you."
Thornwood kept coming, bourbon on his breath. "He's not for sale."
"I thought you wanted him destroyed."
"I've reconsidered." He reached the stall. "Stand aside, Gallagher."
Thornwood's nostrils flared. "I said stand aside, cowboy!"
Dropping the rope, Thornwood uncoiled the whip. "Move it!"
"Touch me with that whip and I'll charge you with assault. And I have a witness."
Thornwood's jaw worked. "You're fired, asshole."
"And I'm not selling you that damned horse!"
"Why not?" He kept his tone conversational. "I'll give you more than you'd get at the slaughterhouse, and I'll take him off your hands. You can be rid of both of us tonight."
A vein pulsed at Thornwood's temple as his face reddened. "I'd rather beat the shit out of both of you." He sneered at Cade. "And your precious witness won't say a damned thing about it."
Cade raised his eyebrows. "You think he'd lie for you?"
"I do." Thornwood snapped the whip against the barn floor.
"I wouldn't count on it." Cade widened his stance.
"But if you're determined to pick a fight with me, bring it on." He held Thornwood's gaze. "Take your best shot."
A flicker in those pale eyes told Cade all he needed to know. Bullies chose fights they were certain they could win, and Thornwood was no longer so certain, even with that whip.
Sure enough, he backed up a step and his lip curled. "You're not worth the energy. Get the hell off my ranch. And take that nag with you." He pivoted toward the barn's entrance.
"Oh, no, you don't! You're selling him to me, not giving him away. I don't intend to get jailed for stealing your horse."
Thornwood paused but didn't turn around. "How much you got?"
Cade gave him a figure, everything he had in his pocket minus what he needed to carry him until he had another job.
"Give it to Lindstrom. He'll handle it." Thornwood stalked out of the barn.
Douglas blew out a breath. "Damn. That was close."
"He's just like my old man. Once you stand up to guys like that, they fold."
"No, not always." Cade had challenged his dad before he could back up the threat, and he had the scars to prove it. He dug the roll of bills out of his pocket. "I want something in writing that says I own this horse. Something with his signature on it."
"I'll see to it. You hitch up the trailer and get him loaded. I'll have a signed bill of sale for you before you leave."
"Thanks. I'll need to take the halter, too, and borrow a lead rope. Is that going to be a problem?"
"Nah. If he even brings it up, I'll tell him you'll return those when you return my trailer."
"I couldn't manage this without you." Cade gazed at the foreman. "I appreciate the help."
"Glad to do it."
"I won't be that far away. We can still get together for a beer once in a while."
"I'd like that." The foreman pocketed the money. "Better get moving before he changes his mind."
"Right. See you in a few." Cade fished for his keys and headed out the back to fetch his truck. He really was going to miss the crusty old foreman.
His reason for gravitating toward him in the first place was no mystery. He resembled Cade's foster fatherabout the same age with a similar wiry build and a no-nonsense attitude. Cade hadn't set foot on Thunder Mountain Ranch in Damn, had it really been five years?
He talked to Herb and Rosie on the phone several times a year and always on Christmas Eve, but he'd avoided an actual visit because of Lexi. That was a chickenshit reason. He needed to man up and make the trip, although he couldn't expect vacation days for a while if he was about to start a new job.
Climbing into his truck, he drove behind the bunk-house and hitched up Douglas's trailer. Then he took a moment to call his buddy at the Bar Z to make sure spending the night there was still an option. Tomorrow Cade would talk to the owner about a job, and with luck he'd be employed again in no time. That was important, especially when he had another mouth to feed.
Convincing Thornwood to sell had been the easy part of this rescue operation. Now he had to get that high-strung horse in the trailer. The previous owner, the one who'd mishandled Hematite's training, had given him a heavy-duty tranquilizer so he'd load. The drugged horse had staggered down the ramp the day he'd arrived.
This time Hematite would have to load and unload cold turkey. Cade considered that as he drove his truck around to the front of the barn. Lowering the ramp, he paused and took several deep breaths before going back into the barn.
His behavior would influence the horse, so the calmer he stayed, the better chance he'd have of keeping Hematite mellow. He visualized the horse walking quietly out of his stall, down the wooden aisle of the barn, then moving up into the trailer without hesitation.
Grabbing the rattiest-looking lead rope from the tack room, he started toward Hematite's stall. The horse watched him, ears pricked forward. Cade usually saved his next technique for when he was alone with a horse. Nobody else was in the barn, so he began singing "Red River Valley." Thanks to his time at Thunder Mountain Ranch, he had a whole repertoire of camp-fire songs, and normally they worked like a charm to settle nervous horses.
He'd only sung to Hematite a couple of times, though. They hadn't developed a singing routine, but at this point anything was worth a try. He continued the sweet love song as he unlatched the stall door and stepped inside.
Hematite snorted and edged away. Still singing, Cade approached and managed to clip the lead rope onto the horse's halter. Then he turned and walked out of the stall as if he thoroughly expected Hematite to follow him, no questions asked. The horse did.
Cade finished "Red River Valley" and moved on to "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." He sang in rhythm with the steady clip-clop of Hematite's hooves on the barn floor. Meanwhile he continued to visualize a smooth entrance into the horse trailer.
Out the barn door. Up the ramp. Cade kept singing. About three minutes later, the horse was loaded and the trailer doors secured. Cade stood there grinning and shaking his head in disbelief. That horse would be serenaded from now on.
"That's about the slickest thing I ever did see." Douglas came toward him from the direction of the house. "Were you singing to that animal?"
"Um, yeah." Cade chuckled. "If you use the term loosely."
"You're no George Strait, but at least I could recognize the tune. I've heard of using songs to calm a herd of cattle, but I never thought of trying it with horses. How long you been doing that?"
"Three or four years, I guess."
"No kidding. How'd you come up with it?"
"By accident. One day I was riding along, humming to myself for some reason, and I could feel my horse relax. So then I tried humming when I worked with a problem horse, and that seemed to help. I don't know if singing is any better than humming, but it's more interesting for me."
"I'll be damned." Douglas rubbed a hand over his jaw. "I'll just have to try it. Although I sound like a mating bullfrog, so it might not work for me. Can't believe I've known you for almost two years and never realized you were a singing cowboy."
Cade laughed. "I wouldn't go that far."
"I would. You're a cowboy. You sing. Case closed. Oh, and here's your bill of sale, complete with Thorn-wood's signature. He's had enough to drink that he doesn't care about much of anything, so he was more than happy to sign."
"Thank you." Cade took the paper, opened it to check the signature and refolded it. "You have my cell number. If he gives you any grief about this after he sobers up, let me know."
"I doubt he will. I'll wager that by tomorrow he'll have rewritten history. He'll tell everyone he gave you the deal of a lifetime because he's such a great guy and he felt sorry for you."
"He can make up any story he wants as long as he leaves me and this horse alone."
"I think he will, but if I get any hint that he's on the warpath, I'll give you a holler."
"Thanks, Douglas." He shook the foreman's hand. "Don't forget. We're going to have that beer someday soon."
"I'm counting on it."
Climbing into the truck, Cade glanced around at the place he'd called home for eighteen months. It hadn't really been home, of course. Thunder Mountain was the only place that fit that description. Thornwood had been a lousy boss, but Douglas had made up for that. So it was with mixed feelings that Cade put the truck in gear and pulled away from the Circle T.
He'd made it to the main road by the time Ringo decided to show himself. The gray tabby crawled from the space behind the passenger seat and settled himself on the worn upholstery. Immediately he began to purr.
Cade sighed. He should probably turn around and take Ringo back to the Circle T. "Look, I'm heading over to a ranch that may have a territorial barn cat for all I know. You might not be welcome there. Then what?"
Ringo blinked at him and purred louder.
Cade's chest tightened. He'd never had a pet of his own. Dogs and cats had been a constant presence at Thunder Mountain Ranch, but they'd been loved and cared for by all the boys. Cade remembered each one fondly, but he'd never felt the deep connection that he'd formed with Ringo. Apparently Ringo returned the sentiment, because here he was ready to follow Cade wherever the road led.
"Okay, cat. We'll figure it out."
As if he understood that the matter was settled, Ringo curled up on the seat and closed his eyes.
That kind of trust was rare in this world. Cade hadn't experienced it often. He could count on one hand the people who trusted him like thatHerb, Rosie, Damon, Finn, Douglas. Not Lexi.
If Ringo was offering him that level of trust, he'd be a fool not to take it and be grateful. He'd also be very careful not to betray it. He knew what abandonment felt like, and he wouldn't wish that on any creature.
Lexi might think he'd abandoned her, but he'd been very careful not to make promises he couldn't keep. That's what he told himself whenever guilty memories of her anger and her tears plagued him. She'd had expectations he couldn't meet. According to Lexi, some things were just understood. Not in his world. He was a guy who spelled everything out, and he'd never, ever said he'd marry her.
The Bar Z was only a forty-five-minute drive from the Circle T. About halfway there, Cade's cell phone rang. He pulled it off its holder on the dash, expecting a call from his buddy or maybe from Douglas.
Instead he stared in disbelief at the name on the screen. Lexi Simmons. Damned spooky, as if she'd tuned in to his thoughts and picked up the phone.
But he didn't believe in mental telepathy, and he knew she wouldn't call because she'd magically tapped into his brain waves. He had a bad feeling that he wouldn't like what he was about to hear. Heart racing, he answered while looking for a place to pull over.
"Cade?" She sounded the same, and her musical voice hurt his heart in ways it hadn't hurt in years. "Can you talk?"
"In a minute." He sounded out of breath and hated that. But he was having trouble breathing. Lexi. Dear God. "I'm driving and hauling a horse behind me. Let me get off the road."
"Okay. I'll wait."
He set the phone back in its holder and eased to the shoulder so he wouldn't jostle Hematite. Then he grabbed the phone again. "I'm here. What's up?"
"It's Rosie. She Herb took her to Sheridan Memorial."