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On a high ridge overlooking the Little Big Horn River, Tab Willows sat up straight in the saddle and lifted her arm above her head. Finally, she had a signal for her cell phone. There was no way she could find Misty and her boyfriend unless they gave her better directions to their location. This horse didn't come equipped with GPS. She hit the redial.
Misty Gabriel answered immediately. "Tab, where are you? I need you."
Panic trembled in her voice, which was understandable for a woman in labor with her first baby. For some unexplainable reason, Misty and Clinton had decided to go off-roading and had gotten their vehicle stuck in a creek bed that was damp with melt from a recent snow. The early November weather wasn't bad right now, but night was coming. With the darkness came an icy chill.
Tab hadn't been working with Misty as a regular client in her midwife practice, but she felt an obligation and a connection to this young woman she used to babysit, even though, as adults, they didn't appear to have much in common. Misty was the spoiled seventeen-year-old daughter of a wealthy ranching family. Bubbly and blonde, she giggled with every other breath. In contrast, Tab seldom laughed out loud. Her overall appearancedusky-colored skin and straight black hair worn in a single braid down to her waistfavored her mother's Crow heritage. Her blue eyes came from her dad.
"I'm looking down at the area you described," Tab said, "but I don't see your Jeep. Give me directions."
"Like what?" She giggled nervously. "It's not like there are street signs or anything."
Focus, Misty. "Any unusual rock formations?"
"Oh, yeah. On the other side of the river and up a slope, there's a big cave we used to play in when we were kids."
That landmark told Tab the approximate whereabouts. When Misty had first called, she'd said there were no passable roads, which was why Tab was on horseback. She wished she'd taken her van; there was a decent route that ran fairly close to Misty's location.
"Half-Moon Cave, that's right." Her giggle broke into a sob. "You've got to hurry. Clinton hit his head."
Of course, he did. This situation just got worse and worse. "Is he conscious?"
"Kind of. He was trying to push the Jeep out of the mud and he slipped and conked his forehead on the bumper."
On horseback, there was no way to evacuate a man with a concussion and a woman in labor. "Let's talk about you. How far apart are your pains?"
"I don't know. It just hurts."
"And how many months along are you?"
"Eightish. The doctor said I could have the baby any time now."
In the best-case scenario, Misty was experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions that wouldn't lead to childbirth. Or she could be going into early labor. "I want you to stay calm. Take slow, steady breaths, okay?"
"Whatever you say, Tab."
"One thing I don't understand," she said. "Why didn't you call your brother to come for you?"
Her brother, Aiden Gabriel, provided a private rescue-helicopter service for the local hospitals, the sheriff and national park rescue teams. Because he also worked on the family ranch, he wasn't always available, but Tab knew that Aiden would drop everything to rescue his baby sister.
"Aiden is a big old jerk," Misty said. "And he doesn't like Clinton."
An opinion Tab could easily comprehend. Clinton had taken his very pregnant girlfriend on an off-road adventure, gotten them stuck and then knocked himself unconscious. Clearly, he wasn't the sharpest arrow in the quiver. "Brace yourself, Misty. I'm calling your brother. You need his help."
"Maybe not. I think I see somebody coming."
"Stay where you are," Tab said sharply. "I can't find you if you go wandering off."
"Okay. See you later, elevator."
"Real soon, harvest moon."
Tab smiled as she remembered the rhyming games she and Misty played ten years ago. Tab had been sixteen. Her life had been split between living with her dad in Billings and with her grandma, Maria Spotted Bear, on the Crow reservation. When her dad had been hired to do contracting work at the Gabriel ranch near Henley, she'd tagged along and had gotten recruited as a live-in babysitter for seven-year-old Misty.
That summer had been a rough time for the Gabriel family. Misty's dad had been killed in a car accident. Tab felt like she could understand Misty's grief because she'd lost her mom and knew what it was like to have a parent die too young. She and Misty had bonded but their friendship wasn't the main thing that happened that summer. That summer, Tab had fallen in love for the first time.
Looking down at her cell phone, she remembered the tall, lean, handsome Aiden Gabriel with his thick brown hair and his dreamy gray eyes. He'd been twenty-one when he came home from college and shouldered the responsibilities of a ranch owner, helping his mom to cope when her husband died. Though Tab never told anyone, she'd dreamed of Aiden every night, imagining his kiss and what it would feel like to be held in his strong arms. Once, he'd given her a necklace with a shiny four-leaf clover pendant, which she'd worn for years before tucking it away in her jewelry box.
Tab hadn't spoken to Aiden since moving back to this area, but she'd seen him recently at a meeting in Crow Agency where the topic was the ongoing law enforcement problems on the reservation. After noticing that he was still the best-looking cowboy she'd ever seen, she'd grabbed one of his business cards and recorded his number on her phone to use in case of birthing emergencies. This circumstance qualified. She hit the speed dial.
On the third ring, he answered, "This is Aiden Gabriel."
"Hi, it's Tab." A pause stretched between them. He didn't remember her. And wasn't that a knife to the gut? She clarified, "Tab Willows. I saw you at that law enforcement meeting in Crow Agency and took your card."
"Tabitha." He was one of the few people who used her full name. "You haven't been around for a while. I heard you were at nursing school in Missoula."
"That's right." Hearing his voice cast her backward in time to when she was a lovesick teenager wishing on a star that he'd notice her. She swallowed hard. "I'm a midwife."
"We have some catching up to do."
Tongue-tied, she mumbled, "Guess so."
"It's been a long time, but I'll never forget that pretty, young girl with long black hair who used to race my fastest horse across the fields bareback."
He'd thought she was pretty? If he'd told her when she was sixteen, she would have exploded in a wild burst of angst and joy. Even now, his compliment made it hard for her to breathe. "Misty needs your help."
"She called me because she's having labor pains. She and her boyfriend got their Jeep stuck in a creek bed, and she needs to be evacuated."
"Are you with her?"
"On my way," Tab said. "But I can't bring her in because I'm on horseback. Misty said they were near Half-Moon Cave."
"I know where it is," he said. "Tabitha, I hope you remember what was discussed at that meeting. If you're riding alone, you should be prepared for trouble."
In her work, she often traveled alone, heading to remote locations to work with women in labor. And she didn't take unnecessary chances. A rifle scabbard was tucked under her saddlebags. "I'm armed."
"See you there."
With her cell phone tucked into the pocket of her brown denim jacket, she flicked the reins and nudged her heel into the flank of Shua, her grandma's blue-black mare with the white blaze on her forehead. With minimal direction, the horse descended from the ridge and galloped across a wide valley dotted with patches of old snow.
As she directed Shua uphill through a stand of pine trees, she wondered how she could arrange to ride back to the hospital in the helicopter with Aiden. Unfortunately, she couldn't abandon her horse, even though Shua could probably find her own way back to the corral outside her grandma's house. The chopper ride would have to wait for another day.
If she took Misty as a client, she'd have plenty of opportunity to see Aiden. Not that she needed an excuse. Her midwife work made it important to know the emergency providers.
She had every reason to call him and set a coffee date or invite him to her grandma's house and bake him a pie. Did he still like apple? Would he still think she was pretty?
A blast of gunfire echoed through the canyons and across the fields. Three shots.
Shua reared back. Tab's memories and daydreams shattered. There was trouble ahead.
If her reckoning was correct, Half-Moon Cave was just over the next rise. She urged her horse to go faster. From the hilltop, she looked down at a field near the canyon walls and saw the open-top Jeep with the rear tires buried up to the hubcaps in the mud. Taking her rifle from the scabbard, Tab held it to her shoulder and peered through the scope for a better look at the vehicle. There was a man sprawled in the backseat; she couldn't tell if he'd been shot. Misty was nowhere in sight.
This couldn't be good. Tab cocked her rifle and fired into the air. Her gunfire would warn off attackers and let Misty know that help was on the way.
Two more shots answered hers.
Rifle in hand, Tab rode fast. Her long braid bounced against her back, and the wind streamed across her cheeks. Her protective instincts came to the fore as she remembered the vulnerable child she babysat so long ago.
Approaching the Jeep, she shouted, "Misty?"
Loud sobbing came from a tangle of willows and cot-tonwoods that bordered the river. Still on horseback, Tab approached. If any real marksmanship was required, she'd need to dismount and brace herself. Right now, she wanted the option of fast maneuvering on Shua.
"Misty, are you all right?"
"I'm over here."
In a small clearing, Tab saw the body of a man who had been shot in the chest. His jacket hung open. His eyes stared blankly at the darkening sky. He wasn't moving.
Kneeling on the ground beside him was Misty. She held her bloody hands in front of her as though afraid to touch anything. A rifle lay on the ground.
Misty turned her tear-streaked face toward her. "I didn't kill him. I swear I didn't."
Though Aiden was always on call for emergencies, it usually took a while for him to get started because he had to drive to the air field in Henley to pick up his six-passenger helicopter, a Bell Long Ranger. Today, he needed only to walk from the barn to the helipad near his cabin at the Gabriel family ranch. Earlier today, he'd given piloting lessons to a couple of the ranch hands. With winter coming, there wasn't as much work for the cowboys to do, and Aiden could use some part-time help with his newly established rescue business.
Less than fifteen minutes after Tabitha's call, he was in the cockpit. He fastened his seat belt, depressed the starter, checked the fuel-pressure gauge, opened the throttle and pointed the nose toward the southeast. If he'd been following roads, the drive to Half-Moon Cave near the Little Big Horn River would have taken nearly an hour. Swooping through the sky cut his arrival time to approximately twenty minutes. Top speed was necessary. From what Tabitha had told him, Misty might be giving birth at any moment.
He hadn't been pleased when his baby sister turned up pregnant. Misty was fourteen years younger than he was, not much more than a child herself. Aiden still had a hard time thinking of her as a mother, but the idea of having a nephew had grown on him.
As his mom constantly pointed out, it was time for a new generation in the Gabriel family. Mom would have preferred a marriage before the baby, but she'd take what she could get, especially since it didn't look like Aiden would be heading toward the altar any time soon. His long-distance relationship had fizzled last month when they'd argued about where to spend Christmas. Aiden had point-blank refused to make the trip to Los Angeles to hang tinsel on palm trees, and his lady had no interest in coming to the ranch. The breakup had been inevitable. They'd grown apart.
Using his headset, he put through a call to Tabitha's cell phone. When she answered, he clarified his directions. "I think I'm getting close. I'm following the course of the river."
"We're on the east side. Near a dried-up creek. Please hurry, Aiden."
He heard the note of urgency in her voice. "What's wrong?
Is it the baby?"
"Misty is fine." She paused. "There's been a shooting."
"Are you safe?"
"I think the shooter took off, but I can't be sure."
"I'll be there in a few minutes," he said. "Tell me when you hear me getting close."
"I think we're okay," she said. "We took cover by the river."
He leaned forward as though his will could force the chopper to fly faster. The landscape below was a rugged sea of dry field grass and clumps of sage brush. "Did you see the gunman?"
"I can barely hear you, Aiden."
"Stay on the line." Like a 911 operator, he needed to maintain contact so he'd be aware of the situation. "What can you tell me?"
"Not much. Misty will have to do the explaining."
A shooter had come after his sister? His grip tensed on the cyclic stick as he swerved to the left. He never expected anything like this, never thought violence would reach out and touch his family. "Was anyone shot?"
"Yes," she said tersely. "It's not Misty or her boyfriend. Somebody else."
"Is he seriously wounded?"
"I really can't hear you," Tabitha said.
"Don't hang up. Keep the line open."
He should have expected something like this. Law enforcement had become a serious problem in the area, especially on the Crow reservation. Tribal lands spread across nearly two and a half million acres with only a handful of officers and a couple of agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to keep order. And the situation in Henley wasn't much better. Budget cuts had sliced the police and sheriff's department to the bare bone.
At the meeting in Crow Agency, the tribal police told them to be on the lookout for two girls from Henley who were last seen on the rez before they went missing. Nobody mentioned the possibility of a serial killer, but the threat was implied. Both of the missing girls were blondes like Misty.
"Aiden, I can hear your chopper."
On the opposite side of the river, he saw the sandstone cliffs and rock formations. "I'm near Half-Moon Cave."
"Do you see us? Do you see the Jeep?"
He spotted Clinton's open-top vehicle stuck in the creek bed. Beside it was a black horse. Relief flooded through him when he saw Misty in her bright pink jacket step out from the cover of the trees and wave with both arms. She was safe. For now.