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The driver of the black pickup was himself driven, fixed on the hulking two-story white house at the end of the road. It was an old house in need of a coat of paint with a brand new, freshly painted sign affixed to the porch railing.
Double D Wild Horse Sanctuary
It was the kind of incongruence that automatically drew his eye and raised the hackles he'd been working hard to tame. He was back in the States, for God's sake. South Dakota. Land of the granite chiefs and home of the original braves. Just because something was a little off in a place that seemed too quiet didn't mean Cougar needed to crouch and prepare to pounce. He was there on a tip from a fellow soldier. About the only people he trusted these days were guys he'd served with, and Sergeant Mary Tutan was one of the most standup "guys" he knew.
She couldn't pull rank on him anymore, but she'd tracked him down, got him on the phone and talked like she could. Get your ass in gear, soldier! Go check out the wild horse training competition my friend Sally Drexler is running. It's just what the VA docs ordered. She'd corrected herselfSally Night Horseand explained that Sally had married an Indian guy. Did he know Hank Night Horse? How about Logan Wolf Track?
As if Indian country was that damn small.
Cougar wasn't interested in the sergeant's social life, but the mention of horses got his attention. Training competition and cash prize sounded pretty attractive, too. He'd been away from horses too long. The one he could see loping across the pasture a good half mile away made him smile. Nice bay with a big spotted colt in tow. He could almost smell their earthy sweat on the hot South Dakota wind blowing through the pickup cab.
His nose welcomed horse sweat, buffalo grass and the clay dust kicked up by the oversize tires on his "tricked out" ride, compliments of his brother, Eddie. He could have done without the tires. Could have done without any of the surprises he'd come home to, but he didn't want to do without his brother, and Eddie would have pouted indefinitely if Cougar had said anything about how many miles his brother had racked up on the vehicle in Cougar's absence.
The house looked pretty quiet for the "headquarters" of what was billed as the biggest privately maintained wild animal reserve in the Dakotas. Cougar didn't care how big it was as long as it was legitimate. He'd been down too many dead-end roads lately. The end of this one seemed pretty dead as far as human activity was concerned, but one by one the horses were silently materializing, rising from the ebb and flow of tall grass. They kept their distance, but they were watchful, aware of everything that moved.
As was Cougar. His instinct for self-preservation wasn't quite as sharp as the horses', but it surpassed that of any man, woman or
Cougar hit the brake. He saw nothing, heard nothing, but eyes and ears were limited. Cougar knew things. Men and women were on their own, but kids were like foals. Always vulnerable. They gave off signals, and Cougar was a gut-level receptor. Which was a damn good thing. If it hadn't been for his gut, he would have done nothing.
And if it hadn't been for the red baseball cap, he would have thought he was going crazy again, and he might have slid his boot back over the accelerator. But the red cap saved both kid and driver.
And the goat.
Cougar's pulse pounded behind his staring eyeballs. The goat took off, and a small hand stretched out, barely visible beyond a desert camo armored fender.
Don't stop for anything, sergeant. That kid's coming for us. You slow down, he takes us out. Do. Not. Stop.
Cougar closed his eyes, took a breath, shifted into reverse as he took a look back, gunned the engine, and nearly jackknifed his trailer. When he turned, there was no goat. He saw a light-haired kid in blue jeans, stretched out on his belly. He saw the front end of his black pickup. He saw a red and white barn, sparsely graveled road and South Dakota sod. He secured the pickup and threw the door open simultaneously. His boots hit the ground just as the kid pushed himself up on hands and knees. He looked up at Cougar, eyes filled with terror, but no tears.
And he was up. Thank you, Jesus.
Cougar's shadow fell across the boy like a blanket dropped from a top bunk. His own knees wouldn't bend. "You okay?"
The boy stared at him.
"I didn't see you," Cougar said, willing the boy to stand on his own, to be able to get up all the way. "Are you hurt?"
The boy stretched out his arm, pointed across the road and smiled. Cougar swung his head around and saw a gray cat.
"Was that it?" He looked down at the boy. "A damn cat? For a second I thought I'd " His legs went jittery on him, and his knee cracked as he squatted, butt to boot heels. "Jesus," he whispered as he braced his elbow on his knees and dropped his head into his hand. His heart was battering his ribs. He couldn't bring himself to look the kid in the eye quite yet. Might scare him worse. Might scare them both worse.
A small hand lit like a little bird on his shoulder. He twitched beneath it, but he held himself together. He saw the red cap out of the corner of his eye, felt the wind lift his hair, smelled the grass, heard the pickup purring at his back. His own vehicle, not the Army's. He held on to the here and now, lifted his head and gave the boy a quick once-over, every part of him but his eyes. He couldn't trust himself to look the boy in the eye. He wasn't strong enough yet.
"That was close, wasn't it? Scared the livin' "
Not a word from the boy.
Cougar took the risk of patting the hand on his shoulder. It was okay. His hand was steady. "But you're all right, huh? No harm done?"
No response. Kid was either scared speechless, or he was deaf.
Or blind. One eye, anyway. The other eye didn't move. Cougar looked him up and down again, but the only sign of blood was a skinned knee peeking through a stained hole in his jeans.
Wordlessly the boy turned tail and sped away like a fish running up against a glass wall. Cougar stood slowly, pushing off on his thighs with less than steady hands, lifting his gaze from the soles of the boy's pumping tennis shoes, down the road to the finish line.
The barn's side door flew open, and there was Mama. She was all sound and flurry. "Mark!"
Get set, go! Cougar heard within his head, where his pounding pulse kept pace with retreating feet. He got back into his pickup and let the tires crawl the rest of the way, passing up the house for the barn, where the womansmall, slight, certainly pretty and pretty certainly upsetwould be somebody to talk to. The optionsall but oneweren't exactly jumping out at him.
He parked, drew a long, deep breath on the reminder that he hadn't killed anybody today and then blew it out slowly, again thanking any higher power that might be listening. The doc's slow, deep breathing trick seemed to be working.
"Is the boy all right?" Cougar called out as he flung the pickup door shut.
The woman held the boy's face in her hands, checking for damage. Cougar watched her long, lush ponytail bob and weave as she fussed over her charge. It swung shoulder to shoulder as she turned big, bright, beautiful brown eyes on Cougar. "What happened?"
For the sake of those wondrous eyes he wished he had an answer. "Whatever he told you." He took a step, testing his welcome. "I'm still not sure."
"He hasn't told me anything. He doesn't speak."
Cougar looked down at the boy, who appeared to be taking his measure. "So you weren't holding out on me. But you took off before I got around to saying I'm " He offered his hand. "I'm sorry. I didn't see you."
"What happened?" the woman insisted.
"I'd say he came out of nowhere, but that would sound like an excuse. All I know is that I slammed on the brakes, and " He shook his head. "Then I saw his cap, then a hand and I thought I'd, uh. hit" he glanced at the boy, and his stomach knotted "somebody."
"You stopped before you saw anything?"
"Yeah. Well, I." He owed it to her straight, just the way he remembered it. "I had a feeling. It's hard to explain. I guess I was admiring the scenery." He adjusted his new brown Stetson, stirred some gravel beneath his shifting boots. "I didn't see him. Didn't hit the horn, nothing."
"I was just getting some." She gestured toward the door she'd left open. "Oh, God, I wasn't paying attention. I let him slip " She gave her head a quick shake. "I slipped. For a minute. More than a minute." She pulled the boy's head to her body. The top of it fit nicely between her breasts. He gave her a quick hug and then ducked under her arms and backed away, leaving her empty arms still reaching for him. "Oh, Markie-B, I thought you were playing with the kittens."
"I guess the mama got away. He was chasing her." Cougar's gaze connected with the boy's. "Right, Mark? You were just trying to bring Mama Cat back to her babies."
"Was it close?" the woman asked, almost inaudibly.
"He must've tripped. He was face-in-the-dirt. Blew the knee out of his jeans." He turned to the woman. "He can't hear, either?"
She shook her head. "As far as we know."
"Don't they have tests for that?" You just crossed the line, Cougar.
"Yes, of course. Tests. All kinds of tests." She offered him her hand. "I'm Celia Banyon. My son, Mark, is a mystery. We really don't know what's going on."
"Yeah, it was close." Either the truth or her touch made him weaken inside. He glanced away. "Really close."
"I'm He looks " She cleared her throat, stepped back, and her hand slid away. "Are you here to see Sally?"
That's right. He was on a mission that hadnothing to do with a stray kid.
"I'm here about the training contest. The name's Cougar."
"Always." She gave him a puzzled look, and he took a shot at smiling. "Just Cougar. One name is enough." He glanced at the house. "Is she here?"
"Nope, it's just me and Mark holding down the fort today. Everyone else is either out in the field or taking care of business. You're a trainer?"
"I've trained my own horses, yeah. I heard about this wild horse contest from a friend, so I thought I'd have a look for myself, see if I can qualify."
"Mustang Sally's Wild Horse Makeover Competition. I'm not actually involved. We're volunteers with the sanctuary. Aren't we, Mark?" She touched the boy's shoulder, and he looked up at her. "We help Sally with the horses, don't we?" Then turning her attention back to Cougar, she shaded her eyes with her hand. "Sally and her husband had an appointment. Everyone else is working. I could get you an information packet from the office." She glanced at the boy. "We need to go in and take care of your knee anyway, don't we?"
Mark was staring at Cougar, who felt obliged to honor the eye contact since the boy seemed to be a few senses short of a full house.
"Where was he?" Celia asked. "He couldn't've been far away. Right? He was right here with me, and then."