Clay Tahoma headed into the mountains of Humboldt County, Northern California, along Highway 36, a narrow road that had lots of sharp turns along the way. According to his GPS the next left would lead him to a town called Virgin River. It appeared to be the nearest town to his destination, the Jensen Veterinary Clinic and Stables, and he wanted to check it out. He was nearing the turnoff when he noticed something up aheadsome pickups parked at the side of the road.
He slowed down and pulled over, curious to see what was going on. He got out of his truck and walked past a number of vehicles toward a large flatbed truck. There were men standing around watching as a forklift with a large cable attached pulled away from the edge of the road. Clay approached one of the men. He was as tall as Clay and wore a plaid shirt, jeans, boots and ball cap. "Whatcha got, friend?" Clay asked.
"One of our town slipped off the road and got stuckluckily came up against a big tree not too far down the hill. That's how he managed to get out and climb back up."
"Who's pulling him out?" Clay asked.
"Aw, one of our boys has a lot of construction equipment. He's a contractor up this way." The man put out his big hand. "Jack Sheridan. You from around here?"
"Name's Clay Tahoma, originally from Flagstaff and the Navajo Nation. Lately from L.A. I'm up here to work with an old friend, Nathaniel Jensen."
Jack's face took light at that. "Nate's a friend of mine, too! Pleasure to meet you."
Jack introduced Clay to some other men who were standing arounda guy named John, who they called Preacher; Paul, who owned the flatbed and forklift; Dan Brady, who was Paul's foreman; and Noah, the minister whose truck slipped off the road. Noah smiled sheepishly as he shook Clay's hand. No one seemed to react to the sight of a Native American with a ponytail that reached past his waist and an eagle feather in his hat. And right at that moment Noah's old blue Ford truck began to clear the edge of the road.
"Don't you guys have a Highway Department or Fire Department you could call to do this?" Clay asked.
"If we had all day," Jack said. "We tend to take care of ourselves out here. But the big problem is that weak shoulder. Highway Department reinforces it every time we have a slide, but what we really need is something more permanent. A wider road and a guardrail. A long and strong guardrail. We've requested it, but this road doesn't see a lot of travel so our request just gets ignored or denied." He nodded toward the stretch of road he was talking about. "We had a school bus slide down that hill a couple of years ago. Minor injuries, but it could'a been horrible. Now I hold my breath every time there's ice on the road."
"What's the holdup on the guardrail?"
He shrugged. "Real small population in an unincorporated town in a county in recession that has bigger challenges. Like I said, we get used to taking care of things the best we can."
"There's no ice in August," Clay said. "What happened to the pastor?"
"Deer," Noah said. "I came around the curve and there she was. I hardly swerved, but all you have to do is get a little too close to the edge and you're toast. Ohhhh, my poor truck," he said as the vehicle made it to the road.
"Doesn't look any worse than it did, Noah," Jack said.
"Seriously," Preacher said, hands on his hips.
"What are you talking about?" Noah returned indignantly. "It's got several new dents!"
"How can you tell?" Jack asked. "That old truck is one big dent!" Then he turned to Clay and said, "Go easy around these curves and tell Doc Jensen I said hello."
Clay Tahoma drove his diesel truck up to the Jensen Veterinary Clinic and Stables. His truck pulled a large horse trailer that he'd filled with his personal belongings. Shutting off the engine, Clay jumped out of the truck and looked around. The clinic consisted of the veterinary office attached to a big barn, a nice-sized covered round pen for exams, several large pastures for the horses to exercise, the horses' turnout and a couple of small paddocks for controlled, individual turnout. Horses can't be turned out together unless they're acquainted; they can get aggressive with each other.
Opposite the clinic, across what functioned as a parking area large enough for trucks and trailers, was a house built for a big family. The whole lot was surrounded by trees, full with their summer green, barely swaying in the early-August breeze.
He sniffed the air; he smelled hay, horses, dirt, flowers, contentment. There was honeysuckle nearby; his nose caught it. He got close to the ground, sitting on one boot heel, touching the dirt with his long, tan fingers. He was filled with a feeling of inner peace. This was a good place. A place with promise.
"Is that some old Navajo thing you're doing there?"
Before he could rise Dr. Nathaniel Jensen was walking out of his veterinary office door, wiping his hands on a small blue towel.
Clay laughed and stood up. "Listening for cavalry," he said.
"How was the drive?" Nate asked Clay, stuffing the towel in his pocket and stretching out a hand.
Clay took Nate's hand in a hearty shake. "Long. Boring until I got closersome guys from Virgin River were hauling a truck up a hill. The town minister slid off the road avoiding a deer. No injuries, just a lot of grumbling. How's the building coming?"
"Excellent. I'll get you something to drink, then take you on a tour." Still shaking Clay's hand, Nate clapped his other hand on his friend's shoulder and said, "I'm really sorry about Isabel, Clay."
Clay smiled with melancholy. "If we hadn't divorced, I wouldn't be here. Besides, not much has really changed between us, except that I moved out of L.A."
"A divorce that hasn't changed much?" Nate asked, tilting his head in question. "Never mind," he said, shaking his head. "Don't tell me. It might be more than I want to know."
Clay laughed in good humor, though he wasn't sure it was funny. He and Isabel weren't right for each other, but that hadn't stopped them from falling in love. They were nothing alike and had little in common beyond the equine industryand even then they were on completely opposite ends of it. She was a rich horsewoman, a breeder and equestrienne of Swedish descenta ravishing, delicious blonde who had grown up privilegedwhile he was a Navajo farrier and veterinary technician who had been raised on a reservation. They had been impossibly attracted to each other, had gotten married, and then encountered predictable problems with communication and lifestyle choices. There was also the resistance from her family, who probably thought he was marrying her money. When Isabel had suggested they divorce, Clay had known it was coming and didn't argue. Divorce was for the best and he'd agreed to her terms, but they hadn't stopped caring about each other. They hadn't stopped sleeping together, either. But Isabel's father probably slept better at night knowing his beautiful, wealthy daughter was no longer legally attached to a Navajo of simple means and some old tribal notions. And he hadn't exactly been thrilled that Clay had a son prior to marrying Isabel. Gabe lived back on Navajo Nation with Clay's parents and extended family, but he was still very much a part of Clay's life and he knew Isabel's family wasn't too happy about that history.
Nate Jensen worked with Clay years ago in Los Angeles, long before Nate took over his father's veterinary practice near Virgin River. It made sense that Nate would have called Clay to ask if he could recommend a good vet tech; Nate's tech had retired after working first for Nate's father and then himself.
"I can think of a number of excellent people," Clay had replied. "But I'm looking for a change and I have family up that way. Any chance you'd consider me?"
Nate jumped on that; Clay was a much-sought-after tech and could function as a farrier, as well. And so here they were.
"I have tea and lemonade in the house," Nate said. "Can I help you unload anything?"
"I think I'll leave everything in the trailer for now," Clay said. "You're sure you don't mind if I just use the tech's overnight quarters?"
"It's yours for as long as you want it. There are other options, of course. You're welcome to share the house with me and Annieit's just the two of us and there's lots of room. If you want something larger for yourself, we can help you find a house. It's all up to you, my friend. I'm just so damn glad you're here."
Clay smiled warmly. "Thank you, Nathaniel. The tech's quarters will be fine. Let's test that lemonade and look around."
"Dinner with us tonight, Clay?" he asked.
"It would be a privilege. I can't imagine a woman who would be willing to marry youI look forward to meeting her."
"Annie will blow you away. She's amazing."
Clay was thirty-four and had been reared by Navajo men of legend; there was a long history of chiefs, elders, World War II Code Talkers, mystics and warriors. They were naturalists and spiritualists. His father and uncles had been a lot to take with all their tales and teachings while he was growing up, but eventually he came to appreciate the value of some of their lessons. More than once they'd come to his rescue, banding together to help him turn his life around, and for that alone Clay owed them his respect and gratitude.
He grew up in the mountains and canyons around Flagstaff, on a large family ranch on the Navajo Nation. There was plenty of poverty around the reservation, but some families did well. The Navajos didn't erect casinos but they were rich in magnificent land. The Tahoma family was well-off by comparison to most. They lived simply, then saved, invested, expanded, built and increased the value of what they had. They were not considered wealthy but Clay and his sister grew up in a fine, comfortable home in a family compound that included aunts, uncles and cousins.
When Clay was sixteen, he had a girlfriend. She was a young girl he met at a football game and they fell in love, but under pressure from her parents, she broke up with him. He made a desperate attempt to get her back some months later and found her pregnant. Though she denied it, he knew he was the father, and he was nothing but a boy.
He had no choice but to go to his parents and uncles with the embarrassing news. They, of course, went to the girl's family. The family claimed Clay had nothing to do with their daughter's situation; they had arranged an adoption to a very comfortable Arizona family who had no ties to the Native community.
Legal help was readily available to the Tahoma family through the tribe, and there was no tribe on earth that easily lets go of one of their own. When it became clear how far the Tahomas would go to keep this baby if it proved to be Clay's, the girl's family simply gave up. There were laws protecting Native Americans from being adopted away from their families against the family's will. Clay's son, Gabe, who looked too much like him for anyone to deny their relationship, was brought home to the family.
Clay had raised Gabe while living on the Navajo Nation, and even when he moved to L.A. to try and build his career, he visited his son as often as possible and still talked to him almost every day. But what he really wanted was to have his son with him, close by. Now that he was divorced from Isabel and her intolerant family no longer played a role in his life, maybe he could think about moving Gabe out here with him. Clay's sister, Ursula, had long ago offered to take Gabe in, but Clay's dad insisted she focus on her own children, saying Gabe was fine out in Flagstaff with the Tahoma family. But perhaps Clay could bring him out here now
maybe they could finally be a real father and son. Gabe could benefit from being around horses here at the stables, just as Clay had been around horses when he was growing up.
Clay had bonded with horses at an early agehe seemed to understand them and they understood him. It made sense that he would end up in the horse industry, but he didn't start there. Clay began his education at Northern Arizona University studying business. Classmates who weren't Navajo asked him why he wasn't enrolled in Native American Studies. He said, "You're kidding me, right? I'm a TahomaI grew up in Native American Studies." After a couple of years of college, he started working as a farrier, with the skills he'd learned from his father and uncles. He worked rodeos, stables, farms, eventually being formally trained as a farrier and vet tech and doing out-of-town jobs here and there. There were some real rough patches along the way, but by the time he was twenty-eight he was offered a good position with a Southern California breeder of racehorses. He would manage the stable and several hands would work under his supervision. It was hard to leave Gabe and his family behind, but the opportunity was such a good one, and he thought he'd be there for a long time and could eventually move his son out there with him.
But then he fell in love with the breeder's daughter, Isabel. And the rest was history.
The call from Nathaniel, looking for a vet tech and assistant for his relatively small operation, came as a surprise, but it shouldn't have. Nathaniel Jensen had always aspired to own and operate a large equine clinic, breeding horses for competition and racing. His father's large animal practice had been built to provide care for the local livestock, including horses, and the practice became Nathaniel's when his father retired. With the right help, he could do bothbreeding and veterinary services. He was expanding, building a second barn that would be complete within weeks. Nate's fiancée, Annie, was an accomplished equestrienne who could teach riding, and Nate was a talented vet. The location might be a bit off the beaten track and served mainly farmers and ranchers who made their living off the land, but there was no reason Nathaniel couldn't make a significant impact on the racing and show industries.
Clay got calls all the time. Offers of employment and requests for help. Owners, breeders and vets all wanted him and he'd been quoted salaries that would put what Nate was paying him to shame. Besides his technical skills, there was a rumor he took care not to exploitthat he communicated with the thousand-pound beasts. That he read their minds and they read his. That he was a horse whisperer.
Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. He had luck with horses, but then he never hurried them or took them for granted and they appreciated that. There were three reasons he'd taken Nathaniel's offer without hesitation. Clay's sister lived in the areaUrsula Toopeek was married to the police chief in Grace Valley, a nearby town. Clay was close to Ursula, Tom and their five children. Reason twoClay respected Nathaniel's skill and ethics and thought the veterinarian would be successful in this expanded endeavor. Plus Nate wasn't hooking his potential success to any mystical ability Clay might have. And threeit was time to make a break from Isabel.