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Egan: the third sonthe loner
A cowboy's work was never done.
Holidays, weekends, in bitter cold and extreme heat, Egan Rebel was in the saddle on Rebel Ranch, herding cattle, branding, tagging, vaccinating, fixing fences and feeding. It never ended. But that's who he wasa cowboy. It was a whole lot better than staring at cell bars in front of his face.
Freedom was free, or so they said, but for Egan it came with a price. One he paid every day of his life. He meandered his horse through a herd of red-and-white cattle, forcing the thoughts away. His dog, Pete, trailed behind, on watch in case a moody cow decided to charge.
The vast Texas ranch stretched across miles and miles of gently rolling hills dotted with oak, elm, yaupon, cedar and mesquite, then down into lush valleys of coastal hay fields, prairies of wildflowers and woods so thick only daylight could squeeze through. Two creeks and various natural springs flowed on the property. No place on earth could compare to the spectacular sunrises or the awe-inspiring sunsets. This was paradise on earth to Egan. Fresh air, blue skies and freedom. He'd left here once to his peril, but he would never leave again.
Buzzards circled overhead. He pulled up. A cow bellowed in distress at the edge of the woods. He kneed his horse, Gypsy, in that direction. When he saw the problem he swung from the saddle, the leather creaking as he did. A baby calf lay dead in the grass.
Jericho Johnson rode in and surveyed the scene. "What happened?" Jericho was Egan's best friend. He'd saved Egan's life in prison and for that Egan would always be grateful. Egan's mother, Kate, had given Jericho a job and a home for his actions. They didn't know much about the man, but Egan knew what was important.
He squatted by the red-and-white calf and pointed. "Teeth marks around its neck. A fun kill. Probably by a pack of feral dogs or wolves. This makes the eighth calf this month."
Pete sniffed the ground and barked.
Egan followed the dog into the woods. "Come back, boy," he called, and Pete trotted to his side.
"There are tracks leading to the McCray property." Egan walked toward his horse. "The woods are too thick for a horse. Take the horses and Pete back to the ranch. I'm going to keep tracking on foot."
Jericho removed his hat and scratched his head. He was a big man, about six-four. His nationality was unknown, but he'd once told Egan he was a little bit white, Mexican, Indian and black. With his long hair and a scar slashed down the side of his face, he was known to scare the strongest of men.
"Do you think that's wise?"
Jericho knew of the feud with the McCrays and that avoiding them was always the best policy.
Egan removed his rifle from the saddle scabbard. "Crazy Isadore McCray has dogs and I just want to see if they've crossed over onto Rebel land. If Izzy has been killing our calves, I'll call the sheriff. I don't plan on being stupid and confronting him. Stupid once in a lifetime is all I can handle."
"If the two of us track"
Egan cut him off with a dark stare. "I know these woods like the back of my hand and I don't need any help tracking. Tell Mom and Falcon I'm on it."
Jericho inclined his head. "You got it." He reached for the reins of Egan's horse. "But if you're not at the ranch by tomorrow, I'll come looking."
Egan nodded to his friend and squatted in front of Pete. "Go back to the ranch with Rico." He rubbed the dog's head. He didn't want the feral dogs to kill him. Pete was an Australian blue healer, a cow dog, but if it came to a fight, he would be right in the middle of it.
Tipping his hat, Jericho rode away, Pete trotting behind. The dog stopped once to look back, but Egan didn't motion for him to come, so he continued his journey behind the horses.
Egan shoved his hand into the pocket of his dark duster and pulled out his phone. No signal. He was alone, but it had been that way most of his life, even with six brothers.
Following the trail into the woods, he pushed through yaupons and mesquite. He kept his eyes focused on the ground. From the tracks, there had to be at least six dogs and one man. The woods grew thicker and the tracks disappeared, almost into thin air. He was close enough to the McCray property line to know Izzy had been up to no good. Egan may have told Rico he wouldn't do anything stupid, but he wasn't about to let Izzy kill any more calves on Rebel Ranch.
Rachel Hollister was lost.
For over an hour, she'd been traveling this country back road and the scenery had changed from mesquite and scrub to thick woods. She cursed herself for being a coward and taking the long way home. She'd been away twelve years and still she was stalling, avoiding the moment she would walk in the door of the home she'd shared with her mother and family. The mother who had died because of her. Twelve years was long enough to deal with the guilt. The grief. Or maybe not. It was part of her now.
Every morning when she looked in the mirror she saw herself, but she also saw a young girl who'd been spoiled, pampered and far too used to getting her own way. Rachel didn't like that girl and had had years to change her. But she hadn't changed enough to face the past. That was evident by her taking this cutoff to nowhere. If she'd stayed on US 77 she would already be in Horseshoe.
She'd left the blacktop some time ago and now the road narrowed to merely a track. Her heart lifted when she saw a cattle guard. There had to be a house somewhere and she could ask for directions. She looked around for signs of human life, a barn, anything. But all she saw were woods and more woods. The track ended and she had nowhere to go.
Just then the engine made a funny sound and she could barely turn the steering wheel. She stopped and listened. The motor was still running but the car wouldn't go. Now what?
She reached for her phone in her purse and tried to call her brother. No signal. She looked out the window and couldn't see power lines. Where was she? Rachel got out of the car and an eerie feeling came over her. The May wind rustled through the trees, the only sound she heard.
She tried her phone again. Nothing. A sliver of alarm shot through her and she got back into the car. How was she going to get out of here? She mustn't panic. She shut off the engine and waited ten minutes. When she started it again it sounded strange, not like before. She put the car in gear and pressed the gas. The steering wheel was still hard to turn and she knew she couldn't go very far like this. She turned off the ignition.
Her choices were simple. She'd have to walk out or sit here and wait for someone to find her. From the silence, she feared that wait might be long. A tear slipped from her eye and she slapped it away. She could handle this.
She got out of the car again and looked down at her dress and heels. Not ideal for walking. Her suitcase was in the backseat, so she'd just change into jeans and sneakers.
As Rachel moved toward the door, something in her peripheral vision caught her eye. Her heart thumped against her chest. There was a man emerging from the woods. He was hard to see because he seemed as one with his surroundings. A dark duster like she'd seen cowboys wear in olden days flapped around his legs. His longish dark hair brushed against his collar, and he had at least a day's worth of stubble. A worn hat was pulled low over his eyes, but what held her attention was the rifle in his hand.
Fear crept along her nerves as she got back into the car, locking the doors manually. The man continued to stride toward her. There was nothing she could do but wait. Who was he? And what was he doing out here so far from anywhere?
Her eyes were glued to him as he drew closer. She scooted away from the window, as if that would help. When he tapped on the window, she jumped; she was so nervous.
"Are you okay, ma'am?"
He peered at her through the window and she stared into the darkest eyes she'd ever seen. Instead of being paralyzed with fear, her body relaxed. His eyes were riveting. It was like coming in from an icy cold day into a room with a roaring fire. All she felt was the warmth, and she instinctively knew this man wouldn't hurt her.
"Ma'am, are you okay?" he repeated, and his strong voice propelled her into action. She turned on the motor and reached for the window button, but nothing happened. The window wouldn't move. She had no choice but to open the door.
As she got out, he stepped back and she realized he was tall. Even in her heels she had to look up.
"What are you doing out here?" His voice was deep, masculine and irritated.
"I'm lost," she admitted. "I was headed to Horseshoe."
"You're miles away from Horseshoe."
She knew that. "I was hoping to find a house and get directions, but there don't seem to be any homes nearby."
"No." He pointed. "Across that fence line is the McCray property and you're standing on Rebel Ranch. The cattle guard is a back entrance in case we need it. If you turn around and follow the track, it will lead you to a road. You should be able to find your way then."
"That's the problem. Something's wrong with my car. It started making funny noises and now I can't turn the steering wheel. And the windows won't work, either." She looked into those beautiful eyes. "Do you know anything about cars?"
He placed his rifle against the vehicle. "Unlatch the hood and I'll take a look."
Unlatch the hood? "Uh " She had no idea what he was talking about, and it was no use pretending that she did. "This is a rental and I don't know anything about cars."
He didn't roll his eyes or anything like that. He just reached inside her car and pulled something. A pop sounded. He walked to the front of the car and with both hands lifted the hood. Peering over, she watched as he looked around.
He finally straightened. "Your serpentine belt is broken. It controls a lot of the extras on your car, like power steering, power windows and AC. I'm not sure about this model, but it can also control the water pump, which means driving could be dangerous." He slammed the hood shut.
"Do you live nearby?" she asked with a hopeful note.
"Miles away. I'm out tracking feral dogs."
"What?" Had she heard him correctly? She had this eerie feeling she'd stepped back into the 1800s.
"Dogs are killing our calves on the ranch." When he sensed she wasn't following him, he waved his hand. "You can just follow the track to the road. It'll take you an hour or so, but someone will eventually find you."
She looked down at her heels.
"Do you have other shoes?" That note of irritation was back in his voice.
"In my suitcase."
"My suggestion is you change and start moving, because it's going to be dark soon."
The thought of walking alone at night filled her with a claustrophobic feeling. "I really don't want to walk alone. I'll pay you if you help me get to Horseshoe."
He sighed. "Ma'am, I don't need your money. I just need to get back to doing my job before any more calves die on the ranch."
"You can't just leave me out here. I know there are wild animals and no telling what else. It's dangerous."
"And that didn't cross your mind when you were traveling miles and miles without a sign of life?"
"I was looking for Cutoff 149."
"They changed that many years ago. The roads now have county numbers so it's easier for emergency vehicles and firefighters."
"It's been a long time since I've been to Horseshoe."
"Then why not stay on 77?"
He was annoyed and he was making her annoyed. She placed her hands on her hips. "Are you going to help me or not?"
He glanced off to the woods and then at her. "Looks like I don't have any choice, and I lost the tracks a while ago. If we walk directly east, it should take about two hours to reach a spot where we can get cell phone reception. Then I can call the ranch and someone can meet us in an all-terrain vehicle. Change clothes. I'll give you a few minutes." He strolled away without a backward glance.
Goose bumps popped up on her skin. He wouldn't leave her here, would he? Her gut instinct said no. She didn't know anything about him, but she sensed he was a man she could trust. Climbing into the backseat, she took a long breath and did a quick change. She felt like Houdini.
This was all her fault and she was angry at herself. She was glad she hadn't called her father or her brother to let them know she was coming home. They would be worried sick when she didn't show up. Now they were really going to be surprised. How could one day go so wrong?
Egan gave the woman a few minutes, wondering how he'd gotten himself into this mess. He didn't have time to fool with some ditzy blonde. Being judgmental wasn't part of his nature, so he should give the woman the benefit of the doubt. But she was far from civilization and it was going to take a big chunk out of his workday to help her. It all depended on how fast she could walk. If he had to guess, he would say it was going to be a slow go.
When he returned to the car, she was standing outside. He took one look and wondered if this woman had any sense at all. She wore short jeans. They had a name, but for the life of him he couldn't think of it. She had a pink-and-white layered top and pink-and-white sneakers.
He motioned toward the jeans. "Do you have longer ones?"
"No. It's spring so I brought spring and summer clothes. These are capris."
"And unsuitable for hiking through the woods."
Her face crumpled like a little kid's and he thought she was going to cry. "It's all I have besides shorts and another dress."
"It will have to do. Do you have a long-sleeved blouse or a sweater? It'll get chilly in these hills as it grows darker."
"I have a lime-green lightweight sweater that goes with my dress, but it doesn't match what I have on."
He laughed. He couldn't help himself. He'd gotten himself involved with a city diva.