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Mary McHale checked the directions on the sheet of paper, then studied the road again. There was no indication of a one-lane bridge on the quickly sketched map at the bottom of the brochure, nor of a creek.
Before retracing her tracks to the main county road, she perused the evergreen forest rising up the steep slope of the mountain, listened to the sound of the quietly burbling creek under the wooden bridge, then wondered if the water was pure enough to drink.
Not that she would risk taking a sip, but the woodland scene looked so peaceful and inviting it was difficult to imagine danger lurking there, whether germs or other kinds.
A place to lose yourself. Or maybe, she mused, a place to lose the world and find yourself.
The deep quiet called to her, but she had obligations and, as some poet had once said, miles to go before she slept.
With a sigh, she wheeled the old SUV and horse trailer in a tight arc and started back the way she'd come. At the main county road, she headed north once more and continued her search for the Towbridge ranch.
Three miles farther on, another gravel lane forked to the left. She spotted the sign informing her that the place she sought was seven miles west and made the correct turn.
Relief wafted through her. The shadows were long, she was tired and Attila needed food, water and exercise.
Nearly twenty minutes and seven miles later, she pulled up before the main building, a timber structure built rather like a large hunting lodge. A sign over the front porch declared the place to be the Towbridge Ranch, Est. 1899.
The gravel driveway continued on and circled a wooded area dotted with three or four picnic tables. Around the western perimeter of the driveway, she spotted campsites through the firs and pine trees. RVs filled most of the parking spaces.
Well, it was the first Monday of September. Labor Day. Families were enjoying their last weekend in the mountains before winter set in, she supposed.
After parking before an old-fashioned horse rail, obviously new, she picked up a postcard from the passenger seat. It showed the seven peaks that formed a semicircle along the eastern border of Hells Canyon and gave the area its name. Seven Devils Mountains.
The peaks were west of the camp-ranch-resort where she was to be employed as a wrangler-hiking-guide-whatever. The sun was setting behind the mountains in a near replica of the scene on the postcard she'd impulsively bought in Lost Valley, Idaho, the small town where she'd gassed up and which was an hour's drive down the winding, dusty mountain roads she'd just traveled.
Observing the pink, gold and magenta streaks of the sunset and the mysterious shadows of the forest, she experienced the oddest sensationthat of a weight settling on her spirit. A forlorn sadness accompanied the heaviness, as if something vast and terrible impinged on her soul a tragedy
The emotion puzzled and irritated her. Seven Devils. The name was almost a premonition, a black cloud lurking on the horizon. Maybe she'd been here in a past life.
Yeah, right, and maybe she'd been Cleopatra in another.
A soft neigh from Attila, reminding her of his needs, pulled her out of the introspective mood. She had things to do and people to see.
After backing the horse out of the trailer, she snapped a lead rope on his halter and tied it at the end of the railing so he could munch the fall grass while she went inside to report to her new bosses, Keith Towbridge and Jonah Lanigan.
The lodge was empty. She surveyed the quaint main room, which had a high ceiling, a huge fireplace and rustic furniture made from alder and white cedar.
To her left was an office with a counter separating it from the great room. An archway to the right disclosed a small store stocked with canned goods and camping gear. A staircase gave access to rooms on the second floor while a hallway led to the nether regions on the main level of the sturdy building.
According to the brochure she'd picked up in town, the place was advertised as an adventure destination in the real West, which apparently meant hunting, fishing and paramilitary games for those "wanting to break out of the ordinary routine of life." That idea would appeal to the deskbound executive, she supposed.
"Anybody here?" she called.
The place was so silent she could hear grass grow if she listened hard enough. The hair on her nape stood up.
"Hello!" she yelled more forcibly.
"Hello, yourself," a masculine voice finally replied. "I'm in the kitchen."
She walked down the hall and into a galleytype kitchen. Directly across from it was a room with three tables, each with four chairs. Windows displayed the view in three directionsall magnificent.
A man, as long-legged and lean as a coyote, glanced at her while he continued a chore at the sink. His features were hawkish, the angles of his face stern but attractive in a hard-jawed, clean-shaven way.
Like her, he was dressed in boots, jeans and a white T-shirt. He also wore a blue work shirt, open down the front, over the tee. Unlike her, he wore no hat. She liked to keep her hair tucked out of sight under a worn gray Stetson.
"You the new wrangler?" he asked.
"Who sent you here?"
She wondered if this was a trick question. "Trek Lanigan from the Trading Post north of Lost Valley. Are you his cousin?"
The Trading Post was a store that sold Native American crafts some of it old and valuable. That was where she'd seen the Help Wanted sign and asked about the job. The owner of the store bore a distinct resemblance to this man, except he wore his hair long. This one kept his cut short.
Glancing at the dining room, she realized she'd expected more of a working ranch and less of a resort type place. She didn't like being around people all the time.
Most of the time, she amended.
The man nodded, affirming he was the cousin who'd hired her by phone interview. He finished washing a potato and dropped it in a pot of what looked like simmering soup stock. The pot was huge, the aroma coming from it mouthwatering.
"Can you cook?" he wanted to know.
"Yes. But Mr. Lanigan didn't mention it as a requirement."
"He's Trek. I'm Jonah. Keith Towbridge is my partner. His wife is Janis. They have a son, K.J., short for Keith, Junior. Their house is on the back of the ranch, but they're over here fairly often. You'll meet them later this week."
Mary took in the information and stored it for future reference. It sounded as if she had definitely been hired. For now. At least he hadn't taken one look and told her to get lost. The owners could probably use all the help they could get out here in the wilds.
"I, uh, have to take care of my horse. He needs water and bedding down."
Jonah Lanigan shot her another assessing glance. His hair was almost black, his eyes a smoky blue-gray that effectively hid his thoughts. He was four or five inches taller than her own five feet ten inches.
In her work boots, she was as tall or taller than most men. Her height usually gave her an advantage, but not with this man. She stirred uneasily.
"The stable is in back." He frowned and she noted the irritation he suppressed. "There's a bunkhouse attached. I suppose we can make room in the lodge, though."
"The bunkhouse is fine," she quickly told him. "Uh, if I have a private bedroom?"
He shook his head. "There's an empty room at the top of the stairs. Put your stuff up there for now. I'll need your help at breakfast. Six o'clock sharp."
"Right." She retreated.
So far, so good. She'd made it past the first hurdle. The rancher down in the valley had taken one look at her and said the wrangler job she'd come there to fill wasn't open. His son had looked her over with obvious interest.
She probably had an Equal Opportunity case against the older man, but she hadn't liked his mannernor his son'sor the poor condition of the ranch and stock, so she'd left without arguing.
Attila whickered as soon as she appeared. She soothed him with a few quiet words, untied the rope, then led the horse around the lodge to the backyard where she spotted the stable. There was a fenced area next to it.
After freeing the nine-year-old stallion in the paddock, she filled a trough with fresh water, then checked the stable.
The eight stalls were empty. She prepared one for her horse, placing hay in the manger and spreading fresh straw over the dirt floor. Finished, she went outside and observed the dun-colored thoroughbred as he walked around the fence and checked out his new quarters.
His silver coat with the brownish tingereally a dark ash-blondseemed a lighter shade against the weathered gray of the stable. His limp wasn't pronounced, but she was aware of his fatigue in the way he moved.
A racehorse that hadn't done well at the track, he'd been placed in a stock auction three years ago, but few had wanted the spirited stallion. He was useless as a work horse and parents hadn't thought him safe for their children.
However, his bloodlines were excellent, and Mary had seen promise in the powerful haunches that had lifted him over a seven-foot fence when he'd attempted an escape. Using her life savings of fourteen thousand dollars, she'd outbid the other person who'd been interested in buying him.
Attila was the one thing she loved in all the world. They had bonded the first time she'd petted him at the track where she'd worked as a handler, getting the excited horses in the slots so the races could begin.
Noticing a cabin connected to the stable via an enclosed breezeway, she knocked on the door, then entered when no one answered. The place had a main room with a wood-stove and two smaller rooms behind that. Bedrooms, she discovered upon further exploration. The building hadn't been used in a while, she decided, swiping a finger through the dust on a sturdy pine table in the first room.
The ranch apparently didn't hire many workers. That was fine by her. Here, she would have privacy.
Pleased, she hurried back to the lodge to move the SUV and trailer down, then decided first she'd better ask her boss about staying in the cabin.
From the kitchen, she heard a string of curses as she mounted the steps to the back entrance. Smoke billowed from the screen door. Her boss came outside just as she approached wearing oven mittens and carrying a baking sheet of black lumps. With a couple of added curses, he tossed lumps, pan and all over the railing and onto the dried lawn.
"That could start a grass fire," she mentioned in carefully casual tones.
He grabbed a hose from a reel mounted on the house and drenched the biscuits or whatever the lumps had been in their former incarnation, then turned off the water with a furious twist. "There, satisfied?" He stomped inside.
She followed, wary of his temper but curious about him and the operations of the resort. "Do you need some help?"
Giving her a look that should have sizzled her to charcoal, he nodded. "Can you make biscuits?"
After the briefest hesitation, she said she could. Spotting a bag of cornmeal, she added, "How about some cornbread? People like that with soup."
He clearly wasn't in the mood to discuss it. She washed her hands and set to work. In a few minutes, she slid a skillet of corn-bread into the oven. When he left to answer the phone in the office, she quickly tasted the soup.
It was pretty good, but a bit salty. She added some pasta curls to absorb the salt and a dash of pepper to give it a little more balance. She also added garlic powder and a few dried onion flakes, plus a scant tablespoon of sugar.
After retrieving the baking pan from the lawn, she scrubbed it at the stainless steel sink, dried it, then put it with some pie pans she found in a cabinet beside the stove. Spotting a timer, she set it so she'd remember to check the cornbread, then explored the kitchen more fully. If she was also going to be the cook and chief bottle washerand it looked as if that was her fateshe'd better know her way around.
"Do you serve dinner every night?" she asked when Jonah returned.
"Only when we have guests in the lodge. Right now we have six men here on a business retreat. They've been doing war games all week, but this is their last day. They'll be leaving in the morning. Then we're free until the hunters start coming in next month."
"You don't employ a cook?"
Mary heard the undercurrent of anger in his voice, saw it in the tightening of his jaw. He looked like a man who could bite off iron and spit out horseshoes, as the starter at the race track used to say.
Her new boss continued. "It was too isolated, too lonely out here to spend a winter, she said."
"Did she mean something to you?"
He looked rather startled at the question. "Not personally, if that's what you're thinking. I don't get involved with the hired help."
"Good idea," she said and meant it. She relaxed a bit. She made it a rule not to get involved with anyone, so they were on the same wavelength. "I looked at the bunkhouse. No one seems to be using it."
"That's right. Keith and I have managed to run things without much help in the past, but business has picked up this summer. Companies like to use our place for retreats because it's cheap."
She wasn't interested in the business prospects at the moment. "I can stay out there. That'll keep the room here in the lodge free for paying guests."
He shook his head. "It hasn't been modernized. There's no running water, and the only heat is from the stove."
"I don't mind"
"I do. It'll be easier all around if you stay in the lodge. Winter can come early here in the mountains. There's no sense in wasting firewood out there."
"You seemed to think it was okay for a male."
"I thought he could cut his own firewood."
"I can do that."
He stuck his hands on his hips and gave her an impatient glare. "You won't have time. I need help with the paying customers. We make them happy campers, they come back next year or tell their friends about the place. That means money."
She understood the imperatives of finance all too well. "Fine. Uh, where do you and the Towbridges stay?"
"I have a room on the other side of the office. Keith and Janis have the original ranch house over at the other camp, about a mile down the road from here."