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The unmistakable haze of smoke filled the valley below. Snow covered the ground and weighed heavily on the pine boughs lining the highway, ruling out a forest fire as the source of the dark billows. The old rancher rolled down his window, despite the bitter cold, and inhaled deeply. The air smelled of fire, destruction, and death.
With the last switchback navigated, he shifted up and pressed the accelerator down as far as he dared while driving on icy roads. He tried not to let his imagination get the best of him, but couldn't help but fear the worst. Someone, maybe even him, was suffering a loss.
As he approached the turnoff to his ranch, he realized immediately the nightmare was indeed his. Gunning the one-ton's motor, he churned down the snow-covered dirt lane at such a rate of speed he didn't even notice the fresh set of tire tracks cutting through the white powder — new tracks, since he'd left for town just hours before.
The large truck skidded to a stop. The rancher leapt out and raced toward the burning building, praying there were no animals inside. The real terror came as he realized his ranch manager was nowhere in sight. Hoses remained coiled up, hanging on a fence post, not connected to the spigot, as would be expected if anyone were attempting to control the blaze.
Flames and smoke poured out of the second-story loft, sucking the oxygen out of the air as he approached the now fully engulfed building. Grasping the handle on one of the barn doors, he yanked back with all his might. It didn't budge. He could hear the crashing of timbers collapsing onto the floor and the crackling and popping of fire eating away the interior of the building. Throwing his shoulder into the solid wood, he could feel the intense heat through the door and his heavy winter coat.
The situation made no sense. The large double doors had no lock and could, in fact, swing inward or outward. Glancing at the ranch manager's house, he prayed his longtime friend and employee was sleeping through the chaos, but he knew better. If the startled cry of hens harassed by raccoons in the middle of the night could stir him, the fire would have drawn him out instantly.
Yelling at the top of his lungs, the old man got no response but inhaled a choking dose of smoke in the process. He doubled over as he tried to expel the smoke from his lungs and gather his strength. His eyes burned and his lungs ached as he backed up, giving himself a running start. He threw his body against the door, but the strong timbers held fast. After several more attempts to break through, he realized the futility in his efforts. As the heat, flames, and smoke intensified, he knew he had to act quickly. If anyone were inside, it might already be too late.
He ran toward the row of small windows on the side of the barn which allowed light into the stables. Each pane was high enough to prevent a horse from breaking the glass, and too small for an adult to crawl through. Sliding a metal five-gallon bucket close, he hoped to elevate himself enough to see if anyone was inside. The instant he got one foot on the bucket, the windows blew out, showering him with glass shards, burning his flesh and throwing him to the ground hard.
He rolled across the snow to extinguish the flames, which burned through his coat. He ignored the searing pain on every piece of exposed flesh. He struggled to his feet, grasping for a plan. Get the truck. Nothing can stop that beast. It will break through those doors, he thought as he turned away from the building.
Then everything went black.CHAPTER 2
Grace Talbot gripped the steering wheel of her white four-wheel-drive truck. Every muscle in her body tensed as she leaned closer to the windshield, straining her eyes, searching the blowing snow for the reflector poles which lined the road, or for any tire track which would indicate someone else had driven through recently.
Traveling the remote rural Wyoming road in a blizzard was risky, and she would have avoided such a stupid act if her Uncle Moss wasn't in the hospital fighting for his life and Butch, his only hired ranch hand, wasn't dead.
When Deputy Carlson had called the previous night and explained what had happened, Grace quickly developed a plan and acted. Her boss, Dr. Stephen Clark, had no hesitation in approving a leave of absence. Without thought to consequences, she'd copied her team's data onto an external drive, loaded her computer and essential equipment, packed a bag, left Salt Lake City, and headed north before the sun had even risen.
Grace turned the defroster and windshield wipers up as high as they would go, but the rapid motion and blowing heat did nothing to help the visibility or stop the fine snow from instantly freezing on the glass. She rolled the window down and reached a gloved hand out into the frigid air to scrape ice from the windshield. Only twenty miles separated her from the ranch, but driving at a speed only slightly faster, she'd be lucky if she reached her destination before dark.
She fought back the tears as visions of Uncle Moss filled her mind. He was the only true family Grace had left. She loved him and the ranch more than anything else in her life. Except for her job, he and the ranch were her life, and all her happy memories were linked to both. She adored the horses, cattle, chickens, dogs, cats, and especially the pigs, but most of all she cherished the solitude and the feeling of belonging somewhere.
The breathtaking setting of the ranch and the animals had helped her psychological wounds to heal when she was a child, and they had given her the desire to pursue a career in the bioscience field as she focused her energies on animal science and comparative nutrition.
As much as she wanted to drive straight to the hospital in Billings, Montana, to be at her uncle's side, she had to reach the ranch as soon as possible and tend to the cattle and the rest of the animals, especially Charlotte.
Uncle Moss would understand. If he awoke, he would be comforted knowing she was caring for the livestock and his beloved pets. The thought of her tough, feisty uncle lying helpless and unconscious in a hospital bed was something she had to force out of her mind to focus on the hazardous driving conditions.
She didn't know the extent of his injuries, since the doctor had gone off duty by the time she had gotten the call the night before, and the nurse was hesitant to offer much information. Not knowing only made her anxiety worse, and it was a challenge to keep her imagination from running rampant with dire scenarios.
Grace had been on the road since before daybreak, already covering hundreds of miles. Over the past four hours, the weather had deteriorated considerably, and her usual unshakable control over her emotions was hanging by a very thin thread. She wanted to be with Moss, mourn Butch, and expel the ominous feelings which kept slithering into her thoughts.
The old ranch hand had worked for her uncle for thirty years, and he was like family to her. Thinking about all the times his calloused hands gently bandaged her scrapes or wiped away her little girl tears brought a smile to her lips. Few would know that this rough and rugged rancher could also be sensitive and tender when dealing with an emotionally scarred child's fragile feelings. He was tough and hardworking, someone she could count on, and he was most certainly never careless. His passing would leave a huge void in her life, and she would miss him more than anyone could possibly understand.
No matter how hard she struggled to force back the fear and sorrow, concern for her uncle's life and sadness over Butch's death allowed tears to pool in her eyes every time she pictured Moss's weathered face or the rugged ranch hand's wide smile. Butch was gone, and nothing could change that. Moss was alive, and she had to hang onto the positive. He was strong and stubborn.
The sheriff's deputy who had called her about the situation hadn't sounded very encouraging, nor did he give many details about the fire other than it appeared to be an accident and was still under investigation.
Was it really an accident? Grace wondered. Uncle Moss and Butch were always cautious when it came to fire, knowing the nearest response was too far away to save a structure.
"Not now. Not when I'm so close," Grace pleaded wearily as the truck continued to feel bogged down, and she realized she was losing the battle to keep the windows defrosted enough to see out.
Grace eased the pickup onto the shoulder as far as she dared, not knowing what lay under the blanket of white beyond the reflector poles, but hopefully far enough out of the way if a plow happened by. She used her shoulder to push the door open and stepped out of the vehicle. The snow, reaching well above her knees, was so light it seemed like powdered sugar being sifted down from the heavens.
She hadn't realized the snow was so deep, which explained why the vehicle seemed sluggish. She was a little surprised the truck had been able to push so much snow as well as it had. Trudging to the front of the vehicle, she cleared out the snow packed between the grill and the radiator the best she could. Worried that all the wedged-in snow might be the reason why she couldn't keep the cab warm and windows clear, she thought back to something she'd seen her uncle do once in a similar situation.
Grace went back inside the truck and, dumping out one of her boxes of books onto the floor of the club cab pickup, she ripped the seams of the cardboard until she had one large flat piece. Then she emerged again and wedged it in behind the truck's grill, hoping it would keep the snow out of the engine compartment and bring up the temperature.
She returned to the vehicle's interior, but before getting back on the road, she poured the last cup of coffee from the thermos into her travel mug. Sipping the strong, tepid brew, Grace rotated her shoulders and neck in an attempt to work out all the kinks.
Grace thought about her uncle's or Butch's enemies. Butch had none to her knowledge. Her uncle had only one she knew of, though the feud had never escalated to any retaliation on either side. Even the word "enemies" sounded a little melodramatic. I doubt Old Man Matthews would lift a finger to help Moss because of their ridiculous decades' long grudge. So much for neighborly love.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid," she ranted, slapping her palm against the steering wheel. "But what choice did I have? I'd bet the deputy is a city transplant who doesn't know one end of a cow from the other."
Grace put the pickup into gear and rolled away from the shoulder. The air from the vents felt warmer and seemed to be making progress in defrosting the windows, so she forced herself to relax as much as possible. She knew every muscle in her body was going to ache by the time she reached the ranch. Then she'd have four horses, a dozen chickens, three pigs, a hundred or so head of cattle, two dogs, and an undetermined number of cats to feed, assuming they were all still alive and none were missing in the panic.
The thought of all the work needing to be done after the long drive made her want to cry, so she bit her lip and concentrated on navigating the rest of the switchbacks. She had to focus on the dangerous task at hand and not worry about her uncle or about whether or not she had left anything behind in her office that could get her fired.
Her main concern at the moment and biggest priority remained reaching the ranch as quickly as possible, keeping all the animals alive, and salvaging whatever she could. Everything else would have to be dealt with in time. Sliding off the highway and getting stuck in the deep snow was a possible option, but not one she could allow.
"Well, at least I don't have to watch for deer or elk on the roads for a change. They're too smart to be out in this weather. Where in the heck is the snowplow?"
The snow was getting heavier and deeper. Grace hoped she could make it to the ranch turnoff before it got too dense for the truck to push through. As she crested the next hill, a mix of dread and relief swept through her. Not knowing what she would find once reaching the ranch filled her with angst, but the sight of the familiar lone, dented, rusty mailbox poking out of a high drift nearly made her shout out with joy.
The feeling of triumph was short-lived. She pulled the truck off the highway and realized the paved road had been plowed much more recently than the mile and a half long dirt track leading to the ranch. If anyone had driven through in the past few hours, all tracks had been erased by the brutal forces of Mother Nature.
"No wonder the barn burned to the ground. Even if there had been a fire engine nearby, there was no way a big truck could have made it through in these conditions." She sighed with a resigned shake of her head.
Halfway up the small rise, a quarter mile from the main ranch house, the truck's tires spun and the backend fishtailed. The incline wasn't overly steep when dry, but the surface was so slick the truck didn't have the power to keep moving while pushing nearly three feet of snow uphill with no traction.
"Not when I'm so close," she moaned as she backed down the hill and stopped on a flat spot.
Grace sat in the cab for a moment with her eyes closed. She was exhausted, and the idea of having to stop and put chains on the tires for additional traction made her want to scream, but she clenched her jaw, straightened her shoulders, and refused to break down when her goal was in sight. She debated about walking the rest of the way, but she needed her stuff, and the thought of trudging through so much snow sounded even more daunting than putting the chains on the tires. With weary resolve, she pulled her hat low over her brow and forced the door open.
The shovel in the back of the truck was buried under a foot of powder, but it only took her seconds to find the tool and start digging out around the back tires. Once she dug down deep enough to see the entire tire, she laid the chains out on the ground in front of each and then drove forward, centering each wheel on the links. After securing both, she engaged the four wheel drive into low and inched forward.
She could tell instantly there was now enough traction, so if the engine had enough power to push through the snow, she'd reach the ranch and the hordes of hungry animals waiting to be fed.
The truck was moving so slowly by the time it crested the last rise the progress was nearly imperceptible. The sturdy log house was a welcome sight, but then her eyes focused on the burnt-out shell of what was once a beautiful historic barn. It had once looked like an image straight out of an Old West picture book.
Now it was gone.
Her eyes filled with tears as smoke rose through the crisp, still air in sinister wisps, punctuating the recentness of the tragedy. She knew hay and grain could burn and smolder for days or weeks, filling the valley with the scent of destruction, but she hadn't been prepared for how it would make her feel.
The sight of the charred timbers and lingering smoke finally broke through her resolve, and tears poured down her cheeks in torrents the same way the unforgiving snow fell from the sky.CHAPTER 3
Letting Grace off work for an extended leave of absence during such a crucial time might cost him his job. It would definitely earn him a written reprimand, maybe even an unpaid suspension, but what choice did he have?
Dr. Stephen Clark knew he had broken multiple company policies, but Grace was like a daughter to him, and he feared there was much more to her family crisis than it appeared on the surface.
Not only had he encouraged her to get on the road as soon as possible, but he had also suggested she do whatever she needed so she could continue working long distance if the situation required a lengthy commitment. From what little she had relayed to him last night, that scenario seemed more than likely. Company rules strictly prohibited the removal of any research data from the secure lab and working offsite, but the project couldn't just be put on hold, and having someone else fill in for Grace was absolutely out of the question.
They were in a race to confirm the reliability of their data, and the impatient corporate management team was unlikely to accept any excuses. They wanted specific results, and they wanted them yesterday.
Stephen normally went home at least an hour earlier, but he was a coward. The thought of leaving the confines of his underground lab facility and crossing Uinta Vitamin and Nutrition's lobby overhead, exposing himself to anyone else leaving the building, especially the Vice President of Product Development, Janice Green, made him shudder.
Janice had taken a special interest in him and Grace lately and not in a good way. If she asked about Grace, he didn't want to lie, but he needed to buy a little time to gather facts before confessing to Grace's absence and all the other company infractions they had committed. They were both in serious danger of being fired if anyone from the management team learned the truth.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Dose of Danger"
Copyright © 2015 KIM MCMAHILL.
Excerpted by permission of Prism Book Group.
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