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Alexa Robinson spoke softly to the frisky black three-year-old gelding she worked on a lead rope. She'd bought this horse and a mare at a recent breeder's auction. Usually she gentled the horses she bought into smooth-gaited saddle mounts but she wouldn't have as much time to work with these. A former customer had said he'd buy the mare for his daughter, provided Alexa could train the horse for barrel racing by the girl's birthday in mid-December. It was now mid-October, which gave her just two months.
Autumn in the Chihuahuan Desert was dry. Her dog pounced on cottonwood fluff blowing inside the corral. Little puffs of dust flew up from the gelding's hooves as he danced at the end of the rope. Alexa took her eye off the border collie who stopped and perked his ears toward an aging green van that drove down her dirt road, creating larger dust plumes.
She had few visitors, and didn't recognize this vehicle. Her ranch was fairly remote, bordered as it was by the Chisos Mountains and the Big Bend National Park. Perhaps a previous customer had recommended her. That would be nice. If she could sell both new horses, the profit should get her through the winter.
The gelding snorted and pulled back as the van came to a dusty stop beside the corral. A dark-haired woman emerged, directing the four children inside to get out their crayons and coloring books. Retrieving a thick manila folder, the woman shut the driver's door and headed toward the corral.
Assuming she was lost and needed directions, Alexa unsnapped the rope from the gelding's halter. "May I help you?" she called, slipping out through the gate, making sure it latched securely behind her and the dog.
"I'm Sierra Martinez," the woman said, holding out a hand. "You're Dr. Robinson? I've come to discuss my brother, Rafe Eaglefeather. He was recently medically discharged from the army," she said, as if that clarified everything.
Alexa's smile vanished the instant the word doctor passed the woman's lips. Withdrawing her gloved hand, she said, "I'm not a practicing doctor, Ms. Martinez."
"It's Mrs., but please call me Sierra. Aren't you an osteopath and an herbalist? I heard that at the feed store. And park rangers told my husband you've healed injured animals they've found in the park."
"Animals. Not people." Alexa hooked her coiled rope over a fence post before she said anything more. Almost angrily she stripped off one leather glove. The wind had dislodged strands of blond hair from her ponytail and she pushed them back behind her ear.
Creases formed between her visitor's solemn dark eyes. "My husband, Doug, is a border patrol agent. He told me you treated a pregnant woman—an illegal who was badly dehydrated. You kept her here and cared for her until you found her husband. Doug's partner also told me you set the broken arm of a little boy who fell during a border crossing."
"Those were emergencies. I had to act quickly. The nearest clinic is miles away." Alexa bent to pat Com-padre who also eyed the stranger with misgiving. "The woman had been abandoned by the scoundrel she paid to bring her to Texas. She was malnourished and frightened. The boy…he cried without making a sound. It would have been cruel to make him travel to the clinic in such pain."
"My brother's a war hero," Sierra said with passionate emphasis. "Army doctors quit on Rafe and discharged him to family. To me. Doug and I have two sets of twins under age six. We all live in a two-bedroom house. Doug's building an addition, but it takes time. Meanwhile, Rafe's stuck sleeping in our living room. And I'm convinced he's being overmedicated. As for follow-up care, he's supposed to check in at a VA center in Houston or San Antonio once a week. The one time I drove him, we sat in the waiting room for hours, and they only added Valium to his other prescriptions. I can't make that trip weekly without putting a strain on my family. I'd hoped maybe he could stay here while you evaluate him. Maybe some natural methods can help him. Maybe they'll make him want to get better. Please. We can pay you."
Taken aback by the strange request and concerned that so many people knew about her, Alexa nevertheless felt sympathy for the distraught woman. "Money isn't the issue," she said. Although she'd been determined not to ask, she did. "Out of curiosity, what's wrong with your brother?"
"This is his medical record. All the information you need is here," Sierra Martinez thrust the fat manila folder she clutched into Alexa's hands.
A quick glimpse into the official chart of Rafe Eagle-feather showed Alexa that he'd been blinded after suffering a head injury when his patrol was hit by mortar fire. He'd also been shot in the leg during the same attack. The reference to the violent injury made Alexa think about Bobby Duval, her lifelong friend. One New Year's Eve he wrapped his Jeep around a tree after skidding on ice. E.R. doctors stopped his internal bleeding and removed his spleen. Even after he was released from the hospital, his treatments dragged on. Bobby had grown so weary of being poked and prodded. Alexa was willing to bet that Major Eaglefeather felt the same way.
"What do you think?" Sierra asked as Alexa leafed through the chart. "I've also included reports by some of Rafe's men. They said he fought hard trying to save his whole patrol. Not only was he shot and left blind, he lost his two best friends in the attack. The army gave him ribbons, medals and commendations, and the doctors gave him pills that are supposed to get him through the rest of his life. All they're doing is making him a zombie."
Though moved by accounts of the major's heroism, his apparent lack of will to be healed made Alexa pass the folder back to Sierra. "I'm sorry. I'm no miracle worker." Alexa tried to keep her voice steady, but her hands shook.
"Please. Do you have any idea how many veterans like Rafe fall through the cracks in our system? When my brother was discharged, the military doctor pulled me aside and mentioned how many commit suicide after they go home. It's shocking. I don't want my brother to be one of them." Her eyes filled.
Alexa spread her hands helplessly. "His case is tragic, I agree. But he needs MDs who are trained to treat the casualties of war."
"It's not Rafe's first tragedy," Sierra said, blotting her eyes on a sleeve. "When I was sixteen and Rafe fourteen, our parents died in a highway accident. I dropped out of school, got my GED and worked two jobs so we could eat and keep Rafe in school. Our folks wanted more for him than to farm and rodeo like our dad.
"Rafe graduated," she continued proudly. "He went to college and got a job caring for rodeo stock. Summers he rode in the circuit. He also crusaded to stiffen the rules governing the health of rodeo animals. Rafe loved horses more than winning buckles." Her eyes cut to the horse in Alexa's pen. "Rafe's dream was to own a ranch like yours when he retired from the army," she said softly.
Alexa knew Sierra was trying to play on her sympathies, but she was determined to stay strong. "How did he get from rodeos to the military, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Nine-eleven happened. Rafe and his two best friends from the rodeo joined the army. My brother was a good soldier. He pulled two tours in Iraq after basic training and was promoted several times before ending up in Afghanistan. It was the first time he and his friends landed in the same unit. Now Mike and Joey are dead, and I'm afraid Rafe wishes it'd been him instead."
Alexa knew all about guilt. It was the reason she lived here at the ranch her grandfather had left her instead of running her practice in Houston. She'd needed solitude. And now that solitude was being threatened by the gut-wrenching pain in Sierra Martinez's eyes.
"What do you really know about holistic medicine?" Alexa asked abruptly.
"Our maternal grandmother was a curandera."
"Ah, a Hispanic healer. I trained with a Chinese herbalist, but I also work with native desert plants. They have many of the same properties as those used by the Chinese."
"My brother was a vital man once, but his spirit is dead. I believe there is a natural solution that won't kill his self-esteem—that won't mask who he is," Sierra declared, biting her trembling lower lip. "I'm confident you'll be able to help him."
"Do you have any family or friends living near a VA facility your brother could stay with while he gets treated?" Alexa felt herself weakening and tried to guard against it.
"No." Sierra hugged the dog-eared chart to her chest. "Since we lost our parents, it's been Rafe and me against the world. I know it's presumptuous to drop in on you. But he's my brother and I can't bear to see him like this."
Alexa's stomach tightened. As the only child of a busy oil tycoon, she used to long for a sibling. Her dad had had little time for her. Her mom had never understood her, and still didn't, even though she meant well. Alexa's compassion for people and animals came from tagging along after the veterinarian who looked after her father's extensive stable of race horses. And from a true, unconditional friendship with tough-talking, fun-loving Bobby Duval. He'd been like a brother.
Rubbing the V between her brows, she sighed. "I'll tell you what… if your brother agrees, and if he signs a release allowing alternative care, I'll consent to treat him on a thirty-day trial. He can help out on my ranch in trade. If he shows no improvement after a month, or if I think he's losing ground, I want a promise you'll help him move somewhere closer to a VA outpatient facility."
Sierra's face flooded with relief, and she nodded. She gave Alexa back the thick medical file. "Thank you, thank you, thank you. I know Rafe will agree. I'll bring him tomorrow after I drop my older twins at school. I'll pack the basics for him, but if you think of anything else he might need, you can always call me." Without waiting for Alexa's response, Sierra hurried to her van. Leaping in, she revved the engine and drove off amid plumes of dust so like the ones that had first caught Alexa's eye. Alexa choked on the billowing particles and wondered what in heaven's name she'd done.
Rafe Eaglefeather still sat in the same porch rocker he'd been sitting in when his sister left to run errands. He couldn't say how long she'd been away, except that a small pile of shavings had accumulated at his feet from the piece of wood he was whittling into a pony.
He felt the breeze and heard the footsteps of his sister's four kids as they scuttled silently past him to get into the house. That meant Sierra had stopped to collect Curt and Chloe from school. He let them go by without speaking to him. Both sets of twins had been born while he was out of the country, so they didn't really know him. Sierra had told them their uncle Rafe was blind and couldn't see to play games with them. Besides, that was the last thing he felt like doing.
"Hi, Rafe." Sierra sank into the chair beside him.
"I'm sorry I was gone so long. I wish you wouldn't whittle when I'm not here."
"Doug gave me the wood," Rafe said, folding up his pocketknife.
"I know, but I worry you'll cut yourself. It looks like you've been at this project awhile. I'll get a broom and sweep up after I start supper."
He bent and tried to pick up the wood curls. "I know you asked me to use a waste basket in the house, but I figured the shavings would blow away out here."
"It's okay. Come inside. I need to make a meat loaf."
"You go ahead. I like being out in the fresh air." It was the truth, Rafe thought. "If I bought a cot, I could sleep out here on the porch."
He heard Sierra sigh.
"Oh, Rafe. I'm sorry you're stuck on the couch. Doug's been so busy he hasn't had much time to work on the addition."
"No problem, Sierra. I don't care where I sleep."
Rafe could sense his sister's hesitation in the short pause that followed.
"Uh, Rafe, I need to talk to you about something," she said at last.
Whatever it was, Rafe realized, his sister was worried that he wouldn't like it.
"There's a healer who lives a couple of hours away," she continued. "A woman. She uses herbs in place of pharmaceuticals. I went to meet her and had her look at your medical report to get her opinion. She's nice, Rafe, and lives on a ranch with horses."
Sierra was speaking to him the way she would to her children, Rafe thought. He felt a gentle hand rest on his knee.
"Her name is Dr. Robinson. She's willing to work with you for a month—see if she can help you get off those antidepressants. What do you think?"
He thought that Sierra just couldn't seem to accept that he'd be like this for the rest of his life.
"Say something, dammit!" Sierra pulled back and withdrew her hand from him.
"Say what?" Rafe asked.
"The old Rafe would tell me to stop meddling in his life. Where's your spunk? It's your life, your future I'm trying to save, Rafe."
He knew his lack of response frustrated his kind-hearted sister, but there was nothing he could do to change that.
"I'll go if you want me to," he said. "But the truth is…I couldn't see in Houston. I can't see here. That's my future, Sierra."
"No it isn't. You're only thirty-five. That's why I want you to see this doctor. You have a lot of years ahead of you and I'm going to do everything I can to make them good ones."
Rafe made no comment to that.