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Thirty more minutes in the saddle and he could rest. Scott Ennison tightened his left hand around the reins, his stomach rumbling with hunger. The damp ground muffled the rhythmic beat of his horse's hooves. He breathed deep of the crisp July air, catching the sweet scent of sage and rain. You couldn't get this stunning beauty living in a city.
He looked up at the blue Wyoming sky and the jagged peaks of the Snyder Mountains. Farther out, a carpet of green pine led right down to the mouth of Game Creek where his truck awaited him. He'd be there soon and then on his way home. Shelley waited for him back in town, not at all happy that her daddy had left her with his office manager in a strange place. If only her mother were here. The divorce hadn't been easy on Shelley, not with his career. Living in small, remote towns. Being a single father raising a ten-year-old daughter on his own. Working all the time. Both of them lonely for their own separate reasons. No wonder Shelley was angry and missed her mom. She deserved so much more.
He redirected his thoughts, inspecting the hillside to check for erosion. After being in these mountains three days, he'd finished looking over the area. Now he had to decide how to proceed with a watershed study.
The rain that day would have chilled him to the bone if not for the heavy, down-filled coat he wore over his ranger uniform. He shifted his body and fanned his wet slicker over his arms. Even in July, the high mountains could be cold, especially after a storm.
As he pushed the forest ranger's hat back on his head, he scanned the thin trail ahead. It twined past several large, rotted tree trunks. A mass of pine needles, dried leaves and rotted bark lay in a pile next to the opening of one hollowed-out trunk. A large animal must have turned the tree over, grubbing for insects. He rode on, giving it no more thought.
Out of his peripheral vision, he caught a flurry of movement and turned in the saddle. Two bear cubs dashed across the carpet of damp leaves and scurried up a tall aspen. Scott's gelding jerked its head and jittered to one side.
A furious roar sounded from behind. Scott swiveled his head just as his horse bolted. The reins jerked from his fingers and he grabbed for somethinganythingto keep from losing his seat. His fingers grasped empty air. He fell backward over the horse's rump. The ground slammed up to meet him. He landed on his back, the air whooshing from his body. Pain exploded at the back of his head. He lay there for several moments, dazed and hurting, gasping for breath.
Panic pumped through his body and he came to his feet, staggered and fell again. Pain choked off his breath and his lungs ached. As if in slow motion, he watched his horse race down the hill like a shot from a pistol. No more than fifty feet away, a grizzly bear stood on her hind legs.
Using the aspens as a gauge, Scott figured she must be at least seven feet tall and weigh five hundred pounds.
Death stared him in the eye and all he could think about was Shelley. If he didn't make it home, she'd be all alone. No one to love and care for her. No one to keep her safe.
The bear's angry roar echoed off the surrounding mountains. Afternoon sunlight glimmered off her coarse, silver coat. White tips gave her fur a grizzled appearance. Scott had committed the unpardonable sin of coming between a mother and her cubs.
White-hot terror coursed through his veins. A rush of adrenaline forced him to his feet, but his vision swam like fog. He had to move. Had to run! But his legs wobbled and wouldn't obey his commands.
A shot rang out. Scott turned his head, trying to ignore the bolts of lightning tearing through his body with each movement. A woman sat atop her horse, the butt of a rifle braced against her right shoulder. He blinked, thinking he imagined her.
She cocked the rifle again and fired into the air. The bear screamed in fury. Scott flinched, his head pounding. He took a careful step in the woman's direction, his arms wide as he prepared to run. His head kept spinning and he stumbled, fighting to keep his balance.
The bear growled, her long, sharp teeth and claws extended. Waves of alarm washed over Scott. Another shot rang out. He stared in morbid curiosity as the sow lowered to all fours and dashed across the trail to her cubs. Her speed and agility surprised him. She got her cubs down from the tree, then swatted at them, herding them up the hill away from Scott and the loud boom of the rifle. That suited him just fine. Being eaten by a bear wasn't on his agenda today.
The cubs squawked in protest, but the sow growled and batted them, forcing them to continue up the mountain. Thankfully, her first priority was the safety of her cubs.
Scott faced the woman, shaking his head, trying to clear his blurry vision.
No, two horses and riders. A woman and girl. Where had they come from?
Scott's knees buckled and he lay flat on his back, gazing up at the sky. A biting chill blanketed his body. He couldn't fight it anymore. Something was wrong with him. He'd hit his head and couldn't focus.
Closing his eyes, he let the darkness sweep him away.
"I think he's dead, Mom."
Melanie McAllister kicked her mare. The animal zipped forward across the sage-covered field to join her daughter at the slope of the mountain. Lucky for the man, she and Anne had been out looking for stray sheep when they saw the grizzly bear. Reticent to kill a mother with cubs, Melanie had fired into the air, praying the bear didn't charge the man. She had never destroyed anything more than a bug and she didn't want to shoot a full-grown grizzly bear. Since the animal was an endangered species, she could just imagine having to explain herself to a ranger.
"We'll check him, Anne. You stay close in case that bear returns, okay?"
The man's horse disappeared down the mountain. Mel-anie caught a glimpse of the roan gelding and didn't recognize the brand on the animal's hindquarters. The rain that morning had softened the ground, so it'd be easy to track the horse, if they had time. Right now, she had to think about the man and Anne's safety.
Anne had already hopped off her horse and knelt on the ground beside him.
"Wait, Anne! I told you to stay behind me." Melanie slid from the saddle before her horse came to a halt.
The man lay upon the damp grass, his long legs sheathed in green denim. His chest moved slightly, indicating life. Thank goodness.
His felt hat lay several feet away
a ranger's hat with a wide, flat brim. Melanie tensed, unable to deny her natural aversion to the Forest Service. Ranchers didn't like rangers. They just didn't, for lots of reasons. Mainly because the past few rangers stationed in Snyderville had rarely kept their promises and tended to tell the ranchers where and when to graze their livestock. Especially the last ranger, who'd practically been run out of town by an angry mob.
Melanie didn't recognize this man. He must be new. The rain slicker over his coat kept him dry. With his eyes closed, he looked harmless enough. A lock of sand-colored hair covered his high forehead. Thick eyelashes lay closed against sun-bronzed cheeks. Stubble covered his lean jaw and blunt chin. A handsome face in a stubborn, rugged sort of way. Definitely not a man who sat in an office all day. But it wouldn't matter if he was the best-looking man on earth. Not as long as he wore a green forest ranger's patch on the left shoulder of his shirt. This man meant trouble for Melanieplain and simple.
"Is he dead?" Anne poked his arm with one finger, winning a soft groan from the fallen man.
"He's hurt." Melanie knelt beside her daughter and searched him for injuries. When she touched the back of his head, her fingers came away bloody. "He must have hit his head when he fell from his horse. Help me roll him over."
Anne grunted as she pushed against the man's shoulder. A strand of auburn hair came free from her long po-nytail. "He's big and heavy."
They got the stranger over on his side, so Melanie had better access to the gash in the back of his head. Without being asked, Anne ran to her horse and retrieved two bottles of water from her saddlebags. When she returned, Melanie popped the lid from one bottle, then removed the red-checkered kerchief she wore tied around her neck. She soaked it before cleaning the man's wound.
"Is he gonna die?" Anne asked. Her eyes filled with sadness. At the age of eleven, she'd already lost her father, and Melanie hated that her child had to grow up too soon.
"I don't think so, but he needs a doctor." She wouldn't lie to her daughter, even to protect her tender feelings. As sheep ranchers, they lived a hard life, surrounded by the death of some of their livestock every day, and Anne deserved the truth.
"Look, Mom. There's grizzly track all over this place. You think those bears will come back?" Anne pointed at a perfect indentation of a large animal's paw, the claws over three inches long.
Melanie sucked in a breath. "I hope they don't until we're gone."
Alarms sounded inside her head and she glanced at her .270-caliber rifle before scanning the trees for movement. In all the years she'd been grazing sheep on this mountain, she'd only seen grizzlies from a distance. She'd seen the damage they did to her sheep close up. As soon as they got down off this mountain, she'd report the sighting to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. They'd send in professional trappers to catch and release the bears to a higher elevation.
Night was coming on, black and bitter. How was she going to get the stranger back to town? She knew from past experience that her cell phone wouldn't work here on the mountain, but she tried anyway. Flipping it open, she shook her head, wishing she could afford to invest in a satellite phone.
No reception. She and Anne were on their own.
She wouldn't take a chance with her daughter. She'd lost Aaron eleven months earlier, and she couldn't lose her little girl, too.
The man moved, lifting a hand to his face. "What happened?"
He rolled to his back, looking up at them, blinking his clear blue eyes in a daze. He tried to rise and she pressed her hand to his shoulder. "Just rest a moment and get your bearings."
"We'll find him for you," Anne said.
The man closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. "My head feels like it's been split in two."
Melanie didn't laugh. Aaron had died from a similar accident, leaving her and Anne to fend for themselves with two bands of sheep. If only someone had been there to help Aaron, he might be alive now. That thought alone made her feel responsible for this man. He might have a wife and kids of his own and she was determined to do everything in her power to make sure that their father returned to them. "You hit a rock. You may have a concussion."
The man braced his big hands on the ground and tried to sit up. Melanie and Anne both reached to help him.
He groaned, rubbing his eyes. "My vision's blurry."
Melanie eyed him critically. "You sure you feel like sitting up?"
"Yeah." He closed his eyes again, then opened them. "There, that's better."
"You got a name?" she asked.
He swallowed, as if he felt nauseated. "Ennison. Scott Ennison."
Melanie froze. Her heart felt as though it dropped to her feet. She'd never met this man, but she'd heard plenty about him from the other ranchers in the area. Scott Ennison, the new forest ranger over the Snyder District. The bane of every rancher's existence.
He wasn't what she expected. Ranchers had called the last ranger Overbellie because he was bald and fat and rarely went out on the range to see what difficulties the ranchers might be dealing with. But this man looked lean and strong, with a full head of hair and startling blue eyes.
"You're Ennison?" A look of repugnance crinkled Anne's freckled nose. "Yeah, who are you?"
The girl stood and backed away, her hands resting on her hips. Dressed in denim and scruffy work boots, she looked every inch like her father. "I'm Anne Marie McAllister and you killed my dad."
Ennison blinked. "What?"
"Anne, don't say that. Your father's death was an accident. It wasn't anyone's fault." Melanie said the words mechanically, trying to believe them herself. It'd been Aaron's foul temper and drinking that had caused his death, not the forest ranger.
The girl's eyes narrowed with loathing. "You're good for nothing but causing us ranchers trouble."
"Well, it's true." The girl whirled around and ran to her horse, burying her cheek against the warm side of the animal's shoulder.
Melanie stared after Anne, her heart aching. She understood her daughter's animosity, but didn't like Anne's disrespect and hateful words. Anne was too young to hate anyone. How she wished Aaron hadn't instilled a revulsion for rangers in their daughter.
Ennison's brow crinkled in confusion. "I don't understand."
Melanie wasn't about to explain. Not to this stranger. When she spoke, her voice sounded strained. "Do you think you can stand so we can get you on a horse? I think you need a doctor."
"Yeah, if you can just help me get down to the mouth of Game Creek, I've got a truck and horse trailer there."
"Okay." She preferred returning to her sheep camp. Game Creek was much closer, but if she didn't return, her herder might worry. As she helped Ennison stand, she noticed that Anne silently refused to lend a hand. Something inside Melanie hardened. She also felt angry, yet it wasn't fair to blame this man for Aaron's death. Between the last ranger's dictatorial ways and Aaron's drunken rages, her family had suffered greatly.
Gossips in Snyderville said the previous ranger had lost control over the grazing permittees in the area. Even his kids were getting beaten up at school. The Forest Service claimed that Scott Ennison was an experienced range man from another district where he'd handled serious grazing problems. Ennison also had a reputation for being hard-nosed, but fair.
Melanie would reserve judgment for now.
Since cattle and sheep men had a natural aversion to forest rangers, Melanie half wished she hadn't been the one to discover him. What would the other ranchers say when they found out she'd helped him? How would she ever live it down?