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They didn't know she was watching. Lyndsy Warner crouched low behind a rock outcropping. Prickles of excitement dotted her arms. She held her breath, hoping the wild horses wouldn't catch her scent and bolt. At least not yet.
Overhead, a hawk spiraled through the azure sky. The late April weather had been unseasonably warm. Tufts of green grass and red paintbrush trembled as the breeze whispered past, carrying the earthy smell of dust and sage.
Letting her camera hang limp from the strap around her neck, Lyn reached up to remove the bronze shield pinned above the right front pocket of her forest ranger's shirt. A glint from the afternoon sun might give her presence away to the mustangs in the valley below.
After tucking the badge into her pants pocket, Lyn reached for the camera again. Holding it up to her eyes, she adjusted the focus and studied the herd through the lens. Five mustangs, led by a handsome buckskin stallion. The stud's black mane and tail stood out against his golden coat. The band included three mares and a black foal with a white tail and mane. Not really black, but almost, with just a bit of white on her hind left foot and on her right, under the flank and in her mane and tail. Not a true pinto, either. Very unique coloring and absolutely stunning. The filly's spindly legs looked long and strong, a foreshadowing of the beautiful mare she'd become. Wild and free.
Lyn snapped a quick series of pictures, wishing she could share this moment with Kristen, her ten-year-old daughter. Like most girls, Kristen loved horses. But these mustangs carried a deeper meaning for Lyna reminder of the night her husband died.
The bony rib cages of the horses seemed too lean, an indicator of sparse forage on the range. As the herds increased, there just wasn't enough for them to eat, not to mention the other wildlife roaming this area, or the beef cattle the ranchers paid the government to graze.
Lyn zoned in on the stallion she'd named Buck. This wasn't the only herd foraging in Secret Valley. Lyn had named all the stallions living among the mountains of McClellan National Forest, but not their mares and foals. She didn't want to become more attached to them than she already was. Especially if she was forced to round up some of them for removal.
A low nicker drew Lyn's attention to the plateau overhead. A smaller dun stallion stood gazing down upon the tranquil family of mustangs, his cream coloring similar to Buck's except that tiger stripes circled his front legs. A throwback from prehistoric horses. Probably a bachelor stallion, with no mares of his own. His ears pricked forward with rapt attention, and Lyn knew he wanted Buck's mares. Or at least one of them.
"Don't do it, buddy. Buck's a lot bigger, and he'll hurt you if you try to steal one of his girls." The warm breeze stole Lyn's whispered warning.
While Buck's lead mare kept watch, two of the other mares dipped their noses into the murky water of the shallow spring. No vegetation grew here, with the banks beaten down and churned to mud by too many tromping hooves. By mid-May, Lyn figured the water would be gone. Dried by the baking sun to nothing but cracked earth. The horses needed this water. Desperately. Without it, they'd have to journey across the mountains to Cherry Creek, a thin stream nine miles away. An arduous trip that would sap their energy, keep them from feeding, and weaken their foals.
Always on the lookout, Buck noticed the bachelor stallion and snorted. He skirted the edge of his band, tossing his proud head and pawing the dirt with one hoof. With his long tail flying high like a flag, he raced toward the plateau, placing himself between the watering hole and the bachelor. Buck wouldn't give up his mares. Not without a fight.
The dun neighed in challenge, then picked his way down the steep grade. As he reached the valley floor, he lifted his elegant head and arched his muscular neck. A dark dorsal stripe ran down the middle of his back, and Lyn decided to name him Stripe.
Buck didn't think so. He let out a shrill squeal. Ears flat against his head, he raced toward the dun. At first, the two stallions circled one another, snorting and sizing each other up.
Stripe ducked away from Buck and chased after a plump dapple-gray mare that looked ready to foal soon. Stripe nudged her rump, urging her forward, trying to whisk her away. Buck intercepted, biting Stripe's hindquarters. The mare knew who she belonged to and lashed out at Stripe with her hind legs. Buck bared his teeth, the whites of his eyes showing. His black mane whipped across his strong neck like billows of smoke.
Stripe circled back, chasing after the mare, desperate for a mate. Buck followed, neighing his disapproval. The bachelor stallion was lean and tough, but no match for the more experienced buckskin. And the battle began.
Both stallions reared. Screaming, biting, slashing each other with their razor-sharp hooves. Again and again, their hooves thudded against each other like iron clubs. Lyn cringed at the horrific noise they made. Survival of the fittest. Their ferocity frightened her on a primitive level. She lowered her camera and stared in shock.
The mares galloped out of the fray, the black foal scurrying to join the safety of her mother. Stripe followed, still trying to separate the dapple-gray from the rest of the herd.
Buck intervened with a roar of rage. He kickedonce, twice, bludgeoning Stripe in the head and shoulder. The bachelor stallion staggered and dropped to his front knees. Buck offered no mercy. Rearing, he came down hard on top of Stripe's head.
Lyn gasped, remembered her camera and started clicking again. Later on, the unique photos would serve as an amazing record of wild-horse behavior.
Stripe screeched in pain. Buck gave the younger stallion just a moment to recover his feet. With a loud grunt, the beaten horse sprinted toward the safety of the mountains. He'd been whipped and gave up the fight for now, but Lyn knew he'd return later for another try. The urge to have a family was as old as time, something instilled in the majority of God's creatures. And one day Stripe, or another stronger stallion, would defeat Buck. But for now, the older stallion had kept his harem intact. In this small corner of the world, he reigned supreme.
Buck trotted around the perimeter of the watering hole, head up and nostrils flared as he watched for the return of the dun. Still wound up. Still angry. Unwilling to accept any nonsense right now.
And that's when Lyn saw the blood running down Buck's right front leg. She focused the camera, trying to see the wound more clearly, but no good. She had to get closer.
Moving silently down the hill, she skimmed through snags of PJ's, short for pinon-junipers. She stayed upwind, hoping to go undetected by the band of horses. As she inhaled the dry desert air, her booted feet sank deep into the sunbaked sand. And that was her first mistake.
She stumbled, twisting her ankle. She stifled the cry rushing up her throat, but her silence made no difference. The agitated stallion lifted his head and looked her way. Still territorial and furious. Still ready to fight.
With a scream of fury, Buck charged.
Lyn's breath froze in her throat. A bristle of panic raced down her spine. She glanced over her shoulder. No use trying to reach her truck. There wasn't time.
Instead, she ducked under a thicket of PJ's and pressed her body back into the prickly trees. Sharp needles scratched her hands and face. Her fear overshadowed the pain. The stallion screamed again, thrashing toward her, ferocious and enraged.
Lyn's flesh burned with alarm. Her heart beat madly in her chest. She was no match against the horse's battering hooves. He'd kill her if he could.
Buck reared, hooves waving dangerously near Lyn's head. She scrunched farther back into the crowded trees. The hair of her long ponytail ripped against the pointed branches.
One thought pounded in her brain. Kristen. All alone in the world. If Lyn were killed, her little daughter would have no one to love and care for her. No one to keep her safe.
The rearing mustang beat the PJ's to splinters, fiercely determined to reach her.
Lyn screamed in helpless anguish. How had this happened? A calm afternoon of checking the watering hole had turned into a life-threatening situation.
Lyn glanced left and right, desperate for a safer place to hide until the stallion gave up and left. A thick outcropping of sage and PJ's jutted from the rocks just to her right. To reach it, she'd have to leave her fragile sanctuary and run for her life. With a crazed beast hot on her tail.
Bracing her hands beneath her in the dirt, Lyn bent down like a track star, knowing there was absolutely no way she could outrun this horse. Knowing she might be killed.
Taking a deep breath, she sprinted toward the rocks.
The wild horses were fighting. Caden Baldwin recognized their screams echoing through the canyon, reaching his ranch a mere six miles outside the town of Stokely, Nevada. Riding Flash, his bay gelding, Cade galloped toward Secret Valley. Maybe he'd get to see his beloved mustangs today. He couldn't remember a single summer in his childhood when he hadn't watched the wild horses with his grandfather. It'd been several weeks since they'd crossed Cade's pasture land and
A woman's scream echoed off the rock walls of the ravine like a gunshot. What on earth?
Cade tapped his heels against his horse's sides. Flash tore off at a fast run. Someone was in trouble. Someone needed help.
And then the panic set in. So unexpected that it left Cade breathless and choking. He clung to the saddle, overwhelmed by a flashback to the war in Afghanistan. The drumming of the horse's hooves became the pounding of gunfire and shells exploding all around Cade, hammering his body with bits of rock, dirt and mortar. The memory of pain and the metallic taste of blood in his mouth seemed so real. And then a vision of Dallin filled his mind, his best friend's body, limp and bleeding. Broken.
Cade shook his head, trying to clear his mind and return to the present. Trying urgently to forget the haunting nightmare. He wasn't in the Middle East now. He was here in the Nevada desert. God had brought him home.
Safe and sound.
Oblivious of Cade's moment of crisis, Flash didn't break stride. Cade sat frozen in the saddle, his body moving with the strong rhythm of the horse. He clenched the reins, his calves tightening around the animal's sides.
As the wild mustangs came into view, Cade recovered his senses and his breathing slowed a bit. His gaze centered on a buckskin stallion rearing and thrashing through the pinions. A woman fought her way through the brush, frantically seeking cover. Chased by the stallion.
Urging Flash toward the wild mustang, Cade yelled and waved his arms. The lead mare neighed to the rest of her herd. From his peripheral vision, Cade saw her racing toward the sheltering mountains, the other mares and a young black foal following in hot pursuit.
The stallion snorted, shook his splendid head and chased after his band. Puffs of dust and flying clods of dirt marked their passing. Flash came to a halt, his sides heaving. Cade patted the gelding's neck, murmuring a soothing word to the breathless horse. Then he looked at the woman and groaned. In an instant, Cade recognized the drab olive color of her shirt and spruce-green pants.
He'd rescued a government employee. One of those people who wanted to move the wild horses off this land and lock them away in holding pens.
Cade had half a mind to turn around and ride back to Sunrise Ranch. The last person he wanted to help was a Forest Service worker. But he figured he should at least find out if she was all right. Since returning from the war, he had enough deaths on his conscience and didn't want to add another.
"You okay, lady?" he called.
She sat scrunched back within one of the taller pinions, trying to climb the slim tree trunk. As she descended from her perch, a sprinkle of gray-green nettles showered her head. The limb broke off, and she landed on her rump in the dirt. She gasped but came quickly to her feet, limping slightly. She brushed at her long ponytail and clothing before answering in a shaky voice. "Y-yes, I'm fine, thanks to you."
Honey-brown eyes. Beautiful, intelligent and filled with relief.
Cade pursed his lips and looked around for her vehicle. He saw nothing but scrubby sage and rabbit brush. "How'd you get out here?"
She pointed to the north. "My truck is parked beside the dirt road about a mile away."
He jerked his gaze in that direction. Just great. He'd have to give her a ride.
"You ready to go home now, or would you rather have more fun upsetting the mustangs?" He couldn't keep an edge of annoyance from his tone. He was sick and tired of government employees rounding up the wild horses to send them to holding stations where most of them lived their life in captivity. He'd never been overly sentimental, but he wanted to forget what he'd seen and been forced to do as a U.S. marine in a war zone. The wild-horse herds soothed his jangled nerves and helped him cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder.
The mustangs were Cade's version of therapy.
The woman showed a weak smile, her eyes sparkling like amber gems. Streaks of dirt marred the smooth curve of her sunburned cheeks. Pine needles and dirt clung to her long, white-blond ponytail. A smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose indicated she spent a lot of time outdoors. Because of her employment, Cade decided right then and there he wouldn't like her one bit. No sirree. Not as long as she posed a threat to his wild horses.
She pointed toward the mountains. "That stallion is injured. He fought with a bachelor, and I was trying to get a closer look to see how bad the wound might be."
Her declaration surprised him. Since when did a Forest Service employee care if a wild stallion was wounded or not?
"The way he hightailed it out of here, I'd say he'll be just fine," Cade said. "It's not wise to come out here and gawk at the mustangs. They can be very dangerous."
Her pink lips tightened defensively. "I wasn't gawking. I was checking water levels and observing the horses, trying to learn their habits and see how well fed they are."
He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. "You can call it whatever you like. It's the same thing."
"I wasn't gawking," she insisted.
Okay, he wouldn't argue with her about it. "So, how'd it all work out for you?"
She didn't seem to catch his humor.
"They saw me when I changed position." A frown of disappointment creased her forehead.
"As if a wild stallion would ever let you get close enough to offer first aid." Cade muttered the words beneath his breath. What was she thinking? A mustang would never let her walk up to him and bandage his injured leg.
Her expression darkened. "I know that. I just wanted to see if he needed help."
"Do you come out here often?" Cade asked.
Her gaze met his without flinching. "Every Friday, when I have the time. But not just here in Secret Valley. I make excursions to several areas, checking the water sources in the mountains and valleys. Quite frequently, I come upon the horses. What's your name?"
Cade stared at the Forest Service woman for several moments, mesmerized by her commanding presence in spite of her short height and slim build. Not many people would get this close to a wild horse. Most stallions, even the tame ones, were fierce and treacherous. This woman had grit, he'd give her that. Or perhaps she was too foolish to realize the danger she'd been in. Another city girl who didn't realize that wild horses were wild.