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The odor of sagebrush rose spicy and rich as Nora wove between the low bushes. The crunch of the dry soil beneath her hiking boots fragmented the evening silence. All the scents and sounds of the high desert were magnified after dusk.
She shrugged her pack up higher, the tools, notebook and water bottles she carried heavy on her shoulders. The glamorous life of a plant biologist. There was nothing like the freedom and beauty of the Eastern Sierra landscape. But at moments like these, her muscles wobbly after fourteen hours on the trail, she wondered what it would be like to have a regular job. Maybe one that left her with some energy to go out with friends after work.
The image of herself dressed up, out for drinks or even some dancing, had her smiling wryly into the darkening night. Who was she kidding? She had no friends around here, and drinking and dancing had never really been her style. Her hot date tonight would be with her laptop and her notebook. After such a long and productive day, she had a ton of new information to organize. The hulking shadows of deserted storage buildings loomed into view, set at the top of the small rise ahead of her. Everyone had gone home already, and the Department of Range Management compound was silent. Nora couldn't wait to be home, too, and beneath a hot shower.
An unfamiliar metallic clank stilled her thoughts and halted her steps. The sound came from the direction of the corrals, where wild mustangs, captured from the surrounding area, were waiting to be auctioned off. Nora had seen them, dim silhouettes in the dawn light, as she'd hiked out today. They'd been huddled together in one corner of the exposed, dusty corral, as if seeking comfort in each other's company. She heard the clanking again. Maybe one of the horses was restless. Or could a predator be nearby, upsetting the poor captive animals?
But what should she do if coyotes, or a mountain lion, were harassing them? She moved quickly, keeping her footsteps quiet as she jogged toward the storage buildings. Maybe there was some kind of tool there that she could use to scare predators away.
Then the sound of metal slamming into metal ripped through the night again. And her heart slammed against her chest in answer. She froze and tried to calm herselfa gate must have come open, that was all. Then a man's voice sliced through the night, shouting, "Go!" The command was distinctand so was the answering whinny.
Nora felt an instant of gratitude that the intruder was humanat least she wouldn't have to take on any coyotes. But the thought was interrupted by a heavy rumbling sound. Hoofbeats. Hoofbeats accompanied by shadows, darker than the darkness, thundering down the hill toward her. The mustangs weren't in their pens anymore. They were panicked and heading her way. They'd trample her.
She raced toward a boulder a few yards away and threw herself in front it. Gravel shredded her skin on impact. She gasped as the tools in her belt stabbed into her hip and side. The sound of hooves was deafening, almost on top of her now. She didn't dare look up, just rolled over and over until she was against the boulder, wishing fervently that it was a much larger piece of rock.
Then the horses were everywhere. Flooding around her measly shelter, so close she could feel the current they created in the air. The cacophony of their hoofbeats eclipsed her scream. She could hear them breathing and grunting as they swerved to avoid her rock. Pebbles, churned up by hooves, pelted the bare skin of her arms and legs. She screamed again, hoping to scare them, to divert their course away from her. But they just kept coming.
Pulling her pack over her head, Nora prayed it would protect her skull from the flying hooves. Cowering underneath it, her world narrowed to her next breath, her blood thundering almost as loudly as the wild horses stampeding around her.
Then they were gone. Instantly, blissfully gone. Their terrifying noise fading as the herd fled into the dark desert night. She lay still, the weight of her pack pressing her cheek into the soil.
The usual evening stillness returned, almost as if none of it had happened. Except it had. Nora had the tears on her cheeks, the stuttering heart, the ragged breath to prove it. Every nerve was on alert, every inhalation felt precious with the knowledge that she could so easily be lying here trampled, no breath in her body.
She hugged the earth, whispering a prayer of thanks. The gravel was rough beneath her cheek but she welcomed the discomfortit meant she was still here. She closed her eyes and inhaled the dusty smell of soil and of life. She wanted, more than anything, to just go home.
She lifted her head and sat up stiffly, rubbing her hip and side. She would have some huge bruises tomorrow.
Heaving herself off the ground, Nora shouldered her pack and hobbled up the last gravelly rise to the storage sheds. She fumbled with the metal latch, her fingers trembling so much they were almost useless. Finally she got the door open and set her tool belt down just inside. She shut it, the latch a little easier to manipulate now as the adrenaline slowly drained from her system.
How had the gate come open? She remembered the voice, the shouted command. Had someone let the horses out on purpose? Why?
Inhaling another shaky breath, she turned away from the shed and crashed right into a man. The adrenaline was back in an instant, sending nerve endings firing to red alert. She absorbed him in a series of terrified impressions. Broad chest clothed in black. A ski mask. A coil of rope in his hand. A tool belt on his hips. He was all steel muscleand he was reaching for her.
Nora screamed and shoved past him, running before she was even conscious that she'd moved. Reaching into her pocket, she scrabbled for her car keys. Her pulse pounded; her blood hissed in her ears. Her breathing rasped across the nighttime silence. Every movement felt too loud, too slow, not enough. Her backpack swung and bumped awkwardly on her back.
She heard him jogging behind her, the ease with which his long legs were keeping up with her short strides only adding to her horror. He was playing with her. There was no way she could lose him. If she could just get to her car, get inside, lock herself in, she might have a chance.
She reached her Jeep, wishing the taillights didn't flash when she touched the unlock button on the remote. She yanked the door open and the interior light came ona beacon.
"Wait." The voice was low and quiet. A gloved hand stopped the door. Nora gasped and whirled to face him. He was a terrible shadow in the blackening night, looming over her, emanating power. Nausea filled her stomach as she realized just how alone she was out here and what kind of horrible things might happen next.
"Let me leave." She tried to make her voice commanding, but it quavered.
"It's you." His voice was low, wondering, almost fearful. Not what she'd expected. His fingers left the door and found her wrist, coiling around it. The leather of his gloves felt clammy on her skin.
"What do you mean?" His grip didn't hurt, but it was binding and scary. "Let go of me!"
"Don't be afraid. I won't hurt you. I swear." But he didn't loosen his hold on her.
"Then, let me go." She sidled carefully to the right, as far from him as his arm would permit. The car light, no longer blocked by her frame, revealed a faint glint that was his eyes, but the ski mask kept everything else under cover. He studied her face intently, as if he was looking for something there.
Still, her heart thudded, almost hurting. "Please let me go home." She hated the plaintive note in her voice.
It was too dark to see what color his eyes were, but they didn't look as though they belonged to someone dangerous. She'd grown up with criminalsshe knew what eyes with no conscience behind them looked like.
"I'll let you go," he promised, "once you agree not to call the sheriff."
"You stole horses," she stated.
"Freed horses," he corrected.
"Let me go."
"They were going to die here, slowly, brutally, sweltering in the heat. They've got no shade, no protection from the sun. They're standing ankle-deep in dust, and the government doesn't care."
"I'm sorry. It's terrible. Can I please go home?" Her heart was slowing to a more regular thud. She had one goal. To get out of here, fast.
"Have you seen them?"
What, he wanted to have a chat now? "Yes," she told him.
"Did you know that a foal died last week, right here? It wouldn't have died in the wild. They're our country's iconic wild horses and we're leaving them here in squalor because the government can't make up its mind about what to do with them."
With her fear fading, anger crept in. He was some kind of ecowarrior. He'd freed the horses on principle, to keep them safe. But without thinking of human safety. "They almost killed me when they ran."
He visibly recoiled. "You were out there?"
Her voice shook at the memory, and she gripped the door frame more tightly, fighting her fear. "I got behind a rock. Just barely. I was sure I'd be trampled."
"I'm sorry." The shock in his voice was audible. "I'm so sorry," he repeated. He sounded truly upset. This was bizarre.
"Where are you taking them?" she asked. And then mentally kicked herself. Why was she still talking with this maniac? All she needed to do was agree with him and get out of here.
"Somewhere they'll be free to roam and find the shade they need during the day." He paused, hesitated. "Look
are you hurt? I'd feel horrible if
"I'm okay. But I want to leave."
"Don't call anyone." The man shifted restlessly.
"I won't. Now can I go?"
"Sure. Just hand me your phone."
"Hand me your phone, please." He glanced over his shoulder again, obviously anxious to be done with this conversation and get on with his horse-liberation project. Reluctantly, Nora reached into her pocket and handed him her phone. With one quick flick of his wrist he sent it sailing out into the desert blackness.
"Hey!" Outrage made her fearless. "I told you I wouldn't call."
"I know." Again he sounded genuinely apologetic. "But I have to make sure I have enough time to get out of here."
As her fear subsided, a thought in the back of her mind solidified
His voice sounded familiar. How was that possible? Who did she know from around here who might free wild horses?
"Do we know each other?" she blurted out. And instantly regretted it. If he suspected she recognized him, would he hurt her?
Something changed. She could swear a current of worry ran through him. And she knew, without a doubt, that he knew her. He knew exactly who she was.
"No," he said quickly. Too quickly. "Goodbye." And he was gone, his footsteps crunching unevenly on the gravel as he jogged back across the parking lot. Whoever her masked man was, he had a limp.
She climbed into her Jeep and slammed the door, warm relief filling her veins as she hit the lock button. Turning the key, she welcomed the sound of the engine roaring to life, and floored the gas to get out of the parking lot as fast as possible. She didn't know anyone with a limp, and right now she didn't even care who he was. What mattered was that he was gone and by some miracle she was safe. All she wanted was to go home.
Todd ran a hand over his face. Getting the scratchy wool mask off provided him with about a millisecond of relief from his shock and horror. Nora Hoffman. After all these years, Nora had been here in the dark, almost killed by the horses he'd released.
This was insane. It made no sense. Why was she here?
Nora, his ex-girlfriend, face-to-face with him. Afraid of him.
Nora, of all people, witnessing him doing something illegal. Nora who hadn't so much as jaywalked when he'd known her back in college. When he'd loved her.
He urged his horse into a lope until he caught up to where Walt was riding, flanking the mustangs. The wild horses were moving quietly now. They were tired after their ordeal under the dubious care of the Department of Range Management. A few stumbled. "Do you think they'll all make it?" he asked his friend.
"Elliot's place is only eight miles northeast. It's mostly flat. If we move them slowly, don't run them, and nothing spooks them, we can get 'em there."
Todd sighed in relief and dropped back again, determined to keep any stragglers moving forward to safety and relative freedom. Once again he thanked God, or whoever was in charge of this messed-up world, for eccentric billionaires like Elliot Baxter. The elderly and ornery businessman was happy to flout government procedures and let the horses live in peace on his vast empty acres. He'd even put up a miles-long boundary fence, just to make it clear to the world that this particular group of wild horses was off-limits to further intervention from DRM incompetents.
Wendell, the formerly wild mustang Todd rode, was calm, seemingly uninterested in returning to his feral roots. It was gratifying to have concrete evidence that he'd done something well, even if it was just training a horse.
He glanced up, looking for the solace he usually found in the infinite stars that hung in the summer sky east of the Sierras. But instead of peace, he found uneasy thoughts of Nora. Disbelief that she'd been here tonight. Such a bizarreand almost deadlycoincidence.
She must have been absolutely terrified. Too clearly, he could picture the way it might have ended, with her body crumpled and lifeless on the ground. He shuddered and looked at the sky again, grateful beyond measure that she'd stayed safe.
He'd thought of her so often, especially since moving to his ranch outside the small town of Benson. He'd always known she'd come from this part of Californiathough in their years together she'd never told him the name of her hometown. She'd almost never spoken of her family. Just joked that they were trouble and that she'd divorced them.
What were the odds of seeing her tonight? He'd almost said her name while they were talking. He'd wanted to say it, to reveal himself, to somehow reconnect with the woman he'd left behind so abruptly nearly a decade ago. Though clearly tonight wasn't the time for a reunion.
Since moving here, he'd assured himself that making his home east of the Sierras had nothing to do with Nora. He'd fallen in love with the rugged landscape, the contrast of high desert and majestic mountains, all on his own. But seeing her tonight
It felt like some kind of twisted fate.