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Mari McCabe's life revolves around remote Red Canyon, Arizona and her horse training. Her immediate goal is to earn her high school diploma after having dropped out of school for a time. When a controversial construction projects starts nearby, her ordered life is shaken by changes. Horse training is dangerous work, but danger is relative. She learns some relatives can be dangerous indeed and loyalties severely tested.
As super on his first big construction job, Dustin Layne has to prove his capabilities. A chance meeting with a young woman leads to an unlikely friendship. When that converges with environmental protests at the site, he confronts a major challenge.How can he reconcile these issues while he saves Mari from danger created by her loyalty to him? Can he even save her from himself?
Marisa McCabe swung the heavy stock saddle up on Lightfoot's broad back. She frowned as she reached under the bay gelding's round barrel to snag the cinch. The cords were frayed and ragged. She probably ought to change it. There were bound to be a couple of better ones hanging in the tack shed.
On the other hand, if she intended to be gone before
Berne got back from a horse-shoeing job across town, she really didn't have time to go look. If she wasn't gone, he'd yell. She decided to risk the cinch, drew the latigo through the buckle and tugged it tight.
Leaving Lightfoot tied to the hitching rack, she grabbed a handful of rope halters with nylon leads. With them she caught the three yearlings she'd lead or "pony" for their daily exercise. Moments later, she headed out the gate. The frisky yearlings pranced beside the older horse, whose pace remained sedate.
Mari sat easily in her saddle with the confidence of long experience. She'd ridden for a good fifteen years. Now the only horse in the McCabe Stable she didn't ride was Cochise. The Appaloosa stallion was Berne McCabe's pride and joy. Mari had no doubt she could ride Cochise easily, no matter what
Berne said. He insisted girls had no business messing with a stallion, so she stayed off the big Appy.
Today, she rode along the highway east to the Reservation fence. There she turned onto the newly widened and paved road leading to the site where the Canyon Rojo Dam was to be built. The project had become a bone of contention in the community. The Indians and the old timers bitterly resisted any change while the new folks, mostly recent immigrants from Back East, said it would be great for business. Once the dam was in, a resort was the next step, an idea even more hotly debated.
Before all the work was completed, there would probably be fights, protests and all sorts of to-do, more excitement than Red Canyon had seen in over fifty years, since they put the first highway through and across the Reservation. Mari figured the construction would not make much difference in her life, one way or the other.
As Lightfoot trotted along, Mari felt the late March wind kick up. It swirled red dust off the raw patches of earth along the road side. The wind picked up a piece of paper and sent it skittering across the new black pavement. At that sight, the yearlings snorted and danced, sharply increasing the pull on the nylon rope to which their leads were attached. Mari had that rope looped over the saddle horn.
She slid to the left, leaning her weight into the left stirrup to try to balance the saddle. "Come on, guys. Settle down. It's only a piece of paper." She gave the lead a sharp snap, bringing the colts back in line.
Ahead, the road vanished around the blunt end of a ridge, cut off to shorten the new road. The ridge was topped by a towering formation of the rosy sandstone which gave the area its name.
At that moment, with a roar and a backfire like a cannon shot, a motorcycle careened around the corner, headed straight at them. Lightfoot threw his head up and gave one prodigious leap before Mari's instinctive jerk on the reins checked him. The colts also leaped--in three different directions. The rawhide wrapping on the saddle horn groaned in protest as the nylon bit deeply into the well-oiled leather.
Mari threw her weight hard into the left stirrup, but the saddle continued to slide to the right. She heard a tearing sound, and felt it roll farther and faster, right out from under her. She twisted and scrambled, trying vainly to find a way to land feet-first, but as the colts bolted, one of the leads caught her under the arm and threw her back and down, right under the twelve scrabbling hooves. She hit hard, breath jolting out, leaving her gasping. Silent darkness closed around her.
Dustin Layne parked his motor home to one side of the newly fenced lot, already jammed with Copper Country Construction Company equipment. He climbed down and glanced around the area that would be his home for the next several months. It looked like any other construction site,
except when you raised your eyes to the magnificent panorama of red rock, blue sky, new green leaves on the cottonwood trees along the creek bed, and the contrasting blue-green of the juniper and Arizona Cypress trees.
The dam might be a good thing, providing electricity to
Camp Stone and the other small towns in the and water for more irrigation, but he'd also seen plans for an upscale resort that would follow. For just a moment, he felt a niggling twinge, knowing the peaceful beauty of the place would be totally obscured once the lake and the pricey tourist spa emerged. The fact he was in charge of building the first link almost made him feel guilty, but if he didn't do it, someone else would. Chiricahua Basin
Within the next two weeks, the first phase of construction would begin in earnest. At least, Copper Country or "C4" had a good reputation for being environmentally sensitive. Dustin wasn't ashamed to work for them. The company would support him while he did all he could to see the original appearance restored once his work was done.
At the rear of the motor home, he unfastened the hitch by which he drew his mini-pickup along behind like a trailer. He reached into the truck for his hard hat, exchanging it for the wide-brimmed tan Stetson he'd worn on the drive out from
. Then he moved quickly through the lot, taking inventory of what supplies and equipment had arrived and what was still missing. Phoenix
After he made a list, he used his cell phone to call the main office. Yes, the secretary told him, the four
earth movers were already on their way and the plywood had been ordered for the forms. There wasn't much else he could do at the moment. Might as well drive into Euclid and have a look around. It wouldn't hurt to know what supplies might be available locally in an emergency. Red Canyon City
He put the hard hat back in its rack, settled the Stetson atop his close-cropped hair, and got in the truck. He headed out the gate, waving to Charlie Jacobs, the security man, as he passed the guard shack. Going back down the new road, he pushed a button and the distinctive sounds of Willie Nelson filled the cab: "Maybe I didn't love you, quite as often as I should..."
Dustin snorted. Was his being gone so much part of the problem with Deborah? Hard to say, now. She seemed happy enough with her new husband, Alvin Hoach. After all, he was the newest partner in Kennebeck, Worth, Lunsford and Hoach, one of the most prestigious law firms in the
area. As for Pam and Justin, they had things now he'd never been able to get them and even a full-time father figure, not one who was gone for weeks on end. Phoenix
Maybe the divorce had been best for everyone, except he missed them sometimes. Especially the kids and having a home base to return to between jobs. He'd seen divorce warp and embitter friends, and however hard it might be at times, he was determined not to let that happen to him. Thus lost in thought, he was unprepared for the tableau confronting him as he rounded the blind curve in the road where it circumscribed a steep bluff of ruddy stone.
The big bay Quarter Horse gelding stood just off the pavement, saddle askew. Only the breast collar and the rear cinch held it, almost halfway off his back. Three smaller horses, colts by their long-legged appearance, tightened the rope which had apparently dislodged the saddle. Their leads were tangled. One colt even had his halter pulled over one ear. They all fought the dubious restraint, clearly not completely over whatever had spooked them.
He jammed on the brakes, stopping the truck just short of the horses. For the moment, as he scrambled out, he couldn't see anyone. Moving carefully, he approached the bay's head and caught the trailing reins.
"Easy there, big guy. Gonna get you untangled quick as I can. Steady now." The horse was obviously well trained. Even though the rear leather cinch squeezed him painfully and the breast collar had almost cut off his wind, he had not panicked.
Dustin eased around the horse and reached for the rope tied to the saddle horn. The three colts snorted and tugged, but began to quiet as he talked to them in low soothing tones. Then, out of the corners of his eyes, he saw a patch of faded blue. It was the crumpled body of the rider. He hesitated for a second, torn between needs. Then he acknowledged he could help the rider better if he wasn't distracted by the horses.
It took a few minutes, but he got the colts untangled and tied to stout wooden posts on the Reservation fence which paralleled the road. He righted the saddle to ease the bay's discomfort before he turned to the rider. Then he saw the thick braid of golden hair. It was a girl. She stirred. He knelt quickly to put a restraining hand on her dusty denim covered shoulder.
Apparently she'd instinctively rolled and curled up when she fell. He'd always heard a horse would not voluntarily step on a body on the ground. Perhaps it was true, for as well as he could see, she hadn't been trampled. She began to move, starting to uncurl from her defensive posture.
"Take it easy. Don't try to move until we can assess the damage."
She opened her eyes for an instant. He could see from her expression that she was disoriented and dizzy. She shut them again fast as she obeyed his warning caution.
"Take it real slow, a little bit at a time. Stop if anything hurts. Don't try to get up yet, anyway."
She did as he suggested, slowly straightening first her arms and then her legs. Although she moved as if everything hurt, apparently none of the pain was unbearable. With her left arm, she cautiously levered up into a sitting position and opened her eyes again.
"The horses," she gasped. "Are they all right?"
When she started up again, he restrained her. "I think so. None of 'em seemed to be hurt. Got 'em all tied up over yonder. They'll be fine there for now. Let's make sure you are too before we try to do anything else."
She accepted his reassurance, nodded and relaxed into the curve of his supporting arm.
"No hurry. Get your bearings before you try to get up. From the looks of it, you took a bad spill."
A knot formed on her forehead, already turning purple. He probed with gentle fingers, knowing it would hurt, but anxious to be sure the bone was not damaged beneath the bruise. Apparently it wasn't. She gave a little gasp at his first touch but then did not wince or flinch. He let out a sigh of relief. If a hoof had caught her in the head, she could have a serious injury, but it looked like she'd been lucky.
"What happened?" he asked, after a moment.
"The wind blew a piece of paper across the road and then, before I could get them all settled down, a motorcycle came around the corner, a real noisy one. They went by awfully close. Lightfoot never liked motorcycles, but he only jumped once. The colts went ballistic, though. That’s when my cinch broke. I knew I should have changed it. It's my own dumb fault.
Berne will have my hide." She spoke in a rueful tone.
Dustin huffed out a sharp breath. "You're lucky you weren't killed. He ought to be grateful for that." Whoever “
Berne” was Dustin disliked him already.
Somehow, the notion of this girl lying stiff and cold seemed particularly unnerving as he knelt there, his arm supporting her slender body. The idea she would be punished further than the distress the accident had already caused was equally unpalatable. Somebody had to be crazy to let her out like that with three spooky colts! She was just a kid, probably not much older than Pam. Hard to believe his daughter would soon be thirteen.
"I think I can get up," she said. "I really want to check on the horses."
After she gained her feet, she leaned against him another moment. He could see she fought dizziness and the wobble in her knees. Then, abruptly, is if she'd realized she was leaning intimately against a stranger, her face went pink and she pulled away.
"I'm okay. Really I am."
"You ought to see a doctor," he said, "especially with that bump on your head."
"Oh, no! I don't ... That's not necessary."
Mari started toward the horses, biting her lip in an effort not to sway and stumble, hoping the stranger would not realize just how weak and shaky she felt. Thank goodness, he'd told the truth. All four of the horses seemed uninjured. The saddle was back up on Lightfoot's back, but the broken cinch hung useless, the ragged ends dangling like a pair of oddly worn mops.
"Oh boy, how am I going to fix that enough to get home?" She didn't realize she had spoken aloud until she heard him at her shoulder.
"Here, I had some rope in the truck. Maybe we can rig up something."
He held out a hank of polypropylene line. Between them, they laced it back and forth through the two buckle-rings, created a makeshift but sturdy cinch. He drew the latigo up firmly and tested the security with a few experimental tugs.
"Yup, I think that'll do it." He turned back to her, concern still evident in his expression. "I hate to see you try to ride. Can you drive?"
She nodded. "Oh sure, but I don't have a license. Don't worry, I'll be okay. They're all over their spook now. It's only about a mile and a half home, anyway. I'm used to fallin' off of horses. Been doing it most of my life."
He studied her, a frown making a small vee above the bridge of his nose. "I'll just follow along then to make sure you get there safe. It's either that or take you straight to the doctor. There is one in
, isn't there?" Red Canyon City
Absently, as she gathered her strength to make the long step back into the saddle, Mari answered. "Oh yeah. More than one. There are several at the big BIA hospital. Then that the new couple just opened the clinic. But I told you I'm okay. You've done enough. I--I'll get your rope back to you as soon as I can. That is, well, are you from around here? You don't look familiar."
Did he hesitate a moment? No, probably not, but she shouldn't have been so blunt. Anyway, he answered freely enough.
"I'm Dusty Layne. Just got in today, but I'll be around for awhile. I'm on that construction crew, up in the canyon. This job is going to take some time, prob'ly over a year, so I'll definitely be around awhile."
"I'll get your rope back to you, then. And thanks for everything." His closeness and the intensity of his gaze made her nervous. She grabbed the horn and swung up into the saddle, desperation making her stronger than she felt. It was slightly better, looking down at him instead of up, a little farther away from those acetylene-flame blue eyes. "Thanks for the help. I mean since I’m a total stranger, you didn’t have to. "
He smiled then, not a big come-on kind of smile, but an easy, warm and caring one. "No problem. I was raised to believe you help when you can, when it's needed. Then just hope when your turn comes that it'll come back to you. How far did you say you have to go?"
Mari waved vaguely, back the way she'd come. "Oh, a mile and a half or two. Home’s the McCabe Stable, about a quarter mile from where this road turns off from the highway, back toward town."
He nodded. Maybe he'd seen the sign. "You start on off. I'll wait a bit and then follow you."
Oh rats, I forgot to get the colts. Now I'll have to get down and try to get back up again. Mari glanced at the three yearlings. "Uh, could you hand me the colts' leads? You don't have to wait. I've kept you long enough."
"Sure." He untied the colts, linked the leads back the way she'd had them, and handed her the end. "I was going in to town to look around a little, just killin' time, really, so it's no bother."
There wasn't much use arguing. She shrugged and turned away. The horses seemed none the worse for the experience, but she didn't feel like hurrying. She took a good half hour to reach the stable. When she turned in at the open gate, she saw
Berne's truck was back. She moved to block the way when her rescuer started to drive in.
"No need. I'm home now. Thanks again." She knew she probably seemed rude, but the alternative would no doubt be worse, both for her and for him. She knew how
Berne reacted to strangers, especially if she was talking to them. Before Dusty could reply, Berne strode out of the new barn and headed toward them.
"What's going on, girl? You're late."
Mari took a breath, let it out. Her head pounded until it was hard to make a calm answer. "I had a little problem. My cinch broke." She eyed
Berne warily, hoping he wouldn't be too harsh, much less rude to the stranger.
"Well, don't just stand there, jawin'. There's chores to do. Put them colts in the pasture. I want you to start riding that mare of Donaldson's on the barrels tomorrow, so they can skip the exercise for a few days."
Mari hastened to obey, heading off to the pasture gate with the colts after tossing Lightfoot's reins over the hitching rack.
Dustin got out of the truck and met the big man at the gate. Fellow looks like an InDinay, the tribe on the local reservation. Does the girl work for him or what? He didn't like the horse trainer's dark scowl or his tone when he spoke to the girl. "I think you should know the young lady took a bad fall. If she was my kid or my employee, I'd have a doctor check her over and let her rest a day or two. She probably has a concussion, at least"
The burly man's flat gaze raked him from head to foot. "Well, she ain't either one, so I don't see where it's any of your business. If you lent a hand, thanks. I'd hate to see those colts run off or something. Mari gets careless sometimes and forgets we have to make a living around here. She's okay. She rode home, didn't she?"
Dustin was speechless. How coldly unfeeling could a man be? Anything else he said would only make things worse for the girl. That wasn't what he wanted. Without another word, he turned back to his truck and headed for town. A glance in the rear view mirror showed her standing there beside the big bay, looking after him. She looked forlorn somehow, both fearful and defiant.
She was older than he had first thought. He realized it now, having seen the mature curves of her body as he drove slowly behind her. The wind kept whipping back her jacket, to reveal the roundness of her breasts when the chambray shirt plastered close to her body. The way she moved in the saddle accented the pleasing shape of her hips and waist. Her grace, the athletic but feminine body, and the rich, ripe-grain color of her hair stayed with him as he drove around the little town. She was damned attractive, even without any makeup, with her hair dragged back into a heavy braid, and wearing ragged, faded denims. Definitely an unusual young woman. Maybe that was why he could not get her out of his mind.