Lissa Frye jolted upright, listening for the strange noise that had broken the stillness. She squinted into the darkness as dawn’s approach grayed the black interior of the room. The dresser and nightstand took shape, but still no clue to the sound’s origin surfaced.
What was it?
A sharp claw, attached to a softer paw, touched her arm and she jumped. Sorrel’s rough tongue licked her chin, the swish of a wagging tail a sign the noise had baffled the dog, too.
“Did you hear that?” At her question, Sorrel yipped. The dog panted, pushing her nose into Lissa’s lap.
She stroked the dog’s curly ears and petted her head. “Lie down, girl. It isn’t time to go.” The dog whined and retreated to her rug, the rustling of her tail as she settled the only sign the animal existed in the shadows.
The room again fell silent. The hush lingered like a menacing spirit, a ghostlike apparition that made Lissa uncomfortable. She’d regained her land legs since returning from the Navy three months ago, but the missing hum of the ship’s engines and the ever-present roll of the vessel as it sailed had not been replaced. The quiet in the room roared louder than any ship ever had. Fifteen years of living with that reality would take time to fade. If ever.
Lissa stood and stumbled toward the dresser, stubbing her toe on the travel bag she’d left on the floor last night. The luggage, packed and ready to load in the Suburban for her trip over the mountain today, waited to be stowed after she signaled Sorrel into the passenger seat later. Hopping on one foot as she massaged her injured toe, she reached for the lamp. As she did, a light flashed to the left of its base, the strange buzz rattling the water glass beside it.
Her cell phone. On vibrate.
Oh, no. Not at six-thirty in the morning. She moaned as she read the time. Nothing good could come of a call this early. Unless it was Dad. Or Eily. Or Kurt? No, that was too much to hope.
She picked up the phone and checked the readout. Sheriff Matthew Briggs. Her boss. On a Saturday, no less. She’d worked the last three, all filled with emergencies her new job required her to handle.
What was it this time? A herd of cows that had pushed over their rotting fence and blocked traffic as they trotted along Highway 20? A raptor shot by some inexperienced hunter? A ram who’d led his flock into a ravine and couldn’t get out?
She gritted her teeth. Whatever crisis awaited her meant she wouldn’t be driving home anytime soon. Her trip would be postponed, maybe all weekend. She punched the screen to answer the call. Might as well get this over with.
“Don’t you believe in sleep?” Lissa stifled a yawn as she waited for Matthew to respond. “This must be some emergency.”
“I was afraid you’d leave for your folks’ place before I reached you.” His words, laced with warmth, made her smile. Matthew deserved her respect. She could picture him in his uniform, broad shoulders packed into his neat tan shirt. From beneath a massive crop of brown hair, grey eyes pierced the edges of her soul. Ever the gentleman, Matthew had treated her like an equal, accepted her into the sheriff’s department without hesitation, and made her feel welcomed in an office of six other men. Too bad he was happily married. “You’re not on the road yet, are you?”
“No. I planned to leave around nine.” She waited for the other shoe to drop. “What’s up?”
“Missing person report from a concerned storekeeper. Might be animals involved. Do you have time before you head out?”
Lissa knew what she’d have to say. Animal welfare pervaded her job description and, though the trip she’d planned today to her father’s home in McKenzie Bridge had waited too long, she had to respond to Matthew’s request. Fifteen years in the Navy had kept her from Dad and his new wife, Eily, and now that Lissa lived closer, they expected her to visit as often as her new job allowed. This renewed connection to her father, after so much time apart, warmed her. But Matthew wouldn’t ask if the case wasn’t urgent. He knew how much she needed to reconnect with her family.
“How long do you think this will take?” Lissa worked to keep the impatience out of her voice. “I’ve got a four-hour drive ahead of me. Can we check this out before noon?”
“That depends on what we find. But I doubt it will take more than an hour.” Matthew must have read her mind. “Bring your file on ranchers available to foster animals. We may need it.”
“Got it.” Lissa kept the file in her rig. “I’ll meet you at headquarters at eight.”
“That’s fine. Wear your tall boots.”
Clicking off her phone, she went to her closet and retrieved the last clean uniform she’d hoped to save for her return to work next Tuesday. If this call went well, she could replace the uniform in her closet when she finished. She grabbed a towel on her way to the shower. Duty called.
Mueller Ranch, Harney County, Oregon
Rain pelted the filly’s bony back like gravel thrown from the roadway shoulder. The shower’s chill burrowed into her hide. Beyond the fence, spring precipitation had greened the barren hillside, begging shoots of grass from the frozen soil. In the paddock where she stood, the downpour only added to the mud and manure, rendering the sludge sticky and deep. In the corner, a layer of green floated on the surface of the water trough.
As the filly stepped through the muck, her legs ached from the cold, her hooves heavy with packed manure. Though her coat shimmered with a cinnamon glow in the summer, the filth of the pen had dulled it to a dirty brown. Her skin itched, and the shedding hair clung like ticks on a coyote. The soupy ground beneath her offered no place to lie down and roll.
She longed for the growing forage beyond the fence, her stomach a tight knot of hunger. One blade had popped up near the fence post, but the meager shoot did little to satisfy the growling inside her belly.
Her mother wobbled on shaky legs beside her—coughing, wheezing, the gulps of air staccato and shallow. Mucous dribbled from the mare’s nostrils. Her lungs whistled with every breath, similar in pitch to the fierce wind blowing in from the canyon adjacent to the ranch—the canyon where her mother had watched her prance last summer.
The filly’s ears twitched, pointing toward the ranch house not a hundred yards away. The old man’s decrepit machine, which bellowed loud enough to scare a rattlesnake, sat like a piece of ornamentation in the drive. Where was he?
The man had fancied her last July, a foal learning to run, gamboling on newborn legs. He’d allowed her freedom to roam, to frolic along the creek basin, never out of sight of her watchful mother cropping grass and weeds. The tough, tasteless fodder couldn’t compare to her mother’s sweet milk. As the summer progressed, however, the mare’s supply of nourishment dried up, like the meadow under the summer sun, and she was forced to eat what her mother did.
The old man had provided hay all winter while snow covered the ground. On occasion, she’d snatched the sweetened grain he rationed out for her mother. The molasses, corn, and oats made a welcome treat on a frosty day. But then he’d disappeared. No hay, no grain, no anything. Starvation became a reality.
She missed the man’s chuckle. The way he scratched in all the right places behind her ears and between her eyes. She could still hear him boasting to his friends.
“Ain’t she a beauty? Cinnamon like her mama. Tail and mane like her daddy. I saw him. Wild Kiger stallion snuck in right beneath my nose and got the mare pregnant. Didn’t think ol’ Bets could carry a foal to term. But, by gum, I’m glad she did. Ain’t never seen a more beautiful filly. See the stripe down her back and on her legs? She’s worth a mint, if you ask me.”
Why didn’t the man come? If nothing else, he could tether her mother against the hillside as he had last summer. The mare had grazed in the dried pastureland, nibbling at milkweed and snipping off thistle tops. The winter snowmelt had left the grasslands ripe for growing. Recent rains encouraged the meadow to soak up all the sky could muster. The new green shoots called to her. She and her mother could forage to satisfy their appetites once they escaped the paddock. If only he would come and open the gate—let them beyond their prison, into the spreading carpet of green.
Her mother groaned, shuddered, and bent her knees, sinking into the mud. Her breathing rasped now, loud and grating, like the file of the farrier who trimmed her hooves. Her head sank lower, her muzzle drifting into the mire. The filly nickered and nudged her mother, trying to get her to stand. She inched closer, the mud sucking at her legs. Hovering over the mare’s back, she nuzzled her mother’s neck, massaging the length of it with her chin.
A noise caught her attention. The filly raised her head, ears forward, nostrils flared as she tested the scent. At the top of the hill an engine rumbled. She tried to nicker, but no sound came.
The little horse bumped her mother with her muzzle. Help might be coming.
Lying down, the mare already sounded better. Even the wheezing had stopped.
Unable to sleep, Jayden Clarke counted the bumps in the popcorn ceiling, anxious for this day to break. Fingers of grey dawn crept in through the windows like burglars seeking a score. The sound of rain pattered against the glass.
He bolted to the window and lifted the blind. A fine mist fell, covering the driveway. Rain? On the first day of summer? Puddles occupied the spot where his mother’s car should be. No! She’d promised to drop him at Bennie Mueller’s ranch today. Why did she leave without him? He looked around his room and spied her note on his dresser.
Jayden, I left early for groceries. Have some toast and juice. I’ll take you to Mr. Mueller’s when I return, or you can ride your bike. George is sleeping. Let him. Mom
He put the note back. Riding his bicycle to Bennie’s would take forever in the rain. Jayden cringed. This couldn’t be happening.
With school out, he’d barely slept last night, excited to reunite with his old friend. He hadn’t seen the elderly rancher since last September. Bennie suffered from arthritis and, even though Jayden was only ten last summer, Bennie had needed his help with the extra ranch chores warm weather brought.
Jayden couldn’t wait to hug Duke, the black and white collie, or send the dog chasing the Frisbee after chores were done. He probably wouldn’t recognize the yearling foal. He’d played peek-a-boo with her last summer, burying a carrot chunk deep in the hay. She would snort her way to the bottom to find the crunchy reward. He’d cleaned stalls and pitched hay until exhaustion claimed him. The three of them—he, the filly, and Duke—had been inseparable all summer. Nine months of school and a grueling winter left him eager to return. The ranch, the man, and the animals filled a void inside Jayden nothing else could satisfy.
His new stepfather, George Barnes, might be the reason his mother had left earlier than planned. The long-haul truck driver had arrived home last night after completing a cross-country delivery ahead of schedule, surprising Mom and upsetting Jayden. Off work until Monday, George had stopped by the bar en route and walked into the house edgy, irritable, and unstable. Jayden’s heart sank, remembering the way his stepfather’s speech slurred after a few beers. If George had started downing the booze again this morning as he often did on his weekends off, he could be anywhere—bedroom, sofa, kitchen table—drunk and mean. Jayden needed to be on his guard.
George’s abusive temper made life at home a powder keg. When drunk, the man raged at any little infraction. Last night Jayden had made the mistake of asking his mother a question before she served George’s dinner and received a slap to his arm. The blow lingered like a nasty bruise. The act had surprised Jayden because his stepfather had never been physically abusive. Next time he might break something. Jayden wouldn’t wait around.
He tiptoed to the kitchen and fixed a light breakfast. Still in his pajamas, he wandered into the living room. He barely cleared the door when an empty Jim Beam bottle zinged by him, missing his shoulder by mere inches and landing on the couch. He whirled around, the buttered toast and orange juice shaking in his hands.
“Where is she?” George glowered at him from the recliner, bulbous nose puffed red and cheeks splotched with pink. At his feet lay another empty bottle next to an opened pretzel box. Breakfast. “You deaf, boy?”
“She said we needed groceries.” Being alone with this man in his drunken state made Jayden tremble. “Mom left before you woke up?”
“Melanie’s not here, is she?” The words rode on George’s tongue like a hissing snake, ready to coil and strike at the slightest provocation. “So I guess she’s gone, stupid.”
Jayden couldn’t believe Mom had left him like this. She hadn’t before—especially when George had been drinking. If his stepfather had slept in as his mother had written, she didn’t see George this way before she left for grocery shopping. He probably didn’t take a swig until she left—his mother had confronted George about his weekend drinking before. His penchant for liquor had fueled several fights in the eighteen months they’d been married. Since she knew Jayden would visit Bennie this morning, she must have trusted he would be safe—not facing a mean and nasty drunk. The vacant house echoed like a cave in the hills, the missing woman torching George’s anger. The blame fell to Jayden.
“If you weren’t such a wimpy, sniveling kid, your mother wouldn’t need to shop so often.” George’s sneer, combined with the smell of booze on his breath, made Jayden’s stomach churn. “She’s always buying this shirt for you, or those shoes, saying, ‘Wouldn’t Jayden like that jacket?’ My money, your gifts.” He snorted. “I married her, and who do I get stuck with? A measly eleven-year-old who sucks all her affection away from me.” George slammed his fist on the edge of the recliner. “Where is she anyway?” He tipped a third Jim Beam toward the ceiling, tossing the bottle to the floor when it emptied.
George growled, kicked the pretzel box and the bottles away from his feet, and swiveled the recliner toward the window.
Jayden edged closer to the wall, waiting for a chance to slip out to his bedroom. He didn’t know how soon his mother would return. She had her own money, resources she kept secret from George. Jayden’s real dad’s life insurance funded her shopping expeditions, paid for the clothes her son needed, and left a little for splurges. Jayden suspected Mom grew weary of the verbal abuse and, like him, found reasons to be gone.
When George sobered up, he’d morph into a different person, the sweet and generous guy she thought she married after Dad died. The trucker would hit the road again for another cross-country haul and leave Jayden and Mom alone for a week or two. But waiting from Friday to Monday when the man was home for him to recover his sobriety seemed like an eternity to Jayden. After last night’s encounter, why hadn’t she waited a little longer to take Jayden with her today? He didn’t understand.
Snores interrupted his thoughts. George had passed out. He would sleep like this for hours, the effects of the booze crippling his ability to function while the alcohol laced his system. When he awoke, he’d hold his head, seeking sympathy for the hangover he claimed pounded him like a prizefighter. If Mom was doing a big shop, she might not return for two or three hours. By then George would have slept the booze off, sobered up, and taken meds for his headache. Jayden would stay away as long as possible.
During the winter months, classes and homework kept Jayden busy. He stayed out of George’s way whenever they were both home. School offered a barrier of protection since his stepfather was well aware of the watchful scrutiny teachers kept over their charges. He worked longer hours in the winter, sometimes staying away for a month at a time. Worsened driving conditions kept him from returning home, even when the hauling slacked off around the first of the year—a welcome respite to Jayden. He and Mom enjoyed each other’s company without the threat of George.
Now school was out. No homework. No classes. More George.
The snores grew in intensity. Seizing the opportunity, Jayden sneaked out of the living room with his breakfast, closing the bedroom door with a soft click. He sat on the edge of his mattress, trying to swallow the toast over the lump in his throat. Sunlight poked through the blinds, begging him to come outside.
He downed the orange juice, slipped into his clothes, and wrote a note to his mother. Leaving the paper folded on his bed with a prayer she’d find it, he grabbed his denim jacket and tiptoed into the hallway leading to the garage. He passed through the kitchen and checked the refrigerator for more to eat, but found nothing. Cereal would rattle in the bowl, waking George, and without milk, the dry flakes would be tasteless. Satisfied he could last until dinner, he slunk to the back door. He twisted the knob, hurried down the steps, and donned work boots. His bicycle beneath him, Jayden pedaled out through the open garage door like he’d been set on fire. He couldn’t wait to see Bennie. If he never saw George again, it would be too soon.
Two miles of straight stretch burned beneath his tires, and soon he faced the rising elevation leading to Bennie Mueller’s ranch. He peered over his shoulder to make sure he hadn’t been followed, relieved when the empty road trailed like an asphalt ribbon behind him. Summer vacation awaited. Boy, horse, dog.
He stashed his bike in a roadside thicket rather than push it up the slope, the eight-mile ride from home leaving him winded. He wiped his rain-spattered face, and hoofed it the rest of the distance. Panting as he arrived at the top of the hill, he frowned at the scene below. Things at the ranch had changed. Bennie’s pickup sat crooked in the driveway, exposed to the elements instead of protected by the overhang of the barn like the rancher preferred.
Not seeing the horses where they should be—grazing in the pasture—Jayden focused nearer the barn. Coat muddied and head down, an animal stood alone in the rain, mired to its knees in the muddy round pen. Was this the foal he’d played with? The creature raised its head. No welcoming whinny. Bennie would never have left an animal like this. Never.
When Duke didn’t barrel up the hill barking like a windup toy on steroids, Jayden considered turning back. He sensed trouble. Should he go home and get his mother? That meant facing George again. No, if Bennie’s truck sat in the driveway, the rancher couldn’t be far away.
He summoned his courage and scrambled down the hill. He checked every tree and shrub while calling for Duke. No sign of the dog. He hurried faster to discover the reason. As he neared the ranch buildings, an engine sounded out on the empty highway he’d left twenty minutes before. The vehicle slowed, and Jayden’s pulse soared. He didn’t want to be discovered snooping around when Bennie appeared to be gone. He had to hide.
Lissa checked her uniform, grabbed her tote, and led Sorrel to the kennel run behind the house. “Sorry, girl. You’ll have to wait until later. Emergency.” After locking the gate, she stroked one of Sorrel’s front paws as the dog stood on her hind legs, begging through the fence. “I’ll be back soon. Promise.” She returned to the Suburban, her tall boots waiting on the seat beside her, praying she’d spoken the truth.
Lissa closed the door of the SUV and did a final visual check to see if she’d left anything undone. The rented house she now called home waited in the quiet, shutters closed, drapes drawn. The small yard, green from spring rains and receding snow, sported dainty iris blooms popping up near the juniper tree. Nestled beside a rock outcropping, the last daffodil blossoms hung in weary silence, ready to sleep until next year.
A buzz at her side vibrated in her pocket. Anticipation fueled her fingers as she pulled out her cell phone. Might it be Kurt? Every ring of the phone nourished her hope he’d contact her. They’d met at a family Thanksgiving dinner two years before and had spent their week of leave visiting the ocean, shopping in Portland, and sharing a meal and a movie. He had promised he’d keep in touch when he left. He kissed her goodbye at the airport, sent her a handful of e-mails, and disappeared. His last contact was a year ago. He hadn’t kept his word. She wanted to know why.
She checked the screen. Matthew again. “Change your mind?”
Matthew chuckled into the phone. “I’ll be five minutes late. Don’t shoot me.”
“I should, after rousting me out before my morning coffee. Slave driver.”
“Guilty as charged.”