The sky was still dark above the high gate of the Flying Cloud Ranch. The desert foothills lay pooled in shadow. Stars were fading above the Santa Catalina Mountains, which rose to the east. Beyond their rocky ridges, the coming sunrise burnished the sky with streaks of pewter.
The narrow trail wound downhill among stands of paloverde and towering giant saguaros. Razor-spined chollas glistened like cut crystal in the silvery light. A kangaroo rat darted across the path, the flash of movement causing the mare to flinch and snort.
"Easy, girl," Kira Bolton murmured, soothing the animal with a gentle touch of her hand. "It's all right. You're fine."
Too bad she couldn't calm herself with the same words. These dawn rides usually brought her peace. But Kira felt no peace this morning. She'd been in turmoil since last night, when her grandfather had given her the news she'd hoped never to hear.
"That investigator I hired has found Jake. He's in Flagstaff, working at a garage. I'll be driving up there tomorrow to get him and bring him back."
"What if he doesn't want to come?" Kira had asked, hoping she was right.
"He'll come. I'm not leaving without him. Jake needs this ranch, and Paige needs her father."
Kira had known better than to argue with the determined old cowboy — even though the last person she wanted to see again was Jake O'Reilly. After three years, she was still coming to terms with her cousin Wendy's death. Jake's presence would rip open all the old wounds — wounds that were still raw below the surface.
But this wasn't about her, Kira reminded herself. This was about Jake. More important, it was about the vulnerable five-year-old girl who still kept his and Wendy's wedding photograph on the nightstand next to her bed.
Halting the mare on a level ridge, she watched the morning shadows flow like water across the desert below. Here and there, small ranches and luxury estates dotted the landscape. Farther to the west, in the blue distance, Kira could see the outskirts of Tucson and the network of roads leading into the city.
The day promised to be a showstopper. Spring in Arizona's Sonoran Desert was a time of renewal — a time when the cactuses burst into glorious bloom and the earth teemed with life. Now, as dawn broke, the air rang with birdsong. A family of quail called from the branches of an ironwood tree. A cactus wren piped its song from a clump of blooming golden brittlebush. A tiny elf owl settled into its home — an old woodpecker hole in a giant saguaro — and closed its eyes.
Kira loved this country, and the ten-acre ranch that perched on a plateau at the crest of a small, hilly canyon — a canyon known only by the name she and Wendy, as children, had given it years ago. They had called it Sunrise Canyon, for its magnificent view to the east and for the way the dawn painted the rocky cliffs with rose-gold light.
All too soon, the sunrise faded. It was time to go back, Kira told herself. Anytime now, the ranch would awaken, the horses needing to be fed, her teenage students, as she liked to call them, waking up in the guest cabins and needing attention. On this, their first morning here, the three girls and four boys would be tired, hungry and probably cranky. They would need a lot of guidance and a healthy measure of discipline to get them through the day. It would be Kira's job, as a licensed equine-assisted therapist, to give it to them.
Tucker, the ranch's nine-year-old Australian shepherd mix, came wagging out of the gate as Kira rode in. Dismounting, she reached down and scratched his shaggy head. A friendly, mellow dog, Tucker played his own vital role in the ranch's therapy program. Now he followed Kira as she led her mare toward the stable.
The aromas of coffee, bacon and eggs wafted from the kitchen. Consuelo, the Mexican cook, stepped onto the back porch and struck the metal triangle that hung on a chain. The clanging sound echoed across the yard, a signal that breakfast was ready.
The seven students, most of them barely awake, trudged out of the three guest cabins — three girls in one, two boys in each of the others. None of them looked happy about being rousted out at six a.m. But as her grandfather — Dusty, as he liked to be called — had told them in last night's welcome speech, if they didn't get up, they would miss breakfast. If they didn't work, they wouldn't eat. They were to keep their cabins clean, do their own personal laundry and change their own beds with the sheets provided. If they broke the rules, their parents would be called to come and take them home.
The rules, as Dusty had explained, were simple. Anybody who harmed an animal or another person, left the ranch without permission, took what didn't belong to them, used alcohol or drugs, or fooled around sexually (hanky-panky, he'd called it), would be gone the next day. The youngsters had raised their hands to show they understood and accepted the rules.
They weren't bad kids, but each one, in his or her own way, was in pain. That pain could manifest itself in any number of behaviors — bullying, withdrawal, self-mutilation, night terrors and other problems. Kira had read each of their files and spoken with the parents before admitting them to the program. They would be here for four weeks. All of them had been excused from school on the recommendation of doctors or counselors for the session. Most had brought homework assignments to do on their laptops or tablets.
Kira gave them a smile and a friendly wave as they trooped into the dining room for breakfast. Then she turned her attention to unsaddling Sadie and brushing her down. Dusty's big Jeep Wrangler was gone from its place in the parking shed. Her grandfather would already be headed north to Flagstaff, to pick up Jake — and bring a whole new set of complications to their lives.
She would miss Dusty today, and likely tomorrow as well. Together, the two of them made a perfect team — Kira with her master's degree and experience in counseling, and her grandfather with his imposing presence, his no-nonsense approach to kids and his deep knowledge of ranching and horses. She could — and would — make it through the day without him. But things wouldn't be as easy, for her or for her students.
"Hi, Aunt Kira." The little girl had climbed the paddock fence and was perched on the top rail, next to the gatepost.
"Hi, yourself." Kira led the mare into the grassy paddock and closed the gate. "Have you had breakfast?"
"Not yet. I was waiting for you. Where did you go?"
At five, with her mother's fiery curls and her father's intense dark eyes, Paige was a small bundle of stubborn independence. Only in quiet moments did her sadness flicker through — for Wendy, the mother she barely remembered, and for Jake, the father who'd gone to fight for his country and had never come back for her. After three years, she still mentioned her parents in her bedtime prayers.
How would it affect her if Jake returned — especially if the war had changed him from the gentle, fun-loving father her imagination had built around his picture?
"Where did you go, Aunt Kira?" she asked again.
"Just for a ride, to see the sun come up."
"Why didn't you take me with you?"
"You were asleep. I checked." Kira boosted Paige off the fence and lowered her to the ground. "Come on, let's go chow down."
By the time they arrived in the dining room, the teens were refilling their plates. Good food, and plenty of it, was part of the ranch experience. Kira gave them a smile as she took her place, with Paige next to her, and filled their plates. "Eat up," she said. "You're going to need your energy today."
"What are we going to do?" a husky boy named Mack asked her. "My folks told me we'd get to ride horses!"
"So you will," Kira said. "But not right away. First you'll be learning how to take care of a horse — feed it, groom it and keep its quarters clean. Then you'll learn how to work with it on the ground. Next will come things like putting on the saddle and bridle. After that, if you've learned your lessons and your horse trusts you, you get to ride. But keep one thing in mind. Nobody rides until the whole group is ready. That means if one person is slow catching on, the rest will help them. We go forward together or not at all. Got it? Raise your hand if you understand."
Seven hands went up.
"How long does that part usually take?" Lanie was petite and dark-eyed, her sleeves buttoned at the wrists to hide the razor cuts on her arms.
"A couple weeks, at least," Kira said. A mutter went around the table. She smiled and shook her head. "Riding your horse is a privilege — one you'll be expected to earn. At the end of every day, we'll sit down in a group and talk about our experiences and what we've learned from them. You'll also have weekly one-on-one sessions with me to talk privately about anything that concerns you. Any questions?"
Heather, a plump, freckle-faced girl, raised her hand. "When do we start?"
Kira glanced at the clock on the wall. "You've got twenty minutes to finish eating, bus your dishes and go back to your cabins to brush your teeth, use the bathroom and whatever else you need to do. Then meet me out front at seven fifteen sharp."
Kira waited until everyone had scraped their plates and carried their dishes to the plastic tub on the side counter. Then, as her charges scattered to their cabins, she went outside. With Paige and the dog tagging along, she filled the feeders in the paddock with hay, and turned the stabled horses out with Sadie. All the horses were older animals, patient and wise. In the weeks ahead, they would have much to teach the troubled youngsters who'd come here to heal.
Today the students would get a chance to observe the horses from outside the fence — their body language, how they interacted, supported each other and resolved differences. If this group of teens was typical, they would already be picking out their favorites.
But their first lesson would be the one waiting when they came outside this morning — a reality that anyone working with animals had to deal with. Forcing her worries to the back of her mind, Kira set out two wheelbarrows, seven sets of gloves and seven shovels. It was time to muck out the stable.
* * *
"This must be your lucky day, O'Reilly! Some old geezer just paid your fine!"
Startled out of a doze, Jake sat up on his bunk and swung his feet to the concrete floor. "Are you messing with my head? I don't know any old geezer."
"Well, he must know you. He just showed up with a receipt from the court clerk for a thousand dollars cash. Here." The deputy tossed Jake a plastic trash bag containing his clothes and boots. "Get dressed. You can pick up the rest of your stuff up front."
Knowing better than to ask questions, Jake stripped off the hated orange jumpsuit and scrambled into his clothes. He could barely remember the bar brawl that had landed him here — a blur of angry words and fists crunching into flesh and bone. But the memory of his hearing before the judge was crystal clear, including the pro bono lawyer who'd asked for leniency on the grounds that Jake was a war hero.
He'd been allowed to plead the assault-and-battery charge down to disorderly conduct, but the sentence was still a stiff one. A thousand-dollar fine or thirty days in the Coconino County Jail. Not having the money, Jake had been forced to do time — which meant losing his construction job and missing his rent payment. By now, the damned landlord had probably sold everything he owned — not that it would be much of a loss. His small monthly veterans' benefit would be direct-deposited to his bank account, which he could access with a debit card. But he'd used the last payment for his rent, and the next one wouldn't be there for a week. Except for the few bills in his wallet, he was dead broke.
But today, out of nowhere, somebody had paid his fine and set him free. "Some old geezer," the deputy had said. That couldn't be right. There had to be a catch — there always was. Maybe it was a case of mistaken identity. If so, when the truth came out, he could expect to be thrown right back into that cell.
Whatever was going on, Jake told himself, he mustn't get his hopes up.
After hooking his belt and shrugging into his denim jacket, he opened the cell door, which was unlocked, and stepped out into the hall. The deputy was waiting to escort him down the corridor, past the security desk, to the reception area.
As he stepped into the open space, a tall figure rose to greet him — whip-lean, with stooping shoulders, a hawkish nose, silver hair and a neatly trimmed mustache. "Hello, Jake," he said.
"Dusty?" Jake froze, struck by the shock of recognition. He hadn't seen Wendy's grandfather since her funeral, three years ago, and they'd barely spoken that day. "I don't understand," he said. "What are you doing here? What do you want from me?"
"Get your things, boy," the old man said. "We can talk later, while I treat you to a good steak dinner."
"Thanks, but I can buy my own food — and I'll find a way to pay you back for bailing me out." Jake collected his bagged personal effects from the checkout counter — his wallet with forty-eight dollars in it, his cheap Timex watch, and his keys — one to his apartment and the other to the '95 Ford pickup that had thrown a rod, trashing the engine, two days before the fight that had led to his arrest.
The old man headed for the parking lot. Striding after him, Jake inhaled the crisp mountain air as he tried to recall what Wendy had told him about her grandfather. Dusty Wingate had been a national bronc riding champion back before Jake was even born. After too many injuries on the rodeo circuit, he'd retired to manage the family dude ranch near Tucson. Now in his seventies, he still made an impressive figure — like a modern-day Buffalo Bill in jeans and boots, a fringed leather jacket and a bolo tie strung through a hunk of silver-mounted old-pawn Navajo turquoise.
His wife, who'd died of cancer in her fifties, had given him two daughters. The firstborn, Wendy's mother, Barbara, was running a charity mission with her second husband — a preacher she'd met at her first husband's funeral — in Uganda or some other godforsaken place. When Wendy got pregnant and married Jake, the woman had pretty much disowned her. She hadn't been there for the wedding. Hell, she hadn't even bothered to come home for her daughter's funeral.
Dusty's other daughter had perished in a small plane crash with her doctor husband, leaving Wendy's cousin Kira an orphan at seventeen. Funny he should remember even that about Kira. Something in him didn't want to remember her at all. Something else couldn't let go of her.
He knew, of course, that Kira had taken in his daughter to raise. But he'd long since made up his mind not to contact her. As long as Paige was safe and well cared for, she was better off not knowing the haunted, sometimes violent man her father had become.
Dusty led the way to a late-model white Jeep Wrangler and clicked the remote to unlock the door. "Climb in," he said. "There's a good steak house ten minutes from here. I know they don't starve you in jail, but you look like you could use a decent meal."
"Thanks ... I guess." Jake climbed into the passenger seat, closed the door and fastened his seat belt. "I've got some questions for you. For starters, how did you know where to find me?"
Dusty started the engine and pulled out of the parking lot. "A few months ago, I hired a private investigator to track you down. He didn't have an easy time of it. You don't seem to settle anyplace for long, do you?"
"I guess not." That mind-set had evolved after Jake checked himself out of the VA hospital. Don't stay around long enough to get attached to people, to places or even to animals. No love, no loss, no grief. So far, it seemed to be working for him. In his good moments, he'd managed to feel almost numb.
They drove in silence for a few minutes before Jake spoke again. "So my next question is, what made you think a bum like me was worth finding?"
Dusty braked the Jeep at a red light. "That answer's going to take some time. What d'you say we leave it till our supper's on its way?"
Jake settled back into the cushy leather seat, his eyes tracing the silhouette of tall ponderosa pines against a blazing Arizona sunset. He'd been in jail two weeks, barely half his sentence. It felt damned good to be out. But he sensed that the old man was reeling him in like a hooked fish. Not knowing why made him edgy.
He would listen, Jake decided. But he'd be damned if he was going to talk. There were no words for the hellish things he'd seen and even done in Afghanistan. If Dusty tried to pump him, he would get up from the table and walk away.