Colt Layne cast a worried glance at the darkening sky and straightened his broad shoulders as he loaded the last horse into the long metal trailer. A six-hour drive in the rain was the last thing he and these traumatized horses needed.
“Want me to take the wheel, boss?” Hank Griffin, a lanky middle-aged cowboy, slapped his black Stetson against his leg. A puff of dust flew into the air.
“Yeah. I’m beat. Pull into the first place you come to, and let’s tank up on coffee.” Colt slid the heavy bolt across the trailer door, then hoisted his six-two frame into the truck.
“You got it.” Hank cranked the engine.
“That’s one of the saddest situations we’ve run into yet.” Hat in his lap, Colt leaned back against the seat.
“Yessir, it was. But the horses don’t look as bad as some we’ve picked up.” Hank eased onto the two-lane country road.
“Mrs. Carter did her best to take care of them. Thank goodness she called us when she did. Best I could tell, a couple of the mares will be pretty easy to re-home, but they all need food and a lot of TLC.”
Lightning flashed across the sky, followed by a loud clap of thunder.
“Looks like all hell’s fixin’ to break loose, boss.” Hank gripped the steering wheel.
Colt raked a hand through his thick chestnut hair and blew out a sigh. “Just what we don’t need. The horses are skittish enough without a storm.”
“Want me to look for a place to pull over and ride it out?”
“I think it’s best if we keep going. Maybe we can outrun it. The sooner we get back to the ranch, the better.”
Hank turned on the wipers as a hard-driving rain pelted the windshield. “About that coffee. Still want to pull over?”
“Of course. A few minutes ain’t gonna make any difference one way or the other. Besides, we need to get gas.”
Colt flipped on the radio. When he’d inherited his grandfather’s three-thousand-acre ranch in central Texas, he never envisioned what huge life changes it would bring for him. A year later, the Layne Horse Sanctuary offered hope for horses destined for the slaughterhouse. So far, they’d rescued over thirty animals from abuse and neglect situations.
The horses in the trailer behind them came from Arkansas. A phone call from a desperate elderly woman spurred Colt into action. The poor woman had lost her husband two years ago and struggled to continue feeding the animals. From the looks of the horses, she’d failed. But her intentions and heart were good.
Thirty miles down the road, Hank turned on his blinker before pulling into a truck stop.
Colt handed him a twenty and an insulated Thermos. “Coffee, black. Fill it to the top. I’ll gas up.”
With his hat pulled low and collar turned up, Hank dashed toward the restaurant.
Colt hunched over against the driving rain as he hurried around the truck to the gas pumps. Inside the trailer, the horses stamped their hooves and squealed.
He spoke to them through an open side window. “I know, and I’m sorry. But I’m taking you to a nice warm barn with plenty of hay.”
A horse nickered in reply as he closed the window to block the driving rain.
He failed to recall just when it was that he first discovered he had the uncanny ability to communicate with animals. Perhaps he always knew. Even though he spoke words to them, it was more than that.
Come to think of it, maybe the defining moment was at the Cheyenne rodeo back in ninety-two. That wild-eyed stallion had been a crazy one. The anger at having been captured showed in his eyes. Made him even madder that any man would dare to climb onto his back.
But when man and horse connected on that invisible thread of communication, they gained an understanding. Colt rode the stallion that night for a gold buckle and $20,000 purse. That’s the moment he knew he had a gift. And he vowed never to misuse it.
He topped off the tank, then crawled back into the truck. He longed for home and a warm bed.
When Hank returned with the coffee, they pulled back out onto the blacktop.
The deluge made going slow. The wipers barely made any headway as they swished across the glass on full-speed. Small hail peppered the roof of the truck like bullets.
“I’ll be glad when we can get off this little two-lane pig trail,” Hank grumbled.
“Yeah. Arkansas roads have only one reputation, and it’s not a good one.”
The men made small talk as they covered the miles. Colt knew very little about Hank. He’d showed up a few months back with calloused hands and chaps thrown across his shoulder, asking for work. Said he had experience with ranching. He hadn’t lied about that. And he’d stuck around. Colt made him foreman after a few weeks and trusted him to keep things running smoothly.
His many years on the rodeo circuit taught Colt not to ask too many questions. As long as Hank did the work, he didn’t pry.
A man’s business was his own.
Just as they hit the interstate, Hank sped up. Two minutes later, he slowed back down.
“What’s wrong?” Colt asked.
“I don’t know. Something don’t feel right. It’s gettin’ hard to steer.”
“Oh, hell,” Colt grumbled. “Trouble of any kind is exactly what we don’t need. There’s not another town of any size between here and Mount Pleasant. Pull off on the next exit. Let’s take a look.” His shoulders ached and muscles knotted in his neck as he reached behind the seat and jerked out a slicker suit.
A loud pop caused both men to jump, and the trailer weaved behind them.
Hank wrestled the steering wheel. “Shit! We’ve blown a tire.”
“Keep it steady. Don’t want to roll these horses.”
Hank slowly applied the brakes and flipped on the emergency flashers. He eased the rig off the road and onto a sloping shoulder. “Of all the times for this shit.”
Colt threw open the door. As he jumped out, he tugged the slicker around him. Hank grabbed another and followed.
The horses stamped their hooves, snorted, and squealed inside the trailer. There was no question about it. They were not happy with their current situation.
Semi-trucks blared past them, shaking the trailer. Thankfully, the flat tire was on the passenger side, away from the roadway.
For that, Colt was grateful. In the darkness, all it would take was one driver who wasn’t paying attention to plow into them.
“We’re gonna have to unload the horses. Can’t jack up the trailer with them in it.” Colt slid open the latch.
One at a time, the cowboys led the horses out and tethered them to the side of the trailer.
Colt gripped the lead rope tight on the last horse. Just as they cleared the trailer, a semi flew by, blaring his horn.
The mare squealed and reared up on her hind legs, ears laid back, the whites of her eyes showing. “Whoa.” Colt kept the rope tight while dodging the flailing hooves. “Settle down, girl. Settle down.”
Once she stopped fighting him, he led her away from the roadway, slipped both arms around her neck, then laid his cheek against her drenched hide. “It’s okay. Nothing’s going to hurt you. You gotta trust me.”
The horse whinnied and nuzzled his shoulder.
He stayed with the horse another minute before tying her with the rest of the herd. Satisfied she was calm—or as calm as the situation would allow—he turned his attention to the flat tire.
“Remind me why in the hell I do this,” he yelled over the wind as the tire iron slipped off the wet lug nut and dropped into thick mud.
Hank set the hydraulic jack down beside the trailer and shot him a grin as water poured off the brim of his Stetson. “Damned if I know, boss. Maybe you need to ask the horses.”
While Hank wrestled the spare tire out of the back of the pickup, Colt loosened the rest of the lug nuts.
Even with the slickers, driving rain soaked both men to the bone by the time they had the tire changed, the horses reloaded, and were back on the road.
Colt took the wheel and headed the rig south. “By my estimation, we should be back at the ranch by midnight, barring no other catastrophes. We’ll stop in Mount Pleasant for a bite to eat.” He cranked up the heater.
Even though it was early spring, the storm dropped temperatures.
Hank dug a cigarette pack out of his pocket. “Do you mind?”
“No. Just crack the window a little.” Truth be told, Colt hated cigarettes. He’d tried smoking back when he was a teenager and quickly decided that wasn’t for him. Now, at twenty-eight, he was happy he never picked up the habit.
“You know, boss, until that lady from the TV station came out and interviewed you, I had no idea why you’re so hell-bent on rescuing these animals.”
Colt ran a large, calloused hand through his wet hair. Drops of water clung to his collar. “I told her the truth. My granddad often talked about how angry it made him to know that over a hundred thousand horses were sent to slaughter each year. So, when I inherited the ranch, I decided it was the perfect way to honor him. It fulfills some deep part of me. I love all animals, but I think I must have been a horse in a past life.”
Hank chuckled, took a long drag, then tossed his cigarette butt out the window. “Yeah, I get that. I’m glad to be a part of the operation.”
Colt cast a glance at the grizzled foreman. “I’m glad you are, too. You’re a damned good hand.”
Sure enough, they rolled across the cattle guard under the Double L Ranch crossbar around midnight. While Colt wanted nothing more than a hot shower and long sleep, the horses came first.
Two other ranch hands met them at the quarantine barn. Each horse brought onto the ranch would spend ten days separated from the others, to make sure they didn’t carry any diseases. Tomorrow, the vet from Cedar Springs would be out to check them over.
Colt backed the trailer up to the barn door.
While the rain had slowed to a drizzle, the ground remained riddled with puddles. Each man led a horse out of the trailer, their unshod hooves splashing mud and muck onto his jeans.
Inside the barn, six stalls lined each wall, making it possible to process up to twelve horses at a time.
Colt examined each animal a little closer. After he looked in their mouths, he ran a hand down each leg. Other than being malnourished and dehydrated, they didn’t seem to have any severe problems.
But he’d let the vet make that determination.
Once he’d checked the last horse, he clapped Hank on the shoulder. “I’m heading up to the house for some shuteye. I recommend you do the same. Give them water and a little bit of sweet alfalfa. That’ll hold ’em ’til tomorrow.”
Covering the distance from the barn to the house, Colt reflected on the endeavor to save these beautiful animals that had consumed his life.
That and playing music. Those were his two—his only—passions.
His band, Inside Straight, had gained regional popularity, and he often turned down gigs because they couldn’t cover them all.
Colt’s best friend, Jag Peters, played keys in the band.
Not long after Colt first met him, Jag fell in love with and married Rena Jett.
Some deep and distant part of Colt’s soul longed for the kind of love he saw between them. If he could find that, he wouldn’t mind adding a third passion to his list.
But as soon as the desire arose, he tamped it down. He’d given his all to love before, and the only thing he got out of it was a heart so shattered it would never mend.
He remembered telling someone once that his life had consisted of broken bones and broken hearts.
While that was partially true, the broken heart only happened once, and he swore never to allow it again.
Sure, he had casual girlfriends. But if one of them got too serious, they became history in a flash. He’d not be played for a fool ever again.
Inside his front pocket, a small stone pressed against his thigh. He reached in and retrieved a white rune.
Colt had been the best man at Vann Noble’s wedding a few months back. That day, Vann passed the rune to him, claiming the stone held magic. Magic for a happily-ever-after, just as it had for Rena and Jag. The rune had come to Rena in a letter from her brother, who didn’t make it home from Afghanistan.
Vann swore the stone had given him a fairy tale love with Nakina Bird, and it could do the same for him.
Colt had serious doubts. There would be no happily-ever-after love for him.
For one thing, he didn’t need anyone in his life. He was perfectly content to rescue horses and play music.
Yet, in the darkness of night, some part of him longed for more―a real love that would never betray him. Someone to hold in his arms and share his deepest secrets.
For a moment, he considered tossing the stone out the window. He’d have to be crazy to think it held any kind of powers. But Vann had wanted him to have it, and he’d promised to treasure it.
He stuck the rune back in his pocket and trudged toward the front door.
His two Australian Shepherds, Mattie and Sheila, met him on the porch. They jumped up, demanding he scratch behind their ears.
Colt grinned. “You ladies are my happily ever after. I don’t need anyone else.”
If he could only convince the innermost part of his heart, which didn’t seem to understand the theory.