Chapter One

 


         The grey mare snorted her nostrils free of dust. Rachel Duncan let her stand at the top of the ridge and blow while she looked over the ranch for signs of the veterinarian’s arrival. Even from this distance, she could clearly see the ranch buildings—the house of log and stone cupped in a hand of thick fir and pine, its massive chimney on the north, its slanted roof lengthening out to form a front porch facing east; and the barn, not too far a walk in thirty-five-below-zero winters, its lacework of pole corrals extending off to the south and west.

         She could only see a few horses in the corrals. Kate must have the others still shut in the barn, Rachel thought. Inside, on such a wonderful crisp spring day. Growling to herself about late, forgetful—yes, even senile—vets, she nudged Kestrel over the ridge and down the mile of slide and switchback to the ranch. Ten minutes walking distance from the barn, Rachel stepped off her horse with the casual ease of a horsewoman intimate with her companion.

         Her dog, Speck, wiggled as she ran to meet her . The blue merle Aussie was fast and tough, though ten miles was about her limit.

         Rachel loosened the cinch two holes and walked beside Kestrel toward the ranch. Neither looked as if they had just traveled some twenty miles over rough Montana landscape. Both in their prime, Rachel at forty-one and Kestrel at ten, they were in training for the toughest horse race of all, the Tevis Cup: one hundred miles in one day from Lake Tahoe over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Auburn, California.


         Kate met up with her at the hitching rail. “I’ll turn Kestrel out into the field for you,” she offered.

         “No, thanks. I want to sponge her off and check her legs.” Rachel slipped the latigo through the cinch ring with her long, lean fingers and pulled the saddle off, catching the saddle blanket before it hit the ground.  Her strong face was closed, the small lines around her eyes a little sharp.

         Kate followed Rachel into the tack room, as Rachel threw her saddle roughly onto the rack, “Hey, how was your ride? Kestrel going okay? She looks great to me.”

         Rachel stopped, settled her saddle into place, then looked at her ranch hand. “The mare is fine. Guess I’m a little annoyed Dr. Stewart isn’t here yet. He call?” Kate shook her head no. “I’m hungry, too,” Rachel said, smiling slowly. “Feels like there’s a wolf pack in there after my liver.”

         “I made you a cheese and cucumber sandwich and put it in the icebox. It’s all just routine stuff for the vet, isn’t it? I can tum them loose if he doesn’t show soon.”

         Rachel nodded, then leaned against the doorjamb and looked with sympathy at the corralled horses waiting for their spring shots and other medical care. She caught the faintly grassy scent coming with the wind across the pastures. That alluring aroma of new grass would be tantalizing the horses, making their imprisonment that much harder.

         She went back out to her horse to sponge the sweat off with cool water, check her legs, then tum her out. At the gate, watching Kestrel canter off to join her herd, Rachel unzipped the brown leather chaps. Slowly she unfastened the belt, which rested just above her pubic bone, slung the chaps over her shoulder, and turned on the high heels of her Western boots.

         She took the porch steps two at a time, then hung her chaps by the door on a peg burnished with use. Years before, her grandfather had put a sink on the porch for the ranch hands to wash off the dust before coming into the kitchen for meals. It had eased some strife in the household at the time, and Rachel enjoyed using it, the single faucet’s perpetually cold-water marking summer’s beginning and end.

         Rachel rinsed off and peered into the mirror, bobbing slightly between the areas that had lost their silver. She laughed at the shiny oval of eyes, nose, and mouth surrounded by fine white Montana face powder. I could try a little harder to look presentable to Dr. Stewart if he ever does come. Rachel dunked deeper into the water, and then shook the water off like a bird dog. She reached for a towel, catching a view of herself once again in the glass. This time she was unprepared, and she stared at herself, almost having forgotten what she looked like.

         Sometimes Rachel liked the way she looked. Most times she never thought about it. Standing about five-foot-nine, she was fairly lanky for her large frame. Her almost connecting bushy eyebrows stood guard over brown-green brindle eyes, which narrowed to slits with radiating wrinkles when she was amused. She could look lean and stern when she drew up her wide mouth, or she could laugh and let it take up half her face. At the moment, her waist-length hair, brown with a few streaks of grey, was making a concerted effort to escape from the braided knot that held it. Pushing some of the renegade hairs back behind her ears, she headed for the kitchen and Kate’s promised sandwich.

         A short time later, the lunch settling into her, sitting back with her boots up on a chair, Rachel considered how lucky she was to have Kate at the ranch. Of all the horse-crazy teenage girls who had hung around and eventually come to work for her, Kate was the best, a true horsewoman. Her small five-four frame was perfect for starting young horses, which she did very well. Rachel knew Kate was aware that college was not in her future Of course she could attend the tribal college in Harlem, up on the high line, that northernmost strip of highway and towns before the Canadian border. But Kate had been clear that she didn’t want to learn some job that would keep her sitting in a little chair with rollers. Once a month, she took a four-day weekend to visit her grandmother who lived on Rocky Boy Reservation . Her Grandmother had much to teach Kate. Right now she claimed she was getting paid for what she liked doing most in the world.

         And in the meantime, Rachel needed to solve the mystery of the missing vet. Let’s list the possibilities, she thought. One, he’s called out to an emergency in the opposite direction. Two, he drove off the road. Three, he forgot. Four, he ran into someone he knows, and they’re still standing and talking about the most interesting prolapse they’ve ever seen. For damn sure, she thought, if I tum those bangtails out on that fresh grass, his jeep will come dancing up the road just as the last tails go over the hill.

         The whine of the jeep and a sharp bark from Speck cut through Rachel’s thoughts. She dropped her feet to the floor and stood in one fluid movement. By the time the screen door had banged shut behind her, the jeep was in the barnyard. She long strided her way to the driver’s side, intending to greet Dr. Stewart but was brought to a full stop when she saw the lovely woman somewhat wearily leaving the passenger side.

         The woman laughed and asked, with an unmistakable Boston accent, “Aren’t there any paved roads in this territory?” She looked at Rachel with clear blue eyes under raised brow

         Before Rachel could think much beyond wondering what this exotic creature was doing in Montana, Dr. Stewart approached and said, “Rachel, I’d like you to meet Dr. Carson. I’ve been taking her on rounds so she can meet everyone before I leave.”

         “Well, it’s great to hear you’re finally taking a vacation. When do you start? And how long will you be gone?” Rachel felt a pang of anxiety.

         There was a stunned look on Fred Stewart’s face. “You mean I didn’t tell you? How could I have not—” He flushed a deep red. “I’m sorry, Rachel, but I’m retiring to Arizona next week. This practice has gotten too hard with the long hours and distances, and Dr. Carson here is eager to take it on. I sold the practice to her.”

         Rachel blurted out, “What about the Tevis Cup? What if Kestrel gets sick or...”

         “I don’t think you need to worry. Dr. Carson will take good care of your horses. She graduated from Cornell with honors and an equine specialty.”

         Rachel’s good manners were engaged in a battle with the doubt and disappointment overwhelming her. She looked at the female veterinarian as she mouthed a greeting, thinking the woman would surely have to prove herself in this part of the country. Eyeing her surreptitiously on the way to the barn, Rachel saw her finely drawn features warmed by a tender mouth and framed by hair the most extraordinary color of yellow and red-gold, but she wore it in the most peculiar way. The front was either a crew cut or the shortest bangs Rachel had ever seen, with a braid down the back almost to her waist. Suddenly Dr. Carson turned her head and bored her blue eyes into Rachel, freezing her like a mongoose’s prey.

         Dr. Carson opened the barn door leading the way in, and Rachel’s heart slammed down to earth. She was sure this new woman vet saw through her doubts, could catch Rachel’s lack of confidence in her abilities. While Rachel followed her into the darkened barn, she fought back the rising embarrassment that she could so quickly write off a person’s abilities and training because they were female. How can I be such a dark ages misogynist? But this is important. It’s not a nice, once-removed political question, this is the biggest race of my lifetime. And I have a horse that can do the race as long as she stays sound.

         She found herself thinking about some other vet who might be suitable. Hastings was no good. He couldn’t tell a lame horse from a gnu. Dr. Watts was mostly cattle and sheep, and it took him forever to get to the ranch in an emergency. McCoy was okay, but he charged the moon and never really talked with her about “his patients,” just rushed in and out. She needed a vet who would treat her as an equal, or at least with respect. And she needed a competent veterinarian who could help her get her mare to the Tevis Cup race in sound condition. One minor health problem could keep her out of competition.

         A snort to her left interrupted Rachel’s thoughts , and she realized she had nearly walked into the black filly, Night Ember, who was tied in the aisle.

         “Here’s one that needs floating,” she said, and headed for the tack room to get the vet list. She stared at the vacant place on the wall for some time before it dawned on her that Kate must have the list. Get a grip on yourself.

         She returned to oversee the process of smoothing the sharp edges off the filly’s teeth. Fred Stewart lounged on a hay bale. Kate held the filly, her earlobe-length blue-black hair falling free of the red bandanna, her high russet cheekbones rosy with excitement. The fragile Eastern flower rasped away, her arms up to the wrists in the yearling’s mouth.

         At least she’s not afraid of horse spit, Rachel thought sulkily. The afternoon wore on with Kate, Fred, and Dr. Carson chatting away in friendly tones as Rachel watched silently for some blunder from this female veterinarian being foisted off on her while reliable old Fred went off to enjoy himself in early retirement. On the other hand, Rachel could see Kate practically throwing herself at the veterinarian, hanging on every word. Even Speck didn’t take her eyes off the woman, and her tongue lolled out in a devoted way.

         As Kate turned out the last horse, Dr. Carson said to Rachel with a smile, ‘‘A remarkably fit and healthy group of horses you have here.”

         “Thanks. I breed them to be tough, and I put a lot of miles on them.  Do you ride, Dr. Carson?” Rachel added to be polite.

         “Please call me Margaret. Yes, I do. Mostly dressage, but I have done some Combined Training.”

         “That’s like in the Olympics?” interrupted Kate, already showing signs of adulation in her dark brown eyes.

         Margaret laughed.  “Yes, but not nearly so good.” She reached in her pocket and pulled out her smart phone. “Fred, what’s the number for our next stop. I’ll give them a call so they can be ready.”

         Fred said, “Might as well put that away. There’s a hill between Lewistown and us.”

         “You mean there’s no service?”  Margaret shook her head in amazement after verifying on her phone that this was true.

         “You can come up and use the house phone,” Rachel offered.

         “That’s okay.” Margaret shoved the phone back into her pocket. “I don’t know how you cope without communication.”

         “Just imagine you’re back in the fifties,” Kate said.

         Margaret barked a laugh, but Rachel lowered her eyebrows at Kate.

         As they reached the jeep, Rachel offered, “If you find yourself with time on your hands, you would be welcome to come out and ride. We could scare up something to throw a saddle on.” Believing Dr. Carson to be in for far more than she had figured on, Rachel felt safe in making the suggestion.

         “Thanks, I might take you up on that. I sold my Thoroughbred before I came out here. Your Arabians look a lot smaller, but I guess they can carry me.”

         “I reckon they can, Dr. Carson.”

 

         All through dinner, Rachel suffered Kate’s bubbling enthusiasm about wonderful Dr. Carson. In an effort to change the subject, Rachel said, “Don’t forget we’re driving those yearlings over to Jim’s in the morning.”

         “Right. I hadn’t. I’ll make lunch.” Kate finally left for the bunkhouse, allowing Rachel to sink down in peace in the softest chair she could find with a short glass of Irish whiskey and Speck’s nose across her foot. She thought back over the many years Dr. Stewart had cared for the ranch livestock, his reassuring presence making the hard times more bearable after her father’s stroke. They had been rough years as she learned the management of the ranch, nearly too much for a girl of eighteen.

         Her dad had been an early importer of Arabian horses from Poland after World War II. A few of his finest mares had gone into the country’s best breeding programs. Rachel had shown the horses from the time she was quite small, filling a trophy room with ribbons and silver. She did it to please her father, though that was nearly impossible, and she hated almost every moment of it. The horses were treated like beauty queens: shaved, clipped, oiled, confined in dark stalls to preserve the gloss of coat, the length of mane and tail. They were encouraged to be ‘‘brilliant,” but most were simply unmanageable.

         Rachel was very annoyed with the precious way they were handled when she knew they were sensible, hardy, and smart. When she was sixteen, just after her mother died, Rachel told her father she wouldn’t show his horses anymore. She suddenly no longer cared to please him. He was never satisfied anyway. Her father understood, without any discussion, that he had lost her.

         The day of Rachel’s high school graduation, her father had a stroke. During the long years of caring for him, of dealing with his foreman, Jim, she looked for excuses to leave the ranch on her mare Erika. At the age when most teenage girls are discovering their freedom, Rachel felt suffocated. With her college money, carefully saved since childhood, she bought a herd of sixty Herefords. Keeping track of the cattle helped her keep her sanity. She rode out long hours. It was Dr. Stewart who had asked one day, “Don’t you think you cover at least fifty miles some days with your mare?”

         “‘Course we do. Often enough.”

         “There’s that new sport, Endurance Racing. Look it up. You’d be good at it, and they’re having a race over by Billings this year.”

         “Maybe I will. Thanks, Fred.” She knew she needed something that could be hers, something she could be good at without the imposition of her father’s rigid standards. She had only vaguely heard of distance riding and was intrigued by the sport.

         Rachel and Erika finished in third place. They would have been first if they hadn’t gotten four penalty points for crossing the finish line early. It was fun. Rachel met some people she liked and admired and decided this was the sport for her. From then on, she and Erika competed in every ride they could get to, and it had never soured on them. Erika had eventually gone into the brood-mare band. Hard as it was to give up riding her, Rachel knew, for that very reason, it was important to breed her. Rachel’s best horse was now Erika’s last daughter, Kestrel.

         Since her father’s death, Rachel had selected the breeding stock, not for beauty or championships collected or fad pedigree lines, but for endurance, strong clean conformation, and kind intelligence. Only occasionally was a mare kept back for the breeding herd. She had to be outstanding and especially good at her job, working cows or covering miles like Storm Queen or Kestrel.

         Rachel kept a waiting list of people who wanted one of her horses, it being widely known they were well bred and trained and honestly described. They always brought top dollar whether they went to pleasure riders, serious working cowhands, or distance competitors.

         Rachel was glad she lived the way she did. Sometimes she tried to imagine herself at a city job, but the picture wouldn’t come into focus.

         She looked out her bedroom window at the moonlit lodgepole pines. Tucked in beneath them, like under a warm blanket was Kate’s bunkhouse, an orange light glowing. Throwing open the window, she was caught by the distinct, almost tangible, smell of lilacs. She let the dark night mixed with the aroma of the deep lavender flowers enfold her as she undressed for bed.

 

 

 

                                            

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                             Chapter Two

 

         Early morning dark in the sweet hay-scented barn, with the soft sounds of horses eating, was the most soothing time of the day for Rachel. She liked to work alone around the horses or just sit quietly listening. Any human talk seemed like mindless chatter.

         The brindle greyhound Woody leaned against her leg, reminding her to let him out. A track reject narrowly spared from destruction, Woody had found his place at the ranch, always an elegant gentleman, a playful companion, and not much of a watchdog. That was Speck’s job, and the two of them got along like siblings. Perhaps Woody kept the rats from being too bold in the tack room. Rachel affectionately saw him out the door, checking for a light in the bunkhouse. No, Kate wasn’t up yet.

         She put Kestrel and Storm Queen on the crossties centered in the aisle, so she could work around them. With the hoof pick, she cleaned each foot and checked the shoes were nailed on tight. She went through the ritual of grooming. First, the rubber curry comb used to massage circular patterns to loosen the dirt and old hair. The stiff brush came next, stroking and flipping off the dirt. The soft body brush was her favorite part of grooming, following the whorls and changes in the hair pattern, sleeking the coat. The horses usually liked to have their faces brushed. Kestrel, especially, would bob her head when Rachel stopped brushing, bumping Rachel’s arm until she did it some more.

         Rachel leaned against Kestrel’s warm body, face in her mane. She stroked the low cleft of the mare’s chest as she spoke softly to her. “I don’t know what to do. Fred has always been there. I never thought he wouldn’t be.” Standing back, she pulled a little snarl from the white mane. Rachel knew many horses in training for the Tevis Cup didn’t make it to the starting line.

         “I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you.” Rachel reached up to scratch the mare in the deep gully between her jawbones. Kestrel’s lips quivered with pleasure, and she rubbed her lips against Rachel’s shoulder. Mutual grooming of old friends.

         “What would Kate think if she saw us like this?” she tried to joke. “I’m turning into a sentimental cuss. Well, we’ve got our work cut out for us today, better get on with it.” She headed for the tack room.

         Today they would be riding to the small ranch her father had bought before she was born. Connected to the main ranch by a Bureau of Land Management leased grazing range and the Lewis and Clark National Forest, the small two-room log cabin, hay barn, and corrals were built near the spring that became the Judith River.

         Jim, her father’s old ranch foreman, lived there and kept track of the two and three-year-old horses. The foothills of the Little Belts was a good place for them to grow up surefooted, tough, and independent. Jim grained them in long troughs and threw out hay during winter. Once a month, they were all rounded up for the blacksmith to trim their feet and to be dosed for worms. Other than that, they had their freedom, an arrangement that suited Rachel just fine. She had never been happy with Jim’s training methods, and this system was her way to make sure the horses had a minimum of contact with him.

         Rachel believed early handling stayed with a horse the rest of its life, so she kept the yearlings at the home ranch during the winter. She and Kate worked almost daily with each of them, teaching the basics: standing still to be handled, picking up their feet, being led anywhere, and traveling in the horse trailer. Early in their yearling year, they were driven with a few steady older mares to the line ranch and given over to Jim’s care until the spring of their fourth year.

         This spring, she and Kate would be driving back fourteen four-year-old horses ready for their higher education. They represented the main income for the ranch, and Rachel was curious to see how the recent winter had brought this year’s bunch to full growth. She still remembered the day six years before when she had first seen the adult Kestrel and known she had a hundred-mile horse.

         In the tack room, she selected the saddles to fit the horses they would be riding and snaffle bridles with long Western reins. The saddle blankets had been made by one of Kate’s grandmother’s friends, a Hopi woman who dyed and wove them out of wool from her own small flock of sheep. Each had its own story in color and design. At first, Rachel had balked at using them for every day, but they had outlasted everything else and the horses’ backs never got sore.

         With the saddles in place and cinched up, Rachel had time to wonder again if Kate was awake and had made lunch like she promised. She opened the door when she heard Woody whine to be let back into the warm barn. The dark bunkhouse was only faintly visible in the predawn dark. Damn, she thought. Kate’s not up yet. She jumped at a sound next to her, startled to see Kate.

         “Mornin’,” Kate said through a yawn.

         Great, Rachel thought. The light had been on and off. Maybe a total of ten minutes. “What did you fix for lunch?”

         Kate just laughed, her easy humor taking the edge off Rachel’s grumps.  “I made it last night. Don’t worry, it’s good.”

         “What?” Rachel asked suspiciously.

         “Tamales, cut-up pears, apricots, and cucumbers, and to drink, lemons in water. Oh, and vanilla cream filled chocolate cupcakes.”

         Rachel figured it would sound a lot better in four or five hours.

         Kate put the lunch in the saddlebags, and they slid the cinches tight, leading the horses into the moonless half-dawn. Today would be a forty-mile round trip, so she stroked Speck on the top of her head and told her, “Wait here.” Mounted, they set off cross-country at a walk as the horses warmed.

         Looking east to the Big Snowy Mountains, Rachel could just see the first glow of the sun glistening over the edges. She had not been aware until then of a general feeling of anxiety. It made her crabby and distracted.

         Kate rode up next to her to ask, “What’s wrong?”

         Rachel looked at her in surprise. “Does it show? I’m not sure...”

         “You don’t know?”

         “I think I’m worried about that new vet. What if Kestrel runs into trouble and she can’t handle it?”

         “Why in blue blazes not?” Kate asked, puzzled.

         The only answer Rachel could come up when faced directly with that question was that Margaret Carson was a woman. She blushed, too ashamed to say that.

         “Let’s shake the dust off these horses,” she said, moving on up the trail at a brisk trot.

         The sun slipped over the edge of the world when they reached the high, rolling grasslands. With the inviting stretch of buffalo grass ahead and the Big Snowies off to the left, their drainages still lined with snow, she couldn’t refrain from a joyous gallop. Rachel’s love of this country, shared fully with Kate, had a heady, boundless feeling. She had only felt that once for a person, a long time ago.

         The canter loosened up the riders as well as the horses. “Maybe you and Dr. Carson could get to know each other,” Kate said. “You know, be friends?”

         Rachel turned and stared at her, baffled. “Why would we want to do that?”

         “A woman your own age to be buddies with could be very good.”

         “I never think about it. I’ve got all the buds I want down at the Silver Saddle.”

         “I don’t mean those guys you meet up with once every blue moon. I’m talking about...well, Sarah is real important to me. Even though she doesn’t like horses, we still share a lot between us.”

         “Yes. Sometimes I feel real lonely, in a way the fellas at the bar don’t fill.” Rachel’s eyes were unfocused, not moving along the rim of the horizon’s mountains but resting on one small point of the line. She filled her lungs with a deep gulp of air, turned to Kate, and said, “I don’t really have much time or inclination to dwell on that. Don’t often wish I’d married.” She gave a soft snort of a laugh. “In fact, damn rarely.”

 

         They stopped for lunch a mile or two from the line ranch, in a cool, steep-walled canyon where the Judith River was just a stream. The yearlings and the hobbled riding horses grazed on the lush grass growing beside the running water. Rachel revised her opinion of Kate’s meal planning upward. The cucumbers and fruit contrasted beautifully with the spicy tamales.

         Following the curve of the river, they rode out onto the open grassland to the west, not far from the corrals and cabin. The line camp log cabin stood in the shelter of Douglas firs. Rachel noticed with relief that the horses were all penned and a corral gate stood wide to receive the yearlings. Jim came out of the cabin as they rode up. He and Rachel looked over the four-year-olds, then walked over to the two and three-year-olds, held in a separate pen so they couldn’t follow them back to the main ranch. Jim repeated, word for word, his yearly advice on them, telling her, “In your father’s day, I would have had these colts broke by now.”

         Rachel patiently said, “I like to do it different, Jim.”

         He pushed his old-fashioned Stetson to the back of his head, frowned, and scratched his perpetual day-old beard. Rachel had only seen him clean-shaven once, at her father’s funeral. “It’s a waste when you just let them get away with doing nothing, eating their heads off. We had ‘em broke and sold by the time you first throw a saddle on them.”

         “I don’t like to ride them ‘til they are full-grown. I think they stay sound all their lives if you give them time to grow first.” She wished she could get through just one spring without having this conversation.

         “Well, you’re the boss.” He turned back to the cabin. “Still got the same gal, I see.”

         “Yes. Kate.”

         He went up the porch stairs, saying over his shoulder, “Coffee’s hot.”

         Kate muttered, “Still.”

         They sat down to coffee so dark no amount of cream changed its color, and Rachel and Kate politely refused some very dubious chili beans. Jim always had to play the he-man part with the young women who worked the ranch. “What’s your boyfriend’s name?” he asked Kate with a leer.

         “Don’t have one.”

         “Oh now, honey, ya better get started. Life’s too short to go manless,” he said with a chuckle.

         “I’ve got a girlfriend.” Kate narrowed her eyes.

         “Hell, that don’t count.”

         “Wanna bet?” Kate said, slamming out the screen door. Rachel gave a long look at the screen door as she picked up her gloves. “I’m going into Lewistown tomorrow. Do you have a grocery list?”

         He pulled out a greasy piece of brown paper bag from the mess on the table and handed it to her. She never knew why they went through this ritual. His grocery list hadn’t varied in twenty years.

         “How’s that dirt road coming in here holding up? We have to replace that log bridge?” Rachel asked, drawing on one glove.

         “You can get in here with that 4-wheel truck. The bridge will hold up a while longer.”

         “We better head those horses out. Thanks for the coffee.” Rachel retrieved her hat from the back of her chair and settled it low over her eyes as she walked out the door. She found Kate waiting for her near the corral gate.

         “Is he more disgusting than last year,” she asked, “or is it my imagination?”

         Rachel hadn’t seen Kate pissed very often. Her lips were pressed together, eyes furious under her bangs and fluorescent pink baseball cap. “Jim has stayed pretty much the same over the years. This line camp is not very productive with him here, but I promised my dad I would keep him on. And better here than at the home ranch.” Rachel looked at Kate with amusement. “He sure knows the way to get under your skin.”

         “Yuck, what a thought!’ Kate threw open the gate with spill­over vehemence.

         Kate mounted up and drove the four-year-olds out of their pen, and Rachel led off, heading the bunch toward the northeast. Kate tailed, making sure none tried to tum around. The ride back seemed twice as fast, with Kestrel and Storm Queen eager for home and the young horses remembering the trail.

         A nice chestnut filly stood out from the herd. She traveled in an alert, self-confident way, spirited without being foolish. “That one might be a keeper,” Rachel said, pointing her out.

         “Yeah, isn’t she nice? I’ve been watching her, too.”

         As Kate and Rachel drove the young horses, they observed them carefully, discussing  how they would approach each individual animal when the time came to put a saddle to them.

         A few miles from home, one of Stormy’s shoes came loose. Kate jumped off. “What a drag. Couldn’t the damn thing have waited half an hour?” She made a face at the horseshoe twisted off to the side.

         “Let’s check the damage,” Rachel said, reaching into her saddlebags and fishing out her tool pouch. First, she rasped off the nail clenches, and then pulled the shoe all the way off with some combination wire cutters and shoe pullers. Dropping the bent shoe into the saddlebags along with her tool pouch, she said, “I think her foot will hold up all right until we get back.”  

         Kate said, “You know, you’re a hard one to figure out.”

         “Oh?” After Rachel was back in the saddle she asked, “What do you mean? I’m pretty uncomplicated.”

         “I don’t figure how you can be so good at everything you do, yet have no faith this new vet knows what she’s doing. Rachel Duncan is not acquainted with any woman her equal, and that’s the truth and the trouble.” Kate kept her eyes on the rumps of the young horses.

         “Stuff and nonsense,” Rachel said with a snort. Oh, lord, I sound just like my grandmother.

         “What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think you need to worry about Dr. Carson’s skills as a horse doctor.”

         “Thank you, Kate.” Rachel smiled her warmest, eye-crinkling smile.  

         It was close to four o’clock when they rode through the gates at home. After sorting out the horses and doing chores, they headed for their respective evenings. Kate said she was going to drive into Judith Gap to meet Sarah and stay overnight, and Rachel intended to settle in with one of the early Dick Francis mysteries. Since Francis’s nephew had begun trying to horn in on his uncle’s success by ineptly copying him, Rachel knew her reading pleasure in that department was limited.

         Before Rachel turned in at eight, she did her evening rounds, checking on the mares still due to foal. Sparrow Hawk was one of them. She had been bred to the Tevis Cup winner of three years before, and her foal would have promise.

         The mares looked up with mild interest, still munching their evening hay as Rachel walked by the stall doors. It was a great setup, Rachel thought, pleased with the improvements she’d made on her father’s design. The big foaling boxes each had large corrals leading off, so the mares could come and go as they liked. After about a week they joined the other mares with new foals in the broad valley pasture.

         Sparrow Hawk seemed near to foaling. Her vulva was long and draping, the muscles soft as jelly on either side of her tail. Rachel looked closely at her udder. It was shiny and hard, but no sign yet of the waxy “candles” that push out ahead of the milk.

         Rachel shut the bottom half of the corral’s Dutch door. “I think we’ll keep you in tonight, my dear,” she said softly as she scratched the mare behind her ears and stroked her long smooth chestnut neck.

         Walking back up to the house, Rachel noticed the absence of lights from the bunkhouse. She felt a flash of loneliness before the stars found her and delighted her with their cheerful winking. She tilted her head back to look very seriously at the blanket of lights. Reluctantly she admitted to herself that Kate might have a point. Young people can be so savvy. Sometimes I hear my father in me, the way he expected me to do anything, and do it well, but yet his opinion of women in general was pretty low.

         The night was so quiet she could hear the sound of her own boots on the yard dirt, then creaking the porch boards as she ended her day. Sliding under the sheets, she experienced a deep, delicious sensation of relief. Her body had been ready to quit hours ago, but her head had been too busy to pay attention.