CHAPTER 1

Bethany had never been afraid of being alone, not on the trail and not when hauling her horses around the nation. She wasn’t fearless; in fact, she was cautious about traveling alone. She just used common sense and refused to be afraid of the dark. At five foot four inches and one hundred twenty-five pounds, she could’ve been prey to many dangers, but self-defense courses and a weekend of survival training had taught her what she needed. Her honey-blonde hair, pulled back into a ponytail, and large hazel eyes hid the fact that she was capable of defending herself. She could "get by" with a book of matches and a bottle of water for days if needed. She felt that she could handle almost anything that might happen around her.

Her thoughts were wandering as she drove west along I-40 at sunset. The clear desert air helped to create the glaring brightness that blinded her. Her hands ached from gripping the steering wheel, the tight muscles in her shoulders and neck were screaming at her. When the radio played the old dark rock song D.O.A., that did it, she decided it was time for a break.

Within a minute of her decision she was relieved to see a "Rest Area – No Facilities" sign that directed her off the highway and into a large, currently vacant parking area next to a thickly wooded field. The interstate was only yards away, but a hill sheltered the rest area from the louder traffic sounds and kept the highway headlights from sweeping it.

She heaved a deep sigh of relief, unlocked her fingers from the death grip she had on the steering wheel, turned off the GMC ¾-ton pickup, and climbed down from the tall cab of the 4x4. She locked the truck and walked around her rig checking tires, wiring, hitch latch and locks on the tack and horse compartments. When she was certain that all was secure, she opened the feed windows to give the horses some fresh air while she grabbed a snack in the living quarters of the horse trailer.

Just walking around the trailer had lightened her heart, and the beautiful rose-tinted sunset lifted her spirits now that she wasn’t driving into it. She rested her chin on her collarbone, turned her head slowly, rotating it to loosen the tense muscles along her neck and shoulders. That felt better. She paused to enjoy the view around her. The distant clouds to the east had a surreal purple hue as the sunlight dipped behind the western mountains. Directly overhead was the glimmer of a jet headed north, streaming a bright white contrail behind as it moved across the darkening sky. If she spent half an hour eating and resting, the sun would be completely down and driving would be easier.

The horse camp where she held reservations was an hour’s drive away. It was close to Tucumcari, New Mexico and convenient to the highway. She grabbed her cell phone and tried to call the campground to let them know she was running late, but there was no signal. The temperature was dropping with the sunset; the horses would need their blankets.

She felt better emotionally as she entered her living quarters to grab the leftover chicken and a bottle of water from the small fridge. Her living quarters had a small table with bench seats that could become a bed and worked as a step up into the bed over the gooseneck of the trailer. It was only a year old and she loved the convenience of the fridge and the inside plumbing.

While she ate, she reflected on the past year or so of her life, from the moment her now ex-husband showed up with his trashy, pregnant girlfriend to demand a divorce, forward to her present situation, sitting in a rest area on the westbound side of I-40. She shouldn’t have been so shocked that Bobby had a girlfriend. He hadn’t slept with her in over a year and he had always been a horny jerk.
Ignoring something is easier than facing it. Only the thought that she had wasted over eight years fooling herself hurt. She managed to keep her temper as she faced them until Bobby said his interest strayed because of her weight. That did it. She took offense at his insinuation that she was too curvy. While not a size 2, she was not ashamed of her size 8 figure with a tucked-in waist, nice hips and well-rounded C-cup breasts.

What the ass specifically said was, "You’ll be all right, darling; someday you’ll find a man who likes all your curves, it just isn’t me. I tend to like my women taller, younger, and thinner, at least most of the time." Then he smiled and patted the extended belly of the bleached blonde.

She looked the trashy bitch up and down, taking in the extended belly and the vacant expression before replying, "Look, sweetheart, you’d better keep your wallet full; otherwise even this piece of trash will notice that your loving lacks more than her pleasure." She had sneered at them. "By the way, I ride as a Featherweight, you ass. Now take your bimbo and get out of my house!"

The memory of that exchange, even fourteen months later, brought a smile to her lips. She made certain the creep paid dearly for the fast divorce he needed. He paid her full market value for her share of the house. He also paid cash for her new ¾-ton 4x4 GMC Pickup, and a three-horse Living Quarters trailer with a 6-foot short wall. The final revenge was the healthy alimony check that went into her personal account every month. This money allowed her to travel and paid her entry fees. After she got all of that, the bimbo could keep what was left of him and welcome to it. Heart surgeon or not, Bethany hoped she had depleted his personal accounts enough to make them eat hamburger.

After a few months, it struck her the best thing she got in the divorce was her freedom. As the realization hit, she began to smile over nothing for hours at a time. She found herself enjoying every minute of the day, especially the peace and quiet of her own company in the evenings. She no longer had to deal with the stress of knowing there was nothing she could do to please him. Gone was the guilt she had been made to feel over her supposed shortcomings.

Life was sweet, and all hers. But the highway was getting old. After the divorce, she had decided to get away from Washington State by attending rides in each of the nine regions recognized by the American Endurance Ride Conference. While many areas were beautiful and promising, she was still looking, hoping to find a person as well as a place that called her to settle down. She was no longer afraid of living alone, but admitted she wanted someone to share her life.

She sat eating her snack, thinking of the kind of man she wanted in her life. Someone smart, decisive, honest, loyal, caring, tender and supportive would be her ideal. Good looking, healthy, good horseman, and sexy would be nice qualities, too. While she might compromise on the "tall, dark, and handsome" part of a dream man, the other characteristics were not negotiable. She knew she wouldn’t compromise on chemistry either; if fire and passion weren’t there, she wouldn’t be either. One boring sex marriage was enough for anyone. She wanted orgasms and passion, not just frantic humping in the dark followed by his snoring that left her wondering, "What fun was that?"

Bobby was her first lover. He was surprised at her virginity. He had been tender and gentle that night. After that, it was wham-bam, thank-you-ma’am whenever he was in the mood, regardless of her wishes. Romance died early in their marriage, so she buried herself in school and later work.

Eventually, her riding instructor introduced her to the sport of endurance. Distance riding became both a challenge and the most fulfilling part of her life. She rescued Coup from a show barn, where he was a brilliant jumper but constantly misbehaved. He hated the show ring and acted out against it frequently, but he loved the open trail and helped her become a confident endurance competitor.

During the later years of their marriage, she began reading romance novels that led her to dream of the perfect lover. They also motivated her to create her list of requirements for the next man in her life. This time, she knew she wasn’t going to settle for another jerk like Bobby. Surely, there must be an intelligent, tender lover out there who was looking for a smaller, 28-year-old woman with an independent nature. She had time to find this perfect (or almost perfect) man. She wasn’t in a rush; however, she’d like to find him before she reached 35, so they could safely start a family. Two children would be nice.

Bethany realized that she’d been daydreaming over her snack while her horses stood in the chilling trailer as the temperature dropped. She grabbed the horse blankets, turned off the overhead light, let her eyes adjust, and moved through the door into the horse compartment. She blanketed Coup and slipped next to Harley. She was fastening his blanket when she heard another vehicle come into the rest area.

She heard arguing male voices when one of them said, "Did you get the plate number of that truck? I’ll check out the trailer. Don’t look like anyone’s home, but we don’t need any witnesses." At the same moment, an older voice asked, "Could you please untie my hands so I can take a leak?"

Bethany froze. The overheard conversation terrified her and her gun was under the mattress on the bed. She moved back next to Coup and leaned against the door to the living quarters. She heard a knock on the outside door, then the door of the living quarters opened and the trailer rocked as the stranger entered. She held her breath as she heard him move around the living quarters, searching for the owner in any space that had a door. Her heart was beating loudly in her ears. The handle to the horse compartment moved and she felt a push against the door. Her foot slipped and this startled Coup, who stomped his foot and rocked the trailer. Thankfully, this seemed to surprise the stranger into letting the door close.

Outside his partner shouted, "Hey! Get back here or I’ll shoot you! I mean it!"

There was a gunshot, followed by the sounds of someone scrambling through the brush. She felt the trailer rock as the stranger left and slammed the door. There was a second shot just outside, next to Coup’s head, followed by quick footsteps in the gravel as the stranger took off chasing whoever was scrambling in the brush.

A third shot and more sounds of running in the brush, along with some cussing. The action froze in place as another set of headlights arrived into the rest area. Bethany peeked out next to Coup’s head and saw a dark SUV with a man holding a gun outlined by the headlights of the arriving car. She got a good look at the gunman when he turned to look at the new arrival. The driver of the arriving sedan stopped and was halfway out the door when he must have spotted the gun in the killer’s hand. He didn’t even get his door closed before putting his car into reverse and backing out of the rest area at a high rate of speed. There were sounds of the vehicle crunching against rock or concrete as he missed part of the exit ramp, then the sound of squealing tires as the sedan got back onto the highway and sped away.

"Get your ass in the car; we can’t let that guy get away! We’ll come back and take care of the old man after we eliminate that witness." The man with the gun was motioning the other man to get in as he put the car in reverse to turn. His partner made a running jump into the open passenger side door.

Tires spun as the kidnappers left the rest area, and the flying gravel pattered against Bethany’s truck. Then all was eerily silent. She realized she might have only a few minutes before they came back. She knew she had to check on the old man, she might be able to save him; she couldn’t just leave him there alone if he was still alive.

Bethany grabbed her flashlight. She put her body between the circle of light and the parking area to shield it from prying eyes. She found a trail of blood and bent brush. It led her to the old man, leaning against a large oak holding his gut where blood was pouring around his fingers. With a sinking heart, she realized that he was bleeding too much and was too large for her to carry back to her truck. He was conscious.

She bent over him. She grabbed her gloves from her pocket and tried to use them as a pressure bandage, but there was so much blood, and the gloves didn’t even cover the entire wound. She felt completely helpless. "I don’t know what I can do for you. There’s no cell service in this area and you need help. I can’t just leave you." Her tears were evident in her voice.

"Get out of here; they’ll be back and they won’t let anyone live that has seen me with ‘em." The old man’s voice was weak and there was blood on his cracked lips as he tried weakly to push her away. "Take this; it’s got my PO box on it. There’s a large envelope there. Don’t let Cole get his hands on it and don’t trust anyone. Cole owns everything." He coughed and blood spattered her jacket. "Get the envelope to my son. If you think Roger had any part in this, then keep it for yourself." The man struggled to take a breath and continue. "Take this dog collar; it’s got the combination for the PO box. Now, get out of here! Go! Tell my boy I’m sorry." As he got the last word out, the breath left his body and his eyes lost all sight.

Bethany reached over to check his jugular pulse and murmured a prayer for his lost life. She stuck the items into her coat pocket and turned and ran as fast as she could back to her truck and trailer.

Bethany was in shock, her brain a fog. She knew she had to move fast without being seen. Her mind was chasing around all the television shows she had ever seen for ways to sneak out of the rest area. In the dark, the running lights on her trailer lit up like a Christmas tree once the truck headlights were lit. She moved around the rig and disconnected the electrical cord from the truck to the trailer.

This disconnected the brakes for the trailer as well as the lights. The truck could stop the trailer so long as she kept her speed down and didn’t try any sudden moves. Next, she used her key to unlock the cab and jumped into the truck. She turned the "auto" headlights off before she started the engine, then she turned off the interior dash lights. She could drive blind until she felt that she was safely away from the killers. At least the half moon was up and shining brightly in the clear air, so she wouldn’t be completely blind. Her night vision, honed by years of competing in Rides that began or ended in the dark, was excellent. She knew the killers would follow her when they found her rig missing. She would be safer if she left no trail to follow. Without the trailer running lights, she hoped she just looked like a camper to any vehicles coming at her or up from behind. She drove slowly as she left the rest area, gaining speed until she was traveling only ten miles below the limit. Slower than that would draw attention.

Had the sedan turned off the highway or used all of its speed to get down the road? In his place, she would floor it and then turn off at the first truck stop exit to seek shelter in a crowd until the cops arrived. However, what that driver would do could only be speculated.

She heard sirens farther to the west as she turned north on Hwy 362, toward Ute State Park and Logan, New Mexico. She said a prayer for the safety of the other witness. She had a 50-50 chance the killers would either not take this exit or go the wrong direction if they did. While she was heading north sooner than she wanted, she had told the Ride Manager of the Coyote, New Mexico ride that she would be there early. She could use that camp to re-group, but it was too far to drive tonight. There were few parks between Logan and I-25 in the Grasslands. She would just follow Highway 462 to Highway 39 and continue north until she found a place where she could park and camp out of sight of the highway. Chances were good that she would be safe tonight, once she put about sixty miles between her and I-40.

When she approached the small town of Roy, New Mexico there wasn’t anything open and only one parking lot large enough for her rig. She parked there and went into the living quarters. She dug out her computer and Googled the town, searching for any possible location to camp for the night. Nothing came up within a hundred miles. As she sat there in the rig, frustrated and near tears, there was a light knock on trailer door. Her heart started racing, and she grabbed her pistol with shaking hands when there was a louder, more persistent knock, followed by a man’s voice. "Hey, you okay in there? Anything we can do to help? We’re on our way home and spotted your rig just sitting here. Are you having truck problems?"

Bethany took a deep breath to steady her nerves and replied, "Who are you? I’m fine, but I’m having a hard time finding a campground for us for tonight." She tried to keep her voice from quivering, but failed. "Can you direct us to some place within a few miles that would allow me to camp?" she asked him. "I can set up with the horses tied on the trailer. Anything would work, even just a parking lot or open field." She hated the pleading note in her voice. "We’ve had a long day and need someplace within a few miles. I just don’t think I could drive another half hour." To her embarrassment, she felt tears falling and had to sniffle as quietly as she could.

"My name is Joshua Blackwell. My wife Mary’s with me. We own the Blackwell Ranch about five miles south of here," he told her through the door. "It’s not a campground, but you can park your rig and there’s a round pen for the horses," he offered. "That would be a lot better for ‘em than tied to the trailer. Why don’t you follow us out to the ranch?" He sounded reasonable as he asked.

Bethany worried about following a stranger to his place but felt that the killers wouldn’t have the brains to come up with a ranch and round pen offer. They didn’t seem that smart or knowledgeable about horses. She put the gun away and opened the door to meet a cowboy of about 45. He was dressed in worn boots, snagged denim jeans, and a faded blue denim fleece lined jacket so popular in northern New Mexico. His Stetson hat tilted back off his weathered brow and he automatically put his calloused hand out to help her step down from the living quarters. That sealed it for Bethany; she wouldn’t expect homicidal maniacs and murderers to be so polite. She looked over at his truck and saw the definite outline of a woman. Not too many murderers traveled with their wives, either.

"My name is Bethany Wilcox, Mr. Blackwell. Thank you so much. You’ve no idea how much I would appreciate following you and your wife back to your ranch for the night." She nodded toward the horse compartment. "Coup and Harley would enjoy being able to kick up their heels in a round pen. I don’t care where I park, so long as I’m no longer moving." She gave him her best smile and shook his outstretched hand.

"It’s just Joshua, ma’am, and you’re very welcome. Just follow us; it’s south down the highway and on the left," he told her. "About two miles up from the highway is the house and barns." He used the vague "over there" gesture so commonly used. "You’ll see the round pen on the left as we pull in. You can park any place you want between the house and the pen, and there’s a water spigot for your horses." He gave her a polite smile.

She could see the questions burning in his blue eyes as to what she was doing this far from any of the cities, but he politely refrained from questioning her. He lightly took her elbow and walked her around to the cab of her truck, where he stood by to assist if she needed a hand climbing into it. No, homicidal maniacs and murderers weren’t that polite in the real world; at least, she wouldn’t expect it of them.

Joshua walked back to his own pickup, climbed in and drove past the front of her rig as he left the parking lot, turning south on Highway 39. He drove slowly until he was certain that she was following. Bethany appreciated Joshua turning on his left signal about a quarter mile from the turn. She began slowing at the sight of his signal so the horses would be able to adjust to the turn. He waited up the driveway as she maneuvered to follow him. She looked around the property as they arrived in the ranch yard.

Mary turned on the yard lights as she entered the house, while Joshua came over to help Bethany unload and set up. "Here, let me get the horses untied for you," he said as he reached up and unsnapped them. "Bet you have to climb up on the wheel well to reach them, don’t you?" Joshua smiled over at her. Bethany moved to the back of the trailer, opened the door to let out the first horse. Harley, a Mustang/Arab cross, was larger than her Arab by about a hand. He was broader than Coup, as well. He had been mellow-natured and easy to handle since she bought him at the age of two. Now, four years later, he was an old hand at hauling and camping out. Without his blanket, his bay coat would show large white spots. He was a flashy horse whose rippling muscles reflected his excellent condition. He paused as he cleared the trailer, waiting for Bethany to clip a lead rope onto his halter while he surveyed his surroundings.

"I’ll take this one while you get the other." Joshua reached for the lead. He moved Harley to the side so that she could get into the trailer and unlatch the dividers to let out the other gelding. Instead of backing, Coup turned around in the trailer to look out as Bethany clipped the lead rope to his halter. He surveyed the area carefully, then he stepped out regally, owning any ground where he set his hooves. As the alpha horse, Coup kept watch for monsters and led the way to safety when needed.

She could see approval of Coup in the rancher. Not everyone would appreciate a horse that was observant and cautious of his surroundings. Coup wasn’t spooky, just careful. "Come on, let’s get these guys into the pen before they see monsters and cause havoc," she said.

Joshua led Harley into the pen, and Bethany followed with Coup. He waited to close the gate or release the younger horse until Coup was safely inside. "Do you want to leave on the blankets?" he asked. "There’s supposed to be a frost in the morning. If these horses haven’t gotten winter coats yet, blankets would be a good idea," he advised her.

"Yeah, let’s leave them covered, but we’ll take off the halters," she said. Bethany removed Coup’s halter. He trotted around the pen, snorting as he checked for imagined demons. Finding no demons, Coup pawed the ground and dropped to roll in the hard-packed sand. Joshua followed Bethany’s lead and removed Harley’s halter. Harley followed Coup’s lead while Joshua and Bethany moved out of the pen.

"Would you mind if I feed them on the ground, or would you prefer I use flake bags for the hay?" Bethany pulled two 15-gallon water tubs from her trailer and grabbed a hose to fill them. Joshua took the other end of the hose and hooked it to an outdoor water pump, turning on the water in a practiced motion. "The wind around here will blow any leavings out of the pen in a few hours, so don’t worry about it."

They worked smoothly as a team to set up the horses for the night. As the tubs filled with water, each of them threw a few flakes of hay over the fence. Bethany added grain in flat feeders for each horse, Coup getting twice as much as Harley. He needed the extra rations to recover from the 50-mile competition of Saturday. The Indian Territory ride had been warm for a fall ride. It was great trail, lots of water, nice and knowledgeable management and volunteers, but warm and humid. Coup had suffered no metabolic problems from the weather and she was pleased that they finished in the top ten. While they didn’t get Best Condition, his Vet Score had been very good and that meant more than winning. The long drive today could have caused problems, but she had no choice and hoped they would suffer no ill effects from it.

"Looks like that should take care of them for the night. Why don’t you come in for a cup of coffee and dinner?" Joshua looked over at Bethany with a warm smile. Her curly hair was edging her baseball cap and he appreciated her warm looking jacket and boots. High desert weather could turn cold quickly, and warm clothes could mean the difference between comfort and disaster.

"Thank you, but no. I’ve imposed enough," she said. "I want to thank you and your wife for letting us stay here for the night." She smiled at him. "I know I’ll sleep more soundly knowing the horses are safe and comfortable. Thank you." Bethany shook his hand. "I think we’ll likely get out of your way by about nine tomorrow morning," she assured him. "Maybe earlier, but I need to go over my maps and figure the route to our next Ride Camp. I want to arrive there early to let the horses get used to the area a bit before we go rocketing over the trails. Have a good night." She moved away from him and stepped into the trailer. Once inside, she lit her propane heater, cracked a window and climbed up into bed. She was asleep almost before the sleeping bag settled over her shoulder.


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