Wild Horses Online - D'Ann Lindun

Chapter One

“Damn, it’s hotter than the devil’s backyard out here.” Castaña Castillo took one hand off the steering wheel just long enough to swipe at the trickle of sweat running down the nape of her neck and adjust the volume on the radio. One of her favorites, “Amarillo by Morning,” wafted from the speakers.

Not even George Strait’s silky smooth voice helped ward off her exhaustion. Castaña’s hands felt like twisted claws wrapped around the steering wheel, and the space between her shoulders ached until she prayed it would go numb. The AC gasped out its last breath of cool air somewhere in the middle of Texas yesterday afternoon. Both windows in her old Dodge were down, blasting June air through the cab like a roar from an open furnace. An enormous red and orange sun sinking out of the Arizona sky made a blinding glare on the bug-splattered windshield.

Her eyes burned from keeping them open. She tried to rest last night, parked near the highway and huddled in her combination camper horse trailer, but worrying about her missing brother kept her awake until almost three in the morning. According to a woman who refused to identify herself, no one had seen Martin for a few days. The mystery caller implied he might be lying out in the forest hurt … or worse.

If the horses hadn’t needed to rest, she would’ve pressed on through the night. Bringing her expensive show horses along might have been foolish, but she didn’t know how long she would be in Arizona. She hated leaving her animals in someone else’s care for more than a day or two. More importantly, she needed the horses in order to search the rough forest terrain.

Something large flashed in the corner of her eye. The pines made it impossible to see exactly what. An elk? Deer? If one of them jumped out in the road —

The animal shot toward her and she jerked the steering wheel. The pickup’s front left tire dropped into the loose gravel beside the road, making the rig slide. She had no control. Fighting the truck back to the right, she said, “Stand up, boys.”

The pickup refused to cooperate, skidding for at least another hundred feet. In spite of her best efforts to fight it back, the rig flew forward at an alarming rate. Desperately, she tapped the brake in an attempt to keep the trailer from flipping. The truck finally lurched to a stop; the trailer jackknifed across the road.

After a moment to catch her breath, Castaña grabbed her pistol out of the glove box, opened the door, and jumped out on noodle-weak legs. A cloud of swirling dust surrounded the stalled truck and trailer and she sneezed. Wiping away dust-filled tears, she ran for the horses. If one of the geldings had been gravely injured, she’d have to put him down.

Jumping inside the trailer, she checked over both of her passengers. The horses rolled their eyes and pawed, but otherwise seemed unharmed. She sagged with relief and tucked the gun in the back of her jeans. Back on the pavement, she noticed something next to the road. She rubbed her sand dry eyes with her fists and stared.

A man!

A man staggering to his feet. Had she clipped him? No, she would’ve felt the bump. Was he the big blur she’d noticed?

She hurried toward him. “The sun — I couldn’t see.”

He came toward her, weaving. Was he drunk? On drugs? Maybe dangerous? Did she need to go for the gun?

“Some … body … tried …” He swayed again.

“You need to sit down.” What kind of idiot thought a truck and horse trailer could come to an instant halt? Didn’t he know she couldn’t slam on her brakes when hauling horses? “I truly didn’t see you.”

“Obv … ‘sly,” he growled, leaning a little.

“I couldn’t see — ”

“Fast. Goin’ too fassst.”

“I was not driving too fast. Why were you standing beside the road?” Looking over his shoulder, which wasn’t easy considering he towered her own five-nine by at least four or five inches, she searched for a vehicle. “Where’s your car?”

“I need,” he swayed like a tree about to come crashing down, “help.”

Castaña slipped by the stranger so she was standing in the road, and gave him a gentle push so he leaned against the truck. She considered his brightly sunburned face, neck and arms. He looked like hell. The slurred words meant he was about to wilt. She’d lived in hot, dry climates long enough to recognize