Three Ways to Catch a Cowgirl

(Excerpt)

 Chapter 1

 

 

Roses are red,

Violets are blue.

Here is my heart.

I give it to you.

 

Dying was a fact of life. Especially in her business.

Hanging upside down from a horse at full gallop could definitely kill a person. Not the hanging in particular. The falling. Landing on her neck. Being trampled by flying hooves.

Mesa Brazos sucked in arena dust, tightened her abs, and executed a midair sit-up, one hand extended, the other reaching for the saddle horn.

Good job. You did it. First one in…forever.

Safely upright in the specialized saddle, Mesa rode the golden palomino to the indoor arena railing, hands in the air and knees relaxed the way she did in their trick-riding shows. Except for the lack of applause.

Koda, the palomino, stopped at the railing and waited. He knew what to do. Mesa was the one out of shape.

“Not bad. It’s coming back to you.”

Arizona, Mesa’s sister, pushed off the silver metal rails and strode into the arena, her black hair swinging from a waist-length braid. She reached for the gelding’s halter, as was her habit, and stroked him under the chin. Koda instantly relaxed, and Mesa knew he’d raised one rear foot and dropped his lip. Arizona, the horse-whisperer, communed better with horses than humans.

Mesa swiped a long sleeve across her sweat-and-dirt-lathered face. Her pulse still strummed. “I should be ready for the rodeo in Fort Worth next month.”

Arizona gave a head wag. The braid swayed like a pendulum. “Don’t think so. Lark and I can do a few more shows alone.”

     Mesa wanted back in the game. She needed back in the game. Only the busyness of training and the desire not to let her sisters down had compelled her out of the darkest pit imaginable. Now, she needed action.

With only a hint of the rebellion wrestling in her gut, Mesa studied her sister. At five-ten, Arizona was by far the tallest, as well as the eldest, of the three Brazos sisters. A Wonder Woman look-alike, she took plenty of teasing about her Amazonian size, but in a pair of snug old jeans, scuffed cowgirl boots, and a tucked-in fitted T-shirt emblazoned with Flying Sisters Ranch, she was both gorgeous and in command. Her piercing blue eyes missed exactly nothing, especially about Mesa’s training efforts. When it came to their trick riding performances, Arizona called the shots.

Mesa jutted her chin. “Didn’t you see that sit up? I’ve been faithful to my workouts.” Though more out of habit than caring about her physical fitness.

The early morning calisthenics were as ingrained in her as the habit of that first cup of coffee, thanks to a regular drill sergeant of a grandmother, who’d raised her and her two sisters. From the moment they’d begun training as trick riders, Bootsie never let them get by without an hour of fitness every single morning.

The three of them had been hardly more than tots when they’d begun riding the circuit with Bootsie’s Trick Riders. Three little dark-haired girls, not tall enough to reach the stirrups, had proved to be a big promotional draw.

Bootsie was gone now, along with her troupe of trick riders. The business, transferred to the three sisters, had morphed and grown from occasional rodeos and parades to full-time work, including special performances and clinics to train other hopeful daredevils.

Not that Mesa had been carrying her share of the load. Last Christmas, Arizona and Lark had worked the National Finals Rodeo, something they’d all dreamed of, but Mesa had been in no shape to attend.

     “Until a few weeks ago, you hadn’t been in the arena for nearly two years,” Arizona said.

Two years and a lifetime.

“You need to shake off the rust, and Koda needs to be sure he can trust you.”

     “You said you need me. That the troupe was floundering.”

     “We do. It was.” Arizona glanced to one side, her profile solemn. She was a sculptor’s dream. She’d had her opportunities to model, though she rarely spoke of what had happened in New York. 

This conversation, though, they’d had. Loudly. Only the guilt of causing her sisters to lose their livelihood and some strong-arm action from Arizona had compelled Mesa to come home to Refuge.

     “Lark does more gymnastic stunts than I ever could,” Mesa said. “So I still don’t see why you need me.”

     “Because we’re the three Flying Sisters, not two, and you and Lark together are breathtaking. And you know it. People pay good money to see a duo of petite sisters flying at breakneck speed on the same gorgeous horse.”

     Arizona told the truth. People loved what they did. Mesa loved what they did. Or once had. Since being dragged home kicking and screaming, the passion was returning, a surprise, an unexpected gift that took her mind off other things.

     “I never thought I’d perform again.”

Mending a broken heart took longer than healing a broken bone. Bones heal. A broken heart lingers forever.

She’d unofficially retired, not only from trick riding, but from life, until her sisters had showed up at her Dallas apartment and practically dragged her back to the ranch. An intervention, of sorts, she supposed. The two whirlwind Brazos had packed up Mesa’s things and driven the U-Haul truck themselves. She’d come along, full of heartache and resentment. And eventually, gratitude.

Arizona placed a sympathetic hand on Mesa’s foot. “I know. When Jeremy —” She stopped, pressed her full lips into a straight line, and didn’t finish the rest. No need. They all knew.

Mesa’s eyes filled. She battled against an emotion always close to the surface. A word, a song, pale hair. Anything could set her off. People said time heals all wounds. She didn’t know who’d coined the saying, but it definitely was not someone who’d experienced loss. Time healed nothing.

But she’d learned to suppress the grief. If she ever let go, she’d be a screaming, raving madwoman.

Aw, Jeremy. Jeremy.

Mesa pretended to wipe sweat again, fooling no one.

Arizona patted her calf. “This ranch is where you’ll find your stride again. Give yourself plenty of time to get back in shape, physically and mentally. The Flying Sisters needs you, but remember what Bootsie taught us. Training means safety, and safety is everything in this sport. Distraction brings disaster. Right?”

“Yeah.” With a heavy sigh, Mesa used her knees to turn the horse toward the circular arena. The last thing that mattered to her was being safe. Always a daredevil, Mesa had feared only one thing in her entire life. And it had come to pass. If she’d learned anything, she’d learned to be fearless.  

Yet she wasn’t. She was afraid of forgetting. Afraid of ever loving anyone that much again.

Patting Koda’s powerful neck and using only her legs, Mesa circled the arena in an easy lope, waiting for the turmoil inside to settle. Koda and their stunts required her full attention.

Regardless of the January weather, the indoor facility allowed her to keep practicing. The ranch house might not be fancy, but the horse facilities, the arena barn, and the hay barn were top shelf.

Another hour and she’d let Koda rest. The gelding had earned a good rubdown and a handful of treats.

She heard the outside door bang against the sheet-metal structure. Lark, the youngest and the smallest sister at barely five feet tall, burst across the entryway into sight. Like her siblings, Lark’s hair was black and her skin pale olive, but Lark’s dimpled cheeks and soft cocoa eyes revealed her sweet, easy-going nature. Arizona was the tough one, Lark the tender one.

“Arizona! Mesa!”

Arizona whirled at her sister’s distressed call. Mesa pulled Koda to a halt. Something was wrong. She could hear it in her baby sister’s voice.

Lark’s words echoed through the facility.

“We’ve been robbed!”

 

The call came in before Evan Young finished his breakfast, a real shame because Pie Town, the hole-in-the-wall café on a side street in Refuge, Texas, made the best pancakes the county undersheriff had ever tasted. He could also vouch for about six kinds of pie, thanks to Pie Happy Hour, a highly successful promotion by Pie Town’s owner. No man could turn down free coffee and fresh homemade pie at a buck fifty a slice.

As soon as his radio squawked, every head in the crowded café rotated in his direction to listen in, raised forks frozen halfway to their lips. Silence descended, broken only by the clangs and bangs of the busy kitchen while he spoke to dispatch.

Nosey to the bone, every last one of them, he thought with amused affection. News of the call would fly up and down First Street faster than a satellite signal on a clear day.

Butterfly Delco, owner and proprietor of Pie Town , moseyed over to Evan’s table. A curvy feminine African American wearing a fitted green turban and dangly green earrings, Butterfly didn’t look like a retired pro wrestler. But she was, a fact that had both surprised and amused him.

“Trouble, Evan?”

After eight years as a Dallas cop and less than two back in his hometown of Refuge, Evan was still readjusting to small-town dynamics, but he was pretty sure Butterfly wanted to know details.

Evan took a quick swig of water to wash down the sweet, buttery breakfast, placed a few bills on the table, and stood. The call wasn’t an emergency, but he wasn’t one to keep an upset homeowner dangling. Especially these particular homeowners.

With a last, longing glance at his meal, he grabbed his jacket from the chair back. “Sounds like another break-in.”

He kept the location to himself. The Brazos sisters could tell the tale if they chose.

Butterfly clutched a hand to her throat. “Another one! What is going on around here?”

Three rural break-ins in a month was not a big deal to a seasoned Dallas detective, but he supposed the entire population of Refuge would double-check their locks tonight.

So far, every stolen item, each of them a vehicle of some sort, had been recovered a short distance from its home. Probably kids joyriding.

But crime was crime. And Evan wanted it stopped. The city police looked out for the town proper, but the sheriff’s office handled the outskirts of town and the rest of Calypso County. The area sprawled far wider than Refuge.

Lawson Hawk, the overworked sheriff stationed in the town of Calypso, had hired Evan to cover half the county. They split the job right down the middle between their two close-together towns, Calypso and Refuge. He had miles of countryside to police, and trouble in his own backyard didn’t sit well.

Gear rattling at his waist, Evan headed to the white SUV parked in front of the café.

Butterfly leaned out the glass door and hollered, “Meeting is here tonight. Seven sharp. You coming?”

He was chair of the Valentine’s Day committee so of course he’d attend, but he didn’t mind the reminder. “As long as you sell pie.”

She laughed. “Get on back here when you finish your call. I’ll save your breakfast.”

Evan lifted a hand in thanks.

Life in a small town. He loved it.

Driving down First Street, he stopped at the only red light in Refuge. With practiced eyes, he scanned the clean streets and pastel storefronts. Cutesy names like The Cookie Jar, The Hair Port, and Brewed Awakening mixed with ordinary store names. Refuge was ten miles off the interstate and, as such, was remote and rural, but the chamber of commerce worked overtime to draw visitors, thus the cute shops and cheerful colors.

Thad Mason, newly shorn, exited Bobby’s Bait and Barber Shop, a curious enterprise that perennially smelled like a weird cross of Old Spice and a fish market.

Rachel Tinsley, the classy proprietor of Rachel’s Cards and Gifts, a favorite of Evan’s six-year-old daughter, paused with broom in hand to watch him pass. A school bus went by, heading to the Calypso County tech school with a load of Refuge High School students.

All appeared quiet and peaceful this early morning. Safe.

If there was one thing he wished for his daughter, it was safety. As undersheriff of Calypso County, he’d do his part to keep things that way.

     Evan traveled the short mile east of town to Three Sisters Ranch. The property, in the Brazos family since Texas was a country all its own, sat about a quarter mile off the state highway in the center of forty lush acres. He knew the place well because the land adjoined his, and he’d spent many a boyhood hour riding horses between the two properties.

     Turning under the cross timbers, he entered the long graveled drive and spotted the three Brazos women in front of the ranch-style brick house. Arizona, taller by a head than the other two, stood between Lark and Mesa, arms akimbo.

     His belly dipped.

     Mesa was back.

     Curiosity rose along with memories of the spunky, fearless green-eyed girl whose wildly mixed ancestry made her beautiful. Her sisters were pretty too, but Mesa always had a special gleam about her, a zest for life. She’d been his first awkward, embarrassing but memorable kiss. They’d been all of thirteen.

     Grinning at the unexpected recollection, Evan pulled to a stop and killed the SUV’s engine. As he opened the door, three pairs of cowgirl boots planted next to the vehicle. One pair of well-worn brown—Arizona’s, he figured. Then a tiny pair of fancy stitched turquoise that could only belong to the equally tiny Lark, and finally a pair of new, barely scuffed red leather. Mesa had always loved red.

     “What are you grinning about, Young?” Arizona asked as he stepped out of the SUV.

     Evan wiped the smile, if not his memories, away. “Sorry. Thinking about something.”

     Arizona folded her arms. “Not about our break-in, I hope.”

     “No. What happened? What’s missing?” Evan scanned the faces of each sister, leaving Mesa until last. He settled there. If possible, she was more beautiful than he remembered, but the pinched mouth and hollow expression made him wonder. What had life dealt to his childhood pal? Certainly, more than a burglary.

     “Evan Young?” she said. “What are you—”

     “—doing back in Refuge? I’m undersheriff for Calypso County.” He shifted, his service boots crunching gravel. “Long story. For another time. Good to see you, though.”

     Their eyes met and held, hers the green of summer. Summers of climbing trees, riding horses, biking into town for snow cones.

     Evan diverted his attention to Arizona. He was here to investigate a burglary. Junior high had been eons ago.

     “Someone busted the lock on the workshop.” Arizona hissed the words, eyes blazing. “Made a mess. Stole the four-wheeler.”

     “Do you remember the last time any of you were in the workshop?”

     “Last night.” Lark fiddled with a strand of shiny black hair dangling over one shoulder. Distress came off her in thick waves. “I rode the four-wheeler out to doctor one of the horses. When I returned, I locked up. Everything was in place then.”

     “What time?”

     “Maybe six-thirty, not long before dark.”

     “Show me.”

     He followed the women around the house and across a half acre lot to a long silver metal building with double lift doors. A pair of curious horses came across the pasture to investigate.

     Evan paused several feet from the building to look around.

“Wait here and keep the horses back in case of tracks. Let me check things out first. They couldn’t have carried that ATV out of here.”

     “Unless they drove in and loaded it up.”

     “Which would leave a different kind of track.” He approached the shop, pausing at the side door. The latch dangled loose, the metal dented and damaged. “Was the key in the ATV?”

     Lark flushed. “Yes. We leave it for convenience. The outer shop doors are locked. Why remove the ATV key?”

     For one glaring reason, but she wouldn’t appreciate hearing him say it.

     Removing his camera from an inner pocket, Evan carefully walked around the building first, observing, cataloging in his notebook, and snapping photos of the ground. Hoofprints mingled with slender boot prints, which he assumed belonged to the women. He took photos of them anyway.

     After working his way around the building, he stepped inside, taking care to touch nothing while observing everything.

     Finally, he went to the door and motioned to the sisters. “I need your help in here, but don’t touch anything and try to stay in one spot.”

     The women stepped in, circling up in the center of the concrete floor like a herd of beautiful horses, a comparison the sisters would appreciate.

     Arizona pointed to a set of shelves. “Chain saw, edger, fencing materials, and auger are all out of place.”

     “You know how Arizona is.” Lark smiled to show she joked. Sort of. “Everything has a spot. Move it, and she’ll hurt you.”

     He remembered that. Arizona, the perfectionist.

     “My bike’s gone, too.”

     Evan turned his head toward Mesa. His chest tightened a little. “Bike? What kind?”

     “Mountain bike. An expensive one.” She named the brand and style. “I should have some pictures somewhere.”

     “You still bike?”

     A light flashed in those hollow eyes. “Did. You?”

     “Not since I got my driver’s license at sixteen. Four wheels are better than two.”

She smiled. “Says who?”

The spark of interest flared to a flame. He tamped it back to focus on the investigation.

     When he’d finished, he walked the women back to his SUV. “We’ve had a few other rural break-ins this month.”

     “You think it’s the same person?” Arizona, always in charge, asked.

     “Sure of it. Evidence points to two perps in each case. Tennis shoes. Always take things they can ride, and so far, we’ve found all the items a short distance away. Jenkins’s riding mower. Tom Scott’s Kubota tractor.”

     “I heard about that,” Lark said, her voice sweet and soft. According to Pie Town gossip Evan couldn’t help overhearing, Lark and Sam Jenkins dated some.

     He felt no guilt in listening to gossip. Sometimes it was a cop’s best friend.

     “Your stuff is probably not far away,” he said.

     “They could have walked in from the road.” Arizona pointed across the field toward the graveled county road. “Easy access across the pasture, and we might not hear or see them unless we were outside.”

“Mmm. Maybe,” Evan murmured, ruminating. “They could have driven the ATV out that way, too, although I didn’t spot it or anything else out of the ordinary on my way here.”

     “I’m thinking the trail through the woods is a better option for anyone not wanting to be caught,” Mesa said. “It’s secluded, runs along the creek and eventually into town. Someone could cut through from town and come in the back way, and we’d never know.”

     Ah, yes, the trail through Black Woods. He remembered it, along with that fledgling kiss he and Mesa had exchanged beside the creek. Did she?

     “Good thought.” He tried to ignore the curiosity about Mesa that kept rising like flood waters. “Less likely to be seen. Easy to hide. I’ll check it out.”

“Mesa can walk with you in case you find the bike or the four-wheeler. Lark and I have an appointment with Dallas Hawk at the radio station over in Calypso. Promo op on her morning show.”

     Evan saw Mesa’s gaze snap toward her sister. Her face closed up tight, her mouth a straight line. She didn’t argue, however. Arizona was the boss. Had been as long as he could remember.

     But Mesa’s reaction bothered him. Was there some reason his old friend didn’t want to accompany him?

He shrugged off the thought. A lot of years had passed since he’d last seen her. They didn’t know each other anymore.

     “Fine with me,” he said to Arizona. “Don’t forget the meeting toni—”

     Arizona grabbed his arm, cutting him off. The woman had a grip! Expression fierce and hard, she said, “I’ll call you later. Right now, this robbery is more important.”

     Not really, but he got the message. For reasons he didn’t understand, she wanted to hush him up.

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