High Meadow, High Mountain Trackers, Book One
An emergency call to pick up an injured stallion on the side of the road sends Alexandra Hart, the new owner of Hart’s Horse Rescue, into action. A recent addition to the area, she is not impressed when the animal’s taciturn owner shows up. With his less-than-stellar disposition, he’s the kind of man she normally avoids at all costs, unfortunately, he owns the ranch just down the road.
However, when the manhunt for a pair of escaped prisoners gets a little too close for comfort, Jonas turns out to be a better neighbor than she expected.
The Alex who shows up at his ranch to help with his prize stud’s recovery is not exactly who Jonas Harvey expected. This is the same bleeding heart he met on the side of the road. Worried she’s not up for the job, he’d prefer to keep a close eye on her but his High Mountain Trackers team gets called in to track down a group of domestic terrorists.
But the slip of a woman proves him wrong. On all fronts. Alex not only charms his horses but him as well, and when trouble comes calling she proves to be a worthy ally to boot.
I turn in the saddle to see Ama waving from the porch.
“It’s the movers!”
Shit, what now? It’s been one thing after another with these guys and I already regret hiring them to drive Dad’s stuff here. It should’ve been here last week.
It had taken me two years to convince my father to sell his place near Amarillo, Texas and move up here with me. He’s getting up there and managing his small ranch—even with the help of the couple of hands I’d hired him—was quickly becoming too much to handle. Hard for me to get down there regularly to pick up the slack with my own workload up here. Giving up his life’s work had not been easy. Dad doesn’t like sitting idle, which I assured him he wouldn’t be.
I own High Meadow, a busy horse ranch near Libby, Montana, and can always use an extra pair of hands and eyes. Especially with my other business picking up again after the winter season. Most of my guys do double duty and having someone I can trust to manage the ranch while we are out on a search will make life a lot easier.
“Sully, grab Blitz, will you?”
I swing my leg out of the saddle and slide off the young, spirited Arabian I was able to pick up at auction last month. He’s got a lot of fire I’m slowly working out of him. He could be a nice addition to my stable as a stud, but the way he is now he could do serious damage to the mares.
Sully takes the reins and starts walking him to the stable, the horse’s tail high as he prances along.
Ama hands me the phone when I reach the porch.
“Mr. Harvey, it’s Jessica at Titan Moving and Transport. I’m afraid there’s been a slight delay.”
“Again,” I grumble.
“Our truck broke down just south of Denver. I’ve already dispatched another truck to pick up your belongings and continue on to Montana, but it means we have at least a day’s delay. Maybe two,” she adds quickly.
As much as I’d like to voice my displeasure, it’s no use yelling at the girl. In the grand scheme of things I guess a few more days is not such a big deal.
“Before the weekend,” I demand.
Dad insisted on driving himself up here. In part because he wanted to stop off in Wyoming to visit an old army buddy of his. I don’t expect him until next week, but I want to make sure we’ve got his rooms ready for him.
“For sure,” she says sounding confident.
“Let me guess, they won’t be here tomorrow,” Ama observes when I hand her back the house phone.
“Got it in one.”
“Well, that sucks.” She pats my arm. “But don’t worry, we’ll get it done before he gets here,” she adds.
“By the way, I’m heading into town to run some errands. Anything you need?”
“Yes, can you stop at Homesteader’s and pick me up some iodine?”
A quick and easy disinfectant for nicks and cuts, we go through the stuff like water.
“Again? Maybe I should start ordering extra.”
We usually get our feed and sundries delivered by truck once a month, and Ama manages the order. Hell, Ama manages just about everything. Married to one of my trusted men, James Watike, Ama has become my major domo. She runs the house, the kitchen, the office, the orders, the men, and me.
I lucked out when I was able to pull in James, along with some of my other former teammates. Not only was he a great asset, but his wife turned out to be the glue holding this place together.
When I bought this place a little over a decade ago, after I aged out of my unit, I didn’t expect to miss the work. Horses are in my blood, but apparently tracking was as well and I started missing the thrill of the hunt. I was occasionally asked to help search for a lost hiker—something we see quite a bit of here in the Montana mountains—and the idea for High Mountain Trackers was born.
James, Bo, Sully, Fletch, and I had all been part of the same Special Ops tracker team. We’d get called in on a wide variety of operations in a lot of different geographical locations. Sometimes our only task was tracking down a target. Other times it also involved the extraction of said target. The job required a specialized set of skills my team had in spades.
As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who missed flexing those particular muscles. It took me a year, but eventually I was able to convince four of my former teammates to join me and HMT was in business. We haven’t been lacking for work, requests to help families locate missing loved ones, but also calls for help from different levels of law enforcement. On our downtime we work the ranch, but especially this last year we’ve had to hire more hands to keep this place running. That’s where I hope Dad will come in handy.
I catch up with Sully, who already set Blitz loose in the paddock out front and is carrying the tack into the stable.
“Any word from Bo?” he wants to know.
Yesterday, Bo, Fletch, and James took the trailer up to Eureka, just south of the border with Canada, aiding in the search for a hiker. The guy got separated from the small group of friends and has been missing for four days now. The nights still get cold up here and with limited gear and no shelter, it can be a challenge to survive the elements. Time is of the essence.
“Nope. Nothing yet.”
My guys wouldn’t have stopped for nightfall. A lot of gain can be made in the dark, since most people—even those who are lost—have the common sense to hunker down and stay stationary until sunup. My men are outfitted with infrared night vision so the lack of daylight wouldn’t hamper them. They also carry a satellite phone, since cell reception is spotty at best in the mountains.
Sully dumps the saddle and bridle in the tack room before turning to me.
“Want me to take the bird and head up there?”
The bird is a Matrice 210 RTK, a high-end drone outfitted with cameras, a datalink allowing for real-time monitoring, and a positioning beacon. The bird is Sully’s baby and the best twenty-grand investment I’ve made. Only problem is, even from the air, the mountains hide a lot. There’s a lot of luck involved unless we know what direction to search in.
I shake my head. “Give it another day and see if the guys can get a bead on the target.”
One of the hands pulls his horse to a halt in the barnyard when I poke my head out of the doors. Sully steps up beside me.
The kid dismounts and startles when he catches sight of me. He looks instantly panicked.
“Fuck, Dan,” Sully prompts. “What’s the hollering about?”
My back straightens and my attention is piqued. Phantom is my prize stud and is out in the back meadow enjoying the last days of freedom before breeding season confines him closer to the barn.
His eyes flit to me before returning to Sully.
“He got out.”
There’s something about the mountain air that centers me.
I’m on my porch sipping my second coffee of the day as I take in the view. The hints of spring add a softer green against the permanent shades of pine and spruce more prevalent in these mountains. The peaks in the distance still white with the snow that overwhelmed me all winter.
It’s a harder life than I was used to—not that I’ve ever been afraid of hard work—but it’s also more gratifying. Since moving here my life feels more balanced.
A soft clucking sound has me look in the direction of the corral where Lucy is exercising our latest addition. She’s a skittish mare we picked up from a ramshackle house along the Kootenay River, just outside Jennings. Poor thing had been chained to a tree, the skin on her neck rubbed raw by the weight of the metal. There were two dogs on the property in a similar condition and we took them as well.
Lincoln Sheriff’s Department had been called in by a neighbor and they in turn contacted us. A deputy met us out there in case the owner showed up. The horse had been a challenge to get into the trailer, but the dogs had come willingly. They were a tad shy but seemed happy someone was there to look after them.
Doc Evans came by to check all three of them out the other day. Not much he could do about their emaciated state—it would take time to fatten them up—but he cleaned up their injuries and left me with some antibiotic ointment.
As soon as I turn to head inside both dogs, who had been lying down at my feet, got up to follow. One looks to be a blue heeler or some derivative thereof, and the other is a mix with the coloring of an English shepherd but smaller and with a shorter coat. Oddly enough he seems to be the leader.
“You can stay out here, boys.”
They’ve been following Lucy and me around like skinny shadows, as if they’re afraid we won’t return. It’s gonna take some time to build their trust, just like it will with the mare out there. Maybe we should start by naming them.
I let the storm door slam shut behind me as I make my way to the kitchen and dump my empty mug in the sink.
The kitchen is old, like the rest of the house, but the bones are good and everything seems to work as it should. Other than the wallpaper stripping and painting we’ve done over the winter, we haven’t really done more to upgrade the place. Most of my money is going toward the care of the animals and the rest will have to wait until I can start generating some income, hiring out my services treating animals with behavioral issues.
Not an easy feat as it turns out. Most folks up here don’t subscribe to what a lot of them consider to be whoo-whoo psychobabble. They’d rather write an animal off than pay someone to modify the unwanted behavior. If only someone would give me an opportunity to show what I can do.
The phone on the kitchen counter rings and I eagerly rush to answer.
“Hart’s Horse Rescue.”
“Yes, hi, this is Esther Grimshaw. I’m about two miles south of you on US-2, and I just drove past a horse in the ditch on the west side. It was trying to get up, but I think it may have broken a foreleg. I was hoping you could help.”
This land is vast but however spread out, the community seems small. So it doesn’t really surprise me a neighbor I haven’t met yet seems to know plenty about the newcomer.
“Have you contacted Doc Evans?” I mention the vet I’ve come to know over the past four months since I bought this property.
“Can’t get through, but I left a message. Thought I’d try you.”
“Okay, thanks. I’ll grab a trailer and head down. If Doc Evans calls you back, will you tell him I’m on my way there?”
I hang up, grab a halter and a rope off the hook by the door, and head out. I almost trip over the dogs, who’ve taken up guard right in front of the door.
“Gonna need you. Got a call about an injured horse along the highway.”
“Let me set her loose. I’ll be right there.”
Lucy has worked with me for close to six years and moved up here with me from Billings. My place there barely had room for a handful of horses and when I heard through the grapevine of this property in the mountains, with substantially more acreage, it was like a dream come true for me. Lucy, who is about ten years my junior and without any attachments in Billings, was up for the adventure.
The dogs follow me to the truck. I don’t really want to lock them in the house and I don’t trust them alone on the property yet, so I open the cab door. Without hesitation they hop in the back seat. I back the truck up to the trailer.
Lucy joins me after releasing the mare in the field with the others—seven horses and one donkey—and it takes us a couple of tries to hook the trailer up to the truck, but we finally get it done.
“Where are we going?” she asks, climbing into the cab beside me.
“About two miles south, along the highway.” Highway is a big word for the two-lane road, but it’s the main drag in these regions.
I turn left out of the driveway, heading south. I don’t have to go far to see another trailer parked on the side of the road, a Sheriff’s Department cruiser already there. I pull in behind it and get out; Lucy jumps down as well.
I can hear the restless snorting of a horse come from the larger trailer up ahead. A man wearing a dirty old Stetson is chatting with law enforcement when we walk up.
“Can I help you?” the deputy asks.
“We’re from Hart’s Horse Rescue up the road. We got a call about an injured horse?”
“Yeah, he’s mine,” the cowboy says with a Southern drawl, and I take my first good look at him. I can’t see his eyes with the brim pulled low, but his mouth is pressed in a firm line beneath the gray scruff.
“What are you gonna do with him?” I ask, knowing most ranchers won’t bother with a broken leg; they’ll euthanize the horse first. Not only for the cost of possible repairs—which can be substantial—but because the chances of recovery aren’t always great for a horse. Still, I currently have two animals that we’ve been able to rehabilitate successfully, and I won’t give up on a horse without trying everything I can.
“Not your horse, not your concern,” the cowboy says dismissively.
“That may be, but I’d like to offer an alternative to killing—”
Ignoring me and without another word, the big lug turns on his heel and disappears around the trailer.
“It is his horse. He can do what he likes,” the deputy offers. Typical.
My stomach churns as I watch the truck and trailer drive off with the injured horse in the back.
“Who is that anyway?” Lucy asks the cop.
“That’s J. Harvey. He’s well known around these parts.”
I bet he is. He may be an exceptionally handsome man, but he’s an arrogant prick.