he sun burned blood red through a lingering haze of dust. As it sank behind the buttes and turrets of the Caprock Escarpment, shadows stretched long across the heat-seared landscape. With each minute that passed, the two riders grew more anxious. If they didn't find the missing man soon, they'd be searching for him in the dark.
Jasper Platt, the Rimrock's retired foreman, had gone hunting early that morning. When he didn't show up for supper, Sky Fletcher and Beau Tyler had saddled their horses and set out looking for him. Armed with pistols and flashlights, they rode out across the flat toward the dry alkali lake where the old man liked to shoot quail and wild turkey.
“I don't like this.” Beau scanned the horizon with his binoculars. “The old man's got no business out here alone, driving that ATV God knows where, maybe rolling it in a wash, or even running into those smugglers who've been leaving tracks all over the place. We need to make some rules and insist that he follow them.”
“And how do you think Jasper would take to your rules?” Sky spoke softly, sharp ears alert for any unfamiliar sound. “He may be old, but that's no reason to treat him like a child. After all, he practically raised you and Will after your mother died.”
Beau exhaled a tension-charged breath. “Somebody had to do the job. Our dad sure as hell didn't have the patience. Jasper was more of a father to Will and me than Bull Tyler ever was. I just hope we find him safe.”
Sky let the words pass. It was no secret that Beau Tyler and his domineering father, Bull, had clashed bitterly at every turn. After their last quarrel, Beau had left for the army and stayed away eleven years.
Sky, however, had nothing but respect for the hard-driving rancher who'd taken in a starving half-Comanche teenager and given him a job. In the fourteen years Sky had worked for the Rimrock, he'd learned that Bull could be harsh but never unfair. The man's death this past spring had been a genuine loss. Sky was still reeling from the legacy Bull had left him in his willâthe deed to 100 acres of prime ranchland, the first thing of real value he'd ever owned.
“Maybe we should've brought the dog.” Beau's words broke into Sky's thoughts. Tag, the black and white Border Collie, was about Jasper's age in dog years. The two were close companions.
“I didn't see Tag at the house,” Sky said. “Jasper might have taken him along in the ATV. If anything happened to Jasper, that dog would stay right with him. Keep your ears open. Maybe we'll hear something.”
Both men fell silent as the twilight deepened. Sky's ears sifted through the night soundsâthe drone of flying insects, the faraway wail of a coyote, the rhythmic
of shod hooves in the powdery dust. With scorching temperatures and no rain since spring, the land was drier than he'd ever seen it. The drought was a constant, gnawing worry. But right now the more urgent concern was finding Jasper.
“Listen!” Beau hissed. “Do you hear that?”
“Sounds like a dog!” Sky had caught it, too. Urging their horses to a gallop, the two men thundered toward the sound.
Minutes later they found the ATV. The open vehicle had careened and landed on its side in a hollow, where a minuscule spring seeped out of the ground. Protected by the roll bar, Jasper was sprawled belly down, one side of his face pressed in the water-slicked mud. The Border Collie stood guard, barking at their approach.
“Get the dog out of the way.” Cursing, Beau dropped to a crouch beside the old man, who was as much a part of the Rimrock Ranch as the land itself.
Gripped by dread, Sky held the dog's collar, stroking and soothing the agitated animal while Beau, who'd had some medical experience as an Army Ranger, checked for vital signs.
“Is he alive?” Sky asked, steeling himself against the answer.
“Barely. His pulse feels week. Sounds like he might have some fluid in his lungs, too.” Beau worked a hand beneath Jasper's head to lift his face clear of the mud. “I'd guess he's been here awhile. Damned lucky he didn't drown.”
Sky's free hand whipped out his cell phone. “I'll get Life Flight. Want me to call the house, too? Will and Bernice will be worried. And they'll need to tell Erin.”
Beau was probing for broken bones. “Go ahead and call Life Flight. Then you can help me push the ATV off him and turn him over. I'll phone Will when we've got him more comfortable.”
By the time Sky had finished the call, the dog was calm enough to stay put. Between them, Sky and Beau tipped the light vehicle back onto its wheels and pushed it out of the way. Jasper was semiconscious, muttering and moaning, his Stetson gone, his muddy white hair plastered to his scalp.
“I'll take his head and shoulders,” Beau directed. “You support his hips and spine. On the count of three, we roll him onto his back.”
Crouching low, Sky worked his hands beneath the bony old body and waited for the count. Jasper had been on the Rimrock since before Will and Beau were born. By the time Sky showed up, he was already a silver-haired elder. Arthritis had ended his days in the saddle, but he remained a treasure trove of wisdom, humor, and experience. If he didn't make it, his loss would devastate the ranch family.
Between advanced age and dehydration, Jasper's body felt almost weightless. After lifting him like a child, they rolled him onto a patch of dry grass. By then the twilight had deepened to dusk. But even without the flashlight, they could see the dark stain spread around the hole in the front of his faded plaid shirt. Sky's heart slammed. Beau cursed.
Jasper had been shot.
Will Tyler had left for the hospital within minutes of Beau's call, taking Bernice, Jasper's widowed younger sister who'd run the Tyler household for the past thirty years. Beau had gone with Jasper in the helicopter, leaving Sky to take the dog and horses to the barn and return in the pickup for the ATV.
Sky had decided against going to the hospital. Somebody had to look after things at the ranchâand even though he thought the world of Jasper, Sky was aware that he wasn't family. Not like the Tylers were family.
He was helping with early-morning chores when the call came from Will. “The old man's barely hanging on.” Will's voice was gritty with exhaustion. “He's got pneumonia now, as well as the gunshot wound. He's a tough old man, but the doctor isn't sure he'll make it.”
“Anything I can do?” Sky spoke past the knot in his throat.
“Yes. Jasper's conscious and asking for you. Get here as soon as you can.”
Still in his work clothes, Sky piled into his ten-year-old Ford pickup and set out on the hour-long drive to the hospital in Lubbock. He couldn't think of any reason why Jasper would ask for him, but if that was what the old man wanted, he would be there. If the worst happened, it would at least give him a chance to say good-bye.
The rising sun, a fireball above the rolling plains, promised another day of blistering heat. On either side of the road, the grassy landscape stretched as dead as broom straw, dotted with clumps of dry mesquite. Buzzards, a half mile distant, flocked around a dark, bulky shape. A dead cow, maybe even a horse. At least the scavengers were eating well.
Sky had seen droughts before, but never one as bad as this. With the summer not half over, things were bound to get even worse. Will had already talked about selling off the cattle early, which made Sky's work training horses to sell even more vital to the ranch's survival.
But concerns about the drought would have to wait. Right now what mattered most was Jasper's life.
As Sky swung the pickup into a parking spot, a white Toyota Land Cruiser pulled up next to him. Beau's fiancÃ©e, Natalie Haskell, flew out of the driver's seat to join Sky on a fast walk to the waiting room. Doll-sized, she was dressed for her work as a vet in jeans and a tan cotton shirt.
“Beau said I didn't need to come, but I couldn't stay away. I've known Jasper all my life.” She brushed back her mop of dark curls. The diamond on her finger scattered rainbows where it caught the sunlight.
Sky didn't reply as he held the door for her. There were no words for a time like this.
The small waiting room was crowded. Beau, who'd been awake all night and looked it, hurried forward to pull Natalie in his arms. The two held each other, taking and giving comfort.
Bernice, red-eyed and disheveled, huddled on a couch, needles clicking with each stitch of the brown afghan she was knitting. Will's ex-wife, Tori, a willowy blonde, sat next to her with an arm around their twelve-year-old daughter, Erin. Tears stained the girl's pretty, young face. Jasper was like a grandfather to her.
A wall-mounted television in the far corner was blaring an early-morning talk show, but no one in the room was paying it any heed. As he looked around for Will, Sky found himself wondering if the sheriff's men had been here, or if the press had caught wind of the shooting. If Jasper didn't make it, the authorities would be looking for a murderer.
Unshaven and haggard, Will stood alone by the window. Dark, blue-eyed, and muscular, he was the near image of his late father. Seeing Sky come in, Will crossed the room to join him.
For the past six years, since Bull Tyler's paralysis in a riding accident, Will had run the Rimrock. After Bull's recent death, Beau had come home for the funeral and stayed on as foreman, freeing Sky to manage the horses full time. But it had been Jasper's deep knowledge of the ranchâthe how and why of thingsâthat had sustained them all. Much as Jasper would be missed by the ranch family, Sky suspected Will would miss him most.
“He's down the left hallway. I'll show you where.” Will opened the swinging doors that led from the waiting room to the ICU.
“Do we know who shot him?” Sky asked.
“Jasper says he didn't see a soul. When the bullet hit, he lost control of the ATV, and that's the last thing he remembers. The doctor thinks he may have a concussion.” Will's lips tightened. “He'll have an oxygen mask on, but he can take it off long enough to talk to you. Just make sure you don't tire him.”
“Don't worry. I'll make the visit a short one.” Sky had long since accepted Will's need to manage things. Bull's nature had been much the same.
Alone now, Sky opened the door to Jasper's room and walked in. Propped in bed with a thin blanket covering his legs, the old man looked as frail as an ancient skeleton, ready to crumble at a touch. Monitors and IV lines formed a web around him, beeping and flashing. Anchored by a clip, a catheter bag hung over the side of the mattress.
Growing up among his Comanche mother's people, Sky had learned to accept age and death as a natural process. To truss up an elder in such a way, denying him the dignity of a good death, struck him as demeaning. But who was he to question the wisdom of the doctors?
A plastic cup, supplying oxygen, covered Jasper's nose and mouth. Above it, his pale eyes were open and surprisingly alert. One hand gestured feebly toward the oxygen mask, signaling that he wanted Sky to move it asideâeasily done, since it was held in place by a strip of soft elastic.
“Isn't this a pickle? For two cents I'd yank off all this fancy rigging and walk out of here.” Jasper's voice was weak. Will had been right about not tiring the old man. Every word seemed to cost him strength.
“Will said you wanted to see me,” Sky said. “I got here as soon as I could.”
“Thanks. Feelin' like hell. If the good Lord's ready to take me, I'm willin' to go. But I won't rest easy till I've told you a secretâ” Jasper's voice dropped to a labored breath. “A secret I've kept all your life.”
“You need to rest, Jasper.” Why did Sky feel that he was about to hear something he was better off not knowing? “The secret can wait.”
“No. You deserve the truth. And I'm the only one left who knows to tell you.” Jasper's gaze flickered toward the open door. “Close it,” he rasped.
Sky closed the door and returned to the bed. Jasper seemed to be struggling to breathe. Sky touched the oxygen mask in a silent question. The old man shook his head. “This won't take long,” he said. “Lean closer.... That's better. You never knew about your father, did you, boy?”
“Only that he was white. And that he wouldn't marry my mother.”
“Listen, then.” Jasper was fighting to breathe. “I swear this is God's truth. Your father was Bull Tyler.”