This third book in the series. A vacation becomes complicated by murder, discovery, and friendship. Danger lurks in too many directions. Alicia and her friends will have to stay alive and sort through the clues carefully if they want to save an innocent friend and prevent the destruction of an historic treasure.
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When the ranch faded out of sight, I began to get nervous. There was always the chance of an accident. The horse could step in a gopher hole and stumble, or a million and one other problems could arise, but those possibilities weren't bothering me. I had the unnerving feeling I wasn't alone out here. The nervous tension didn't feel natural. It was more like a warning from outside myself. As I had this thought, I could feel that the red pendant was much warmer than normal. If it got much hotter, it would burn me. If the necklace was an early warning system, that would be great, but from the things the shaman had said, I didn't think it would turn out to be that simple.
The dips, rises, and dry washes could hide someone from view, but they'd have to know the desert like a native if I couldn't catch a glimpse of them. I could have chalked my fears up to knowing the ranch was empty or that the isolation had spooked me. I could have, but a little voice in the back of my mind kept asking, “Did the pendant spook me or had it warned me of danger?” I didn't know, but I turned the horse around and let him pick his own speed on the return ride. He chose an all out gallop, and he was so fast I felt almost like I was flying.
A full hour had passed for Nick to take care of his meet-and-greet responsibilities by the time I rode the horse into the stable. David was still there. When he turned and saw us, his jaw dropped. He said, “Wow, that's the last sight I ever expected to see.”
I said, “What are you still doing here? I thought you'd be out partying by now.”
I climbed down off the horse and began gathering the equipment I needed to groom Star. David said, “Let me do that. Star has decided to tolerate me again, and it is my job, you know. Besides, you're all cleaned up for the party, and I still have to get ready. I'm just finishing up here, so I'll rub down the horse and take him back to the pasture. You go have fun, and I'll see you out there later.”
I thanked him and said, “By the way, what do Cobber and Corker do since the cattle drive is over? I haven't seen them back at the compound.”
“You'd be surprised. Their work is never done. Cattle are always grazing somewhere on the ranch, and the dogs keep them more or less in the same area. Those guys are pretty good at running off any predators too. There's always a cowboy or two who stay at the line shack closest to where the cattle are, and they keep an eye on both the herd and the dogs.”
My curiosity satisfied, I thanked him again and went to find Nick.
I saw him talking to the cooks. The barbeque was almost ready to serve, and as I got closer the smell made my mouth water. Standing beside Nick was Laudine. She was wearing a yellow skirt and a white blouse with a multicolored ruffle. She looked about thirty years old. I said, “Don't you look great today? What are you doing hanging around the cooking on your day off?”
“I'll have you know the absolutely perfect barbeque sauce being used today is my own special recipe. You didn't seriously think I'd leave all the cooking to a bunch of cowboys, did you?”
One of the cooks at the grill said, “Hey, watch it, lady, or we'll have you out at the cook wagon on our next roundup.”
I laughed at their banter and said, “I should have known. If this food tastes as good as it smells, we are all in for a treat.”
We weren't quite ready to eat yet, so we rounded up Lawrence and walked out behind the recreation room to check out the activities. I rounded the corner and stopped dead in my tracks. I said, “Good grief, I had no idea a full carnival was camped out here. This is as big as most carnival midways, including the rides!”
Nick said, “We try to have something spectacular and different each year. This not only looks like a carnival, it actually is a carnival. The owner is a friend of Lawrence's, so he set this up.”
I said, “Lawrence, you have hidden talents. How in the world did you ever become such good friends with a carnival owner?”
“It's a long story and a good one, but I don't think we have time for it today. One night when we're sitting around a good fire, I'll tell you about the first time I ran into Hannibus Carson. Right now I challenge you all to a game of breaking balloons.”
Nick was picking up the tab for the carnival, and all the games were free to party-goers. We began by throwing darts and progressed around the circle of booths. I love carnival food and was tempted to eat at all the food booths we passed, but I resisted in anticipation of the barbeque. Hopefully I could try these goodies later. It wasn't long until we'd worked up an appetite and headed back to the food tables. We loaded our plates with barbequed ribs, potato salad, homemade French fries, and anything else that struck our fancy from the dozens of choices. One of my favorites was the cowboy beans, usually made with pinto beans, but the cook wasn't above throwing in any other type of beans he happened to have around. I knew this dish always had ham or bacon for flavoring. I didn't know what else they added, but I planned to ask before I went home. I wanted to be able to make this dish myself when I got a craving for the delicious smoky taste.
Once our plates were full, we found table space in the rec room and settled down to some serious eating. Laudine and I only managed to get through our first plateful, but when Nick and Lawrence went back for seconds, we had them bring us peach pie for dessert. Each piece was a huge slab, and Laudine and I could easily have shared one, but when the men brought us each a piece of our own, we ate every bite. The peaches were fresh from a local grower, the crust flaky, and the juice still slightly warm. All the food I tasted seemed way above the normal quality for a gathering of this type. When we couldn't hold another bite, our friends went off to visit with Hannibus Carson and Nick and I decided on a walk to help digest the food. People were still coming up to talk to Nick, but now it was just friendly chatter. We strolled around from group to group, and sooner or later I saw almost everyone I knew. Betty and Cameron had been in the rec room while we ate. I saw David and Cody together at the carnival surrounded by a group of flirting girls. Becky Cloud, the assistant cook I'd met in the restaurant break room, stood close to David, smiling up at him like he'd hung the moon. The sheriff and his wife were piling plates with food, and the Herreras were still competing, but this time it was at one of the games on the midway. I saw Hwan with a tall, good-looking guy and steered Nick their direction. She introduced her friend as someone she had met in one of her classes at the university. I only caught his first name, which was Tony. Hwan was stunning in jade green jeans and a shimmering pearl-colored top. As we were moving to the next group, Reed walked up to chat with Hwan. Olivia Denning was there wearing a beautiful pleated squaw dress and barely resembled the efficient head housekeeper I'd met previously. Both the guests and the employees seemed to be having a great time. Even the Banner twins were here with a group of kids their own age and were behaving like normal teenagers.
It was just getting dark when we heard the band start its first number. We decided to have a go at dancing. Nick assured me it wouldn't hurt his leg. We'd danced together a few times before, and we both loved it. The second number was a two-step and we were doing pretty well when I stumbled slightly and said, “Oh, damn, you need to come outside with me now.”
About the Author:
From living off the grid in the Arizona desert, Eileen has moved to the woods of upstate New York. She has authored a standalone adventure novel called Desert Shadow. She is also the author of Alicia Trent Series. The Black Cane : Dowager Diaries Book 1 is her latest release.
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