Nibbling on a strand of strawberry blonde hair, Tess Masterson sat on the red dirt with a book on her knees and her back propped against the fence. She barely breathed, caught up in a world very much like that around her—sage, pine, and the sharply rising escarpment known as Mogollon Rim. The scent of the creosote bushes added to the sensation that she was living the story right along with the characters, riding on a horse with the wind in her face.
A truck came up the dirt drive, red dust puffing from its tires. It pulled a horse trailer. Tess got to her feet and dusted the dirt from her jeans. Her father pulled the truck and trailer to the side of the narrow lane and got out. Her mother exited the passenger side.
A broad smile lifted the corners of her father’s mouth. Tess thought he was the handsomest man in the world. She wanted to find someone just like him someday. The dusting of gray at his temples just made him look wise.
His green eyes, so like her own, crinkled at the corners. “Hey, birthday girl, what are you doing out here by yourself ?”
Tess held up the book. Riders of the Purple Sage was her favorite Zane Grey novel. Her dad thought she read too much, but Tess didn’t know if that was possible. “I should start at the beginning of the set, but I couldn’t wait to reread this one.” She’d squealed when her parents presented her with the entire collection of Zane Grey books this morning at breakfast. It was a grand present for her fifteenth birthday.
“I should have known. I think I’ve got something that might get your mind off books.” Dressed in dusty jeans and a plaid snap-front shirt, Garrett Masterson stepped to the back of the trailer and opened it. He led out a bay colt.
Tess squealed. “Oh Daddy, he’s beautiful!” She moved to touch the colt. He nudged her hand with his velvety nose. “How old is he?”
Her mother, Willa Masterson, answered with an indulgent smile. “About a year.”
“What’s his name?” She caressed the colt’s black mane, and he nestled closer to her.
“That’s up to you,” her father said.
Her hand stilled. Did he mean it? His smile broadened, and she threw her arms around the colt’s neck. “He’s mine? You don’t mean it!”
“He’s yours all right, and he cost me a pretty penny. It would have been more, but I gave Sam a good deal when he wanted to use Midnight as a sire. If he’s as fast as he looks, this little guy will be worth a fortune when he’s grown. He’ll be the first of your worldfamous horses.”
Tess didn’t care that her father was teasing about her unlikely dream of breeding racehorses. She moved away from the colt and hugged her dad. “You’re the best, Daddy. I love you.” Wait until Chase Huston saw her horse. He wouldn’t be so cocky. The foster boy was always trying to take her place in the family. The horse proved Tess came first to her dad and always would.
“I love you too, Tessie.” His hug was fierce, then he released her.
She released her dad and moved to hug her mother. “Thanks, Mom.”
“Only the best for our baby girl.” Her mom planted a kiss on Tess’s forehead.
“You have a name all picked out, don’t you?” her father asked.
Her gaze went back to the colt. “Wildfire. His name is Wildfire.”
“Well, I need to get Wildfire to his stall. He’s had a busy day,” her dad said.
“I’ll come with you.”
“You need to feed the cattle,” he said. “Wildfire will be in the barn waiting for you.”
Tess suppressed a sigh as her dad led the colt away. “Can I take him over to show Aunt Doty after supper? I want to take her some birthday cake. Why wouldn’t she come to my party? Is she mad at me?”
Her mother looked away. “You know your aunt. She’s never been one for parties.”
“I’ll ride over there in a little while.”
Her mother nibbled on her lip. “I’d rather you didn’t. Not until they catch the arsonist. I’ll run you over in the truck.”
Tess wished they’d catch the guy. Since someone had begun torching hay fields and meadows at the beginning of summer, her parents had curtailed her freedom. The fires were front-page news every couple of weeks. Every time Tess began to think the fire spree was over, a new blaze would appear. There’d been talk of getting a vigilante group going to patrol the back roads and catch the culprit, but nothing had come of it yet.
Her mother grinned at Tess’s suffering tone. “Let me know when you’re ready to go.”
Tess nodded and ran to turn on the water for the cattle. The sooner she got this over with, the quicker she could see her horse again. Her horse. She could hardly believe it. She grabbed a pitchfork and began to break flakes of hay from the bale. The cattle came meandering over the hill as she pitched the hay over the fence to them.
By the time she finished, twilight had begun to descend, brushing the sky with purple and pink. If she wanted any time with Wildfire before supper, she needed to get a move on. She put away the pitchfork and set off, running through sagebrush and rabbitbrush toward the barn. As she neared the ranch house, she became aware of a strange sound: crackling and an odd popping. Was that smoke she smelled? Maybe the cowboys were branding. The odor intensified as she jogged past the chicken coop and through the orchard. She stepped out from the cover of trees behind the back paddock.
Black smoke roiled toward her, the scent of kerosene in the wind. Hungry flames shot through the barn roof and leaped into the sky, just beginning to darken to indigo. Tiny sparks floated around the barnyard and caused the chickens to run squawking for cover. Tess stood frozen, not sure what to do. She wanted to clap her palms over her ears to block out the horrific sound of fire devouring dry wood. Her horse was in the barn.
She started back toward the house to call for help, then stopped.
There was no time. “Mom!” she screamed. “Dad! Help! Somebody help me!” She seized the side door and threw it open. Acrid smoke burned her throat and chest. The first stall was just inside the door.
Blind from the smoke, she fumbled at the latch. The colt screamed in terror, then ran past her when she succeeded in getting the gate open. Nearly sagging with relief, she stepped away from the door.
Hardly aware of what she was doing, she ran to the pump house and grabbed the hose. The faucet resisted her effort at first, then she managed to get the water flowing. The hose caught in a loop, and she untangled it, then ran toward the barn with it. She saw a movement at the window. Horror deadened her limbs when she recognized her parents. They beat on the window, their eyes wide with terror. Her father broke the window with a shovel, and black smoke billowed out, obscuring their faces.
“No!” Tess screamed and ran toward the window with the hose.
The roof collapsed with a deafening roar. Flames licked their way toward Tess, but she ran anyway until something seized her arms and pulled her up short. Her cousin Whip held her back.
“No, Queenie, you can’t get any closer.”
The scent of kerosene choked her. Cinders fell from the sky in a swirling black rain that singed the hair on her arms and marked her forever with the scent of fire.