The horse stumbled, as exhausted as his rider, dark setting in too fast.
But beneath all the discomfort, Ty allowed himself satisfaction. He'd found the entire herd. The three cows that shuffled along in front of him were the last of them.
It had been sixteen hours, roughly, since he'd found the broken fence, the cougar tracks. He counted himself lucky most of the herd had petered out and allowed themselves to be herded home, long before these three.
Tracks in fresh snow told the story of the herd splitting in a dozen different directions, the cougar locking in on these three, finally giving up and prowling away down Halliday Creek. These cows, in a panic, had kept on going, almost to the summer range, way up the mountain.
Below him, Ty could see the lights of his house winking against the growing darkness. It made him impatient for hot food, a stiff drink, a scalding shower and his bed.
But the horse, Ben, was young and had already demonstrated great heart, had given everything he had, and so Ty did not push him, but let the young gelding set his own pace down a trail that was slick with new snow.
Finally, finally, the cows were back with the herd, the pasture fences secured, Ben fed and watered. Ty followed a path from the barn, worn deep by a hundred years of Halliday boots, to where the "new" house sat on the top of a knoll of land, in the shadow of the mountain behind it.
The house was called new because it shared the property with the "old" homestead place, which his father had built for his first wife twenty-five years before Ty had been born.
Ty swayed on his back porch, his hand going to the doorknob.
Where it froze.
What had he heard?
He cocked his head, listening hard, but heard only the lonely whistle of a December wind under the rafters of the house.
Ty felt he was suffering the delusions of a man who had pushed himself to his limit, and then a mile or two beyond it.
But he was frowning now, thinking of the lights inside his house that had winked him home. He lived alone. He was pretty damned sure that he had not left any lights on when he'd left way before dawn this morning.
The sound came again, and he took a startled step back, nearly tumbling down his back-porch steps.
The sound was definitely coming from inside his house. It was an almost shockingly happy sound. His tired mind grappled with it. He hadn't had a television for years. He didn't own a computer. Had he left the radio on?
No. He had not turned on anything this morning, some distress note in the faraway bawl of a cow letting him know something had been amiss. He had scrambled out of bed and out of the house in total darkness and in a hurry.
There was only one thing that made a sound like the one he had just heard.
And there was absolutely no chance it was coming from inside his house.
No, it was exhaustion. An auditory hallucination. Ears straining, picking up noises that did not exist.
Just as Ty was about to dismiss the sound he thought he had heard as a figment of an exhausted mind?clearly it was impossible?it came again. Louder. A babbling sound, like cold creek water tinkling over the first thin shards of ice.
And even though he was not a man with much experience in such things, Ty knew exactly what it was.
There was a baby inside his house.
Ty backed off his porch on silent feet, took a deep breath, felt a need to ground himself. He paused at the corner of his house, surveying the rolling land of the foothills, black against the midnight-blue of a rapidly darkening sky.
Snow-crusted pasture rolled away from him, beyond that a forested valley, all of it ringed by the craggy magnificence of the Rocky Mountains. The rugged sweep of his land soothed him, though it was not "safe." A man could die?or be injured?in this country fast and hard. The arrival of the cougar was a case in point, though getting wet and lost in December was far more dangerous than an old mountain lion.
Still, for all its challenges, if ever a place was made to put a man's soul at ease, wasn't it this one? He had gone away from here once, and nearly lost himself.
The baby's happy squawking from inside the house was revving up a notch and he felt the simple shock of it down to his wet, frozen toes inside his boots.
The truth be told, the danger of the cougar that had passed through his pastures appealed to him more than the mysterious presence of an infant inside his house.
Ty moved along the side of the house until he stood at the front. At the top of a long, long drive that twisted endlessly up the valley from Highway 22?sometimes called The Cowboy Trail?a car was parked in the gravel turnaround.
It was not the kind of car anyone in these parts would be caught dead driving.
No, folks around here favored pickup trucks, diesel, big enough to haul cattle and horses and hay. Trucks that could be shifted into four-wheel drive as the seasons changed and the roads became more demanding. People around here drove vehicles that were big, muddy and ugly.
No one Ty knew drove a car like this: bright red, shaped like a ladybug, impractically low to the ground.
No surprise that a baby seat sat in the back, cheerfully padded with a bright fabric that had cartoon dogs and cats on it.
Ty placed his hand on the hood. Cold. The car had been here for a time.
He checked the plate. Alberta. A Calgary parking sticker was in the left-hand corner of the windshield. Not so far from wherever home was, then, maybe one and a half, two hours, if the roads had been good.
It would be easy enough to slide open the door and find the paperwork, but when he tried the door, it was locked. Under different circumstances he might have seen that as hilarious. Locked? He allowed his eyes to sweep the unpopulated landscape again. Against what?
He turned back to the house. Then he saw his front window.
For the second time in less than five minutes, Ty felt himself stumble backward in shock. His sense of being in an exhausted state of distorted reality increased. He made himself stand very still, squint through the sleet and snow, demanding it go away.
It was a Christmas tree. And it was real, because when he blinked hard and looked again, it was still there. Behind plate glass, bright lights winked against dark boughs, sent little splashes of color onto the gathering snow in his front yard.
He checked his driveway again, seeking familiar landmarks. Turned and studied his house, reassured himself that had been his pasture the cows had been shepherded into, his barn where he had put up his horse.
His eyes went back to the tree.
As far as Ty knew, there had never been one set up in the new Halliday house.
Or at least not in the twenty-six years he had lived here.
And in Ty's exhausted mind, a single, vulnerable hope crept in, a wish that he had made as a small boy.
Maybe his mother had come home.
He shook off the thought, irritated that it had somehow breached the wall of his adult world. Wishes were for children, and there had been no chance of his ever coming true, thanks to his father.
In his tired mind it did not bode well that the car in the yard, and the baby in his house, and the tree in his window had stirred something up that was better left alone, that he had not given any power to for years.
He went around to the back door again, habit more than anything else. In these parts the front door was rarely used, even by company. The back entrance was built to accommodate dirty boots and jackets, hats, gloves, bridles hung indoors in cold weather to keep the bits warm.
Ty Halliday took a deep breath, aware that the pit of his stomach felt exactly as it had in his days on the rodeo circuit when you gave that quick nod, the chute door opened, and suddenly you were riding a whirling explosion of bovine motion and malice.
He put his hand on the doorknob and felt it resist his flick of the wrist. At first he thought it was stuck, but then in an evening where he could have done without one more shock, he was shocked again. His door was locked.
Okay. Maybe one of his neighbors was playing a practical joke on him. Unlocked doors invited pranks. It was a tightly knit community and they all loved to have a laugh. Melvin Harris had once come home to find a burro in his living room. When Cathy Lambert had married Paul Cranston some of the neighbors had snuck into their house and filled every single drawer with confetti. They'd been married six years, and sometimes you still saw a piece of it sticking to one of Cathy's sweaters.
Ty lifted a worn welcome mat and found a rusty key. Sometimes he locked up if he was going to be away for a few days.
He slid the key in the door and let himself in, braced for some kind of battle, but what greeted him was enough to make him want to lay down his weapons.
His house, which he had always seen primarily as providing shelter, felt like home.
First, it smelled good. There was a light perfume in the air, woman, baby, underlying the smell of something wonderful cooking.
Second, the sound was enough to break every barrier a man had placed around his heart?and Ty would be the first to admit in his case, that was many. The baby was now chortling with glee.
Ty took the bridle he had slung over his shoulder and hung it on an empty peg. Then he took off his wet gloves and tossed them on the floor. He slid his sodden feet from muddy boots, and then took a deep breath?gladiator entering the ring to face unexpected horrors?and went up the stairs off the landing and surveyed his kitchen.
A fat baby with a shock of impossibly curly red hair sat dead center of Ty's kitchen on a blanket surrounded by toys. The baby, a boy, if the dump trucks and fire engines that surrounded him were any indication, was gurgling joyously.
The baby turned at his entrance, regarded him solemnly with gigantic soft brown eyes.
Instead of looking alarmed by the arrival of a big, irritated stranger, whose long Aussie-style riding coat was dripping water on the floor, the baby's eyes crinkled happily, and the joyous gurgling increased.
"Papa," he shouted.
Ty said a word he was pretty sure it was against the law to use in the presence of babies. Or ladies.
Not that she looked like a lady, exactly. Through a wide archway, the kitchen opened onto the living room, and first a crop of hair as curly as the baby's appeared from behind the boughs of the tree. And then eyes, like the baby's, too, large and soft and brown, startled now.
It was his house.
Cute. Just like the car. She had a light dusting of freckles across a delicate nose, curly hair the color of liquid honey in a jar. At first, he thought she had a boyish build, but Ty quickly saw her curves were just disguised in a masculine plaid shirt.
She didn't have on a speck of makeup and was one of those rare women who didn't need it, either.
"Who are you?" she demanded, a tiny tremor in her voice.
What kind of question was that to be asked in his own house? He could tell, from the way her eyes skittered around?looking for something to hit him with if he moved on the baby or her?that she was not just startled, she was scared. Any remaining thought that this might be a prank disappeared.
Her pulse beat frantically in the hollow of her slender neck.
Ty had to fight, again, the notion that he was somehow dreaming, and that he was going to wake up very soon. He didn't like it one little bit that exhaustion would make it way too easy to appreciate this scene.
That exhaustion was making some childhood wish try to push out of a dark corner of his mind.
Annoyed with himself?a man who believed in his strength and his determination, a man who put no faith at all in wishes?Ty planted his legs firmly apart, folded his arms over his chest.
She darted out from behind the tree, dropped the tangle of Christmas tree lights that were in her hand and grabbed a lamp. She yanked it off the side table and stood there holding it like a baseball bat.
Ty squinted at her. "Now, what are you going to do with that?" he asked mildly.
"If you touch my baby or me, you'll find out!"
The lamp was constructed out of an elk antler. It was big and heavy and it was already costing her to hold it up. It made him very aware of how small she was.
He had to fight to get beyond the exhaustion and the irritation that came with the weariness, to the same calm energy he tapped into to tame a nervous colt. He thought of the locked car and the locked back door.
He said, "I'm way more scared of a baby than that lamp. Especially one who calls me Papa."
He thought maybe her hold on the lamp relaxed marginally.
"How did you get into my house?" she demanded. "I locked the door."
"I used a key," he said, his voice deliberately quiet, firm, calm. "I happen to have one. I'm Ty Halliday. And last time I looked, this was my place."
The lamp wavered. Doubt played across her features for a second. Then she brought her weapon back up to batting position, glaring at him.
"Why don't you put that down?" he suggested. "Your arms are starting to shake. We both know I could take it from you if I had a mind to."
"Just try it," she warned him.
It was a little bit like an ant challenging an aard-vark, but somehow he didn't think pointing that out to her was going to help the situation, and he reluctantly admired her spunk.
Something yanked on the hem of his coat. He looked down. The baby had crawled over and had grabbed a fistful of the wet oilskin of Ty's jacket. He was pulling himself up on it.
"Papa!" he crowed.
"Don't touch him!"
"Believe me, I'm not going to."
In a flash, she had set down the lamp, crossed the room, pried her baby's fist loose of his jacket and scooped him up into her arms.
This close he could smell them both. Her scent was subtle. Some flower. Lilac? No. Lavendar. It was mingled with baby powder. He wasn't sure how he recognized either of those scents, not common to his world, but he did, and it felt as if they were enveloping him.