Merry Christmas, Baby



A RUNAWAY HORSE AND AN approaching blizzard made for a bad combo, especially the afternoon before Christmas. Tucker Rankin’s eyes watered as he gunned the snowmobile in an effort to catch Houdini, a black-and-white stallion with a taste for freedom. The roar of the snowmobile and the white rooster tail it created shattered the peace and quiet of a Wyoming landscape blanketed by last week’s storm.

About two hours of daylight remained, and the blizzard could hit anytime. The black-and-white paint might survive out here alone tonight, but then again, he might not. Meanwhile everyone at the Last Chance Ranch was gearing up for a festive holiday. Tucker knew all about ruined Christmas celebrations and was determined to save both the stallion and the day.

As a recent hire who didn’t much care about Christmas, Tucker had volunteered to get all the Last Chance horses, including Houdini, into their stalls around noon in anticipation of the blizzard. He’d gone back to check on them at about 3:00 p.m. and had come nose-to-nose with Houdini, who’d let himself out of his stall.

Tucker had grabbed for the horse’s halter and missed as Houdini bolted through the open barn door. After making a quick call on his cell to the main house, Tucker had stuffed a sack of oats and a lead rope in the saddlebag of one of the ranch snowmobiles and headed off in pursuit of the stallion.

He cussed out the horse, but mostly he blamed himself. He should have anticipated the jail break, considering the stallion had done it before. Thank God he hadn’t unlatched any of the other stalls, which was another one of his tricks.

Houdini could potentially earn thousands in stud fees for the Last Chance provided he didn’t freeze his ass out here tonight. Jack Chance, who—along with his two brothers, Nick and Gabe, and his widowed mother, Sarah—owned the Jackson Hole area ranch, had bought the two-year-old for a song because Houdini was untrained and rambunctious. The horse’s previous owner had meant to school him, but those plans had been sidetracked by various personal issues.

In the few weeks Houdini had spent at the Last Chance, he’d learned to tolerate a halter and a lead rope, but he had a long way to go before he could be used as a stud, let alone for cutting-horse competitions. His natural curiosity and inventiveness made him a royal pain to deal with.

Tucker felt a certain kinship with the rowdy horse. He hadn’t exactly been a model of responsible behavior, either. He’d partied all through high school and had seen no reason to stop doing that after graduation ten years ago. He’d worked just enough to stay solvent.

It was a dead-end street, and when Jack Chance had hired him back in September, they’d discussed Tucker’s lack of focus. Tucker had promised he was ready to buckle down and make something of himself. Accidentally allowing Houdini to escape might be a forgivable offense, but Tucker didn’t feel that he had room to make mistakes. Retrieving the horse was his job.

Because he’d grown up in the area, he knew that the Last Chance prided itself on offering people and animals a fresh start. He and Houdini had come to the right place. Tucker appreciated that fact, but obviously the horse, after being allowed to do as he pleased for two years, did not.

At least his trail was easy to follow in the fallen snow. That wouldn’t be true in a blizzard, however, and flakes had begun swirling through the frigid air. Tucker’s sheepskin coat wasn’t enough protection from this kind of weather, even with the collar turned up.

He crammed his Stetson on tight and reached up to anchor it with a gloved hand whenever it threatened to blow off. He wished he’d picked up some goggles, but he’d been too intent on rescuing the horse to think of his own comfort. The moisture from his eyes turned his lashes to icicles, but that couldn’t be helped.

Thank God the horse had stayed out in the open instead of running into the trees. Tucker needed to catch him before he changed his mind about that, because the snowmobile would be no use in the forested part of Chance land.

Pointing the snowmobile toward a small rise, Tucker hoped to get a glimpse of the horse. Sure enough, the paint galloped merrily through the meadow about two hundred yards ahead of him. The snow was deep enough to spray in all directions, but not deep enough to be dangerous and cause injuries. Houdini seemed to be having the time of his life.

Tucker stopped the snowmobile and gave a sharp whistle, knowing that was probably a waste of breath. True to form, Houdini didn’t break stride. Fogging the air with some choice words, Tucker took off after him.

If the stakes hadn’t been so high, Tucker would have enjoyed this chase. Houdini was the picture of carefree pleasure, his tail a white flag signaling his delight at escaping the barn. Tucker understood the urge to throw off the traces. He’d done it often enough.

But reckless behavior had consequences. After one too many drinks last summer, he’d ended up wrecking his truck. Only dumb luck had kept him from injuring or killing someone, and that wreck and subsequent DUI had been a wake-up call.

He’d always admired the Chance brothers—going to work for them represented progress in his mind. He wanted their respect, and letting a valuable stallion escape was a step in the wrong direction. Recapturing Houdini was critical for the horse, but also for Tucker’s self-confidence.

Now that he had the stallion in his sights, he felt better about the likelihood of catching him. Getting back might be a little tricky, though. Snow fell more rapidly with every second. It blocked most of the light and at times obscured his view of the racing horse.

Once he had the horse, he’d call the ranch and let them know his status. Ahead of them, a barbed-wire fence came into view, which meant they’d traveled farther than he’d thought and were at the boundary of Chance land. He’d never ridden in this direction before.

That fence could be a huge problem. Houdini could jump it if he took a notion, and the snowmobile…couldn’t. “Don’t jump the damn fence,” Tucker muttered under his breath. “Please.”

Houdini galloped toward it as if he had every intention of doing that. Beyond the fence stood a small log cabin with lights on and a ribbon of smoke rising from the chimney. If they had a snowmobile parked in the outbuilding, he’d ask to borrow it if he had to.

But he’d rather capture the horse on this side of the fence and be done with it. He pushed the snowmobile faster, determined to reach Houdini before the horse made it to the fence. He concentrated so hard on that goal that he didn’t notice a large rock jutting out of the snow until the snowmobile’s runner found it.

Next thing he knew, he lay flat on his back in the snow, the wind knocked clean out of him. The blood roared in his ears as he struggled to breathe. What a fine mess. Houdini was probably over the fence and half a mile away by now. The snowmobile was silent, probably wrecked.

Then a black-and-white muzzle appeared above him. A blast of steamy air hit his face as Houdini snorted.

Relief flooded through Tucker as he grabbed the horse’s halter. “Gotcha.”

LACEY EVANS HAD HEARD the approaching snowmobile and hoped it wouldn’t be anyone coming to check on her. She was doing fine out here by herself, thank you very much. The cabin was filled with the aroma of stew simmering, bread baking and a fire crackling.

The cabin’s owner had seemed nervous about renting to her after she’d explained that her male companion wouldn’t be joining her as planned. She’d finally convinced the owner that her Forest Service job made her more qualified than most men to spend a few days alone in an isolated cabin. And that definitely included her piece-of-crap ex-boyfriend Lenny.

Going to the window, she peered through the falling snow and figured out that a cowboy on a snowmobile was chasing a horse on the far side of the barbed-wire fence. One of the Chance boys’ paints had apparently escaped. She watched the chase with interest.

But when the snowmobile flipped, she shoved her feet into her boots, pulled a stocking cap over her head and snatched up her coat. That cowboy could be in trouble.

Thank goodness he didn’t seem to be badly hurt. By the time she reached the fence, he was on his feet and had somehow captured the horse. The snowmobile didn’t look particularly good, though. It had landed upside down, and one runner was bent all to hell.

She took the time to put on her insulated gloves. “Are you okay?” she called out.

“I’m fine.” His voice was tight with strain. “I…whoa, boy. Whoa!” The horse whinnied and tried to rear, but the cowboy hung on with both gloved hands and brought the horse’s head back down.

She admired his determination to keep a grip on the horse, which looked like the devil’s own mount as it blew steam from its nostrils and pawed at the ground. “Should I call somebody?”

“That’s okay. I have my cell.” He looked from the horse to the snowmobile and back at her. “But he’s a handful. It’d be a help if you could fetch the lead rope out of the snowmobile’s saddlebag. He usually settles down once he’s on the lead.”

“I can do that.” She’d also pick up his hat, which was lying in the snow. She knew how cowboys felt about their hats.

Parting the barbed wire carefully, she leaned down and stepped between the strands. “Will he try to kick me?”

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