Clint Black took the corner sharp, making the fire department ambulance slide sideways on the gravel road.
“Try to hold it to sixty ‘round them corners, boy.” Buzz, the other, more seasoned paramedic, braced himself with palms pressed against the door and the dash.
Through the darkness of predawn, their siren whirred and the lightbar on top of the cab flashed red and white.
“We’ve got injuries, Buzz. No time to be overcautious.” He turned again, the tires grabbing onto the blacktop this time. “How far?” Clint didn’t dare take his eyes off the road to check the GPS.
“I see ‘em up ahead.”
Two red lights, like tail lights, and white headlights one on top of another, rather than side by side. As they drew closer, they spotted an old pickup on its side in the middle of the road, its front end smoking as steam spurted out of it. On the right side of the highway, a huge white animal trailer tilted, the back door facing down toward the ditch.
“Goddamn. Rollover.” Clint unbuckled his seatbelt as he pulled to a stop. He hated to see a vehicle on its side. It nearly always meant major injuries. “I’ll go check the trailer, you get the rollover.”
“Got ‘cha.” Buzz jumped out as Clint tugged a flashlight from the console and hit the ground running.
The livestock trailer sat with its rear tires off the pavement, the far one halfway down the gravel ditch. From inside the box, the sound of snorting accompanied hooves kicking. If that animal – or animals – shifted inside the trailer, it could go over on its side.
He raced to the front where a black, top-of-the-line pickup truck with big dual tires on the back pointed grill-down into the ditch. In the truck’s bed, the jackknifed trailer’s ball hitch had twisted in the pickup’s fifth-wheel hitch, but still held, keeping the trailer from rolling. For now. The light inside the truck was on, and Clint spotted movement.
“Hang on in there. Try not to move.” He slid down the gravel embankment, stopping at the driver’s door. Blood stained the window. He tried the door handle, but it didn’t budge. The left front fender had been crumpled and the tire looked flat, but the door should still work.
Running footsteps sounded from behind him and Clint spotted Buzz racing around the old blue pickup truck that lay on its side, his flashlight scanning the ground for yards around the vehicle. Why was he—?
Inside the black truck, a soft moan regained Clint’s full attention. “How many of you in the truck?”
“Just me. But where am I?” A very female, very shaky voice.
“Ma’am, you’re in Wild Oak, Texas, somewhere between Dallas/Fort Worth and Austin.” He gave the handle a harder yank, but nothing happened.
“Somewhere? You’re not sure where?” She sounded either confused or sarcastic. With the blood on the window, he’d guess confused.
“Ma’am, can you reach the button to unlock your door?” He put his hands on the glass, his face between them, to get a better view inside without shining his flashlight into her face.
A curvy woman, she listed to the right, holding something to the left side of her head. A white cloth that was mostly red.
“Door?” Her voice came softly. In seconds, a metallic pop sounded, and Clint pulled open the door.
Buzz ran over. “No one in the other vehicle. I checked the area for ejected persons, but no one around.”
“Looks like the Dewey boys’ truck.” The fuckers. “They probably ran.” Clint didn’t know who’d called in the crash, but it better have been whoever was driving that truck, or he’d personally see to it that they never had the chance to drive anything ever again.
He stepped up onto the running board, pushed aside the flacid airbag, and made sure the truck had been shifted into park. “Let’s get you out of here, ma’am.” He checked her vitals while Buzz went to get the stretcher. Her blue eyes were equal and responsive. The blood oozing onto her short, chin-length brown hair worried him, though. Otherwise, she looked unharmed, even amazingly healthy. The lady had the solid look of a woman who handled livestock regularly.
The wound on the left side of her head wasn’t long or deep, but that kind of cut always bled. “Keep pressure on your head while we get you out.” He stepped down from the truck. “Is there anywhere else that you’re feeling pain?”
She gasped. “My Chiangus!” Jerking her head in both directions, she spotted the trailer behind them and started to clamber out of the truck.
“Slow down, ma’am.” He grasped her legs to help her sit with her feet on the running board as Buzz parked the stretcher on the blacktop. Clint shone his flashlight on her boots, then up along her jeans, looking for visual injuries. “Show me what you’re calling your chiangus.”
“What?” She let out a frustrated cough. “My Chiangus are my breeding stock.” As she slid out of the truck, her booted feet hit the gravel, making him step back. “City boy, huh?”
Clint blinked a few times. He knew what Chiangus cattle were, but in the context of this rescue, the word hadn’t clicked in right away. He helped her scramble up the incline to the road. “What’s your name?”
“Kally Zappa.” She rushed back to the trailer and spoke to her livestock in soft tones, her hand on the back door latch.
Buzz pointed down the road. “Here comes the cavalry.”
Along the blacktop, the lights of squad cars and a fire truck flashed, and seconds later the sounds of their sirens reached them.
Their patient screamed.
Clint turned as she grabbed her right arm. “Ma’am, let us check you over. The livestock can wait until the sheriffs and—”
“Tell them to turn off their damn sirens. It’ll send my bull into…”
Before she finished talking, Clint pressed the button on his shoulder radio. “All units, run silent. We’ve got a situation.”
Immediately the distant noise stopped.
Tears ran down her cheeks, blood dripped along her hair and onto her shoulder, but she used soothing tones and soft noises to calm her cattle.
Clint stood beside her and held out his hand. “Let me take a look.”
“No, I…” She put her other hand on the latch.
“Ms. Zappa, you don’t want to open that now.” The cattle wouldn’t have solid footing, and could injure themselves more than they may have already. “Help will be here in seconds, and we’ll make your livestock a priority.”
With a shake of her head, she stepped back from the trailer. “Of course. Thank you. I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
“Could be the bump your head took.” Hitting the window hard enough to cut her had to have rattled her brain some. He offered his hand again. “Let me see to your arm.”
She set her wrist in his palm and cried out when he barely touched it. Ms. Zappa swiped at her eyes with her left wrist. “I don’t care about me.” Blood from her hand smeared on her cheeks. “We need to get my stock safely out of the trailer and have a vet look at them.”
Clint felt her fingers to be sure blood was reaching them. “Buzz, do you have a splint? I get the feeling Ms. Zappa’s not gonna get into the ambulance for us until her cattle are safe.”
“Yep. I think you’re right about that.” The older man winked at their patient then headed to where he’d set their bags.
“Thank you.” She stared at the trailer. “I can’t let anything happen to them.”
“I understand.” He worked with Buzz to immobilize her wrist, grimacing at the small cries she let out at what had to be extremely painful manipulations.
“I don’t think you do.” Speaking to the animals in the trailer more than to the men, she softened her voice. “This is a bull and heifer that just won blue ribbons at a major livestock show in Missouri.”
“Ms. Zappa.” Buzz stepped back and tugged out his phone. “I’ll call the local large-animal vet.”
“Thank you.” Her smile came easily for his partner.
Clint had the oddest feeling, as if he needed that smile turned on him for just a second.
Two squad cars and a fire truck pulled up to the scene. Clint directed them to park strategically, directing their headlights onto the trailer. Uniformed men and women exited the vehicles and jogged over, circling the trailer, pronouncing it safe for the time being.
Clint wanted to be compassionate about the livestock, but his first job was to look after her. “Ma’am, if you’ll back up here, we’ll work at getting your trailer secured.”
She nodded and followed him to where a few of the group strategized using chains and rope on the trailer, someone called in a request for an additional tow truck, and the firefighters headed to their rig for equipment.
The sheriff looked at Ms. Zappa. “Once we get this stabilized, we’ll get your official statement, but did you see who was in the truck that hit you?”
She shook her head. “One second, I was cruising along, the next, bam.” Narrowing her eyes, she tipped her head. “You know, I don’t even remember seeing headlights.”
The sheriff glanced over her head at Clint. Both of them were thinking the same thing. Damn Dewey brothers, probably running from someone, blasted out from the minimum maintenance road, hit her, then took whatever it was they were bootlegging and ran.
With a shaky inhale, his patient reached out for him. “I…I feel a little…”
Clint grasped her elbow, wrapping his arm around her back. “Here, sit on the stretcher.” He guided her back a few steps to where it waited. “You can still direct the action from a seated position.”
“Thanks.” As she shimmied onto the stretcher, her blue eyes shifted until her gaze caught his. “You’re pretty smart after all.” A half-smile curved her lips.
The sheriff laughed. “Reserve your opinion on that for a while, ma’am.” He grinned at Clint. “’Til you know him better.” He walked off, grabbing a cable to help with the rescue operation.
“Mighty well respected around these parts, huh city boy?” Reclining against the stretcher that Buzz had propped up like a chair, she closed her eyes.
Clint checked her pulse. “I’m a rancher’s son.” He wasn’t sure why he wanted to talk about his situation, but something made him feel comfortable sharing with her. “But I don’t do any ranching myself, just own the property.” That fact always made him a little defensive, and he took a lot of crap from the local die-hard cattlemen and women.
“That explains it.” His patient watched the uniforms hook up safety lines to her trailer, securing them to the fire truck. “Why you thought a Chiangus was a part of a woman’s body.”
A woman’s body. Despite his best intentions, Clint’s gaze slid from her wrist up her arm to where her breasts filled out her bloodied T-shirt very nicely. Before she looked back his way, he rolled his eyes heavenward. He’d never mixed business with pleasure, and he would not start now. Not even if her curvy body ticked off all his must-haves, and her sense of humor flicked on his interested button.
“Fireman?” Her voice brought him out of his daydream.
“Ma’am?” Lowering her arm, he grabbed a box from the first aid bag and found gauze and antiseptic for her cut.
“I told you my name. Are you going to tell me yours?”
Their gazes met and a burst of heat jimmied down to his gut. “Paramedic Clint Black.” He went back to examining her cut.
“Any relation?” She sucked in a sharp breath when he touched the antiseptic wipe to her skin.
“To whom?” It was Clint’s standing joke. His parents had named him after a country music singer, and people loved to tease him about it. Especially with his coloring. White hair and light blue eyes gave ammunition for plenty of black-n-white jokes.
The headlights of a fast-approaching car caught their attention, and one of the officers shone his flashlight toward it, waving it to warn the driver.
The low-slung vehicle slowed down but still skidded a few feet when it stopped.
“Holy shit.” A firefighter wandered over to the shiny blue foreign sports car.
It was a model Clint had only seen on television and in magazines. Worth half a million, at least.
The car door opened, shining a light on the blonde woman behind the wheel.
“Oh no.” Ms. Zappa sat up straighter. “How did she…?”
“Someone you know?” Clint watched a slender woman emerge from the driver’s door, her cutoff shorts, old T-shirt, and flip flops incongruous with the pricey sports car. The woman’s long blonde hair flew as she looked around quickly.
“Pepper.” His patient called to the woman, who stormed toward Clint and Ms. Zappa, securing her big purse to her body with a strap over her shoulder.
“Damn it, Kally, you don’t just call a girl and say you were in a wreck, then not say anything else.” Storming right up to Ms. Zappa, the young woman gave her a quick hug and a brief full-body glance. “Anything broken?”
“I called you?” His patient squinted.
“Hmm.” Clint pulled his small flashlight from his chest pocket and clicked it on.
The newest arrival cocked her hip. “Oh great, now you’re going to get a flashlight shone in your eyes.” She looked at Clint. “I’m Pepper McCoy from out by Lake Buchanan. Kally called me, said her truck had been hit, she was a few miles west of Wild Oak on the main highway through town, and would I mind coming and helping her with the cows.” The blonde widened her eyes at him. “She actually called them cows.”
“I did not.” Ms. Zappa’s lips tightened, then went soft. “Did I really?”
Clint checked his patient’s pupils. Equal and dilated.
Ms. Pepper spoke to Clint. “She said to bring a gun.” The woman reached into her purse. “Because the men that had run into her were outside the truck cab.”
Clint looked at Ms. Pepper’s purse, her hand tucked inside it and presumably gripping a pistol. “Ah, ma’am, would you—?”
She removed her hand from her purse and held it up, flipping it back and forth to show that she wasn’t going to shoot anyone…not right then, anyway. “That’s when I called the sheriff, the fire department, and—”
“Oh God.” His patient jerked forward and grabbed Ms. Pepper’s arm. “You didn’t call Norris, did you?”
“No. Jeeez.” The blonde looked offended. “I know the game we’re playing. I’m not stupid enough to rile up your brother.”
Clint eased Ms. Zappa back onto the raised back of the stretcher and finished bandaging her cut. It’d need stitches, but would wait until the hospital.
The emergency crew had stabilized the trailer, and someone reported that the first tow truck was three miles away.
Clint didn’t usually care to get involved in patient’s business, but there was something no one was considering. “Ma’am?” He spoke to Ms. Zappa.
“Please call me Kally.” Her blue gaze caught his again, and that strange zip ran inside him.
“Ms. Kally, once your trailer is pulled up out of the ditch, it won’t be much use, not the way the trailer hitch is bent.”
“Aw shit.” The woman hefted out a long breath and looked at Pepper.
“Don’t look at me.” She gestured toward the fancy sports car. “That thing is not going to haul any cows.”
Kally frowned. “I didn’t think of that. I should have told you to bring a rig and a trailer.”
“Sister-girl.” Ms. Pepper crossed her arms. “The way you were blathering, I just wanted to get here and figure out what was wrong with you.” She looked toward the sports car. “That thing was sitting in the middle of our driveway with the keys in it, so…”
“So you stole a car. Perfect.” Kally dropped her head back onto the stretcher.
“It’s probably a lady friend of Philip’s.” Ms. Pepper shrugged. “Or maybe someone just visiting the ranch. I’m not sure—”
“Anyway…” Clint brought the conversation back to the current issue. “I’ve got two buddies who live close to here. I can ask them to bring trailers.” Could he ask them to haul the cattle to wherever she lived? “Where are you from?”
“She’s from Santa Anna, but she can’t go home until she has the truck and trailer fixed, because her brother—”
“Pepper!” Kally nearly shouted the name. “Can we try to keep some of my personal life personal?”
The blonde flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Sorry.” She turned away.
Pulling out his phone, Clint sent a text to his friends, Treven Arnett and Rex Tarrow. As if they’d been staring at their phones instead of being tucked warm in bed with their ladies, they both replied they were on their way.
Kally swung her legs over the side of the stretcher then stood, placing her hand on her friend’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, sister-girl. I’m a little out of good grace this evening.” She frowned as Pepper turned and stared into her eyes.
“It’s morning, Kally. Not evening.” Pepper glanced at Clint. “You’re sure she’s all right in the head?”
“Have a seat, Ms. Kally.” He patted the stretcher, but Kally raised her brows at him. “Paramedic Black, you had an idea? About my livestock?”
“I just texted my friends while you two were…” He gestured between Kally and Ms. Pepper. “It’ll be just a few minutes before they arrive.”
Headlights shone from the dirt road in the direction that the blue truck had come from before it’d collided with Kally’s truck. Everyone waited until the pickup truck pulled up behind the overturned blue one. Grumbling voices surrounded them and Clint recognized the driver, Ardmore Dewey, the father of the boys whose truck lay on its side.
The man exited his vehicle and stuck his thumbs into the suspenders that bowed out over his belly. The emergency lights reflected off his nearly-bald head, and highlighted the beard and mustache that had grown to touch his chest. “What do we have here?” He turned and looked at Kally’s truck as the sheriff strolled up to him.
“Ardmore. Where are your boys?” The sheriff knocked one knuckle on the overturned pickup.
The man straightened his spine, reaching the top of his head to nearly five-and-a-half feet. “My boys are safe at home.” He gestured toward Kally’s truck. “No thanks to the speed demon who ran right into them.”
Kally’s mouth dropped open.
The sheriff pulled out his phone and walked away, thumb-typing on his screen as he went.
Clint stepped closer to Kally and Ms. Pepper. “Ladies, pay him no mind.” He spoke quietly. “He has a set of law books that he thinks makes him capable of lawyering, but it just makes him dangerous enough to get people angry.”
Kally glared at Clint. “He said I ran into them?”
Clint gestured for his patient to assume her spot on the stretcher, but Kally stepped around one side of him, and Pepper did the same on the other side.
“Here’s where the shit hits the fan.” Clint mumbled the words as he turned and followed the women, who stomped in tandem toward Ardmore Dewey.
“This is my truck.” Kally pointed. “My trailer has a couple hundred thousand dollars’ worth of Chiangus breeders in there.”
Ardmore turned to face the women. He opened his mouth.
“And…” Kally’s voice came loud and clear. “Your sons ran into me. If you had half a brain, you’d be able to piece that together.”
Even in the low light, Clint could see Ardmore’s face turning flame-red. “Ma’am, you’d better watch your accusations.”
“Or what?” Kally’s good hand curled into a fist.
Ardmore’s hand came up, one finger pointed her way, as he took a step closer to Kally.
Pepper’s hand went into her purse, where that damn gun was now probably pointed at Ardmore’s round gut.
Clint stepped into the middle of the hazardous triangle. “Everyone just shut the hell up.”
Coming August 11, 2016 in Sable Hunter’s Hell Yeah! Kindle World
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