Knock, knock, knock.
Three sharp raps landed softly on the door of a quaint little house, alone among the vast property of the Bent Pine ranch.
“I’m coming!” The woman inside answered. She had been washing the dishes, and wiped her wet hands on her apron to dry them. On her way to the door, she scooped up her playing child off the floor and held him on her hip.
He giggled and grinned at his mama, whose soft brown eyes smiled down at the boy.
She unbolted the door and opened it slightly.
A scruffy-looking man whom the woman had never seen before stood in the doorway, his hat in his hands. “Ma’am?” he questioned.
She hoisted her squirming boy to the other hip, allowing him to play with her jet black hair that fell around her shoulder in one thick braid. “Yes?”
The man shifted his weight from one leg to the other. “I’m looking for a place to stay the night. Would you know of somewhere I could stay?”
The woman looked him up and down, with a cautious glint in her eyes. “Who are you?”
“Lost m’ job only a few days ago, ma’am. I’m only asking for a bed for tonight. Nuthin’ else.”
“Do you have any family?”
The man shook his head. “Just me.”
With one final sigh and a reluctant look spread across her face, the woman complied. “There’s a few sheds out back, for the ranch hands. I guess you can stay in one of them for tonight. You got food?”
“Only as much as I need.”
The woman nodded. “I’m Rosa. Call for me if you need anything.” With one glance behind her, she added another rule. “But don’t come in the house.”
He shrugged. “Alright, ma’am. I’m mighty obliged. Thank you. But one more question. Do you got a man around the house?”
She sucked in a breath. “Yes, yes, I do,” she lied.
Her husband, Hector, along with a handful of the ranch hands on the Bent Pine property, were gone to help with the cattle on the Circle C ranch, and they wouldn’t be back for another week or two.
But if that man got any ideas into his head… “I hope you’ll find work soon,” she added quickly.
A trace of a grin tugged at the corners of the man’s mouth. “Well, thanks, ma’am. I won’t cause you any trouble.”
Just as Rosa was stepping back to close the door, she thought of another question. “What’s your name?”
The man held Rosa’s gaze as he slapped his hat onto his head. She sharply inhaled and was suddenly worried she’d made the wrong decision to let him stay.
“The name’s TJ.” The words slid off his tongue and a glimmer shone in his eyes, a glimmer that Rosa didn’t like the looks of.
Nineteen-year-old Andrea Prescott let out a sigh of impatience. “C’mon, Tucker. You can do it.”
She rolled her eyes. She was trying to train Riley’s black and white collie to roll over. He could do almost everything, it seemed, except for that one simple trick. “Silly dog,” she said as she scratched in between his ears.
She looked across the front porch from where she sat to the Sierras, where a thin layer of snow capped the top. Winter was coming, and that meant harvest time, and herding the cattle.
Andi stood up and walked into the house, quickly giving up on her quest to train Tucker. The dog followed Andi inside and sat down on the floor by the fireplace, licking his paw. Andi couldn’t help but grin.
But no sooner than Andi shut the door behind her, she heard rushed footsteps tapping lightly on the porch, followed by hurried knocking. She drew her eyebrows together.
Who could that be? she wondered. It wouldn’t be Riley; he’s out on the range. And it couldn’t possibly be Mother, could it?
Without trying to figure out who the visitor could be, Andi gave in to the persistent rapping on the door and finally opened it.
“Rosa?” Andi’s mouth fell open in shock. She didn’t think she would be seeing her friend any time soon, especially since the girl, only a year older than herself, had Elliot, her one-year-old son, to take care of. And where was he?
Without an invitation, Rosa burst into the house, muttering to herself in Spanish.
Andi raised an eyebrow. “Are you okay?”
“No, Andi. I’m not.” Fear was engraved into Rosa’s expression as she turned her face toward her friend. Her hair fell in loose tangles around her face, which was creased with worry.
Andi laid an arm around Rosa’s shoulders. “Can I help? Where’s Elliot?”
“He’s gone, Andi. My baby is gone.”
Riley Prescott scratched his chin, looking down at the man who stood beside him and his horse. The man’s weathered wide-brimmed hat sat firmly on top of his head, and he chewed on a blade of grass between his teeth.
“I only need a good week’s worth of work, sir,” the man repeated, stroking his scraggly beard.
Riley cocked his head to the side. This man had met him while he was rounding up the cattle to move them to a different pasture. He needed work, and Riley had work to give him. But could he be trusted?
“Is it just you that you’ll be working for? Do you have a family?”
The man gulped. “I- er- I have a son. He’s little.”
“And a wife?”
Riley let out a big sigh. “Chad’s the boss. Go talk to him.”
From the moment he had met this man, Riley figured it would be best for Chad Carter to handle him. He nudged his horse to walk ahead, but the man took a few steps forward to keep up with him.
Fear crossed the man’s face, and his breath quickened. His pleading gaze bore into Riley’s eyes. “I- I’d rather just- Can I just settle it with you?”
The fear in the man’s eyes caused Riley to question him even more. He was uncertain. But Riley needed the work from him more than anything. So, he gave in.
“Sure.” He jerked his chin up in an abrupt nod. “You’re hired. You can stay with the ranch hands at the Circle C.”
The man’s breathing slowed, and he nodded. “Thank you, sir.”
Riley watched the man turn to leave toward the Circle C ranch.
That’s strange, Riley noticed. I didn’t even tell him where to go. It’s like he’s been here before. He began to shrug the thought away, but decided something else. He clicked softly to his horse Dakota, and took off on a lope toward the Circle C.
I’m going to tell Chad.
“Mother!” Andi hollered from the seat of the buggy, which was stopped in front of the Circle C ranch house. She fussed with the reins in her hands, trying to secure them to the buggy’s frame. Before she could figure out how to get them tied, Chad came running up to meet her.
“Hey, little sis!” He grinned mischievously. “Whatcha doin’ out here?”
He walked over to the buggy and took the reins out of Andi’s hands, with a look that said ‘I’ll take care of this for you.’
Andi let him, giving in to his offer to help. She hopped off the driver’s seat and swung around to open the buggy’s door. “I have something I have to ask Mother,” Andi replied, helping Rosa out onto the ground.
Chad doffed his hat. “Howd-y-do, miss Rosa?”
A slight smile lit Rosa’s face and she replied with a small “I’m alright, thank you.”
Andi and Chad exchanged a glance. Andi gave him an ‘I’ll-tell-you-later’ look, and Chad shrugged.
“I’ll take care of this for you,” he said aloud, motioning to the buggy.
“Thanks,” Andi said. “It won’t be long before I need it to get back home though.”
Chad nodded. “All right.” He walked off toward the barn, leading the horse and what it towed behind it.
Andi quickly hopped up the front steps leading to the front porch of her family’s home, and knocked on the door. “Mother!”
Quickly, Elizabeth Carter arrived at the entrance to her home. “Andrea? What a pleasant surprise! What are you---” with a glance at the girl who stood beside Andi, Elizabeth opened the door wider. “Please, Rosa, come inside! How nice to see you!”
Rosa nodded. “Gracias, señora. It’s good to see you too.”
Just as soon as Andi and Rosa set foot in the house, some food was laid out on the table, and they sat down to an afternoon tea.
“Mother, Rosa needs somewhere to stay.” Andi followed this with an explanation of Rosa’s situation, and Elizabeth gladly offered her a room to stay as long as she needed.
Rosa smiled a sad smile. “Gracias. I can’t thank you enough. Can you help me find my boy?”
Andi nodded. “I’ll go talk to Chad right now. Will you excuse me, Mother?”
Elizabeth gave a quick nod, and Andi headed out to the backyard to find her brother.
Riley pulled Dakota to a sliding stop in front of the Circle C barn, where Chad was unhitching a buggy from a horse that Riley recognized as his own.
He raised an eyebrow as he dismounted his horse. “Chad?”
Chad turned around. “Andi’s inside,” he said, already guessing Riley’s next question.
Riley let out a sigh of relief. “I have something to tell you,” he began.
Chad let out a sigh. “Is someone not working good enough out at your place? I told them to---”
“No, everyone’s doing fine. It’s just---” Riley lifted his hat and stroked a hand through his hair before settling his hat back into its usual spot on his head. “I hired someone new.”
“And I don’t think it was a good idea.”
Chad let out a big sigh. “And you want me to see if you made the right decision?”
Riley shifted from one foot to the other. “I- I just want you to check on him.”
“All right,” Chad gave in reluctantly. “What’s his name?”
Riley looked down at his feet, feeling as if he was being rebuked. “I didn’t get it.”
“Well that makes it a bit harder for me, doesn’t it?” Chad started to get annoyed.
Suddenly a shout broke through the stillness of the Circle C ranch.
Andi ran up to her big brother. “Can you help me? Rosa’s here because--- Riley?” Her gaze shifted to her husband. “Why are you here?”
“Some business with Chad,” he calmly responded. “And why are you here?”
“Well if you can just hold on for one second, I’ll tell you.” She turned to face Chad again. “Rosa needs our help. Someone kidnapped her baby, and she came to me to ask if we could help her find him. I told her of course we could help. So that’s why I need you. She knows---”
“Señor!” A shout rang clear through the ranch. A ranch hand ran full speed toward Chad. It was Hector, Rosa’s husband.
Chad huffed out a sigh. He was getting annoyed with all the commotion. “What? What’s so important that you need to---”
“Please, señor,” the man interrupted. “I need your help. Someone has taken my son.”
Fear shot through Andi, Chad, and Riley all at the same time.
But little did they know that all of their mysteries were about to be solved.
“Troy Silver!” Chad barked angrily, a furious sneer curled on his lips. “You come out of there this instant!”
He shouted into one of the shacks that the ranch hands were housed in. It was surrounded by several people; a handful of ranch hands along with the town sheriff, Riley, Andi, and of course Chad, raging mad.
Andi believed she could see the smoke coming out of his ears, and had to hold in a giggle at the thought.
When no answer came from the man inside, Chad advanced toward the door.
“Stay where you are!” Troy shouted. Chad halted for a moment, but then kept on going.
“I said stay!” He yelled again. With a grunt, Chad stopped.
Andi reached over and squeezed Riley’s hand. She just wanted this to be over already. Wasn’t Troy supposed to be locked up in some prison for good? Well, she would see to it herself that Justin had him arrested and made sure that he would never come back to haunt them for as long as he lived this time.
With that resolved in her mind, she drew her hand back to her side.
Finally, the door creaked open slowly, revealing a masked man in the door frame, his hat drawn over his eyes. He gripped a pistol, glinting in the sunlight, in one hand, and a bulging lump of something in the other.
Andi sucked in a breath. Elliot. For sure it was Rosa’s baby that Troy held.
He stepped out onto the shack’s porch and grunted. He knew he was caught.
And all in an instant, it was over. The sheriff arrested Troy, taking the baby and giving him to Andi. She scooped up the bundle and rescued Elliot from out of the smothering blankets, cradling him in her arms.
Troy would be arrested now, and she would make sure of it that Justin made it so he could never get out. The shadow from the past would finally be gone.