Chad Carter blew out a huge sigh and dismounted his horse. The past few hours had been full of disappointment. He ached from crouching in the same position for who-knows-how-long, just waiting for the rustlers to make an appearance. The rancher was glad his shift was over for the time being and he could maybe get an hour or two of shut-eye before heading back out to the herd.
Next to him, his younger brother Mitch slid from Chase’s saddle and yawned.
“Want me to put up the horses?” Chad offered, rubbing the back of his neck. The dim light from the moon revealed dark circles under Mitch’s eyes.
“Nah.” Mitch shrugged. “I got ‘em. You look plum worn out, older brother.”
“So do you,” Chad shot back. He led his horse toward the barn. Mitch followed suit.
“Keep it down,” the younger Carter advised when they entered the dimly-lit barn. “Andi’s probably asleep.”
“Yeah.” Chad didn’t offer any further response. His eyelids were beginning to droop, but he paused to glance in Taffy’s stall to check on his sister.
“Mitch!” The rancher was wide awake in a split second. Any thoughts of sleep fled from his mind.
The youngest Carter brother moved up next to Chad. “What is it?”
“Andi and Taffy are gone,” Chad said, motioning a hand to the empty stall.
Something on the ledge of the stall’s door caught Mitch’s eye. “Hey.”
“What?” Chad watched as his brother reached out and picked up a book wrapped in felt. “Isn’t that the journal Melinda gave Andi?”
“I think so.” Mitch glanced hesitantly at his dark-haired brother. “Should we read it?”
Chad frowned at the journal. He didn’t want to snoop through his sister’s things, but she had left it in plain sight. Perhaps that meant she wanted it to be read.
He took the book from Mitch and cracked it open. He skimmed through the crisp pages until he reached the latest entry. Mitch leaned over his shoulder, his lips moving silently as he read along.
When he reached the last sentence, Chad closed the journal. “Mitch.” His voice was firm and determined. “Go round up some of the men. We’re goin’ out there.”
The blond nodded and bolted from the barn, eager to get them ready and on their way as soon as possible.
Chad sighed and rubbed a hand across his face. He sent up a quick prayer that Andi was safe. His little sister was forever getting herself into scrapes, and his feelings were torn every time. Part of him wanted to be upset that she didn’t tell them sooner, but his concern for her safety outweighed the annoyance.
He opened his eyes. He’d better get to work readying them to leave.
Before the rancher could take even one step toward the horses they’d forgotten in the sudden surprise of finding Andi missing, the ear-splitting sound of glass shattering rang in his ears.
Chad’s feet came unglued from the barn floor, and he took off running to the entrance. The shadowy figure of a horse and rider was growing smaller as they galloped away.
Mitch suddenly reappeared and leaped atop the nearest horse before Chad could blink. The younger Carter gave his horse a kick and took off in the direction of the midnight intruder. Several of the ranch hands had already been roused by the noise and were on their way after the culprit.
Chad, realizing there was nothing he could do at this point, hurried toward the house. Mother met him at the door, her face pale.
“Are you and Melinda all right?” he demanded, placing his big hands on her shoulders.
“Yes.” Mother nodded. “Just frightened.”
Chad moved into the house. It took no time at all to discover the window that had been shattered.
A large rock was sitting amongst the pieces of glass scattered about on the ground. A sheet of paper was crumpled around the jagged stone. A number of long, dark strands of hair mixed with the rock and paper made Chad’s face pale.
He unwrapped the paper from around the rock and scanned the crudely-written note.
“Chad?” Mother’s worried voice broke through the silence. “What’s wrong?”
“What does it say?” Melinda chimed in, her normally perfect hair a rumpled mess from bed.
Chad opened his mouth to answer, but shouts from outside caught his attention.
“I’ll tell you in a minute,” he promised. “I’ll be right back.”
Without another word of explanation, he hurried out into the yard, where a swarm of ranch hands had gathered.
“Lemme go!” A gruff voice shouted. A string of cursing followed the command. Chad strode over to where Mitch stood, arms crossed. His brother was glaring down at a man on the ground.
“Is this our culprit?” Chad asked, regarding the bound man on the ground with a suspicious look. Mitch nodded. “It’s him. Rudy Walker.” He spit out the name, clearly not impressed.
Chad reached down and yanked the man to his feet. Before he could get a word in edgewise, Rudy burst out, “I ain’t sayin’ nothing! You got no proof that—”
“I have all the proof I need right here.” Chad held up the crumpled note and Andi’s clip of hair. “And I don’t need you to tell me anything. We already know where you and your brothers are keeping our sister—and our livestock. And if you or any of your brothers have so much as touched Andi—”
The string of cuss words and threats that flew from Rudy’s mouth next had Chad ready to carry out his unfinished threat on the rustler at that very moment. Instead, he settled for a gag. He didn’t have time to deal with the man; his sister was still somewhere out in Rock Canyon with the other two Walker brothers.
He shoved Rudy toward one of the ranch hands. “Two of you men take him into town—and get the sheriff.” He glanced around the group and counted off a few. “You men, get your horses ready. We’re going out to Rock Canyon.”
Mitch joined in. “Dave, you head back out to the herd and find Justin. Tell him what’s going on.”
The young hand nodded and wasted no time in obeying.
The rest of the men scattered to complete their various missions. Chad, true to his word, returned to the house to explain the situation to Mother. Although worry clouded her face at the tale, she kept her voice strong and promised she and Melinda would do what they could at home.
“Chad!” a gravelly voice hollered from outside, interrupting the conversation.
The rancher quickly bid goodbye to his mother and sister and raced back outdoors. Sid McCoy—the ranch’s foreman—stood in the yard, a puzzled look on his face.
“What is it, Sid?” Chad called out. Then he saw the shadowy figures of three horses—two smaller than the first.
The palomino looked up at Chad and nickered a greeting. The foals bounded up to their mother.
“They came wandering into the yard just now,” Sid explained.
The news only served to urge Chad to get on their way sooner rather than later. He found a ranch hand to take care of the Taffy and the twins before hurrying to finish getting his own horse ready.
By the time Chad was sure everything had been taken care of as best it could for the time being, the others were saddled up and ready to go. Chad cinched his gun belt tight and mounted his horse in one smooth motion. Mitch eased up next to him.
“Ready?” Chad asked.
“Yep.” Mitch nudged Chase forward. “Let’s go get Andi.”