Dead Heat Page 29

“Sack a horse out?” Anna asked, picturing people beating on a horse with paper sacks.

“Desensitize him to the kinds of things that could make a horse spook,” Charles said. “They used to take feed sacks and rub them all over the horse until it quit being frightened. The sacks were handy—and scary because they were light-colored and noisy. Showing exposes horses to all sorts of situations, and they learn not to be afraid every time they run into something new.”

“Most of them do,” said Kage. “Eventually. But he’s honest and brave. Mackie’s riding him in the show, and I wouldn’t trust my girl to just any horse.”

“We’ll keep him on our likely candidate list,” said Charles.

Anna slid off reluctantly. “Don’t I get a say in it?”

“The big grin on your face already said a mouthful,” Charles told her. “Mere words are not necessary.”

“You might try her with Portabella,” said a breathless voice just outside the arena.

“Dad?” Kage sounded shocked. “What are you doing down here—you should be in bed.”

Sure enough, Joseph Sani stood watching with both hands on the upper surface of the arena fence. “I’ll have plenty of time to lie down when I’m dead.” He nodded at Anna. “Portabella is full of fun like that. She’d like to spend her days in the mountains up there in Montana. She’d like that.”

“You named a horse after a mushroom?” asked Anna.

“Her name is Al Mazrah Uhibboki,” Mateo said. “We had to call her something pronounceable. Her grandsire is Port Bask—so Portabella.”

“Her real name is what?” Anna asked.

“Al Mazrah is the stud farm that bred her,” Kage said. “Uhibboki means, we think, ‘I love you.’ So Al Mazrah Uhibboki. Al Mazrah stud is in Indiana and no one there speaks Arabic. No one here speaks Arabic, either, so I don’t know for sure. And we are probably pronouncing it wrong anyway.”

Joseph laughed, and then he coughed harshly a couple of times.

“Dad,” said Kage.

“Don’t fuss,” Joseph said. “When I’m dead you can fuss. I needed to smell the horses again.” He closed his eyes and took a shallow breath. He opened them and said, “Better than medicine for an old man. And I need to talk to Charles. Ernestine said you were at the barn.”

“How did you get here?” Kage asked.

“I took the last UTV,” he said. “But I think I’ll let Charles drive me back up. We can talk on the way.” He glanced at Kage. “You and Mateo might want to show Anna some of the new babies. I hear that our Kalli had a filly yesterday that everyone is over the moon about.”

Charles waited at Joseph’s unspoken request while Mateo and Kage took Anna off to look at the foals. When they were out of sight, Charles said, “Do you need me to carry you? Won’t be the first time.”

Joseph laughed. “That’s for damned sure. There was that one week I was determined to drink every bar in the town dry.”

“I don’t remember that,” said Charles gravely. “But I was thinking about when that mustang dumped you and you broke your leg twenty miles from anywhere. Horse made it back and your dad and I finally went out as wolves to find you. He ran back for help and I carried you halfway home before help came.”

“Really?” said Joseph tentatively. “You don’t remember?”

“Someone asked me not to,” said Charles. “And I told him I would oblige him. So no. I don’t remember.”

Joseph nodded. “You know, I think I could make it back to the UTV, but I’m sure that if I did, I couldn’t talk with you and that’s important. I’m too old for pride.”

Charles picked him up with considerably less effort than he’d used to carry Joseph on that long-ago walk into town, because a frail old man weighs a lot less than a wiry cowboy. Charles wondered if the reason his dad did not associate much with humans was that they grew old and died. He did not enjoy the sorrow, but he would not have missed the years that he and Joseph were friends, either. Such joy was worth a little sorrow.

The lights were off in the big arena, and no one saw Joseph being carried out to the utility vehicle. The old man had pushed himself too far. Even if the spirits had granted him strength, muscles that had lain in bed for three months were not as able as they could be.

He didn’t say any of that, because Joseph knew it as well as Charles did.

He put Joseph in the passenger seat and climbed into the utility vehicle beside him. “You’re going to have to tell me how to start this thing,” he said.

“You don’t use ATVs or UTVs up in those mountains of yours?” Joseph asked. “I thought there was a lot of country too rough for trucks in Montana.”

“That’s what horses are for,” Charles told him, and Joseph laughed, though Charles hadn’t meant to be funny.

With the old man’s help, he got the vehicle started and heading the right way.

“Chelsea,” said Joseph in a low voice. “Was that because I wouldn’t let you change me? My father thinks it is.”

“Chelsea was because of Chelsea,” Charles told him. “If she had not belonged to your family, I’d have done the same thing.” And because it was Joseph, he shared the full truth, shameful as it was. Consent was important; it ought to be necessary. “I’m glad I knew she was Kage’s wife, that I could contact him to get permission. My wolf admired her toughness. There aren’t many people who can face down a fae geas. I think that he would have insisted we Change her no matter what Kage had said.”

Joseph listened, and said, “That’s pretty messed up. But it will probably work out okay.”

“I hope so,” Charles said.

“Brother Wolf isn’t going to try that with me?” Joseph’s voice was wary.

Charles laughed, a small laugh that sounded like it could have been something else. “Brother Wolf is already in mourning for you. He’d roll over and die for you, but he won’t do something you’ll hate him, hate me, for. You’re safe.”

They drove for a little while.

“I like Chelsea,” Joseph said, breaking the comfortable silence. “She stands up to Hosteen when everyone else backs down. She is tough.” He paused. “I would not have chosen this for her, though. Death is a gift, Charles.”

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