Three months later
Fran was awake before the sun rose over the eastern valley in Appaloosa Plains. She stopped in the nursery before she walked downstairs. Destiny was still sleeping.
Fran blew her a kiss and crept down the steps. Maya was already up and had water on the stove.
“Good morning, Miss Fran!” Maya greeted her. “Are you ready for today?”
Fran shook her head and snickered. “Where do you find all your energy, Maya? You’re so perky for five in the morning.”
“The bed upstairs is super comfy! The wheelbarrow and boxes are outside in the garden.”
Fran stood there, her mouth agape. “Well, I don’t know what to say except thank you, Maya.”
“You’re more than welcome, Miss Fran. I’ll keep an ear out for Destiny while you’re doing the harvest if it’s okay with you?”
“That would be great. We need to set up by seven. I need to pay rent before the market opens at eight.” Fran poured a cup of coffee and sat at the table in the dining room. “After I get the truck loaded, we need to go.”
“Don’t worry about the little one. I’ll have Destiny fed and dressed before it’s time to go.” Maya poured some boiling water over a rooibos tea bag and set it down to steep. “If you need any help with harvesting, let me know.”
“Thanks, Maya. I should be okay.”
The morning was crisp, but not cold, and the temperature was exhilarating. The day would warm soon, so Fran enjoyed the cool morning air. She didn’t rush with the harvest and filled thirty boxes of vine-ripened produce for the first day at the market.
Fran packed and arranged the fruits and vegetables as she picked them, so all she needed was to display them. It was six-thirty when she finished, so she walked back into the house through the sunroom door.
Maya had just finished feeding Destiny when Fran came in. “Everything is ready! I packed our lunches on ice, and I have a thermos of coffee ready for you.”
For the second time that morning, Fran stood with her mouth hanging open. “You amaze me, Maya.” She tossed the keys to Maya and picked Destiny up from her high chair. “The playpen is in the truck already. She’ll be fine in the stroller until we get set up.”
Maya nodded in agreement. “Don’t worry, Miss Fran. We’ve got this!” She spun the truck keys on her finger, and the three of them left the house.
Sunny was already in her booth and had set up her bakery counter before Fran and Maya arrived. When she spotted her daughter with Destiny on her hip, she walked to greet them. “Hi sweetheart.” Sunny hugged Maya and gave the baby a peck on the cheek. “All ready for today?”
Maya gave a hearty laugh. “Yes, we are! Fran has a bountiful harvest of beautiful veggies and fruits this morning!” Fran pushed a cart with about one-third of her boxes on it, arranged and ready to display.
“Good morning, Sunny!” Fran greeted her best friend. She gave her a quick hug and started placing the boxes of produce onto her stand. “You’ve baked new treats this year, I see!”
“I made some cobblers last night. I think they will sell very well today. Caleb couldn’t keep his fingers out of the raspberry one, so I let him keep it for his lunch. That man is a sucker for raspberries.”
Fran smiled, but she missed Charlie. She hadn’t thought about him since their last call, and she wondered how he was. “Maya, would you help with the rest?”
“Sure thing, Miss Fran! Mama has Destiny looked after.” Fran nodded her head, and together they walked back to the truck.
The first day of the market was a raging success—of the thirty boxes she brought, twenty of them returned home empty. Destiny kept herself occupied most of the day. Fran and Maya took turns entertaining her when she got fussy. When they climbed back into the truck, they were all tired and hungry.
Maya pulled the truck into the driveway and parked it. Fran opened the car door and stood frozen in her tracks. The entryway of the house hung open on its hinges. She trembled while she dialed for the police to come. Fran prayed whoever broke the windows was not still in the house.
Eight minutes later, two police cars were at the house, and the officer approached Fran. “We came home from the market to this, officer,” Fran said, her voice shaky with fear. “I don’t know if they’re gone.”
The officer motioned for the women to stay near the garage while the police inspected the house. And then Fran realized that the gate was open, and the horses were missing. She panicked and ran toward the barn, their names on the wind as she called for them. But Marne and Sweetie were not there. Fran shrieked and fell to the ground. Her sobs echoed to the front of the lot. Maya ran to her, Destiny still in her car seat.
“Fran, what’s wrong?”
“The horses! Maya, they’re gone!”
Maya ran back toward the house. A police officer stood outside the front door to keep watch while the others secured the property. “Officer! The horses are missing!”
The officer spoke into his radio and turned his attention to Maya. “What did they look like, Miss?”
“Palomino, both of them. Purebred Arabians.” Maya tried to think. “Marne and Sweetie are their names. Please, try to find them. It will devastate Miss Fran if we don’t find Marne.”
Maya jogged back to where Fran sat, still in tears. “What did they say?”
“They took the information, and he radioed it to dispatch.” Maya took a deep breath. “They’re going to find your babies, Miss Fran.” She kneeled next to Fran and held her while she cried. “They have secured the house, and we can get Destiny inside to feed her.”
Fran shook her head. “We aren’t staying here tonight. It’s not safe.”
“I’m going to get Destiny. She needs to be with you.” Maya stood and jogged to the truck, picked Destiny up, and walked back to Fran. She set Destiny into her arms and sat back down next to them. “Everything will be okay, Miss Fran,” Maya tried to assure her. “I’m here. You’re not alone.”
The phone rang at 3:12 that morning, and Fran’s sleepy eyes squinted at the display. The phone call she had waited for all day had arrived. She grabbed the phone and answered it.
“Hi love.” Charlie heard her weeping. “Frannie, what’s wrong, honey?”
She sat up in bed and tried to calm herself. “Thieves broke into the house yesterday while Maya and I were at the market—”
“My goodness! Frannie, are you alright?”
She nodded her head as though he could see her. “Yes, but they broke the front door.”
“I don’t care about the house, love. I want to make sure you’re okay. Frannie, go to our closet. There’s a strongbox tucked in behind my uniforms—”
“I’m not home, Charlie. I didn’t feel secure, so Maya, Destiny, and I are at the inn on the river.”
He nodded in acknowledgment. “Remember what I’m telling you, okay? Frannie, on the left side of our closet, behind my uniforms is a strongbox. The combination is our wedding day, minus one day. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Charlie, I understand. What is in the safe?”
“My pistol is in there. Pa gave it to me before he died, and I put it there for safekeeping. Frannie, I want you to keep it by the bed while I am gone.”
“Charlie, I’ve never handled a gun before, never mind shot one! I won’t keep that thing anywhere near me!”
“Honey, please. If you need some help with it, Caleb knows how to shoot it. Ask him. I don’t want you to be home with our baby girl without something to protect yourself.”
“Frannie, please, baby. I can’t help you from here. You’re going to need to take care of yourself.” He worried about her and no longer felt like their home was secure.
“You know, this isn’t how I wanted our conversation to go.” She tried to change the subject. “How are you?
“I’m okay. I’m worried about you.” He paced in his tent. “Promise me, Frannie, that you’ll learn how to shoot it. Please.”
Fran sighed. “Okay, I’ll learn.” She sniffled and saw the light on in Maya’s adjoining room. A soft knock sounded at the door between them.
“Miss Fran? Is everything okay?”
Fran covered the mouthpiece of her cell. “Yes, it’s Charlie on the phone.”
Maya’s face lit up. “Please tell him we’re praying for them! I’ll check the baby while I’m up.”
“Maya says hi, and that we’re praying for you, love. Despite my best efforts, I woke her anyway.”
“Please tell Maya, and the Bradfords, thank you. Darling, I need to go. Remember your promise. I love you.”
“I’ll remember my promise, Charlie. I miss you and love you. Be safe. We’ll talk soon.”
“Yes, we will, honey. I miss you. Give our baby girl kisses for me. I love you, Frannie.”
Maya walked back from Destiny’s crib and sat on the chair next to Fran’s bed. “What did you promise Charlie, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“There’s a gun in the strongbox at home. He wants me to learn to shoot it.” Fran shook her head. “I’ve never handled a gun before.”
Maya grinned. “I can teach you! Daddy taught me to shoot when I was a little girl. I’m good at hitting what I aim for, too!”
Fran smiled. Maya’s help and companionship were so valuable she wasn’t sure how she would ever repay the Bradfords. “That would be fantastic.”
A few hours later, Fran’s cell phone rang. The caller ID displayed an unknown number, but she answered it anyway.
“Mrs. Farmer,” lead detective Benjamin Williams greeted her. “We have one of your horses, though we aren’t certain which one we have in our possession. I am assuming it is yours. They are palomino, correct?”
Fran’s heart skipped a beat. “Is she okay? Is she safe?”
“She doesn’t look injured at all. Would you be able to identify her this morning so we can release her to your custody?”
Fran nodded. “Yes, I‘ll be there soon. I need to get the trailer hitched to the truck. Is that okay?”
Detective Williams smiled. “That’s fine, Mrs. Farmer. We will see you.”
Fran hung up the phone and squealed. “Maya!” she said, “They found one of my horses! I need to go to identify her. Would you mind watching Destiny while I run this errand?”
Maya smiled. “This is wonderful news! I’ll watch this little sweet pea!” She tickled Destiny’s belly and got a giggle from her. “Be careful, Miss Fran. I’ll be here if you need me.”
“Thank you, Maya.” Fran took her purse, kissed Destiny’s cheek, and waved as she left the inn.
Minutes later, she had the trailer hitched to Charlie’s truck, and she pulled away from the house. Ten minutes later, she walked into the sheriff’s office, hopeful that they found Marne and that she was unharmed.
No one was there when she arrived. She pressed the button on the bell that sat on the desk. A receptionist with a name tag that read “Jan” appeared, saw Fran, and smiled.
“You must be Mrs. Farmer,” Jan said, and set a cup of coffee down on her desk. “Detective Williams is almost ready for you.”
“Thank you,” Fran replied and sat in a chair in the waiting area.
“You’re very welcome,” Jan said. “Your horse is beautiful. I’ve never seen a palomino in the county before.”
Fran beamed with pride. “They are my babies, both Sweetie and Marne. It would devastate me if something happened to either of them.”
“Well, our detectives are searching for the missing horse. When we find her, we’ll let you know, Mrs. Farmer.”
A few minutes later, Detective Williams stepped out from an office whose door opened to the lobby where Fran waited. He approached her and shook her hand. “Mrs. Farmer, please come back to my office.” She followed him back and sat at his desk, and he walked to the other side to sit. “The horse is out in our yard under a veterinarian’s care. He’s just checking to make sure she hasn’t suffered an injury from yesterday’s burglary. These are the photos we took of her upon intake.” He took three photographs from a folder and laid them in front of Fran—she picked them up to look at them.
“This is my younger mare, Sweetie.” While it thrilled Fran to have her back, in her heart, she wished that it was Marne in the yard instead. “See? She has stockings on her front legs, but not the back. Marne has them on all four legs.” She laid the photos on the desk. The detective placed them back into the folder. “Where did you find Sweetie?”
“We found her near the equestrian center which, if I remember, is near your home? She was grazing on some pasturelands nearby when a gentleman named Farnam called us.”
Fran nodded her head. “Oliver owns the stud that sired Sweetie. He would have known she was mine.”
“She should be ready to go soon. Have they fixed your fence, Mrs. Farmer?”
“No, but I will lock the barn when I stable her. My best friend’s husband will repair the lock on the front door and gate at some point today. Don’t worry. Sweetie will be safe,” Fran assured him. “I love these horses like they are my children.”
Detective Williams nodded his head. “We feel the same about our K9 units here, Mrs. Farmer. I understand.” He made a quick phone call to the yard, and when he hung up, a smile crossed his face. “Mrs. Farmer, your horse is ready to go home. He gave her a clean bill of health.”
Fran stood and wiped a tear from her cheek. “Thank you so much, detective, for everything. Please call me if you get a word on Marne. She is a part of our family.”
“You bet,” the detective replied and handed her his business card. “If you need anything, please call.” They shook hands, and Fran walked from the office.
When she got to her truck, the stable hand had Sweetie ready. “This is a beautiful horse, Miss. You’re very fortunate to have her.” He handed the lead to Fran.
She blushed. “Thank you.” In moments, she had Sweetie secured in the trailer and was ready to go. Back at the farm, she led the young mare to the barn. “You’ve had enough fun for one day, don’t you think, baby girl?” She ran her hands over Sweetie’s back and rubbed her neck. “Be good, and we’ll be home soon.” Fran left the barn and secured the lock behind her.
A week had passed since the burglary. Fran had still not heard anything about Marne’s whereabouts. She and Maya made fliers to place around town with her photo and a contact number. But every night, they came up empty.
Destiny awakened at midnight, screaming. Fran ran to the nursery to hold her.
“Shh, baby girl, you’re okay. Mama’s got you,” she whispered into Destiny’s ear and paced the floor with her in the nursery. The screams woke Maya, and she appeared in the bathroom’s door, which connected both rooms.
“Is she okay, Miss Fran?” Maya yawned.
“She’ll be okay. I’m just going to rock her to sleep. You can go back to bed.” Fran set her cell phone on the table by the rocking chair. Since the burglary, she never went two steps without it.
“If you’re certain. Wake me if you need me, Miss Fran.” She nodded and waved to Maya before she closed the bathroom door.
Two hours later, after Fran had gotten the baby back to sleep, the phone rang with Charlie’s number on the display. She reached for the phone and answered it.
“Hi, darling. Is there any word on Marne yet?”
Fran blinked back tears and sighed into the phone. “Not a word. I’m losing hope.”
“Aww, sweetie, never lose hope. Someone will spot her and make sure she comes home to you.” How he wished he was there with her. He’d find the horse himself if it were his last act on this earth. “How is Destiny?”
“She’s good, she talks about Daddy all the time, and I show her your picture. She recognizes your face. I promised you she wouldn’t forget you.”
“That’s good, darling. Your voice is so sweet, I needed to hear it. We are meeting about a mission soon, so I will call you tonight.” He took a breath and sighed. “We can always use your prayers, honey.”
“And you will have them in abundance, my love,” she replied. “I will talk to you tonight. I love you, Charlie, and I miss you. Stay safe.”
“Oh honey, I miss you so much I ache. I love you. Tell Destiny I love her, too.”
“I will,” Fran said before they said goodbye.
She wanted to go back to sleep, but the clock showed 5:00 AM. Fran sighed walked downstairs to harvest the garden. To her great surprise, Maya was not in the kitchen, so Fran started the coffeepot and pulled her boots onto her feet. She harvested another thirty boxes of produce, and when she finished loading it into the truck, she walked back to the house to shower.
Maya was awake and feeding the baby when Fran walked back in, but she wasn’t as perky. “Good morning, Maya,” Fran greeted her. “Are you feeling okay this morning?”
Maya groaned. “No. I couldn’t sleep even before Destiny’s screaming. If you can manage the market alone today, I’ll stay home with her.”
Fran nodded her head. “Please make sure you have the pistol at your side. Protect yourself and my baby.”
Maya smiled. “Absolutely! Besides, they got whatever they wanted and moved on. I doubt they’ll be back.”
“You’re right,” Fran nodded. “If you need anything, please call me. I will come home right after the market closes.”
Fran got into the pickup and drove the short distance to the farmer’s market. She unloaded several boxes before her cellphone rang, an unfamiliar number on the Caller ID.
“Hello?” she answered.
“Mrs. Farmer, this is Detective Williams from the sheriff’s department. We believe we have your Arabian mare in our custody. Can you come identify her?”
Fran squealed with excitement. “Yes! Oh my goodness, I hope you do! I just arrived at the farmer’s market, but I will be there.”
“Take your time, Mrs. Farmer. She is in excellent hands here.”
Fran jogged to her market stall and found Sunny there and ready to go. “Sunny!” she exclaimed. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Sunny looked beyond Fran, expecting to see her daughter. “Where is Maya this morning?”
“She is home with Destiny. She didn’t feel well this morning. Would you watch my stall for about half an hour, Sunny? The sheriff’s department believes they have Marne, and I want to get her.”
“I will!” Sunny said. “Go! Get your baby, and I’ll watch your stand.” Sunny embraced Fran. “You must be so excited!”
Fran nodded. “Oh, I am! I’ve never lost her before, not for this long.” She pulled the shield down that closed her stall and turned back to Sunny. “Thanks again. I won’t be long!”
She jogged to the truck and hopped in—the key was in the ignition. She prayed the horse the detective found was Marne. Fran pulled away from the market with a hopeful smile.
Forty-five minutes later, Fran walked into the sheriff’s office. Jan welcomed her. “Hi, Mrs. Farmer. I will let Detective Williams know you’re here.”
Fran nodded. “Thank you.”
It wasn’t long before the detective appeared at the door of his office. “Mrs. Farmer,” he greeted her with a smile. “Please come in.”
She played with her keyring as she sat down. “Can I get you some water or coffee, Mrs. Farmer? You arrived faster than I expected, and I am waiting for the photos in my email. We have a palomino mare that matches the description you gave us. We are confident we have a match.”
Fran nodded. “I wouldn’t mind some water if it’s no trouble.”
“It’s no trouble at all.”
Five minutes later, the email the detective was waiting for arrived, and he opened it, printed the photo attachments, and handed them to Fran. “Here they are, Mrs. Farmer.”
She looked at the photos, and her face lit up. “That’s my Marne!” she squealed, but her happiness was short-lived. “What injured her? There is a gash on her left shoulder…” Fran wiped tears away. “There is so much blood.”
He tapped on the keyboard and opened the veterinary report. “It says they found the mare in a field just outside of the county, about ten miles away. She tangled herself in some barbed wire and brush, but once they cleaned her up, the injury was better than they thought.” He skimmed the rest of the report. “Most of her injury is surface scratches. She has two deeper wounds which they stitched, and the veterinarian gave her antibiotics. She is malnourished, so he recommends good quality feed while she recovers, and follow up with your vet when you can. He expects a full recovery.”
Fran sighed with relief. “When can I bring her home?”
“She is ready when you are, Mrs. Farmer. Take custody of her now.” The detective stood and shook her hand. “If there is anything else we can do, please call me.”
She returned his gesture and thanked him. Fran ran to the trailer where the stable hand waited for her. When she saw Marne, she cried, so relieved to see her.
“She is a lucky girl,” the stable hand said. “Horses can get maimed in barbed wire, but she’s going to be just fine, aren’t you girl?” He patted Marne’s nose, and she nickered at him.
“Thank you so much for taking care of her.” Fran hugged her neck. “You don’t understand what she means to me, how much I’ve missed her.” She shook the man’s hand, led Marne into the trailer, and secured her. “Thanks again.”
“My pleasure, Mrs. Farmer,” he replied. “Take good care of her. She’s a treasure.” Fran nodded and wiped tears from her eyes as she drove away.
Ten minutes later, she backed the trailer into the yard and hopped out of the truck. Fran led her out and through the gate where she reunited Marne and Sweetie. The two horses nickered at one another and nuzzled together. Fran broke down as she inspected the scratches and stitches Marne had on her body. But the mare was home, and her horses were together once again. It relieved Fran that the ordeal was over.
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