Peril by Ponytail by Nancy J. Cohen
“Those are our saguaro.” Carol pronounced it sa-wa-ro. “They grow as a single stalk for up to seventy-five years before branching out. The plant can reach sixty feet in height and may live as long as two hundred years. It’s native to our Sonoran desert, and its white blossom is our state flower. They only thrive up to thirty-five hundred feet in elevation, though. Our ranch sits at twenty-eight hundred, so you’ll see plenty of them.”
Marla’s ears popped, telling her they were climbing. While Dalton conversed with Carol, she sagged against the seat cushion. She must have dozed off, because when she opened her eyes, they were navigating the hills. Magnificent vistas opened before them as the road dipped and curved, the pink mountainsides dotted with greenery. Boulders piled by the roadside.
Marla eyed the towering rocks with trepidation. She hoped they didn’t have landslides here. This terrain was so foreign compared to flat Florida.
At the base of another hill, they finally turned down a dusty road toward the ranch, passing several horse corrals and a flower farm along the way.
“Look, there’s two deer!” She nearly jumped out of her seat in excitement.
“Actually, those might have been elk,” Carol said as they sped past. “We spot more of them than deer around here.”
A sign for the Last Trail Dude Ranch came into view. Carol entered a private driveway that led to the main lobby. This building stood apart from the others. Single-story pink adobe structures dotted the property. Flowering plants and attractive shrubbery provided splashes of color against paved walkways.
Carol pulled into an empty space and shut off the ignition. “What’s the sheriff doing here? It’s Sunday. He should be home relaxing.” She shoved her door open and exited.
Marla had noted the labeled black SUV parked in the main lot. So had Dalton, judging from his springy step as he emerged from the rear seat. He reminded her of a hound who’d just picked up a scent, especially when she sniffed a distinctive aroma in the air.
Outside, her gaze zeroed in on the animals milling inside a fenced corral. “Look, horses!”
“We are at a dude ranch,” Dalton said with a grin.
“Yes, but I didn’t realize they’d be so many different colors.”
“They’re beautiful creatures. I would have liked to visit here when I was younger, but Mom rarely spoke about Uncle Ray. I knew little about him and his family until we researched them for our wedding.” He lowered his voice so Carol wouldn’t overhear his last remarks.
Carol popped the trunk, and Dalton lifted out their luggage. He set their bags on the pavement until they got their room assignment.
“I’d better see what’s going on.” Carol cast a worried glance at the sheriff’s car.
“Maybe Wayne is reporting the latest incident to him,” Dalton suggested. “Is there evidence the leak was anything other than wear and tear on the water heater?”
“I have no idea. Either way, Wayne hasn’t told any of our problems to Sheriff Beresby before now. He likes to keep things in the family.”
“That’s why he invited you, isn’t it?” Marla said, poking her husband.
“He invited us to stay here and enjoy the facilities. Let’s see what this is all about.”