WILDFIRE

CHAPTER 1

"Houston." Matt answered the phone on the bedside table. He looked at the alarm clock: 1:15 AM.

"Houston, it's Bob Marshall. We've got a wildfire coming our way. My brother-in-law just called me - he works for the fire department." Bob Marshall lived six miles up the road and was the nearest neighbor.

Matt sat upright in bed. "Exactly where is it and how fast is it moving?" This last statement had CJ fully awake.

"Right now it's about 25 miles south of us. At the moment it's not moving much. The winds have died down for the night but we need to start moving the herds ASAP." Bob was pulling on his boots.

"I appreciate the heads up, Bob. I'll catch up with you later." Matt hung up the phone and turned to CJ to let her know. She was already out of the bed and dressing. He told her Bob's news.

"I'll go down and start the coffee and call Bo & Lamar." She stopped just long enough to give him a kiss on the cheek.

Matt hurriedly dressed in jeans, a long sleeve denim shirt, and boots. He pulled several bandanas from his dresser drawer and carried them downstairs with him.

"CJ, I need you to take the chopper and fill it up. We're going to need it at first light.." Matt took the cup of coffee that she had poured for him.

"I'm on the way. Don't forget to remind the boys to keep their cell phones with them." CJ was referring to Lamar and Bo, Houston's helpers on the ranch. Both cowboys had moved to California with Matt when he bought the ranch from Ramona Landers, the aging movie star.

Matt pulled CJ into his arms and held her close. "Be careful out there, CJ. Flying at night..."

CJ nodded. "I know, be careful of power lines. I'll holler at you later. Matt, you b e careful." The newlyweds had been married almost three months now. Their longtime friendship had finally, much to the relief of all of their friends, blossomed into love. After a wedding in Hawaii and honeymoon in Tahiti, the couple had come back home and gone back to work at their private detective agency. Matt's uncle, Roy Houston, also worked with them on some of their cases and brought years of experience with him. Roy had spent a large part of his life working for the CIA before becoming a college professor. He and Matt had gotten reacquainted a couple of years earlier and were now enjoying working together at the detective agency.

Matt filled a thermos with coffee, switched off the pot and headed down to the barn. As he neared the barn doors, Cricket, his favorite horse, walked over to the pasture gate and softly nickered at him. Cricket's nicker often came out sounding more like a chirp, especially when she was upset or excited. She knew something was afoot and gave Matt one of her chirps.

"Hey, baby girl. You and I have a lot of work ahead of us. We've got cattle to bring down today. Think you can handle the job?" Matt calmly talked to the red sorrel as he opened the doors to the barn. Cricket nodded her head. He smiled at her. " I knew you could." He opened the gate for her and closed it as the horse walked out and waited for him. He turned and walked into the barn and began filling three feed buckets. Cricket walked up to one and started eating as Matt then filled water buckets. He wanted to be sure that the horses that he, Bo and Lamar would be using had a good meal before moving out to herd the cattle down from the hills and canyons.

As he got his saddle and other equipment ready, Bo and Lamar came walking into the barn, both looking like hoot owls who had been rousted from a noontime nap. "Sorry it took us so long to get up here, Houston. SOMEBODY wouldn't move their lazy carcass outta the bed." Lamar glared at Bo who just stood there yawning.

"Well, you're here now, so get your horses. I've got feed and water ready for them. " Matt continued getting his gear together. He divided up the stack of bandanas that he had brought down from the house. He put four of them into his saddle bags and handed four each to Lamar and Bo. He then began saddling Cricket, who had finished eating and drinking. Matt lead her outside and tied her to the pasture fence and headed back up to the house. Once inside, he went into the den and unlocked the gun cabinet, removing a leather holster and a nine millimeter Sig Sauer along with extra clips. Then he removed three rifles and three boxes of shells. Matt strapped on the hoster and tied it on his right leg. I was only the second time he had ever put it on: the first time had been the previous Christmas when CJ had surprised him with it.

He locked up the house and headed back down to the barn, noticing the smell of smoke for the first time.

Matt handed Lamar and Bo each a rifle and box of shells, then began loading his own. He looked up and noticed the worried look on Bo's face. "Never know what kind of critters a fire will stir up. Just a little insurance."

"Dang, Houston! You look like John Wayne with that gun belt on!" Lamar looked at the hand tooled leather and smiled.

"Naw, he didn't have a Sig Sauer." Matt grinned and swung up into the saddle. "Did y'all remember to fill up your canteens?"

"Sure did." Lamar mounted his horse and Bo followed suit. "What exactly is the plan, Houston?"

"Well, we've got a while before dawn, so I figure to head for Parkins Ridge first. According to what Bob Marshall told me, that's the section in the most danger right now. We'll gather up the cattle there and start 'em down this way. When the sun's up good, CJ will help us with the chopper. She can act as a spotter and do some herding, too." He turned Cricket in the direction of the ridge. "And make sure y'all have your phones turned up as loud as possible."