Kate Caraway hates giving lectures at the University of Illinois so much that she fears she’ll lose her mind. So, when a student, Nate Springfield, walks into her office with a story of wild horses in danger, Kate takes an immediate leave of absence. Forty-eight hours later, she arrives in Two Horse, Montana, one of the most rugged and isolated areas in the state. In a race against time, she uses her expertise and influence as a well-respected animal-rights activist to assist Nate’s eighty-two-year-old great-grandmother, Ida, in saving her herd of wild mustangs. If the county’s proposal to dam the Crow River passes, Ida’s water source will disappear. Her horses will be sold to the highest bidder and, most likely, turned into dog food. Before Kate can meet with a small coalition of citizens, who also stand to lose if the dam proposal passes, she stumbles upon a corpse with a knife wedged in his back. The dead man is Frank Springfield, Ida’s estranged son and her number-one enemy, a highly vocal member of the ranching community, who favors the dam. Since Nate is the last person to have seen his grandfather alive, the sheriff issues a warrant for his arrest, and the young man goes on the lam. Kate is convinced of his innocence and determined to prove it, but as she gets closer to truth, she discovers that some men will do anything, including murder, to keep their nefarious scheme from being exposed.

TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In A Two Horse Town by Kathleen Kaska, Kate Caraway is back, this time trying to save horses rather than dogs. One of Kate’s students at the University of Illinois pleads with her to go to Montana and help his great-grandmother save her herd of wild mustangs. Since Kate hates her job, it doesn’t take much to persuade her, and two days laterm she shows up at Ida Sprinfield’s ranch near Two Horse, Montana. But things are not as they seem, and when Kate discovers a murdered man, she has no idea just what she has gotten herself into.

Being both a mystery lover and a lover of horses, I found this both moving and compelling. A really great read.

REGAN MURPHY SAYS: A Two Horse Town by Kathleen Kaska is the story of Kate Caraway’s fight to save a herd of wild horses. Kate is an animal-rights activist recently returned from Africa and now teaching at the University of Illinois. She hates her job, so when a student approaches her with a tale of wild horses being sacrificed for a dam, Kate takes a leave of absence and heads for Two Horse, Montana. On a ranch outside of Two Horse, where Kate is staying with her student’s great-grandmother, Ida Springfield, Kate discovers a dead body, Ida’s son and her number one enemy. He wants the dam, and Ida doesn’t because it will dry up her water source and the horses will have no water. As Kate investigates, she soon discovers that some people are not what they seem and there is more going on than just the county officials’ proposal to build a dam.

Intriguing, poignant, and intense, A Two Horse Town will keep you guessing all the way through. I couldn’t put it down.

Chapter 1

Fumbling her way in the dark, Kate Caraway climbed hand-over-hand, scaling boulders that seemed to trail off into oblivion. One wrong step meant a fast return to the bottom of the canyon. Too late to turn back, she had no choice but to trust her guide, and follow the sound of her boots crunching gravel. To make matters worse, clouds that had blocked out the glow of a full moon were now starting to dissipate, creating beams of unwelcome light.

Kate pressed her body against the steep rock and, keeping her head down, reached for the ledge above. Scree crumbled in her grasp and pelted the brim of her cap. She heaved herself up onto the next boulder. A sudden gust of wind threatened to send her over the edge. Her head spun. She slowly inhaled, visualizing oxygen flowing deep into her abdomen, the way her yoga teacher had taught.

It was late spring in Montana, but winter had not yet released its hold. Snow whitened the highest peaks of the Pryor Mountains, and unpredictable cold fronts dropped temperatures to deadly lows. Despite the cold, Kate’s skin grew clammy, dampening her innermost layer of clothing.

“Here we are,” Ida said, sounding less winded than Kate. “Watch your footing, honey. Scooch up next to me.”

Kate looked up to see Ida already seated, her skinny little legs dangling over the precipice. She resembled one of the spindly scrub oaks that grew tenaciously from the mountain. Not willing to show her fear to this eighty-two-year-old woman, Kate crawled to the edge of the cliff and reluctantly joined her guide. A vast, empty space opened up before her, and Kate took another deep breath of the cold night air. The dizziness subsided.

“Take a look at what nature gave me. What’d I tell you? The best time to see the horses is during a full moon.” Ida motioned for Kate to move closer. “I never thought you, of all people, would be afraid of heights.”

“It’s that obvious?” Kate said.

“I heard your teeth chattering all the way up. You sounded like a hungry woodpecker going at a sweet gum. We’re only about a hundred feet up.”

“The height I can handle,” Kate said. “It’s the sheer drop-off that scares the piss out of me.”

She tried to relax, but sitting here on the edge of the cliff caused her phobia to obliterate all reason. She wished she could ignore the scant inches of rock that separated her from the abyss that ended with the canyon floor. The wind kicked up and the clouds separated again. Light from the moon reflected brightly on the canyon below. In the distance, the outline of the Pryor Mountains rose into the sky, creating a jagged silhouette on the horizon, adding an ominous feeling to the evening. Kate gripped the rock on which she sat and questioned her sanity.

“The only time I’ve ever been to Montana was when my husband, Jack, and I drove the Hi-Line across the northern part of the state where it’s flat and wide,” Kate said. “Nothing like this.”

“This is the real Montana. We have steep cliffs and bottomless canyons.” Ida chuckled. “And we like it that way.”

“Let’s change the subject before I melt into a puddle of fear.”

Ida gave Kate’s knee a reassuring pat, and, for the next several minutes, they sat on the edge of the world, each silent in her own thoughts. Then just as Kate’s pulse began to slow, Ida grabbed Kate’s arm. The sudden movement almost sent Kate over the edge.

“Listen, they’re coming,” Ida whispered and pointed to the west side of the canyon. “Watching the herd from up here is magical.”

A distant rumble, like the sound of a gentle thunder grew louder as the band rounded the canyon wall. Kate’s breath caught at the sight below. Filing in one at a time down the narrow path, several horses slowed to a trot and gathered at the stream to drink. Kate had been waiting for this moment ever since her young student Nate Springfield walked into her office two days earlier pleading for her help. It didn’t take much to convince Kate to cancel her upcoming lectures and arrange for a leave from her new assignment.

Kate watched as a young colt kicked up its hind legs and butted its mother. Suddenly, Kate’s feeling of wonderment dissolved into anger. She knew the ultimate fate of these rare animals if she failed in her efforts. Then, as if sensing her ire, one of the stallions let out a high-pitched whinny that echoed through the canyon with a furor that sent shock waves deep into Kate’s spine.

“They’re jittery tonight,” Ida said. “Those ponies can sense when an intruder is around. Nate’s the only person who can get close to them.”

Though anxious to hear the details, Kate decided to enjoy the moment and leave her questions for later. Through the stillness of the night, she heard the splash as the horses waded into the stream, their flanks fluttering, shaking off the night’s swarming insects.

“See that ornery roan bringing up the rear?” Ida pointed. “He’s the dominant stallion. He keeps the herd together for protection. And that stout dapple, standing at the water’s edge is the alpha mare. She leads her band to the best grazing fields and watering holes.”

Fed by the Pryor River, the stream below glistened in the moonlight and caught Kate’s eye. Like a silver ribbon flowing through the canyon, it eventually spilled into a basin forming Ida’s lake. With a perpetual water supply and the absence of natural predators, the herd had managed to survive in this austere region of the state. But that was about to change.

“I can only imagine what this land was like two hundred years ago,” Kate said. “Horses roaming over millions of untamed acres.”

“Now Montana’s fenced, grazed, and regulated,” Ida spat. “And if you can’t help me, then these mustangs will be slaughtered as sure as I’m sitting here.”

Kate reflected on the conversation she had had with Nate. He recounted the conflict brewing among the citizens of Two Horse over the proposed construction of a new dam on the Pryor River, a tributary of the Big Horn River. The reservoir would provide benefits for ranchers experiencing the worst drought in decades. The dam would also cause smaller streams like the one that fed Ida’s ranch to dry up and, in Ida’s case, cause the horses to lose their water.

“We’ve always had water problems,” Ida had told Kate earlier that afternoon on the way from the airport. “Whoever said ranching in Montana was easy? But the town’s planning commission done lost their citified minds with this dam idea. I went to the federal Bureau of Land Management for help. They laughed in my face. Those idiots think the town’s proposal is a good idea. They’re siding with the ranchers.”

“But BLM is responsible for protecting those wild horses,” Kate said.

“Like hell! They claim their jurisdiction doesn’t cover private land like mine. They told me the horses were my problem. The National Parks Service said they’d help. Those bastards offered to remove the horses and auction them off. That herd’s lived on my land longer than I have. The only folks who’d buy wild mustangs on the auction block are looking for a quick profit. They’d sell them to a slaughterhouse, and then they’d be shipped overseas where people eat horsemeat. If those NPS idiots try to move them, it’ll be over my cold, dead body.”

Kate had no doubt that Ida meant that literally. Nate had shown Kate a newspaper article with a picture of his great-grandmother addressing the town council with a shotgun cradled in her arm. Someone needed to leash Ida Springfield before she landed in jail. After a few phone calls, Kate had decided that the someone would be her.

“Veda named all of them,” Ida said. “This was her favorite spot. It’s been years since my little sister’s been able to climb up here. That dominant stallion she named Randy. I’ve always wondered if Veda knows how appropriate that name is. When a mare goes into heat, his testosterone level shoots up, and he goes wild.”

“I’d like to see the records you’ve kept on this herd.”

“Is tomorrow soon enough? I have a big day planned for you. Hope you’re ready.”

“I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Ida glanced at Kate, and for a moment, Kate’s confidence waned. As if reading Kate’s mind, Ida said, “Nate speaks highly of you. My great-grandson don’t often ask for help and neither do I, but we both got to swallow our pride. These horses ain’t gonna survive without that water. Hell, this is their, land and I plan to see that it stays that way.”

“But it’s also your ranch. Don’t you have rights to the water here?” Kate said.

“My land is mostly undeveloped. I don’t do no serious ranching any more. I just keep a few cattle to keep my agricultural tax exemption. Besides, I know those goofballs down at town hall are thinking that I won’t be around long enough to keep them from getting what they want. Besides you, I got a card up my sleeve.”

Suddenly, the band became fidgety. Randy reared up on his hind legs, agitating the herd.

“What is it?” Kate said.

“Probably a coyote. He won’t do no harm, just makes the horses nervous.”

The stallion raised his head and curled back his lips. Then giving an invisible signal, he sent the horses bolting across the stream out of sight. Dust rose and the sound of hoofbeats thundered through the canyon.

“That’s it for the night.” Ida said. “Show’s over. Besides, those clouds are rolling in faster than buckshot from a gun barrel. I want to get home before that storm scares the hell out of my dogs and makes my little sister jittery.”

Kate turned to see black clouds boiling in the sky just above the horizon where moments ago the stark outline of the Pryor Mountains was visible. Just as she backed away from the edge, a flash of streak lightning danced across the sky.

Kate smelled ozone and felt the hair on her arms stand straight up. Getting off this peak was a good idea. She had no desire to turn into a human lightning rod. Ida began climbing down the boulders like a surefooted mountain goat. Kate scrambled after her as the wind picked up. A crack of thunder sounded, and lightning struck near where they had just perched.

“Get the lead out!” Ida shouted.

Kate, despite being in good shape, had trouble keeping up with the old woman. The rocks were tall and steep, making the climb down much harder than the ascent. The moon was now completely hidden behind the thunderheads. More than once, Kate had lost sight of Ida. She was moving farther and farther away, and Kate suspected that Ida’s sister, Veda, became more than just a little jittery during a thunderstorm.

Suddenly, raindrops pelted down, stinging Kate’s skin. Something hard smacked her on the shoulder and then again on the side of her head. Kate feared a rockslide until she saw the crystal-like nodules falling on the ground around her. The storm had brought with it hail the size of walnuts. At that moment, her fear of heights was replaced by a more realistic danger. Kate no longer heard Ida and wondered if she had taken cover.

“Ida, slow up.” Kate called.

No answer.

Another hailstone struck, smacking Kate behind her ear so hard that she felt a warm trickle run down the side of her neck. Catching up with Ida was no longer a priority. Kate rushed to a low overhanging rock to take cover. As she ducked under, her foot slipped and pain shot up her leg. She crawled farther back and wedged herself between the rocks. Then as abruptly as it had started, the hail stopped, only to be replaced by heavy sheets of rain. Kate circled her foot, and although her ankle was painful, she knew it was not broken. She thought about shouting for Ida again, but the deafening sound of roaring rain and crashing thunder would make it impossible for Ida to hear.

Kate was not sure how long she sat crouched between the rocks. She was soaked to the bone, and her ankle swelled inside her boot. Although she was safe for now, behind that wall of black clouds, a cold front had set its sights on the mountain. She couldn’t stop herself from recalling a near-disastrous college hiking trip in Maine. She and a friend were dressed for a day hike when a cold front blew in, dropping the temperature forty degrees in less than an hour. If it had not been for the hospitality of a Boy Scout troop camped near a shelter, Kate and her friend would have succumbed to hypothermia before they reached the parking lot at the visitors’ center.

Kate began to shiver, more from the memory than her immediate predicament. Thunder echoed in the distance. Lightning flashed, then another crack of thunder, slightly fainter than the last. The storm was moving away quickly, and the hard downpour slowed to a steady rain. The stars began to sparkle in the western sky.

Kate crawled out and stood up, gingerly putting weight on her throbbing ankle. She stepped out to the edge of the rock and looked around. No matter which way she turned, she saw no way down. In the short time since she had lost sight of Ida, Kate had wandered off the path. She retraced her steps—no good. She was stuck on this slab of rock, and the next outcropping loomed at least ten feet below. The only way to go was up. Kate climbed onto the outcropping that had just given her shelter and looked for a different route. Turning, she stepped down too hard and sent streaks of pain up to her pelvis. Gritting her teeth, she hoisted herself upward, trying as best she could to keep weight off of her foot. After a short while, she noticed a less steep path to the right. As far as she could tell, it was her only choice. The thought of Ida finding her battered body the next morning was enough incentive to get moving.

Kate shuffled her way down the escarpment, but the going was slow. Her biceps protested and her shoulders burned with exhaustion, but the thought of a warm fire in Ida’s cabin kept her going. A coyote howled in the distance. The eerie sound caused Kate to ignore her painful ankle, and as Ida had said, “get the lead out.”

After what seemed like forever, Kate spotted a soft glow in the distance—Ida’s cabin at the base of the mountain. Knowing that she was only moments away from kissing flat ground, Kate allowed herself a short rest. The rain had eased to a light sprinkle. She sat down and was surprised to find the rock still warm from the day’s sun.

Kate got her bearings and realized she had accidentally wandered around to the wrong side of the mountain. When they started out, she and Ida had walked right out the front door across a field, less than a hundred yards, and then straight up. From here, Kate saw the back of Ida’s cabin clearly. She would be on the doorstep before too long.

Below the next rock, the narrow trail began to slope gently. The rock’s surface, no longer bare and steep, was dotted with wheatgrass and sage. The ground turned soft and muddy, and suddenly Kate slipped. She reached out to grab hold of a bush, only to discover at the last moment that it was spiked with thorns long enough to pierce a kidney. Losing her footing, she fell to her hands and knees—mud squishing between her fingers. Kate pulled herself up and decided she needed something to help her maneuver the slippery path. She reached for a limb protruding from beneath the bush, but it resisted. Determined to dig out her quarry, she tightened her grip and tugged harder. The limb refused to budge. She slid her fingers under for a better grip and grabbed a hand clutching the other end.

© 2018 by Kathleen Kaska

Reader’s Favorite:

A Two Horse Town: A Kate Caraway Animal Rights Mystery, is a fast-paced and exciting story set in the Pryor Mountains of Montana. While this is not the first book in the series, Kaska provides enough background information for it to be enjoyed as a standalone novel. I was fascinated by those Montana mountain ranges and loved learning about the Pryor Mountain Wild Horses. Kaska’s characters are marvelous! Kate is strong, smart and willing to put herself out there to protect Ida and the horses. I also enjoyed getting to know Kaska’s feisty senior, Ida, her twin sister, Veda, and Karen, the diminutive Park Service worker who helps Kate. The plot gives the armchair sleuth plenty of puzzles to mull over as well. While this is the first Kate Caraway book I’ve read, I soon felt I had a handle on her background and was quickly immersed in the story. That said, I’m planning on going back and reading the first book in the series, Run Dog Run. A Two Horse Town: A Kate Caraway Animal Rights Mystery is most highly recommended.” ~ Jack Magnus, Reader’s Favorite READ FULL REVIEW