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Beautiful Dreamer
by Elizabeth Lowell
Avon, 2001


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Chapter One

Even in late October, drought ruled the Nevada ranch known as the Valley of the Sun. Thirst was a dusty shadow clinging to all life. The wind was always restless, always whispering of distance and the secrets of an empty land.

To the east of the ranch, a range of mountains known as the Sierras Perdidas rose dark and silent above the dry landscape. The mountains themselves were lush with the gifts of water-valleys thick with grass, high slopes rippling with forests, and a few sheltered snowfields glittering like diamonds far above the sunbaked afternoon.

Hope Gardener was too far away to see the snow-fields or the water-rich valleys or the forests, but she knew they were there. They were always there, a dream to tantalize the ranchers who lived with the dry reality of the high desert that lapped around the mountains like a sagebrush sea around green islands. Even so, Hope wouldn't have traded a single one of the tawny, thirsty, harsh sections of her ranch for all the Sierras Perdidas' easy beauty.

But she wouldn't have minded some of the Perdidas' tumbling wealth of water.

She wasn't greedy. She wasn't asking for a deep river that ran year-round, or even a stream that ran upside down, concealing its water a few feet beneath a dry riverbed. She wasn't asking for a lake shivering with wind and trout.

A pond, though...

Yes, just a pond. Sweet water that could ease her cattle's endless thirst. Water to soothe and nourish the tender roots of alfalfa and oat hay. just one source of water that would stay wet no matter how dry and hard the rest of the Valley of the Sun became.

"Why not ask for hot and cold running money while you're at it?" she asked herself sardonically. "If you're going to dream, dream big."

Her generous mouth turned down in a smile at her own expense. She came from a family of dreamers. Not one of them had managed to be lucky or good enough to make the dreams real.

She had vowed to be different. She was going to be the Gardener who would make the Valley of the Sun profitable again. Or at least possible to live on without going bankrupt.

"Then I'd better get to work, hadn't I?" she asked her reflection in the dusty, cracked, sunstruck windshield.

Nothing answered her but the rumble of the diesel engine and the wind keening through the open window of the ancient truck. She had stopped on top of a rise in the rough, one-lane dirt road to give the engine-and herself -- a breather. The water truck dated from a time before power steering, automatic shift, and power brakes. Despite the strength of her deceptively elegant body, the truck gave her as much of a workout as she gave it. First gear was so cranky that she often parked on a slope and rolled downhill until she could coax the engine into second gear.

"C'mon, Behemoth. It's just you and me and my beautiful, thirsty cattle. Don't let me down."

As soon as she slipped the hand brake, the empty truck began to roll. She gathered speed in neutral until she had no choice but to engage the clutch or risk losing control of the truck on the steep slope. She double-clutched, shifted, muttered unhappily, and double-clutched again. This time the ancient water truck's gears grumbled and gnawed into place.

She patted the dusty instrument panel and settled in to wrestle the truck to the water tank. Road noises echoed around inside the truck's sun-faded cab. The steering wheel bucked hard in her hands. Instantly she braced her body and muscled the rented army-surplus truck back out of the ruts that drew tires like a magnet drawing iron dust. Muscles in her arms and her shoulders knotted in protest. She ignored the burning aches just as she ignored the exhaustion that had made her lose attention long enough to get trapped in the ruts.

"Just one more load," she promised herself. "Then you can kick back and watch Beauty and Baby drink."

At least, just one more load of water for today. Tomorrow was another day, another time of Nevada's seamless sunshine baking the dry land, another string of hours when only dust devils moved over the empty land. And this battered truck, she reminded herself silently. Don't forget poor Bebemotb, lurching over this lousy road like a dinosaur on the way to extinction.

Like the Valley of the Sun itself, dying.

Hope set her teeth and forced herself to pay attention to the potholed road rather than to her thoughts circling like vultures around the certainty of the death of her ranch and her dreams. She reminded herself that tomorrow could bring many things. Just one of them would be enough to keep her dream alive.

One of the old wells could begin producing water again, enough water to see a core of her breeding stock through this endless drought.

The price of beef could rise, allowing her to sell the cattle she couldn't water at break-even prices.

The bank could decide that the last hydrologist's report on Silver Rock Basin indicated a good probability of water and lend her enough money to go after it.

A hydrologist who wasn't a con artist might answer her ad and find the artesian river she believed flowed deep beneath her ranch.

It could even rain.

Hope leaned forward to peer out the dusty windshield at the Perdidas. A few wisps of water vapor clung to their rocky, rakish peaks. Not enough clouds. Not nearly enough.



Excerpted from Beautiful Dreamer by Elizabeth Lowell. Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth Lowell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.









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