Chapter 1

The Stranger

I laughed when a two-hundred-pound sheep threw me off his back when I was five. I cried when they told me I couldn’t get back on.

Losing the Woolly Ride competition at the Navajo Nation Fair wasn’t what upset me. I just didn’t like that sheep thinking he’d pulled something over on me.

Someone could say he pulled the wool over my eyes, and I’d laugh at the play on words, but I wouldn’t think it was funny deep inside. I don’t like being fleeced. Oh, sorry. What I’m trying to explain is how the stranger who came to our Navajo Rez that hot day in early August threw my suspicious-sensing nature into high alert.

As it turns out, I was right on target.

It wasn’t that the stranger was too tall to be pure Navajo. So was my grandfather. The stranger’s starched and pressed Levi jeans weren’t the problem either. The Marines in our family wore their jeans all perfect like that too.

No, something else about the tall man didn’t add up. I decided that right after we collided on the sidewalk by the Bashas’ Grocery Store parking lot in my town of Mesa Redondo. The collision was kind of my fault since I didn’t look very well before taking off in a run toward Copper Park. Okay, I didn’t look at all. My mind was on important things, like catching Cousin TeeShirt and coaxing a barrel-racing lesson out of him later that afternoon.

I remember glancing over my shoulder at Auntie Blue Corn at the flea market the same moment I took off and wham! I slammed dead center into what felt like a sack of concrete. It changed my perspective, that’s for sure.

Sparkles in the cement and a sno-cone holder flattened by a black shoeprint loomed large on my way down to the sidewalk in a perfect belly flop. On impact, my air whistled out with an airy ssshrrrshh, followed by a curly wheeze. My whole body burned, and for the first time in four days, I forgot how much I missed my best friend Birdie.

While I struggled to get a deep breath, boots and shoes gathered around me, and I hated that because it meant I was the center of attention for all the wrong reasons. Sharp-toed brown cowboy boots covered in bumpy leather almost speared my arm.

“You all right, young lady?” rumbled a thunderbolt kind of voice I didn’t recognize. I looked up, then rocked my head backward to get my first glimpse of the stranger.

“I…I guess so,” I stammered.

“You sure?” There was that cavernous voice again.

Heat pricked my cheeks and spread to my ears. Could I just blink and disappear?

I sat up. The man thrust an arm toward me. He cleared his throat, impatiently, I thought. I wasn’t used to grasping a stranger’s hand, but it seemed my best escape from the circle of gawkers.
My hand no more than touched his when I found myself sailing off the ground as fast as a whip snap. He leaned down close to my face. Eyes the exact color of Tiger’s Eye gems glared at me over a pair of mirrored sunglasses.

“Don’t run through crowds.” His voice made me think of a low dog growl. He walked off in long steps and vanished into the crowd. I stared at the spot where he’d become air.

Oh-my-gosh! Birdie was missing everything—fame because our picture was in the newspaper, the last few weeks before school started, and a stranger of interest in town.

Before the day was over, Birdie would also miss the most dangerous day of my life.