Andi’s good hand closed around a fistful of creamy mane. She looked up at her brother. “She’s going to be all right, isn’t she, Chad? Promise me she’ll be all right.”
Chad said nothing. He met Justin’s gaze, and his expression puzzled Andi. Perhaps the medicine was playing tricks on her eyes, but her brother appeared pale and uncertain. She frowned. Chad was never uncertain about anything—even when he was wrong.
What was the matter with him? “Promise me you won’t—you won’t—have to—shoot her.” Her eyelids drooped. She felt sleepy, but struggled to stay awake and in control. “Promise me, Chad.”
Chad looked down at Taffy once more. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.
“He won’t shoot her, Andi,” came Mitch’s sudden loud promise from behind. He lowered himself next to his sister and detached her small hand from her horse’s mane. He covered her hand with his two large ones and patted it gently. “I’ll see to it that Chad doesn’t shoot Taffy. You have my word on that.”
He bent over and brushed the hair from her dirt-encrusted face. Then he planted a kiss on her cheek. “Go to sleep, sis. When you wake up, you’ll be home.”
“Just what in blazes did you mean by that?” Chad’s voice shook with anger. He glanced down to make sure Andi was asleep. Then he turned his wrath on his younger brother. “How dare you promise Taffy won’t be shot. Look at her, Mitch.” He waved an impatient hand toward the palomino. “Two broken legs, any number of deep cuts, filth, infection. This horse, if she doesn’t bleed to death, will die in agony. You know it. Justin knows it. I know it.” He looked at Melinda. “Even Melinda knows it. Don’t you, sis?”
Melinda nodded. Tears ran freely down her cheeks.
“I didn’t promise she wouldn’t be shot,” Mitch replied quietly. “I only promised that you wouldn’t shoot her.” His expression turned pleading. “You can’t, Chad. You and Andi raised Taffy. She’s as much your horse as she is Andi’s. It’ll tear you apart to shoot her. Andi’s going to have a rough enough time recovering from this without knowing you shot the horse you gave her.” He shook his head. “Nope. I have to be the one to put her down. I’ll get my rifle.”
Chad reached out to stop him, but a firm grip tightened on his arm. “Mitch is right,” Justin said.
Chad’s face twisted, and he stared down at Taffy. “No. It’s my job.” He swiped away sudden tears.
“Not this time. Let Mitch do it.” Justin slapped his brother on the back. “Come on. The doctor said we’ve got to make the litter. We’d best get to it.”
While the two older brothers were constructing the litter, a loud shot rang out from below.
Chad cringed at the sound, but kept on tying the pieces together.
Justin shook his head. “I’m sorry, little brother.”
“What’s done is done,” Chad replied gruffly, adjusting the poles of the litter. “Let it go. Let’s get this thing down there and get home before it gets dark.”