River at the Ranch (River's End #14) - Leanne Davis

Chapter 1

~Years 33-40 from start of series~

IT WAS HORRIFYING, SHOCKING, jolting, and almost surreal to watch someone die. To physically see the entire process from start to finish. To have a sickening, gut-punch at the exact moment when the spark of life leaves the body. Energy, pulse, breath, circulation, thoughts, memories, love… all the crucial factors that make up this elusive, impossibly brilliant elixir called life, to be snuffed out in a split-second moment, is impossible to even categorize. Life eclipsed by death. Breath to utter stillness. Movement to inertia.

It happened in that moment right before Asher Reed’s eyes.

Music boomed through the building, the amplified sound system doing its part to enhance the choreography designed by Asher and Violet Rydell. They made the horses appear to be dancing and acting out to the songs. Most of the audience members were in awe, finding the horses’ skills incredible. The chance to perform in these horse shows was a gift that Asher never imagined he could be part of. Something completely mind blowing. A rare, and unusual way to spend a day, for sure. And a skill that most people could never begin to learn. Several years ago, Violet asked him to join her in these shows. She was already a seasoned horse trainer, and much better at it than he was, but Asher learned the steps and polished his skills well enough to at least participate in the process. Now, with his heart pounding and his spirit as high as the music’s tempo, he performed his part to create the unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Horses circling the arena in a figure eight formation and completely in sync until… Thwack! Out of nowhere came a loud sound.

The horses instantly fell out of formation, looking startled and unsure, missing the beat and for a split second, the riders lost their reins and failed to control their mounts.

But one split second was just long enough.

Preston Green, Violet’s fiancé, careened head-on into the arena’s wall when his horse veered off at the last moment. Preston couldn’t stay in the saddle and fell with a sick, dull thump onto the ground below. The position of his body was awkward and weird.

The entire arena, the horses, the performers, and the crowd, which only moments ago were raucously enjoying the presentation, went suddenly, eerily, and what felt like endlessly, silent. Asher was close, too close for comfort and saw the exact moment when Preston died. He knew before Violet that Preston’s life passed before him.

Violet fell down, looking shocked and in obvious denial as she knelt beside him, her lips moving. She was pleading and begging for it not to be true.

Asher couldn’t stand to see her in such pain and turned his head to the side. No. He couldn’t watch when Jack, Violet’s uncle and Asher’s adopted uncle, leaned over to move her aside as he checked Preston’s dead body for vital signs before he finally told her. He also couldn’t watch her dad, Shane, when he came up and took Violet in his arms.

No. He couldn’t stand by and watch his friend suffer such a tragedy. Not that. Preston wasn’t a close friend or anything, but they liked working together. As for Violet? Damn. She was family. Of course, her grief sliced through him. Hard and cruel. It was so catastrophic. Unbelievable. Preston was so young. It was totally unexpected. Asher blinked and stared at the dead body lying in the arena. Preston was motionless. Gone. But still there. The crowd fell into an uncomfortable silence, and some got up and started to shuffle out. It got even more creepy because no one spoke. If a quarter dropped onto the cement floor of the bleachers, the ping would have been more than audible in the strange silence. The suddenness. The disbelief. The due respect for anyone so cruelly deprived of life. There were a few sniffs and shuffling and coughs. People tried to conceal their emotions after witnessing Violet’s reaction.

She grimly watched her fiancé die in front of her. Asher shuddered. What would she do with that? How would she react to it? Or begin to process it?

He sat on his horse as the shock wave rippled through him, suddenly unable to move. What did he just witness? Preston’s life passed before him in the time it took to blink. In the previous second, they were all riding and celebrating, in total synchronicity and then, bam! It was all over, and Preston lay dead on the sand-filled arena