Night had fallen on Walnut Grove and everything was peaceful. The horses were in from pasture and cozy in the big red barn, some already flat out in their deep straw beds, others still munching rhythmically on their hay.
In one of the paddocks a solitary coyote, down from the surrounding hills padded on silent feet on its regular evening journey to quench its thirst at one of many water tanks scattered throughout the ranch. A small herd of deer had also moved in from the rolling hills to graze unhindered in another paddock.
The entire ranch sat nestled in a natural scoop of land in the foothills of the San Rafael Mountains, scattered with beautiful old oak and walnut trees; the wooden paddock fences all painted white; an idyllic setting.
Will Leonard and his pretty young wife Olivia – Livi, had scraped together the deposit to buy Walnut Grove soon after they were married. Back then it was a mere shadow of its present enchanting splendor; the house was in total disrepair, any fencing actually standing was barbed wire and the few farm buildings were ramshackle corrugated metal. Any grazing had shriveled and died long ago due to lack of irrigation.
This dilapidation had actually been the reason Will and Livi had been able to afford Walnut Grove. Other potential buyers had already viewed and rejected the ranch many times, and the selling realtor had shown it to them as a final resort after they had turned down all his other, much more glamorous listings.
Will, an environmental engineering graduate from UC Irvine had seen the huge potential in the neglected property. Livi had just fallen hopelessly in love with the tranquil setting and like her husband had pictured everything as they might make it in the future.
To the horror of family and friends, they had moved into the decrepit house just a few days after closing, but in the circumstances, it was the most sensible course of action as it released them from paying rent elsewhere. Will hung on to his engineering job and worked on the house every spare minute he had and Livi pursued a career as a freelance writer, working from home and cleaning and painting during every free minute.
Christina, their daughter had been born just a year later.
The house, its renovation, decoration and furnishing had been an ongoing task for several years, although after the initial rush to make it habitable, their priorities had switched to the farm. Will had designed an irrigation system for the paddocks and reseeded them to produce tall grasses and lush clover. He hired a crew to secure all the paddocks with double wooden fences and worked alongside them, sawing and nailing and painting.
They tore down all the old farm buildings and sold them for scrap, and Will and Livi had bought a horse barn, hay barn and other ancillary buildings from a company that also assembled them onsite.
Just a year after they originally purchased Walnut Grove, they went to the Barretts’ Horse Sales and bought their first two broodmares. At the same time their longtime friend and property dealer, Sam Nichols, who had helped them negotiate the purchase price on the farm had moved his mare and foal to board at Walnut Creek, thus providing the ranch with its first source of income.
The years had passed and under their devoted stewardship, Walnut Grove had developed and flourished. One of their original broodmares had been retired and they’d purchased two more. Each year their yearlings made a little more at the sales and one September Will picked out and bought a yearling filly with good bloodlines that he planned to race, and then retire to the farm as their fourth broodmare.
They named her Pink Parachute, and she turned out to be a champion race mare, winning a number of good races. Eventually, in the October of her fourth year, they decided to retire her to stud. That morning, towing the horse trailer, Will and his foreman, Jose, had driven south from Buellton to Santa Anita to pick her up.
At a little after nine, Livi was in the kitchen making a cup of tea. Christina – Chrissy was in the snug just across the hall, curled up on the sofa watching TV. As she poured boiling water onto the teabag, Livi heard an approaching vehicle and presumed it was Will and Jose returning with Pink Parachute. She hurried to open the kitchen door which accessed directly onto the side of the house and was puzzled to discover the vehicle she had heard had in fact stopped in the driveway outside the front door. She walked to the front of the house to come face to face with a man and woman, in the process of exiting a car she didn’t recognize.
“Mrs. Leonard?” the man asked. Livi nodded. “I’m Deputy Forester and this is Deputy Kincaid.” They both flashed a badge. “Can we come in? We need to talk to you.”
An ice-cold hand of steel gripped Livi’s stomach. “What’s wrong? Has something happened?”
The female deputy gently took her arm and guided her back in the direction from which she had approached. “Let’s go into the house Mrs. Leonard. We really need to talk to you.”
In a daze Livi allowed herself to be conducted back into the kitchen. Deputy Kincaid settled her into a chair at the kitchen table and seated herself to Livi’s right. Deputy Forester sat facing her across the table.
“Mrs. Leonard,” he eventually began. “I’m afraid we have some very bad news . . .”