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"Help! Help She's I need help!"
The shout came from outside Ranger Station Fourteen, followed seconds later by the sound of someone running flat out, skidding on the loose gravel of the trailhead.
Matt Blackthorn bit off his briefing mid-sentence and strode from his office, his pulse kicking and then leveling off as he went into crisis mode: six feet and two inches worth of black-haired, green-eyed competence, laced with the determination of his part-Cherokee forebears and the killer instincts that had once been his trademark.
Grizzled park service veteran Bert Grainger was right behind him, while young charmer Jim Feeney veered off to put the dispatcher on standby in case they needed outside help. The station's fourth ranger, a clever brunette named Tanya Dawes, was already out in the field. Hopefully, they wouldn't need her.
As Matt headed through the station's front room, he mentally reviewed the hikers who'd checked in at Station Fourteenthe most remote and isolated of the Bear Claw Canyon ranger stationsover the past few days. He fixed on the newlyweds who had come through earlier that morning. They had been too busy mooning over each otherand their new city-bought hiking gearto really pay attention to his spiel on backcountry safety precautions.
Muttering a curse, he stiff-armed the door leading outside. Damn it, I told them to head back down toward Bear Claw. Station Three, with its brightly marked trails and pre-planned walking tour, would've been a better fit for those two. Fourteen was no place for city softies.
They hadn't listened, though. And sure enough, Mr. NewlywedCockleburr? Cockson? It was cock-something, anywaywas pelting toward him across the dirt parking lot, eyes frantic enough to have Matt's gut twisting.
"Oh, thank God you're here." Newlywed's words tumbled over each other as he staggered to a halt and sucked in a ragged breath. "She's hurt, unconscious, and"
"Stop!" Matt said firmly, using his cut-through-the-panic voice. When Cochranthat was it, Cochranquit babbling, Matt said, "What happened to your wife? Did she fall?" The trails were dry as hell and starting to crumble in places.
But Cochran shook his head furiously. "Tracy's fine. The woman we found is one of yours."
"One of" Matt's stomach did a nosedive. "A ranger?"
Cochran patted his chest, near where the men and women who oversaw Bear Claw Canyon State Park wore their badgelike name tags. "Tanya. Her name's Tanya."
"Jim!" Bert bellowed back toward the station. "Get out here!"
"That's" Impossible, Matt started to say, but then bit off the word. Arguing was a waste of time.
His mind locked on Tanya as he'd seen her lastpretending to ignore pretty-boy Jim while blowing a kiss to divorced, old-enough-to-be-her-father Bert as she headed out to one of the Jeeps. Her dark hair had been tied back, her dark eyes laughing as she had joked with the two men: one her self-proclaimed partner in meaningless flirtation, the other her friend.
Matt hadn't been part of the bunkhouse horseplay that morning or any other time. He had his own place beyond the station house and kept to himself. But Tanya was definitely one of his.
His ranger. His responsibility.
There was a commotion behind him as Jim thudded down the steps and Bert relayed the bad news. Jim blanched and surged forward, but Bert grabbed him by the arm and held him in check.
Matt focused on Cochran. His mind raced through scenarios from fixable to fatal. Please let it be fixable. "Where is she?"
Cochran gestured northward. "At the bottom of a shallow wash, that way, about forty-five, fifty minutes from here. We saw her when we were hiking up to this cave mouth that's shaped like a heart."
"That's right by Candle Rock!" Bert burst out. The distinctive formation was part of his patrol area, not Tanya's.
Matt bit off a curse. Candle Rock was difficult to reach, with too many river crossings for vehicles to get all the way in. And what the hell was Tanya doing over by Candle Rock? Later, he told himself. He'd worry about the whys later. "She's unconscious?"
Cochran nodded. "Looks like she slipped and fell. She had a knot on her head. There was a little blood, and she was cool to the touch, but her breathing and pulse both seemed steady. Trace stayed to try and warm her up."
"Good," Matt said gruffly. "Okay, then." He was starting to think the Cochrans weren't as much of a lost cause as he had initially pegged them for. And for Tanya's sake, he hoped to hell that was the case.
He turned to Jim. "Get an emergency medical chopper en route. Bert and I are going to drive in as far as we can and hike the rest of the way. We should get there about the same time as the chopper. I want you back here coordinating things."
Jim's face clouded. "But"
"I could stay" Bert began.
"Not open for discussion," Matt broke in. He gestured to Bert. "Get one of the first-aid duffels and our climbing gear." To Jim, he said in a low voice, "Let us take this one. You can see her later." When the kidokay, he was twenty-five, but as far as Matt was concerned, still very much a kidstarted to protest, Matt fixed him with a look. "That's an order."
Jim hesitated, then nodded reluctantly. They both knew that although Matt didn't pull rank often, he meant it when he did.
And in this case, he meant it in spades. He knew all too well that there was no room for emotion during a crisis and when things went bad out in the backcoun-try, they could go very, very bad.
Tanya was an expert climber, though. What the hell had happened? And why was she out of her territory? Those questions clouded his concern for the young ranger as he drove his Jeep out toward Candle Rock, with Bert and Cochran following in a second vehicle.
Despite the rangers' best efforts to educate the hikers who had the chops to handle the backcountry and discourage the ones who didn't, the treacherous terrain, wildfires, poisonous snakes, and drought-starved predators had combined to take their toll. In his almost six years as head of Station Fourteen, he had led eight search parties and arranged transport of three bodies. His sectorwhich included the park's most remote territoryaveraged an airlift a month, and two or three times that many hikers had to be driven straight to the E.R. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.
He hoped to hell this would be one of the easy ones, requiring little more than a couple of ibuprofen and a day or two off. If Tanya had been unconscious for an extended period, though, that didn't seem likely.
At the thought, he hit the gas and sent the Jeep lunging forward. Then, when the wheels shuddered, he made himself ease up and breathe. Panic didn't solve anything.
They made it most of the way to Candle Rock in the vehicles after allthe drought that had contributed to the wildfires currently devastating Sectors Five and Six was a backhanded blessing now, drying up the two rivers that usually blocked the route.
When their luck ran out at the base of a steep hill, they parked, shouldered their gear, and hiked in the rest of the way, jogging along a narrow game trail that crested a rocky, tree-lined ridge near the cave.
Matt brought up the rear, carrying his shotgun. If Tanya was bleeding, there would be scavengers in the area, maybe even one or more of the bigger predators.
"Up here!" Cochran ran forward, cresting the ridge as he called, "Trace? We're back!"
"Hurry!" a woman's voice responded immediately. "She's in shock, and I don't like how low her heart rate is getting."
Matt cursed and lunged up the last stretch and down the other side, partly jumping from one rock to another, partly skidding along the loose, crumbling gravel. "Get the ropes anchored," he said to Bert, waving the older man back as he reached the edge of the deep wash.
"Will do. You should wait until"
"No time." Matt yanked the straps of his knapsack tighter, checked his shotgun, and jumped over the edge of the wash right behind Cochran.
He dropped nearly a dozen feet and his boots hit the ground hard, but he barely noticed the impact; his focus was locked on where Cochran had one arm around his wife. Their heads were tipped together, their bodies leaning into each other.
But even as that image burned itself inexplicably into Matt's brain, he looked past them where Tanya lay sprawled in the gravel. She was covered with two brightly colored jackets, and other pieces of the Cochrans' clothing were tucked around her. Her eyes were closed and a slender blood trail tracked across her cheek. Her supposedly shockproof radio lay smashed nearby, in a scuffed spot below the crumbled ledge.
Something jarred faintly wrong, but that was quickly blotted out by a twist of guilt. She looked so damn young lying there.and he had sent her out alone. Which was protocol, but still.
"Hey, Tanya," he said as he crouched down beside her. "It's Matt." Had she ever called him by his first name? He couldn't remember. "Bert's here, too. We're going to get you out of here."
Her pupils were unequal, her vitals too damn low across the board. Yeah, she was shocky all right. Concussed, too, and maybe suffering from internal injuries. It wasn't that much of a fall, but she must have landed exactly wrong.
Grabbing the radio off his belt, he toggled it to send.
There was a hiss and a squawk. "Did you find her?"
"Got her. How are we doing on that chopper?"
"Should be there any minute. How is she?"
"Banged up." The faint noise of rotor-thwack saved him from having to elaborate. "Chopper's here. Patch me through will you?"
As he was talking options with the pilot, a trio of climbing ropes sailed over the edge and slithered down, followed moments later by Bert. Raising his voice over the increasing noise of the helicopter, the grizzled ranger called, "They going to stay in the air and drop a basket?"
Matt shook his head. "The pilot thinks she can land on that flat section beyond the wash. We'll use the ropes to bring Tanya up and out." It felt good to have a plan, better to know she would soon be getting the medical help she needed. Turning back to the injured ranger, he gentled his voice and said, "The chopper's almost here. They'll get you down to the city, and" He broke off when her eyelids fluttered. "Tanya? Can you hear me?"
She shifted uncomfortably and frowned, then lashed out with a fisted hand as though trying to physically fight off unconsciousness. Cochran and his wife made soothing noises but stayed back, yielding to Matt. He caught her flailing fist. "Easy, killer. You fell off the ledge and banged yourself up a bit, but the med techs are on their way."
Her lips moved. "Didn't fall."
He blew out a relieved breath that she was making sense. "You hit your head. It'll come back." Maybe. Maybe not. At least she was talking.
But she shook her head, wincing at the pain brought by the move. "No fall. Ambushed."
His blood chilled, but it didn't make any sense. Ambushes were for narrow alleys and drug dealers, not wide-open skies and park rangers. Hallucination? Maybe. He didn't know. Leaning closer, he said urgently, "What happened?"
Her eyes opened to slits as she tried to focus on him. "Two men grabbed me wanted " She struggled to say something more, but then her body went lax as she lost her brief grip on consciousness.
"Wait!" He surged up onto his knees and bent over her, gripping her fisted hand in his. "What men?" The controlled crisis mode he'd long ago perfected lost out to anger at the thought of someone doing this to one of his people, on his territory, his watch. "Tanya, what men?"
"Matt." Bert gripped his shoulder. "She's out."
Damn it. He subsided, loosening his grip on her hand. When he did, something fell free and floated to the ground.
Cochran leaned in. "What's that?"
Catching the small, colorful scrap between his thumb and forefinger, Matt lifted it. "A feather."
The shaft was thin and curved, and the barbs ran a wild-colored gamut from white-and-black at the top to a deep reddish orange in the middle, then back to black at the base. He frowned at it, but there was no time to really get a good look, because right then the rotor noise increased to a roar and the chopper appeared overhead.
It paused, spun, and then dropped in for a more-haste-than-grace landing. Moments later, shouts and the sound of thudding footfalls up above announced the arrival of the med team.
Matt stuck the feather in his breast pocket and buttoned it in for safekeeping.
The next few minutes were ordered chaos as the medical team rappelled down and hustled to get Tanya stabilized for transport, with a rapid yet thorough triage, warming blankets and an IV line of fluids to combat the shock. The techs didn't say it, but he could see from their faces that they didn't like her continued unconsciousness any more than he did. Working quickly and efficiently, they strapped her down and okayed her for travel.
Working together, Matt, Bert, the Cochrans and the med team hauled her out of the wash and loaded her onto the chopper.
Matt heard the copilot radioing ahead to let the hospital know they had a serious head injury on the way. He wanted somebody to look at her and say that she'd be fine, but it didn't happen.
He slid the door closed, then ducked out of range as the rotors screamed and the chopper lifted up and away, heading for the city. He was relieved to have Tanya in the care of professionals, but there wasn't any time to stand around congratulating himself on a job well done especially when he hadn't done his job well at all.
It was his responsibility to make Sector Fourteen as safe as he possibly could. His mind churned. Two men, she had said. What men? What had happened, and why was she out of her normal range? Had she followed them and been discovered, or had they brought her all this way and dumped her? And what was the deal with the feather? Was it important, or just something she'd been carrying when she was ambushed?
He winced as phantom pain sliced through his lower left abdomen, where a gnarled scar and low-grade ulcer formed a pointed reminder that it wasn't his job to be asking those questions. Hadn't been for a long time.
As the rotor noise dimmed, he pulled Bert aside, out of the Cochrans' earshot. "Take those two back to the station and keep them there."
The other man darted a look at the hikers. "You think they hurt Tanya?"
"No. But they may have seen something and not even realized it."