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"Going out again?"
Jed Thatcher watched Eli get his gear together--the man carefully packing everything into his rucksack. All that shit would just get packed again at the jump center, but that was Eli's way of knowing he had it all. Smokejumpers lived because they were careful, Eli always said, and a careful smokejumper had all of his gear.
"Yeah. Got the call while you were out feeding. There's a big one down near Naturita."
"Grand Junction or Montrose?" They lived halfway in between the two Western Colorado towns, so Jed never knew which tiny airport Eli would go out of.
He nodded, fingers worrying a frayed spot on his jeans as he stood there, noting each item as it went in. Boots, helmet, clean underwear.
"I'm headed over there for the air show. Let me give you a ride."
Eli glanced up, a knowing look in those dark brown eyes. God, the man still took his breath, despite a few more lines around the eyes and mouth, and the few gray hairs sprinkled here and there.
"You don't have to."
"I want to. Besides, I need to get down there and run pre-flight checks on Amel Wilson's crop duster. No way am I doing tricks in it on his say so."
"Yeah. Last time you had an engine go out." That grin just did all sorts of funny things to Jed's belly. "Okay, yeah. You can drive me, Thatcher. But you'll have to step on it."
"Let me get my bag."
They got moving after that, and Jed called Junior Austin on the way out of Cedaredge, asking him to take care of the horses. The dogs, all four of them, took up whatever space their bags didn't in the backseat. The rearview looked funny without Jumbo, who'd died last winter,but the Roice-Hurst shelter down in the Junction had advertised Great Pyrennes-Newfoundland mixes not long after, and Eli had browbeat him into getting one. The damned fuzzy thing was near as big as Jumbo'd been now, just a little wider and shorter without the wolfhound blood.
"Seems weird that Ojo is the old man now, huh?"
Ojo was the one-eyed dog Jed had found in his barn about a year before he'd met Eli, and the mutt had to be ten years old now, but still going strong.
"You okay?" Eli gave him a look. "Not fretting about me, are you, Thatcher?"
Well, sure he was. Eli was getting about as long in the tooth as Ojo. But he stifled the urge to say it. "Just be careful, Mister. Okay?"
"I always am, Jed."
Jed drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as they blew through Whitewater, turning off at the speedway to loop around Clifton to the airport. It didn't take long enough to make the drive from Delta when Eli was going out on a jump.
Not long enough at all.
"Okay, Thatcher," Eli said when they got to Walker Field. "Behave yourself. This is supposed to be a seventy-two rotation. Will you be home by Sunday?"
Jed nodded. "Sure. If you need a ride, holler."
"Will do." Eli popped the seat belt and leaned over, giving him a hard kiss right there at the jump station. "Don't worry. I'll be fine."
He touched his tingling lips as Eli hopped out and gave all the dogs a scratch before grabbing his bag and striding off, whistling a damned jaunty tune.
It was part and parcel of Eli's job that Jed had to watch him walk away, getting ready to jump into the fire. After nearly six years, he was used to it.
But that didn't mean he had to like it.
"That was some kiss you planted on your man, Marshall."
Hal Landeman clapped him on the back, the grizzled old bastard just grinning to beat the band. Eli just smiled. He liked Hal. The man was one of the best jump instructors in the four corners.
"He's worrying again. I try to distract him."
"The man flies tourists to Aspen in snowstorms, but he worries about you. Amazing."
"Fucking A." Eli humped his gear into the shed, greeting the team that had already assembled. "When do we go?"
"They're dumping water on it now, making us a hole. The plane will be here in twenty. We leave in an hour, so have your buddy check your 'chute."
Fuck, he usually ended up checking everyone else's chute. He was one of the old men now, the ones the new kids looked to for guidance. It was kind of bizarre. Kind of cool.
He greeted each and every one of his crew, checking their gear, letting Tuff Granger check his. Tuff was a good one, as Jed would say. Solid as a fucking rock, and always careful.
"Do I need to go over procedures?" Eli barked.
Ten heads shook in unison.
"Good. Be careful where you land. They've cleared us a hole, but we're burning all the way around. Last thing I need is for one of you cherries to ruin my rep by catching a thermal and burning to the ground."
This time all the heads bobbed in agreement. Their pilot, AJ Martinelli came in. "You folks ready?"
"Let's do it."
Excitement coiled in Eli's belly. There was nothing like a big burn to make a man pumped up. Nothing. They'd fly in, jump, and dig like hell.
A man just couldn't ask for a better job than that.