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No one was supposed to be up this high in the mountains. Not in the first week of June, too early in the tourist season for most recreational climbers. Not with a cold wind ushering in dark clouds from the northwest.
Hands steady on the belaying rope, Eric Lander dared a glance away from his climbing partner, Randy Trask, ten feet below him, and focused beyond the lodgepole pine stabbing the open Wyoming sky. Sure enough, the stirring of movement he'd seen in his peripheral vision was accurate. Two men. Heading their way. At this point, they were not much bigger than dots against the sparse grass and sagebrush of the slope below. But he recognized the trademark brown coats of the county sheriff's department.
"Ready to climb," Randy called.
Eric bit back his nearly automatic response. He wasn't ready for Randy to start his climb. Not yet. There was something wrong here, something he could sense riding the wind as clear as the coming storm. And as a wilderness guide, he'd learned to listen to his instincts. "Friends of yours?"
Randy secured his hold, then squinted over the tops of the trees. His eyes flared wide. The reaction took only a split second, like the shifting of light caused by cloud wisps blowing past the sun. But the tension riding on the air increased threefold.
In light of Randy's recent history, Eric could guess the reason. "Are you in some kind of trouble?"
"It's not like that."
"Then what is it like?"
"It's just something a guy told me about."
"Let me guess. Your cell mate?"
Randy glanced away and shifted his feet on the rock shelf.
Eric had taken Randy climbing before Eric's wilderness guide business started its season with the hope of helping his old friend start a new life. He should have known better. "Damn it, Randy. You promised your sister you'd stay clean." As angry as he was with Randy, he couldn't bring himself to say Sarah's name out loud. He couldn't afford to think too much about her, either.
"I haven't done anything."
"Then why are they here?"
"I'll tell you about it later. After we get to the top of this rock face. Ready to climb."
Eric glanced back to the men. They were closer now. And they were definitely sheriff's deputies. One pointed up at them. The other was carrying a rifle.
Eric shook his head. "I don't like the look of this. We'd better rappel down."
"I can't do that."
"Then I will. See what's going on."
"You can't, either. We need to get out of here. Now." Something trembled behind Randy's words.
Something that made the back of Eric's neck prickle. "What's going on, Randy? What have you gotten us into?"
Randy blew a stream of air through tight lips. "Listen, I'm sorry. I'm into a guy for a lot of money. I thought this might be my chance to wipe the slate clean."
"What are you talking about?"
"An opportunity that you heard about from your cell mate?"
"It sounded easy. I didn't believe Bracco when he said the sheriff would be watching me. That they'd know as soon as I made a move. It seemed like something from a movie. Or one of his paranoid delusions."
Eric shook his head. Delusions? Sounded like Randy was having some delusions of his own. If they were higher on the mountain, he might be able to pass the whole thing off as altitude sickness. Yet as much as Eric wanted to explain away the deputies' presence and his old friend's fear, he couldn't shrug off the pressure assaulting the back of his neck. He needed to get control of this situation. "Rappel down to the slope, and we'll circle through the crevasse." He had to be crazy, suggesting they run away from lawmen. But the deputies hadn't made contact yet. And he needed to buy some time, figure out what was going on. As soon as he could compile a few facts, he'd lead Randy into the sheriff's department himself.
"No. We need to keep going up to Saddle Horn Ridge."
"Bracco said there was something big at the campsite up there. I don't know what. I just wanted to check it out. An easy trip. Just in case he was telling the truth, you know?"
Because he owed someone money. No doubt resulting from the failure of some other "get rich quick and easy" arrangement like this one. "This isn't looking quite so easy."
"Like I said, I didn't believe his rambling about the sheriff making whoever knew about it into a marked man or whatever."
Marked man? Eric glanced down at the deputies. They were close to the rock face, now, nothing separating them but a couple of toothpick-straight pines and fifty feet of vertical rock. "So that's what this climb is about? We're on some sort of damned treasure hunt? A treasure hunt for something obviously illegal?"
I guess? As if he had no role in them being here? As if he hadn't begged Eric to guide him to the ridge? As if he hadn't lied? Again?
There were plenty of times Eric wanted to wring Randy's neck. So many that he'd learned to keep his distance from his old climbing buddy in the months leading up to his fraud arrest and subsequent stint in jail. But Randy had promised to turn over a new leaf, and Eric had wanted to believe him. For his friends' sake…and for Sarah's. "I can't believe you would—"
The crack of gunfire split the air.
Randy slammed into the rock as if shoved. His eyes widened, staring at Eric.
"Get to the top." Randy flattened his body to the rock. A spot bloomed on his T-shirt, darker than the black cotton.
Eric didn't know what he was seeing, what he had seen. These were lawmen. They hadn't identified themselves. They hadn't said a single word. They'd just opened fire. This couldn't be happening. "Are you hit?" The words left his lips before he knew he'd spoken them. He didn't have to ask. He knew the answer.
Randy gritted his teeth. He leaned chest to rock, the fingers of one hand gripping a handhold, the other wrapped around his middle, as if trying to stop the spreading stain. "Get out of here. Go to the top. Find…"
Eric shook his head. He couldn't care less about some stolen money or drugs or whatever the hell was up there. He should have climbed down to the shelf Randy was on as soon as they saw the men. At least then he'd have a shot at reaching him, helping him. Now that Randy was hit, he didn't dare loose his grip on the belay. "Move toward me. Behind the trees." At least if Randy wasn't out in the open, the deputy wouldn't have such an easy shot. Maybe then Eric could get a hold of him, help him…where?
Down below, the deputy raised the rifle to his shoulder again.
"Randy! Move! Now!" Eric's voice rasped his throat. Begging. Pleading. Thinking of nothing but helping Randy, he surged forward, but his backline anchored him to the cliff. He couldn't breathe. His hands were sweaty, shaking. He took up all slack on the rope, resisting the urge to pull Randy to him. All that would do was knock him off balance, then they would really be in trouble. "Come on, man. You can do it. I got you on belay."
Randy shook his head and remained rooted to his spot. He made a noise deep in his throat, something between a growl and a sob. "Didn't mean for this…really, Eric…didn't believe…"
A second rifle shot shattered the air.
Randy's body jolted stiffly. He slung back in his climbing harness and sagged off the shelf's edge.
The rope yanked hard against the belay device. Eric locked it off and braced himself against the pull of his friend's weight. This couldn't be happening. "God, no. Randy."
His friend dangled ten feet below. His full weight bore down on the rope, the belaying device and Eric's break hand all that was between Randy and a fifty-foot fall onto scree at the bottom of the slope.
At least Randy was now behind the treetops. The deputy no longer had an open shot. Not that it mattered, if Randy was already dead.
Another crack split the air. Rock exploded. Something hit the crown of his head with the force of a hard kick.
He staggered, trying to lean toward rock and not plunge off the narrow shelf. His head whirled. His ears rang. Had he been hit?
He raised his hand to his head. Blood soaked his hair and dripped down his neck, hot and sticky. A scrape, not a hole. He'd only gotten nicked, probably by a chunk of rock. He'd survive.
Randy might not be so lucky.
He had to reach his friend. He had to get him out of here. Off the mountain, to town, to a hospital.
He would have to figure that out later. First he had to reach Randy. He tied off the belay rope and released his backline with shaking fingers.
In his peripheral vision, he saw the second deputy raise his pistol. If he stayed here another second, he'd be no help to Randy or himself. He'd be dead.
Praying his anchor in the rock would hold under their weight, he grabbed the rope and stepped off the ledge.
The pistol cracked below.
Eric braced himself for the cut of the bullet. It missed, pinging off the rock face above. He lowered himself down the rope, palms sweaty on nylon.
When he reached Randy, he knew his friend was already dead. He could feel it, sense it. Securing a hold on the rock, he checked Randy's pulse to be sure. His skin was warm, but no throb beat against Eric's touch. He checked the other side of his throat, moving his fingers several times. Praying he'd detect something. Anything. But he felt nothing at all.
Shouts rose from the men below.
Eric's breath shuddered deep in his chest. He couldn't help Randy. Not anymore. Now he could only help himself. He had to think. He had to get out of here or he would share the same fate as his friend.
A marked man.
The words blared in the back of Eric's mind. By trying to find whatever it was up on Saddle Horn Ridge, had Randy marked himself for death? Had he marked everyone he was close to? Eric? Layton, the foreman at the ranch?
Eric scanned the rock face. He had to get out of here, like Randy said, but he wasn't climbing to Saddle Horn Ridge. He had to get to the ranch. He had to make sure Sarah was all right.
And he had to do it now.
Sarah was leaning down from her gelding's back to lock the yearlings in the corral when Radar started barking. Straightening in the saddle, she focused on the SUV pulling up the long gravel drive. It swung past the house and headed for the barn, finally coming to a stop on the other side of the fence. A lone man dismounted from the vehicle and strode toward her.
The brim of his silver belly hat shaded his eyes, but Sarah had no trouble recognizing Sheriff Danny Gillette. The last time she'd seen him was months before, at her brother's trial. He was bald as a baby pig under that cowboy hat, and his voice held the growl of a man who'd smoked his way through life. She could still recite his brutal condemnation of her brother.
"That'll do, Radar," she called to the dog. He stopped barking, but remained alert, his white-tipped tail waving like a flag in the constant basin wind.
The sheriff rested one boot on the lower rail of the fence and skimmed his gaze over corral, barns and rough pastureland beyond. The place was quiet, vacant. Her foreman, Layton, and two ranch hands had taken a herd of steers to graze land she'd leased from the Bureau of Land Management and wouldn't be back for hours. But as much as she wanted to tell herself the sheriff was here to talk to Keith or Glenn about a drunken brawl at the nearby Full Throttle saloon, she doubted that was the case.
Sarah let out a shaky breath and rolled her shoulders back, trying to loosen the cramp bearing down on the back of her neck. Not even twenty-four hours since Randy had gotten out of jail, and the sheriff was already paying a call. She sure as hell hoped he meant it only as a warning. Randy promised he'd stay clean if she let him stay at the ranch while he got his feet under him. He'd better have kept his word.
She resisted the urge to cup her hand over her middle. In her fourth month, she was just starting to show, but the urge to cover her belly every time she felt nervous or defensive had started before she'd even admitted to herself that she was pregnant. Somehow her body had known before her brain. She rubbed her palm on her thigh.
Better get this over with.
Bringing a leg to her gelding's side, she pushed him into a lope. When they reached the far side of the corral, she lifted her rein hand and brought her mount to a stop with just a touch of slide. "Can I help you, Sheriff?"
"Miss Trask," he said with a nod of his head. He pulled a package of smokes from his shirt pocket and tapped it on the heel of an upturned hand. "We need to have a little talk about your brother."
Eric spotted the sheriff's SUV as soon as he crested the hill. The half-dozen horses milling behind the corral fence kicked up dust, dulling the SUV's white gleam, but even though he was too far away to make out the sheriff department's emblem on the door, Eric knew who the vehicle belonged to.
It hadn't been easy making it down off the mountain while avoiding the armed deputies. Fortunately he knew the peaks in this area better than he knew his own heart. If he hadn't, he never would have been able to work his way into the crevasse to the north of the rock face where Randy died. He never would have been able to make his way down, past the slope where the deputies scoured the mountain through their rifle scopes. He wouldn't have been able to reach the guide cabin at the base of the mountain and retrieve his truck.
He had gotten away unseen, all right. But it had taken him too long.
He scanned the corrals and outbuildings. Sarah's pickup sat in front of the house. But other than the horses in the corral, he could see no movement. The Buckrail only employed a foreman and three hands, but every time Eric had visited, the place had been bustling. Now it looked vacant. The big stock trailer was nowhere to be seen.
Where was Sarah?