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Zachary Adams sat with his boots tapping the floor, his attention barely focused on the man at the center of the group of cowboys. This meeting had gone past his fifteen-minute limit, pushing twenty now.
The wiry, muscular man before them stood tall, his shoulders held back and proud. He was probably a little older than most of the men in the room, his dark hair combed back, graying slightly at the temples.
"I'm here to offer you a position in a start-up corporation." Hank Derringer smiled at the men gathered in the spacious living room of his home on the Raging Bull Ranch in south Texas.
"Doing what? Sweeping floors? Who wants a bunch of rejects?" Zach continued tapping his foot, itching for a fight, his hands shaking. Not that there had been any provocation. He didn't need any. Ever since the catastrophe of the Diego Operation, he hadn't been able to sit still for long, unless he was nursing a really strong bottle of tequila.
"I need you. Because you aren't rejects, you're just the type of men I'm looking for. Men who will fight for what you believe in, who were born or raised on a ranch, with the ethics and strength of character of a good cowboy. I'm inviting you to become a part of CCI, known only to those on the inside as Covert Cowboys Incorporated, a specialized team of citizen soldiers, bodyguards, agents and ranch hands who will do whatever it takes for justice."
Zach almost laughed out loud. Hank had flipped if he thought this crew of washed-up cowboys could help him start up a league of justice or whatever it was he had in mind.
"Whoa, back up a step there. Covert Cowboys Incorporated?" The man Hank had introduced as Chuck Bolton slapped his hat against his thigh. "Sounds kind of corny to me. What's the punch line?"
"No punch line." Hank squared his shoulders, his mouth firming into a straight line. "Let's just say that I'm tired of justice being swept under the rug."
Ex-cop Ben Harding shook his head. "I'm not into circumventing the law."
"I'm not asking you to. The purpose of Covert Cowboys Incorporated is to provide covert protection and investigation services where hired guns and the law aren't enough." Hank's gaze swept over the men in the room. "I handpicked each of you because you are all highly skilled soldiers, cops and agents who know how to work hard and fire a gun and are familiar with living on the edge of danger. My plan is to inject you into situations where your own lives could be on the line to protect, rescue or ferret out the truth."
One by one, the cowboys agreed to sign on with CCI until Hank came to Zach.
"I'm not much into joining," Zach said.
Hank nodded. "To be understood. You might not want to get back into a job that puts you in the line of fire after what you went through."
Zach's chest tightened. "I'm not afraid of bullets."
"I understand you lost your female partner on your last mission with the FBI. That had to be tough." Hank laid a hand on Zach's shoulder. "You're welcome to stay the night and think about it. You don't have to give me an answer until morning."
Zach could have given his answer now. He didn't want the job. He didn't want any job. What he wanted was revenge, served cold and painful.
With the other cowboys falling in line, Zach just nodded, grabbed his duffel bag and found the room he had been assigned for the night. The other men left, one of them already on assignment, and the other two had places to stay in Wild Oak Canyon, the small town closest to the Raging Bull Ranch.
Zach hadn't been in the bedroom more than three minutes when the walls started closing in around him. He had to get outside or go crazy.
The room had French doors opening out onto the wide veranda that wrapped around the entire house.
He sat on the steps leading down off the porch at the side of the rambling homestead and stared up at a sky full of the kind of stars you only got out in the wide-open spaces far away from city lights.
Zach wondered if the stars had been out that night Toni had died. No matter how often he replayed that nightmare, he couldn't recall whether or not the stars had been shining. Everything seemed to play out in black, white and red. From the moment they'd been surrounded by the cartel sentinels to the moment Toni had died.
Zach's eyes squeezed shut, but no matter how hard he tried to erase the vision from his mind, he couldn't shake it. He opened his eyes again and looked up at the stars in an attempt to superimpose their beauty and brilliance over the ugly images indelibly etched in his memory.
Boots tapped against the planks of the decking and Hank Derringer leaned against a wooden column. "Wanna talk about it?"
"No." Zach had suffered through days of talking about it with the FBI psychologist following his escape and return to civilization. Talking hadn't brought his partner back, and it had done nothing to bring justice to those responsible for her senseless rape, torture and murder.
"Do you have work lined up when you leave here?" Hank asked.
"No." Oh, he had work, all right. He had spent the last year following his recovery searching for the cartel gang who'd captured him and Toni Gutierrez on the wrong side of the border during the cartel eradication push, Operation Diego.
The operation had been a failure from the get-go, leading Zach to believe they had a mole inside the FBI. No matter who he asked or where he dug, he couldn't get to the answer. His obsession with the truth had ultimately cost him his job. When his supervisor had given him an ultimatum to pull his head out of his search and get on with his duties as a special agent or look for alternative employment, Zach had walked.
Out of leads, his bank account dwindling and at the mercy of this crackpot vigilante, Hank Derringer, Zach was running out of options.
Zach sighed and stared down the shadowy road leading through a stand of scrub trees toward the highway a mile away. What choice did he have? Crawl into a bottle and forget everything? Even that required money.
"If I take this jobnot saying that I've agreedwhat did you have in mind for my first assignment?"
Jacie Kosart and her twin, Tracie, rode toward the ridge-line overlooking Wild Horse Canyon. The landmark delineated the southern edge of the three-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-acre Big Elk Ranch, where Jacie worked as a trail guide for big-game hunting expeditions.
Tracie, on leave from her job with the FBI, had insisted on coming along as one of the guides, even though she wasn't officially working for Big Elk Ranch. "Don't let on that I'm an agent. I just want to blend in and be like you, one of the guides, for today."
Jacie had cleared it with Richard Giddings, her boss. Then Tracie had insisted on taking on these two guys with short haircuts and poker faces instead of the rednecks from Houston.
Happy to have her sister with her for the day, Jacie didn't argue, just went with the flow. Her job was to lead the hunting party to the best hunting location where they stood a chance of bagging trophy elk.
Instead of following behind, the two men rode ahead with Jacie and Tracie trailing a couple of horse lengths to their rear.
"I was surprised to see you," Jacie stated. Her sister rarely visited, and her sudden appearance had Jacie wondering if something was wrong.
"I needed some downtime from stress," Tracie responded, her words clipped. She flicked the strands of her long, straight brown hair that had come loose from her ponytail back behind her ears.
Not to be deterred by Tracie's cryptic reply, Jacie dug deeper. "What did Bruce have to say about you coming out here without him?" Jacie had to admit to a little envy that Tracie had a boyfriend and she did not. Living on the Big Elk, surrounded by men, she'd have thought she'd have a bit of a love life. But she didn't.
"I told him I needed time with my only sibling." Tracie gave her a tight smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.
Jacie gave an unladylike snort. "As thick as you two have become, I'm surprised he didn't come with you."
Tracie glanced ahead to the two men. "I wanted to come alone."
Tracie might be telling the truth about wanting to come alone, but her answer wasn't satisfying Jacie. Her twin connection refused to believe it was just a case of missing family. "Everything okay?"
"Sure." She glanced at Jacie. "So, how many guides are there on the Big Elk Ranch?"
The change in direction of the conversation wasn't lost on Jacie, but she let it slide. "There are six, plus Richard. Some of them are part-time. Richard, Humberto and I are the full-timers. Why?"
"Just wondered. What kind of process does Richard use to screen his guides?"
Jacie shot a look at her sister. "What do you mean?"
Tracie looked away. "I was just curious if you and the other guides had to go through a background check."
"I don't know about any background check. Richard offered me the job during my one and only interview. I can't vouch for the rest." Jacie frowned at Tracie. "Thinking about giving up the FBI to come guide on the Big Elk?" She laughed, the sound trailing off.
Her sister shrugged. "Maybe."
"No way. You love the FBI. You've wanted to join since you were eight."
"Sometimes you get tired of all the games." Tracie's lips tightened. "We should catch up with them." She nudged her horse, ending the conversation and leaving Jacie even more convinced her sister wasn't telling her everything.
Tracie rode up alongside the men.
Jacie caught up and put on her trail-guide smile as they pulled to a halt at the rim of the canyon. "This is the southern edge of the ranch. The other hunting party is to the west, the Big Elk Ranch house and barn is to the north where we came from, and to the east is the Raging Bull Ranch." Jacie smiled at the two men who'd paid a hefty sum to go hunting that day on the ranch. Richard, her boss, had taken the guys from Houston west; these two had insisted on going south, stating they preferred a lot of distance between them and the other hunting parties.
Jacie and Tracie knew the trophy bucks preferred the western and northern edge of the spread, but the two men would not be deterred.
Supposedly they'd come to hunt, based on the hardware they'd packed in their scabbards. Each carried a rifle equipped with a high-powered scope and a handgun in case they were surprised by javelinas, the vicious wild hogs running wild in the bush.
Jacie cleared her throat, breaking the silence. "Now that you've seen quite a bit of the layout, where would you like to set up? It's getting late and we won't have much time to hunt before sunset."
Jim Smith glanced across at his buddy Mike Jones.
Mr. Jones slipped a GPS device from his pocket and studied the map on it for a long moment. Then he glanced at Jacie. "Where does that canyon lead?"
"Off the Big Elk Ranch into the Big Bend National Park. There's no hunting allowed in the park. The rangers are pretty strict about it. Not to mention, the border patrol has reported recent drug trafficking activity in this canyon. It's not safe to go in there." And Jacie discouraged their clientele from crossing over the boundaries with firearms, even if their clients were licensed to carry firearms as these two were. All the hunters had been briefed on the rules should they stray into the park.
Jacie's gelding, D'Artagnan, shifted to the left, pawing at the dirt, ready to move on.
"We'll ride farther into the canyon." Mr. Jones nudged his horse's flanks, sending him over the edge of the ridge and down the steep slope toward the canyon.
"Mr. Jones," Tracie called after him. "The horses are property of the Big Elk Ranch. We aren't allowed to take them off the ranch without permission from the boss. Given the dangers that could be encountered, I can't allow you"
Mr. Smith's horse brushed past Jacie's, following Mr. Jones down the slope. Not a word from either gentleman.
Jacie glanced across at her twin. "What the heck?" She pulled the two-way radio from her belt and hit the talk switch. "Richard, do you copy?"
The crackle of static had D'Artagnan dancing in place, his head tossing in the air. He liked being in the lead. The two horses descending the slope in front of him made him anxious. He whinnied, calling out to the other horses as the distance between them increased.
The answering whinny from one of the mares below sent the gelding over the edge.
Tracie's mare pranced along the ridge above, her nostrils flared, also disturbed by the departure of the other two horses.
"I'll follow and keep an eye on the two," Tracie suggested.
"Richard, do you copy?" Jacie called into the radio. Apparently they'd moved out of range of radio reception with the other hunting party. Jacie switched frequencies for the base station at the ranch. "Base, this is Jacie, can you read me?"
They were on their own and responsible for the two horses and clients headed down into the canyon. "You feeling weird about this?" Tracie asked.
"Why don't you head back and let Giddings know the clients have left the property? I'll follow along and make sure they don't get lost."
"Not a good idea. You aren't as familiar with the land as I am." Jacie glanced down the trail at the two men on Big Elk Ranch horses. "If they want to get themselves lost or shot, I don't care, but those are Big Elk Ranch horses."
Tracie nodded. "Ginger and Rocky. And you know they like being part of a group, not off on their own." She shook her head. "What are those guys thinking?"
"I don't know, but I don't want to abandon the horses." Jacie sighed. "I guess there's nothing to it but for us to follow and see if we can talk some sense into those dirtbags."
"I'm not liking it," Tracie said. "You should head back and notify Giddings."
"I don't feel right abandoning the horses and I sure as hell won't let you go after them by yourself. We don't know what kind of kooks these guys are." Jacie nodded toward the saddlebags they carried on their horses, filled with first aid supplies, emergency rations and a can of mace. "Look, we're prepared for anything on two or four legs. As long as we keep our heads, we should be okay."
Each woman carried a rifle in her scabbard, for hunting or warding off dangerous animals. They also carried enough ammo for a decent round of target practice in case they didn't actually see any game on the trail, which they hadn't up to this point. Tracie had the added protection of a nine-millimeter Glock she'd carried with her since she left training at Quantico.
"Whatever you say." Tracie grimaced at her. "My rifle's loaded and on safe." She patted the Glock in the holster she'd worn on her hip. "Ready?"
"I don't like it, but let's follow. Maybe we can talk them into returning with us." Jacie squeezed her horse's sides. That's all it took for D'Artagnan to leap forward and start down the winding trail to the base of the canyon.
"Hey, guys! To make it back to camp for supper, we need to head back in the next hour," Jacie called out to the men ahead.
Either they didn't hear her or they chose to ignore her words. The men didn't even look back, just kept going.
D'Artagnan set his own pace on the slippery slope. Jacie didn't urge him to go faster. He wanted to catch up, but he knew his own limits on the descent.